Blog

Monthly Archives: September 2019

DOL expands retirement plan options for smaller businesses

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has released a final rule which should make it easier for smaller businesses to provide retirement plans to their employees. According to the DOL, the rule will enable more small and midsize unrelated businesses to join forces in multiple employer plans (MEPs) that provide their employees a defined contribution plan such as a 401(k) plan or a SIMPLE IRA plan. Certain self-employed individuals also can participate in MEPs.

In October 2018, the DOL issued a proposed rule to clarify when an employer group or association, or a professional employer organization (PEO), can sponsor a MEP. (A PEO is a company that contractually assumes some human resource responsibilities for its employer clients.) The final rule, effective September 30, 2019, is similar to the proposal, but not entirely.

The appeal of MEPs

According to the DOL, businesses that participate in a MEP can see lower retirement plan costs as a result of economies of scale. For example, investment companies may charge lower fund fees for plans with greater asset accumulations. By pooling plan participants and assets in one large plan, rather than multiple small plans, MEPs make it possible for small businesses to give their workers access to the same low-cost funds offered by large employers.

MEPs also let participating employers avoid some of the burdens associated with sponsoring or administering their own plans. Employers retain fiduciary responsibility for selecting and monitoring the arrangement and forwarding required contributions to the MEP, but they can effectively transfer significant legal risk to professional fiduciaries who are responsible for managing the plan.

Although many MEPs already exist, the DOL believes that previous guidance, as well as uncertainty about the ability of PEOs and associations to sponsor MEPs as “employers” under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), may have hindered the formation of plans by smaller employers. The final rule clarifies when an employer group or association or a PEO can sponsor a MEP.

Permissible MEP sponsors

Under the final rule, a group or association, a PEO, and self-employed people can qualify as employers under ERISA for purposes of sponsoring MEPs by satisfying different criteria.

Groups and associations: Among other requirements, groups and associations of employers must have a “commonality of interest.” This means that the employers in a MEP must either:

  • Be in the same trade, industry, line of business or profession, or
  • Have a principal place of business in the same geographic region that doesn’t exceed the boundaries of a single state or metropolitan area. (A metropolitan area can include more than one state.)

Thus, a MEP could, for example, comprise employers in a national trade group or a local chamber of commerce.

But the rule prohibits an employer group or association from being a bank, trust company, insurance issuer, broker-dealer or other similar financial services firm (including a pension record keeper or a third-party administrator) and from being owned or controlled by such an entity or its subsidiary or affiliate. Such entities can, however, participate in their capacities as employer members.

PEOs: The final rule requires PEOs to, among other things, perform “substantial employment functions” for their client-employers that adopt the MEP. In contrast to the proposed rule, the final rule includes a single safe harbor for all PEOs, regardless of whether they’re certified PEOs. And the new safe harbor includes only four criteria, rather than the proposed nine.

To be considered to perform substantial employment functions for its client-employers, the PEO must, for each client-employer that adopts the MEP:

  1. Assume responsibility for and pay wages to employees, without regard to the receipt or adequacy of payment from those clients,
  2. Assume responsibility to pay and perform reporting and withholding for all applicable federal employment taxes, without regard to the receipt or adequacy of payment from those clients,
  3. Play a definite and contractually specified role in recruiting, hiring and firing workers, in addition to the client-employer’s responsibility for recruiting, hiring and firing workers, and
  4. Assume responsibility for, and have substantial control over, the functions and activities of any employee benefit that the PEO is contractually required to provide, without regard to the receipt or adequacy of payment from those client employers for such benefits.

Self-employed individuals: So-called “working owners” without employees may qualify as both an employer and an employee for purposes of the requirements for groups and associations. Such owners must:

  • Have an ownership right in a trade or business (including a partner or other self-employed individual),
  • Earn wages or self-employment income from the trade or business in exchange for personal services, and
  • Work on average at least 20 hours per week or 80 hours per month for the trade or business, or have wages or self-employment income from the trade or business that at least equals the working owner’s cost of coverage for participation by the owner and any covered beneficiaries in any group health plan sponsored by the group or association.

The determination of whether an individual qualifies as a working owner must be made when he or she first becomes eligible for participation in the defined contribution MEP. Continued eligibility must be periodically confirmed using “reasonable monitoring procedures.”

An open issue

When it issued the proposed rule, the DOL solicited comments on “open MEPs” or “pooled employer plans” — which are defined contribution retirement arrangements that cover employees of employers with no relationship other than their joint participation in the MEP. After reviewing the feedback, the DOL decided open MEPs deserve further consideration. It therefore issued, in conjunction with the final rule, a 16-page Request for Information. Responses are due October 29, 2019.

Unlike the DOL, the U.S. Congress has authority to amend ERISA and other laws that affect retirement savings. In May 2019, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would allow open MEPs. The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement and Enhancement Act of 2019, commonly known as the SECURE Act, hasn’t yet advanced in the U.S. Senate.

If you have questions on how the final rule might benefit your company’s retirement plan, please contact us. We’d be pleased to help.

© 2019

Uncle Sam may provide relief from college costs on your tax return

We all know the cost of college is expensive. The latest figures from the College Board show that the average annual cost of tuition and fees was $10,230 for in-state students at public four-year universities — and $35,830 for students at private not-for-profit four-year institutions. These amounts don’t include room and board, books, supplies, transportation and other expenses that a student may incur.

Two tax credits

Fortunately, the federal government offers two sizable tax credits for higher education costs that you may be able to claim:

1. The American Opportunity credit. This tax break generally provides the biggest benefit to most taxpayers. The American Opportunity credit provides a maximum benefit of $2,500. That is, you may qualify for a credit equal to 100% of the first $2,000 of expenses for the year and 25% of the next $2,000 of expenses. It applies only to the first four years of postsecondary education and is available only to students who attend at least half time.

Basically, tuition, course materials and fees qualify for this credit. The credit is per eligible student and is subject to phaseouts based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:

  • Between $80,000 and $90,000 for unmarried individuals, and
  • Between $160,000 and $180,000 for married joint filers.

2. The Lifetime Learning credit. This credit equals 20% of qualified education expenses for up to $2,000 per tax return. There are fewer restrictions to qualify for this credit than for the American Opportunity credit.

The Lifetime Learning credit can be applied to education beyond the first four years, and qualifying students may attend school less than half time. The student doesn’t even need to be part of a degree program. So, the credit works well for graduate studies and part-time students who take a qualifying course at a local college to improve job skills. It applies to tuition, fees and materials.

It’s also subject to phaseouts based on MAGI, however. For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:

  • Between $58,000 and $68,000 for unmarried individuals, and
  • Between $116,000 and $136,000 for married joint filers.

Note: You can’t claim either the American Opportunity Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit for the same student or for the same expense in the same year.

Credit for what you’ve paid

So which higher education tax credit is right for you? A number of factors need to be reviewed before determining the answer to that question. Contact us for more information about how to take advantage of tax-favored ways to save or pay for college.

© 2019

The next estimated tax deadline is September 16: Do you have to make a payment?

If you’re self-employed and don’t have withholding from paychecks, you probably have to make estimated tax payments. These payments must be sent to the IRS on a quarterly basis. The third 2019 estimated tax payment deadline for individuals is Monday, September 16. Even if you do have some withholding from paychecks or payments you receive, you may still have to make estimated payments if you receive other types of income such as Social Security, prizes, rent, interest, and dividends.

Pay-as-you-go system

You must make sufficient federal income tax payments long before the April filing deadline through withholding, estimated tax payments, or a combination of the two. If you fail to make the required payments, you may be subject to an underpayment penalty, as well as interest.

In general, you must make estimated tax payments for 2019 if both of these statements apply:

  1. You expect to owe at least $1,000 in tax after subtracting tax withholding and credits, and
  2. You expect withholding and credits to be less than the smaller of 90% of your tax for 2019 or 100% of the tax on your 2018 return — 110% if your 2018 adjusted gross income was more than $150,000 ($75,000 for married couples filing separately).

If you’re a sole proprietor, partner or S corporation shareholder, you generally have to make estimated tax payments if you expect to owe $1,000 or more in tax when you file your return.

Quarterly due dates

Estimated tax payments are spread out through the year. The due dates are April 15, June 15, September 15 and January 15 of the following year. However, if the date falls on a weekend or holiday, the deadline is the next business day (which is why the third deadline is September 16 this year).

Estimated tax is calculated by factoring in expected gross income, taxable income, deductions and credits for the year. The easiest way to pay estimated tax is electronically through the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System. You can also pay estimated tax by check or money order using the Estimated Tax Payment Voucher or by credit or debit card.

Seasonal businesses

Most individuals make estimated tax payments in four installments. In other words, you can determine the required annual payment, divide the number by four and make four equal payments by the due dates. But you may be able to make smaller payments under an “annualized income method.” This can be useful to people whose income isn’t uniform over the year, perhaps because of a seasonal business. For example, let’s say your income comes exclusively from a business that you operate in a beach town during June, July and August. In this case, with the annualized income method, no estimated payment would be required before the usual September 15 deadline. You may also want to use the annualized income method if a large portion of your income comes from capital gains on the sale of securities that you sell at various times during the year.

Determining the correct amount

Contact us if you think you may be eligible to determine your estimated tax payments under the annualized income method, or you have any other questions about how the estimated tax rules apply to you.

© 2019