We recently blogged on the similarities between the Automatic Workplace Pension being proposed in President Obama’s budget proposal and the original concept of the retirement programs under IRC section 403(b). We noted that while 403(b) programs were initially set up as individual pension plans, it has been the policy of the IRS for over 15 years to treat 403(b) programs as employer plans. The IRS’ approach to 403(b) plans, most recently manifested in the new regulations under 403(b), is particularly problematic for the continued viability of the so-called non-ERISA 403(b) arrangements. These are 403(b) programs that are intended to fit under a safe harbor from ERISA coverage ( DOL regulations §2510-3.2) that exempts a 403(b) program from Title I of ERISA if the employer is minimally involved in its administration and does not exercise any discretionary authority over the program. The increased compliance responsibility imposed by the new IRS regulations can easily cause an employer to run afoul of the DOL rules, and have caused practitioners to question the continued viability of non-ERISA 403(b) arrangements.

Despite some helpful efforts by the DOL to provide guidance (e.g., Field Assistance Bulletin 2007-02), there are still significant obstacles for the employer that wants to maintain a non-ERISA 403(b) arrangement. Under the 403(b) regulations, the employer is responsible to make certain that the program remains in compliance with the tax rules, but its efforts to meet this responsibility can then cause it to fall out of the DOL safe harbor.   For example, a program that allows loans or hardship withdrawals will fail to meet the IRS’ rules unless someone, other that the employee, determines that a request for a loan or hardship withdrawal complies with the applicable tax rules. If the employer makes that determination, it has gone beyond what is permitted under the DOL rules. While the determination can be made by the investment provider, many are unwilling to take on that responsibility. And the employer apparently cannot simply hire a TPA to fulfill this function; the decisions of the TPA will be attributed to the employer. This problem is exacerbated when the plan is funded by multiple investment providers and the records of each provider need to be coordinated to ensure compliance with the tax rules.   As the DOL has said that in order to fall within the safe harbor a 403(b) plan must (at least in most cases) have more than one investment provider, most non-ERISA 403(b) arrangements will need to coordinate between providers.

The similarities of the Automatic Workplace Pension proposal to 403(b) plans and its apparent (early) support from both sides of the political spectrum demonstrate that there is still a continuing need for the non-ERISA 403(b). This is a simple and relatively inexpensive retirement savings arrangement that works much like the new proposal: the employer’s major responsibility is to send salary reduction contributions to investment providers. It avoids some of the costly obligations that apply to ERISA covered plans, such as the need to have an independent audit if the plan has over 100 employees.   Moreover, the non-discrimination rules that apply to the salary reduction provisions of 403(b) plans – universal availability – are easy to apply and consistent with the policy goals of encouraging widespread participation. Arrangements under section 403(b) have a long and successful track record of promoting retirement savings among employees in the tax-exempt community, and should continue to be encouraged.