- Safe Harbor Requirements
- Lost Participants
- Welcome Relief For Terminating Defined
Retaining account balances for
terminated participants in a qualified retirement plan often increases the
plan’s administration expenses and fiduciary responsibility. Therefore, many
plans include what is known as a "mandatory distribution" or "cash-out"
provision to force the distribution of small account balances to terminated
participants who fail or refuse to make an election either to receive the
distribution in cash or roll it over to an Individual Retirement Account
(IRA) or another qualified plan.
In order to preserve retirement savings for participants, effective March
28, 2005, new Department of Labor (DOL) regulations require that mandatory
distributions between $1,000 and $5,000 be rolled over to an IRA on behalf
of the participant rather than distributed in cash. These rules will also
provide a means of rolling over small account balances for participants that
cannot be located. The DOL has also extended reliance on these rules to lost
participants in a terminating defined contribution plan.
This newsletter summarizes the new automatic rollover procedures and how
they will ease the problem of making distributions to certain participants
who cannot be found or refuse to make an election.
One of the provisions included in the Economic Growth and Tax Relief
Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA) is the requirement that plans providing
for mandatory distributions must automatically roll over the distribution to
an IRA on behalf of the participant, unless the participant affirmatively
elects to receive the distribution in cash. This requirement is applicable
if the vested account balance is between $1,000 and $5,000.
These rules were not to become effective until the DOL drafted safe
harbor provisions that would protect plan fiduciaries from liability. On
September 28, 2004 the DOL issued final regulations outlining the safe harbor
rules which apply to mandatory distributions made on or after March 28,
Complying with the safe harbor requirements provides fiduciary protection
for both the selection of an IRA provider and the investment of the funds.
The safe harbor relief is contingent upon the plan fiduciary satisfying the
Rollover Amount: An automatic rollover is required for
mandatory distributions that are $5,000 or less but more than $1,000. The
amount is determined as of the date the distribution is to be made. If the
plan disregards amounts that the participant previously rolled over to the
plan in determining whether the cash-out limit has been exceeded, it may
also disregard these rollover contributions for automatic rollover purposes.
If the plan so elects, the automatic rollover rules may also be applied to
distributions of less than $1,000.
Individual Retirement Plan: The rollover must be made to a
traditional IRA (not a Roth IRA) or an individual retirement annuity offered
by a bank, insurance company or other financial institution.
Written Agreement: The plan fiduciary must enter into a
written agreement with the IRA provider that addresses, among other things,
the investment of the rollover funds and the fees and expenses to be charged
to the account. One or more IRA providers may be selected. The plan
fiduciary may rely on the IRA provider’s commitments set forth in the
agreement and is not required to monitor the IRA provider’s compliance with
the terms of the agreement once the rollover has occurred.
Permissible Investments: The rollover funds must be
invested in a vehicle "designed to preserve principal, and provide a
reasonable rate of return, whether or not such return is guaranteed,
consistent with liquidity," such as money market funds, interest-bearing
savings accounts, certificates of deposit or other "stable value products"
offered by a bank, savings association, credit union, insurance company or
Fees and Expenses: The fees assessed against the IRA cannot
exceed the amounts charged by the IRA provider for comparable IRAs
established for rollover distributions that are not automatic rollovers.
Notice to Participants: All participants are required to
receive notification of the automatic rollover provisions. This information
must be included in the plan’s Summary Plan Description (SPD) or a Summary
of Material Modifications (SMM).
Prohibited Transactions: The fiduciary may not engage in a
prohibited transaction, such as a plan fiduciary receiving consideration
from a financial institution in exchange for selecting that financial
institution as the IRA provider. A class exemption permits a bank or other
financial institution to select itself to receive automatic rollovers from
its own qualified plan and utilize its own funds or investment products.
If the automatic rollover safe harbor requirements have been satisfied,
the plan sponsor’s fiduciary responsibilities end immediately upon the
transfer of the participant’s benefit to the IRA, and the distributed amount
ceases to be a plan asset.
In these times of high employee turnover, many retirement plans find
themselves owing benefits to former employees whose whereabouts are unknown.
This can be troublesome for ongoing plans since, in many cases, the
administrative costs are high related to the participants’ account balances.
If the plan permits mandatory distributions and the distribution is $5,000
or less, the new automatic rollover procedures provide a method of
distributing the vested account balance from the plan (mandatory
distributions from an ongoing plan are not permitted if the vested balance
A terminated defined contribution plan is required to distribute all plan
assets as soon as administratively feasible after the date of plan
termination. Participants are required to be notified of the plan
termination and given a choice of receiving a distribution or having it
directly rolled over to an IRA or another qualified plan. When participants
are lost or do not respond to written notices, plan administrators often are
faced with an array of fiduciary issues and are unable to effectively
wind-up the plan’s financial affairs.
Recognizing this problem, the DOL released Field Assistance Bulletin
2004-02 on September 30, 2004 outlining the fiduciary obligations for a
terminated defined contribution plan, including mandatory search methods for
locating a missing participant and steps for distributing an account balance
when efforts to locate the missing participant fail. The DOL guidance for
terminated defined contribution plans is effective immediately.
The DOL requires that every plan must employ the following search methods
regardless of the size of the missing participant’s account balance. The
plan should retain documentation to prove that attempts to contact the
participant were unsuccessful. Reasonable expenses incurred attempting to
locate missing participants may be charged to the participant’s account.
Use Certified Mail: Sending certified mail to the
participant’s last known address can easily ascertain whether the
participant can be located in order to distribute benefits.
Check Related Plan Records: Determine whether the
employer’s records or the records of another plan maintained by the
employer, such as a group health plan, has a more current address.
Check With Designated Plan Beneficiary: Attempt to identify
and contact any individual that the missing participant has designated as a
Use a Letter-Forwarding Service: Use either the IRS or the
Social Security Administration (SSA) letter-forwarding program in an attempt
to locate missing participants. A Social Security number is required to use
these programs. In general, both the IRS and SSA search their records for
the most recent address of the participant and forward a letter from the
plan fiduciary to the participant. The IRS and SSA cannot provide the plan
with any information concerning the results of their efforts. Hopefully, the
letter from the plan will cause the participant to contact the plan
If none of the four mandatory search methods is successful in locating
the participant, the plan fiduciary needs to consider whether, under the
facts and circumstances, it would be prudent to use other methods, such as
Internet search tools, commercial locator services and credit reporting
agencies. If the cost of using these services will be charged to the
participant’s account, the plan fiduciary will need to consider the size of
the participant’s account balance in relation to the fees that would be
incurred when deciding whether to use any of these alternatives.
If the fiduciary is unable to obtain a participant’s election concerning
the distribution of benefits or a prudent search does not locate a missing
participant, the plan may proceed with the distribution of the participant’s
account balance. The preferred method is to roll the participant’s account
balance into an IRA, and fiduciaries may rely on the automatic rollover safe
harbor rules described above. In general, if all of the safe harbor rules
are satisfied, the amount rolled over may exceed $5,000, unless the plan
offers an annuity option or the employer, or a related company, sponsors
another defined contribution plan.
If a plan offers an annuity option, such as required in a money purchase
pension plan, distributions in excess of $5,000 must be in the form of an
annuity contract or irrevocable insurance commitment. If the employer
maintains another defined contribution plan (other than an ESOP), accounts
of missing participants are required to be transferred to the other plan.
If the plan fiduciary is unable to locate an IRA provider willing to
accept the rollover distribution on behalf of the missing participant, e.g.,
because of a very small account balance, two alternative distribution
methods are available. The missing participant’s account balance may be
transferred to either a federally-insured interest-bearing bank account in
the name of the participant or to state unclaimed property funds in the
state of the missing participant’s last known address. Both of these methods
will result in immediate tax liability for the participant.
Plans that provide for mandatory distributions will need to begin making
automatic rollovers effective March 28, 2005. The delayed effective date
provides time for amending the plan document, notifying participants,
determining how rollovers will be invested and selecting an IRA provider. A
plan that does not currently provide for mandatory distributions of more
than $1,000 is not subject to the new rules and does not need to take any
Plan fiduciaries must make reasonable efforts to locate lost participants
to fulfill their obligations under ERISA. The automatic rollover safe harbor
rules provide a solution for dealing with lost participant account balances
of $5,000 or less. These rules also provide welcome relief for terminating
defined contribution plans.