Private Pensions: IRS and DOL Should Strengthen Oversight of Executive Retirement Plans
Private Pensions: IRS and DOL Should Strengthen Oversight of Executive Retirement Plans, GAO-20-70 (Washington D.C.: January 28, 2020).
76 Pages Posted: 25 Mar 2020
Date Written: February 28, 2020
What GAO Found: Executive retirement plans allow select managers or highly compensated employees to save for retirement by deferring compensation and taxes. As of 2017, more than 400 of the large public companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market index offered such plans to almost 2,300 of their top executives, totaling about $13 billion in accumulated benefit promises. Top executives at large public companies generally accumulated more plan benefits than top executives at the smaller public companies in the Russell 3000 stock market index. Advantages of these plans include their ability to help executives increase retirement savings and potentially reduce tax liability, but the plans come with risks as well. To receive tax deferral, federal law requires the deferred compensation to remain part of a company’s assets and subject to creditor claims until executives receive distributions (see figure). Department of Treasury officials and industry experts said executive retirement plans can be tax-advantaged and may have revenue effects for the federal government; however, the revenue effects are currently unknown.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) oversees executive retirement plans for compliance with federal tax laws. For example, IRS must ensure that key executives are taxed on deferred compensation in certain cases where that compensation has been set aside, such as when a company that sponsors a qualified defined benefit retirement plan is in bankruptcy. However, IRS audit instructions lack sufficient information on what data to collect or questions to ask to help its auditors know if companies are complying with this requirement. As a result, IRS cannot ensure that companies are reporting this compensation as part of key executives’ income for taxation. The Department of Labor (DOL) oversees these plans to ensure that only eligible employees participate in them since these plans are excluded from most of the federal substantive protections that cover retirement plans for rank-and-file employees. DOL requires companies to report the number of participants in the plan; however, the one-time single page filing does not collect information on the job title or salary of executives or the percentage of the company’s workforce participating in these plans. Such key information could allow DOL to better identify plans that may be including ineligible employees. Without reviewing its reporting requirements to ensure adequate useful information, DOL may continue to lack insight into the make-up of these plans and will lack assurance that only select managers and highly compensated employees are participating.
Keywords: top hat, deferred compensation, nonqualified deferred compensation, SERP
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