Tegrit Group: How to prepare for, survive and thrive after a retirement audit

Regulatory audits of retirement plans are on the rise — in number and scope — from both the Department of Labor (DOL) and the IRS.

“The DOL has hired hundreds of plan auditors and they are actively looking for violations. Trivial issues, or issues often overlooked in the past, are now being scrutinized during a regulatory audit,” says Mike Spickard, CEO and Chief Actuary at Tegrit Group. “The IRS or DOL will always find something during an audit; often, there are penalties, interest and some pain involved.”

Smart Business spoke with Spickard about avoiding regulatory audits, and what to do if that’s not possible.

Why has there been an uptick?

From the DOL’s perspective, the No. 1 trigger of a regulatory audit is a pattern of participant complaints. Additionally, the IRS and DOL have started to communicate with each other more frequently in the past four or five years. So, if the IRS tags you for an audit and auditors see problems within the DOL’s jurisdiction, you could be dealing with two audits.

How can plan sponsors avoid audits?

To prevent an audit, be an engaged plan sponsor. Know what’s going on with your plan and manage it as part of your corporate operations. Though a plan sponsor’s primary responsibility is running his or her business, it must be recognized that a retirement plan is both an asset and a liability, and needs to be managed as such.

Your plan must be amended if the law or your company changes. Everything needs to be up to date, and the plan administered pursuant to the terms of its document. At a minimum, have an annual review with all service providers, your recordkeeper, third-party administrator (TPA), financial advisors, etc., to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Further, it’s important to stay in tune with your employees. This enables you to deal with plan issues, real or perceived, before participants call the DOL.

What triggers a regulatory audit?

The IRS does not disclose how it selects plans for audits. Audits are partly random, but certain activities may raise flags, such as a late Form 5500 or negative publicity surrounding a troubled company. Certain Form 5500 responses also may trigger an audit. For example, one question on the form is: Did the plan have a fidelity bond in place throughout the plan year? A fidelity bond is required; a ‘no’ may indicate you don’t know what you’re doing, causing a response from the IRS.

What should you do if tapped for an audit?

When you get the initial audit notice, let all your service providers know. Often one service provider, usually the TPA, takes the lead. But it’s easier to respond if records are organized and information is readily available. Disorganization causes auditors to linger, which ultimately costs more.

The DOL or the IRS gives the sponsor, and its advisors, time to gather plan documents, amendments, payroll records, contribution reports, record-keeping reports, etc. Screen all necessary information, as well as any additional information that could be required later. Only give auditors what they ask for.

After the initial review, auditors decide if they want to do a deeper dive on specific issues, or expand the audit to additional years. If your service providers compare notes and plan, you can at least stay in step with the auditor, if not one step ahead.

Afterward, how can business owners thrive?

Pay attention to the audit findings, not only addressing problems throughout the audit, but also indications of future problems.

If you successfully defend an issue, the fact that an auditor challenged it is an opportunity to seek a better solution. For example, it was discovered during an audit that one small business mailed checks to its recordkeeper, delaying the deposit into participant accounts while the check was in transit. This delay isn’t necessarily a violation, but a better alternative would be an automated clearinghouse or wire transfer. Even in successful audits there are opportunities for improvement.

Mike Spickard is CEO, Chief Actuary at Tegrit Group. Reach him at (330) 644-2044 or [email protected].

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