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Publication 560

Qualification Rules(p12)

To qualify for the tax benefits available to qualified plans, a plan must meet certain requirements (qualification rules) of the tax law. Generally, unless you write your own plan, the financial institution that provided your plan will take the continuing responsibility for meeting qualification rules that are later changed. The following is a brief overview of important qualification rules that generally have not yet been discussed. It is not intended to be all-inclusive. See Setting Up a Qualified Plan, later.
Generally, the following qualification rules also apply to a SIMPLE 401(k) retirement plan. A SIMPLE 401(k) plan is, however, not subject to the top-heavy plan rules and nondiscrimination rules if the plan satisfies the provisions discussed in chapter 3 under SIMPLE 401(k) Plan.

Plan assets must not be diverted.(p12)

Your plan must make it impossible for its assets to be used for, or diverted to, purposes other than the benefit of employees and their beneficiaries. As a general rule, the assets cannot be diverted to the employer.

Minimum coverage requirement must be met.(p12)

To be a qualified plan, a defined benefit plan must benefit at least the lesser of the following.
  1. 50 employees, or
  2. The greater of:
    1. 40% of all employees, or
    2. Two employees.
If there is only one employee, the plan must benefit that employee.

Contributions or benefits must not discriminate.(p12)

Under the plan, contributions or benefits to be provided must not discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees.

Contributions and benefits must not be more than certain limits.(p12)

Your plan must not provide for contributions or benefits that are more than certain limits. The limits apply to the annual contributions and other additions to the account of a participant in a defined contribution plan and to the annual benefit payable to a participant in a defined benefit plan. These limits are discussed later in this chapter under Contributions.

Minimum vesting standard must be met.(p12)

Your plan must satisfy certain requirements regarding when benefits vest. A benefit is vested (you have a fixed right to it) when it becomes nonforfeitable. A benefit is nonforfeitable if it cannot be lost upon the happening, or failure to happen, of any event. Special rules apply to forfeited benefit amounts. In defined contribution plans, forfeitures can be allocated to the accounts of remaining participants in a nondiscriminatory way, or they can be used to reduce your contributions.
Forfeitures under a defined benefit plan cannot be used to increase the benefits any employee would otherwise receive under the plan. Forfeitures must be used instead to reduce employer contributions.


In general, an employee must be allowed to participate in your plan if he or she meets both the following requirements.
A plan cannot exclude an employee because he or she has reached a specified age.

Leased employee.(p12)

A leased employee, defined in chapter 1, who performs services for you (recipient of the services) is treated as your employee for certain plan qualification rules. These rules include those in all the following areas. Contributions or benefits provided by the leasing organization for services performed for you are treated as provided by you.

Benefit payment must begin when required.(p13)

Your plan must provide that, unless the participant chooses otherwise, the payment of benefits to the participant must begin within 60 days after the close of the latest of the following periods.
Early retirement.(p13)
Your plan can provide for payment of retirement benefits before the normal retirement age. If your plan offers an early retirement benefit, a participant who separates from service before satisfying the early retirement age requirement is entitled to that benefit if he or she meets both the following requirements.

Required minimum distributions.(p13)

Special rules require minimum annual distributions from qualified plans, generally beginning after age 701/2. See Required Distributions, under Distributions, later.

Survivor benefits.(p13)

Defined benefit and money purchase pension plans must provide automatic survivor benefits in both the following forms.
The automatic survivor benefit also applies to any participant under a profit-sharing plan unless all the following conditions are met.
Loan secured by benefits.(p13)
If automatic survivor benefits are required for a spouse under a plan, he or she must consent to a loan that uses as security the accrued benefits in the plan.
Waiver of survivor benefits.(p13)
Each plan participant may be permitted to waive the joint and survivor annuity or the pre-retirement survivor annuity (or both), but only if the participant has the written consent of the spouse. The plan also must allow the participant to withdraw the waiver. The spouse's consent must be witnessed by a plan representative or notary public.
Waiver of 30-day waiting period before annuity starting date.(p13)
A plan may permit a participant to waive (with spousal consent) the 30-day minimum waiting period after a written explanation of the terms and conditions of a joint and survivor annuity is provided to each participant.
The waiver is allowed only if the distribution begins more than 7 days after the written explanation is provided.
Involuntary cash-out of benefits not more than dollar limit.(p13)
A plan may provide for the immediate distribution of the participant's benefit under the plan if the present value of the benefit is not greater than $5,000.
However, the distribution cannot be made after the annuity starting date unless the participant and the spouse or surviving spouse of a participant who died (if automatic survivor benefits are required for a spouse under the plan) consents in writing to the distribution. If the present value is greater than $5,000, the plan must have the written consent of the participant and the spouse or surviving spouse (if automatic survivor benefits are required for a spouse under the plan) for any immediate distribution of the benefit.
Benefits attributable to rollover contributions and earnings on them can be ignored in determining the present value of these benefits.
A plan must provide for the automatic rollover of any cash-out distribution of more than $1,000 to an individual retirement account or annuity, unless the participant chooses otherwise. A section 402(f) notice must be sent prior to an involuntary cash-out of an eligible rollover distribution. See Section 402(f) Notice under Distributions, later, for more details.

Consolidation, merger, or transfer of assets or liabilities.(p13)

Your plan must provide that, in the case of any merger or consolidation with, or transfer of assets or liabilities to, any other plan, each participant would (if the plan then terminated) receive a benefit equal to or more than the benefit he or she would have been entitled to just before the merger, etc. (if the plan had then terminated).

Benefits must not be assigned or alienated.(p13)

Your plan must provide that its benefits cannot be assigned to or alienated from anyone other than plan participants or beneficiaries.
Exception for certain loans.(p13)
A loan from the plan (not from a third party) to a participant or beneficiary is not treated as an assignment or alienation if the loan is secured by the participant's accrued nonforfeitable benefit and is exempt from the tax on prohibited transactions under section 4975(d)(1) or would be exempt if the participant were a disqualified person. A disqualified person is defined later in this chapter under Prohibited Transactions.
Exception for QDRO.(p13)
Compliance with a QDRO (qualified domestic relations order) does not result in a prohibited assignment or alienation of benefits.
Payments to an alternate payee under a QDRO before the participant attains age 591/2 are not subject to the 10% additional tax that would otherwise apply under certain circumstances. Benefits distributed to an alternate payee under a QDRO can be rolled over tax free to an individual retirement account or to an individual retirement annuity.

No benefit reduction for social security increases.(p13)

Your plan must not permit a benefit reduction for a post-separation increase in the social security benefit level or wage base for any participant or beneficiary who is receiving benefits under your plan, or who is separated from service and has nonforfeitable rights to benefits. This rule also applies to plans supplementing the benefits provided by other federal or state laws.

Elective deferrals must be limited.(p13)

If your plan provides for elective deferrals, it must limit those deferrals to the amount in effect for that particular year. See Limit on Elective Deferrals, later in this chapter.

Top-heavy plan requirements.(p13)

A top-heavy plan is one that mainly favors partners, sole proprietors, and other key employees.
A plan is top-heavy for a plan year if, for the preceding plan year, the total value of accrued benefits or account balances of key employees is more than 60% of the total value of accrued benefits or account balances of all employees. Additional requirements apply to a top-heavy plan primarily to provide minimum benefits or contributions for non-key employees covered by the plan.
Most qualified plans, whether or not top-heavy, must contain provisions that meet the top-heavy requirements and will take effect in plan years in which the plans are top-heavy. These qualification requirements for top-heavy plans are explained in section 416 and its regulations.
SIMPLE and safe harbor 401(k) plan exception.(p13)
The top-heavy plan requirements do not apply to SIMPLE 401(k) plans, discussed earlier in chapter 3, or to safe harbor 401(k) plans that consist solely of safe harbor contributions, discussed later in this chapter. QACAs (discussed later) also are not subject to top-heavy requirements.