Case of the Week – Definition of Compensation when Safe Harbor Match Eliminated Mid Year

 By Jenny Kiffmeyer, J.D – The Retirement Learning Center

Definition of Compensation when Safe Harbor Match Eliminated Mid Year

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center (RLC) Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings and income plans, including nonqualified plans, stock options, and Social Security and Medicare.  We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business.

A recent call with a financial advisor from Ohio is representative of a common inquiry related to the definition of compensation. “The company is a safe harbor 401(k) match plan and they pay the match in a lump sum after the plan year.  The company amended the plan to remove the safe harbor matching contribution mid-year. What definition of compensation should the plan use to determine the amount of match to make—full year or partial year?

Highlights of the Discussion

The IRS has provided guidance in treasury regulations treasury regulations  as follows.

“A plan that is amended during the plan year to reduce or suspend safe harbor contributions (whether nonelective contributions or matching contributions) must pro rate the otherwise applicable compensation limit under section 401(a)(17) in accordance with the requirements of § 1.401(a)(17)–1(b)(3)(iii)(A).”

Consequently, when a safe harbor 401(k) reduces or suspends the matching contribution mid-year via amendment, the plan would use prorated compensation to determine the amount of match to make for the shortened period of time the match is given.

However, because the plan is no longer a safe harbor plan, it must be amended to provide that the actual deferral percentage (ADP) test and actual contribution percentage (ACP) tests will be satisfied for the entire plan year in which the reduction or suspension occurs using the current year testing method described in §1.401(k)–2(a)(2)(ii).  Therefore, the plan would be required to use full year compensation to run the ADP and ACP tests [see Treas. Reg. Sections 1.401(k)-3(g)(1)(iv) ].


Using the correct definition of compensation for plan purposes is one of the top compliance concerns of the IRS. This hurdle is confounded even further when plans realize more than one definition of compensation may apply depending on the circumstance.


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