Finally! An Answer to Local Taxation of Non-Qualified SERP Benefits in Ohio

Qualified retirement plan benefits paid by pension or 401k plans have always been exempt from local taxes in Ohio.  Non-qualified retirement plans (often referred to as “Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans” or “SERPs”) are often designed to enhance retirement benefits for executives over and above the benefits provided through the qualified plans offered by the employer.  Over the last several years there has been disagreement between cities in Ohio and SERP eligible executives over whether benefits paid by SERPs are retirement plan benefits, exempt from local taxes, or deferred compensation benefits, subject to local taxes when such benefits become vested using FICA and Medicare (“FICA”) taxation rules.

SERP participants have alleged that SERPs are retirement benefits which should be exempt from local taxes just like qualified retirement plan benefits. Cities have argued that non-qualified SERPs are taxable compensation to the executive. The disagreement rose into the public eye in 2015 in the case of MacDonald vs. Shaker Heights when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of MacDonald. The local tax ordinance in that case did not exclude SERPs and further, did not specifically define “pension benefits” which were exempt from local taxation. After this ruling, many cities amended their tax ordinance to define pensions as benefits paid only by a qualified retirement plan. Many taxpayers have argued these Ohio cities should not be able to tax retirement benefits….whether paid by a qualified or non-qualified plan. But there has been little or no guidance from Ohio on the issue…..until recently.

local taxation and non-qualified SERP benefits

What’s New in 2020?

Ohio House Bill 166 amended ORC 718 and clarifies the definitions of “pension” and “retirement benefit plan”. This prevents cities from defining such terms in their tax ordinances to require taxation of non-qualified pensions and retirement benefits.  All pensions and benefits paid out of a retirement benefit plan are exempt from local taxes if the benefits meet the following criteria:

  • The benefits are provided by the Employer and not through a deferral of wages by the employee;
  • The benefit payments must be due after or at termination of employment; and
  • The plan is designed to deliver the benefits because of retirement or disability

HB166 does not define “retirement”; therefore, it will be up to plan documents to define what constitutes a retirement. Retirement definitions vary from plan to plan, but it is typically defined by age and/or years of service. Wage continuation, severance payments, and payments of accrued vacation are specifically not included in retirement plan benefits.

Thus, whether paid by a qualified or non-qualified plan, if these criteria are met, the benefits are retirement plan benefits exempt from local taxes in Ohio. Eligibility for the exemption in SERPs is going to be a facts and circumstances analysis comparing the plan design to the criteria above and intent of the plan. The new rules were made effective January 1, 2020. SERP benefits taxed by municipalities prior to 2020 are not refundable. However, eligible SERP benefits which become vested on or after January 1, 2020, even if they have accrued over a long career, are exempt from local taxes.

Taxation Timing

SERPs are subject to FICA taxes under special rules….the present value of the benefit is generally taxed when the benefit becomes vested, even if this is prior to payment.  There is an exception for non-account balance plans which benefits cannot be determined until retirement.  Ohio local taxes follow the FICA rules for tax timing. HB166 did not change these tax timing rules. However, if the benefits qualify as “pension” and “retirement benefit plans” under HB 166, the benefits are exempt from local tax if vested on or after January 1, 2020. Starting in 2020, collection and remittance of city income taxes for an eligible SERP is no longer necessary, assuming it meets the facts and circumstances analysis.

Ineligible Benefits

Examples of executive benefits that would be ineligible for the local income tax exclusion:

  • Benefits provided through elective deferrals on the part of the employee
  • Any payment of benefits prior to termination of service, retirement or disability
  • Benefits delivered through long term incentive plans, such as phantom stock plans, which do not promise benefits because of retirement or disability
  • Benefits under a plan which provides a participant with an election to be paid prior to retirement or disability, even if the participant did not make the election
  • Severance payments, payments made for accrued personal or vacation time, and wage continuation payments.

Outcomes

As a result of HB 166, the taxation of SERPs by Ohio municipalities has been resolved. Properly designed SERP benefits will be exempt from income tax by Ohio municipalities, just like qualified retirement plan benefits.

Many employers currently have a SERP; those plans should be evaluated to determine if it meets the exemption criteria. Employers should stop reporting and withholding local wages and taxes starting in 2020 if they deem the plan(s) to be a “retirement benefit plan”.

Some school districts within Ohio have their own income tax.  There are no changes to the taxation of school district income tax as a result of HB166. School District Income taxes follow Ohio taxing guidelines rather than FICA, so participants would be taxed when benefits are paid.

For questions regarding the impact of this legislation on your organization’s Non-Qualified SERP Benefits or how to navigate these changes, please contact the Findley consultant you normally work with, or Brad Smith below.

Published May 28, 2020

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Copyright © 2020 by Findley, Inc. All rights reserved

The Impact of Double Trigger Change on Control Agreements

Challenge

A community bank was planning a sale to a larger regional bank and our discussion with the community bank’s attorney focused on the change in control agreements for the executives.

A great deal of work had been done when the agreements were initially established – and the agreements were designed to protect the community bank’s executives in the event of a change in control. At the time, we determined the amount of the severance (enhanced to 18 months or two times base salary, compared to a one times salary for other situations) and carefully considered the triggers that would result in payment of the severance. We concluded that a double trigger agreement was in the best interests of the shareholders.

Did it make sense to accelerate all of the severance when not all of the executives are entitled to it under the agreements in place?

Both a change in control and a termination of employment would be required for a double trigger. Double triggers would also pass the scrutiny of the proxy advisors.

Now, with the sale of the bank being negotiated, the plan was to accelerate and pay all severance for each executive at closing. All executives would receive severance checks, even those who were not losing their jobs.

Why was it necessary to reconsider the severance protection for this executive team? Did it make sense to accelerate all of the severance when not all of the executives are entitled to it under the agreements in place?

The Impact of Double Trigger Change on Control Agreements

Solution

In this case, the severance protection extended to contingent or good reason terminations. All of the executives would lose their current positions and enable the severance even though they may receive offers for new positions with the acquiring bank.

In addition, the acquiring bank was not willing to accept the existing agreements. The regional bank provides similar, but different, protections to their executives and they didn’t want to set a precedent of having different agreements in place for their executive team.

As a condition of the transaction, the acquiring bank required all executive agreements of the community bank to be extinguished. New and consistent agreements were developed at the appropriate levels for the executives who would be retained after the acquisition.

“Cashing out” double trigger agreements at closing is very common, especially if there are good reason termination provisions in the agreements. Acquiring banks do not want to deal with severance costs after the transaction and they prefer that the shareholders of the selling bank absorb the costs for the promised severance. Acquiring banks want to selectively identify and extend employment and retention agreements to the executives they wish to retain.

Double Trigger Results

The community bank (a publicly-traded company) set the merger approval process to include a separate filing that asked shareholders to approve (in a “say on pay” advisory vote) the new change in control agreements and severance payments at closing. These amendments are nearly always approved; if the shareholders want the deal, they will approve the amendment.

For the community bank, the shareholders approved the change in control amendment by a narrow margin, while the sale of the bank passed by a landslide. A review of the votes shows the institutional shareholders (represented by the proxy advisors) cast the votes against the amendments. Non-institutional shareholders wanted the sale and approved the change in control agreement amendments.

Double trigger agreements can be quite complicated. The agreements are almost a necessity when established to gain acceptance of proxy advisors, however, double trigger agreements often will reduce to single trigger agreements at the time of a change in control for the various reasons mentioned above, notwithstanding the objection of proxy advisors.

When establishing change of control agreements for executives, single trigger agreements may provide a simpler solution.

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Three Compelling Reasons to Consider Pension Plan Mergers

If you have more than one pension plan you are administering, consider a pension plan merger to potentially reduce plan administrative, Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), and future plan termination fees. Sound too good to be true? Read on.

While the total number of pension plans may have dwindled over the past few decades, several companies still sponsor not only one, but multiple pension plans for participants within their organization. Most typically this is the result of a decision made years ago when the retirement plans were created or acquired – either to intentionally separate participants with different benefit formulas such as Hourly Plans for union employees earning a service related benefit, Salaried Plans for employees earning a pay related benefit, or as a result of an acquisition where the plans benefitting employees are not original employees of the parent company.

While there may have been reason to keep the plans separate in the past, it might be time to reevaluate and consider whether a pension plan merger might be beneficial.

“It might be time to reevaluate and consider whether a pension plan merger might be beneficial.”

What is a Pension Plan Merger?

A pension plan merger is the consolidation of one or more pension plans into a single, previously existing pension plan. 

Consider Company X who maintains 3 pension plans: 

  • Plan A benefits all Hourly, union employees
  • Plan B benefits all Salaried employees
  • Plan C benefits all participants acquired by Company Y

A pension plan merger is the transfer of all retirement plan assets and liabilities from Plans A and/or Plan B into Plan C (or some other similar combination) and as a result, Plan A and/or Plan B would cease to exist.

Pension Plan Merger Example

Going forward, annual requirements remain only for the consolidated plan. Because the merger cannot violate anti-cutback rules, there is no negative impact to the retirement plan participants. Protected benefits such as accrued and early retirement benefits, subsidies, and optional forms of benefits cannot be reduced.

Why Should We Consider Merging Pension Plans?

Reason #1 : Reduced Administrative Fees

Each qualified pension plan has several annual requirements, regardless of size. Combining plans can reduce total administrative fees by minimizing the redundancy of the annual actuarial, audit, and trustee work:

  • Annual valuations: Funding, accounting, and ASC 960
  • Government reporting: IRS Form 5500 and PBGC filings
  • Participant notices: Annual funding notices
  • Annual audit: Plan audit for ASC 960 and financial accounting audit
  • Trustee reports

Merging plans can streamline many processes, reducing fees for these services compared to operating separately.

Reason #2 : Potential PBGC Savings

Plan sponsors with both an underfunded and overfunded plan can reduce PBGC premiums by sharing the excess retirement plan assets of an overfunded plan with one that is underfunded. Annual premiums are due to the PBGC (Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation) for protection of participant benefits in the event the plan sponsor is unable to fulfill their pension promises. Plans that are fully funded pay only a flat rate premium based on headcount. Underfunded plans pay an additional variable rate premium (VRP) based on the total unfunded liability for the plan (capped by participant). Merging an underfunded and overfunded plan can create a combined fully funded plan, eliminating the variable portion of the cost or premium due to the PBGC as shown:

Consider Company X who maintains 2 pension plans: 

  • Plan A has 580 Hourly participants with a PBGC shortfall of $10 million as of 1/1/2019
  • Plan B has 1,160 Hourly participants with a PBGC excess of $10 million as of 1/1/2019
  • Plan A merges into Plan B with 1,740 participants and no shortfall as of 1/1/2019
Impact of Pension Plan Merger on PBGC Premiums

By merging Plan A into Plan B, the shortfall is eliminated and PBGC premiums due are dramatically reduced with considerable financial impact.

Reason #3 : Plan Termination on the Horizon

Similar to the administrative savings of merging two ongoing pension plans, there will likely be reduced fees related to the process at termination. The final step in distributing retirement plan assets will be the agreement between the insurance company taking over the responsibility for all future benefit payments of remaining participants. Merging plans will consolidate the transaction and increase the number of participants affected, potentially resulting in annuity purchase cost savings to offset the underfunded liability  at final distribution. If plan termination is on the horizon, especially for two small to mid-size pension plans, a plan merger may prove to be a valuable first step with potential positive financial impact.

We Want to Merge our Pension Plans…Now What?

In most scenarios, the process is fairly straightforward. There will be a few adjustments required to the valuation process in the first year, but going forward will operate as usual. Participants will be notified of the change, but there will be no difference to the way that their benefits are calculated or administered.  

The plan sponsor will also be required to do the following:

  • Execute a plan amendment describing the plan merger
  • Modify the plan document to reflect the new consolidated plan
  • File Form 5310-A with the IRS no later than 30 days prior to the merger

Regardless of the size of the plan, a plan merger may be a step in the right direction toward simplifying the administration and cutting costs for many organizations sponsoring more than one pension plan.  Merging multiple pension plans is most often one example in the pension world where less is more. Finally, there are instances where a merger may result in increased costs (PBGC premiums) or may present other challenges.

Each situation is unique so don’t make any assumptions without consulting your actuary. And don’t overlook the importance of a communications strategy to inform participants of any changes which take place.

Questions? For more information, contact the Findley consultant you normally work with, or contact Debbie Sichko at debbie.sichko@findley.com, 216.875.1930.

Published on August 15, 2019

© 2019 Findley. All Rights Reserved.

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Terminating an Overfunded Pension Plan? Who Gets the Excess?

If a single employer overfunded pension plan is terminating and its participants and beneficiaries are on track to receive full benefits, the plan sponsor will likely ask if the excess is theirs. In other words, will the surplus revert to the plan sponsor? The answer is maybe.

To determine how excess plan funds can be exhausted, which may include a reversion to the plan sponsor, there are 7 possibilities to consider. As always, the place to start with any retirement plan issue is to answer the question: what does the plan say?

Terminating an Overfunded Pension Plan

Possibilities to Consider if the Terminating Plan Document does not Permit a Reversion

A plan document may state that no part of the plan’s assets can be diverted for any purpose other than for the exclusive benefit of participants and beneficiaries. The plan may also indicate that the plan cannot be amended to designate any part of the assets to become the employer’s property. If an overfunded pension plan has these provisions, it is tempting to assume the only choice is to allocate the excess among participants and beneficiaries. However, even in the face of these explicit provisions, there may be other provisions that permit an employer to recover or use a portion of the excess assets.

Possibilities 1 and 2 – Return of Mistaken and Nondeductible Contributions

Plan documents generally indicate that if an employer makes an excessive plan contribution due to a mistake, the employer can demand the surplus is returned. The employer is required to request this from the trustee within one year after the contribution was made to the trust. In addition, plans generally provide that a contribution is made on the condition that the employer receives a corresponding tax deduction. In the unlikely event that the deduction is not permitted by the IRS, the contribution can be returned to the employer within one year following the IRS’ final determination that the tax deduction was not allowed.

An example of a contribution mistake may be an actuarial calculation error. In a 2014 Private Letter Ruling, the IRS considered a surplus reversion when a terminating single employer plan purchased an annuity contract. The excess assets were created when the purchase price selected to fully fund plan benefits actually came in at a lower price than estimated. Using reasonable actuarial assumptions, the plan’s actuary had advised the employer to contribute a higher amount than was ultimately calculated as necessary by the insurance company. In this case, the IRS permitted the return of the mistaken excess contribution. 

Possibility 3 – Have all Reasonable Plan Expenses Been Paid from the Trust?

Many plan documents provide that plan expenses can be paid from the trust. In some instances, appropriate and reasonable plan termination expenses will go a long way to exhaust excess assets. Reasonable plan termination expenses include determination letter costs and fees, service provider termination charges and termination implementation charges such as those for the plan audit, preparing and filing annual reports, calculating benefits, and preparing benefit statements.

Possibilities to Consider if the Terminating Plan Document Permits a Reversion

The overfunded pension plan may explicitly state that excess assets, once all of the plan’s obligations to participants and beneficiaries have been satisfied, may revert to the plan sponsor. On the other hand, the plan may not explicitly permit a reversion. In that case, the plan sponsor may want to consider amending the plan to allow a reversion well ahead of the anticipated termination.

Possibilities 4 – Take a Reversion

If the first three possibilities do not work or are inadequate to exhaust the surplus, and the overfunded pension plan allows a reversion, there are three more possibilities. In the first, the employer takes all. The employer can take all of the excess funds back subject to a 50% excise tax, as well as applicable federal tax.  Notably, a not-for-profit organization may not be subject to the excise tax on the reversion at all if it has always been tax-exempt.

Possibility 5  – Transfer the Excess to a Qualified Replacement Plan

The opportunity to pay only a 20% excise tax (and any applicable federal tax) on part of the surplus is available where the remaining excess assets are transferred from the terminating pension plan to a newly implemented or preexisting qualified replacement plan (QRP). A QRP can be any type of qualified retirement plan including a profit sharing plan, 401(k) plan, or money purchase plan. For example, an employer’s or a parent company’s 401(k) plan, whether newly implemented or preexisting, may qualify as a qualified replacement plan.

Once an appropriate plan is chosen, the amount transferred into the QRP must be allocated directly into participant accounts within the year of the transfer or deposited into a suspense account and allocated over seven years, beginning with the year of the transfer.

There are additional requirements for a qualified replacement plan. At least 95% of the active participants from the terminated plan who remain as employees must participate in the QRP. In addition, the employer is required to transfer a minimum of 25% of the surplus into a qualified replacement plan prior to the reversion. If all of the QRP requirements are satisfied, then only the amounts reverted to the employer are subject to a 20% excise tax and federal tax, if applicable. 

Possibility 6 – Provide Pro Rata Benefit Increases

If the employer chooses not to use a QRP, it can still limit the excise tax if it takes back 80% or less of the surplus and provides pro rata or proportionate benefit increases in the accrued benefits of all qualified participants. The amendment to provide the benefit increases must take effect on the plan’s termination date and must benefit all qualified participants. A qualified participant is an active participant, a participant or beneficiary in pay status, or a terminated vested participant whose credited service under the plan ended during the period beginning 3 years before termination date and ending with the date of the final distribution of plan assets. In addition, certain other conditions apply including how much of the increases are allowed to go to participants who are not active.

A Possibility That’s Always Available

Possibility 7 – Allocate all of the Excess Among Participants and Beneficiaries

It is always possible to allocate all of the excess assets among participants in a nondiscriminatory way that meets all applicable law. A plan amendment is necessary to provide for these higher benefits.

You may know at the outset of terminating your plan that there will be excess assets. On the other hand, a surplus may come as a surprise. Even if a pension plan is underfunded at the time the termination process officially begins, it is possible that the plan becomes overfunded during the approximate 12 month time period to terminate the plan. In this scenario, the plan sponsor will have to address what to do with the excess assets.

Dealing with the excess assets in a terminating defined benefit plan can be a challenge. There are traps for the unwary, and considerations beyond the scope of this article. Plan sponsors need to determine first how the excess was created, because the answer to that question may determine what happens to it. If there is no obvious answer in how to deal with the surplus, then the plan sponsor needs to look at all of the possibilities. It may be that a combination of uses for the excess plan assets is best. If you think you will find yourself in this situation with your defined benefit plan, consult your trusted advisors at your earliest opportunity so that you know the possibilities available to you.

Questions on your defined benefit pension plan’s possibilities? Need help navigating your options? Please contact Sheila Ninnenam in the form below.

Published July 10, 2019

© 2019 Findley. All Rights Reserved.

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December 2018 Wreaks Havoc on Pension Plan Termination Funding – Could It Have Been Avoided?

The last few months once again have shown how volatile pension plan funded status can be. In 2018, leading up to December, many thought that their pension plans were getting closer and closer to being financially ready for a plan termination. Equity markets were seeing high returns and interest rates were on the rise. As a result, most pension plans saw an improvement in funded status.

Then December happened. The markets went south and interest rates took a dive. Plan sponsors that measured the plan’s funded status on December 31 saw a poor financial outcome for 2018. Based on Findley’s December 2018 Pension Indicator, the funded status for a frozen pension plan with a typical equity/fixed income asset portfolio saw a reduction in its funded status of around 6% to 8% from November to December.

However, plan sponsors that started planning for a plan termination in early 2018, and monitored the improving funded status of the plan may have taken some steps to help mitigate the impact of a market downturn. In this case, a plan sponsor which hedged the assets to better match the liabilities prior to December experienced only about a 2% reduction in the plan’s funded status in December.

The lesson is most plan sponsors probably didn’t really know how close (or far) the plan was to being financially ready for a plan termination. And, as the adage goes, “failure to plan is a plan to fail.”

Planning is Fundamental to Success

To help plan sponsors understand this volatility and know how to manage it, Findley has developed a process to help plan sponsors prepare for plan termination. (See Findley’s article “Mapping Your Route to Pension Plan Termination Readiness”). The plan termination process itself requires many steps, but there are also steps that a plan sponsor can take prior to beginning a plan termination to be better prepared. Whether plan termination is only a couple, 5, or 10 years away, planning is critical.

Taking a closer look at plan’s financial readiness, there are a few topics plan sponsors should explore:

  • the plan’s investment strategy,
  • the benefits of de-risking strategies, and
  • a formalized contribution policy.

Reviewing these financial topics early and monitoring them periodically can help plan sponsors achieve plan termination financial goals in a more orderly and predictable way.

Knowing the time horizon, identifying data issues, and reviewing the plan document are other areas to include in your readiness planning. Findley’s Rapid MapTM process helps plan sponsors take a project management approach to all of these aspects of getting ready for a plan termination.

In Perspective

As it turns out, most pension plans rebounded nicely in January and February of this year. So if you are contemplating plan termination, take advantage of this reprieve. Planning early for a plan termination can have a long-term effect on the point in time when your plan is ultimately ready to terminate. Take steps now to put a process in place to regularly monitor your plan’s funded status. Spending time now can reap rewards and potentially mitigate the negative outcomes from future market downturns.

Questions? Contact the Findley consultant you normally work with, or Larry Scherer at Larry.Scherer@findley.com, or 216.875.1920.

Posted on March 12, 2019

© 2019 Findley. All Rights Reserved.

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