How to get benefit plans right to avoid stiff penalties

Danielle B. Gisondo, CPA, Principal, Skoda Minotti

If your company has a benefit plan such as a 401(k) with 100 or more eligible participants, each year you are required to have an audit performed on that plan that is filed with the IRS and the Department of Labor (DOL). Failing to do so could mean major penalties for your business, says Danielle B. Gisondo, CPA, a principal with Skoda Minotti.

“What often happens is that a company gets to that 100 employee mark and it is not aware of the requirement,” says Gisondo. “A few weeks before the deadline, the company that is preparing the required Form 5500 for all benefits plans for the company will send the company a letter that says, ‘You need to have an annual audit this year because your participant count has climbed to more than 100, so please forward us your auditor’s information.’ The company may read that and begin the search for an auditor or just ignore it. And ignorance of the requirement is no excuse.”

Smart Business spoke with Gisondo about what you need to know to stay on the right side of the law and avoid stiff penalties.

When is a benefit plan audit required?

ERISA requires that an audit be performed on most benefit plans with more than 100 eligible participants. The auditor is required to be an independent accounting firm, one that is independent not only of the client but of whomever is administering the plan and holding the investments.

Every plan has to come up with a standard plan document that outlines how the plan should operate relating to contributions, distributions and loans. The DOL wants to make sure companies are properly running their plans in accordance with what their plan document says.

What happens if a company does not have a benefit plan audit performed?

If a company fails to have an audit performed, it will be faced with penalties from the DOL and the IRS, which can get very steep. If you fail to file at all, the penalties can be up to $30,000 per year per plan. And a deficient filing can result in penalties of up to $50,000 per year per plan.

How long does the benefit plan audit process take?

If the auditors get everything they need, the process typically takes three to four weeks. If there’s a delay in getting information, either from the client or from one of the third parties involved, it may take six or seven weeks to complete.

The auditors will first compile a comprehensive request list with everything they need copies of and access to. Depending on the size of the plan, the auditors will be on site for one to three days and will typically work with someone in HR or accounting to get the necessary information. The rest of the work is done off site to minimize disruptions to the client’s business.

What are the deadlines?

For a calendar year-end plan, the initial due date for Form 5500 and the audit is July 31. If you can’t meet that deadline, you can file a two and a half month extension, which brings the due date to Oct. 15.

What steps can you take if you realize you should have had an audit performed but you didn’t?

If the IRS/DOL notifies you that you should have had an audit, it’s difficult to get out of paying the penalties by saying that you didn’t realize you needed one.

However, the DOL offers compliance programs that companies can go through if they failed to file. These programs allow you to pay a reduced fee that varies depending on the type of plan and the number of participants. Once you have paid that fee and file the necessary 5500 forms and audits as needed, you can be relieved of the penalties.

If you know you have a problem, don’t wait. Reach out to the IRS/DOL and let them know you have a problem. If they come to you and say, ‘We don’t have your 5500 form and the applicable audit,’ it’s too late to go through the compliance program and you will face major penalties.

What should companies consider when selecting a benefit plan auditor?

Ask if the firm has expertise in performing benefit plan audits. A lot of people assume that any accounting firm can do them, but it is a separate area of expertise and you should make sure the firm has it. Accountants undergo specialized training on an annual basis to ensure they are comfortable with all of the changes that continue to come from the IRS and the DOL.

Make sure the people you are working with are properly trained, that they know what they are doing and that they audit multiple plans, because a firm that audits just one or two plans doesn’t have the experience of a firm that is doing 20 or 30. Also ask about the audit process and ensure that whomever you are working with has the experience necessary to perform the work.






Danielle B. Gisondo, CPA is a principal with Skoda Minotti. Reach her at (440) 449-6800 or [email protected]

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