Fast Facts

Executive retirement plans allow some executives to defer their pay and related income taxes to future years. We looked at these plans and found:

Benefits for executives—e.g., no limits on how much pay can be deferred

Risks for executives—if companies go bankrupt, they may not receive deferred pay

Little oversight information—oversight agencies don’t have much data on who’s participating

Federal revenues—the effect of these plans on federal revenues is unknown

Our recommendations to IRS and the Department of Labor are to improve information about these plans and strengthen oversight.

Smashed piggy bank

Smashed piggy bank

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What GAO Found

Executive retirement plans allow select managers or highly compensated employees to save for retirement by deferring compensation and taxes. As of 2017, more than 400 of the large public companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock market index offered such plans to almost 2,300 of their top executives, totaling about $13 billion in accumulated benefit promises. Top executives at large public companies generally accumulated more plan benefits than top executives at the smaller public companies in the Russell 3000 stock market index. Advantages of these plans include their ability to help executives increase retirement savings and potentially reduce tax liability, but the plans come with risks as well. To receive tax deferral, federal law requires the deferred compensation to remain part of a company's assets and subject to creditor claims until executives receive distributions (see figure). Department of Treasury officials and industry experts said executive retirement plans can be tax-advantaged and may have revenue effects for the federal government; however, the revenue effects are currently unknown.

Federal Income Tax Treatment of Deferred Compensation in Executive Retirement Plans

Federal Income Tax Treatment of Deferred Compensation in Executive Retirement Plans

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) oversees executive retirement plans for compliance with federal tax laws. For example, IRS must ensure that key executives are taxed on deferred compensation in certain cases where that compensation has been set aside, such as when a company that sponsors a qualified defined benefit retirement plan is in bankruptcy. However, IRS audit instructions lack sufficient information on what data to collect or questions to ask to help its auditors know if companies are complying with this requirement. As a result, IRS cannot ensure that companies are reporting this compensation as part of key executives' income for taxation. The Department of Labor (DOL) oversees these plans to ensure that only eligible employees participate in them since these plans are excluded from most of the federal substantive protections that cover retirement plans for rank-and-file employees. DOL requires companies to report the number of participants in the plan; however, the one-time single page filing does not collect information on the job title or salary of executives or the percentage of the company's workforce participating in these plans. Such key information could allow DOL to better identify plans that may be including ineligible employees. Without reviewing its reporting requirements to ensure adequate useful information, DOL may continue to lack insight into the make-up of these plans and will lack assurance that only select managers and highly compensated employees are participating.

Why GAO Did This Study

Some types of employers offer executive retirement plans to help select employees save for retirement. There are no statutory limits on the amount of compensation that executives can defer or benefits they can receive under these plans. However, employees in these plans do not receive the full statutory protections afforded to most other private sector employer-sponsored retirement plans, such as those related to vesting and fiduciary responsibility, among other things. These plans can provide advantages but they also have disadvantages because plan benefits are subject to financial risk, such as in a company bankruptcy. GAO was asked to review these plans.

This report examines, among other objectives, (1) the prevalence, key advantages, and revenue effects of executive retirement plans and (2) how federal oversight protects benefits and prevents ineligible participation. GAO analyzed industry-compiled Securities and Exchange Commission plan data for 2013 to 2017 (the most recent data available at the time of our analysis); reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance; and interviewed officials from IRS and DOL, among others.

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GAO is making four recommendations, including that IRS improve its instructions for auditing companies that offer these plans, and that DOL consider modifying reporting by companies to better describe participants in these plans. IRS and DOL neither agreed nor disagreed with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Internal Revenue Service The IRS Commissioner should develop specific instructions within the Internal Revenue Manual, the Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Audit Techniques Guide, or other IRS training material to aid examiners in obtaining and evaluating information they can use to determine whether there exists a restricted period with respect to a company with a single-employer defined benefit plan and if a company with a single-employer defined benefit plan has, during a restricted period, set aside assets for the purpose of paying deferred compensation under an executive retirement plan. (Recommendation 1)
IRS stated that they would review and consider developing further specific instructions within the Internal Revenue Manual, the Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Audit Techniques Guide or other IRS training material to aid examiners. We believe that implementing this recommendation will help ensure that IRS is aware of when companies with at-risk single-employer defined benefit plans are reporting assets set aside to pay deferred compensation to key executives while in a restricted period as income for those employees
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Labor should review and determine whether its reporting requirements for executive retirement plans should be modified to provide additional information DOL could use to oversee whether these plans are meeting eligibility requirements. (Recommendation 2)
DOL stated that it does not have plans to issue guidance or regulations regarding executive retirement plans, citing, among other considerations, existing resource constraints and priority regulatory and guidance projects in development, and that it would not be advisable to shift resources from other projects. GAO continues to maintain that DOL's one-time single page alternative reporting for executive retirement plans lacks important information sufficient to help the agency identify whether companies may be including ineligible employees in its plan and DOL's current data on executive retirement plans has limited usefulness due to the age and limits of the original data submitted.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Labor should explore actions the agency could take to help companies prevent the inclusion of rank-and-file employees in executive retirement plans and determine which, if any, actions should be implemented. (Recommendation 3)
DOL stated that the agency has not encountered evidence of systematic abuses involving executive retirement plans or that ERISA's claims procedure rules and judicial remedies are inadequate to protect participants' benefit rights. However, we reported that industry surveys indicate that some companies may be extending employee eligibility to high percentages of their workforce who are lower-paid and lower-ranked employees who may not be considered a part of a select group. Industry experts also told us that plan eligibility requirements for executive retirement plans are not clearly defined and that companies are unclear on how to establish eligibility, and they identified court cases that contribute to the confusion regarding plan eligibility. Implementing this recommendation will help ensure that only executives who can bear the risks inherent in these plans are participating.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Labor should provide specific instructions for companies to follow to correct eligibility errors that occur when rank-and-file employees are found to be participating in executive retirement plans, and should coordinate with other federal agencies on these instructions, as appropriate. (Recommendation 4)
DOL suggested a remedy in an amicus brief for companies to follow to correct eligibility errors in these plans could have unintended consequences for participants because, according to IRS officials, it could result in violations of federal tax law and additional tax for participants. We urge DOL to develop instructions to correct eligibility errors, in coordination with other federal agencies, as needed, in a way that does not adversely affect rank-and-file employees participating in these plans.

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