So, you’ve sold your business and now you’re asking the question “What happens to the retirement plan?” You are not alone. In the world of mergers and acquisitions, it is not uncommon for retirement plans to be overlooked in the process. The options available depend upon the type of transaction taking place and the timing, that is — has the transaction already occurred, or is it set for a prospective date? The transaction that takes place is typically classified under one of two categories, an asset sale or a stock sale. We will explore each of these transaction types along with the options available under each below.
In an asset sale, the assets of an entity are purchased by another company. Some examples of assets include equipment, licenses, goodwill, customer lists, and inventory. While the seller’s assets have been purchased, their entity will continue to exist until properly closed down. The buyer generally does not acquire the liabilities of the seller in this scenario. This includes the retirement plan. Once the sale takes place, the seller can terminate the retirement plan and distribute all assets, or they can continue operating the plan as long as the sponsoring entity continues to exist. Employees who transition to the buyer will be considered new hires and terminated under the seller’s firm. In most cases, the terminated employees will have the option to roll over their account balances to the retirement plan of the buyer. It is common for the buyer’s plan to be amended, allowing for immediate eligibility for these new employees. If it is not amended, the new employees will need to satisfy the eligibility requirements defined under the buyer’s plan.
In a stock sale, the buyer purchases the stock of the seller’s company. The company is absorbed by the buyer, becoming part of the buyer’s firm. The buyer becomes the employer and assumes all liabilities tied to the seller. This includes the retirement plan unless specifically addressed in the purchase agreement. Under this scenario, there are generally three options available with regard to the seller’s retirement plan. First, the buyer could require the seller’s plan be terminated prior to the effective date of the sale set forth in the purchase agreement. In this case, with the proper board resolution, the seller would be responsible for completing the termination of the plan. It is important that the termination process set forth by the IRS be followed in order to avoid violating successor plan rules.
Another option is to maintain both plans. As long as both plans satisfy coverage rules immediately before the transaction and there are no significant changes in the terms or coverage of the plan, the sponsor may rely on the transition rule where coverage requirements are considered satisfied. This means the plans can be separately maintained through the end of the transition period. This period runs through the end of the year following the year in which the transaction took place. After the transition period has expired, if the sponsor continues to maintain both plans, they must be tested together.
The third option available is to merge the plans. This is typically the option most plan sponsors choose. In this case, the seller’s plan is usually merged into the plan of the buyer. This is accomplished through a resolution and amendment to the surviving plan. It is important the seller’s plan be reviewed for any protected benefits. These benefits, such as vesting and certain distributable events, cannot be eliminated. It is also important to note that with the merging of the two plans, the surviving plan inherits any compliance issues or failures that exist. The buyer should complete their due diligence with regard to review of the seller’s plan before going this route. Any deficiencies will need to be addressed and corrected accordingly. This review and the subsequent documentation will prove beneficial should the seller’s plan be selected for audit, as the IRS can audit a plan up to three years from the date the final Form 5500 was filed.
While every transaction is unique, some advance planning with regard to retirement plans can save you from quite a few headaches down the road. Take the time to consult with your advisors, including your CPA, attorney, etc., when considering buying or selling a business. As a buyer, if you don’t, you could suddenly find you are the proud sponsor of a retirement plan!