IRS Private Letter Ruling Allows Student Loan Repayment Contribution in 401(k) Plan
On Aug. 17, 2018, the IRS issued private letter ruling 201833012 (the “PLR”). The PLR addressed an individual plan sponsor’s desire to amend their 401(k) plan to include a program that allows matching contributions to be made for employees that are repaying student loans. The design endorsed in the PLR is meant to allow employees who cannot afford to both repay their student loans and defer into the 401(k) at the same time the ability to avoid missing out on the “free money” being offered by their employer in the 401(k) plan.
Specifically, the plan sponsor requesting the PLR sought IRS permission to implement a design in which a nonelective employer contribution equal to 5 percent of an employee’s compensation could be made for every 2 percent the employee paid to student loans. Additionally, the PLR states that the program could allow a participant to both defer into the 401(k) and make a student loan repayment at the same time, but they would only receive either the match or the nonelective employer contribution — not both for the same pay period. However, if an employee enrolled in the student loan repayment program and later opted out without hitting the 2 percent threshold necessary for a nonelective employer contribution, they would be eligible for matching contributions for the period in which they opted out and made deferrals into the 401(k) plan.
The IRS also confirmed that such a design wouldn’t violate the contingent benefit prohibition under the IRC. As background, the contingent benefit prohibition essentially states that the only benefit that can be conditioned upon an employee’s elective deferrals is a matching contribution. In response to the plan sponsor’s request, the IRS ruled that the proposed design doesn’t violate the contingent benefit prohibition, therefore allowing nonelective employer contributions to be made when employees pay student loans. While the IRS gave their opinion regarding the contingent benefit prohibition, they stated definitively that all other qualification rules (such as testing and coverage) would remain operative.
Keep in mind, though, that a PLR is directed to a specific taxpayer requesting the ruling, and it’s applicable only to the specific set of facts and circumstances included in the request. That means other retirement plan sponsors cannot rely on the PLR as precedent. It’s not a regulation or even formal guidance. However, it provides insight into how the IRS views certain arrangements. While any plan sponsor that wants to replicate this design could likely assume that they would not run afoul of the contingent benefit prohibition, they would be most protected by seeking the assistance of outside counsel in designing their program.
Any employer plan sponsor considering adding a student loan repayment program to their benefits package should contact their plan advisor for additional information.