Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Don't Make the Federal Government Your Company's Favorite Charity

You work at a decent sized company. That company has a Tax Department. The primary jobs of the Tax Department are to handle the company's taxes legally, and in doing so, to recommend and implement strategies that generally minimize those tax obligations.

Gee, everyone knows that, don't they?

Why do you want to minimize your tax obligations? Well, once you pay out money, you don't get it back. And, if for whatever reason, you happen to view the IRS as your favorite charity, you, the individual (or individual corporate) taxpayer don't get any more or better services for having given them extra money.

It doesn't work that way. In fact, the Internal Revenue Code is a ridiculously complex set of rules that, in total, generates revenue for the federal government. The federal government doesn't check to see who failed to take deductions that they could have and either call them out as being wonderful citizens or provide them with extra goods or services commensurate with the additional taxes that they paid. It doesn't work that way.

During the course of running a business, companies will find that they have large number of payments that they make to governmental or quasi-governmental agencies. For example, banks pay premiums to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). They do this so that their customers can feel secure in knowing that their deposits are backed by the United States government (to a point). Premium amounts differ by being in different risk categories. In other words, to some extent, a bank can control the amount of FDIC premiums that it pays.

Similarly, sponsors of defined benefit pension plans pay premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). Those premiums fall into two categories -- the fixed amount per person and the variable amount related to how well the plan is funded. Both of those amounts can be managed, and companies by and large either have been advised to or figured out on their own how to manage the fixed part. The variable rate premium is another story. While there has been a lot of press telling companies to borrow to fund their plans thereby reducing variable rate premiums, there are other techniques that exist.

It all comes down to paying the amount that the law requires you to or paying more. Paying more doesn't get you a trophy. Paying more doesn't get your employees trophies either -- not even participation trophies..

Suppose I told you that you had been overpaying your PBGC premiums by, let's call it, 15X per year. And, suppose I told you that by spending X one time, you could stop doing that. Would you do it?

Monday, March 6, 2017

What Does Your Plan Document Really Say?

What does your plan document really say?

That's right. You read my question correctly. You probably know the words that are there. And, you certainly know what they say. But, would everyone else agree with you? That may be the really key question.

Let's limit our discussion here to retirement plans, both qualified and non-qualified. Those are usually complex documents. They contain an awful lot of words that are intended to both inform the plan participants of their benefits and attendant rights and to tell the person or people administering the plan exactly how to do that. And, we all know that because the English language is so precise that no two people would ever disagree on the meanings of those words, would they? Of course, they would, and they often do.

Perhaps that's a key reason that there is so much litigation related to retirement plans. If a plan participant took his summary plan description (SPD) and calculated his own monthly benefit and determined that it was $2,000 and a few weeks later, he received a benefit determination that his monthly benefit would be $1,000, he's not going to be happy.

Perhaps his reading of the SPD was irrational. Perhaps the SPD specifically says everywhere that pensionable earnings shall be based on the participant's years with highest base pay and he read that to include bonuses and car allowances and equity grants as well.

On the other hand, perhaps his reading was different than yours, but rational. To quote Scooby Doo (I always wanted to quote Scooby Doo in a retirement benefits post), "Rut ro."

How do we avoid this problem?

There are presumably legal safeguards that are typically inserted into a plan document to get past this problem should it occur. Clearly, however, they don't always work. If they did, no plan sponsor would ever lose in litigation. We know that's not reality.

To help to ensure that you're not one of those litigation losers, wouldn't it make sense to have an independent review of those documents?

I'll leave it up to the attorneys to tell you how that should be structured. But, I am going to tell you that it's important to have attorneys and non-attorneys working together on this review.

Why? Attorneys certainly know how to read documents, especially the ones that they write. But, in practice, they won't be administering your plan. And, a person without legal training may read those legal words differently than an attorney will.

Additionally, since we are talking about retirement plans here, administration may include what I've heard a number of attorneys refer to as a dirty word -- math. While some are very good at it, I've heard many attorneys say that math was always their worst subject in school. They fought through it, but they never understood it.

And, sometimes, those plan documents serve to prove that. Suppose the attorney wrote the document to mean exactly what he thought it was supposed to. But, perhaps to a person with a little bit better understanding of the math involved, the calculation would work out differently. I'll say it again -- rut ro.

Use counsel as you should. Consider getting them to engage consultants on your behalf who can help them and you to understand when your plan may be interpreted differently than they had intended. By saving litigation costs down the road, it may be the cheapest money you've ever spent.