What Happened

One of the biggest disappointments arising from the issuance of the 403(b) regs has been the inability of employers to effectively terminate their plans.  At first, the IRS caused quite a favorable stir when it announced that the regs would specifically classify the termination of a 403(b) plan as a distributable event, and would  further permit the distribution of a "fully paid individual insurance annuity contract" as a terminating distribution. This seemed almost too good to be true as employers (who were willing to pay the cost of termination, including the full vesting of employer contributions) and consultants now had another tool with which to manage the complicated changes coming out of the new 403(b) scheme. Those of us familiar with the intricacies of individual 403(b) contracts were also well familiar with the administrative methods under which an employer could actually distribute an individually owned 403(b) contract without violating the individual’s contractual rights.  Life, for a moment, seemed wonkishly swell.

Reality then hit. IRS officials soon started making public statements that individually owned custodial accounts would not be honored as annuity contracts for purposes of terminating plan distributions. Some unusual comments were even made that distributing certificates under group annuity contracts (a standard method of dstribtuing annuities under terminated defined benefit plans) also would not be honored as valid terminating distributions.

These positions had the practical effect of making most 403(b) plan terminations impractical. Because all of the assets of a terminated 403(b) plan need to be distributed within 12 months of the date of termination, and because employers cannot typically force the distributions out of an individual custodial account (and often not from the certificate of a group annuity contract), any attempt at termination would have a high likelihood of failure. If an employer could not convince all of the plan’s custodial account owners to take a cash distribution from their accounts, the termination would fail.  If the termination fails, then the funds of all of those who had rolled funds into an IRA from the supposedly terminating 403(b) plan or had taken a "fully paid insurance annuity contract" all becomes taxable.

 This is an absurd result. It completely eviscerates  the IRS’s own termination provision and takes away a valuable planning tool from the marketplace.  


The draconian position taken by the IRS in drawing a distinction between an individually owned annuity and a custodial account is hard to understand. From a strictly statutory view, it seems to have little support. The language of 403(b)(7) is unambiguous:

"for purposes of this tilte, amounts paid by an employer described in paragrph (1)(A) to a custodial account which satisfies the provisions of 401(f) shall be treated as amounts contributed by him for an annuity contract for his employee…."

The only 403(b) distinctions between a custodial account and an annuity contract (related to the ability to withdraw employer contributions without a "distributable event") are in 403(b)(7) itself. There seems to be little statutory authority for allowing terminating annuity distributions and not allowing custodial account distributions. For 403(b) purposes, a custodial account IS an annuity contract.  What is really interesting about the 403(b) regualtions, is that a fair reading of it doesn’t seem to prevent the distribution of a custodial account as an annuity contract.

As a practical matter, the IRS’s public position makes even less sense.  If you start with the proposition that 403(b) contracts have been administered for years as individual pensions and that- to many custodial account administration systems- it mattered little whether or not the account was associated with an employer. Many non-ERISA, individually owned 403(b) custodial accounts have actually been administered by mutual fund companies on the same systems that administers their IRA accounts.

It is truly hard to understand the basis for the IRS’s odd position in this matter. There is no longer any potential for employer abuse, as any relationship with the employer has been terminated, and the terms of the contracts continue to regulate participant’s activity.

So, now what? The Investment Company Institute has recently suggested a complex solution to the IRS to solve the IRS’s "problem".  It involves waiting periods, switching the taxability of the account, issuuing deemed distribution notices and the like. All of this seems terribly complex and unnecessary, creating even more tax horror for paritcipants and administrative nightmares for vendors.

Isn’t the answer really much simpler than all that?Is there any reason why a "distributed custodial account" couldn’t be administered in the way non-ERISA contracts had been administered in the past, or in the manner IRAs are currently administered?  

Perhaps if there is a distaste for that past, allow the distribution of a custodial account from a terminated 403(b) plan, and treat it under the same tax rules as distributed annuity contracts. After all, those distributed annuity contracts often hold mutual funds in their variable accounts. Outline a simple set of rules for both of those types of contracts, based upon the former 403(b) rules but infused with a dose of any anti-abuse the IRS see as a risk. Require simple annual reporting as a line on the existing IRA reporting form, Form  5498.  Perhaps even allow it to be treated in the same manner as plan distributed annuities.

Does the IRS fear so much that relying upon the representations of terminated 403(b) plan participants without employer oversight will so undermine the system as to be destructive, in a system where those funds could also be transferred to a relatively unregulated IRA,  where such a vast amounts of assets are held?

I just don’t get it.


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