The Department of Labor is increasing its audits of defined benefit pension plans with so-called “missing” participants, thereby pressuring plan administrators to find former employees—or their beneficiaries—so that the benefits they’re owed can be distributed to them.
The Society for Human Resource Management reports that, according to Norma Sharara, a principal in Mercer’s employment practices risk management group in Washington, D.C., this is something “completely new” that started in the DOL’s Philadelphia office as a pilot project last year and is now going national.
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Sharara says in the report that the Philadelphia DOL office began reviewing the Forms 5500 of defined benefit plans to identify employers with a high number of terminated vested participants who were not receiving payments and who had not received a lump-sum payout.
When officials contacted plan sponsors and asked for names and addresses of these participants, “the sponsors said they were missing,” Sharara says in the report, adding that when the Philadelphia DOL sent a certified letter to the participants’ last-known addresses, “a lot of participants responded” and said they “hadn’t known money was waiting for them in a pension plan somewhere.”
She also says that from October 2016 to August 2017, the Philadelphia DOL recovered more than $165 million in benefits that should have been paid to participants.
The program, now going national, has auditors looking for plan sponsors’ failures to locate and contact missing participants; once found, those failures will be treated as a breach of fiduciary duty under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which can trigger substantial penalties.
“The DOL thinks that fiduciaries can’t do what they’ve always done, which is to pretty much wait for participants to file a claim,” Sharara says in the report, adding, “Instead, you have an affirmative duty to proactively contact participants in advance of benefit start dates. The DOL is saying that plan fiduciaries could be personally liable to pay participants their missed benefits.”
Plan sponsors should bolster their efforts to find participants, the report says. Timothy Hauser, acting director of the DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration, has announced that there will soon be new guidance regarding standards that plan sponsors should follow, and at the Aug. 24 meeting of the ERISA Advisory Council in Washington, D.C., listed four steps plan sponsors should take until the guidance is released.
They should send plan participants a certified letter using their last known address, maintain good records on efforts to reach terminated vested participants, contact coworkers of terminated vested participants to try to find updated contact information and try contacting missing participants through their phone numbers—since many people keep their cellphone numbers even after moving to a new location.
They can also try using a commercial locator service, but they have a fiduciary duty to monitor the locator service’s efforts.
And last but not least, they should follow all filing rules for IRS Form 8955-SSA, Annual Registration Statement Identifying Separated Participants with Deferred Vested Benefits. The initial filing is due no later than the pension plan’s Form 5500 due date for the plan year following the plan year in which the participant ended employment, if benefits haven’t started by then. Subsequent filings are required if errors are discovered in information previously reported or if the participant’s benefits are transferred to a successor plan sponsored by a different employer, for instance.