How the New COVID-19 Relief Law Affects Retirement Benefits

The Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) includes a wide variety of provisions that address the ongoing economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are so many provisions, in fact, that you may find it challenging to keep track of everything pertinent to your organization.

One example is retirement benefits. Although the CAA does not make sweeping changes to defined benefit plans, such as pensions, or defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, the law does affect both. Here is a brief overview of the provisions in question.

Future Transfers
The tax code allows ‘qualified future transfers’ of up to 10 years of retiree health and life costs from a company’s pension plan to a retiree’s health benefits or life insurance account within the plan. These transfers must meet certain requirements, such as the plan being 120 percent funded, which have become too difficult to meet in some cases due to pandemic-related market volatility.

In response, the CAA allows an employer to make a one-time election on or before December 31, 2021 to end any existing transfer period for any taxable year beginning after the election in certain circumstances.

Special Distributions
The Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides for special tax treatment for a ‘coronavirus-related distribution’ from a retirement plan. The law also provides that coronavirus-related distributions meet various Internal Revenue Code requirements.

For example, Section 401(a) requires that a trust, created or organized in the United States, and forming part of a stock bonus, pension, or profit-sharing plan of an employer for the exclusive benefit of employees or their beneficiaries, must be constituted as a qualified trust. Under Section 501(a), a qualified trust is exempt from tax.

The CAA provides that, in the case of a money purchase pension plan, a coronavirus-related distribution that is an in-service withdrawal — in other words, a withdrawal made while the beneficiary is still employed by the plan owner — is treated as meeting the distribution rules of Section 401(a). This provision applies retroactively as if included in the CARES Act; that is, as of March 27, 2020.

Partial Termination
The CAA also includes a partial termination safe harbor for qualified retirement plans — including 401(k)s. Under the provision, plans will not be treated as having a partial termination (which triggers 100 percent vesting for affected participants) if the number of active participants in the plan on March 31, 2021 is at least 80 percent of the number of active participants covered by the plan on March 13, 2020.

The safe harbor applies to any plan year that includes the period beginning on March 13, 2020 and ending on March 31, 2021.

Any Questions?
At more than 5,500 pages, the CAA gives employers (and individuals, for that matter) much to learn about and consider. Please contact us with any questions you might have about how the law affects your organization’s sponsored retirement plans.

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