In a lunch conversation with Kathy Elliott , (a CPA specializing in 403(b) audits) at the annual meeting of the TE/GE Councils in Baltimore (which, by the way was pulled off fantastically by Warren Widmayer (and a few others), in the face of a snowstorm of historic dimensions), we went into more detail on my blog on 403(b) plan disqualification.

In talking about what now seems to be the obvious, Kathy pointed out the absurdity of "disqualifying" an entire 403(b) plan: the employer suffers little direct tax sanction, and the burden of the employer’s errors are borne by the employees. There is no "stick" to the "carrot and stick" combination that makes 401k plans work, according to Kathy.

Think about it. In a 401(a) disqualification, the employer will lose its tax deduction and suffer potentially significant tax penalties when disqualifying the plan.  There is no such penalty for the 501(c)(3) employer (except where there is UBTI) or school district.  So, should the plan fail eligible employer status, be discriminatory or have a failed plan document, what really is the impact on the employer? Well, it seems, it is only the feeble link upon which audits were based prior to the regulations: W-2 reporting failure, with its  current max penalty of $30 per W-2.  The real "sanction" is the threat to report as taxable all amounts contributed to employee accounts. Again, as is so often the case with the impact of these regulations (see, for example an earlier blog), it is the employees of these tax exempt organizations which are to suffer the brunt-and, this time, for things outside of their control.

The IRS will soon publish a new set of EPCRS rules, which are generally intended to update the program for the new 403(b) regs.It will be interesting to see whether these new rules will recognize this factor in the determination of the appropriate Audit CAP sanction, where the largest tax liability to the employer is really only W-2 based. Under the prior audits, any sanctions paid by the employer were really only part of a settlement agreement with the IRS, where it agreed not assess tax penalties against employees in return for the payment of a sanction. To its credit by the way, the IRS was not aggressive in imposing these penalties upon audit, and were extraordinarily reasonable where there was good faith attempts at compliance by the employer.

Please do not read this as any criticism of the IRS TEGE staffs, as they have the duties of interpreting and imposing an awful set of regs. Application of these regs are settling in nicely due to the thoughtful efforts of the dedicated staffs. There are really only a handful of difficult issues (from the tax side) which are yet open, and these are mostly  being worked on. But application of these regs are repeatedly demonstrating some really unusual effects-all related to the point that he basis of the 403(b) plan is the idea of an individual pension.