United States: IRS Provides New Flexibility To Correct Retirement Plan Errors

Last Updated: April 20 2015
Article by Katie M. Rak, Robert B. Wynne and Jeffrey R. Capwell

The IRS recently issued important updates to its Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (EPCRS). The updates are contained in Revenue Procedures 2015-27 and 2015-28.

EPCRS allows sponsors and administrators of tax-qualified retirement plans and certain other plans, such as Section 403(b) plans, to correct certain documentary and operational errors that occur as to such plans and thereby preserve the tax-advantaged status of those plans. This WorkCite highlights the more important modifications made by the revenue procedures and discusses the impact of these modifications on retirement plan sponsors.

Correction of Overpayment Errors

Rev. Proc. 2015-27 clarifies the methods available to correct an overpayment error. Overpayments generally occur when a participant or beneficiary receives a distribution from the plan that exceeds the amount that properly should have been paid to that participant or beneficiary. Previously, correction of an overpayment required the plan sponsor "to take reasonable steps to have the Overpayment returned to the plan." Some plan sponsors have been interpreting that language as requiring that they demand recoupment from the recipient of the full amount of the overpayment. The IRS apparently does not want to encourage strict recoupment actions, particularly in cases where recoupment would cause financial hardship for affected participants and beneficiaries, because overpayment typically results from errors in plan administration for which the participant or beneficiary bore no responsibility.

The new guidelines on overpayment provide greater flexibility by acknowledging that a demand for repayment is not required in all circumstances. As modified by Rev. Proc. 2015-27, EPCRS now provides alternative methods for correcting an overpayment. For example, in lieu of asking for repayment, an employer or another person might make a contribution to the affected plan equal to the amount of the overpayment, plus interest. In addition, correction may in certain cases be accomplished by the plan sponsor adopting a retroactive plan amendment that conforms the plan's language to the manner in which payments were administered. Other correction methods also may be used, provided that they are consistent with the general correction principles for EPCRS.

The IRS has requested comments on whether further modifications should be made to these new guidelines on overpayments. The IRS is interested in whether, and under what circumstances and conditions, correction should require the plan sponsor to make corrective contributions rather than recouping prior overpayments from participants and beneficiaries, and whether there are any unusual circumstances in which full corrective payments to the plan should not be required for overpayments.

Extension of Time to Self-Correct Excess Annual Contributions

Section 415(c) of the Internal Revenue Code (Code) limits the total amount of "annual addition" (principally contributions and forfeiture allocations) that can be allocated annually to a participant's account in a defined contribution plan ($53,000 in 2015). Any excess annual addition can be self-corrected under EPCRS if the plan has established practices and procedures to prevent recurrence.

Rev. Proc. 2015-27 modifies EPCRS to make it clear that a plan meets this condition for self-correction so long as the excess annual contributions for a year are "regularly corrected" by returning elective deferrals to affected participants within 9½ months (previously 2½ months) after the end of the year to which the contributions relate.

Lower Filing Fee for Plan Loan Errors

Errors in structuring or administering loans to participants from their plan account balances can be burdensome to correct because EPCRS generally requires that correction of the faulty loan be made through a filing with the IRS under the Voluntary Correction Program (VCP) in order for the loan not to be treated as a taxable distribution. Under prior rules, the fee for a VCP filing to correct a loan error generally was based on the number of participants in the plan. Thus, a large plan with only a few faulty loans would be required to pay a large filing fee to fix a relatively small error.

Rev. Proc. 2015-17 modifies the filing fee for plans using VCP to correct loan errors by basing the filing fee solely on the number of affected participants. For example, under prior VCP guidelines, a sponsor of a 1,200-participant plan for which the only failure was a plan loan error that affected 45 participants would have been required to pay a fee of $7,500. Under the new fee schedule, the sponsor of that plan would pay a filing fee of only $600.

Correction of Elective Deferral Errors

The second new revenue procedure, Rev. Proc. 2015-28, modifies EPCRS to provide three new safe-harbor correction methods for errors relating to employee elective deferrals in Section 401(k) and 403(b) plans. These errors (Deferral Errors) include not implementing elective deferrals pursuant to an affirmative election or pursuant to an automatic contribution feature (including an automatic escalation feature) and not affording an employee the opportunity to make an affirmative election because the employee was improperly excluded from the plan.

The new safe-harbor correction methods are intended to respond to concerns that employers are not implementing automatic contribution features because administrative errors often are more common in plans with such features and such errors typically are not discovered until preparation of the Form 5500 annual report. Rev. Proc. 2015-28 also reflects the IRS's response to comments that current EPCRS safe-harbor correction methods for the exclusion of eligible employees, and for failing to implement a salary reduction election, create a windfall for affected employees because under current EPCRS rules such employees receive both their full salary and a 50 percent corrective contribution.

  • Deferral Errors Relating to Automatic Contribution Features
  • If the Deferral Error is the failure to implement an automatic contribution feature for an affected eligible employee, or the failure to implement an affirmative election of an eligible employee who is otherwise subject to an automatic contribution feature, and the error does not extend beyond the end of the 9½-month period after the end of the plan year of the error (generally, the filing deadline for the Form 5500, including automatic extensions), no qualified nonelective contributions (QNECs) are required to be contributed to the plan to correct the error under EPCRS if the following requirements are satisfied:

    • Timing. Correct deferrals begin to be made no later than the earlier of (i) the first payment of compensation made on or after the last day of the 9½-month period; and (ii) if the plan sponsor was notified of the error by the affected eligible employee, the first payment of compensation made on or after the last day of the month after the month of notification.
    • Notice. The affected eligible employee is notified no later than 45 days after the date on which correct deferrals begin. The notice must include the following:
      • General information related to the error, such as the percentage of eligible compensation that should have been deferred and the approximate date that such compensation should have begun to be deferred; this information need not include a statement of the dollar amounts
      • A statement that the appropriate amounts have begun (or will begin shortly) to be deducted and contributed to the plan
      • A statement that corrective contributions relating to missed matching contributions (if any) have been made (or will be made); information related to the date and amount of such contributions need not be provided
      • An explanation that the affected participant may increase his or her deferral percentage in order to make up for the missed deferral opportunity, subject to applicable Code Section 402(g) limit ($18,000 for 2015)
      • The plan name and plan contact information (including name, street address, e-mail address and telephone number)
    • Missed Matching Contributions. Corrective contributions for any missed matching contributions, adjusted for earnings, are made by the last day of the second plan year following the year in which the error occurred.
  • This correction method also provides an alternative safe-harbor method for calculating earnings. If an affected eligible employee has not affirmatively designated an investment alternative, earnings on the missed contributions may be calculated based on the plan's default investment alternative. However, any cumulative losses reflected in the earnings calculation will not result in a reduction in the required corrective contribution relating to any matching contributions.
  • This correction method is available only for plans with Deferral Errors relating to automatic contribution features that begin before 2021. The IRS will consider whether to extend this correction method for Deferral Errors beginning in later years. In deciding whether to extend this correction method, the IRS will take into account, among other relevant factors, the extent to which there is an increase in the number of plans implemented with automatic contribution features.
  • Deferral Errors That Do Not Exceed Three Months
  • If a Deferral Error occurs for a period that does not exceed three months, no QNECs are required to be contributed to the plan to correct the error under EPCRS if the following requirements are satisfied:

    • Timing. Correct deferrals begin to be made no later than the earlier of (i) the first payment of compensation made on or after the three-month period that begins when the Deferral Error first occurred; and (ii) if the plan sponsor was notified of the error by the affected eligible employee, the first payment of compensation made on or after the last day of the month after the month of notification.
    • Notice. The affected eligible employee is notified no later than 45 days after the date on which correct deferrals begin. The notice is required to contain information similar to that for Deferral Errors under an automatic contribution arrangement.
    • Missed Matching Contributions. Corrective contributions for any missed matching contributions, adjusted for earnings, are made by the last day of the second plan year following the year in which the error occurred.
  • Deferral Errors That Extend Beyond Three Months
  • If the period of a Deferral Error exceeds three months, but does not extend beyond the last day of the second plan year following the year in which the error occurred (or the conditions for the other safe-harbor correction methods described above are not met), a plan sponsor may correct the error under EPCRS by making contributions equal to 25 percent of the missed deferral in lieu of the higher QNEC if the following requirements are satisfied:

    • Timing. Correct deferrals begin no later than the earlier of (i) the first payment of compensation made on or after the last day of the second plan year following the plan year in which the Deferral Error occurred; and (ii) if the plan sponsor was notified of the error by the affected eligible employee, the first payment of compensation made on or after the last day of the month after the month of notification.
    • Notice. The affected eligible employee is notified no later than 45 days after the date on which correct deferrals begin. The notice must include the same information as required for correction of Deferral Error that do not exceed three months.
    • Missed Matching Contributions . Corrective contributions (including the 25 percent QNEC and employer contributions to make up for any missed matching contributions), adjusted for earnings, are made by the last day of the second plan year following the year of the Deferral Error.

Other Changes to EPCRS

Rev. Proc. 2015-27 includes a number of other, more limited changes and clarifications to EPCRS. These include expanding eligibility for reduced VCP filing fees if the sole error is to timely pay required minimum distributions; exempting sponsors from having to file determination letter applications in certain cases when correction will be accomplished through adoption of a plan amendment; and extending the period for adopting corrective plan amendments in situations where a determination letter application is required to be filed concurrently with the VCP application. There are also updates to the forms for certain VCP submissions.

Implications and Considerations for Plan Sponsors

The changes to the EPCRS program described above are, on the whole, quite helpful. They not only provide a greater degree of flexibility in structuring corrections, but they also alleviate some of the burdens inherent in certain previously required correction methods. For example, changes to the guidelines for correcting errors in participant loans will in many cases make it much less expensive to correct those errors.

In light of the significant administrative resources that the IRS has invested in the EPCRS program, plan sponsors should be mindful that failure to correct known plan qualification errors using EPCRS comes at the risk of more expensive sanctions if those errors are later identified in an IRS examination of the plan.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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