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‘Missing’ Inaction?

Regulatory Compliance

Recent DOL guidance on missing participants seems to fall short of what plan fiduciaries want/need—but may offer fiduciaries some key insights to avoid future problems.

On Jan. 12, 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) released a triple dose of guidance related to helping retirement plan fiduciaries meet their obligations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to distribute retirement benefits to missing participants.

Arguably the guidance, while welcome, is less than plan sponsors might have wished (and previously asked) for—and it concerns an issue that most plan sponsors of my acquaintance continue to insist isn’t one, though the Labor Department is clearly of a different mind. In fact, in the first of the three pieces of guidance, the Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) cautions: “The first step in addressing any problem often is knowing that there is one.”[i]

The “issue,” of course, is fulfilling the fiduciary obligation to not only keep accurate records, but to take “appropriate steps” to ensure that the participants and beneficiaries are paid their full benefits when due. The question—and one that it seems remains, following the “guidance”—is, what are the “appropriate” steps?

To that end, the first document in the trio—titled “Missing Participants—Best Practices for Pension Plans”—purports to outline just that, the “best” practices. That’s helpful, of course—and if the steps outlined are familiar ground to most (and by no means the “safe harbor” that folks are hoping to get), it is perhaps at least nice to have the bulleted list. 

However, that it is issued alongside a Compliance Assistance Release (which, among other things, also describes the types of records and documents that EBSA has requested during its investigations in the recordkeeping or administration of benefits for terminated vested participants and beneficiaries and the red flags that it looks for) should heighten attention, even though the third component—a Field Assistance Bulletin—actually provides a temporary enforcement policy under which DOL will not pursue a fiduciary breach claim against a plan fiduciary that transfers the accounts of missing participants in a terminating DC plan to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) as part of the PBGC’s missing participant program. 

All in all, it feels like something of a “warning”—alongside a checklist of things to look for in determining if, in fact, a plan fiduciary is living up to ERISA’s standard of care with regard to ensuring that those who have earned those promised benefits actually receive them.

In fact, the guidance does make certain “allowances.” For example, it notes that “not every practice below is necessarily appropriate for every plan,” and that “responsible plan fiduciaries should consider what practices will yield the best results in a cost effective manner for their plan’s particular participant population.” It also acknowledges that, “in deciding what steps are appropriate, plan fiduciaries should also consider the size of a participant’s accrued benefit and account balance as well as the cost of search efforts,” and that “the specific steps taken to locate a missing participant, or to obtain instructions from a nonresponsive participant, will depend on facts and circumstances particular to a plan and participant.”

That said, it also notes as a “best practice” that plan fiduciaries should have in place a written policy with respect to the plan's procedures on locating missing participants. 

And, taken in totality, as far as “guidance,” it’s hard not to see a cautionary element—and sense that the Labor Department is effectively cautioning plan fiduciaries/advisors that if such a policy is currently “missing” from your current plan toolkit—well, you might be well-advised to (re)consider it.

[i] In fairness, In unveiling the guidance, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Employee Benefits Security Administration Jeanne Klinefelter Wilson noted that, “In fiscal year 2020 alone, EBSA’s investigators helped missing and nonresponsive participants recover benefits with a present value in excess of $1.4 billion.”