Top 12 Biggest Plan Mistakes…and How to Avoid Them


No one likes to make mistakes — especially retirement plan mistakes that can result in costly fines or even litigation. In 2014, the Internal Revenue Service/Department of Labor collected nearly $600 million for plan restorations, penalties and fines. Here’s the DOL break down:

  • 3,928 DOL investigations closed, with
  • Nearly 65 percent resulting in monetary compensation for plans or other corrective actions; and
  • 161 cases referred for litigation.

Violations often result from plain oversight (i.e., errors or omissions on the employer’s part) resulting in an audit headache and financial pain. This is why employers must be proactive and vigilant in avoiding plan mistakes. By being aware of these 12 “usual suspects,” employers can save a lot of time and trouble.

Plan fiduciaries most commonly fail to:

  1. Update the plan document with the mandatory retirement plan law changes;
  2. Follow the terms of the plan document;
  3. Use the same plan definition of compensation for handling all plan contributions and allocations;
  4. Make employer matching contributions to all the appropriate employees;
  5. Apply Actual Deferral Percentage (ADP) and Actual Contribution Percentage (ACP) non-discrimination test results to highly compensated employees’ (HCE) contributions, resulting in excess HCE contributions in the plan;
  6. Include all eligible employees in the plan, resulting in a lost contribution opportunity for some employees;
  7. Comply with contribution rules and distribute excess contributions back to employees;
  8. Routinely and promptly deposit employee contributions;
  9. Ensure employee loans meet the requirements of the plan documents;
  10. Handle financial hardship distributions properly;
  11. Make the required minimum employer contributions for top-heavy plans; and,
  12. File the required annual Form 5500 return or distribute the annual Summary Plan Description to all plan participants.

For employers who want more details about staying compliant, or suspect they have made a plan mistake, many resources are available to help right these wrongs.

  • The IRS Retirement Plan Fix-it Guide reviews these top mistakes in-depth and offers tips to prevent and correct them.
  • The IRS Retirement Plan Checklist helps employers ensure compliance.
  • The IRS and DOL also both have self-correction programs that allow plan administrators to voluntarily correct these common errors. Employers should also seek help from their benefits lawyers or counsel to ensure the violation has been resolved.