I have expressed several times my sense that the 2007 403(b) regulations were unfortunate in a number of different ways. Though they sought to address some very real compliance issues, they did so in a heavy handed and often complicated way which virtually ignored the difficulties inherent in transitioning from a statutory and commercial system that had been operating for 3 or 4 generations under the prior set of rules.
We are very fortunate, however, that the IRS staff responsible for implementing and enforcing those regulations recognized this failing early on, and has often sought to administratively address some of the more difficult concerns that have cropped up through this transition period.
Most recently, Monika Templeman (Director of Employee Plans Examinations for the IRS’s TE/GE Division) announced in February an interim program to address an audit problem related to the IRS’s delay in updating the EPCRS program to reflect 403(b) document rule changes, and the stalled 403(b) prototype program.
This program, according to IRS staff, will not be provided in formal, published guidance, but will be implemented by the field staff during audit until such time as EPCRS and the prototype program are finalized. It will helpful to the practitioner to be familiar with how this works, because it is relief that operates within limitations of the IRS’s formal audit closing structure.
If an employer is found not to have adopted formal 403(b) plan document in a timely manner, the IRS may choose (presumably under non-abusive circumstances) to enter into a type of agreement where sanctions more resembling those available under the “Voluntary Corrections Program” (VCP) will apply, rather than those under the more expensive “Closing Agreement Program” (CAP). This should help encourage employers who still have not adopted a formal program to act as quickly as possible to adopt a formal written plan document, albiet late.
If a "document error" (as that term is used under EPCRS) has been found, the employer may be given the option of amending the plan prospectively and fixing the past error as an operational error (either as a self correction, where applicable, or using the VCP structure); or to instead commit to adopting a prototype program (when issued) and follow the rules for the remedial amendment period under that program. It is important to note that the IRS will follow up with the employer should the "prototype choice" be selected, and one should give it serious thought before making this particular choice.
What the IRS CAN’T do under favorable terms because of the legal structure of the audit program (though some practitioners apparently insist on doing so) is to permit the retroactive amendment of the plan on audit. Insisting on this fix will cause the higher CAP sanctions to be applied.
On another note, it has come to my attention that my prior blog related to the "mis-marketing" of the 403(b) SPARK standards by some parties could have been read to imply that SPARK itself has been involved in this practice. SPARK has not represented or suggested that its best practices are intended to serve as a DOL disclosure solution. It was never my intent to lead any one to this conclusion, as SPARK is not engaged in such a practice. I do apologize for any misunderstanding that this may have caused.