See full-size image.

"Same, same, but different" is a familiar saying in Thailand, and as shown on the left, the subject of a book of objects photographed in Thailand by Thomas Kalak, the photographer from Munich. It means, I understand, similar but not exactly the same. Kinda like, 403(b) plans and 401(k) plans.  

And that’s a good jumping off point for me to answer a question posed to me  the other day in an email from one of this blog’s readers. Asks the reader, "Are the 403(b) regulations the same as the 401(k), as far as the 7-day rule for a small sponsor to deposit 401(k) contributions". It’s an important question as the distinction between 403(b) plans and 401(k) plans is starting to blur with the 403(b) regulations effective January 1, 2009.

What the reader is referring to, of course, is the recent Department of Labor Proposed Regulation that employee contributions to a "small"retirement plan (one with less that 100 participants) will be deemed to be made in compliance with the law if those amounts are deposited with the plan within 7 business days of receipt or withholding. (See my post, Department of Labor Proposes Safe Harbor Rule for Deposit of Employee 401(k) Contributions…Finally).

So the answer is yes, a 403(b) plan would be subject to the 7-day requirement if it’s an ERISA plan. Now that’s an important "IF". A 403(b) sponsor could find that their newly required plan document if not carefully drafted could cause them to wake up New Year’s Day with an ERISA plan. And, thus, subject to all the ERISA rules (old and new) including reporting, disclosure, prohibited transactions, and fiduciary obligations. And, of course, the afore-mentioned 7-day deposit rule as part of the mix.

But 403(b) plan sponsors do have an obligation to make timely deposits of employee contributions. The 403(b) regulations require an employer to transfer contributions to the plan “within a period that is not longer than is reasonable for the proper administration of the plan”. For example, within 15 business days of the month the amount would have otherwise been paid to the participant.

So thanks, kind reader, for your question. I hope I’ve answered it to your satisfaction.

Here’s a link to fellow blogger Bob Toth’s post on 403(b) plans inadvertently becoming ERISA plans, The New 403(b) Documents and ERISA. He and his partner, Nick Curabba, provide excellent – and understandible – coverage of 403(b) plans and the new ERISA "stuff" on Baker & Daniels’ Benefits Biz Blog.