403(b) devotees often speak of the continuing, and significant, number of technical differences between 403(b) and 401(k) plans. The following lists a few of the differences not given a lot of attention, a sort of holiday stocking stuffer:

Handling 403(b) cash.   Handling cash is much more challenging under a 403(b) plan than under the 401(k) plan as pointed out to me a little while back by David Walters of Bodman LLP. A 401(k) deposit can sit in some sort of cash account (sometimes for lengthy periods of time) in the trust while a variety of administrative issues related to the handling of that cash can be resolved. Not so with 403(b) plans. First,  403(b) cash needs to put in a "custodian account  held"  registered investment company share or into an annuity contract to maintain its 403(b) status. It can’t just sit around in some sort of custodian owned cash account for more than a very short time.  Secondly, 403(b) investments are registered products which are subject to strict SEC rules on timing of deposits and the return of funds received "Not In Good Order." 403(b) custodians beware!

Notice of restrictions on distributions.  In an example of the quirkiness of the 403(b) rules, the SEC issued a No-Act letter in 1988 to the ACLI regarding the distribution restrictions on 403(b) annuity contracts. It appears that the 403(b)(11) distribution restrictions could have run afoul of the distribution requirements under the Investment Company Act of 1940 (403(b) investments being registered securities subject to these rules) but for this issuance of this No Act. 

The 403(b) SAR.  ERISA 403(b) plans have always had to file an SAR. They were very silly, not looking at all like a 401(k) SAR, with very little information on them because of the minimal 5500 reporting requirements. Now, those 403(b) SARs will be substantial. Those who have "standard" 403(b) forms will need to modify them to look like the 401(k) standard.

Non-merger.  It was conventional wisdom in the past, as Kurt Lawson of Hogan and Hartson notes, that 403(b) plans and 401(a) plans could not be merged, though this surely would be a handy planning tool to have today to manage all of these 403(b) issues. The 403(b) regs confirmed this "conventional wisdom" in 1.403(b)-10(b)(1)(i).

Employer Approval.  I find it fascinating that, with all the back and forth going on between employers and vendors on "approving" hardships and loans and the like that, unlike 401(k) plans, the 403(b) regs do not actually require employers to approve such things. The 403(b) "Plan Administrator" is really a much different animal than the 401 (k) Plan Administrator. It really is more like a compliance coordinator.  

A Personal Thought

My friends and colleagues likely do not think of me of being particularly religious or spiritual, even given my 12 years of Catholic schooling and reading more than my fair share of the likes of Lao Tzu, William Stringfellow (lawyer and theologian),  Kahil Gibran,  Eckhart Tolle and others. But this holiday season causes us all to reflect, regardless of one’s religious tradition, on the magnitude of personal tragedy we are witnessing today. NPR reported the other day that 1 in 7 U.S. families are struggling putting food on their tables. 

So let us be thankful for what we do have and for those incredible folks who give their hearts-mostly without thanks or recognition- to righting the indignities and inequities of this time. And let us  humbly remember those who are much less fortunate than us, as all of the traditions teach us that-yes-we are all our brother’s keeper.




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.