The IRS’s Employer Plans Compliance Unit  is in the process of issuing a 21 question questionnaire, Form 866a, to a sampling of colleges and universities, aimed at  testing  whether or not there is compliance with 403(b)’s "universal eligibility rule."

This inquiry is different than the 401(k) questionnaire that EPCU issued a while back, and is more like the "soft audit" it conducted of K-12 school districts a couple of years ago.  Where the IRS committed that the answers to the questions in the 401(k) questionnaire would not, by themselves, trigger any follow-up enforcement activity, the IRS intends to follow-up with the plan sponsor should the 403(b) questionnaire reveal any problems with either universal eligibility or plan documents. It expects employers to use the EPCRS programs to correct eligibility problems it uncovers.

The "Universal Eligibility" rule is the discrimination test for elective deferrals under 403(b), standing in the stead of ADP testing. It requires that all employees (except for small classes of excludable employees) be given an "effective" opportunity to make elective deferrals into the sponsor’s 403(b) plan, which includes giving employees regular notice of their right to defer.  The most difficult part of this rule is that it is vastly different than the 401(k) eligibility rule, where full time employees can be required to wait a year or two before becoming eligible to defer; where substantial classes of employees can be carved out of participation; and where there is no special requirement to regularly (and currently) advise them as to their right to defer.

This can be a very expensive proposition. EPCRS requires employers who improperly exclude classes of employees to contribute to the plan on behalf of those employees 50% of the average deferral amount that others have made to the plan for all years for which they were improperly excluded, as well as lost earnings on those amounts.

Anyone who has been through the corrections process knows how expensive this can get, as it also includes making a match on those monies where a match was otherwise also made under the plan. Further adding to to the scare on this one is that it is not a new rule that became into play with the 2007 regulations: "Universal Eligibility" has been a requirement for a very long time. It will be interesting to see how the IRS will approach any "long-failing" plans.

The plan document failures, on the other hand, are a recent phenomena-and one in which we will need the EPCRS changes (which are expected to have "non-adopters" corrections) to be published to provide relief under this new "review."

Like the 401(k) questionnaire, the IRS has promised to follow-up on those who fail to answer the questionnaire-as they are now following up on non-responders to the 401(k) questionnaire with formal investigations. 



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