Congress Gives Defined Benefit Plan Sponsors Welcome Funding Relief, Raises PBGC Premiums & Makes Other Reforms

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code generally require employers that sponsor defined benefit pension plans make sufficient contributions to their defined benefit pension plans to ensure that their plans meet minimum funding requirements.  

Failure to meet minimum funding requirements triggers a series of complicated reporting and disclosure, funding and excise tax liabilities, liens and other obligations that are serious and require prompt redress through prompt payment of required contributions and penalties, request for funding waivers or termination under a series of complicated rules or both.  Special controlled group, lien and successor liability rules incorporated into these funding requirements often spread the risk of funding deficiencies under these rules by extending liabilities to commonly controlled or affiliated employers, lenders, potential purchasers and others dealing with these plans or the businesses that sponsor them.  

Because employer funding obligations under these rules depend heavily upon interest and other investment performance used to calculate funding levels, employer funding obligations tend to spike during economic depressions or slowdowns, resulting in sharp increases in funding obligations for employers at a time when the tight economy already makes finances tight.   Congress has faced growing pressure to provide some sort of defined benefit pension plan funding relief as low investment returns and strained corporate budgets during the ongoing economic crisis have fueled an underfunding epidemic among employers sponsoring defined benefit pension plans and threatened the financial viability of many sponsoring employers and the federal insurance program responsible for providing backup insurance for private employer defined benefit commitments administered by the PBGC.

MAP-21 provides immediate defined benefit plan funding relief by changing how the interest rates that employers must use to calculate their current defined benefit plan funding obligations are calculated.  MAP-21 defined benefit plan funding reforms effectively decrease current defined benefit plan funding costs by establishing a minimum and maximum for the interest segment rates defined benefit plans use to calculate currently required funding based on a historic 25-year average of those segment rates. It is important that employers and plan fiduciaries keep in mind that the MAP-21 interest rate change applies to the calculation of current funding obligations that employer.  It does not apply for purposes of calculating lump sum distributions, limits on deductible contributions to single-employer plans, PBGC variable-rate premiums, fi

With many employers continuing to meet defined benefit plan funding requirements driven up by the continued excessively low investment performance of their benefit plan investment in the slow economic environment, defined benefit pension plan funding relief included in the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act”(MAP–21”) signed into law by President Obama on July 6, 2012 provides welcome and  much-needed pension funding relief. For many financially strapped businesses that sponsor defined benefit plans, the MAP-21 relief may allow the employer to avoid terminating its defined benefit plan, escape costly underfunding consequences that many defined benefit plan sponsors fear will financially cripple or bankrupt their companies, or both.

MAP-21 provides immediate funding relief for financially strapped defined benefit plan sponsors and makes various other reforms impacting defined benefit pension plans and the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) insurance program that helps to insure certain benefit commitments made under these defined benefit plans.  The MAP-21 funding relief is intended to help employers struggling to meet heightened pension funding obligations brought about by the decline in investment performance resulting from the economic downturn.

nancial reporting under Section 4010 of ERISA, and qualified transfers of excess pension assets to retiree medical accounts.

In addition to changing the rules for calculating interest rates for purposes of determining defined benefit plan minimum funding obligations, MAP-21 also extends rules allowing transfers of excess pension assets to retiree health accounts to December 31, 2021 and expands those transfer rules also to allow transfers to fund retiree group term life insurance accounts.

Finally, in addition to these changes to defined benefit pension plan funding rules, MAP-21 also reorganizes the PBGC organizational structure and increases PBGC insurance premiums.

While the MAP-21 reforms will provide welcome relief, sponsoring businesses, their commonly controlled and affiliated employers, lenders, investors and successors still must exercise care to carefully monitor the funding status of defined benefit plans and the potential liabilities and responsibilities associated with these plans.  Appropriate steps should be taken to maintain required funding levels or, at the first sign of trouble, to seek experienced legal and actuarial advice and help to identify and take prompt steps to pursue options to head off a potential crisis by freezing or terminating the plan, providing required notifications and disclosures to participants and beneficiaries, the PBGC, lenders, investors, and other concerned parties, and other actions to mitigate exposures. 

For More Information Or Assistance

If you need help reviewing or responding to the defined benefit plan funding or other employee benefit, compensation or employment regulations or other related matters please contact Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or (469)767-8872. 

A Fellow in the the American College of Employee Benefits Council, Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Immediate Past Chair and current Welfare Plan Committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Group, a Council Member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Vice-Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Commitee, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, management attorney and consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer nearly 25 years experience advising and representing employers,  employee benefit plans, their sponsors, bankruptcy creditors, debtors and trustees, plan  fiduciaries and plan administrators, consultants, vendors, outsourcers, insurers, governments and others about employment, employee benefit, compensation, and a wide range of other performance, legal and operational risk management practices and concerns.  As a part of this work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with clients to manage risks and defend practices under a wide range of laws and circumstances.  Her experience includes extensive work advising and representing employers, plans, plan fiduciaries, trustees, investors, and others about managing and resolving risks relating to distressed pension and other employee benefit plans, downsizing and other workforce reengineering and other similar matters.  A prolific author and popular speaker, Ms. Stamer also publishes, conducts client and other training, speaks and consults extensively on GINA and other employment and employee benefit risk management practices and concerns for the ABA, World At Work, SHRM, American Health Lawyers Association, Institute of Internal Auditors, Society for Professional Benefits Administrators, HCCA, Southwest Benefits Association and many other organizations.  Her insights on these and related topics have appeared in Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, various ABA publications and a many other national and local publications. To learn more about Ms. Stamer, her experience, involvements, programs and publications, see here or contact Ms. Stamer.

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