Viewpoint: How to Minimize the Risk of Retirement Plan Litigation

Many employers have paid millions to settle lawsuits brought to them based on their excessive fees in their retirement plans. It's the employer's responsibility to ensure that retirement plans are created for the most benefit for those who partake in it. Read this blog post to learn more.


What do Estee Lauder and Costco have in common? Both are defending themselves against lawsuits alleging mismanagement of 401(k) accounts, as retirement plan litigation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) proliferates.

LinkedIn was added to the list in August, when a class-action lawsuit was filed alleging the firm mismanaged its 401(k) plan. And, on Sept. 18, a federal judge rejected a petition by AutoZone Inc. to dismiss allegations of ERISA violations filed by 401(k) plan participants.

In recent years, employers as different as Princeton University and WalMart have paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by employees alleging excessive fees in their retirement plans.

At the heart of many of these cases are allegations that employers' retirement plan oversight committees tolerated high fees and poor investment performance. Retirement plan committee members are fiduciaries who, under ERISA, are responsible for ensuring that the plan operates in the best interest of its participants.

Attracting Lawsuits

Companies settling ERISA lawsuits are typically accused of failing to pay adequate attention to the retirement plan, such as by failing to remove or replace poor or overly expensive investment choices and allowing vendors to charge above-market fees. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is relevant here.

Law firms are combing through ERISA plan annual filings to identify worthwhile 401(k) targets, looking for expensive or poorly performing investments and high recordkeeping costs. ERISA complaints now include tables and charts comparing a targeted plan's investment performance and expenses with average or best-available practices, to persuade courts that a trial is in order.

Law firms comb through ERISA plan filings to identify worthwhile targets.

Adopting Best Practices

Plan sponsors can't completely eliminate the risk that they will be sued by current or former plan participants, but companies can minimize the risk by adopting best practices—such as those listed below—for making plan investment and management decisions.

FORM AN ACTIVE RETIREMENT PLAN OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE.

The committee should include interested employees, including representatives of HR, finance, legal and rank-and-file employees. A well-functioning committee has a range of talents and perspectives to help it make effective decisions.

The committee should operate under a written charter, setting out the responsibilities of the committee and its procedural rules for appointing members, holding meetings, voting, and hiring advisors and experts as needed, for example. The charter need not be overly rigid or specific but should be drafted to reflect how the committee will operate.

PROVIDE PERIODIC FIDUCIARY TRAINING FOR COMMITTEE MEMBERS.

ERISA is complicated, and committee decisions have direct impacts on employees' retirement income. Committee members must act solely in the interest of plan participants and make decisions as a "prudent expert." Ask vendors to have their top technical experts conduct training, and ensure that the training is tailored to plans of your size.

WRITE AND ADOPT AN INVESTMENT POLICY STATEMENT.

While having an investment policy statement (IPS) is not generally a requirement for 401(k) plans, it is an important document as it may help show that the committee acted prudently and in the plan's best interests in evaluating investments. The IPS should include specific language describing the process by which investments are selected, monitored and replaced when necessary.

It is not advisable to list the plan's current investments within the IPS, as this list may change over time and the IPS may not always be consistent with the website your participants visit to manage their accounts.

MINIMIZE INVESTMENT FUND EXPENSES.

Sponsors of 401(k) plans have spent millions of dollars settling allegations that they had overly expensive funds, in many cases retail-share classes rather than institutionally priced investments.

The expense ratios that 401(k) plan participants incur for investing in mutual funds have declined substantially since 2000, reports the Investment Company Institute, a trade association for financial services firms. In 2000, 401(k) plan participants incurred an average expense ratio of 77 basis points (0.77 percent) for investing in equity mutual funds. By 2019, that figure had fallen to 39 basis points (0.39 percent), which is a 49 percent decline.

For plan sponsors of all sizes, it is imperative to document efforts to maintain the lowest possible investment expenses.

COMPARE INVESTMENT PERFORMANCE.

How do your plan's funds compare to similar offerings? There is no shortage of high-performing, low-expense funds to choose from in each investment category. While the retirement committee can't forecast future investment performance, it can determine prudent funds based on their track record.

If investment evaluation isn't your forte, get expert help from an investment adviser that accepts fiduciary responsibility for investment recommendations.

DROP UNDERPERFORMING FUNDS.

If the menu needs to be revamped, just do it. The small inconvenience of explaining to employees why changes are being made is better than responding to document requests arising from litigation for failing to let go of underperforming funds.

MONITOR REVENUE-SHARING.

Many mutual funds share a small portion of their expense ratio fees with plan administrative firms, which may reduce the costs that plan sponsors pay administrative firms for services such as recordkeeping of participants' investments, providing statements and distributing literature. Fund share classes with no revenue-sharing, however, have lower expense ratios and slightly better investment performance.

If revenue-sharing is in place for any fund being offered through the plan, audit it periodically—at least annually—and ensure that it is reducing plan expenses that might otherwise be paid by participants.

PAY VENDORS WITH FLAT-DOLLAR FEES.

All plans should grill their recordkeepers and other vendors on whether they charge the very lowest administrative fees available. When plan sponsors don't pay administrative fees themselves, a best practice is to charge participants a flat recordkeeping fee (perhaps subsidizing small balances) rather than using revenue-sharing funds to pay the recordkeeper a fee based on the percentage of assets in plan accounts.

If plan sponsors engage an investment adviser, it's also preferable to pay them a flat-dollar fee rather than a fee that fluctuates based on plan assets. Advisers should not be thinking about how recommended changes in a fund lineup will affect their pay.

In all circumstances, evaluating fees on a flat-dollar amount or dollars per participant will provide useful comparisons to fees based on a percentage of assets under management in the plan.

MAINTAIN CONSTANT VIGILANCE ON ADMINISTRATIVE FEES.

Recordkeepers and other vendors negotiate best when they perceive that they may lose you as a customer. As a fiduciary, you and your team need to play hardball at times. Don't worry about hurting the feelings of the vendor's personnel—you're the fiduciary with potential liability, they're not. Benchmark your administrative fees and consider issuing a request for proposal (RFP) for administrative services every few years.

Even though plans may not have changed much, vendors have, and they should be able to lower costs or provide additional services.

DOCUMENT YOUR DECISIONS, BUT BE SMART ABOUT IT.

Maintaining good records is a must but understand that any and all plan-related documents can wind up in the hands of class-action attorneys. Meeting minutes and e-mails should be carefully written and demonstrate a prudent process, to avoid casting the plan or committee in a bad light.

GET IT IN WRITING.

Vendor contracts should be negotiated, not rubber-stamped. Keep track of promises made in RFP responses and finalist presentations. A vendor's oral promises should be documented within their service agreement. Insist on performance guarantees so your plan will be compensated for any service lapses.

DON'T ACCEPT FORCED ARBITRATION WITH ANY VENDORS.

Fiduciaries should not sign away their option to use federal courts to resolve conflicts with vendors. Plan sponsors can always choose to arbitrate a dispute, as vendors prefer this. Just don't sign any contracts agreeing to compulsory arbitration of any and all disputes.

PROTECT AGAINST IDENTITY THEFT.

Ensure that hackers don't steal your employees' account balances. Ask recordkeepers about their security practices, experiences in defeating hackers, and resources committed to maintaining strong cybersecurity.

Obtain a written commitment in the service agreement that the vendor will reimburse participants who followed account security guidelines and, through no fault of their own, had their accounts depleted.

Summing Up

There are several things a company can do to protect against 401(k) litigation. Have the retirement plan run by a committee of dedicated, knowledgeable employees. Hire independent expert advisers to help with investments, vendor oversight and training. Make sure that all fees are competitive, using benchmarking and RFPs as needed. Use an objective fund scoring methodology and replace underperforming investments. Document decisions and pay attention to process.

SOURCE: Scott, P. (22 September 2020) "Viewpoint: How to Minimize the Risk of Retirement Plan Litigation" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/minimize-risk-of-retirement-plan-litigation.aspx


Views: Mitigating COVID-19’s catastrophic impact on retirement readiness

As the coronavirus has placed many financial worries onto families, it has also placed a sense of worries for those that are planning for their retirement. Read this blog post to learn more.


It’s bad enough that more than 50 million Americans have filed claims for unemployment benefits since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. But in addition to the disruption, financial hardship, and uncertainty that unemployed Americans (and their families) are experiencing right now, this crisis also threatens their financial security during retirement.

As I have written many times before in this column, defined contribution plan participants will seriously diminish their retirement savings if they prematurely cash out all or part of their 401(k) savings account balances. According to our research, a hypothetical 30-year-old who cashes out a 401(k) account with $5,000 today would forfeit up to $52,000 in earnings they would have accrued by age 65, if we assume the account would have grown by 7% per year. In addition, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) estimates that the average American worker will change employers 9.9 times over a 45-year period. With at least 33% and as many as 47% of plan participants cashing out their retirement savings following a job change, according to the Savings Preservation Working Group, that means workers switching jobs could cash out as many as four times over a working career, devastating their ability to fund a secure retirement.

Even before COVID-19 and “social distancing” became part of the national lexicon, cash-outs posed a huge problemto Americans’ retirement prospects. At the beginning of this year, EBRI estimated that the U.S. retirement system loses $92 billion in savings annually due to 401(k) cash-outs by plan participants after they change jobs.

These alarming trends were uncovered long prior to the pandemic and lockdown. Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, theCoronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act stimulus has temporarily eased limits, penalties, and taxes on early withdrawals from retirement savings accounts made by December 31, 2020. While the CARES Act measures are clearly well-intentioned, participants who take advantage of these provisions risk creating a long-term problem while resolving short-term liquidity needs.

Heightening the temptation to make 401(k) withdrawals is the recent expiration of another CARES Act provision—the extra $600 weekly payments to Americans who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These additional federal unemployment benefits expired at the end of July, and as of this writing no deal to extend them has been reached in Congress. For Americans who had been relying on this benefit, or continue to experience financial hardship and stress about paying expenses, it is understandable that 401(k) savings could look like an attractive source of emergency liquidity.

However, given the long-term damage that cash-outs inflict on retirement outcomes, plan sponsors and recordkeepers should take this opportunity, as fiduciaries, to educate their current and terminated participants about the importance of tapping into their 401(k) savings only as an absolute last resort.

Institutionalizing portability can help

The lack of a seamless process for transporting 401(k) assets from job to job causes many participants to view cashing out as the most convenient option. And without an easy way to locate the mailing addresses of lost and missing terminated participants, sponsors and recordkeepers are unable to ensure holders of small accounts receive notifications about the status of their plan benefits.

Fortunately for participants, sponsors, and recordkeepers, technology solutions enabling the institutionalization of plan-to-plan asset portability have been live for three years. These innovations include auto portability, the routine, standardized, and automated movement of a retirement plan participant’s 401(k) savings account from their former employer’s plan to an active account in their current employer’s plan.

Auto portability is powered by “locate” technology and a “match” algorithm, which work together to find lost and missing participants, and initiate the process of moving assets into active accounts in their current-employer plans.

By adopting auto portability, sponsors and recordkeepers can not only discourage participants from cashing out, but also eliminate the need for automatic cash-outs. And these advantages come at a time when the hard-earned savings of tens of millions of Americans are at risk of being removed from the U.S. retirement system.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, EBRI estimated that if all plan participants had access to auto portability, up to $1.5 trillion in savings, measured in today’s dollars, would be preserved in our country’s retirement system over a 40-year period. Now more than ever, the institutionalization of portability by sponsors and recordkeepers is essential for helping Americans achieve financial security in retirement.

SOURCE: Williams, S. (31 August 2020) "Mitigating COVID-19’s catastrophic impact on retirement readiness" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/how-to-mitigate-covid-19s-potentially-catastrophic-impact-on-retirement-readiness


What You Need to Know About: The SECURE Act

In December of 2019, President Donald Trump passed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act or SECURE Act. Some of the Act aims as making it easier for small business owners to create more affordable and easier to administer retirement plans. Key takeaways from the SECURE Act include:

  • Small Business Tax Credits have increased for businesses who start a 401(k) Plan, thus making starting a plan more affordable.
  • New automatic enrollment plan tax credit created.
  • Removes the annual notice requirement for Safe Harbor 401(k) Plans that utilize the nonelective contribution instead of the match.
  • 401(k) Nonelective Safe Harbor Plans can be adopted up until 30 days before plan year end, instead of 90 days prior.
  • Maximum automatic contribution rate is increased to 15% from 10% in Qualified Automatic Contribution Arrangements (QACAs).
  • Pushes the age of 70 ½ to 72 for retirement plan participants needing to take RMDs or ‘required minimum distributions.
  • Part-time employees will be eligible to participate after completing 500 hours of service in each of 3 consecutive 12-month periods, if at least age 21 at the end of that time. These employees do not have to share in company contributions.
  • Pooled Employer Plans (PEPs) will be allowed which could make it easier for small businesses to administer their retirement plan.

“There is a lot of hype in the government and media about how the SECURE Act will make it cheaper to sponsor a plan. I don’t know if recordkeepers could lower their annual costs any more than they have over the last 8 or 9 years; but it definitely will provide lower start-up costs through the tax credits, and make it easier to administer plans if utilizing a Safe Harbor approach or a PEP,” stated Todd Yawit, Director / Retirement Plans at Saxon Financial Services, Inc.

For most plans and provisions, the SECURE Act became effective on January 1, 2020. However, for Pooled Employer Plans (PEPs), the SECURE Act will go into effect on January 1, 2021. For further information on how the SECURE Act will affect your retirement plans, contact Todd Yawit at (513) 573-0129 or tyawit@gosaxon.com.


Older workers are staying in the job market. Here’s why

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the amount of employees over the age of 65 has risen by 697,000. With over two million jobs being created over the past 12 months with the help of the economy, the older generations are still wanting to be employed. Read this blog post to learn more as to why.


Older workers are sticking around the job market. This is why
The number of workers aged 65 and above increased by 697,000 as the economy created more than 2 million new jobs over the past 12 months, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in this CNBC article. The spike in the number of older workers represents about 36% of the overall increase, reflecting a trend over the past 10 years. “The norms about working at older ages have changed quite a bit, and I think in a way that really is to the advantage of older workers who want to keep working,” says an expert.

What ‘Rothifying’ 401(k)s would mean for retirees
Clients will not benefit from a switch to a retirement system where contributions would be made on an after-tax basis even if it could result in bigger tax revenue in the near term, experts write in The Wall Street Journal. "Over their lifetimes, workers would accumulate one-third less in their 401(k)s under a Roth system. This is because, with no tax advantage from contributing to a 401(k), workers would save less and those lower contributions would earn less over the years," they write. Moreover, "lifetime tax revenue generated by the average worker under a Roth regime would fall 6% to 10%, compared with the current regime."

Stop 'dollar-cost ravaging' your clients’ portfolio in retirement
Retirees who stick to a 4% withdrawal rule during a market downturn are putting their financial security at risk, as their portfolio would not recover even if the market eventually improves, writes an expert in Kiplinger. Instead, seniors should focus on how much income they can generate from their portfolio, he writes. "[I]t means choosing investments — high dividend-paying stocks, fixed income instruments, annuities, etc. — that will produce the dollar amount you need ($2,000, $3,000, $5,000 or more) month after month and year after year."

Will clients owe state taxes on their Social Security?
Retirees may face federal taxation on a portion of their Social Security benefits — but they could avoid the tax bite at the state level, as 37 states impose no taxes on them, writes a Forbes contributor. "While probably not a big enough issue to warrant moving in retirement, it is something to consider when choosing where you want to spend your retirement," writes the expert. "At the very least, you need to know about Social Security taxation when figuring out how much additional income you will need to have in order to maintain your standard of living during retirement."

8 ways clients can start saving for college now
There are a few savings vehicles that clients can use to prepare for college expenses, but they need to consider the pros and cons, according to this article in Bankrate. For example, clients who save in a 529 savings plan can get tax benefits — such as tax deferral on investment gains and tax-free withdrawal for qualified expenses — but will face penalties for unqualified withdrawals aside from taxes. Parents may also use a Roth IRA to save for their child's college expenses, but these accounts are subject to contribution limits and future distributions will be treated as an income, which can reduce their child's eligibility for scholarships or assistance.

SOURCE: Peralta, P. (18 February 2020) "Older workers are staying in the job market. Here’s why" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/why-older-workers-are-staying-in-the-job-market


Rising cost of healthcare is hurting HSAs

With HSA's providing a way for users to be able to reduce out-of-pocket costs for healthcare, deductibles still continue to rise. Read this blog post to learn more about why continuously raised healthcare costs are hurting current HSA's and HSA's that could be used for retirement.


Employees are increasingly putting money aside for their HSAs, but they’re using almost the entirety of it to cover basic health needs every year instead of saving the money for future expenses, according to Lively’s 2019 HSA Spend Report.

“People are putting money in and taking money out on a very regular basis, as opposed to trying to create some sort of nest egg for down the road,” says Alex Cyriac, CEO and Co-Founder of Lively.

The San Francisco-based HSA provider says 96% of annual contributions were spent on expected expenses and routine visits as opposed to unexpected health events and retirement care. In 2019, the average HSA account holder spent their savings on doctor visits and services (50%), prescription drug costs (10%), dental care (16%), and vision and eyewear (5%).

The rising cost of healthcare is a factor in these savings trends: Americans spent $11,172 per person on healthcare in 2018, including the rising cost of health insurance, which increased 13.2%, according to National Health Expenditure Accounts. For retirees, the figures are shocking: a healthy 65-year-old couple retiring in 2019 is projected to spend $369,000 in today’s dollars on healthcare over their lifetime, according to consulting firm Milliman.

“Because people can't even afford to save, there's going to be a very low likelihood that most Americans are going to be able to afford their healthcare costs in retirement,” says Shobin Uralil, COO and Co-Founder of Lively.

HSAs were intended to be a way for consumers to save and spend for medical expenses tax-free. Additionally, its biggest benefit comes from being able to use funds saved in an HSA in retirement — when earnings are lowest and healthcare is most expensive. However, just 4% of HSA users had invested assets, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

While HSAs have surged in popularity as a way for more Americans to reduce overall out-of-pocket healthcare spending, more education is required to help account holders understand the benefits of saving and investing their annual contributions for the long-term, the Lively report states.

“As deductibles continue to rise, people just don't seem to have an alternative source for being able to fund those expenses, so they are continuing to dip into their HSA.” Cyriac says. “I think this is just reflective of the broader market trend of healthcare costs continuing to rise, and more and more of those costs being disproportionately passed down to the user.”

SOURCE: Nedlund, E. (29 January 2020) "Rising cost of healthcare is hurting HSAs" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/rising-cost-of-healthcare-is-hurting-hsas


Saver's Credit Can Spur Retirement Plan Contributions

Many employees are not aware of employer-sponsored retirement accounts, or individual retirement accounts (IRA), which could be costing those more money. Tax season is the best time for employers to educate their employees on how they can earn extra tax credits through their 401(k) plans. Read this blog post to learn more about how to educate employees on what retirement account opportunities that are available to them.


Many workers don't know that they're eligible for a tax credit by saving in an employer-sponsored retirement plan or individual retirement account (IRA)—and that could be costing them money. Tax time, however, is prime time for employers to inform eligible workers about the saver's credit.

The Retirement Savings Contributions Credit, or saver's credit, is available to low- and moderate-income workers who are putting money aside for retirement. But only 29 percent of workers with annual household income below $50,000 know about the saver's credit, according to the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies in Los Angeles, which surveyed nearly 6,000 employees last fall.

"Tax season is an ideal time to tell eligible workers how they can earn extra tax credits by saving through their employer's 401(k) or a similar retirement plan," said Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center. "The saver's credit might just be the motivator for those not yet saving for retirement to get started."

Scott Spann, a senior financial planner with Financial Finesse, a provider of workplace financial wellness programs in Charleston, S.C., said, "Saving for retirement is a challenge for many households in America. Special tax incentives help make the process of saving easier."

What Is the Saver's Credit?

Like other tax credits, the saver's credit can increase a taxpayer's refund or reduce the tax owed. Here's how it works:

The amount of the credit is a maximum of 50 percent of an employee's retirement plan contributions up to $2,000 (or $4,000 for married couples filing jointly), depending on the filer's adjusted gross income as reported on Form 1040. Consequently, the maximum saver's credit is $1,000 (or $2,000 for married couples filing jointly).

The saver's credit "is different than a tax deduction due to the fact that a tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction of your gross tax liability, which is the total amount of taxes you're responsible for paying before any credits are applied," Spann explained.

The saver's credit also differs from the separate tax benefit of contributing pretax dollars to a qualified retirement plan, such as an employer-sponsored 401(k) or an IRA. "Many eligible retirement savers may be confusing these two incentives because the notion of a double tax benefit"—pretax contributions and an additional tax credit—"seems too good to be true," Collinson said.

Who Can Claim the Saver's Credit?

The credit is available to workers age 18 or older who have contributed to a company-sponsored retirement plan or an IRA in the past year and meet the income requirements shown in the table below. The filer cannot be a full-time student nor claimed as a dependent on another person's tax return.

Income Caps for Tax Years 2019 and 2020

For eligible workers, the amount of the available tax credit diminishes as adjusted gross income (AGI) rises. To help preserve the credit's value, income thresholds are adjusted annually to keep pace with inflation. Below are the AGI caps for tax year 2019 (for tax returns filed this year) and 2020 (for returns filed next year).

2019 Saver's Credit
Tax Credit Rate Single Filers and Married, Filing Separately* Married, Filing Jointly Heads of Household
50% of contribution AGI not more than - $19,250 AGI not more than $38,500 AGI not more than $28,875
20% of contribution AGI of $19,251 - $20,750 AGI of $38,501 - $41,500 AGI of $28,876 - $31,125
10% of contribution AGI of $20,751- $32,000 AGI of $41,501 - $64,000 AGI of $31,126 - $48,000
No credit AGI more than $32,000 AGI more than $64,000 AGI more than $48,000

 

2020 Saver's Credit
Tax Credit Rate Single Filers and Married, Filing Separately* Married, Filing Jointly Heads of Household
50% of contribution AGI not more than $19,500 AGI not more than $39,000 AGI not more than $29,250
20% of contribution AGI of $19,501 - $21,250 AGI of $39,001 - $42,500 AGI of $29,251 - $31,875
10% of contribution AGI of $21,251 - $32,500 AGI of $42,501 - $65,000 AGI of $31,876 - $48,750
No credit AGI more than $32,500 AGI more than $65,000 AGI more than $48,750

Deadlines for Retirement Contributions

"You must make eligible contributions to your employer-sponsored retirement plan or IRA for the tax year for which you are claiming the income tax credit," Spann said.

While 401(k) contributions for a tax year can be made only up to Dec. 31, those who are eligible but did not save last year can still make a tax year 2019 IRA contribution until April 15, 2020.

Filing for the Saver's Credit

Employers can advise eligible workers to take the following steps to claim the saver's credit, according to the Transamerica Center:

  • If using tax-preparation software, including those programs offered through the IRS Free File program, use Form 1040 or Form 1040NR for nonresident aliens. Answer questions about the saver's credit, which may be referred to as the Retirement Savings Contributions Credit or the Credit for Qualified Retirement Savings Contributions.
  • If preparing tax returns manually, complete Form 8880, Credit for Qualified Retirement Savings Contributions, to determine your exact credit rate and amount. Then transfer the amount to the designated line on Form 1040 (Schedule 3) or Form 1040NR.
  • If using a professional tax preparer, ask about the saver's credit.

Financial planners advise having tax refunds directly deposited into an IRA to further boost your retirement savings.

The Transamerica Center has additional information, in English and Spanish, on its Saver's Credit webpage, along with a downloadable fact sheet.


IRS Free File Program Is Available

Another potentially overlooked opportunity for workers is the IRS Free File program, which offers federal income tax preparation software at no charge to tax filers with an AGI of $69,000 or less.

Free File opened on Jan. 10, 2020, for the preparation of 2019 tax returns. Eligible taxpayers can do their taxes now, and the Free File provider will submit the return once the IRS officially opens the tax filing season on Jan. 27.

For 2020, the Free File partners are: 1040Now, Inc., ezTaxReturn.com (English and Spanish), FileYourTaxes.com, Free tax Returns.com, H&R Block, Intuit, On-Line Taxes, Inc., Tax ACT, TaxHawk, Inc. and TaxSlayer (English and Spanish).

Here's how Free File works:

  1. Taxpayers go to IRS.gov/FreeFile to see all Free File options.
  2. They browse each of the offers or use a "look up" tool to help find the right product. Each Free File partner sets its own eligibility standards generally based on income, age and state residency. But if the taxpayer's adjusted gross income was $69,000 or less, they will find at least one free product to use.
  3. They select a provider and follow the links to their web page to begin a tax return.
  4. They complete and e-File a tax return if they have all the income and deduction records they need. The fastest way to get a refund is by filing electronically and selecting direct deposit. For taxes owed, they can use direct pay or electronic options.

Many Free File online products also offer free state tax preparation, although some charge a state fee. Taxpayers should read each provider's information carefully.

"The IRS has worked to improve the program for this year, and we encourage taxpayers to visit IRS.gov, and consider using the Free File option to get a head start on tax season," said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig.

Nearly 57 million returns have been filed through the Free File program since it began in 2003, and 70 percent of U.S. taxpayers (about 100 million people) are eligible for Free File, according to the IRS.


SOURCE: Miller, S. (10 January 2020) "Saver's Credit Can Spur Retirement Plan Contributions" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/remind-low-wage-earners-about-savers-credit.aspx


The Mega Backdoor Roth IRA and Other Ways to Maximize a 401(k)

Did you know: Numerous 401(k) retirement plans allow after-tax contributions. This creates financial planning opportunities that are frequently overlooked. Read this blog post for more information on maximizing your 401(k) plan.


The most popular workplace-sponsored retirement plan is far and away the 401(k) — a plan that can be both simple and complex at the same time. For some of your clients, it functions as a tax-deductible way to save for retirement. Others might see its intricacies as a way to maximize lifetime wealth, boost investments and minimize taxes. One such niche area of 401(k) planning is after-tax contributions, an often misunderstood and underutilized area of planning.

Before we jump into after-tax contributions, we need to cover the limits and the multiple ways your clients can invest money into 401(k) plans.

Employee Salary Deferrals and Roth

The most traditional way you can contribute money to a 401(k) is by tax-deductible salary deferrals. In 2019, employees can defer up to $19,000 a year. If they’re age 50 or older, they can contribute an additional $6,000 into the plan. In 2020, these numbers for “catch-up contributions” rise to $19,500 and $6,500 respectively.

Someone age 50 or over can put up to $25,000 into a 401(k) in 2019 and $26,000 in 2020 through tax-deductible salary deferrals. Additionally, the salary deferral limits could instead be used as a Roth contribution, but with the same limits. The biggest difference is that Roth contributions are after-tax. And as long as certain requirements are met, the distributions, including investment gains, come out income tax-free, whereas tax-deferred money is taxable upon distribution.

Employer Contributions

Employers often make contributions to a 401(k), with many matching contributions. For instance, if an employee contributes 6% of their salary (up to an annual indexed limit on salary of $280,000 in 2019 and $285,000 in 2020), the company might match 50%, 75%, or 100% of the amount. For example, if an employee earns $100,000 a year and puts in $6,000 and their employer matches 100%, they will also put in $6,000, and the employee will end up with $12,000 in their 401(k). Employers can also make non-elective and profit-sharing contributions.

Annual 401(k) Contribution Cap

Regardless of how money goes into the plan, any individual account has an annual cap that includes combined employee and employer contributions. For 2019, this limit is $56,000 (or $62,000 if the $6,000 catch-up contribution is used for those age 50 and over). For 2020, this limit rises to $57,000 ($63,500 if the $6,500 catch-up contribution is used for those age 50 and over).

Inability to Max Out Accounts

If you look at the limits and how people can contribute, you might quickly realize how hard it is to max out a 401(k). If a client takes the maximum salary deferral of $19,000 and an employer matches 100% (which is rare), your client would only contribute $38,000 into the 401(k) out of the maximum of $56,000. Their employer would need to contribute more money in order to max out.

Where After-Tax Contributions Fit In

Not all plans allow employees to make after-tax contributions. If the 401(k) did allow this type of contribution, someone could add more money to the plan in the previous example that otherwise maxed out at $38,000.

After-tax contributions don’t count against the salary deferral limit of $19,000, but they do count toward the annual cap of $56,000. After-tax contributions are what they sound like — it’s money that’s included into the taxable income after taxes are paid, so the money receives all the other benefits of the 401(k) like tax-deferred investment gains and creditor protections.

With after-tax contributions, clients can put their $19,000 salary deferral into the 401(k), get the $19,000 employer match, and then fill in the $18,000 gap to max out the account at $56,000.

Mega-Roth Opportunity

If the plan allows for in-service distributions of after-tax contributions and tracks after-tax contributions and investment gains in separate accounts from salary deferral and Roth money, there’s an opportunity to do annual planning for Roth IRAs.

Clients can convert after-tax contributions from a 401(k) plan into a Roth IRA, without having to pay additional taxes. If a plan allows in-service distributions of after-tax contributions, the money can be rolled over to a Roth IRA each year. However, it’s important to note that any investment gains on the after-tax amount would still be distributed pro rata and considered taxable. Earnings on after-tax money only receive tax-deferred treatment in a 401(k); they aren’t tax free.

Clients can roll over tens of thousands of dollars a year from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA if the plan is properly set up. They can even set up a plan in such a way so the entire $56,000 limit is after-tax money that’s distributed to a Roth IRA each year with minimal tax implications. This strategy is referred to as the Mega Backdoor Roth strategy.

Complexities Upon Distribution of After-Tax Contributions

What happens to after-tax contributions in a 401(k) upon distribution? This is a complex area where you can help clients understand the role of two factors:

  1. After-tax contributions are distributed pro-rata (proportional) between tax-deferred gain and the after-tax amounts.
  2. Pre-tax money is usually considered for rollover into a new 401(k) or IRA first, leaving the after-tax attributed second. The IRS provided guidance on allocation of after-tax amounts to rollovers in Notice 2014-54.

Best Practices for Rollovers

Help your clients navigate the world of rollovers with after-tax contributions by following best practices. If a client does a full distribution from a 401(k) at retirement or separation of service, they can roll the entire pre-tax amount to a new 401(k) or IRA and separate out the after-tax contributions to roll over into a Roth IRA. The IRS Notice 2014-54 previously mentioned also provides guidance for this scenario.

You can help your clients understand after-tax contributions by envisioning after-tax money in a 401(k) as the best of three worlds. These contributions enter after taxes and give your client tax-deferred money on investment growth, allow them to save more money in their 401(k) while also giving them the opportunity to roll it over into a Roth IRA at a later date.

After-tax contributions build numerous planning options and tax diversification into retirement plans. Before your clients allocate money toward after-tax contributions, it’s important they understand what their plan allows and how it fits into their overall retirement and financial planning picture.

SOURCE: Hopkins, J. (17 December 2019) "The Mega Backdoor Roth IRA and Other Ways to Maximize a 401(k)" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.thinkadvisor.com/2019/12/17/the-mega-backdoor-roth-ira-and-other-ways-to-maximize-a-401k/


IRA spousal contributions can mitigate the high cost of women’s work breaks in retirement plans

According to a November 2018 study, women who took a year off from work in a 15-year period had 39 percent lower average annual earnings than women who worked continuously through that time. Read this blog post for more on how spousal contributions can mitigate the high cost of work breaks in retirement plans.


Women employees face special retirement savings challenges compared with their male counterparts. On average, they earn less and log fewer years of earned income compared to men. That’s because, in part, because women take multiple breaks from work, turn down work or decline promotions because of family care obligations.

The cost of a career break can be high. A November 2018 study by the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women who took just one year off from work in a 15-year period had 39% lower average annual earnings than women who worked continuously through that time. The study also showed that the number of women taking at least one year off of work during a 15-year period was nearly twice the rate of men — 43% of women compared to 23% of men.

As a result, women are less likely to set aside money in a savings arrangement or to contribute to an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

Spousal advantage

Married women (and men) who take work breaks may stay on track with their retirement savings goals by making IRA (traditional or Roth) contributions based on their working spouse’s income — if they meet these requirements.

  • The couple must file a joint federal income tax return
  • The working spouse must have enough earned income to make any IRA contributions on behalf of the nonworking spouse, or, if both spouses are contributing, enough income to support both spouses’ contributions
  • Assuming enough earned income, each spouse can contribute up to $6,000 (plus $1,000 if turning age 50) for 2019. This limit applies to traditional and Roth IRA contributions combined
  • The spouse receiving a traditional IRA contribution must be under age 70 ½ for the entire year
  • To be eligible for Roth IRA contributions, the couple must also satisfy income requirements.

Roth IRA income restrictions

The amount that an individual is eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA depends on the amount of the couple’s modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). If the couple’s joint MAGI for a tax year is less than the IRS phase-out range, each spouse can make the maximum Roth IRA contribution allowed for that tax year (assuming enough MAGI to support both spouse’s contributions). If it’s above the phase-out range, neither spouse is eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA. Keep in mind that they could still contribute to a traditional IRA, if under age 70 ½. If the couple’s joint MAGI falls within the phase-out range, their maximum contribution amount is reduced. The MAGI phase-out range is subject to cost-of-living adjustments each year.

Traditional IRA income tax deductions

Note that separate MAGI phase-out ranges apply to traditional IRA contribution deductions — another way for non-working married individuals to potentially benefit when saving for retirement with an IRA. The ability to take a federal income tax deduction for a traditional IRA contribution — if eligible — appeals to many savers. But deduction eligibility depends on whether either spouse is an “active participant” in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. An active participant is generally making or receiving contributions to her retirement plan accounts for the applicable year. Because active participants have access to a workplace retirement plan, the IRS uses its MAGI to determine whether each spouse can take a full deduction, a partial deduction or no deduction at all.

No minimum required

Regardless of which IRA a couple chooses to, the main thing is to contribute — even if it’s a small amount. There is no minimum amount that must be contributed to either type of IRA. Couples can contribute whatever they’re comfortable with, up to the previously described limit. For those concerned about not having enough to set aside in an IRA during a career break, contributing even just $500 or $1,000 for the year will still make a difference.

It certainly beats not saving at all.

SOURCE: Van Zomeren, B. (9 December 2019) "IRA spousal contributions can mitigate the high cost of women’s work breaks in retirement plans" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/ira-spousal-contributions-can-mitigate-cost-of-womens-work-breaks-in-retirement


What to do when your state says you need a retirement plan

Did you know: Almost 25 percent of U.S. adults lack any retirement savings. In response to these findings, many states are beginning to require employees to participate in state-sponsored retirement programs. Read the following blog post to learn what to do when your state requires you to participate in a state-sponsored retirement plan.


We’re all too aware of the looming retirement crisis. Almost 25% of adults in the United States lack any retirement savings, according to the Federal Reserve. In response, a number of states have decided to enact legislation that require employees to participate in their state-sponsored retirement program.

What does this mean for business owners not currently offering a plan?

For businesses operating in a state where legislation has been proposed, it’s very likely that they will have to make some changes in the not-so-distant future. Some state plans come with penalties for not enrolling, while others offer appealing incentives for involvement. However, the real question may not be whether you want to offer a state-sponsored plan, but rather, whether a state-sponsored plan is the right option.

Most state-sponsored plans are designated as Roth IRAs, using investments chosen by the state, and are low-cost. However, there are also benefits to creating a customized plan that works for you and your employees. Issuing your own plan allows you to:

  • Select your own investments to include the right fund variety and offer user-friendly models like target-date funds;
  • Create your own plan design so you have more control over things like company matching and eligibility rules;
  • Derive significantly greater tax benefits because a 401(k) plan allows deductions of pre-tax earnings of up to $19,000 whereas an IRA only permits deductions of up to $6,000 in earnings;
  • Borrow against your plan in times of emergency; and
  • Keep costs equally low thanks to new entrants and advanced technology that eliminates overhead.
  • While state-sponsored plans are getting the conversation started, it’s important to look at the bigger picture strategy and determine the best short- and long-term decisions.

To better understand the urgency behind any retirement plan decision, it’s worth digging deeper into the specific requirements of your state. But regardless of what state you’re in, there are many perks to offering a company-sponsored retirement plan such as tax incentives, recruitment and retention benefits, and investing in your employee’s future. And thanks to new entrants and advanced technology, many traditional inefficiencies and excess fees have been eliminated, keeping costs down.

States are putting emphasis on the retirement crisis and stepping in to help. But at the end of the day, this is about setting your employees — and yourself — up for retirement security. Look at the current proposals in your jurisdiction, think about what you’re trying to accomplish, and determine what will offer the greatest value for you and your team. Everyone deserves retirement security.

SOURCE: Brecher, A. (22 November 2019) "What to do when your state says you need a retirement plan" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/what-to-do-when-your-state-says-you-need-a-retirement-plan