Legal View: Keeping your balance; ERISA docs available online

By Jeannine M. Sheehan

Daily Record Newswire

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 was enacted to protect the interests of employee benefit plan participants and their beneficiaries.

Under ERISA, certain financial and other information concerning employee benefit plans is required to be made available, upon request. The Department of Labor and The Employee Benefits Security Administration make available online and through its Public Disclosure Room certain employee benefit plan documents and other materials required by ERISA, subject to the exemptions and exclusions contained in the Freedom of Information Act.

Annual Report Form 5500
This report must be submitted annually by many ERISA-covered plans. It contains various schedules with information on the financial condition and operation of the plan. Certain entities in which plans invest or participate also file annual reports with the Department of Labor. Direct Filing Entities  include banks, common or collective trusts, insurance company pooled separate accounts, master trusts, group insurance arrangements and entities covered by Department of Labor regulation 29 CFR 2520.103-12. Reports include financial information regarding the DFE and a list of the investing or participating plans. Generally, the six most recent reports filed by employers or plan administrators are available.

SPDs and SMMs
Summary Plan Descriptions are important disclosure documents prepared by the plan that describe, in understandable terms, the rights, benefits and responsibilities of participants and beneficiaries in ERISA covered pension, health and other employee benefit plans.

The statement must include important information about the plan, such as how it works, eligibility requirements, what benefits are provided and how benefits may be obtained.

Summary of Material Modifications describe changes made to the plan and changes in the information in the SPD.

Plan sponsors are required to provide copies of the documents to plan participants automatically upon enrollment and upon a plan participant or beneficiary’s written request. ERISA also authorizes the Department of Labor to request copies of the documents from plan administrators/employers on behalf of participants and beneficiaries.

The Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 eliminates the requirement of plans to file SPDs and SMMs with EBSA. SPDs and SMMs filed with the agency before that time may be on file and are          available upon request if they are maintained. If a plan participant or beneficiary wishes to receive a more recent copy of the SPD or SMM, the agency will request a copy from the plan administrator.

Form M-1, for MEWAs and certain ECEs
Generally, Annual Reports for Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangements (MEWAs) are arrangements that offer medical benefits to the employees of two or more employers, or to their beneficiaries.

A MEWA administrator generally files the one-page Form M-1 once a year, usually due March 1, but administrators can request an automatic 60-day extension to May 1.

Form M-1 first became effective with the 1999 plan year. It contains general registration information, including the states in which the entity operates as well as responses to questions regarding compliance with Part 7 of ERISA, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996, the Newborns’ and Mothers’ Health Protection Act of 1996 and the Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998.

Plan administrators of MEWAs must file the required form for every year the MEWA offers benefits for medical care for the employees of two or more employers. MEWAs that are insurance companies are exempt from the filing requirement.

Top Hat Plan Statement — states an employer maintains a plan (or plans) primarily for the purpose of providing deferred compensation for a select group of management or highly compensated employees.

Advisory opinion letters — interpret and apply ERISA to specific factual situations and are issued by EBSA in response to written requests for opinions.

Comment letters — present views from the public on ERISA regulations and exemptions from the prohibited transaction provisions proposed by the DOL.

EBSA Federal Register notices — publications related to certain guidance such as exemptions from prohibited transactions, requests for information and notices of public meetings and hearings.

Announcements and transcripts — cover hearings held on ERISA regulations and for meetings of the Advisory Council on Employee Welfare and Pension Benefit Plans.

Those wishing to obtain copies of any items I’ve listed here should visit www.dol.gov/ebsa/foia/docfoia.html for instructions on how to make a request.

Jeannine M. Sheehan is a CPA with Mengel, Metzger, Barr & Co. LLP. She can be reached at Msheehan@mmb-co.com.

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