See, it’s one thing to say that eligible employees should be automatically enrolled – and yet another to actually get them enrolled automatically. Even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) goes so far as to acknowledge that two common errors found in 401(k) plans are: (1) not giving an eligible employee the opportunity to make elective contributions; and (2) failing to execute an employee’s salary deferral election.
Now, as it turns out, both are “fixable” – through the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (EPCRS). But that’s only the start of things. See, in both of those situations you’re looking at a corrective contribution of 50% of the missed deferral (adjusted for earnings) for the affected employee. And then fully vesting the employee in those contributions – contributions that are subject to the same restrictions on withdrawal that apply to elective deferrals.
The only difference in the correction for the two situations outlined is the calculation of the amount of the missed deferral. In the case of an erroneously excluded employee, the missed deferral is based on the average of the deferral percentages (ADPs) for other employees in the employee’s category (for example, non-highly compensated employees), whereas if the error involves failing to implement an employee’s election, the missed deferral is based on the employee’s elected deferral percentage, or in the case of missed automatic contributions, the automatic contribution percentage. For plans with automatic contributions, however, the corrective contribution for the missed deferrals is reduced to 0% or 25% of the missed deferrals, depending upon how soon the error is corrected.
Your head starting to hurt?
Hold on – those corrective contributions also need to be adjusted for earnings – from the date that the elective deferrals should have been made through the date of the corrective contribution.1 In all cases the employer must contribute any missed matching contributions, adjusted for earnings.
Now, in addition to the regular array of plan notices that will now be required for those new participants, automatic enrollment has its own special set of notices. While most larger plans rely on what is called an eligible automatic contribution arrangement (EACA), smaller programs may have in place what is called a qualified automatic contribution arrangement (QACA), a type of automatic enrollment 401(k) plan that automatically passes certain kinds of annual required testing (generally referred to as a safe harbor plan). A QACA must include certain features, such as a fixed schedule of automatic employee contributions, employer contributions, a special vesting schedule and specific notice requirements.
The automatic enrollment notice details the plan’s automatic enrollment process and participant rights. The notice must specify the deferral percentage, the participant’s right to change that percentage or not to make automatic contributions, and the default investment. The participant generally must receive the initial notice at least 30 days, but not more than 90 days, before eligibility to participate in the plan or the first investment. Subject to certain conditions, the notice may be provided, and an employee may be enrolled in the plan, on the first day of work. An annual notice must be provided to participants and all eligible employees at least 30 days, but not more than 90 days, prior to the beginning of each subsequent plan year. And guess what happens if those notices don’t go out when they are supposed to?
So, it’s not as though you just have to flip a switch on payroll and you’re done.
Even When It Works
There are, of course, issues, even if there are no processing missteps. Cost, particularly as it relates to the match – which may have been designed to encourage workers to sign up, and which, with automatic enrollment, may no longer need to – and which may have been budgeted for a 70% participation rate that, thanks to automatic enrollment, may be more like 95%. Turnover can leave behind smaller 401(k) balances, which incur additional recordkeeping costs, and which can prove to be a real administrative burden with ongoing notice and communication requirements. Which again, if those notices aren’t going out when they should…
The bottom line is that automatic enrollment is an important component of helping more Americans save, and save effectively. But as is often the case, it’s not as easy as it sounds, and plan sponsors looking to embrace this design – and advisors who tout it – should do so with a full awareness and appreciation of all the implications.
For some other issues, see “Why Doesn’t Every Plan Have Automatic Enrollment?”
Nevin E. Adams, JD
- Not that that’s not an improvement from how it used to be. Under Rev. Proc. 2015-28, if the error is detected within 9½ months after the year of the failure, no corrective qualified non-elective contribution (QNEC) is required to an affected participant’s account for the missed deferral opportunity, as long as the person is enrolled within the 9½ month period (or earlier if the affected employee notifies the employer of the mistake).