How to handle employee benefit plans and audits

Bertha Minnihan, national practice leader, Employee Benefit Plan Services, Moss Adams LLP

Bertha Minnihan, National practice leader, Employee Benefit Plan Services, Moss Adams LLP

Employee benefit plans are an important part of your company, and participating executives have just as much at stake as anyone else. With continually evolving fiduciary roles, the last thing you want is to fail in your responsibility, lose money and possibly face penalties or a lawsuit. That’s why employee benefit plan audits are conducted to identify potential problem areas. But only by closely managing the plan with fiduciary governance can you be ready for an audit.

“It’s prudent to have the board delegate to someone that is closely managing the plan — an oversight committee,” says Bertha Minnihan, national practice leader, Employee Benefit Plan Services, at Moss Adams LLP. “There’s so much to know, you can’t possibly know it all. It’s great to have this committee working with people who have expertise in this area to make sure they are meeting their fiduciary responsibilities.”

Smart Business spoke with Minnihan about areas of concern in employee benefit plan audits.

How do these plans come to be audited?

There are two types of employee benefit plan audits. If you have more than 100 eligible plan participants at the beginning of the plan year, you generally need an independent financial statement audit attached to your plan’s annual tax Form 5500. Eligible participants not only include employees eligible to participate, whether they do or not, but also those with plan account balances who are no longer employees. However, if you have between 80 and 120 eligible participants, the Department of Labor (DOL) allows you to file the same as the year prior.

The other type is when the DOL decides to audit the plan. Most of the time the DOL says its audits are random. But, for example, if you’ve reported late deposits on your Form 5500, sometimes that causes the DOL to want to look further. Another trigger is an anonymous employee phone call. The DOL also has different levels of inquiry — sometimes it just asks for supporting documentation from the independent plan auditors or the company, and sometimes goes directly to auditing the plan as far back as three to five years.

What are some areas of noncompliance, correction and deficiency you’ve come across when auditing these plans?

The DOL hot buttons remain similar to what they’ve always been. The top ones, on the regulatory and compliance side, are:

  • Timeliness of getting all employee contributions into the trust. The DOL has said small plans, with 100 eligible participants or less, need to get everything in the trust within seven days. However, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for large plans, just as soon as administratively possible. This leaves a lot of room for judgment.
  • Eligible compensation. What are the compensation components that are eligible for deferral and match?
  • Operational defects, like not following eligibility requirements as noted in Plan documents or auto enrollment that isn’t kicking in when it should.

What developments are auditors following?

The accounting and auditing world has gotten more complex, especially on the investment side. Auditors are waiting for additional guidance on disclosure requirements for investments for certain plan types. For example, the Financial Accounting Standards Board hasn’t ruled on whether employee stock ownership plans are exempt from certain quantitative investment disclosures about the valuation of private company stock. Another issue is what exactly makes a plan public or nonpublic, and how that impacts the benefit plan disclosure requirements. Additionally, auditors continue to follow the convergence of U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and International Financial Reporting Standards.

How should plan sponsors handle their plans?

Generally, sponsors need to stay educated. Things are moving fast, but companies have many service and investment providers at their fingertips. Call on them to educate your board and oversight committees.

When making a change in your plan, document it. Have an oversight committee, no matter how big the company, following and documenting the plan operations and plan investment decisions. The committee would, for instance, know the participant demographic trends or how auto-enrollment is unfolding. In the end, you’ll always be better for whatever is going on if you have that structure and a solid governance foundation.

Bertha Minnihan is national practice leader, Employee Benefit Plan Services, at Moss Adams LLP. Reach her at (408) 916-0585 or [email protected]

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