Proposed Bill Would Streamline Employer Reporting Under ACA

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October 16, 2017

On October 3, bipartisan legislation was introduced in the House and the Senate to streamline the employer health-coverage reporting requirements under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  In contrast to the ACA repeal-and-replace bills proposed in the past several months, which do not directly affect ACA information reporting provisions (see prior coverage), the Commonsense Reporting Act would direct the Treasury Department to implement a more streamlined, prospective reporting system less burdensome than the current requirements.  Specifically, the legislation would create a voluntary prospective reporting system for employer-provided health coverage and permit employers who use this system to provide employee statements under section 6056 only to employees who have purchased coverage through an exchange, rather than to the entire workforce.  The Commonsense Reporting Act has bipartisan support, and may gain more traction if Congress seeks to improve the ACA and its exchanges rather than repeal and replace the ACA entirely.

The ACA requires employers and insurance carriers to gather monthly data and report them to the IRS and their employees annually under sections 6055 and 6056.  This reporting is intended to verify compliance with the individual and employer mandates, and to administer premium tax credits and cost sharing subsidies under the state and federally-facilitated insurance exchanges.  Section 6056 requires applicable large employers (ALEs) to file a return with the IRS and provide a statement to each full-time employee with information regarding the offer of employer-sponsored health care coverage.

At its core, the Commonsense Reporting Act would create a voluntary prospective reporting system.  This system would allow employers to make available data regarding their health plans not later than 45 days before the first day of open enrollment, rather than at the end of a tax year.  The data required includes the employer’s name and EIN, as well as certifications regarding:

  • whether minimum essential coverage under section 5000A(f) is offered to the following groups: full-time employees, part-time employees, dependents, or spouses;
  • whether the coverage meets the minimum value requirement of section 36B;
  • whether the coverage satisfies one of the affordability safe harbors under section 4980H; and
  • whether the employer reasonably expects to be liable for any shared responsibility payments under section 4980H for the year.

The employer would also need to provide the months during the prospective reporting period that this coverage is available, and the applicable waiting periods.

The proposed legislation would also ease an employer’s obligation to furnish employee statements (Forms 1095-C) regarding employer-provided coverage pursuant to section 6056.  Specifically, employers who use the voluntary prospective reporting system must provide employee statements only to those who have purchased coverage through an Exchange (based on information provided by the Exchange to the employer), rather than to the entire workforce.  Presumably, the rationale is that an employee covered through an Exchange can use information provided in Part II of the Form 1095-C—regarding whether, in each month, the employer offered minimum essential coverage (MEC) that is affordable and that provides minimum value—to apply for the premium tax credit.  This credit is available only for employees covered through an Exchange and only for the months in which the employee was not eligible for affordable employer-provided MEC that provides minimum value and any other MEC outside the individual market.

In addition to these changes to employer health-coverage reporting, the proposed legislation would also: (a) direct the IRS to accept full names and dates of birth in lieu of dependents’ and spouses’ Social Security numbers and require the Social Security Administration to assist in the data-matching process; (b) allow for electronic transmission of employee and enrollee statements without requiring recipients to affirmatively opt-in to electronic receipt; and (c) require the Government Accountability Office to study the functionality of the voluntary prospective reporting system.

Although the legislation has attracted the support of a large number of business groups, it remains unclear whether it can overcome the current reluctance among Republican Representatives and Senators to take any action that may further entrench the ACA.  Given the White House’s recent actions that appear designed to weaken the ACA, White House support may also be difficult to garner.  We will monitor the legislation for further developments.

Graham-Cassidy Bill Eliminates Premium Tax Credit But Retains ACA Information Reporting Requirements

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September 21, 2017

With the September 30 budget reconciliation deadline looming, Senate Republican leaders recently released the Graham-Cassidy proposal, which would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, but retain most of its information reporting requirements.  A departure from previous GOP proposals (see discussions here and here), the Graham-Cassidy proposal would completely eliminate federal premium tax credits by January 2020, and not provide any other health insurance tax credits.  The legislation would instead put in place a system of block grants to the states which states could use to increase health coverage, but would not be required to use for that purpose.  The proposal would also zero out penalties for the individual and employer mandates beginning in 2016.

The information reporting rules under Code sections 6055 and 6056 would be retained under the proposal, but it is unclear what purpose the Form 1095-B would serve after 2019 when there is no penalty for failing to comply with the individual mandate and no premium tax credit or other health insurance tax credit.  The bill likely does not repeal the provisions because of limitations on the budget reconciliation process, which requires that changes have a budgetary impact.  The proposal would also keep in place the 3.8% net investment income tax, as well as the 0.9% additional Medicare tax on wages above a certain threshold that varies based on filing status and that employers are required to withhold and remit when paying wages to an employee over $250,000.

The Senate has until the end of this month to pass a bill with 51 Senate votes under the budget reconciliation process, before rules preventing a Democratic filibuster expire.  A vote is expected next week.

Tax Relief for Leave-Based Donation Programs and Qualified Plan Distribution Extended to Hurricane Irma Victims

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September 18, 2017

The IRS recently announced favorable tax relief for “leave-based donation programs” designed to aid victims of Hurricane Irma, as well as easier access to funds in qualified retirement plans for these victims.  These forms of relief were provided to victims of Hurricane Harvey last month (see prior coverage), and as expected, were promptly extended to victims of Hurricane Irma.

Specifically, under Notice 2017-52, employees may forgo paid vacation, sick, or personal leave in exchange for cash donation the employer makes, before January 1, 2019, to charitable organization providing relief for the Hurricane Irma victims.  The IRS will not treat the donated leave as income or wages to the employee, and will permit employers to deduct the donations as business expenses.  Similarly, in Announcement 2017-13, the IRS extended to employees affected by Hurricane Irma the relaxed distribution rules announced following Hurricane Harvey for plan loans and hardship distributions from qualified retirement plans.  The relief generally permits plan sponsors to adopt amendments permitting plan loans and hardship withdrawals later than would otherwise be required to provide such options, waives the six-month suspension of contributions for hardship withdrawals, and allows the disbursement of hardship withdrawals and plan loans before certain procedural requirements are satisfied.

As we discussed with respect to Hurricane Harvey, employers looking to provide further relief to their employees have other long-standing options, as well.  For example, Notice 2006-59 provides favorable tax treatment similar to that provided under Notice 2017-52 for “leave-sharing plans” that permit employees to deposit leave in an employer-sponsored leave bank for use by other employees who have been harmed by a major disaster.  Additionally, section 139 permits individuals to exclude from gross income and wages any “qualified disaster relief payment” for reasonable and necessary personal, family, living, or funeral expenses, among others; and the payments may be made through company-sponsored private foundations (see our recent Client Alert on section 139 disaster relief payments).

Hurricane Harvey Prompts IRS to Provide Tax Relief for Leave-Based Donation Programs

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September 7, 2017

The IRS recently released Notice 2017-48, providing favorable tax relief for “leave-based donation programs” designed to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey.  Under these programs, employees may elect to forgo vacation, sick, or personal leave in exchange for payments that the employer makes to charitable organizations described under section 170(c).  Under this notice, payments employees elect to forgo do not constitute income or wages of the employees for federal income and employment tax purposes if the employer makes the payments, before January 1, 2019, to charitable organizations for the relief of victims of Hurricane Harvey.  The IRS will not assert that an opportunity to make this election results in employees’ constructive receipt of the payments.  Thus, the employer would not need to include the payments in Box 1, 3 (if applicable), or 5 of the Forms W-2 for employees electing to forgo their vacation, sick, or personal leave.

With respect to employer deductions, the IRS will not assert that an employer is permitted to deduct these cash payments exclusively under the rules of section 170, applicable to deductions for charitable contributions, rather than the rules of section 162.  Accordingly, the deduction will not be limited by the percentage limitation under section 170(b)(2)(A) or subject to the procedural requirements of section 170(a).  Thus, payments made to charitable organizations pursuant to leave-based donation programs are deductible to the extent the payments would be deductible under section 162 if paid to the employees (i.e., the payments would have constituted reasonable compensation and met certain other requirements).

The requirements of Notice 2017-48 are straightforward, but if an employer fails to comply, the general tax doctrines of assignment of income and constructive receipt would apply.  Under these doctrines, if an employee can choose between receiving compensation or assigning the right to that compensation to someone else, the employee has constructive receipt of the compensation even though he or she never actually receives it.  (These concepts also create difficulties for paid-time off programs under which employees can choose to use PTO or receive cash.)  Thus, without special tax relief, an employee who assigns the right to compensation to a charitable organization would be taxed on that compensation, and the employer would have corresponding income and employment tax withholding and reporting obligations.  Although the employee would be entitled to take an itemized deduction for charitable contributions in that amount, this below-the-line deduction only affects income taxes (and not FICA taxes), and would not fully offset the amount of the income for non-itemizers who claim the standard deduction ($6,300 for single filers in 2016).

The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey and the impending threat of Hurricane Irma, which is currently affecting islands in the Eastern Caribbean islands, have renewed interest in favorable charitable contribution tax rules that extend beyond the parameters of section 170.  Apart from Notice 2017-48, the IRS has also previously provided certain special tax treatment for disaster relief payments employers provide to their employees.  On August 30, the IRS provided for easier access to funds in qualified retirement plans in IRS Announcement 2017-11.  The rules generally permit plan sponsors to adopt amendments permitting plan loans and hardship withdrawals later than would otherwise be required to provide such options, waive the six-month suspension of contributions for hardship withdrawals, and allow the disbursement of hardship withdrawals and plan loans before certain procedural requirements are satisfied.  Although the relief provided in Announcement 2017-11 applies only to those affected by Hurricane Harvey (and Notice 2017-48 applies only to charitable contributions designed to aid such individuals), it is likely the IRS will provide similar relief to those affected by Hurricane Irma if it makes landfall in the United States, as appears likely at this time.

Employers looking to provide further relief to their employees have other long-standing options, as well.  For example, Notice 2006-59 provides favorable tax treatment similar to that provided under Notice 2017-48 for “leave-sharing plans” that permits employees to deposit leave in an employer-sponsored leave bank for use by other employees who have been harmed by a major disaster.  Additionally, section 139 permits individuals to exclude from gross income and wages any “qualified disaster relief payment” for reasonable and necessary personal, family, living, or funeral expenses, among others; and the payments may be made through company-sponsored private foundations (see our recent Client Alert on section 139 disaster relief payments).

Version III of Senate GOP Health Care Bill Retains Same Health Coverage Reporting Rules

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July 20, 2017

Senate Republicans have just released another update to the Better Care Reconciliation Act, which would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.  This updated bill preserves the same health coverage reporting rules under the prior version that was released a week ago on July 13 (discussed here).  Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell stated that he expects a vote early next week on a motion to start the debate on either a repeal-and-replace bill or a standalone ACA-repeal bill.

Updated Senate GOP Health Care Bill Retains Additional Medicare Tax and Most Health Coverage Reporting Rules

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July 13, 2017

This morning, Senate Republican leaders released an updated Better Care Reconciliation Act that would largely retain the existing health coverage reporting regime enacted as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In contrast to the prior Senate bill (see prior coverage), the updated bill would keep in place the 3.8% net investment income tax, as well as the 0.9% additional Medicare tax, which employers are required to withhold and remit when paying wages to an employee over a certain threshold (e.g., $200,000 for single filers and $250,000 for joint filers). The updated bill is otherwise similar to the prior bill from a health reporting standpoint, as it would keep the current premium tax credit (with new restrictions effective in 2020) and retain the information reporting rules under Code sections 6055 and 6056. (The House bill passed on May 4, 2017 (discussed here and here), by contrast, would introduce an age-based health insurance coverage credit along with new information reporting requirements.) The updated bill would also zero out penalties for the individual and employer mandates beginning in 2016.

In addition to the ACA repeal-and-replace efforts in the Senate bill, the House Committee on Appropriations included in its appropriation bill a provision that would stop the IRS from using its funding to enforce the individual mandate or the related information reporting rule under Code section 6055 for minimum essential coverage (on Form 1095-B or 1095-C). This provision would be effective on October 1 this year. Apart from significantly cutting IRS funding, however, the appropriation bill would not otherwise affect IRS enforcement of information reporting by applicable large employers regarding employer-provided health insurance coverage. Thus, even if both the Senate health care bill and the House appropriation bill were to become law as currently proposed, applicable large employers would still be required to file Forms 1094-C and 1095-C pursuant to Code section 6056 in the coming years.

Senate GOP Health Care Bill Would Retain Most Existing Health Coverage Reporting Rules

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June 23, 2017

Yesterday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a draft version of the Better Care Reconciliation Act, which would retain much of the existing health coverage reporting rules enacted as part of the Affordable Care Act.  Unlike the House bill passed on May 4, 2017 (discussed here and here), which would introduce an age-based health insurance coverage credit and corresponding information reporting requirements, the Senate bill would keep the current premium tax credit (with new restrictions effective in 2020), and leave untouched the information reporting regime under Code sections 6055 and 6056.  Thus, Applicable large employers (ALEs) would still be required to file Forms 1094-C and 1095-C pursuant to Code section 6056, even though the bill would reduce penalties for failure to comply with the employer mandate to zero beginning in 2016.  Similarly, the Senate bill does not eliminate the requirement for providers of minimum essential coverage under section 6055 to report coverage on Form 1095-B (or Form 1095-C) despite eliminating the penalty on individuals for failing to maintain coverage. The Senate bill would, however, repeal the additional Medicare tax and thereby eliminate employers’ corresponding reporting and withholding obligations beginning in 2023.

The fate of this draft bill remains uncertain, as several Republican Senators have already expressed unwillingness to support the bill, which is not expected to find any support among Senate Democrats.  We will continue to monitor further developments on the Senate bill and its impact on the information reporting regime for health insurance coverage.

Information Reporting Provisions of AHCA Unchanged from Earlier Bill

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May 5, 2017

Yesterday, the House of Representatives narrowly passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA) on a near party-line vote, 217-213.  The legislation would repeal many provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) but would retain and expand many of the ACA’s information reporting requirements.  After the House failed to pass the AHCA in late March, Republicans have worked to secure additional support for the legislation.

Although Republicans made changes to the legislation to enable it to pass the House, those changes do not substantively effect the information reporting provisions, including the new health insurance coverage credit reporting under section 6050X beginning in 2020, Form W-2 reporting of employer offers of coverage beginning in 2020, and the additional reporting required by providers of minimal essential coverage under Code section 6055.  (See earlier coverage here.)

The legislation faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where budget reconciliation rules and tepid support from some Republicans may make it difficult to secure passage.

House Republicans’ ACA Repeal-and-Replace Bill Would Change Health Coverage Reporting Requirements

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March 7, 2017

A House Republican bill, entitled the American Health Care Act, would repeal many provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) but retain and expand the information reporting rules.  Released on March 6, the proposal consists of two parts: (1) a bill drafted by the House Ways and Means Committee, to eliminate the ACA’s taxes and income-based subsidies, zero out penalties for the individual and employer mandates, and establish a new individual tax credit; and (2) a bill drafted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to freeze and reform Medicaid.

The Ways & Means bill would help taxpayers pay for health insurance by expanding health savings accounts, and by providing an advanceable, refundable tax credit—the “health insurance coverage” credit—for purchasing state-approved, major medical health insurance and unsubsidized COBRA coverage.  Unlike the leaked bill obtained by Politico on February 24, the bills do not cap the tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance.  Although the legislation is unlikely to pass in its current form, as it is headed for markup by the two Committees later this week, it does provide insight into the thinking of House Republicans.

Those hoping for a full repeal of the ACA’s reporting provisions will be disappointed as the ACA’s reporting regime would largely survive, at least temporarily.  Applicable large employers (ALEs), for instance, would still be required to file Forms 1094-C and 1095-C pursuant to Code section 6056, even though the bill would reduce penalties for failure to comply with the employer mandate to zero beginning in 2016.  Similarly, the Ways & Means bill does not eliminate the requirement for providers of minimum essential coverage to report coverage on Form 1095-B (or Form 1095-C) despite eliminating the penalty on individuals for failing to maintain coverage.

However, the Ways & Means bill would alter health insurance reporting in three ways.  First, the bill would establish new information reporting rules under Code section 6050X for the health insurance coverage credit beginning in 2020.  Second, the bill would expand information reporting under Code section 6055 regarding the ACA’s premium tax credits used for qualifying off-Exchange coverage in 2018 and 2019.  Third, the bill would repeal the additional Medicare tax and thereby eliminate employers’ corresponding reporting and withholding obligations beginning in 2020.

New Reporting Rules for Health Insurance Coverage Credits Beginning in 2020

The bill would replace the ACA’s premium tax credit with the health insurance coverage credit for purchasing eligible health insurance—state-approved, major medical health insurance and unsubsidized COBRA coverage—starting in 2020.  Generally, an individual is eligible for this credit only if he or she lacks access to government health insurance programs or offer of employer coverage.  The credit amount varies from $2,000 to $4,000 annually per person based on age, and phases out for those earning over $75,000 per year ($150,000 for joint filers).  The credit maxes out at $14,000 per family, and is capped by the actual amount paid for eligible health insurance.  Treasury would be required to establish a program for making advance payments of the credit, on behalf of eligible taxpayers, to providers of eligible health insurance or designated health savings accounts no later than 2020.

Reporting for Health Insurance Coverage Credit.  To administer the health insurance coverage credit, the bill would create Code section 6050X that would require providers of eligible health insurance to file information returns with the IRS and furnish taxpayer statements, starting in 2020.  The return must contain the following information: (a) the name, address, and taxpayer identification number (TIN) of each covered individual; (b) the premiums paid under the policy; (c) the amount of advance payments made on behalf of the individual; (d) the months during which the individual is covered under the policy; (e) whether the policy constitutes a high deductible health plan; and (f) any other information as Treasury may prescribe.  The bill does not specify how often providers would be required to file returns reporting this information with the IRS, but it would authorize Treasury to require a provider to report on a monthly basis if the provider receives advance payments.  A provider would also be required to furnish taxpayers, by January 31 of the year after the year of coverage, written statements containing the following information: (a) the name, address, and basic contact information of the covered entity required to file the return; and (b) the information required to be shown on the return with respect to the individual.

Employer Statement for Advance Payment Application.  The advance payment program would require an applicant—if he or she (or any qualifing family member taken into account to determine the credit amount) is employed—to submit a written statement from the applicable employer stating whether the applicant or the qualifying family member is eligible for “other specified coverage” in connection with the employment.  Other specified coverage generally includes coverage under an employer-provided group health plan (other than unsubsidized COBRA continuation coverage or plan providing excepted benefits), Medicare Part A, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and certain other government sponsored health insurance programs.  An employer shall provide this written statement at the request of any employee once the advance payment program is established.  This statement is not required if the taxpayer simply seeks the credit without advance payment.

Employer Coverage Reporting on Form W-2.  The bill would require reporting of offers of coverage by employers on the Form W-2 beginning with the 2020 tax year.  Employers would be required to report each month in which the employee is eligible for other specified coverage in connection with employment.  This requirement would likely demand a substantial revision to the current Form W-2, which is already crowded with information.  The Form W-2 reporting requirement appears to be intended to replace the reporting rules under Section 6056 based on a statement in the Ways and Means Committee summary.

Although the budget reconciliation rules limit Congress’s ability to repeal the current coverage reporting rules, the Ways and Means Committee states that Treasury can stop enforcing any reporting not required for tax purposes.  Given the elimination of penalties for individuals who fail to maintain minimum essential coverage and ALEs that fail to offer coverage, this statement may serve as a green light to undo many of the Form 1095-B and 1095-C reporting requirements once the ACA’s premium tax credits are eliminated and Form W-2 reporting is in place in 2020.

Reasonable Cause Waiver.  The bill would make these new information returns and written statements subject to the standard information reporting penalties under Code section 6721 (penalties for late, incomplete, or incorrect filing with IRS) and Code section 6722 (penalties for late, incomplete, or incorrect statements furnished to payees).  The bill also extends the reasonable cause waiver under Code section 6724 to information reporting penalties with respect to the new health insurance coverage credit returns, so that the IRS may waive such penalties if the failure is “due to reasonable cause and not to willful neglect.”

Transitional Reporting Rules for Premium Tax Credits in 2018 and 2019

The Ways & Means bill would allow the ACA’s premium tax credits to be used for off-Exchange qualified health plans in 2018 and 2019 before eliminating the credits in 2020.  The premium tax credit is a refundable, income-based credit that helps eligible individuals and families pay premiums for coverage under a “qualified health plan,” which, under current law, only includes plans sold on ACA Exchanges, and does not include catastrophic-only health plans.  The bill, however, would expand the definition of qualified health plan to include off-Exchange and catastrophic-only health insurance plans that otherwise meet the requirements for a qualified health plan, so that these types of plans would also be eligible for the premium tax credit.  Advance payment of the credit is only available for coverage enrolled in through an Exchange.

To aid in the administration of the expanded credit, the bill would amend Code section 6055(b) to require providers of minimum essential coverage to report certain information related to premium tax credits for off-Exchange qualified health plans.  Because employer-sponsored coverage does not qualify for the credit, employers sponsoring self-insured plans generally would not be required to report additional information on the Form 1095-C beyond that already required under Code sections 6055 and 6056.  Health insurance issuers who provide coverage eligible for the credit would be required to report annually to the IRS: (a) a statement that the plan is a qualified health plan (determined without regard to whether the plan is offered on an Exchange); (b) the premiums paid for the coverage; (c) the months during which this coverage was provided to the individual; (d) the adjusted monthly premium for the applicable second lowest cost silver plan for each month of coverage; and (e) any other information as Treasury may prescribe.  These new reporting requirements would apply only in 2018 and 2019, before the premium tax credit is scrapped and replaced by the health insurance coverage credit in 2020.

Repeal of Additional Medicare Tax

The bill would also repeal the additional Medicare tax under Code section 3101(b)(2), beginning in 2018.  This 0.9% tax is imposed on an employee’s wages in excess of a certain threshold (e.g., $200,000 for single filers and $250,000 for joint filers).  Under current law, employers are required to withhold and remit additional Medicare taxes when it pays wages to an employee over $200,000.  The additional Medicare tax has complicated the process for correcting employment tax errors because unlike other FICA taxes (and more like income tax withholding) the additional Medicare tax is paid on the employee’s individual income tax return.  As a result, the employer cannot make changes to the amount of additional Medicare tax reported after the end of the calendar year.  The elimination of the additional Medicare tax will likely be welcomed by employers and employees affected by it.  In addition, the bill would also repeal the net investment income tax that expanded the Medicare portion of FICA taxes to non-wage income for individuals with incomes in excess of certain thresholds.

What to Expect Next

The fate of the legislation is uncertain, and it will likely undergo substantive changes before House Republicans move the bill to the floor.  A key issue that House Republicans are reportedly debating is how to structure the health insurance coverage tax credit.  Additionally, the decision to eliminate the cap on tax breaks for employer-provided health insurance that was included in the draft language leaked in late February may mean that the legislative proposal will need to be amended to include another funding source.  However these issues are resolved, the legislation makes it clear that a health insurance reporting regime is likely to survive Republicans’ ACA repeal-and-replace efforts.  We will continue to monitor further developments on the proposal and its impact on the information reporting regime for health insurance coverage.

IRS Begins Requesting Missing ACA Returns from Employers

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January 19, 2017

Despite an uncertain future for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the IRS is moving forward with enforcement efforts for 2015.  Employers have recently begun receiving IRS Letter 5699 requesting Forms 1094-C and 1095-C for 2015.  The letter notifies the recipient that it may have been an applicable large employer (ALE) in 2015 with ACA reporting obligations and that the IRS has not yet received Forms 1095-C for 2015.  The returns were due on June 30, 2016, for electronic filings through the ACA Information Reporting (AIR) system, or May 31, 2016, for paper filing (see prior coverage).

The letter requires that, within 30 days from the date of the letter, the recipient must provide one of the following responses: (1) the recipient was an ALE for 2015 and has already filed the returns; (2) the recipient was an ALE for 2015 and is now enclosing the returns with the response; (3) the recipient was an ALE for 2015 and will file the returns by a certain date; (4) the recipient was not an ALE in 2015; or (5) an explanation of why the recipient has not filed the returns and any actions the recipient intends to take.

Code section 6056 requires ALEs to file ACA information returns with the IRS, and furnish statements to full-time employees relating to any health insurance coverage the employer offered the employee.  Failure to file returns may result in penalties under Section 6721 (penalties for late, incomplete, or incorrect filing with IRS) and Section 6722 (penalties for late, incomplete, or incorrect statements furnished to payees, in this case, employees).  Importantly, the “good faith” penalty relief previously announced by the IRS applies only to incorrect or incomplete ACA returns—not to late filing of returns (see prior coverage).  Accordingly, ALEs who failed to file the required returns by the deadline may be subject to penalties of up to $520 for each return they failed to file with the IRS and furnish to employees, in addition to any employer shared responsibility penalties that may apply if the ALE failed to offer the required coverage.

While the change in political administration casts uncertainty on the future of the ACA and its penalties, the IRS’s actions indicate that its enforcement efforts are moving forward.  The request for missing ACA returns may mean that the IRS will begin assessing ACA reporting penalties and employer shared responsibility penalties in the near future.  Accordingly, ALEs that have not yet filed the 2015 ACA returns should do so as soon as possible and timely respond to Letter 5699 if they receive one.

D.C. Council Passes Mandatory Paid Leave Bill

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December 22, 2016

The District of Columbia Council passed a generous paid family leave bill on Tuesday by a 9-4 margin.  The bill will provide eight weeks of paid leave to new mothers and fathers, six weeks for employees caring for sick family members, and two weeks for personal sick leave.  As we explained in a prior post, the District will fund the new benefit with a new 0.62 percent payroll tax on employers.  Large employers, some of whom already provide similar benefits to employees, have been increasingly outspoken against the bill, taking issue with what it views as a bill requiring them to fund paid leave for small employers who do not currently offer such benefits.  Despite large employers’ strong lobbying effort, which were joined by Mayor Muriel Bowser, the bill still passed by a comfortable margin.  Mayor Bowser has not indicated whether she will sign the bill, but the 9-4 vote is sufficient to override a veto.  Regardless of Mayor Bowser’s decision, the program will likely not get off the ground until 2019 due to the administrative hurdles required to implement the new system.

D.C. Council Moves Closer to Enacting Employer Payroll Tax to Create Nation’s Most Generous Family Leave Law

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December 7, 2016

On December 6, the District of Columbia Council advanced a bill known as the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2016.  The bill would impose an estimated $250 million in employer payroll taxes on local businesses to fund a paid leave benefit created by the bill.  The bill would raise the funds by creating a new employer payroll tax of 0.62%.  Self-employed individuals may also opt-in to the program by paying the tax.  Federal government employees and District residents who work outside of the District would not be covered by the bill.  However, Maryland and Virginia residents who work within the district would be covered and entitled to benefits from the government fund created by the bill.

If ultimately passed, the bill would require businesses to provide eight weeks of paid time-off for both full and part-time workers to care for newborn or adopted children.  The bill, which advanced on an 11-2 vote, will also guarantee six weeks of paid leave for workers to care for sick relatives, as well as two weeks of annual personal sick leave.  (Many employees would already qualify for unpaid leave under the Federal and District family and medical leave laws.)

A government insurance fund funded with the new employer payroll taxes would pay workers during their leaves. The bill provides for progressive payment rates, such that lower-income individuals receive a greater percentage of their normal salary during periods of time off covered by the program.  The fund created with the tax revenue would pay a base amount equal to 90% of a worker’s average weekly wage up to 150% of the District’s minimum wage.  (Based on the District’s current minimum wage laws, the base amount is expected to be calculated on up to $900 in weekly salary by the time the program would take effect based on a $15 per hour minimum wage rate that is currently being phased in.)  An employee whose average weekly wage exceeds 150% of the District’s minimum wage would receive the base amount plus 50% of the worker’s weekly wage above the District’s minimum wage.  Payments would be capped at $1,000 a week, with the cap being subject to increases for inflation beginning in 2021.

The bill must pass a final D.C. Council vote on December 20 and approval by District Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. A Bowser spokesman reported that the mayor was still undecided on the bill.  If the bill ultimately passes, benefits would likely not be available before 2019, as the District would need time to prepare and fund the program.

IRS Certified PEO Program Leaves Unresolved Qualified Plan and ACA Issues

The IRS recently implemented the voluntary certification program for professional employer organizations (PEOs) (discussed in a separate blog post).  Earlier this summer, the IRS released temporary and proposed Treasury regulations and Revenue Procedure 2016-33 pursuant to Code Sections 3511 and 7705, which created a new statutory employer for payroll-tax purposes: an IRS-certified PEO (CPEO).  Last week, the IRS released Notice 2016-49, which relaxed some of the certification requirements set forth in the regulations and Revenue Procedure 2016-33.

Although a significant change in the payroll tax world, the new CPEO program does not clarify the issue of whether a PEO or its customer, the worksite employer, is the common law employer for other purposes.  Thus, even when properly assisted by CPEOs, customers may still be common law employers and must plan for potential liability accordingly.  Two key areas of potential liability are PEO sponsorship of qualified employee benefit plans and the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate.

PEO Sponsorship of Qualified Plans

Before the new CPEO program became available, the PEO industry was already expanding, with customers pushing for PEOs to act as the common law employers for all purposes, not just payroll tax administration.  Customers particularly sought PEOs to sponsor qualified benefit plans for the customers’ workers.  This arrangement, however, clashed with a fundamental rule of qualified plans under ERISA and the Code:  Under the exclusive benefit rule, employers can sponsor qualified plans only for their common law employees and not independent contractors.  Many PEOs set up single employer plans, even though customers – not PEOs – usually had the core characteristics of a common law employer:  Exercising control over the worker’s schedule and manner and means of performing services.

In Revenue Procedures 2002-21 and 2003-86, the IRS reiterated its hardline stance on enforcing the exclusive benefit rule against PEO plans, stating that after 2003, PEOs can no longer rely on any determination letter issued to their single employer plans, even if the letter was issued after 2003.  The guidance provided two forms of transition relief available until 2003: (1) a PEO could terminate the plan, or (2) convert the plan into a multiple employer plan (MEP), which is an employee benefit plan maintained and administered as a single plan in which two or more unrelated employers can participate.  This MEP option, however, still treated customers as the common law employers, who are subject to nondiscrimination, funding, and other qualified-plan rules under ERISA and the Code.

The new CPEO program does not affect the exclusive benefit rule or the determination of common law employer status for qualified plan purposes.  Certified or not, a PEO can sponsor MEPs, but properly sponsoring any single-employer plan rests on the argument that the PEO is the common law employer.  Thus, the law still significantly limits a customer from outsourcing its qualified plan to a PEO.

ACA Employer Mandate & PEO-Sponsored Health Plan

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) imposes on employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent (FTE) employees the “employer mandate,” which, in turn, applies a tax penalty if the employer chooses not to provide health care insurance for its workers.  In general, the common law employer is required to offer coverage to its employees.  Under some circumstances, however, the common law employer can take credit for coverage offered by another entity—such as another company within the same controlled group.

The problem for PEO customers stems from a provision in the final regulations on Section 4980H.  The provision allows the PEO’s customer to take credit for the PEO’s offer of coverage to the customer’s workers only if the customer pays an extra fee:

[I]n cases in which the staffing firm is not the common law employer of the individual and the staffing firm makes an offer of coverage to the employee on behalf of the client employer under a plan established or maintained by the staffing firm, the offer is treated as made by the client employer for purposes of section 4980H only if the fee the client employer would pay to the staffing firm for an employee enrolled in health coverage under the plan is higher than the fee the client employer would pay the staffing firm for the same employee if that employee did not enroll in health coverage under the plan.

The preamble to the regulations doubles down by describing a situation in which the staffing firm is not the common law employer as the “usual case.”

This extra-fee rule puts the PEO’s customer in a difficult position.  If it does not pay the extra fee, then the PEO’s offer of health coverage cannot be credited to the customer.  Thus, the customer risks being subject to the tax penalty, if upon audit the customer is determined to be the common law employer (assuming the PEO’s customer is an applicable large employer).  Alternatively, if the customer pays the extra fee to hedge against the risk of the tax penalty, the payment could be taken as an admission that the customer—not the PEO—is the common law employer.  Being the common law employer could expose the PEO’s customer to a host of legal liabilities, including, for example, rules pertaining to qualified plans (e.g., funding, nondiscrimination), workers compensation, and respondeat superior.  This result is unacceptable for many customers, who take the position that they are not the common law employers for any purpose.  Unfortunately, the new CPEO program only allows the customer to shift its payroll tax liabilities, and does not affect whether the customer or the CPEO is the common law employer for other purposes.

Finally, there is also a reporting wrinkle for customers outsourcing their health coverage obligations to PEOs.  The ACA requires the common law employer to report the offer of coverage on Form 1095-C.  If the PEO’s customer is the common law employer, there is no rule allowing it to shift this reporting obligation to the PEO.  Thus, if the PEO, rather than the customer, files the Form 1095-C, the customer may be subject to reporting penalties for failure to file a return.

IRS Simplifies Filing Requirements for Section 83(b) Elections

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July 27, 2016

On July 25, the IRS released final regulations eliminating the requirement that taxpayers making a Section 83(b) election file a copy of the election notice with their federal income tax return.  Under Section 83, the fair market value of property received (less any basis in the property) for the performance of services is generally included in income when the property is no longer subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture or when the taxpayer’s interest in the property is transferable.  However, taxpayers may elect under Section 83(b) to include the property’s fair market value (less any basis in it) as of the date of transfer in income in the year of transfer.  Despite the upfront tax liability, this election may actually defer taxation on the appreciated value of the property and subject the appreciation to capital gains rates rather than ordinary income rates.  Under the prior regulations, taxpayers who make an 83(b) election must submit to the IRS a copy of the election notice not only within 30 days after the date of the transfer, but also with their federal income tax return for the year of the transfer.  Last summer, the Treasury and the IRS proposed to eliminate the latter filing requirement, and after receiving no comments, adopted the final regulations without modification.

The requirement to file an election notice with the annual return was duplicative and easy to miss because taxpayers making an 83(b) election were already required to submit to the IRS the election notice within 30 days after the date of the transfer.  Further, as the IRS explained in the preambles to the proposed regulations, this requirement had become an obstacle to electronic filing of returns for certain taxpayers, since commercial e-filing software does not consistently allow for submitting an 83(b) election notice with the return.  The final regulations apply to transfers on or after January 1, 2016, and taxpayers can also rely on these regulations for transfers in 2015.  As a result, taxpayers are not required to file a copy of any 83(b) election made in 2015 with their 2015 tax returns.

Significantly, the final regulations ease compliance for non-resident alien employees of multinational companies.  Although foreign tax consequences can make transfers of restricted stock to such employees undesirable from the employee’s perspective, it may be desirable for the employee to make a section 83(b) election when restricted stock is transferred.  This is particularly true for start-ups and other companies where the value of the shares is small when granted and is likely to increase.  (It is often undesirable to make an 83(b) election for a mature company where the value of the stock is high at transfer and may decline.)

When nonresident alien employees working outside of the United States receive non-vested equity compensation, they may have no obligation to file a U.S. tax return, and could easily neglect to file a return for purposes of filing the election notice.  (Because the employees are nonresident aliens working outside the United States, the income from their 83(b) elections would presumably be foreign source income resulting in no U.S. income tax due in the year of transfer.)  But if these employees become U.S. residents between the grant and vesting dates, their failure to file nonresident returns and attach the 83(b) election notices would invalidate their 83(b) elections, thereby subjecting the value of the property to U.S. income tax upon vesting based on their U.S. resident status at the time of vesting.  Under the final regulations, these employees – and any other service providers – must simply file an election notice with the IRS within 30 days after the date of the transfer.

Although the final regulations simplified filing obligations under Section 83(b), the IRS emphasized taxpayers’ recordkeeping responsibilities under Section 6001, especially to show the basis of property reported on taxpayers’ returns.  Thus, to protect themselves from tax-return audit liability, executives and other service providers who receive restricted property under an 83(b) election must be careful to keep records of the original cost of the property received, and retain the records until at least the period of the limitations for the returns expires.

Bipartisan Support for Legislation Codifying Tax-Free Student Loan Repayment Benefits, But Does the Code Already Allow for It?

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July 25, 2016

As college graduates struggle under the weight of larger student loan burdens, some employers have begun to offer student loan repayment benefits intended to help employees repay their loans.  In May, House Ways and Means Committee member Robert Dold (R-IL) introduced legislation that would, among other changes, amend Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code to explicitly allow employers to make payments on their employees’ student loans on a tax-free basis.  That provision excludes from gross income up to $5,250 paid by an employer per year for expenses incurred by or on behalf of an employee for education of the employee (including, but not limited to, tuition, fees, and similar payments, books, supplies, and equipment).   Other proposed bills have also been introduced to provide the same benefit.  Although the legislation has bipartisan support, it is unclear whether Congress has the appetite for passing legislation that would appear to reduce revenues, or the fortitude to pass anything nonessential in an election year.

For employers interested in providing tax-free student loan repayment benefits, existing law may already allow for such a result.  The Internal Revenue Service issued a private letter ruling in 2003 that suggests that such payments may already be excludable under Section 127.  In the ruling, a law firm established an educational assistance plan for its non-lawyer employees.  The firm’s employees borrowed funds to pay for law school.  The firm then provided the employees with additional salary to pay the principal and interest due on the loans during each year of employment, essentially forgiving the debt.  The IRS ruled that the first $5,250 of loan payments each year were excludable from the employee’s income under Section 127.  Although the private letter ruling applies only to the taxpayer and does not fully describe the terms of the law firm’s program, it offers a strategy for employers to consider when evaluating how to help their employees with student loan payments.

Two District Courts Rule Stock Option Income Subject to RRTA Tax

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July 14, 2016

Two more railroad companies have failed in their efforts to obtain Railroad Retirement Tax Act (RRTA) tax refunds based on the application of RRTA’s definition of “compensation” as it relates to nonqualified stock option exercises by employees.  Just a week apart, the U.S. District Courts for Nebraska in Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. United States  and for the Northern District of Illinois in Wis. Central Ltd. v. United States, agreed with the government that the term “any form of money remuneration,” as compensation is defined by RRTA, is susceptible to a broad reading analogous to that of “wages” in the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA).  Both courts, in detailed memorandum opinions, concluded that the income arising from the NQSO exercises had been properly subjected to Tier 1 RRTA taxes and, consequently, the refund claims were denied.  In so doing, both courts accepted the government’s position that the Treasury regulations defining RRTA compensation by reference to the definition of FICA wages in Section 3121(a) was a reasonable one.

In the first case on this issue, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected BNSF Railway Company’s claims for refund of Tier 1 RRTA taxes that had been paid in conjunction with the exercise of nonqualified stock options.  In its refund claim, BNSF had argued that the term “any form of money remuneration” meant payment in cash or other medium of government authorized exchange and, consequently, NQSOs could not qualify as money.  Therefore, according to BNSF, income arising from the exercise of NQSOs did not constitute “compensation” subject to RRTA taxes.   In analyzing the definition of “compensation” under RRTA, the Fifth Circuit applied the two step framework set out in Chevron v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc. and concluded that Treasury was reasonable in interpreting RRTA coextensively with the FICA tax provisions, so that it was consistent with the broad reading of the term “wages” in FICA provisions.

Wellness Program Cash Rewards and Salary-Reduction Premium Reimbursements Taxable

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May 27, 2016

Recently, the IRS clarified whether employees are taxed for receiving cash rewards and reimbursements from their employers for participating in wellness programs.  In CCA 201622031, the IRS ruled that an employee must include in gross income (1) employer-provided cash rewards and non-medical care benefits for participating in a wellness program and (2) reimbursements of premiums for participating in a wellness program if the premiums were originally made by salary reduction through a Section 125 cafeteria plan.

In CCA 201622031, the taxpayer inquired whether an employee’s income includes (a) employer-provided cash rewards or non-medical care benefits, such as gym membership fees, for participating in a wellness program; and (b) reimbursements of premiums for participating in a wellness program if the premiums were originally made by salary reduction through a cafeteria plan.  The IRS ruled that Sections 105 and 106 do not apply to these rewards and reimbursements, which are includible in the employee’s gross income and are also subject to employment taxation.

IRS Issues Regulations Relating to Employees of Disregarded Entities

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May 5, 2016

Yesterday, Treasury and the IRS released final and temporary regulations under Section 7701 meant to clarify issues related to the employment of owners of disregarded entities.  In 2009, the IRS issues regulations that required disregarded entities be treated as a corporation for purposes of employment taxes including federal income tax withholding and Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) taxes for Social Security and Medicare.  The regulations provided that a disregarded entity was disregarded, however, for purposes of self-employment taxes and included an example that demonstrated the application of the rule to an individual who was the single owner of a disregarded entity.  In the example, the disregarded entity is treated as the employee of its employees but the owner remains subject to self-employment tax on the disregarded entity’s activities.  In other words, the owner is not treated as an employee.

Rev. Rul. 69-184 provides that partners are not employees of the partnership for purposes of FICA taxes, Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) tax, and federal income tax withholding.  This is true even if the partner would qualify as an employee under the common law test.  This made it difficult—if not impossible—for partnerships to allow employees to participate in the business with equity ownership such as options even if the employee owned only a very small portion of the partnership.  The 2009 regulations raised questions, however, provided some hope that a disregarded entity whose sole owner was a partnership could be used to as the employer of the partnership’s partners. Doing so would have allowed partners in the partnership to be treated as employees of the disregarded entity and participate in tax-favored employee benefit plans, such as cafeteria plans.  The final and temporary regulations clarify that that an individual who owns and portion of a partnership may not be treated as an employee of the partnership or of a disregarded entity owned by the partnership.

As a result, payments made to partners should not be reported on Form W-2, but should be reported on Schedule K-1.  Such payments are not subject to federal income tax withholding or FICA taxes, but will be subject to self-employment taxes when the partner files his or her individual income tax return.  In addition, if partners are currently participating in a disregarded entity’s employee benefit plans, such as a health plan or cafeteria plan, the plan has until the later of August 1, 2016, or the first day of the latest-starting plan year following May 4, 2016.

Limitations on Cash Reimbursements for Transit Benefits Apply to Retroactive Increase in Transit Limits

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March 2, 2016

In a technical advice memorandum (PMTA 2016-01), the IRS Office of Chief Counsel stated that a retroactive increase in transit benefits paid in a cash lump sum is only excludable to the extent a transit pass or voucher is unavailable.  This ruling clarifies that these retroactive increases are subject to the same rules as other transit benefits.  This issue arises from Congress’s decision to increase the amount of transit benefits excludable from income in 2012, 2014, and 2015 (e.g., the limit in 2015 was increased from $130/month to $250/month), which has led employers to inquire about the tax treatment of lump sum payments made to compensate employees for transit payments made by the employees in those years that exceeded the limits in place at the time.  The IRS states that it will deem such lump sum payments income and subject to withholding and reporting if transit passes or vouchers are “readily available.”

If transit passes or vouchers are not “readily available,” employers may provide cash reimbursements, so long as employees incur and substantiate their expenses pursuant to an accountable plan.  Accordingly, most employers are unable to allow employees to take advantage of the retroactive increase.  If an employer allowed employees to exceed the pre-tax limit and purchase transit passes with after-tax dollars (or provided the employees with transit passes and imputed taxable income for amounts in excess of the pre-tax limit), it could provide amended Forms W-2 and file Forms 941-X removing the after-tax amounts from wages (for both FITW and FICA purposes).  However, given that the difference for each employee is only $1450 per year, some employees may not wish to file amended income tax returns to recover any excess tax paid.  In addition, the cost savings for employers may not be sufficient to justify the expense of preparing the amended returns.