The independent auditor is really at the heart of the growing storm in the 403(b) world. For all the problems and challenges caused by the tax regulations, they really pale when compared to what has to happen on the ERISA Title 1 side of things as employers and the market attempt to transform to an accountability to which they have never been held in the past.

To those of us who are the "non-initiates" when it comes to accounting and auditing standards, we have suspected for the past year that there may be massive problems when it comes to compiling the 403(b) audited financial statement. The problem: you need prior year data to do the current year financials.

The AICPA released a FAQ on 403(b) plan audits.  Here’s what they said on the "prior data" issue. Though it is lengthy, these are words that every professional dealing with 403(b) plans needs to be familiar with. It fully explains the conundrum faced by the auditor-and the costs that will need to be incurred by plans:

5.   Generally, what initial audit procedures would the auditor perform on the beginning of year (e.g. – January 1, 2009) contract and accounts?

Audit procedures include testing the accuracy and completeness of the beginning balances of reported contracts and accounts. The nature, timing, and extent of auditing procedures applied by the auditor are a matter of judgment and will vary with such factors as the length of time the plan has been in existence, adequacy of past records, the significance of beginning balances and the complexity of the plan’s operations (such as the number and consistency of vendors). In accordance with Chapter 5 of the AICPA Audit and Accounting Guide, Employee Benefit Plans, areas of special consideration are the completeness of participant data and records of the prior years, especially as they relate to participant eligibility, the amounts and types of benefits, the eligibility for benefits, and account balances.

The auditor should also make inquires of the plan administrator and outside service providers, as applicable, regarding the plan’s operations during those earlier years. The auditor also may wish to obtain relevant information (for example, trust statements, recordkeeping reports, reconciliations, minutes of meetings, and reports prepared in accordance with Statement on Auditing Standards (SAS) No. 70, Service Organizations [AICPA, Professional Standards, vol. 1, (AU sec. 324)] for earlier years, as applicable, to determine whether there appear to be any errors during those years that could have a material effect on current year balances. Further, the auditor should gain an understanding of the accounting practices that were followed in prior years to determine that they have been consistently applied in the current year. Based on the results of the auditor’s inquiries, review of relevant information, and evidence gathered during the current year audit, the auditor would determine the necessity of performing additional substantive procedures (including detailed testing or substantive analytics) on earlier years’ balances. (See AICPA TIS 6933.01 Initial Audit of a Plan (AICPA Technical Practice Aids, vol.1) for additional discussion of initial audits.)

The inability of the auditor to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence supporting the accuracy and completeness of beginning balances of reported contracts and accounts is considered a restriction on the scope of the audit and may require the auditor to modify his or her opinion.

6. What procedures does the auditor need to apply to the comparative statements of net assets available for benefits?

ERISA requires that audited plan financial statements present comparative statements of net assets available for benefits (for example, December 31, 2009 plan year would present a comparative December 31, 2008 statement of net assets available for benefits.) The prior year comparative statements of net assets available for benefits may be compiled, reviewed, or audited. Practically speaking, however, although a compilation or review of the prior year is acceptable, the auditor would need to apply sufficient auditing procedures on the beginning balance of net assets available for benefits in the current year to obtain reasonable assurance that there are no material misstatements that may affect the current year’s statement of changes in net assets available for benefits. (See AICPA TIS 6933.01 Initial Audit of a Plan (AICPA Technical Practice Aids, vol.1)

7. What if historical records do not exist or are not available for reported contracts and accounts?

The DOL has indicated that they expect the plan administrator to use “good faith efforts” to locate and provide all of the necessary records in accordance with its fiduciary responsibilities under ERISA. If historical records (such as payroll records and participant data) do not exist or are not available for the reported contracts and accounts, and the amounts of reported contracts and accounts are material, the auditor may need to modify the report because of a restriction on the scope of the audit.

This would actually be funny if it weren’t such scary stuff. We know that this past data (in a useful form) will be virtually impossible to collect and compile in GAAS acceptable formats, even in the case of a single vendor plan. But the plan will need to still hire the CPA to establish the good faith effort at collecting the data necessary, and then wrestle with the financial services company to try to get something which may not even exist-or at least not at prices that won’t bankrupt the charity. The good news is that if good data that can’t be found, it can then be excluded from the financial statement and the audit.

But that just begs the question: if you exclude an opening balance, can you really even have a financial statement? Ever? THEN what? Without relief from the CPA’s standards setting body, we will have our own, permanently recurring, expensive conundrum. 





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