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Nonqualified Plans

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act – New Executive Compensation Rules

This is the second in a series of articles by which the Spencer Fane LLP Employee Benefits Practice Team will explain key changes made in the employee benefits area by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (Public Law 115-97), which was signed into law on December 22, 2017.  In addition to establishing new rules for transportation fringe benefits (see our first article in this series), the Act makes a number of changes that may affect how employers structure their executive compensation programs.  This article describes the Act’s impact on for-profit employers, and outlines options that those employers should consider for their compensation arrangements.

IRS Issues Long-Awaited Guidance Regarding (Nonqualified) Deferred Compensation Arrangements of Governmental and Tax-Exempt Employers

Deferred compensation arrangements that are not “tax-favored” retirement plans under Code Sections 401(a), 403(b), or (in the case of a governmental employer) 457(b) are generally referred to as “nonqualified” plans. So long as a nonqualified plan is “unfunded” (meaning the amounts deferred remain the property of the employer, and subject to the employer’s general creditors, until paid), the amounts deferred are generally not taxable until they are “paid or otherwise made available” to the employee.

Davidson v. Henkel: A Rather Taxing Decision

A recent decision by a Michigan federal trial court serves as a warning to employers that their failure to shield participants in nonqualified deferred compensation plans from adverse tax consequences may subject the employers to unanticipated liability. Although this decision (in Davidson v. Henkel Corporation) involved FICA taxation, the court’s reasoning would seem to apply equally to the 20% penalty tax and interest assessments triggered by a violation of Code Section 409A.

Davidson v. Henkel: A Painful Reminder of the Special Rules for FICA Taxation of Nonqualified Deferred Compensation

Although the compensation that an employer pays to an employee is generally subject to FICA taxation at the time the compensation is paid, there are special rules for the FICA tax treatment of amounts payable under nonqualified deferred compensation plans (such as long-term incentive plans or supplemental retirement programs). These rules affect both the timing, and the amount, of the FICA tax that is payable with respect to such compensation (which tax is typically shared 50/50 by the employer and employee).   In the recent case of Davidson v. Henkel, an employer that failed to heed those special rules found itself facing the prospect of bearing substantial additional tax liability – for both the employer’s and the employee’s share of the FICA tax. This case serves as a reminder that employers should pay special attention to when amounts deferred under a nonqualified plan are properly taken into account as “wages” for purposes of FICA taxes.

Year-End Amendment Deadline Under Code Section 409A

Recent IRS guidance makes clear that deferred compensation arrangements under which payments are conditioned on the execution of a release of claims could pose a problem under Section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code.  Fortunately, the IRS has also announced a voluntary correction program under which this Section 409A violation may be corrected.  Employers wishing to take advantage of this correction program must act quickly, however, because this aspect of the program expires at the end of 2012.

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