by W. Andrew Larson, CPC
Multiple employer plans (MEPs) are consistently in the news. Their proponents, which include a bi-partisan Congressional group, claim MEPs can offer small and mid-sized employers the advantage of lower administrative and investment costs as they relate to offering employer-sponsored retirement plans, and would expand worker access to such savings arrangements. One would think that an arrangement that helps expand affordable, employer-sponsored retirement plan coverage would be a no-brainer and encouraged at all levels. Alas, policy issues are rarely this simple. In light of the heightened level of industry interest, we thought it timely to discuss MEPS, including what they are, where they came from and prognosticate on where they might be going.
A MEP is a retirement plan adopted by multiple employers. (Not to be confused with a multi-employer plan, which is a plan maintained pursuant to a collective bargain agreement between more than one employer and a labor union. These plans are sometimes referred to as “Taft-Hartley” plans. Please see our “Case of the Week” Multi and Multiple Employer Plans–What’s the Difference?  for a more in-depth comparison.)
A MEP is a qualified plan adopted by multiple business entities none of which are part of a “controlled group of businesses.” Understanding the controlled group dimension is important because multiple businesses may adopt a plan and yet the arrangement would NOT be considered a MEP if the businesses where part of a controlled group of businesses. Essentially, a controlled group of businesses exists when multiple business entities have a certain level of common ownership among them.
Another element in understanding the MEP environment relates to the various Federal entities involved with MEP oversight and regulation. Retirement plans are subject to oversight by the IRS, the Department of Labor (DOL) and, in some cases, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Each agency is focused on its own policies and rules, and coordination is often lacking. Much MEP confusion (and contention) occurs because of the lack of regulatory coordination between these entities. This results in odd situations; for example, a MEP arrangement can satisfy IRS rules and, simultaneously, run afoul of DOL or even SEC requirements. Next, let’s explore how the confusion with the rules that govern them arose and what might be some possible resolutions.
Traditionally, the IRS was comfortable with, if not supportive of, MEP arrangements. In fact, this author was involved in obtaining approvals from the IRS for MEPs in the 1980s. If certain criteria were met, the IRS considered a MEP a single plan requiring one Form 5500 filing and audit despite the fact many employers were participating in the arrangement.
Historically, the DOL had little involvement with MEPs. Things changed, however, starting around 2010. The DOL became increasingly concerned about MEP arrangements and possible abuses. It didn’t help MEP supporters when, at about the same time, a high-profile, politically-connected, California-based MEP provider was found guilty of embezzling MEP assets.
In 2012, the DOL issued MEP guidance that had a major impact on these arrangements (see Advisory Opinion 2012-04A). First, the DOL decreed that a MEP arrangement must have a “nexus” or commonality between the adopting employers in order to be considered a single plan. For example, if all adopting entities were dental offices a nexus would exist. The origination of the nexus requirement is obscure as nexus is neither mentioned nor alluded to in the IRS MEP code or regulations [under IRC Sec. 413(c)]. I have heard it said the nexus requirement is important to prevent abuses yet, when pressed, the proponents of this view could neither articulate the abuses nor explain how nexus would solve them. For terminologies sake, a MEP without a nexus is commonly called an “open MEP,” and a MEP with a nexus is a “closed MEP.”
Why is open or closed MEP status important? Recall the IRS considers a MEP a single plan and subject to a single Form 5500 and audit requirement. The DOL’s view is, unless a nexus exists, the arrangement is considered a combination of single employer plans and each employer would need to file its own Form 5500 and audit report, when applicable. The IRS was comfortable with treating a MEP as a single plan regardless of nexus, while the DOL insists on nexus if the arrangement is to be considered a closed MEP and treated as a single plan.
And let’s not forget about our friends at the SEC. They may want to play in the MEP regulatory sandbox. Recall that under a MEP, unrelated employers pool their retirement assets in the plan’s trust. This pool of assets might be considered a mutual fund for purposes of the Investment Company Act of 1940, and subject to registration and reporting requirements.
Another MEP requirement that draws concern is the “bad apple” rule. The bad apple rule calls for disqualification of the entire MEP if just one of the adopting employers fails to satisfy the IRS compliance rules. Losing qualified status means the participants are taxed on vested benefits and plan sponsors may lose deductions. Yes, the “bad apple” rule sounds scary, but let’s consider what has happened in the real world. It is not the policy of the IRS to disqualify plans except in the most egregious situations of plan sponsor malfeasance. The IRS prefers plan problems be fixed via its Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (EPCRS). To my knowledge, a MEP disqualification because of the bad apple rule hasn’t yet occurred and I don’t think that it will.
It seems clear MEPs have the potential to create economy of scale and help place small employers on more equal footing with larger employers in terms of administrative costs and features. Industry benchmarking data is clear that small employers’ plan operation costs are higher than larger employers’ costs, and one solution could be a MEP. A MEP allows employers who were not part of a controlled group to participate in a single retirement plan and save money on plan costs and get better pricing from investment providers.
Clearly challenges remain. For example, several years ago a large trade association was fined millions of dollars by the IRS because the IRS contended the nature of the MEP arrangement was such that the trade organization was in control of the MEP and could, and did, set its own compensation from the arrangement. This was clearly abusive, yet solutions exist to mitigate these types of abuses.
In this era when expansion of retirement plan access and coverage is becoming a common call in public policy, and many efforts are being made to expand retirement plan availability while reducing costs to employers, the author is perplexed at the seemingly artificial impediments to MEP creation. In fact, several bills before Congress would enhance the attractiveness of MEPs. The bills make it clear no nexus would be required, and they would also do away with the all or nothing bad apple testing requirements. At the time of this writing, the fate of these bills is unclear. We sincerely hope legislation that expands retirement coverage and reduces costs for small employers and their participants can be something both political parties support.