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Surprise! Your 401(k) Plan Has Been Disqualified

Most employers, and a fair number of individuals, worry only about an IRS audit of their income tax returns. Unfortunately, the agency can perform another kind of audit that not only may take you by surprise, but also can leave you with a rather shocking result: a disqualified 401(k) plan — and a bevy of potentially nasty tax consequences for you and your employees.

Typical triggers

What could cause such a sorry state of affairs? Plan disqualification can be triggered by:

  • Failing to identify all employees eligible for your 401(k)
  • Neglecting to give participants the opportunity to make deferral elections
  • Not limiting employee contributions to the amounts allowed under tax law for the calendar year

In addition, traditional 401(k) plans must be regularly tested to ensure contributions do not discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees. So, your 401(k) must pass all applicable nondiscrimination tests.

Loss of status

Tax law and administrative details that may seem trivial or irrelevant may actually be critical to maintaining a plan’s qualified status. If a plan loses its qualified status, each participant is taxed on the value of their vested benefits as of the disqualification date. That can result in large (and completely unexpected) tax liabilities for participants.

In addition, contributions and earnings that occur after the disqualification date must be included in participants’ taxable incomes. The employer’s tax deductions for plan contributions are also at risk. There also are penalties and fees that can be devastating to a business. Finally, withdrawals made after the disqualification date cannot be rolled over into other tax-favored retirement plans or accounts (such as individual retirement accounts).

A preventable problem

Naturally, an employer is not without recourse if its 401(k) plan is in danger of disqualification because of an IRS audit. You may be able to follow a voluntary correction process to rectify the problem. Of course, you can prevent the situation by keeping careful track of plan compliance. Let us provide you with further information and assistance.

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