Governmental Plan Determination Letters: Last Chance?
(Posted on July 21, 2015 by )


irsOn July 21, 2015, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) issued Announcement 2015-19, in which it announced that it would be making substantial changes to the determination letter program intended to allow retirement plan sponsors to ensure that their plans are qualified (eligible for tax benefits). This announcement will affect all retirement plans intended to be qualified, but will create particular issues for plans maintained by governmental employers (“governmental plans”). Read more.

EEOC: Discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status is prohibited sex discrimination
(Posted on May 12, 2015 by )


EEOCLogoFederal law contains provisions forbidding discrimination based on several classifications: race, sex, veteran status, etc. However, no federal law explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status. As a result, many employers in states which do not have their own legislation barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status have assumed that no laws prohibited such discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has now called this assumption into question, by bringing several lawsuits treating discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status as a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This issue is a focus of the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2013-2016. Read more.

Can a state retirement system deny benefits to felons? It’s complicated.
(Posted on May 12, 2015 by )


PrisonMany state laws provide that an individual who commits a felony related to his or her official duties will forfeit benefits under the state retirement system. It is clear that such provisions in a pension plan are permissible if they were included in a pension plan on its adoption, or if they apply only to employees hired after the provision was adopted. However, two states (New York and California) have recently struggled with the issue of whether such a provision can be effective with respect to employees hired before the adoption of the provision. Read more.

Defined Benefit Versus Defined Contribution: Lessons from Utah
(Posted on April 26, 2015 by )


UtahFlagThe Pension Research Council of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has done a study on the effects of Utah’s change in its pension system. Before the change, employees participated in a defined benefit plan. Employees hired after the change were given a choice between a hybrid (defined benefit/defined contribution) plan or a straight defined contribution plan. Those who failed to make a choice were automatically assigned to the hybrid plan. In general, either of the new plans was less generous than the old defined benefit plan.

In general, the Pension Research Council found that employees hired after the change had greater turnover than those hired before the change. Moreover, those electing into the hybrid plan were more likely to stay with the employer than those electing into the defined contribution plan. Those who defaulted into the hybrid plan had the highest turnover.

The Pension Research Council concluded that while the change may have saved the state money in pension costs, “public pension reformers must consider employee responses, in addition to potential cost savings, when developing and enacting major pension plan changes.”

IRS opens determination letter process for governmental plans
(Posted on February 1, 2015 by )


irsIn recent years, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) has been allowing plan sponsors to request determination letters on the qualified status of their retirement plans only during certain periods (cycles). For individually designed governmental plans, such a cycle (Cycle E) opened on February 1, 2015, and will remain open until January 31, 2016. Read more

A “qualified” plan is a retirement plan that meets all of the requirements of Internal Revenue Code section 401(a) to obtain certain tax benefits. There are alternative ways of obtaining favorable tax status for a retirement plan, such as Internal Revenue Code section 403(b) (tax-sheltered annuities and custodial accounts), 457(b) deferred compensation plans, or individual retirement accounts or annuities. The determination letter process applies only to qualified plans.
Prototype (volume submitter) plans designed for adoption by a variety of employers are subject to different deadlines, which vary depending on whether they are defined benefit or defined contribution plans. However, such plans are rare in the governmental context.

Judge in Detroit Bankruptcy Case Denies Any Special Protections for Pensions
(Posted on December 5, 2013 by )


BankruptcyCourtJudge Steven W. Rhodes of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan had now issued an opinion stating that the bankruptcy proceedings for the City of Detroit can go forward. The opinion provided no special protections for as yet unfunded pension benefits (although benefits already in the pension funds were protected). The judge rejected a contention that Michigan constitutional provisions prohibiting impairment of pensions would provide protection to promised but unfunded benefits.

Read more.

“No . . . law impairing the obligation of contract shall be enacted.” [Article I, Section 10, Michigan Constitution]

“The accrued financial benefits of each pension plan and retirement system of the state and its political subdivisions shall be a contractual obligation thereof which shall not be diminished or impaired thereby.” [Article IX, Section 24, Michigan Constitution]