I had posted in an earlier blog some of the technical  differences between 401(k) plans and 403(b) plans. One of the more striking differences I did NOT mention was that of the Prohibited Transaction.

Assume a successful insurance agent sits on the Board of a mid-sized tax exempt organization with 250 employees, a Board which also serves as the Plan Administrator of its ERISA 403(b) plan. The Board has just conducted a review and chosen a new vendor to handle all of the new tax rules while also complying with its fiduciary obligations. The Board selected a 403(b) vendor which is an insurance company that the agent/board member has been appointed to do business with. That agent/board member took all the (often excruciating) steps necessary to make sure that no commissions are paid to her on the purchase of those annuities by the charity’s plan.

The agent opens her quarterly bonus statement from the insurance company and finds, to her great dismay, that the insurance company has paid a retention bonus on the charity’s 403(b) plan annuities. She immediately calls a fellow Board member, who also happens to be the CPA which will be auditing the charity’s plan. She wants to know whether this is a problem, and how should she fix this. The CPA is now concerned, because the audit may need to address this circumstance.

Assuming that the payment of the retention bonus is a prohibited transaction  (there are circumstances in which it may not be), and setting aside the issue of how to correct something like this (that’s why people hire lawyers like me), how does the CPA approach this?

The first, and most important, point is a 403(b) plan is NOT a plan defined under IRC Section 4975(e)-which means that 4975 and its related excise taxes does NOT apply to 403(b) plans. There is no "disqualified person;" there is no "non-exempt transaction" that is reportable under Schedule G, Part III of the Form 5500; and no Form 5330 needs to be filed.

This also means that, by virtue of not being covered by 4975, that it is subject to ERISA’s Civil Penalties under ERISA Section 502(i), which relate to the Title 1 Prohibited Transactions under ERISA Section 406. The 403(b) plan is NOT exempt from this section. But there is currently no way to report this transaction to the DOL, which "may" asses the civil penalties thereunder.

This may put the CPA in a bit of a quandary, particularly if the potential prohibited transaction penalty is substantial because of the size of the transaction or because of the number of years it went uncorrected. Until the matter is resolved with the DOL, and a decision made whether to asses the penalty, this may be carried as a sort of open liability on the audit report. … yet another 403(b) regulatory issue to be resolved.


For a heads up, I thought I’d preview with you a few of the matters I expect to address in the early part of the new year:

  • Part 3 of the Annuity "Fiduciary Concerns." Yes, there is a "Part 3" on the boards. This will cover "Invisibility", which is really a discussion of sales charges, and "Immobility,"which is a discussion on Portability.
  • Annuity Transparency.  How to make disclosures relevant.
  • Complex Prohibited Transactions. There will be a few blogs on how the prohibited transaction rules apply in large, complex financial organizations.
  • A Schedule H and C "walkthrough" for the 403(b) plan
  • ERISA Section 502(a)(9), the Plan Distributed Annuity and 403(b).

And a few other interesting tidbits.  Keep watching…..

A Final Reflection

The year’s end always brings the opportunity to reflect again on important matters. I would like to share with you a quote from Learned Hand, eminent jurist of the federal bench in the early 20th century. I came across this quote some 30 years ago, as I was deciding to go to law school, and have carried it with me since. In a corporate world where the staff "common denominator" often seems to be fear, where ideas are much at risk, this takes on particular relevance:

 Our dangers, it seems to me, are not from the outrageous but from the conforming; not from those who rarely and under the lurid glare of obloquy upset our moral complaisance, or shock us with unaccustomed conduct, but from those, the mass of us, who take their virtues and their tastes, like their shirts and their furniture, from the limited patterns which the market offers.

Learned Hand June  2, 1927, commencement address at Brym Mawr College. Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, Oct, 1927.

To all, wishing a healthy and fulfilling new year.




 Any discussion on any tax issue addressed in this blog (including any attachments or links) is not intended to be used, and cannot be used, for purposes of avoiding penalties imposed under the United States Internal Revenue Code or promoting, marketing or recommending to another person any transaction or tax-related position addressed therein. Further, nothing contained herein is intended to provide legal advice, nor to create an attorney client relationship with any party.