Advisers face "slew' of new lawsuits from small-business clients

Tax change left some companies subject to IRS fines

Oct 18, 2009 @ 12:01 am

By Jessica Toonkel Marquez

Financial advisers who have sold certain types of retirement and other benefit plans to small businesses might soon face a wave of lawsuits unless Congress takes action. For years, advisers and insurance brokers had sold the 412(i) plan, a type of defined-benefit pension plan, and the 419 plan, a health and welfare plan, to small businesses as a way to provide such benefits to employees, while also receiving a tax break. However, in 2004, Congress changed the law to require that companies file with the Internal Revenue Service if they had these plans in place. The law change was intended to address tax shelters, particularly those set up by large companies. Many companies and advisers didn't realize that this was a cause for concern, however, but now employers are receiving a great deal of scrutiny from the federal government, according to experts. The IRS has been aggressive in auditing these plans. The fines for failing to notify the agency about them are $200,000 per business per year that the plan has been in place and $100,000 per individual. So advisers who sold these plans to small business are now slowly becoming the target of litigation from employers who are subject to these fines. “There is a slew of litigation already against advisers that sold these plans,” said Lance Wallach, an expert on 412(i) and 419 plans. “I get calls from lawyers every week asking me to be an expert witness on these cases.” Mr. Wallach declined to cite specific suits. But one adviser who has sold 412(i) plans for years said that his firm already faces six lawsuits over the sale of such plans and has another two pending. “My legal and accounting bills last year were $864,000,” said the adviser, who asked not to be identified. “And if this doesn't get fixed, everyone and their uncle will sue us.” The IRS has instituted a moratorium on collecting these fines until the end of the year in the hope that Congress will address the issue.

In a Sept. 24 letter to Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman wrote: “I understand that Congress is still considering this issue and that a bipartisan, bicameral bill may be in the works ... To give Congress time to address the issue, I am writing to extend the suspension of collection enforcement action through Dec. 31.”

But with so much of Congress' attention on health care reform at the moment, experts are worried that the issue may go unresolved indefinitely.

“If Congress doesn't amend the statute, and clients find themselves having to pay these fines, they will absolutely go after the advisers that sold these plans to them,” said Kathleen Barrow, a partner in workplace law firm Jackson Lewis LLP, who is helping several employer clients respond to IRS audits.

E-mail Jessica Toonkel Marquez at jmarquez@investmentnews.com.

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