Workplace Retirement Accounts:

Better Guidance and Information Could Help Plan Participants at Home and Abroad Manage Their Retirement Savings

GAO-18-19: Published: Jan 31, 2018. Publicly Released: Mar 5, 2018.

Multimedia:

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Charles Jeszeck
(202) 512-7215
jeszeckc@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Plan participants in the United States face challenges after they change jobs, including not receiving communications from their plan sponsor and being vulnerable to unforeseen tax consequences that can result in a loss of retirement savings. GAO previously reported that when participants leave savings in a plan after separating from a job, the onus is on them to update former employers with their new address and to respond to their former employer's communications. GAO found that although an employer may incur costs searching for separated participants, there are no standard practices for the frequency or method of conducting searches. GAO reported that from 2004 through 2013, over 25 million participants in workplace plans separated from an employer and left at least one retirement account behind, despite efforts of sponsors and regulators to help participants manage their accounts. Department of Labor (DOL) officials told GAO that some sponsors do not search for participants when disclosures are returned as undeliverable. DOL has issued guidance on searching for missing participants for some plans that are terminating, but guidance does not exist on what actions DOL expects ongoing plan sponsors to take to keep track of separated participants. A key element of DOL's mission is to protect the benefits of workers and families. However, without guidance on how to search for separated participants who leave behind retirement accounts, sponsors may choose to do little more than remove unclaimed accounts from the plan when possible, and workers may never recover these savings.

Stakeholders told GAO that U.S. individuals who participate in foreign workplace retirement plans face challenges reporting their retirement savings for tax purposes because of complex federal requirements governing the taxation of foreign retirement accounts and a lack of clear guidance on how to report these savings. For example, stakeholders told GAO it is not always clear to U.S individuals or their tax preparers how foreign workplace retirement plans should be reported to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the process for determining this can be complex, time-consuming, and costly. In the absence of clear guidance on how to correctly report these savings, U.S. individuals who participate in these plans may continue to run the risk of filing incorrect returns. Further, U.S. individuals in foreign retirement plans also face problems transferring retirement savings when they switch jobs. In the United States, transfers of retirement savings from one qualified plan to another are exempt from U.S. tax. However, foreign plans are generally not tax-qualified under the Internal Revenue Code, according to IRS officials, and such transfers could have tax consequences for U.S. individuals participating in foreign retirement plans. Officials from the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) told GAO that a change to the U.S. tax code could improve the tax treatment of transfers between foreign retirement plans that Treasury has already examined. Without action to address this issue, U.S. individuals may not consolidate their foreign retirement accounts or may have to pay higher U.S. taxes on transfers than taxpayers participating in qualified plans in the United States, threatening the ability of U.S. individuals to save for retirement abroad.

Why GAO Did This Study

Saving for retirement can be difficult. However, when participants lose their workplace retirement accounts when they change employers or participate in a workplace retirement plan abroad they can encounter additional challenges in securing adequate retirement savings. GAO was asked to review steps federal agencies might take to assist participants with these challenges.

This report examines key challenges U.S. participants face with: (1) unclaimed retirement accounts in the United States, and (2) complying with U.S. tax reporting requirements on their foreign retirement savings. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations, and reviewed selected tax treaties. GAO interviewed stakeholders in the United States and in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom—chosen because these locations host relatively large populations of U.S. individuals and have well-developed workplace retirement systems.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends Congress consider addressing taxation issues affecting the transfer of retirement assets between plans within the same foreign country. GAO is making seven recommendations, including that DOL issue guidance to help ongoing plan sponsors search for separated participants, and that IRS issue guidance to clarify how U.S. individuals should report foreign retirement savings to the IRS. The agencies generally agreed with GAO's recommendations. IRS disagreed with two of GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Charles Jeszeck at (202) 512-7215 or jeszeckc@gao.gov.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: We will monitor congressional action related to this matter.

    Matter: Congress should consider legislation modifying the Internal Revenue Code to allow routine account transfers within the same foreign workplace retirement plan or between two foreign workplace retirement plans in the same country to be free from U.S. tax in countries covered by an existing income tax treaty that provides for favorable U.S. tax treatment of foreign workplace retirement plan contributions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: Labor agreed with this recommendation. We will monitor the agency's progress in implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should issue guidance on the obligations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 of sponsors of ongoing plans to prevent, search for, and pay costs associated with locating missing participants. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: IRS agreed to review taxation issues relating to distributions involving incorrect participant addresses and uncashed benefit checks and to clarify for the public the Internal Revenue Code's requirements in these circumstances. We will consider closing this recommendation when the agency provides evidence that it completed these efforts.

    Recommendation: The IRS Commissioner should review taxation issues relating to distributions involving incorrect participant addresses and uncashed benefit checks and clarify for the public the Internal Revenue Code's requirements in these circumstances. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: IRS disagreed with this recommendation, noting that the IRS address of record for a participant would likely be of no greater value than addresses available through alternatives such as commercial locator services. However, our report does not cite the accuracy of IRS addresses, but rather other benefits that make a program revision worth considering, specifically the likelihood that individuals will open IRS correspondence, and the trust DOL places in the service as way for plan fiduciaries to meet their obligations. IRS also stated that the limited number of IRS staff and resources impact the feasibility of reinstating this program for plan participants. We continue to believe that expanding the letter forwarding program would be beneficial, and we encourage IRS to consider cost-effective ways to do so.

    Recommendation: The IRS Commissioner should consider revising the letter forwarding program in a cost-effective manner to again provide information on behalf of plan sponsors on unclaimed retirement accounts to participants. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: IRS agreed with this recommendation. We encourage IRS to take the necessary steps to dispel any confusion U.S. individuals may have over how to properly classify and report their foreign retirement accounts on a U.S. tax return-such clarification should help ensure that these taxpayers can meet their tax reporting obligations.

    Recommendation: The IRS Commissioner should clarify how U.S. individuals are to report their foreign retirement accounts. The clarification could include addressing how these accounts should be designated and how the taxpayer should report contributions, earnings, and distributions made from the account. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: IRS disagreed with this recommendation but not on its merits, citing a lack of resources to implement it. Specifically, IRS noted that although the modification to the Form 8938 suggested in this recommendation may seem minor, systemically collecting and analyzing the data would require resources beyond those currently available to IRS. However, our report notes that IRS indicated that they already collect foreign account filing data through the Form 8938 and that the current reporting requirements help the agency to "keep a line of sight" on U.S. individuals' foreign pension arrangements. IRS told us that without such data being reported, U.S. individuals with foreign retirement accounts may seek to avoid proper reporting on their tax returns when distributions are made. However, without agreeing to take steps to analyze these data reported by taxpayers, the question remains why the agency continues to collect such information-which we show in the report to present a substantial reporting burden on taxpayers-if the agency has no plan to analyze the data in order to make an informed decision about the risk for tax evasion that such accounts present. It is also unclear how IRS would maintain a line of sight on foreign retirement accounts belonging to U.S. individuals without analyzing the data reported by taxpayers on such accounts. We recognize that resources are limited. When staff and resources become available, IRS should modify the form and conduct a systematic analysis of these data-data that current law requires taxpayers to report-in order to assess the risk of tax evasion that foreign retirement accounts pose. Such an analysis can provide a basis to reach an evidence-based understanding of how these accounts change over time and what level of risk they pose for tax evasion, and U.S. individuals owning foreign retirement accounts will continue to face these substantial reporting burdens without the knowledge that the data they are required to provide will be put to good use by the federal government.

    Recommendation: The IRS Commissioner should systematically analyze data reported through Form 8938 filings on foreign retirement accounts owned by U.S. individuals with the goal of developing an evidence-based understanding of how these accounts change over time and what level of risk these accounts pose for tax evasion. To assist with this analysis, IRS should consider revising Form 8938 to more clearly distinguish between retirement accounts and other types of accounts or assets being reported by taxpayers under current reporting requirements. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: IRS agreed with this recommendation. The agency indicated it would work to improve the likelihood that the Notice of Potential Private Pension Benefit Information corresponds to actual retirement benefits in the future, and agreed to take steps to ensure that the data reported on Form 8955-SSA are accurate and to advise plan sponsors of any changes to reporting these data.

    Recommendation: The IRS Commissioner should take steps to improve the likelihood that the Notice of Potential Private Pension Benefit Information corresponds to actual retirement benefits in the future, for example, by working with the Social Security Administration as necessary. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: SSA agreed with this recommendation. We will monitor the agency's progress in implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Social Security Administration Commissioner should take steps to improve the likelihood that the Notice of Potential Private Pension Benefit Information corresponds to actual retirement benefits in the future, for example, by working with IRS as necessary. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Jun 4, 2018

May 22, 2018

May 21, 2018

May 17, 2018

Mar 7, 2018

Feb 21, 2018

Jan 8, 2018

Oct 18, 2017

Aug 24, 2017

Looking for more? Browse all our products here