The DOL Audit: Understanding the spectrum of risk

Avoiding Department of Labor (DOL) audits are the best way to survive them but audits can happen. Read on to learn more about the spectrum of risks.


Risk is discussed in many contexts in the retirement plan industry. It comes up as a sales tactic; as good counsel from trusted advisors preaching procedural prudence; or, often, in the form of intimidating industry vernacular like fiduciary liability, fidelity bond or the big, bad Department of Labor.

This DOL paranoia is an underlying motivation that drives the risk conversation with distributors and retirement plan sponsors. Naturally, the question of probability comes up: What is the likelihood the DOL will audit my plan? The answer is low, but it can happen.

When evaluating retirement plans in terms of risk, it’s best viewed as a spectrum. Generally, risk falls into three principal areas of concern.

Lawsuit risk: The likelihood of a fiduciary-based lawsuit for most plan sponsors is very low. However, if this does arise, it will be unpleasant and expensive, both financially and in terms of reputation.

Administrative breach: Upon inspection, most plans will have some kind of operational defect. Typically, these are either an administrative, fiduciary or a document-level defect. If left uncorrected, they are potentially disqualifying. The good news is the IRS has corrective methods in place for the most common errors. Generally, these are relatively inexpensive to correct but will cost clients a little time and money, and likely some aggravation.

DOL/IRS audit risk: It’s usually the administrative breach discussed above that leads to the DOL/IRS investigation or audit. These agencies are not interested in disqualifying plans; they are more interested in correcting them and protecting the participants from misdeeds (intentional or not).

When a DOL audit does happen, it tends to occur because someone invited investigation. This could be the result of a disgruntled former employee, a standard IRS audit that somehow spiraled into a full DOL investigation or a variety of other reasons. So, what can employers and their service providers do to avoid an audit?

The IRS and DOL don’t publish an official list of items that could lead to an investigation, but it’s a good idea to look at your plan’s most recent IRS Form 5500 filings to decrease the likelihood of an audit. This is publicly available information that can signal to government agencies that something might be wrong and they should take a closer look. Some of the more common red flags include:

  • Line items that are left blank when the instructions require an answer
  • Inconsistencies in the data disclosed on the Form 5500 schedules
  • A large drop in the number of participants from one year to the next
  • A large dollar amount in the “Other” asset line on the Schedule H
  • Having an insufficient level for the plan’s required Fidelity Bond
  • Consistently late deposits or deferrals and hard-to-value or non-marketable investments (including self-directed brokerage accounts or employer stock) could be counted as red flags as well.

Plan sponsors should make sure that 5500s are completed with the same care and attention to detail used when filling out IRS 1040, and ensure the plan is being governed properly and in compliance with ERISA. This can be a challenge even for the most well-intentioned plan sponsors, given the complexity of the task and the fact that most employers don’t have the expertise in-house.

Calling in a specialist

But you don’t need to navigate these waters on your own. Instead, you might consider the “Prudent Man” rule, which implies that when expertise is required yet absent, a prudent person outsources the needed expertise. There is a wealth of talented retirement plan specialists and advisors available to help guide you through the audit process or, better yet, steer clear of it altogether.

When considering whether to employ one of these specialists, you will need to evaluate their experience, expertise and training, as well as if they provide services to help the plan sponsor keep the DOL (and the IRS) out of their offices. Some commonly available services include:

  • 5500 reviews to help plan sponsors avoid potential audit triggers
  • Coaching services to help plan sponsors identify and eliminate some of those difficult-to-value assets like employer stock or self-directed brokerage accounts
  • Service provider evaluations to help plan sponsors identify those who will work as a plan fiduciary and put the appropriate guardrails in place on an automated basis

In conclusion, the best way to survive a potential DOL investigation or IRS audit is to avoid one altogether. Committing to best practices for running the plan may mean outsourcing a great deal of the work to specialist retirement plan providers and advisors. Plan sponsors would be wise to consider working with service providers who operate as plan fiduciaries themselves. In this way, you’re more likely to avoid problems and achieve better plan results, leading to better outcomes for everyone.

SOURCE: Grantz, J (7 June 2018) "The DOL Audit: Understanding the spectrum of risk" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/dol-audit-understanding-the-spectrum-of-risk?feed=00000152-18a5-d58e-ad5a-99fd31fe0000


Avoiding red flags: How to lower your plan's audit risk

The largest plans aren’t the only ones that are audited. Audits are triggered by big events. Read this blog post to learn more.


Are only the largest retirement plans audited? The truth is that plans of any size can be audited by the IRS and the DOL. Your plan could be selected for a random audit, or as a result of IRS datasets that target certain types of plans. However, lots of audits are triggered by specific events. Learning to avoid the red flags can help reduce your risk and increase the odds that you will survive any audit for which you are selected without major problems.

Your Form 5500 can be audit bait

Bad answers to Form 5500 can attract the Labor Department’s attention and serve as audit bait. The best way to make sure that your Form 5500 filing doesn’t lead to an audit is to check it carefully — with outside assistance if necessary — to make sure that the compliance questions are answered correctly.

For example, one compliance question asks whether the plan is protected by an ERISA bond and if so, the amount of coverage. Never answer “no” to this question. If for some reason you didn’t have a bond before, get one now. It is even possible to obtain retroactive coverage.

A coverage amount that is too low is also a red flag. In most cases, the bond must be for at least 10% of plan assets at the beginning of the year, although plans with certain types of investments must have higher coverage. Since assets at prior year end and at the beginning of the year are also shown on the 5500, showing an amount lower than 10% of those assets will invite the DOL to follow up.

The DOL will also look at the investment and financial information shown in the asset report. If your plan has many alternative investments such as hedge funds, has invested in other hard-to-value investments, or if you have large amounts of un-invested cash, you may also be inviting a follow up by the DOL. If your asset values as of the end of the prior year do not match your opening year balance for the succeeding year, you are also inviting unwanted inquiries.

Other answers that may get you targeted for further investigation are: if you indicate that you have late deposits of employee contributions or that you have not made required minimum distributions to former employees who are 70.5 years old. Note that this question does not need to be answered “Yes” if reasonable efforts have been made to find the participants but they still can’t be located.

Don’t ignore employee claims and complaints

Many plan sponsors don’t realize that employee complaints to the IRS and DOL often lead to audits. Make sure that employee questions and complaints receive a response, and if a formal claim for benefits is filed, make sure to follow the ERISA regulations on benefit claims and appeals. It is a good idea to run any denials past your ERISA attorney to make sure they are consistent with the written plan terms and clearly explain the participant’s appeal rights and the reason for the denial.

Be prepared

If your plan is selected for IRS or DOL audit, expect to be asked to provide executed plan documents, participant notices and fiduciary policies, such as your Investment Policy Statement. Keep these in a file to avoid a last-minute scramble to satisfy the auditor’s requests. You should also be prepared to show that you are making diligent efforts to find missing participants, deal with defaulted loans and review plan fees, which are current hot issues for auditors.

To be even better prepared, you can do a self-audit to identify problems that need correction before the IRS or DOL do.

SOURCE: Buckmann, C (29 June 2018) "Avoiding red flags: How to lower your plan's audit risk" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from: https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/irs-dol-audit-red-flags-and-avoiding-plan-risks


DOL cracks down on efforts to find missing retirement plan participants

In this article from Benefits Pro, the DOL auditors are taking action on missing participants in retirement plans.


The Department of Labor’s auditors are pushing harder on plan sponsors to make better efforts to find missing terminated vested participants in retirement plans. In return, there’s a call for more guidance on just how far sponsors have to go to do so.

According to a report in Pensions & Investments, the matter has become more urgent in the wake of MetLife’s experience. After the company had “lost track” of some 13,500 participants, the DOL entered the picture. The company’s earlier efforts to find those lost participants were deemed unacceptable, and then state and federal inquiries began.

But DOL auditors, according to a letter from the American Benefits Council to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor Timothy Hauser last fall requesting formal rulemaking on comprehensive guidance for plan fiduciaries, have been “inconsistent and alarming” in routine examinations.

The report says, “Some auditors said that failure to find a missing participant was a breach of fiduciary duty, or forfeiting funds back into a plan until participants are found is a prohibited transaction, and plan sponsors could be penalized. Auditors also have insisted that sponsors try different search methods every year or reach out to friends and former colleagues of the missing participant or through social media. Some plan sponsors have been told they must do ‘whatever it takes’ to find participants who are missing or not responding to communications.”

Large defined benefit plans are creating the loudest outcry, according to members reaching out to the ERISA Industry Committee in Washington on the issue. “It’s frustrating for them because there is just a lack of guidance on what activities they have to engage in, and how long they have to be engaged in it,” Will Hansen, senior vice president of retirement and compensation policy, is quoted saying in the report.

DOL officials are aware of the lack of guidance. A DOL spokesman says in the report that “the agency places a priority on consistent actions across our compliance assistance and enforcement activities, and will continue to work with plans and plan sponsors to connect retirees and beneficiaries with their pensions.”

Still, given the agency’s focus on employers’ responsibilities, experts say that employers should try to get ahead of the issue, guidance or not. The report cites David Rogers, partner at Winston & Strawn LLP in Washington, saying, “Given the potential penalties involved and the need for a coordinated response, it is a good practice to have a missing participants policy and designated persons within the organization who make regular efforts to keep participant information current.”

In addition, it quotes Norma Sharara, a principal with Mercer’s Washington resource group, saying, “The rational plan sponsor would be well advised to up their game. At least revisit the issue so when someone comes knocking your door, you are prepared. All along you need to be in constant contact with anybody you are holding money for. Somebody has to be responsible and the Labor Department is placing the burden on the shoulders of the employer.”

On March 1, Senators. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, and Steve Daines, R-MT, reintroduced the Retirement Savings Lost and Found Act, bipartisan legislation that would create a national online lost-and-found for retirement accounts. The bill is supposed to make it easier for participants to find accounts, as well as for employers to connect with former employees. Employers could also invest abandoned accounts in target-date funds more easily, the report said.

Read the article.

Source:
Satter M. (5 March 2018). "DOL cracks down on efforts to find missing retirement plan participants" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/03/05/dol-cracks-down-on-efforts-to-find-missing-retirem/