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.
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.
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.