How do you Maximize Contributions to your Plan with a Triple Stack Match?

Posted by Tyler Starr, CPA

What are the available safe harbor plan formulas?In my previous blog, “How to Order a Triple Stack Match for your Plan,” I discussed the basics of the triple stack match formula. For company owners, one of the most important things is being able to contribute the highest amount possible under Section 415. Since I wrote my previous blog, the annual benefit limits have increased. For 2019, the defined contribution plan annual addition limit without catch-up is $56,000.

There are rules that prevent owners from contributing the maximum amount in one step and calling it a day. The Internal Revenue Code (IRC) subjects qualified employer plans to compliance testing. Employer 401(k) plans must pass the “actual deferral percentage” (ADP) test, and if there are employer match contributions, the “actual contribution percentage” (ACP) test. These tests make it so a 401(k) plan cannot favor highly compensated employees (HCEs) or key employees (such as owners). However, safe harbor plans are not subject to discrimination testing if the plan sponsor contributes a pre-approved safe harbor employer contribution.

Safe harbor plans guarantee that the HCEs and key employees will be able to contribute the maximum deferral amount, $19,000 in 2019 without catch-up, but not necessarily the maximum annual addition under Code Section 415.  In those cases, the triple stack match formula may be the solution, as follows:

Stack One: 100% of the first 3% of deferrals, plus 50% on the next 2% of deferrals. That means that if an employee defers 5%, they will receive the maximum 4% of compensation match on the first stack. If we also assume our owner is doing extremely well and earning the maximum includible annual compensation of $280,000, he/she would have to be deferring at least 6.79% of compensation. At this point, our owner has contributed $19,000 and received a match of $11,200 without being subject to any discrimination testing.

Stack Two: A discretionary match of 66 2/3 % of deferrals up to 6% deferred. To continue to qualify as safe harbor, the allocation of an additional discretionary match cannot exceed 4% of compensation and the match is limited to the first 6% of compensation deferred. Since 4% divided by 6% is 66.67%, this means that matching up to 6% of compensation to achieve an overall 4% of compensation match would require a 66.67% match for every dollar contributed up to 6% of compensation. Still using $280,000 as compensation, we have another contribution of $11,200 ($280,000 x 6% x 66.67%) for a total annual addition after the second stack of $41,400 ($19,000 deferral + $11,200 Stack 1 Match + $11,200 Stack 2 Match).

Stack Three: A nondiscretionary match of X% of deferrals up to 6% deferred. To meet safe harbor requirements, participant deferrals above 6% cannot be matched and can never be greater than 6% of compensation. To find our third stack, we must solve for the percentage that will get our owner to the maximum contribution. $56,000 – 19,000 – 11,200 – 11,200 = $14,600. If we take 6% of our owner’s compensation of $280,000, the maximum amount of deferrals to be matched is $16,800. If we divide $14,600 by $16,800, we find out that the owner in our example must receive a third matching contribution of 86.9% of deferrals up to 6% deferred to get to the maximum annual addition of $56,000. This third stack must be established before the beginning of the year so that any required amendment can be prepared and signed before the plan year begins.

With this triple stack match formula, the plan qualifies as safe harbor and is also exempt from top-heavy rules, because it only permits deferrals and matching contributions that meet the ADP and ACP requirements without a profit sharing contribution. In addition to the requirements discussed above, it is important to remember that none of the stacked matches can require a 1,000 hour of work or employment at year end. Stack One also cannot be subject to vesting, as it must be fully vested to qualify as safe harbor.  Provisions for the triple stack match must be in place before the start of the plan year in which they are effective. It’s important to review any annual limit increases announced at the end of each year for any changes needed to the formulas above.

The triple stack match may be a great way to get around cross-testing, but it creates an even greater emphasis on making sure that each participant that does not want to defer received the safe harbor notice and still does not want to defer. A budget risk to an employer that adopts a triple stack match formula is that the NHCEs who weren’t deferring previously will now be compelled to defer 6% of their wages, since the plan’s match is well over 200% of up to 6% of deferrals. Employees would be foolish to turn down that match, but employers would be in even bigger trouble if they to hide the opportunity from its employees or discourage participation. If the cost of the matching contributions becomes too high, the employer always has the option to not make the discretionary matching contribution, and then modify or eliminate the nondiscretionary match for the next plan year if needed. The triple stack may not work for every plan, but it is not just for pancakes and cheeseburgers, in the right situation it can be used to maximize contributions without any discrimination testing.

Photo by Will McKenzie (License)