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ERISA Reporting and Disclosure Requirements

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA") was enacted by Congress to protect the retirement funds of hard working Americans. While the law does not require an employer to offer a pension plan, it does set minimum federal standards and reporting requirements for corporations, unions, and other entities that choose to provide employees with a retirement or benefit plan. Read the full story for details.

This article reviews the most significant ERISA reporting obligations, as spelled out in "Title 1 Basic Disclosure Requirements" of the law. Plan sponsors or participants who wish to obtain more in-depth or detailed information about ERISA reporting and disclosure are encouraged to visit the website for the Employee Benefits Security Administration division of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Summary Plan Description (SPD)

The "Summary Plan Description" is at the heart of ERISA reporting and disclosure requirements. This document must describe in great detail the key features of any plan governed by ERISA. The benefits, rights, and obligations of each plan member must be clearly outlined using easy-to-understand language.

The following circumstances trigger a requirement for the plan sponsor to provide plan participants with a copy of the Summary Plan Description:

• Within 120 days of the plan becoming subject to ERISA requirements;
• New plan participants must receive a copy of the SPD within 90 days of enrollment;
• Plan beneficiaries must receive a copy of the SPD within 90 days of the first benefits payment;
• All plan members must receive a revised SPD every 5 years if changes or amendments apply; and
• Every 10 years, whether or not changes have been made to the SPD.

Among many other informational requirements, the SPD must identify the plan sponsor, all procedures governing claims benefits, COBRA rights, formulas used to measure a participant’s years of service, and the appeals process for denied claims.

Form 5500 Annual Return / Report of Employee Benefit Plan

Form 5500 is a required annual disclosure filing for every ERISA-governed pension plan, welfare plan, and direct filing entity. It was developed jointly by the Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation in order to satisfy annual filing requirements under both ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code.

Key reporting elements of Form 5500 include but are not limited to:

• Name of the plan, the plan sponsor, and the plan administrator;
• The type of plan (i.e., multiemployer, single-employer, or multiple-employer);
• The number of total, active, retired, separated, or deceased participants; and
• Plan funding and benefits schedules.

Form 5500 is a public document that is used by many parties for many purposes. Plan participants can monitor plan performance and compliance using Form 5500, while Congress and federal agencies study consolidated data from many filers to evaluate policy, tax, and economic matters.

The “Summary Annual Report” is a narrative overview from the Form 5500 that must be provided to plan participants and pension plan beneficiaries who are receiving benefits within nine months after the end of the plan year or two months after an approved extension.

Plan sponsors must now file all Form 5500 Annual Reports and any associated attachments electronically.

Notification of Benefit Determination

Information regarding benefit claim approvals or denials must be provided to plan participants on a schedule that varies depending on the plan and claim. When a claim is denied, reasons for the denial and associated appeal procedures must be clearly stated.

Plan Documents

Plan participants and beneficiaries have a right to request information about the plan on an as-needed basis. The sponsor generally has 30 days from receipt of a written request for information to reply with documents that typically include the most recent SPD, Form 5500, trust agreement, and/or other documents that describe plan features and operations.

In Summary

ERISA reporting and disclosure requirements may appear to be straightforward, but can actually be quite complex. Plan sponsors are encouraged to work closely with an experienced ERISA attorney, accountant, or consultant to achieve and maintain compliance levels. Plan participants must follow procedures specified in a plan for information, claims, or denial requests, and may retain an ERISA attorney to represent them when the specified processes are unsatisfactory.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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