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Termination of a Nonqualified Retirement Plan with a Traditional Defined Benefit Formula

A recent case from a federal court in the Northern District of Georgia provides an interesting perspective on the termination of a nonqualified retirement plan with a traditional defined benefit formula offering lifetime annuity payments. In Taylor v. NCR Corporation et. al., NCR elected to terminate such a nonqualified retirement plan. The termination decision not only precluded new entrants to the plan and the cessation of benefit accruals for active employees, but it also affected retirees in payout status receiving lifetime payments. Those retirees received lump sum payments discounted to present value in lieu of the lifetime payments then being paid to them.

At the time NCR terminated the plan, its provisions apparently provided that the plan could be terminated at any time provided that “no such action shall adversely affect any Participant’s, former Participant’s or Spouse’s accrued benefits prior to such action under the Plan. . . ” The plaintiff was a retiree receiving a lifetime joint and survivor annuity of approximately $29,000 annually. As a result of the plan’s termination, NCR calculated a lump sum benefit for the plaintiff of approximately $441,000, with the plaintiff ultimately receiving a net payment of approximately $254,000 after federal and state income tax withholdings.

The key allegations made by the plaintiff, as recited by the court, were (1) that the lump sum payment caused the plaintiff to incur a significant taxable event and (2) that the plaintiff objected to the use of a discount factor to reduce the value of the lump

409A Day Comes a Day Early This Year

As we have noted previously, March 15 is tax “Code Section 409A Day.”  For employers with calendar fiscal years, that is generally the last day an amount can be paid and still qualify as a short-term deferral that is exempt from 409A’s stringent timing and form of payment requirements.  But what does one do when March 15 falls on a weekend, as it does this year?  You likely aren’t cutting payroll checks on a Saturday.  Can you wait until Monday to pay?

The answer is no.  The rules are clear that the payment generally has to be made by the 15th day of the 3rd month (hence, March 15) of the year following the year in which either the right to the compensation arises or the compensation is no longer subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture (and note that for this purpose, the 409A definition is different than the Section 83 definition).  (The deadline can be different if an employer has a non-calendar year fiscal year, but the concept is essentially the same.)

There are a few exceptions.  First, if making the payment by the deadline is administratively impracticable and such impracticability was not reasonably foreseeable when the right to the compensation arose, then payment can be made after the deadline, as long as payment is made as soon as practicable.  Of course, for 2014 it is difficult to argue that the impracticability wasn’t foreseeable simply because you didn’t happen to look into next March

Do Your Plan a Favor: Eschew Escheating

Given the migratory nature of society these days, it is not uncommon for an employee benefit plan to accumulate significant sums of money attributable to the accounts of lost participants.  For a number of States, the assets attributable to lost participants are an attractive revenue source.  Utilizing their unclaimed property statutes, many States attempt to seize these funds so they can add them to the State’s coffers.

Most employee benefit plans subject to ERISA can sidestep this potential leakage of plan assets through the use of clear plan language that expressly provides for the forfeiture of amounts from the accounts of participants who are determined to be lost after some predetermined period. The language should also provide that those forfeited funds will be utilized either through a reduction of the sponsor’s contribution obligation or their application to reduce plan expenses.  The Department of Labor has unequivocally concluded that such plan provisions are to be honored irrespective of unclaimed property statutes that might otherwise dictate a contrary result. Most plans that provide for the forfeiture of the accounts of lost participants further provide that those accounts will be restored if the lost participants are later found.

Employee benefit plans that are not subject to ERISA and, therefore, do not benefit from  ERISA preemption, can be designed to sidestep unclaimed property statutes with plan provisions that provide for forfeitures before the shortest applicable escheat period runs.

An exception to this approach, however, applies to employee benefit plans that

409A – Is Your Compensation Arrangement Subject to These Rules?

The 409A rules do not provide a clear roadmap to determine what compensation arrangements are subject to their regime of requirements and restrictions.  In this brief video, Brian Berglund provides a description of the approach you should take to evaluate whether your compensation arrangement should be structured to comply with the 409A rules regarding deferral elections, timing of payments and other requirements.

(You can also view the video by going here.)

He Fought the Law, and 409A Won

He Fought the Law, and 409A Won

March 14, 2013

Authored by: Chris Rylands

In this recently reported case, one Dr. Sutardja, a recipient of an allegedly discounted option, sued to recover 409A taxes imposed by the IRS.  The case does not decide whether the option was discounted, but Dr. Sutardja argued that his option, even if discounted, shouldn’t be subject to 409A.

Essentially, he tried to argue that (1) the grant of the discounted option is not a taxable event, (2) stock options aren’t “deferred compensation,” (3) he didn’t have a legally binding right until he exercised the option, or (4) 409A couldn’t apply to the discounted option.  Those familiar with 409A will sigh upon reading the list since clearly none of these arguments holds any water.  Discounted options are subject to 409A and must have fixed dates for exercise and payment.

The interesting part of the case, though, was the government arguing that Dr. Sutardja did not have a legally binding right to the supposedly discounted option until it vested.  This is an interesting argument for the government to make because the 409A regulations themselves say:

A service provider does not have a legally binding right to compensation to the extent that compensation may be reduced unilaterally or eliminated by the service recipient or other person after the services creating the right to the compensation have been performed. … For this purpose, compensation is not considered subject to unilateral reduction or elimination merely because it may be reduced or eliminated by operation of the objective terms of the

Executive Compensation – 2012 Year-End Compliance and 2013 Planning

It’s that time of year again!  Time to ensure year-end executive compensation deadlines are satisfied and time to plan ahead for 2013.  Below is a checklist of selected executive compensation topics designed to help employers with this process.

I.       2012 Year-End Compliance and Deadlines

□      Section 409A – Amendment Deadline for Payments Triggered by Date Employee Signs a Release

It is fairly common for an employer to condition eligibility for severance pay on the release of all employment claims by the employee.  Many of these arrangements include impermissible employee discretion in violation of Section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code because the employee can accelerate or delay the receipt of severance pay by deciding when to sign and submit the release.  IRS Notice 2010-6 (as modified by IRS Notice 2010-80), includes transition relief until December 31, 2012 to make corrective amendments to plans and agreements.

Generally, the arrangement may be amended to either (1) include a fixed payment date following termination, subject to an enforceable release (without regard to when the release is signed), or (2) provide for payment during a specified period and if the period spans two years, payment will always occur in the second year.  We recommend employers review existing employment, severance, change in control and similar arrangements to ensure compliance with this payment timing requirement.  The December 31, 2012 deadline for corrective amendments is fast approaching.

□      Compensation Deferral Elections

Compensation deferral elections for

Proposed Changes to ISS Proxy Voting Policies

On October 16, 2012, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) issued for comment several proposed proxy voting policy changes.  The following would affect U.S. public companies:

Board Matters

Current Policy: Recommend vote against or withhold votes from the entire board (except new nominees, who are considered case-by-case) if the board failed to act on a shareholder proposal that received the support of either (i) a majority of shares outstanding in the previous year; or (ii) a majority of shares cast in the last year and one of the two previous years.

Proposed Policy: Recommend votes against or withhold votes from the entire board (with new nominees considered case-by-case) if it fails to act on any proposal that received the support of a majority of shares cast in the previous year.

The proposed change is intended to increase board accountability. ISS is specifically seeking feedback as to whether there are specific circumstances where a board should not implement a majority-supported proposal that receives support from a majority of votes cast for one year.

Say-on-Pay Peer Group

Current Policy: ISS’s pay-for-performance analysis includes an initial quantitative screening of a company’s pay and performance relative to a group of companies reasonably similar in industry profile, size and market capitalization selected by ISS based on the company’s Standard & Poor’s Global Industry Classification (GICS).

Proposed Policy: For purposes of the quantitative portion of the pay-for-performance analysis the peer group will continue to be selected from the company’s GICS industry group but will also incorporate

Common 409A Misconceptions

Common 409A Misconceptions

July 24, 2012

Authored by: benefitsbclp

Every 409A attorney knows the look. It’s a look that is dripping with the 409A attorney’s constant companion – incredulity. “Surely,” the client says, “IRS doesn’t care about [insert one of the myriad 409A issues that the IRS actually, for some esoteric reason, cares about].” In many ways, the job of the 409A attorney is that of knowing confidant – “I know! Isn’t it crazy! I can’t fathom why the IRS cares. But they do.”

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about how this section of the tax code works and to whom it applies. While we cannot possibly address every misconception, below is a list of the more common ones we encounter.

I thought 409A only applied to public companies. While wrong, this one is probably the most difficult because it has a kernel of truth. All of the 409A rules apply to all companies, except one. 409A does require a 6-month delay for severance paid to public company executives. However, aside from this one rule, all of 409A’s other rules apply to every company.

But it doesn’t apply to partnerships or LLCs. Wrong, although again a kernel of truth. Every company, regardless of form, is subject to 409A. However, the IRS hasn’t yet released promised guidance regarding partnerships or LLCs, most of the 409A rules (like the option rules) apply by analogy.

But I can still change how something is paid on a change of control. Maybe, but maybe not. If a payment is

Five Common 409A Design Errors: #5 Payment Periods Longer than 90 Days

This post is the fifth and final post in our benefitsbclp.com series on five common Code Section 409A design errors and corrections. Go here, here, here, and here to see the first four posts in that series.

Code Section 409A abhors discretion. One concern with discretion is that it could lead to the type of opportunistic employee action or employer/employee collusion that hurt creditors and employees during the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

Another concern is that discretion could be used opportunistically to affect the taxation of deferred compensation. Consider an employment agreement with a lump-sum payment due at any time within thirteen months following a change in control, as determined in the employer’s discretion. This provision would permit the employer to pick the calendar year of the payment. Because non-qualified payments are generally taxable to the recipient when paid, this type of provision would allow a company to essentially pick the year in which the employee is taxed on the payment. In this situation, the IRS would be concerned that the plan participant (who often has great influence with the company) would collude with the company so that the resulting payment was of most tax benefit to the participant.

Code Section 409A addresses this problem by restricting the timing of a deferred compensation payments following a triggering event to a single taxable year, a period that begins and ends in the same taxable year, or a period of up to 90

Five Common 409A Design Errors: #4 No Six-Month Delay for Public Company Terminations

This post is the fourth in our benefitsbclp.com series on five common Code Section 409A design errors and corrections. Go here, here and here to see the first three posts in that series.

Code Section 409A is, in part, a response to perceived deferred compensation abuses at companies like Enron and WorldCom. The story of Code Section 409A’s six month delay provision is inextricably tied to the Enron and WorldCom bankruptcies.

Under established IRS tax principles, participants’ rights under a non-qualified plan can be no greater than the claims of a general creditor. Because deferred compensation plans often pay out upon termination of employment, a plan participant with knowledge of a likely future bankruptcy could potentially terminate employment and take a non-qualified plan distribution to the detriment of the company’s creditors (a number or Enron executives with advance knowledge of Enron’s accounting irregularities did just this). This opportunistic cash out is obviously unfair to the company’s creditors. In addition, the cash out only helps hasten the likely bankruptcy because non-qualified plan payments come from the general assets of the company.

How did Congress solve this problem? By requiring that a payment of deferred compensation to any of the most highly compensated employees of public companies (called “specified employees”) be delayed at least six months if the payment is due to a separation from service. The thought was that for public companies (like Enron and WorldCom), plan participants would not have enough time to

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