Correcting ERISA 401(k) Plan Failures When Employee Contributions Are Not Remitted in a Timely Manner

September 22nd, 2008

Both the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Department of Labor (DOL) require that employee contributions are remitted in a timely manner.  Current IRS regulations mandate that employee 401(k) contributions must be remitted to the employer sponsored plan as soon as they can be reasonably segregated from the plan sponsor assets.  The regulations specify that they must be made no later than 15th business day of the month following the month in which the amounts are withheld from wages or received by the employer.  Additionally, the IRS has proposed a safe harbor for small plans – those with less than 100 participants – that these plans can comply with currently.

While some may interpret the regulation as a safe harbor limit, in practice, the key words in the regulation are that the monies must be remitted “as soon as they can reasonably be segregated”.  This means that if the funds can be segregated within a shorter period than the outside limit – for example, within a few days of the date of payroll – the funds must be remitted by this shorter time.

If contributions are not remitted in a timely manner, the failure could be held to be a prohibited transaction, a fiduciary breach or both.  There are significant penalties for both of these violations and, if there is a breach of fiduciary duty, then the plan’s fiduciary could be held personally liable.  Prohibited transactions, which can include a delay in the deposit of employee deferrals, continue until corrected by the plan sponsor.

Both the IRS and DOL have self-correction programs which can be followed to correct many qualification and fiduciary violations, including violations associated with the late remittance of retirement contributions.  In order to correct an issue with timely remittance of employee contributions, the voluntary compliance programs generally require that the plan sponsor make the participant whole by depositing the outstanding contributions as well as any lost earnings/interest or restoration of profit applicable during the time the employer held the participants’ funds.

The DOL has an online calculator that can be used to assist with this process.  An employer enters the required information into the calculator, which then performs the interest calculations and provides the plan sponsor with the amount of interest and/or lost profit due based on the greater of the two options. The online calculator uses the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) 6621(a)(2) underpayment rate for calculating interest owed and the IRC 6621(c)(1) underpayment rate for calculating restoration of profits.  The IRC underpayment rate is the sum of the federal short-term rate plus 3 percentage points.  The federal short-term rate changes quarterly, so the interest percentage used under this method will probably change every quarter contributions are delayed.

The IRS has recently indicated that, although full restoration is generally required, reasonable estimates of restoration amounts may be used when it is not feasible to obtain actual investment results.  If it is either (1) possible to precisely calculate the actual investment results but the difference between the estimate and the actual is insignificant and the administrative cost to determine the actual investment results would significant exceed the probable difference; or (2) it is not possible to determine actual investment results, then the DOL’s online calculator rates will be accepted by the IRS as a reasonable interest estimate.

Timely remittance of employee 401(k) funds is a process of which every fiduciary should be aware.  Additionally, fiduciaries and employers who use the 15th business day of the month following pay dates as a safe harbor need to take a close look at how payroll deductions are transmitted to determine reasonable segregation dates for their particular circumstances and take action to deposit the deferrals into plans on a more timely basis.

Where there have been violations, employers should consult with benefits counsel to understand the steps that will need to be taken to analyze which self-correction program is right for their individual situation and to ensure that all necessary steps of the program are taken.  Please contact our office for more information.

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