How do Cash Balance Plans differ from 401(k) plans?

Cash Balance Plans are defined benefit plans. In contrast, 401(k) plans are a defined contribution plan. There are four major differences between typical Cash Balance Plans and 401(k) plans:

  1. Participation – Participation in typical Cash Balance Plans generally does not depend on the workers contributing part of their compensation to the plan; however, participation in a 401(k) plan does depend, in whole or in part, on an employee choosing to make a contribution to the plan.
  2. Investment Risks – The employer or an investment manager appointed by the employer manages the investments of cash balance plans. Increases or decreases in plan values do not directly affect the benefit amounts promised to participants. By contrast, 401(k) plans often permit participants to direct their own investments and bear the investment risk of loss.
  3. Life Annuities – Unlike 401(k) plans, Cash Balance Plans are required to offer employees the choice to receive their benefits in the form of lifetime annuities.
  4. Federal Guarantee – Since they are defined benefit plans, the benefits promised by Cash Balance Plans are usually insured by a federal agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). If a defined benefit plan is terminated with insufficient funds to pay all promised benefits, the PBGC has authority to assume trusteeship of the plan and begin to pay pension benefits up to the limits set by law. Defined contribution plans, including 401(k) plans, are not insured by the PBGC.

For more information, please contact us.

 

Pension Protection Act of 2006

The Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) is long and hard to read, but it played a crucial role in establishing cash balance plans as a viable and legally recognized retirement savings option. Before 2006, cash balance plans faced frequent legal challenges. Those bringing the suits argued that cash balance plans violated established rules for benefit accrual and discriminated against older workers. The rulings on these cases were inconsistent, and many business owners were reluctant to risk establishing a plan that just didn’t have firm legal footing.

The Pension Protection Act ended this uncertainty about the legality of cash balance plans. The legislation set specific requirements for cash balance plans, including:

  • A vesting requirement: Any employee who has worked for their company for at least three years must be 100% vested in their accrued benefits from employer contributions.
  • A change in the calculation of lump sum payments: Participants in a cash balance plan can usually choose to receive a lump sum upon retirement or upon the termination of employment instead of receiving their money as a lifetime annuity. Before 2006, some plans used one interest rate to calculate out the anticipated account balance upon retirement, but, when participants opted to receive an earlier lump sum, the plan called for using a different interest rate to discount the anticipated retirement balance back to the date of the lump sum payment. This could lead to discrepancies between the hypothetical balance of the account (as determined by employer contributions and accumulated interest credits) and the actual lump sum payout, an effect known as “whipsaw”. The PPA eliminated the whipsaw effect by allowing the lump sum payout to simply equal the hypothetical account balance.
  • Clarification on age discrimination claims: A cash balance plan does not violate age discrimination legislation if the account balance of an older employee is compared with that of a similarly situated younger employee (i.e. with the same length of employment, pay, job title, date of hire, and work history), and the older employee’s balance is equal to or greater than the younger employee’s.

There are, of course, many other points included in this lengthy piece of legislation, but the takeaway is this: the Pension Protection Act of 2006 removed the legal uncertainty surrounding cash balance plans and made them a much more appealing option for small business owners.

At the end of 2016, the number of cash balance plans in America more than tripled after the implementation of the PPA.  Additional regulations in 2010 and 2014 made these hybrid plans an even better option, and we anticipate that their popularity will continue to grow. There are thousands of high-earning business owners out there who can reap huge, tax-crushing benefits from implementing cash balance plan – they just have to know about them first.

Cash Balance Plans

Source: Ascensus Consulting, Inc.

More professional practices (and practice groups) should look into Cash Balance Plans.

In corporate America, pension plans are fading away: 59% of Fortune 500 companies offered them to new hires in 1998, but by 2015, only 20% did. In contrast, some legal, medical, accounting, and engineering firms are keeping the spirit of the traditional pension plan alive by adopting cash balance plans.

Owners and partners of these highly profitable businesses sometimes get a late start on retirement planning. Cash balance plans give them a chance to catch up.

Contributions to these defined benefit plans are age dependent – the older you are, the more you can potentially sock away each year for retirement. In 2016, a 55-year-old could defer as much as $180,000 a year into a cash balance plan; a 65-year-old, as much as $245,000.

These plans are not for every business as they demand consistent contributions from the plan sponsor. Yet, they may prove less expensive to a company than a classic pension plan, and offer significantly greater funding flexibility and employee benefits compared to a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k).

How does a cash balance plan differ from a traditional pension plan?  In a cash balance plan, a business or professional practice maintains an account for each employee with a hypothetical “balance” of pay credits (i.e., employer contributions) plus interest credits. There can be no discrimination in favor of partners, executives, or older employees; the owner(s) have to be able to make contributions for other employees as well. The plan pays out a pension-style monthly income stream to the participant at retirement – either a set dollar amount or a percentage of compensation. Lump-sum payouts are also an option.

Each year, a plan participant receives a pay credit equaling 5-8% of his or her compensation, augmented by an interest credit commonly linked to the performance of an equity index or the yield of the 30-year Treasury (the investment credit can be variable or fixed).

Cash balance plans are commonly portable: the vested portion of the account balance can be paid out if an employee leaves before a retirement date.

As an example of how credits are accrued, let’s say an employee named Joe earns $75,000 annually at the XYZ Group. He participates in a cash balance plan that provides a 5% annual salary credit and a 5% annual interest credit once there is a balance. Joe’s first-year pay credit would be $3,750 with no interest credit as there was no balance in his hypothetical account at the start of his first year of participation. For year two (assuming no raises), Joe would get another $3,750 pay credit and an interest credit of $3,750 x 5% = $187.50. So, at the end of two years of participation, his hypothetical account would have a balance of $7,687.50.

An employer takes on considerable responsibility with a cash balance plan.  It must make annual contributions to the plan, and an actuary must determine the minimum yearly contribution to keep the plan appropriately funded. The employer effectively assumes the investment risk, not the employee. For example, if the plan says it will award participants a fixed 5% interest credit each year, and asset performance does not generate that large a credit, the employer may have to contribute more to the plan to fulfill its promise. The employer and the financial professional consulting the employer about the plan determine the investment choices, which usually lean conservative.

Employer contributions to the plan for a given tax year must be made by the federal income tax deadline for that year (plus extensions). Funding the plan before the end of a calendar year is fine; the employer just needs to understand that any overage will represent contributions not tax-deductible. The plan must cover at least 50 employees or 40% of the firm’s workforce.

Cash balance plans typically cost a company between $2,000-5,000 to create and between $2,000-10,000 per year to run. That may seem expensive, but a cash balance plan offers owners the potential to keep excess profits earned above the annual interest credit owed to employees. Another perk is that cash balance plans can be used in tandem with 401(k) plans.

These plans can be structured to reward owners appropriately. When a traditional defined benefit plan uses a safe harbor formula, rank-and-file employees may be rewarded more than owners and executives would prefer. Cash balance plan formulas can remedy this situation.

Benefit allocations are based on career average pay, not just “the best years.”  In a traditional defined benefit plan, the eventual benefit is based on a 3- to 5-year average of peak employee compensation multiplied by years of service. In a cash balance plan, the benefit is determined using an average of all years of compensation.

Cash balance plans are less sensitive to interest rates than old-school pension plans. As rates rise and fall, liabilities in a traditional pension plan fluctuate. This opens a door to either over-funding or under-funding (and under-funding is a major risk right now with such low interest rates). By contrast, a cash balance plan has relatively minor variations in liability valuation.

A cash balance plan cannot be administered with any degree of absentmindedness. It must pass yearly non-discrimination tests; it must be submitted for IRS approval every five years instead of every six. Obviously, a plan document must be drawn up and periodically amended, and there are the usual annual reporting requirements.5

Ideally, a cash balance plan is run by highly compensated employees (“HCE”s) of a firm who are within their prime earning years. Regarding non-discrimination, a company should try to aim for at least a 5:1 ratio – there should at least be 1 HCE plan participant for every 5 other plan participants. In the best-case scenario for non-discrimination testing, the HCEs are 10-15 years older than half (or more) of the company’s workers.

If a worst-case scenario occurs and a company founders, cash balance plan participants have a degree of protection for their balances. Their benefits are insured up to their maximum value by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). If a cash balance plan is terminated, plan participants can receive their balances as a lump sum, roll the money over into an IRA, or request that the plan sponsor transfer its liability to an insurer (with the pension benefits paid to the plan participant via an insurance contract).

Cash balance plans have grown increasingly popular. Some businesses have even adopted dual profit-sharing and cash balance plans. Maybe it is time for your business to look into this intriguing alternative to the traditional pension plan.

Problem ahead for bond investors? 

Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate has a duration of over 6 (orange line) and a yield of just 2.5% (white line). If we see more corporate refinancing on the longer end (while rates are still low) and at some point a 50 or 100 year US treasury makes its way into the index (https://lnkd.in/gFvUF5g), this could be very problematic. 

 

Add to that a higher duration of Agency MBS if rates increase and prepayments slow (extension risk). 

 

This all looks like a huge amount of interest rate risk for investors with very little upside. The solution: Talk to your Portfolio Manager ! 

Avoidable IRA Disaster

IRAs are great financial tools that carry valuable tax advantages, and are an important part of many clients’ portfolios. When IRAs are part of an estate, however, they are subject to rules that are highly inflexible. When survivors receive advice that does not address these rules adequately, there can be disastrous financial consequences.

A ruling handed down in U.S. Tax Court in December provides one such tax horror story, and it could easily have been avoided. It is worth recounting in detail to uncover lessons that could help advisers in creating estate plans that include IRAs.

The case involved the estate of a Florida man, Thomas W. Ozimkoski Sr., who died in August 2006. Just seven months before his death, Ozimkoski executed a will that left the bulk of his property to his wife, Suzanne D. Oster Ozimkoski, and named her as personal representative of his estate. At the time of his death, Ozimkoski had a traditional IRA at Wachovia and a 1967 Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

He also had a son, Thomas Jr., who was unhappy about the will. The son went to probate court and faced off against Suzanne, his stepmother. The IRA custodian, Wachovia Securities, froze the funds in the IRA pending the outcome of the litigation.

When the dust settled, a settlement had been reached. Suzanne would pay Junior the sum of $110,000 and transfer title of Senior’s motorcycle to him. The settlement provided that the payment would be made within 30 days of the date on which Senior’s IRA was unfrozen by Wachovia. The settlement also said that “all payments shall be net payments free of any tax.”

CARRYING OUT THE SETTLEMENT

The motorcycle transfer seems to have gone smoothly, but the same was not true of the payment of the IRA funds.

On July 2, 2008, Wachovia transferred $235,495 from the deceased’s IRA to an IRA set up in Suzanne’s name. Suzanne took a distribution from her IRA and wrote a personal check for $110,000 to Junior to make the payment required under the settlement agreement. She also took other distributions from her IRA in 2008 for a total of $174,597.

Wachovia issued a 2008 Form 1099-R showing taxable distributions of $174,597 to Suzanne in 2008. The distributions were coded as early distributions because Suzanne took them from her own IRA and she was under age 59 ½.

Suzanne filed her 2008 federal income tax return late and reported only her wage income from the Boys and Girls Club, just under $15,000. She did not report any of the IRA distributions as income.

The IRS subsequently issued a notice of deficiency to Suzanne for 2008. The IRS said she owed $62,185 in taxes and a 10% penalty on the IRA distributions. It also hit her with an accuracy-related penalty of $12,437. Suzanne disagreed and brought her case to the Tax Court, representing herself.

The Tax Court held that Suzanne owed income taxes, the 10% early distribution penalty and part of the accuracy penalty. The court did not buy Suzanne’s argument that the IRA distributions should not be included in her income because Junior was entitled to $110,000 of the IRA under the settlement agreement. Instead, the court agreed with the IRS that the distributions were taxable to Suzanne because they were from her own IRA.

WHO IS THE BENEFICIARY?

The Tax Court began its decision by tackling the important issue of exactly who was the beneficiary of Senior’s IRA. Generally, the beneficiary of an IRA is whoever is named on the IRA beneficiary designation form. However, there was a problem. Wells Fargo, the successor to Wachovia, did not have Senior’s IRA beneficiary designation form. It is unclear whether the form had never been filled out or somehow went missing.

In the absence of the form, the estate became the beneficiary by default. Because Suzanne inherited through the estate, the IRA became a probate asset, which can be subject to a will contest. If the beneficiary is named on IRA beneficiary form, however, the account bypasses probate and goes directly to her.

Because the estate, not Suzanne, was the beneficiary of the IRA, Wachovia “incorrectly” rolled it over to her IRA, according to the court. What Wachovia should have done, the court said, was distribute the IRA assets to Senior’s estate rather than to Suzanne’s IRA. The court said it had no jurisdiction to fix that mistake.

The court expressed sympathy for Suzanne, noting that her attorney during the probate litigation clearly failed to counsel her on the tax ramifications of paying Junior from her own IRA. However, the court said it could not change the fact that the distributions she received were from her own IRA and, therefore, taxable income.

The court also said Suzanne owed the 10% early distribution penalty on the funds taken from her IRA. There is such a thing as an exception to the penalty for distributions due to death, but that did not apply to her. This is because a spouse beneficiary may no longer claim the exception if she rolls over the funds from her deceased spouse’s IRA into her own IRA and then withdraws the funds from her IRA.

The court gave Suzanne a break on the accuracy penalty. The court said that in light of all the circumstances, including her limited experience, knowledge and education, she had acted in good faith with respect to the portion of her underpayment attributable to her failure to include in her taxable income the $110,000 she paid to Junior. However, she was still liable for the penalty on the other IRA distributions she took.

LESSONS LEARNED

This case offers several lessons for advisers and their clients:

The importance of beneficiary forms. It’s easy to imagine another, much happier, outcome in this case. When Thomas Ozimkoski Sr. updated his will to leave everything to his wife, he should also have updated his IRA beneficiary designation form. If he had, the IRA would have passed directly to her and never became part of the disputed probate estate.

A competent adviser would have realized that any payment coming from an IRA will be taxable. If one party is not paying the tax, then someone else is.

The need for competent advisers. One thing that Suzanne Ozimkoski lacked in this case was advisers who understood the IRA rules. She needed a knowledgeable attorney who could have advised her better on the outcome of her settlement agreement.

A competent adviser would have realized that any payment coming from an IRA will be taxable. If Junior is not paying the tax, then someone else is. A competent adviser would have realized Wachovia’s error and had the custodian reverse the transaction and retitle the inherited IRA properly.

Naming a spouse on the beneficiary designation form allows her to roll over the funds to her own IRA. This avoids the result in this case, where the estate was the beneficiary and the rollover was “incorrect.”

Avoid “incorrect” rollovers. Naming a spouse on the beneficiary designation form allows her to roll over the funds to her own IRA. This avoids the result in this case, where the estate was the beneficiary and the rollover was “incorrect.”

With proper advice, the spouse could have elected to remain a beneficiary rather than do a spousal rollover. By remaining a beneficiary here, the spouse could have taken distributions she needed and avoided the 10% early distribution penalty.

A positive outcome in one court may be irrelevant for tax purposes. The settlement agreement said that all payments to Junior shall be net payments, free of any tax, and the widow was under the impression that she owed no taxes. But tax rules did not allow this outcome. During the settlement process, someone should have advised her that there was no way to avoid the tax on the IRA distribution.

After the mistaken rollover, the Tax Court could not unwind that transaction and instead had to decide the widow’s tax liability based on the erroneous transfer of the IRA assets to her own account and her subsequent distributions.

How the death exception to the 10% penalty actually works?

This exception to the penalty is for beneficiaries, but does not apply when the spouse rolls the retirement funds over to his or her own IRA. Once a spousal rollover occurs, the spouse is then the IRA owner and not a beneficiary.

If you sound confused, let me help you!

Tom Cooper, CFP.

tcooper@namcoa.com

Employers need a 401k’s to attract millennial talent

A study from Fisher Investments 401(k) Solutions found that 80 percent of millennials say they would prefer to work for a company that offers a 401k plan, dispelling a commonly-held belief that millennials are not as interested in 401k plans as other generations.

However, despite their high levels of interest, millennials also tend to be (understandably) less educated on the ins and outs of retirement planning, with the same percent (80) failing Fisher’s 401(k) IQ in the Workplace Quiz. That’s higher than the 70 percent of general respondents who earlier failed the same workplace quiz, missing at least three of the nine basic questions.

“We’re encouraged that the vast majority of millennials recognize that 401k plans can be indispensable to meeting their long-term savings goals,” Nathan Fisher, managing director and founder of Fisher Investments 401(k) Solutions, said in a statement. “However, when you get down to the nuts and bolts of planning, it becomes clear there’s an education gap”.

The Fisher study also found that millennials are more likely than other groups to receive and trust information about retirement planning from individual contacts, whether they be friends, relatives or co-workers, countering the view that younger savers are more reliant on internet-based information and advice.

In fact, nearly one in three millennials trust a friend or family member’s advice on retirement planning most. In keeping with their desire for individual attention, millennials are more likely than other age groups to wish their retirement provider would reach out to them personally, and to know more about their company’s 401k plans.

Millennials at small businesses (which Fisher defines as those with between 5 and 200 employees) tend to be less engaged in retirement planning, with nearly one in four saying they are not enrolled in a plan.

Those who are enrolled in a plan are also less likely to receive information from their 401k provider than their counterparts at larger companies, and, perhaps most troubling, they are less likely to trust the 401k plan offered by their employer.

The survey also found some stark differences between millennial women and men. Millennial women are much less confident in their ability to pick the right investments and save enough for retirement than their male peers. They are also less likely to be enrolled in their company’s 401k plan and more likely to fail the 401(k) IQ Quiz.

“This study really strikes at the heart of the assumptions many employers and planners have about the millennial generation,” Fisher continued. “While they are very technologically savvy, millennials are in fact the most likely generation to seek individual rather than web-based information about their retirement plans. We were also surprised to find that a significant gender gap continues to exist when it comes to investing and retirement planning, something that employers and 401k providers must address.”