Tag Archives: internal revenue code

Tread Carefully on Taxes for Severance and Deferred Comp

Summary:

Two recent court cases show the dangers that lurk for employers. Employers would be wise to note the words of the 19th century English jurist Lord Bramwell: “Like mothers, taxes are often misunderstood, but seldom forgotten.” Two recent federal court cases dealing with Social Security and Medicare taxes underscore that point — and why it’s important for employers to tread carefully when it comes to severance plans and deferred compensation plans. Both must be designed — and administered — prudently. Otherwise, employers risk running afoul of the Internal Revenue Service or getting dragged into court by a disgruntled former employee. In particular, employers offering severance plans need to recognize that these plans are subject to Social Security and Medicare, or FICA, taxes — unless the plans are tied to state unemployment benefits. Employers also should analyze the effect that severance pay will have on state benefits. When operating deferred compensation plans for executives, employers also need to account for FICA correctly under the so-called “special timing rule” — or risk inciting the legal wrath of former employees. Supreme Court clarifies that severance pay is subject to FICA In March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that severance payments to laid-off employees — that aren’t tied to state unemployment benefits — are taxable wages subject to FICA taxes. The case, United States v. Quality Stores Inc., resolved two conflicting sets of lower court rulings:

  • The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that severance pay wasn’t subject to FICA.
  • The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd, 8th, and Federal Circuits held severance pay was subject to FICA.

The Supreme Court said the plain meaning of the statute providing that wages are remuneration for employment means that severance payments are indeed wages. Additionally, the history of Internal Revenue Service Code section 3102(o) demonstrated that the statute was meant to require income tax withholding on severance payments that were tied to state unemployment benefits, even though the IRS had ruled they were not wages — the reason for the ruling was to let recipients be eligible for the benefits in states that would not pay such benefits if the taxpayer was still receiving “wages” from a former employer. Code section 3102(o) requires income tax withholding on state unemployment benefits so former employees won’t get hit with a large year-end income tax bill. The high court noted that the IRS rulings exempting severance payments tied to state unemployment benefits weren’t at issue, so it didn’t address whether those rulings were consistent with the definition of wages under federal tax law. The decision resolved thousands of FICA refund cases pending before the IRS. Some experts speculate the agency may now revisit its past rulings on severance tied to state unemployment benefits. District Court case underscores risk of improper FICA withholding on deferred compensation Last July, a U.S. District Court in Michigan refused to dismiss a case filed by an executive that alleged his former employer mishandled the FICA tax on deferred compensation in a supplemental retirement plan. The case, Davidson v. Henkel Corp., highlights the risk for employers as well as executives if the FICA tax treatment of nonqualified deferred compensation plans isn’t applied correctly. The case involved the “special timing rule” and the so-called “non-duplication rule” for FICA taxes on vested deferred compensation. Typically with FICA taxes, compensation is taken into account when it’s actually or constructively paid under the general timing rule. The special timing rule provides that deferred compensation is subject to FICA taxes on the later of the date the compensated services were performed — or the date on which the right to the deferred compensation was no longer subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture (vested). The non-duplication rule provides that once an amount of deferred compensation is accounted for under the special timing rule, neither that amount nor any earnings tied to that amount should be treated as wages for FICA tax purposes any longer. Conversely, if deferred compensation isn’t accounted for under the special timing rule, payments of the deferred compensation and related earnings should be considered wages under the general timing rule for FICA. Davidson involved an executive who participated in a nonqualified supplemental retirement plan designed to permit participants to defer a portion of their salary and bonus compensation that exceeded the amount of compensation that could be considered under the employer’s qualified pension plan. The benefits under the supplemental plan were paid at retirement and not vested until then. The executive retired in 2003 and began receiving annuity payments from the nonqualified plan. The employer failed to take into account the executive’s deferred compensation under the supplemental plan when the money vested at his retirement in 2003 under the special timing rule. Under tax regulations, the employer should have taken into account the present value of the benefits in that year, under the special timing rule. Had the employer taken the present value of the benefits into account in 2003, a substantial amount of the deferred compensation would have escaped taxation. In 2011, the employer realized the error following an internal investigation and notified the executive that, beginning in 2012, all payments from the supplemental plan would be subject to FICA withholding (under the general timing rule). In addition, the employer paid the IRS the employer and employee portion of all past FICA taxes due from 2003-2011. Beginning in 2012, the employer also began reimbursing itself for the employee portion of the FICA tax by reducing the executive’s benefit payments. The executive sued his former employer under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and state law, arguing that because of the employer’s failure to properly account for the deferred compensation under the special timing rule the executive lost the benefit of the non-duplication rule. The executive also argued that instead of his entire benefit being subject to FICA in one year, payments were now subject to FICA tax each year, reducing his benefits. In addition, the executive maintained, the employer violated its fiduciary duties under ERISA by acting in its own self-interest when it reached a settlement with the IRS and reduced his benefits to reimburse itself. The employer tried to get the case dismissed, claiming the court lacked jurisdiction because the lawsuit dealt with a tax refund. The court rejected those arguments, saying that the executive was not claiming that his benefit was erroneously subject to FICA tax — rather that the employer’s failure to account correctly for the benefits for FICA tax purposes caused his benefit to be reduced. The court did hold that ERISA preempted the executive’s state law claims, but it refused to dismiss the executive’s case to enforce his promised benefit. Therefore, the case is proceeding to trial. Read more: Tread Carefully on Taxes for Severance and Deferred Comp | Insurance Thought Leadership

Same-Sex Marriage: An Update on Handling Claims

The pace of legislative and judicial activity surrounding same-sex marriage has quickened.

Currently, 17 states plus the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. Several states have expanded the legal rights available to spouses in same-sex relationships through civil unions and domestic partnerships. On June 26, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in  Windsor v. United States, No. 12-307 that section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage, is unconstitutional. Since this decision, several state attorneys general have announced that they will no longer defend their state’s same-sex marriage bans.

Here is an update on the issue of same-sex marriage and claims handling considerations:

Same-Sex Marriage Overview

In the states that recognize these unions, the legal status of same-sex marriages is identical to opposite-sex marriages.

The first states that allowed same-sex marriage did so as a result of court decisions—Massachusetts in 2004, Connecticut in 2008 and Iowa in 2009. However, most states and the District of Columbia provided for same-sex marriage through legislation. Below is a summary of changes in the states over the past two years on this fast-moving issue:

2012

Washington

Legislation establishing same-sex marriage was approved February 2012, but opponents gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the November 2012 ballot. Voters upheld the law, and same-sex marriages began on Dec. 6, 2012.

Maryland

Gov. Martin O’Malley signed same-sex marriage legislation into law on March 1, 2012. However, opponents of the legislation obtained enough signatures to file a referendum challenging the law during the November 2012 election. The law was upheld by the voters and became effective on Jan. 1, 2013.

Maine

During the November 2012 election, voters approved a ballot measure legalizing same-sex marriage. The measure became effective Dec. 29, 2012.

New Jersey

The legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill in February 2012, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie. A legal challenge was raised to the state’s law that only provided civil unions for same-sex couples, and a lower court ruled that the state had to allow same-sex couples to marry beginning Oct. 21, 2013. After the New Jersey Supreme Court denied an appeal for delay, Gov. Christie announced that the state would drop its appeal, making same-sex marriage legal in New Jersey.

2013

Rhode Island

Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed legislation that legalized same-sex marriage, eliminated the availability of civil union and recognized civil unions and same sex marriage from other states on May 2, 2013. This bill became effective Aug. 1, 2013.

Delaware

Gov. Jack Markell signed into law on May 7, 2013, same-sex marriage legislation that also recognized civil unions and same-sex marriage from other jurisdictions. The law became effective July 1, 2013.

Minnesota

Following the defeat of a constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage during the November 2012 election, the legislation passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage May 2013. The law went into effect on Aug. 1, 2013.

California

On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to decide the California challenge to Proposition 8, concluding that it had no authority to consider the question in the case. The effect of that decision was to reinstate the federal district court decision overturning Proposition 8, thus allowing same-sex marriage in California.

Hawaii

During a special session held in October and November 2013, same-sex marriage was passed after both houses agreed to the addition of an amendment that strengthened the exemption of religious organization from being required to provide facilities, goods or services for the marriage or celebration of the marriage if it violates their religious beliefs. Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the bill on Nov. 13, 2013, and it became effective on Dec. 2, 2013.

Illinois

Gov. Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 10 into law on Nov. 20, 2013, and same-sex marriages will be available beginning June 1, 2014. A ruling by a U.S. district judge allowed residents of Cook County, Ill., to begin marrying on Feb. 21, 2014.

New Mexico

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 19, 2013, that same-sex couples are allowed to marry. The ruling went into effect immediately.

Of the 33 states that still prohibit same-sex marriage, 29 have done so through constitutional provisions. Efforts to overturn state constitutional prohibitions have been initiated in the federal courts and have moved, or are about to move, into four federal appellate courts.

  • The Virginia case, Bostic v. Rainey, is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va.
  • The Oklahoma case, Bishop v. U.S., 04-cv-848, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Oklahoma (Tulsa) is to be heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver, Colo., along with the Utah case, Kitchen v. Herbert, 13-cv-00217, U.S. District Court, District of Utah (Salt Lake City). Oral arguments are scheduled to be heard separately for these two cases in April 2014.
  • The Nevada case, Sevcik v. Sandoval, 12-17668, will be heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco, Ca.

In all four cases, the rulings are stayed pending appeal, meaning marriages cannot occur at this time. It is anticipated that the U.S. Supreme Court will be again asked to review this issue in 2015 or soon thereafter. Meanwhile, more action through legislation and ballot initiatives is expected to occur this year.

Civil Unions

A civil union is a category of law created to extend rights to same-sex couples. These rights are recognized only in the state where the couple resides, and no federal protection is included.

In 2013, the Colorado legislature passed a bill to establish civil unions for same-sex couples. The bill also provides recognition of civil unions from other jurisdictions. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed  SB 11 into law on March 21, 2013, and it became effective on May 1, 2013.

Delaware and Rhode Island replaced their civil union provisions with same-sex marriage, as previously occurred in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.

In Hawaii, civil unions remain available to same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike. The status of civil unions in Illinois and New Jersey are not yet clear with the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Domestic Partnerships

Domestic partnership is a civil contract between same-sex or opposite-sex, unmarried, adult partners who meet statutory requirements. Laws vary among states, cities and counties for domestic partnerships. Several states register these partnerships.

Washington has recently announced that registered domestic partnerships for same-sex partners will be converted to marriages on June 30, 2014, if marriage has not occurred or the partnership has not been dissolved by that time. The conversion will not apply to the domestic partnerships of heterosexual couples.

Reciprocal Beneficiaries

A reciprocal beneficiary agreement is a consensual and signed declaration of relationship for two adults unable to marry each other. Reciprocal beneficiary laws in Colorado, Hawaii and Maryland allow some benefits of marriage such as workers’ compensation survivor and health-related benefits.

Claim-Handling Considerations and Suggestions

The definitions of “spouse,” “dependent” and “marriage” are changing, and these changes affect the handling of casualty claims as we determine who is an eligible dependent or has legal standing to file certain causes of action. It is important that we are mindful of the state laws and any case law in the particular jurisdiction relating to same-sex unions.

Some state insurance departments have issued bulletins regarding their compliance expectations. For example, the Minnesota Departments of Commerce and Health issued  Administrative Bulletin # 2013-3 to advise property and casualty insurers that any policy issued in Minnesota on or after Aug. 1, 2013, providing dependent coverage for spouses must make that coverage available on the same terms and conditions regardless of the sex of the spouse. The bulletin reminds insurers that defining a spouse in a way that limits coverage to an opposite-sex spouse would be discriminatory and unfair and a violation of Minnesota Statutes section 72A.20, subdivision 16.

When evaluating the eligibility of dependents, one area of uncertainty involves same-sex couples that have a valid marriage but move to a state that does not recognize their marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Windsor did not address Section 2 of DOMA, which does not require states to give effect to same-sex marriages performed under the laws of other states. In the past, most federal laws looked to the state of residence at the time benefits are sought, rather than where the marriage occurred.

In response to the U.S. Supreme Court DOMA decision, the U.S. Department of Labor published  Technical Release  2013-4 on Sept. 18, 2013. This release indicates that the rule of recognition to be applied is based on the state where the marriage was celebrated, regardless of the married couple’s state of domicile. Guidance is also provided on the meaning of “spouse” and “marriage,” as these terms appear in the provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), and the Internal Revenue Code that the department interprets.

This release likely also applies to the following four major disability programs administered by the Department of Labor's Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP):

  • Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Program and its extensions, including the Defense Base Act
  • Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program
  • Black Lung Benefits Program
  • Federal Employees' Compensation Program

Additional recommendations include:

  1. Ascertain whom the employer shows as the spouse.
  2. In addition to determining marriage or civil union, domestic-partnership registration should be confirmed.
  3. If interviewing a claimant in a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex unions, in addition to “spouse” add the terms “domestic partner or designated beneficiary” to the questions.
  4. It might be necessary to find out when and in what state the marriage occurred.
  5. Any questions or concerns should be discussed with your supervisor, team leader, manager or defense attorney.

Sometimes, our duties as claims examiners are affected by laws seemingly unrelated to insurance. It is important that we consider the impact of headlines and changes in the law on our handling of workers’ compensation claims.

Captives: Cutting Through the Obfuscation

If you are not a practicing member of the captive community, either as a professional service provider or a captive owner, and are interested in learning about captives, you will most likely turn to the Internet.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of Internet sources are designed to sell you something, or at the very least, tempt you to contact them with some sort of “teaser.”

Additional sources of captive information are periodic industry-focused magazine articles and occasional pieces that appear in the likes of Forbes and Fortune magazines, along with the odd newspaper article. These are often interesting to read, but they are almost always written from a particular point of view, and because of time and space limitations, rarely present a truly balanced perspective.

You may recall a few years ago, when a financial reporter for the New York Times wrote what was intended to be an expose of captives’ presumed nefarious financial and tax doings.  The piece was ultimately discredited, its author clearly had an agenda. (For good measure, the Times, turned out to own a captive).

Given the general lack of information about captives, let’s begin with some basics.  Regardless of what you may have read, a captive is first and foremost, an insurance company.  The term “captive” denotes insurance company status.  Insurance company status means that the captive employs insurance accounting.  If the structure cannot qualify for insurance accounting, it must use deposit accounting, which renders it something other than a captive insurance company.

Insurance accounting allows the captive to deduct its loss reserves from its federal income taxes; taxes are paid on earnings, and earnings are recognized once losses for a particular period (usually a year) are no longer expected to occur or become reported.

Moreover, the captive’s contracts (insurance policies) must conform to Financial Accounting Standard (FAS) 113.  FAS 113 requires that the insurance contract provide coverage for a reasonable chance of a significant loss.

Contrary to what you may read, a captive is not a tax shelter, nor is it a bank.  It can be used, however, as an estate-planning tool (more on this later).  To qualify to use insurance accounting every captive must:

  • Establish and document non-tax business objectives and purpose
  • Experience insurance losses
  • No parental guarantees to bail out the captive
  • Have adequate capitalization
  • Avoid substantial loan-backs
  • Engage professional captive management
  • Comply with local insurance regulations and formalities
  • Follow conventional investment strategies
  • Use risk-transferring insurance contracts per FAS 113
  • Make sure risk sharing is sufficient based on IRS safe harbors
  • Transact business at “arms length” using actuarial-based pricing
  • Maintain the business, books, and records separate from the parent company and comparable to other insurers
  • Not have premiums match the maximum limit of liability

The majority of the companies selling captives – not feasibility studies, just captives – sell what is known as the 831(b) captive.  Caompnies will also assist in the creation of standard captives, but their primary stock-in-trade is the 831(b).

This captive’s name is derived from the section of the Internal Revenue Code that enables their use.  Many of these 831(b) companies make little pretense of providing objective risk management advice; their advice centers on estate planning, which is the primary purpose of the 831(b) captive.  The primary benefits of the 831(B) captive are that (1) only investment income is subject to U.S. federal income taxation (income from premiums is tax-free)  and that (2) 831(b) captives are off-balance sheet.

Unfortunately, many firms have a less-than-comprehensive grasp on the rules to which all captives must adhere, to be considered bona fide insures.  Others conflate certain aspects of the 831(b) captive with captives in general, which of course causes confusion and adds to the amount of misinformation available to prospective captive owners.

Because there is so much blatant misinformation on the Internet, it was hard to pick out the best examples for this article, but I think you’ll find the following examples entertaining, if not disconcerting.

Example 1

An article appearing in a respected technical journal on taxation and accounting lists the following as three benefits of captives:

  • “Asset protection from the claims of business and personal creditors” 
  • “Opportunity to accumulate wealth in a tax-favored vehicle”
  • “Distributions to captive owners at favorable income tax rates”

The problem is that none of the three so-called benefits apply to the vast majority of captive insurers.  They apply ONLY to the 831(b) captive, which, as noted above, is used as an estate-planning vehicle.

The vast majority of captives (non-831 (b) captives) are on-balance-sheet, risk-financing vehicles.  Their tax filings are consolidated with their parents’ filings, so they provide no asset protection from creditors.  Likewise, the vast majority of captives are not “tax-favored,” thanks to the 1986 tax law changes.

The fact that the article is actually devoted to only 831(b) captives is never revealed; the term 831(b) is not even mentioned until page three of the six-page article.

Example 2

A promoter advertises itself as offering a “new service” to help clients “take advantage of Captive structures and domiciles to meet their individual risk management needs.”

It is clear that this company has almost no institutional knowledge of captives.  Its litany of captive benefits is a recitation of the generic, non-specific “benefits” cited hundreds of times across the Internet and elsewhere.  It is obvious that this firm is, like many others, describing the 831(b) captive, but it doesn't even use the term.

This firm’s captive “sin” is tax-related.  This is ironic as according to the firm’s marketing literature, it is the leading tax services firm in North America!  Its sales material on captives states that annual insurance premiums (paid to a captive from its parent) are tax-deductible as ordinary and reasonable expenses pursuant to IRC Section 162(a).  This statement is untrue on its face.

IRC Section 162(a) does indeed provide guidance as to tax-deductible business expenses.  However, given the specialized rules (for captives) promulgated by the IRS over the last couple of decades, this firm’s lack of understanding of captives is not only annoying; it’s potentially dangerous.  The IRS has issued a raft of revenue rulings that address the tax status of captives and their parents, in a wide variety of circumstances.

The central theme of many is the notion of what constitutes risk distribution (risk sharing).  These rules are applicable to every captive, including the 831(b) variety.  Briefly, a single-parent captive (such as an 831(b) captive), must have at least 50% unrelated business to qualify as a bona fide insurer.  This means that only about half of the captive’s total annual premiums can come from the captive parent.

To add insult to injury, in the same marketing piece, this firm says that safe harbor revenue rulings provide the tax benefits.  They do indeed, but only if the prospective captive owner can qualify under them!  This firm’s message is that any company that pays taxes is automatically qualified to form a captive.  Bait and switch?

This firm’s marketing literature also says that a captive’s funds can be immediately invested in just about anything the owner wants – real estate, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Some captive domiciles, such as Bermuda, have specific investment guidelines designed to require the captive to hold primarily liquid investments.  In Bermuda, 75% of investments must be considered “relevant,” another way to say liquid.

Some onshore domiciles such as Vermont have no specific investment guidelines for single-parent captives, but I guarantee that the regulator (and your actuaries) will seriously discourage illiquid investments such as real estate and equities.  Bonds are the preferred captive investments.

Example 3

Another firm proclaiming captive expertise provides an exhibit that ostensibly shows captive tax benefits over ten years.  If you’ll recall, the first principle – Establish and document non-tax business objectives and purpose  doesn’t appear to be a priority with this firm.  The exhibit compares after-tax income with and without an 831(b) captive.

On its face, the exhibit shows that with a captive, if the parent company pays about $10 million into its little captive over 10 years, it earns about $5 million over the no-captive scenario.  Unfortunately, the exhibit fails to include a rather important element – captive losses.  Without losses, captives are nothing more than tax-advantaged pools of funds, upon which the IRS frowns.  This omission effectively renders the exhibit worthless.

Conclusion

Unfortunately the snake oil trade is alive and well on the Internet.  How does one guard against such shenanigans?  The only effective way to do so is to talk to qualified professionals (consultants, attorneys, etc.) who have nothing to sell but advice.  My next article will include a few more egregious examples of professional malpractice or prevarication, along with a detailed, unbiased, discussion of the 831(b) captive and its uses.  Stay tuned.

Section 831(b) Captive Insurance Companies And The Tax Preparer Penalty

An Actual Scenario: A CPA was preparing the tax return of a longtime client who had purchased three captive insurance companies from a well-known provider of such entities, and had paid $3.3 million in insurance premiums to these companies. The client wished to show that payment as a tax deductible item. The client had $28 million in revenue and paid $92,000 annually for their usual third-party insurance program. The insurance premiums paid to these new captives were for “coverages” that supplemented their existing insurance. What could the CPA do with this request?

Background: Owners of profitable businesses are attracted to the tax and financial planning benefits of forming and owning a captive insurance company that qualifies for the tax benefits of section 831(b) of the Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”).

The Code section provides that if an insurance company has no more than $1.2 million in annual premium income, it can elect to exempt that income from taxation. And under a series of judicial decisions and Revenue Rulings, the insured company may be able to fully deduct the premium paid, even if the same person (or persons) owns both the insured and the insurance company.

This concept can be financially powerful, resulting in an immediate reduction in the owner's tax bill, yet virtually all of the funds remain tax free inside a related company. The profits of that company can either be accessed later at capital gains rates or passed to heirs outside of the estate tax regime.

The Problem: The deductibility of the premium is not automatic. The hurdles for properly deducting premiums paid to one's own insurance company are both numerous and, to some extent, subjective. The new insurance company must demonstrate sufficient “risk distribution,” the amounts charged by the insurance company as premium for the coverages offered must be “reasonable,” and the client must demonstrate an adequate “business purpose” for entering into the transaction, to name just a few of the important hurdles involved. These are each very important requirements that a tax preparer is unlikely to be able to judge with any degree of comfort.

Tax preparers who face the request to sign a return that reflects the deduction of such premiums must be careful not to run afoul of the Return Preparer Penalties of section 6694 of the Code. In addition, the client could face an accuracy-related penalty under section 6662 of the Code equal to 20 percent of the underpaid tax should the deduction ultimately be disallowed.

The standard for avoiding the Return Preparer Penalty is that the preparer held a reasonable belief that the position (the deductibility of the insurance premium) would have a greater than 50 percent likelihood of being sustained on its merits.

One of the factors included in the Regulations covering Section 6662 to determine whether a tax return has been negligently prepared is “failure to reasonably ascertain the correctness of an item that to a reasonably prudent person would appear 'too good to be true' under the circumstances.”

In this case, it appeared that a sudden increase in insurance expense from $92,000 to over $3 million might make the deduction of that expense “too good to be true.” But how could the preparer “reasonably ascertain” the likelihood of this deduction being upheld in audit?

The third party that the client relied on for advice in this transaction was the captive insurance company provider that sold them the program in the first place. But that party obviously believed that their program was fully compliant and therefore could not deliver a truly objective response to the CPA's concerns.

The client's attorney was not versed in captive insurance companies and could not be helpful without an expensive journey up the learning curve.

Turning to another captive insurance provider for an analysis of the client's situation was an obvious option. But each provider has their own competing program and clearly has an incentive to undermine the competition and encourage the client to switch providers. Certainly this may not always be the case, but it is wise to question the objectivity of the person doing the analysis if that person is a competitor.

The Solution: In this case, the CPA needed two sources of help. First, she needed to find an expert in captive insurance who did not also offer his own competing program. Second, she had to find an independent actuary who was familiar with captive insurance programs and who would be willing to opine as to the “reasonableness” of the premiums being charged by the captives.

Finding these independent advisors required networking with other CPA firms, searching the web for relevant articles and identifying their authors, and locating captive insurance sites and blogs.

The Result: The independent advisor created a report that the CPA could rely on, stating that while the structure of the captive insurance program would likely be compliant, the amounts of the premiums being charged did not appear reasonable, given both the nature of the client's business and relevant premium rates in the third-party market. The CPA then advised the client to hire an independent actuary to perform a rate review. The actuary ultimately opined that the client could reasonably support premiums of about half of the amount originally considered.

The client got a large tax deduction and the preparer had in file objective third-party support for the position ultimately taken on the tax return. While this support does not guarantee a favorable result in the event of audit, it should be very valuable evidence in any such audit and should satisfy the requirements for avoiding the Return Preparer Penalty.

Captive Insurance Reinsurance Pools – Where's My Money?

As smaller captive insurance companies proliferate, so do reinsurance pools or exchanges that attempt to deliver sufficient “risk distribution” to satisfy the requirements of the Internal Revenue Service. Without risk distribution, the captive would not be considered an insurance company for tax purposes and would then lose many of its potential tax benefits, including the election for the exclusion of insurance revenues from income under section 831(b) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Previous articles I have written have explored the mechanics of these pools and have questioned whether the majority in fact meet the risk distribution requirements as a matter of law. This article will explore a more basic issue … are the funds being held by these pools secure?

Many captive managers have formed risk distribution mechanisms whereby the captives under management “swap” risk by ceding a portion of each captive's risk to the other captives and accepting a “retrocession” of risks from those other captives. Frequently, this exchange of risk is accomplished by a transfer of 50% or more of a captive's annual premium income to an entity that is affiliated with the captive manager, either as a “fronting” company to the captives or as a reinsurance company.

In either event, half of the funds paid by the insured to the captive are held for a year or more by this entity. Once losses are settled for the year in question, the balance, if any, is remitted to the captive. In the meantime, of course, if the captive has renewed its insurance policy to the insured, another annual premium has been received by the reinsurance entity and handled in the same manner.

The potential for abuse is immense. Cash is fungible. Whose money was remitted to the captive? The half that was held from last year or half of the latest premium received? This could create a classic case of a “Ponzi” scheme, where the money held from last year is spent and new money is used to cover the obligations from the previous year. The scheme collapses, of course, if there is a net drop in new captive formations for that captive manager.

These fronting companies or reinsurance companies are often domiciled offshore where annual audited statements may not be required and where litigation over mishandled funds would be difficult for the captive owner. Not all risk distribution mechanisms involve the retention of client funds; unfortunately, however, most of them do.

This article does not suggest that any captive manager has in fact mishandled client funds as described. But it is important to recognize the temptation and ask what, if anything, is being done to be sure that the temptation is never tested. A captive manager with 100 captives under management — each with $1,000,000 in annual premium — will have $50,000,000 or more of “float” to tempt him.

At a minimum, captive owners should require an accounting of retained funds by an independent CPA firm. Ideally, the captive owner should require that retained funds be held in a separate trust account by an independent trustee. But neither of these practices appears common in the captive insurance industry. In some cases, captive mangers have returned the “withheld” funds early, easing the fear of loss of the funds, but potentially making a mockery of the risk distribution mechanism itself.

What is the role, if any, of the captive insurance regulator? Captive legislation is not consistent when it comes to reinsurance pools. A review of the legislation of 14 of the most active captive domiciles reveals that 8 of them have no provision in their statutes to monitor or limit the activities of reinsurance pools (other than actual reinsurance companies licensed in their own domicile). The other 6 have specific language as follows:

The Commissioner may require any other documents, financial information, or other evidence that the pool, exchange or association will be able to provide adequate security for its financial obligations. The Commissioner may deny authorization or impose any limitations on the activities of a reinsurance pool, exchange, or association that, in the Commissioner's judgment, is necessary and proper to provide adequate security for the ceding captive insurer or segregated account and for the protection and consequent benefit of the public at large.

The domiciles break down as follows:

Specific language: Vermont, Missouri, District of Columbia, Kentucky, Montana and Tennessee.

No language: Delaware, Utah, South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, Alabama and New Jersey.

It is interesting that the majority of small captives that use these reinsurance pools are domiciled in the 8 states that give the regulator no direct statutory authority to address the security of retained client funds. Of course, the regulators do have broad authority to question the overall efficacy of a captive's business plan. This review arguably could address concerns about the security of the captive's funds in the hands of third parties, particularly in the early years of a captive's life. But do they?

This author polled a number (but not all) of the regulators in these 14 states and got few responses from the 8 states without the specific language referenced above. Those few responses indicated that their view is that the relationship between the captive and the fronting company or reinsurer was a matter of private contract not subject to their regulation (other than determining that the reinsurance itself was real and met industry standards).

As the number of captives, captive managers and risk distribution pools continues to grow rapidly, the opportunity for a scandal in the captive industry also grows. The industry would not fare well if such a scandal made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Captive owners should be aware of this risk and take action accordingly. And captive regulators should become more alert to possible abuses in this area and take action consistent with the powers available to them under their respective statutes.