DOL Guidance to Aid Retirement Plans Facing Missing Participant Issues

The Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) has released a three-part guidance package to assist retirement plan fiduciaries in dealing with issues of missing or unresponsive participants. These issues typically involve terminated participants who have vested benefits remaining in an employer-sponsored plan, or terminating or abandoned plans. An EBSA news release accompanies the guidance package.

The guidance package consists of the following components.

Best Practices Guidance
The “Missing Participants – Best Practices for Pension Plans” element of the guidance describes steps that fiduciaries of retirement plans—including both defined benefit and defined contribution plans, such as 401(k) plans—can take to avoid incidents of missing or unresponsive participants, and to locate those with benefits due them that have not responded to efforts to locate them. This element also describes documentation that should be retained by retirement plans to show evidence of due diligence in meeting this fiduciary obligation.

Compliance Assistance Release 2021-01
The Compliance Assistance Release No. 2021-01—addressed to EBSA regional directors—describes the investigative and enforcement approach that the agency will take in assessing whether a defined benefit pension plan fiduciary has met its obligations to find and convey plan benefits that are due terminated participants. It is intended to guide the EBSA’s regional offices in facilitating voluntary compliance by retirement plan fiduciaries under the agency’s Terminated Vested Participants Project.

Field Assistance Bulletin (FAB) 2021-01
FAB 2021-01 describes the DOL’s temporary enforcement policy with respect to retirement plans’ use of a recently provided option that allows participant benefits in terminating or abandoned defined contribution plans to be transferred to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) under its Defined Contribution Missing Participants Program.

There is currently a regulatory safe harbor for participant benefits in terminating or abandoned defined contribution plans to be transferred to IRAs, and—in limited circumstances—to be transferred to state unclaimed property funds. The EBSA envisions expanding this regulatory safe harbor to include the transfer of such benefits to the PBGC under its Defined Contribution Missing Participants Program.

Pending the expansion of this safe harbor, FAB 2021-1 states that it will not pursue violations against responsible plan fiduciaries of terminating defined contribution plans or qualified termination administrators (QTAs) of abandoned plans who transfer benefits to the PBGC in accordance with its missing participant regulations.