Oct 29, 2010

Harvey Shifrin authors two chapters in new guide to retirement plans

Although he's not quite ready for retirement himself, employee benefits attorney Harvey Shifrin recently contributed to the hefty third edition of “Adviser's Guide to Retirement Plans for Small Businesses,” a comprehensive manual for CPAs.

Published in August by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the 577-page “Adviser's Guide” is a resource for savvy CPAs to pilot their small business clients through the intricacies and legalities of retirement plans. Topics range from descriptions of the different plans available to the how-tos of designing and implementing retirement savings in a small business setting.

Shifrin was asked to write two of 30 chapters, updating the information he authored three years ago for the second edition.

In Chapter 24, “Deadlines for Depositing Employee Contributions and Loan Repayments,” Shifrin explains what the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) really means when it says a company must bank its pension plan contributions within certain time frames. Deadlines have been spelled out, he said, but confusing regulatory language may give employers a wrong impression of how much time is actually allowed.

“It's really simple,” he said, “and yet it's really tricky in terms of what the law says, how the DOL interprets it, and the common misconceptions that people have.”

He said the government has no qualms about assessing a penalty if the employer is found to have made late contributions. “You have to pay an excise tax,” he said, “plus, in essence, bring the plan up to where it would have been had the contributions been timely in the Department of Labor's eyes.

“This can trip up anybody,” Shifrin said.

Two chapters later, in “Uniformed Services Employment and Re-Employment Rights,” Shifrin talks healthcare and retirement plan protections for ex-military personnel and reservists returning to the work force.

With practice areas in Tax and Employee Benefits as well as Estate Planning and Asset Protection, Shifrin is an associate with Chuhak & Tecson, P.C. He has been addressing benefits issues almost as long as ERISA—the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974—around which much of his work revolves.

Shifrin's career itself has come full-circle. After beginning his collegiate studies in actuarial science, he detoured into radio and television, earning a communications degree in 1971 from the University of Illinois. But it was those innate math skills that set him up as a tax accountant and pointed him toward a career in employee benefits.

With a fresh law degree from Baylor University in 1976, Shifrin showed up for an interview in estate planning, only to learn that the job had just been given to someone else. There was, however, an opening in pensions.

“They had just passed ERISA, and now we had to amend all of our benefits plans,” Shifrin said. “The interesting thing is that even though I started out in math and actuarial science and thought I'd gotten away from it, there I was right back in it—as things often work out.”

One of the things he enjoys about his work is battling the IRS on behalf of clients; Shifrin has often enjoyed a good challenge.

Many years ago in Texas, he tried to sell a client's attorney on a defined benefit pension plan. “They said, 'If you can find a way that they can get the side fund as well as the insurance benefits, we can do business with you,'” he said. “This was something that no one had ever done.”

But Shifrin did the research, and he did the math. He discovered a technique that worked and qualified it with the IRS, becoming the first in Texas to do so. He was ahead of the curve in more ways than one, though. His employer asked, “How did you come up with all these calculations?”

“I did it on my Apple II,” Shifrin answered.

“Well,” the boss said, “we're never going to come to a day where everybody's going to have a computer on their desk.”

Always one to take the long view, Shifrin looks ahead by keeping abreast of new tax regulations, with a particular interest right now in ROBS (Rollovers as Business Start-ups) transactions.

His days may be filled with advising and representing clients or mediating conflict, but it was one day in 2007 that Shifrin considers his most interesting workday. Right in the middle of a client phone call, he got word that he and his wife, Sheila, had won a contest to audition for “Wheel of Fortune.”

The Shifrins flew to California, hoping to be selected for a couples show, but Harvey asked producers to pick his wife if they had to choose only one of them. Sheila did get to fulfill her longtime dream of spinning the wheel with Pat Sajak, and she won a trip to Cancun and $5,000 in cash.

The money arrived at the end of the year, but the studio wanted to send a 1099 for the entire winnings—even though the trip award couldn't be used until 2008. With one eye always on the IRS, Harvey asked to be taxed only on the amount received in 2007. That's not how the show does things, however, so Harvey became the only person ever to return their cash prize, and the studio mailed a new check along with that pesky 1099 in January.

Later, when the Shifrins found themselves sipping tequilas at the Mexican seaside, it was a beautiful vacation. And it wasn't long before the IRS—finally—became the furthest thing from Harvey's mind.

“Adviser's Guide to Retirement Plans for Small Businesses” is available in electronic downloadable format at for $98.75 ($79.00 for AICPA members).