Seyfarth Synopsis: The IRS issued Notice 2020-86, which provides guidance on the rules that apply to safe harbor plans that were changed by the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 (the “SECURE Act”). The guidance covers the increase in automatic contributions permitted under a qualified automatic contribution arrangement (or “QACA”) safe harbor plan, safe harbor notice requirement changes, and issues related to the retroactive adoption of safe harbor status.

The SECURE Act included a number of changes to the rules that apply to safe harbor plans. As described in our prior Legal Update available here, the SECURE Act (1) increased the 10% cap on automatic contributions under a QACA to 15%, (2) eliminated the requirement that a non-elective safe harbor plan notify participants of the plan’s safe harbor status before the beginning of the plan year, and (3) established new rules that permit the adoption of a non-elective safe harbor plan design at any time during a plan year (or even the following plan year) if certain requirements are met.

Notice 2020-86 answers a number of open questions relating to these changes to the safe harbor rules.

  • Increase in 10% Cap to 15% for Automatic Contributions. While plan sponsors are not required to increase the cap on automatic deferrals under a QACA from 10% to 15%, some plans incorporate the maximum cap on automatic deferrals by reference to the Code. For those plans, if the plan sponsor does not want the 15% increased cap to apply, the plan must be amended (generally by December 31, 2022). The Notice makes clear that a failure to timely amend in that situation may result in a plan operational error.
  • Safe Harbor Notice Requirements. The guidance clarifies that a notice may still be required for certain plans, even if the plan is designed to provide non-elective contributions to satisfy the safe harbor requirements.
    • The safe harbor notice requirement continues to apply to traditional safe harbor plans that provide safe harbor non-elective contributions if the plan also provides non-safe harbor matching contributions that are designed so that they are not required to satisfy the ACP test.
    • The safe harbor notice requirements continues to apply to plans that have an eligible contribution arrangement (or “EACA”) (i.e., those plans that provide for the permissive withdrawal of automatic contributions within 90 days) with a non-elective contribution that satisfies either the traditional or QACA safe harbor requirements.

The Notice also addresses how a plan sponsor would provide notice to preserve the right to reduce or suspend safe harbor non-elective contributions mid-year if a safe harbor notice is no longer required. Generally, under IRS rules, a plan sponsor may reduce or suspend safe harbor contributions mid-year if it includes a statement in the safe harbor notice that the contributions could be suspended midyear. (If this statement is not included in the safe harbor notice, then the plan sponsor must be able to show that it is operating at an economic loss to suspend the contributions.) The guidance states that including this suspension statement in any type of notice is acceptable, and that for the 2021 plan year, a notice with the suspension statement may be provided as late as January 31, 2021 for a calendar year plan.

  • Retroactive Safe Harbor Status. The Notice also includes several helpful questions and answers addressing the retroactive adoption of safe harbor non-elective contributions:
    • Plan sponsors may re-adopt a non-elective safe harbor formula for the entirety of the plan year after reducing or suspending non-elective safe harbor contributions mid-year. In this case, the plan is not required to satisfy the ADP or ACP test for the plan year.
    • Safe harbor non-elective contributions must be made by the extended tax return due date in order to be deductible for the prior year. So, even though plan sponsors may now amend a plan after the end of the plan year to provide for 4% non-elective safe harbor contributions, these contributions will not be deductible for such prior plan year if made after the plan sponsor’s tax return due date. (Instead, they would be deductible for the taxable year in which they were contributed to the plan.)

The Notice indicates that the IRS does not intend this guidance to be the final word and that the IRS hopes to issue regulations related to the safe harbor changes found in the SECURE Act. We will be ready if and when those regulations are issued.