Employee Benefit Plan Audits

by Jeremy Myers, CPA

Senior Audit Manager at Atchley & Associates, LLP


We are getting closer to the time of the year that human resource professionals in every industry are putting together their employee benefit plan’s census to start the process of filing their annual IRS Form 5500.  Depending on the size of your plan, you may file as a small plan or a large plan.  Plan sponsors can review their prior year Form 5500 which details the number of participants at year end. If that number is greater than 100, then you are likely to file as a large plan.  When filing as a large plan, your employee benefit plan is required to be audited by an independent auditor and that audit must be filed with your Form 5500.

Filing Deadlines

For plans with December 31st year end, IRS Form 5500 has a normal filing deadline of July 31st which is extendable to October 15th using Form 5558.

Employee Benefit Plan Audit Requirements

Once a benefit plan reaches 100 or more eligible participants at the beginning of the plan year, the plan is considered to be a large plan and an audit is required.  Eligibility is defined by the plan adoption agreement and is unique to each plan; it does not matter if the employee decides to enroll in the plan or not.

  • 80-120 Rule – There is a specific exemption for plans that have between 80-120 eligible plan participants at the beginning of the plan year to file their Form 5500 the same way it was filed in the previous year. With the 80-120 rule, plans can defer the audit requirement until the plan reaches more than 120 eligible plan participants.  A plan cannot change between a large plan to a small plan unless the plan begins the year with under 100 eligible participants.

Type of Audit – Full-Scope or Limited-Scope

There are two types of audits, Full-Scope or Limited-Scope, based on the certification of plan investments and loan balances.  If the investments are certified by the TPA, typically the Trustee who holds the investments, under 29 CFR 2520.103-8 of the Department of Labor’s Rules and Regulations for Reporting and Disclosure under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, the audit qualifies as a Limited-Scope Audit.  Limited-Scope Audits allow the auditor to rely on the certified investment statements and not perform additional procedures on those investments or loans.  Full-Scope Audits also include an audit of the investment and loan transactions.

What a Limited-Scope Audit Covers

The most common audits are Limited-Scope Audits and we typically test/verify information related to the employees of the plan sponsor(s).  An audit typically consists of the following steps:

  • Insuring that eligibility of participants was determined properly
  • Testing employee and employer contributions for both value and timing in accordance with the plan document and the Department of Labor (DOL) timing guidelines
  • Verifying that loans and distributions were made in accordance with plan documents and vesting schedules
  • Verifying that earnings allocated to plan participants are in line with overall plan investment performance
  • Insuring that the Form 5500 reconciles with the audit, although we do not prepare/provide assurance on the Form 5500, we do review it to insure the required information is presented

Benefits of an Audit

In the case of benefit plan audits, as these can be required once you meet the eligibility criteria mentioned above, I’d like to highlight the benefits you will receive in addition to meeting the DOL requirements:

  • Assurance that your plan is operating in accordance with DOL requirements.
  • If contributions are not being made properly, we can help plan sponsors determine additional funding requirements.
  • We are not the DOL and we will help your plan stay in compliance to limit the impact of a DOL audit.
  • We can make suggestions to help management improve their internal controls, processes, and documentation around plan activities.
  • If forfeitures can be used to pay plan expenses, the audit qualifies to be paid out of the forfeiture account.

If you have any additional questions about Employee Benefit Plan Audits, please feel free to reach out to Jeremy Myers, CPA, Audit Senior Manager via email jmyers@atchleycpas.com or directly at (512) 590-7587.


Meals, entertainment and transportation may cost businesses more under the TCJA

Along with tax rate reductions and a new deduction for pass-through qualified business income, the new tax law brings the reduction or elimination of tax deductions for certain business expenses. Two expense areas where the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) changes the rules — and not to businesses’ benefit — are meals/entertainment and transportation. In effect, the reduced tax benefits will mean these expenses are more costly to a business’s bottom line.

Meals and entertainment

Prior to the TCJA, taxpayers generally could deduct 50% of expenses for business-related meals and entertainment. Meals provided to an employee for the convenience of the employer on the employer’s business premises were 100% deductible by the employer and tax-free to the recipient employee.

Under the new law, for amounts paid or incurred after December 31, 2017, deductions for business-related entertainment expenses are disallowed.

Meal expenses incurred while traveling on business are still 50% deductible, but the 50% limit now also applies to meals provided via an on-premises cafeteria or otherwise on the employer’s premises for the convenience of the employer. After 2025, the cost of meals provided through an on-premises cafeteria or otherwise on the employer’s premises will no longer be deductible.


The TCJA disallows employer deductions for the cost of providing commuting transportation to an employee (such as hiring a car service), unless the transportation is necessary for the employee’s safety.

The new law also eliminates employer deductions for the cost of providing qualified employee transportation fringe benefits. Examples include parking allowances, mass transit passes and van pooling. These benefits are, however, still tax-free to recipient employees.

Transportation expenses for employee work-related travel away from home are still deductible (and tax-free to the employee), as long as they otherwise qualify for such tax treatment. (Note that, for 2018 through 2025, employees can’t deduct unreimbursed employee business expenses, such as travel expenses, as a miscellaneous itemized deduction.)

Assessing the impact

The TCJA’s changes to deductions for meals, entertainment and transportation expenses may affect your business’s budget. Depending on how much you typically spend on such expenses, you may want to consider changing some of your policies and/or benefits offerings in these areas. We’d be pleased to help you assess the impact on your business.

© 2018

Should your business use per diem rates for travel reimbursement?

Updated travel per diem rates go into effect October 1. To simplify recordkeeping, they can be used for reimbursement of ordinary and normal business expenses incurred while employees travel away from home.

Per diem advantages

As long as employees properly account for their business-travel expenses, reimbursements are generally tax-free to the employees and deductible by the employer. But keeping track of actual costs can be a headache.

With the per diem rates, employees don’t have to keep receipts for covered travel expenses. They just need to document the time, place and business purpose of the travel. Assuming that the travel qualifies as a business expense, the employer simply pays the employee the per diem allowance designated for the specific travel destination and deducts the per diem paid.

Although the per diem rates are set by the General Services Administration (GSA) to cover travel by government employees, private employers may use them for tax purposes. The rates are updated annually for the following areas:

  • The 48 states in the continental United States and the District of Columbia (CONUS),
  • Nonstandard Areas (NSAs) that are in CONUS but have per diem rates higher than the standard CONUS rates,
  • Certain areas outside the continental United States, including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and U.S. possessions (OCONUS), and
  • Foreign countries.

The rates include amounts for lodging and for meals and incidental expenses (M&IE) but not airfare and other transportation costs.

What’s new?

For October 1, 2017, through September 30, 2018, the per diem standard CONUS rate is $144, an increase of $2 over the prior year. This rate consists of $93 for lodging and $51 for M&IE. Also effective October 1, there are 332 NSAs. The following locations have moved from NSAs into the standard CONUS rate:

  • California: Redding
  • Iowa: Cedar Rapids
  • Idaho: Bonners Ferry / Sandpoint
  • North Dakota: Dickenson / Beulah
  • New York: Watertown
  • Ohio: Youngstown
  • Oklahoma: Enid
  • Pennsylvania: Mechanicsburg
  • Texas: Laredo, McAllen, Pearsall and San Angelo
  • Wyoming: Gillette.

There are no new NSA locations.

What’s right for you?

As noted earlier, the per diem changes go into effect on October 1, 2017. During the last three months of 2017, an employer may switch to the new rates or continue with the old rates. But an employer must select one set of rates for this quarter and stick with it; it can’t use the old rates for some employees and the new rates for others.

Because travel expenses often attract IRS attention, they require careful recordkeeping. The per diem method can help, but it’s not the best solution for all employers. An even simpler “high-low” per diem method is also available. And, in some cases, a policy of reimbursing actual expenses could be beneficial, despite the recordkeeping hassles. If you have questions regarding travel expense reimbursements, please contact us.

© 2017

Changes to I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification Form

Effective September 18, 2017, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a revised version of Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification. Federal law requires that this form be used by any employer to ensure and verify your employee’s identity and employment authorization.

What are some of the revisions made to Form I-9?

  • Instructions for Form I-9 have been updated
  • List C – Documents that Establish Employment Authorization has been changed

Some things to consider with this newest form:

  • Employers must being using this newest version of Form I-9 [Form I-9 07/17/17 N]. All previous versions of I-9 after 09/19/17 will not be valid.
  • For any current employees, the previously completed Form I-9 on file will be valid.

For a complete list of formats and instructions available for I-9, please visit the USCIS website: www.uscis.gov/i-9.

Use qualified auditors for your employee benefit plans

Employee benefit plans with 100 or more participants must generally provide an audit report when filing IRS Form 5500 each year. Plan administrators have fiduciary responsibilities to hire independent qualified public accountants to perform quality audits.

Select a qualified auditor

ERISA guidelines require employee benefit plan auditors to be licensed or certified public accountants. They also require auditors to be independent. In other words, they can’t have a financial interest in the plan or the plan sponsor that would bias their opinion about a plan’s financial condition.

But specialization also matters. The more training and experience that an auditor has with plan audits, the more familiar he or she will be with benefit plan practices and operations, as well as the special auditing standards and rules that apply to such plans. Examples of audit areas that are unique to employee benefit plans include contributions, benefit payments, participant data, and party-in-interest and prohibited transactions.

Ask questions

Employee benefit plan audits are a matter of more than just compliance. The auditor’s report highlights any problems unearthed during the audit, which can serve as a springboard for improving plan operations. The conclusion of audit work is a good time to ask such questions as the following:

  • Have plan assets covered by the audit been fairly valued?
  • Are plan obligations properly stated and described?
  • Were contributions to the plan received in a timely manner?
  • Were benefit payments made in accordance with plan terms?
  • Did the auditor identify any issues that may impact the plan’s tax status?
  • Did the auditor identify any transactions that are prohibited under ERISA?

Experienced auditors can also suggest ways to improve your plan’s operations based on their audit findings.

Protect yourself

Employee benefit plan audits offer critical protection to plan administrators and employees. Your company can’t afford to skimp when it comes to hiring an auditor who is unbiased, experienced and reliable. Contact us for more information on hiring a plan auditor.

© 2017

Take small-business tax credits where credits are due

Tax credits reduce tax liability dollar-for-dollar, making them particularly valuable. Two available credits are especially for small businesses that provide certain employee benefits. And one of them might not be available after 2017.
1. Small-business health care credit
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) offers a credit to certain small employers that provide employees with health coverage. The maximum credit is 50% of group health coverage premiums paid by the employer, provided it contributes at least 50% of the total premium or of a benchmark premium.
For 2016, the full credit is available for employers with 10 or fewer full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) and average annual wages of $25,000 or less per employee. Partial credits are available on a sliding scale to businesses with fewer than 25 FTEs and average annual wages of less than $52,000.
To qualify for the credit, online enrollment in the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) generally is required. In addition, the credit can be claimed for only two years, and they must be consecutive. (Credits claimed before 2014 don’t count, however.)
If you meet the eligibility requirements but have been waiting to claim the credit until a future year when you think it might provide more savings, claiming the credit for 2016 may be a good idea. Why? It’s possible the credit will go away for 2018 because lawmakers in Washington are starting to take steps to repeal or replace the ACA.
Most likely any ACA repeal or replacement wouldn’t go into effect until 2018 (or possibly later). So if you claim the credit for 2016, you may also be able to claim it on your 2017 return next year (provided you again meet the eligibility requirements). That way, you could take full advantage of the credit while it’s available.
2. Retirement plan credit 
Small employers (generally those with 100 or fewer employees) that create a retirement plan may be eligible for a $500 credit per year for three years. The credit is limited to 50% of qualified start-up costs.
Of course, you generally can deduct contributions you make to your employees’ accounts under the plan. And your employees enjoy the benefit of tax-advantaged retirement saving.
If you didn’t create a retirement plan in 2016, it might not be too late. Simplified Employee Pensions (SEPs) can be set up as late as the due date of your tax return, including extensions.
Maximize tax savings
Be aware that additional rules apply beyond what we’ve discussed here. We can help you determine whether you’re eligible for these credits. We can also advise you on what other credits you might be eligible for when you file your 2016 return so that you can maximize your tax savings.
© 2017

Help prevent the year-end vacation-time scramble with a PTO contribution arrangement

Many businesses find themselves short-staffed from Thanksgiving through December 31 as employees take time off to spend with family and friends. But if you limit how many vacation days employees can roll over to the new year, you might find your workplace a ghost town as workers scramble to use, rather than lose, their time off. A paid time off (PTO) contribution arrangement may be the solution.

How it works

A PTO contribution program allows employees with unused vacation hours to elect to convert them to retirement plan contributions. If the plan has a 401(k) feature, it can treat these amounts as a pretax benefit, similar to normal employee deferrals. Alternatively, the plan can treat the amounts as employer profit sharing, converting excess PTO amounts to employer contributions.

A PTO contribution arrangement can be a better option than increasing the number of days employees can roll over. Why? Larger rollover limits can result in employees building up large balances that create a significant liability on your books.

Getting started

To offer a PTO contribution arrangement, simply amend your plan. However, you must still follow the plan document’s eligibility, vesting, rollover, distribution and loan terms. Additional rules apply.

To learn more about PTO contribution arrangements, including their tax implications, please contact us.

© 2016