Sometimes a good idea comes out of a sad story. And, I'm happy to report that in this case, it's sad because a company wasted money providing a generous benefit for its executives and then didn't tell the executives the pitfalls, but it's not sad in the context of someone going bankrupt or suffering a tragedy.
I got a call yesterday afternoon from someone who found me on the internet, probably through this blog. His wife is a participant in a SERP. Her employment with the company ended in July (I don't know how or why, I just know that it ended).
In early 2007, the wife received a communication from her employer. It told her that her SERP was being split into two pieces -- a 409A-grandfathered piece and a non-grandfathered piece. This was a not uncommon strategy. In addition, the non-grandfathered piece had a default payment of a lump sum of the present value of the accrued benefit payable six months after termination. A participant could elect a different form and or timing of payment (within limits defined in the plan). All of this is very normal in the world of SERPs post-409A.
Apparently, that is all the communication told her. It didn't explain the complexities of 409A. From what I could gather, her employer didn't want to give too much information because they were worried about potential litigation. So, they probably figured that giving no guidance at all meant that they gave no incorrect guidance.
When I answered the phone, the unhappy husband told me that he and his wife assumed that she could change her option when she terminated. So, she accepted the default and went on her merry way. Now, she will be receiving a lump sum that they don't really need right now and paying about half of it to various governments in the form of taxes.
Here's the idea. An employer could choose to go all the way or just do part of this.
Get an outsider like me who understands executive rewards and the 409A and other tax implications to help communicate to your executive group. In what I would term a perfect world (assuming that the employer chooses to not do the communication themselves), here is what would be entailed:
- Provide the outside consultant with the plan provisions and data for all the parts of the rewards package that you would like covered (SERP, deferred compensation plan, equity compensation, cash compensation, severance, change in control, etc.)
- Invite your executive group to a meeting. In that meeting, the outside consultant presents to the group generically on those elements of the rewards package. In that meeting, each executive, will get a summary/informal statement of their rewards package showing values and costs. The executives will place greater value on their rewards packages when they know how much they are worth and how much you are spending on them.
- With signed waivers (consulting, not legal, tax or accounting advice), allow executives to have individual meetings with the outside consultant after the group meeting. Let them ask questions about what they can change and when, what are their options, and what are their restrictions?
- These meetings can cover as much or as little of the executive rewards package as you would like, but the idea is to use the money that you are spending on executives for executives, not for the government.
Consider it. Let me help.