FAQ: How To Deal With “Missing Participants” At Plan Termination

  1. How is “missing participant” defined?

Missing participants are individuals (including participants, death beneficiaries and alternate payees under a QDRO) who fail to respond to notices by mail or where a notice is sent to an address and later returned to sender as undeliverable.


2. What steps are required to locate missing individuals?


At a minimum, the plan fiduciary should take the following steps to locate missing participants or beneficiaries DOL Field Assistance Bulletin 2014-01 https://www.dol.gov/sites/default/files/ebsa/employers-and-advisers/guidance/field-assistance-bulletins/fab2014-1.pdf:

  1. provide notice by first class mail or certified mail,

  2. check related plan and employer records (such as an address provided to the health plan) for an alternative address,

  3. request an address from the designated plan beneficiary on file, and/or

  4. use free or low cost electronic search tools such as internet searches, public record databases and social media.

Depending on the facts and circumstances (such as the size of the account balance), additional search steps, such as use of a commercial locator service or private investigator may be required.


3. Who is responsible for paying the cost of locating these individuals?


In most cases, a plan fiduciary may charge missing participants’ accounts reasonable expenses for efforts to find them. DOL Field Assistance Bulletin 2014-01.


4. Does the plan fiduciary have any continued responsibilities if the participants cannot be found?


Yes. Monies that remain in the plan are considered “plan assets” subject to ERISA’s fiduciary requirements until distributed.


5. Under what circumstances may a Plan Sponsor distribute benefits of missing participants from the plan without locating the participant?


This will depend on the facts and circumstances, including, for example:

  1. the type of plan (defined benefit or defined contribution),

  2. the provisions of the plan, (e.g., the types of distributions that are either permitted or mandated by the plan (e.g., lump sums or annuities) and

  3. the reasons for the forced distribution (under the applicable dollar limit or on plan termination).

Please feel free to contact us if you need advice regarding locating missing plan participants and beneficiaries.


© Boutwell Fay LLP 2017, All Rights Reserved. This handout is for information purposes only, and may constitute attorney advertising. It should not be construed as legal advice and does not create an attorney client relationship. If you have questions or would like our advice with respect to any of this information, please contact us. The information contained in this article is effective as of March 31, 2017.



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