Supreme Court Rules ERISA-Exempt “Church Plan” Includes Plan Maintained by Church-Affilaited Organizations (like hospitals and schools)

The United States Supreme Court has held, in Advocate Health Care Network v Stapleton that a benefit plan maintained by a church-affiliated organization, whose principal purpose is to fund or administer a benefits plan for the employees of either a church or a church-affiliated nonprofit (a “principal purpose organization”) is a church plan under ERISA Section 3(33), regardless of who established the Plan. This is in accordance with the long-standing regulatory position adopted by the IRS, Department of Labor and PBGC.

Background on ERISA’s Church Plan Exception

ERISA generally obligates private employers offering pension plans to adhere to an array of rules designed to ensure plan solvency and protect plan participants. “Church plans” however, are exempt from those regulations.

From the beginning, ERISA  defined a “church plan” as “a plan established and maintained . . . for its employees . . . by a church.”  Congress then amended the statute to expand that definition in two ways:

  • “A plan established and maintained for its employees . . . by a church . . . includes a plan maintained by an organization . . . the principal purpose . . . of which is the administration or funding of [such] plan . . . for the employees of a church . . . , if such organization is controlled by or associated with a church.” (The opinion refers to these organizations  as “principal-purpose organizations.”)
  • An “employee of a church” includes an employee of a church-affiliated organization.

The Case

The Petitioners in Advocate Health Care Network v Stapleton were three church-affiliated nonprofits that run hospitals and other healthcare facilities, and offer their employees defined-benefit pension plans. Those plans were established by the hospitals themselves, and are managed by internal employee-benefits committees. Respondents, current and former hospital employees, filed class actions alleging that the hospitals’ pension plans do not fall within ERISA’s church plan exemption because they were not established by a church. The Supreme Court held for the hospitals, ruling that a plan maintained by a principal-purpose organization qualifies as a “church plan,” regardless of who established it. 

The Court reasoned that the term “church plan” initially “mean[t]” only “a plan established and maintained . . . by a church.” But the amendment provides that the original definitional phrase will now “include” another—“a plan maintained by [a principal-purpose] organization.” That use of the word “include” is not literal, but tells readers that a different type of plan should receive the same treatment (i.e., an exemption) as the type described in the old definition. In other words, because Congress deemed the category of plans “established and maintained by a church” to “include” plans “maintained by” principal purpose organizations, those plans—and all those plans—are exempt from ERISA’s requirements.

What Comes Next?

Advocate Health Care Network v Stapleton does not rule on what is or is not a “principle purpose organization”, and that is where we can expect future litigation to focus. The key question will be whether such organization is “controlled by or associated with a church.” Therefore, church-affiliated organizations, such as hospitals, schools, and social welfare agencies, that are relying on ERISA’s church plan exception ought to review their documentation and evidence of either control by or affiliation with a church.

DOL Issues Additional Fiduciary Rule Enforcement Relief and FAQ Guidance

The DOL has issued temporary enforcement relief and FAQ guidance addressing the implementation of the DOL’s final fiduciary rule on investment advice conflicts and related prohibited transaction exemptions (PTEs) during the transition period beginning June 9, 2017 and ending January 1, 2018.

As background, the fiduciary rule and PTEs were effective June 7, 2016, with an initial applicability date of April 10, 2017. The applicability date was delayed 60 days to June 9, 2017. See our prior article here. In connection with the delay, the DOL amended the Best Interest Contract (BIC) exemption and the PTEs to provide transition relief that only requires adherence to the impartial conduct standards (including the best interest standard) through January 1, 2018.The standards specifically require advisers and financial institutions to:

(1) Give advice that is in the “best interest” of the retirement investor. This best interest standard has two chief components: prudence and loyalty:

  • Under the prudence standard, the advice must meet a professional standard of care as specified in the text of the exemption;
  • Under the loyalty standard, the advice must be based on the interests of the customer, rather than the competing financial interest of the adviser or firm;

(2) Charge no more than reasonable compensation; and

(3) Make no misleading statements about investment transactions, compensation, and conflicts of interest.

Highlights of the most recent transition guidance:

Temporary Enforcement Policy on Fiduciary Duty Rule (FAB 2017-02). The DOL announced on May 22, 2017 that it will not pursue claims during the transition period against fiduciaries who are “working diligently and in good faith” to comply with the new fiduciary rule and the related exemptions. The DOL also states that IRS confirms that FAB 2017-02 constitutes “other subsequent related enforcement guidance” for purposes of IRS Announcement 2017-4, which means that the IRS will not impose prohibited transaction excise taxes or related reporting obligations on any transactions or agreements during the transition period that would be subject to the DOL’s nonenforcement policy.

DOL FAQ Guidance on the Transition Period. The DOL also issued FAQs, which review the DOL’s “phased implementation approach”, and confirm that on June 9, 2017, firms and advisers who are fiduciaries need to alter their compensation practices to avoid PTEs or satisfy the transition period requirements under the BIC or another exemption. During the transition, firms should adopt policies and procedures they “reasonably conclude” are necessary to ensure that advisers comply with the impartial conduct standards. However, there is no requirement to give investors any warranty of their adoption, and those standards will not necessarily be failed if certain conflicts of interest continue during the transition period. Other highlights include a clarification that level-fee providers can rely on the BIC exemption during the transition period, and examples of participant communications and non-client-specific investment models that do not provide fiduciary advice. The guidance also indicates that the President’s mandated review (see our prior article here) has not been completed, but when it is, additional changes might be made to the rule or the PTEs.

IRS Announces 2018 Inflation Adjusted Amounts for Health Savings Accounts (HSAs)

The IRS has announced 2018 HSA limits as follows:

Annual contribution limitation. For calendar year 2018, the annual limitation on deductions for HSA contributions under § 223(b)(2)(A) for an individual with self-only coverage under a high deductible health plan is $3,450 (up from $3,400 in 2017), and the annual limitation on deductions for HSA contributions under § 223(b)(2)(B) for an individual with family coverage under a high deductible health plan is $6,900 (up from $6,750 in 2017).

High deductible health plan. For calendar year 2018, a “high deductible health plan” is defined under § 223(c)(2)(A) as a health plan with an annual deductible that is not less than $1,350 for self-only coverage or $2,700 for family coverage (up from $1,300 and $2,600 in 2017), and the
annual out-of-pocket expenses (deductibles, co-payments, and other amounts, but not premiums) do not exceed $6,650 for self-only coverage or $13,300 for family coverage (up from $6,550 and $13,100 in 2017).

Rev. Proc. 2017-37

IRS Provides Guidance on Calculating the Maximum Loan Amount under IRC § 72(p)(2)(A)

The IRS has issued a memorandum providing guidance to its Employee Plans (EP) Examinations staff to determine, the amount available for a loan under § 72(p)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), where the participant has received multiple loans during the past year from a qualified plan.

Background
In general, IRC § 72(p)(1) provides that a loan from a plan is a distribution to the participant. IRC § 72(p)(2)(A) excepts a loan that does not exceed the lesser of:

(i) $50,000, reduced by any excess of

(I) the highest outstanding balance of loans during the 1-year period ending on the day before the date on which such loan was made, over

(II) the outstanding balance of loans on the date on which such loan was made; or

(ii) the greater of

(I) half of the present value of the vested accrued benefit, or

(II) $10,000.

Under IRC § 72(p)(2)(A)(i), if the initial loan is less than $50,000, the participant generally may borrow another loan within a year if the aggregate amount does not exceed $50,000. The $50,000 is reduced by the highest outstanding balance of loans during the 1-year period ending the day before the second loan, in turn reduced by the outstanding balance on the date of the second loan.

The guidance to EP examiners is best illustrated by an example: assume a participant borrowed $30,000 in February, which was fully repaid in April, and then borrowed $20,000 in May, which was fully repaid in July, before applying for a third loan in December.

In this example, the IRS instructs its examiners that the Plan can apply the limitations in one of two ways.

In the first approach, the plan may determine that no further loan would be available in December, since $30,000 + $20,000 = $50,000.

Alternatively, the plan may identify “the highest outstanding balance” as $30,000, and permit the third loan in the amount of $20,000 in December.

At this time, IRS EP examiners will accecpt the position that the law does not clearly preclude either computation of the highest outstanding loan balance in the above example.

IRS Proposes Amendments to Definition of QMACs and QNECs – Allowing Broader use of Forfeitures

The IRS has issued proposed regulations that would amend the definitions of qualified matching contributions (QMACs) and qualified nonelective contributions (QNECs) applicable to certain qualified retirement plans that contain cash or deferred arrangements under section 401(k) or that provide for matching contributions or employee contributions under section 401(m).

Under the proposed regulations, employer contributions to a plan would be able to qualify as QMACs or QNECs if they satisfy applicable nonforfeitability and distribution requirements at the time they are allocated to participants’ accounts, but need not meet these requirements when they were originally contributed to the plan. The effect of this is that plan sponsors could use forfeitures from matching and profit sharing contributions (which were not fully vested when originally allocated to the Plan) to fund QMACs, QNECs and safe harbor contributions. Under existing IRS guidance, forfeitures cannot be used to fund such contributions (which are fully vested when made) because the original contribution was not fully vested at the time it was made.

Proposed Regulations

IRS Issues Updated Determination Letter Revenue Procedure

The IRS has updated and restated its revenue procedures governing determination letters for various types of employee benefit plans.

Rev. Proc. 2017-4 reflects the prior elimination of the five-year remedial amendment cycles for individually designed plans and includes other changes made to the determination letter program, including:

  • limited-scope determination letters on partial terminations if an employer is not otherwise eligible to request a determination letter;
  • determination letters on leased employees only if the employer is otherwise eligible to request a determination letter;
  • no determination letters on affiliated service groups; and
  • modified procedures for requesting relief from retroactive revocations of determination letters or letter rulings.

IRS Issues 2016 “Required Amendments List”

The IRS has issued its first “Required Amendments List” for qualified plans since it eliminated the five-year remedial amendment cycle, and significantly curtailed the favorable determination letter program for individually designed plans. The IRS will issue a new List each year.

This first List, set forth in Notice 2016-80 contains amendments that are required as a result of changes in qualification requirements that become effective on or after January 1, 2016. December 31, 2018 is the plan amendment deadline for a disqualifying provision arising as a result of a change in qualification requirements that appears on the 2016 List.

The Required Amendments List is divided into two parts:

Part A lists the changes that would require an amendment to most plans or to most plans of the type affected by the particular change. Part A of the 2016 List contains no changes applicable to most plans.

Part B lists changes that the Treasury Department and IRS do not anticipate will require amendments in most plans, but might require an amendment because of an unusual plan provision in a particular plan. Part B of the 2016 List contains a single change that may apply to certain collectively bargained defined benefit plans: Restrictions on accelerated distributions from underfunded single-employer plans in employer bankruptcy under Code § 436(d)(2), which was enacted as part of the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014, P.L. 113-159, § 2003. Code Section provides (amendments made by P.L. 113-159, § 2003 in italics):

A defined benefit plan which is a single-employer plan shall provide that, during any period in which the plan sponsor is a debtor in a case under title 11, United States Code, or similar Federal or State law, the plan may not pay any prohibited payment. The preceding sentence shall not apply on or after the date on which the enrolled actuary of the plan certifies that the adjusted funding target attainment percentage of such plan (determined by not taking into account any adjustment of segment rates under section 430(h)(2)(C)(iv)) is not less than 100 percent.

Section 430(h)(2)(C)(iv) sets minimum and maximum and maximum rates for actuarial calculations of the funded status of defined benefit plans.

If a defined benefit plan incorporates the limitation of Section 436(d)(2) by reference to the statute or regulations (or through the use of the sample amendment in Notice 2011-96, which incorporated the statute and regulations), then no amendment to the plan would be required to comply with the changes.

Additional Background

In Rev. Proc. 2016-37, the IRS eliminated, effective January 1, 2017, the five-year remedial amendment/determination letter cycle for individually-designed qualified plans. After January 1, 2017, individually-designed plans will only be able to apply for a determination letter upon initial qualification, upon termination, and in certain other circumstances that the IRS may announce from time to time. See Announcement 2015-19.

To provide individually designed plans with guidance on what amendments must be adopted and when, the IRS announced that it would publish annually a Required Amendments List. The Required Amendments List generally applies to changes in qualification requirements that become effective on or after January 1, 2016. The List also establishes the date that the remedial amendment period expires for changes in qualification requirements contained on the list. Generally, an item will be included on a Required Amendments List only after guidance (including any model amendment) has been issued.

Where a required amendment appears on the List, then for an individually-designed non-governmental plan, the deadline to adopt the amendment is extended to the end of the second calendar year that begins after the issuance of the Required Amendments List in which the change in qualification requirements appear (i.e. until December 31, 2018 for items on the 2016 List).

Qualified Employer Health Reimbursement Arrangements Permitted for Small Employers

The House and the Senate recently passed, and President Obama has signed, the “21st Century Cures Act”, which includes a provision exempting small employer health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) from the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) group plan rules, and from the excise tax imposed under Code Section 4980D for failure to comply with those rules. See our prior posts on the Section 4980D excise tax herehere and here. 

Background

HRAs typically provide reimbursement for medical expenses (which can include premiums for insurance coverage). HRA reimbursements are exclude-able from the employee’s income, and unused amounts roll over from one year to the next. HRAs generally are considered to be group health plans for purposes of the tax Code and ERISA.

The ACA market reforms, which generally apply to group health plans, include provisions that a group health plan (including HRAs) (1) may not establish an annual limit on the dollar amount of benefits for any individual; and (2) must provide certain preventive services without imposing any cost-sharing requirements for these services. Code Section 4980D imposes an excise tax on any failure of a group health plan to meet these requirements.

The IRS has previously distinguished between employer-funded HRAs that are “integrated” with other coverage as part of a group health plan (and which therefore can meet the annual limit rules) and so called “stand-alone” HRAs. A “stand alone” HRA  almost certainly does not meet the ACA group coverage mandates. 

The New Law

The 21st Century Cures Act provides relief from the Section 4980D excise tax effective for tax years after December 31, 2016 for small employers that sponsor a qualified small employer HRAIn addition, previous transition relief for small employers, i.e. those that are not an Applicable Large Employer (ALE) under the ACA, is extended through December 31, 2016.

Therefore, for plan years beginning on or before December 31, 2016, HRAs maintained by small employers with fewer than 50 employees will not incur the Section. 4980D excise tax even if the plans are not qualified small employer HRAs. For tax years after December 31, 2016, small employer HRAs will need to satisfy the requirements of a qualified small employer HRA.

Qualified Small Employer HRA

A qualified small employer HRA must meet all of the following requirements:

(1)  Be maintained by an employer that is not an ALE (i.e., it employs fewer than 50 employees), and does not offer a group health plan to any of its employees

(2)  Be provided on the same terms to all eligible employees. For this purpose, small employers may exclude employees who are under age 25, employees have not completed 90 days of service, part-time or seasonal employees, collective bargaining unit employees, and certain nonresident aliens.

(3)  Be funded solely by an eligible employer. No employee salary reduction contributions may be made under the HRA. 

(4)  Provide for the payment of, or reimbursement of, an eligible employee for expenses for medical care (which can include premiums) incurred by the eligible employee or the eligible employee’s family members.

(5)  The amount of payments and reimbursements do not exceed $4,950 ($10,000 if the HRA also provides for payments or reimbursements for family members of the employee). These amounts will be adjusted for cost of living increases in the future. An HRA can vary the reimbursement to a particular individual based on variations in the price of an insurance policy in the relevant individual health insurance market with respect to: (i) age or (ii) the number of family members covered by the HRA, without violating this requirement that the HRA be provided on the same terms to each eligible employee.

Coordination With Other Rules

If an employee covered by a qualified HRA does not maintain “minimum essential coverage” within the meaning of Code Section 5000A(f), they will be subject to the individual mandate tax penalty under existing law. Under the new law, their HRA reimbursements will also be taxable income to them. 

In addition, for any month that an employee is provided affordable individual health insurance coverage under a qualified HRA, he is not eligible for a premium assistance tax credit under Code Section 36B. 

Employer Reporting Requirements

For years beginning after December 31, 2016, an employer funding a qualified HRA must, not later than 90 days before the beginning of the year, provide a written notice to each eligible employee that includes:

(1) The amount of the employee’s permitted benefit under the HRA for the year; 

(2) A statement that the eligible employee should provide the amount of the employee’s permitted benefit under the HRA to any health insurance exchange to which the employee applies for advance payment of the premium assistance tax credit; and

(3) A statement that if the employee is not covered under minimum essential coverage for any month, the employee may be subject to the individual mandate tax penalty for such month, and reimbursements under the HRA may be include-able in gross income. 

For calendar years that begin after December 31, 2016, employers also have to report contributions to a qualified HRA on their employees’ W-2s. 

More… text of the 21st Century Cures Act.

IRS Announces 2017 COLA Adjusted Limits for Retirement Plans

The IRS has released Notice 2016-62 announcing cost‑of‑living adjustments affecting dollar limitations for pension plans and other retirement-related items for tax year 2017.

Highlights Affecting Plan Sponsors of Qualified Plans for 2017

  • The contribution limit for employees who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan remains unchanged at $18,000.
  • The catch-up contribution limit for employees aged 50 and over who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan remains unchanged at $6,000.
  • The limitation on the annual benefit under a defined benefit plan under Section 415(b)(1)(A) is increased from $210,000 to $215,000.
  • The limitation for defined contribution plans under Section 415(c)(1)(A) is increased in 2017 from $53,000 to $54,000.
  • The annual compensation limit under Sections 401(a)(17), 404(l), 408(k)(3)(C), and 408(k)(6)(D)(ii) is increased from $265,000 to $270,000.
  • The dollar limitation under Section 416(i)(1)(A)(i) concerning the definition of key employee in a top-heavy plan is increased from $170,000 to $175,000.
  • The limitation used in the definition of highly compensated employee under Section 414(q)(1)(B) remains unchanged at $120,000.
  • The dollar amount under Section 409(o)(1)(C)(ii) for determining the maximum account balance in an employee stock ownership plan subject to a 5‑year distribution period is increased from $1,070,000 to $1,080,000, while the dollar amount used to determine the lengthening of the 5‑year distribution period is increased from $210,000 to $215,000.
  • The compensation amount under Section 408(k)(2)(C) regarding simplified employee pensions (SEPs) remains unchanged at $600.
  • The limitation under Section 408(p)(2)(E) regarding SIMPLE retirement accounts remains unchanged at $12,500.

The IRS previously Updated Health Savings Account limits for 2017. See our post here.

The following chart summarizes various significant benefit Plan limits for 2015 through 2017:

Type of Limitation 2017 2016 2015
415 Defined Benefit Plans $215,000 $210,000 $210,000
415 Defined Contribution Plans $54,000 $53,000 $53,000
401(k) Elective Deferrals, 457(b) and 457(c)(1) $18,000 $18,000 $18,000
401(k) Catch-Up Deferrals $6,000 $6,000 $6,000
SIMPLE Employee Deferrals $12,500 $12,500 $12,500
SIMPLE Catch-Up Deferrals $3,000 $3,000 $3,000
Annual Compensation Limit $270,000 $265,000 $265,000
SEP Minimum Compensation $600 $600 $600
SEP Annual Compensation Limit $270,000 $265,000 $265,000
Highly Compensated $120,000 $120,000 $120,000
Key Employee (Officer) $175,000 $170,000 $170,000
Income Subject To Social Security Tax  (FICA) $127,200 $118,500 $118,500
Social Security (FICA) Tax For ER & EE (each pays) 6.20% 6.20% 6.20%
Social Security (Med. HI) Tax For ERs & EEs (each pays) 1.45% 1.45% 1.45%
SECA (FICA Portion) for Self-Employed 12.40% 12.40% 12.40%
SECA (Med. HI Portion) For Self-Employed 2.9% 2.9% 2.90%
IRA Contribution $5,500 $5,500 $5,500
IRA catch-up Contribution $1,000 $1,000 $1,000
HSA Max Single/Family $3,400/6,750 $3,350/6,750 $3,350/6,650
HSA Catchup $1,000 $1,000 $1,000
HSA Min. Annual Deductible Single/Family $1,300/2,600 $1,300/2,600 $1,300/2,600

IRS Updates EPCRS Retirement Plan Correction Procedures

The IRS released Revenue Procedure 2016-51 on September 29, 2016, updating its prior Employee Plans Compliance Resolutions System (EPCRS) correction guidance.  Significant changes made to the EPCRS system include:

  • Plan sponsors applying under EPCRS to correct a plan document failure will not longer be permitted to include an application for a favorable determination letter with their EPCRS application. This change is to coordinate EPCRS with the recently announced changes to the IRS determination letter program.
  • Similarly, individually designed plans using the Self-Correction Program (SCP) to correct significant failures will no longer need to have a current favorable determination letter (since the IRS will no longer issue periodically updated determination letters). Individually designed plans will simply need a favorable determination letter.
  • Fees associated with the Voluntary Correction Program (VCP) will now be considered user fees and therefore will no longer be set forth in the EPCRS revenue procedure. For VCP submissions made:
    • in 2016, refer to Rev. Proc. 2016-8 and Rev. Proc. 2013-12 to determine the applicable user fee.
    • after 2016, refer to the annual Employee Plans user fees revenue procedure to determine VCP user fees for that year.
  • The IRS is changing its approach to determining Audit CAP sanctions. A reasonable sanction will no longer be a negotiated percentage of the maximum payment amount (MPA). Instead, it will be based on all of the facts and circumstances, but will generally not be less than the user fee for a VCP application. The MPA is one of the factors they will consider. Others include:
    • the type of failure;
    • the number and type of employees affected;
    • the steps the plan sponsor took to prevent the error and identify it; and
    • the extent to which the error has been corrected before discovery.
  • The IRS will no longer refund half the paid user fee if there is disagreement over correction in Anonymous Submissions.

    The new revenue procedure is effective January 1, 2017. Unlike with prior EPCRS updates, plan sponsors may not elect to voluntarily apply the updated provisions before January 1, 2017.