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What Is ERISA?

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) is a federal law that sets minimum standards for pension plans in private industry. For example, if your employer maintains a pension plan, ERISA specifies when you must be allowed to become a participant, how long you have to work before you have a nonforfeitable interest in your pension, how long you can be away from your job before it might affect your benefits, and whether your spouse has a right to part of your pension in the event of your death. Most of the provisions of ERISA are effective for plan years beginning or after January 1, 1975.

ERISA does not require any employer to establish a pension plan. It only requires that those who establish plans must meet certain minimum standards. The law generally does not specify how much money a participant must be paid as a benefit.

ERISA does the following:

  • Requires plans to provide participants with information about the plan including important information about plan features and funding. The plan must furnish some information regularly and automatically. Some is available free of charge; some is not.
  • Sets minimum standards for participation, vesting, benefit accrual and funding. The law defines how long a person may be required to work before becoming eligible to participate in a plan, to accumulate benefits, and to have a nonforfeitable right to those benefits. The law also establishes detailed funding rules that require plan sponsors to provide adequate funding for your plan.
  • Requires accountability of plan fiduciaries. ERISA generally defines a fiduciary as anyone who exercises discretionary authority or control over a plan's management or assets, including anyone who provides investment advice to the plan. Fiduciaries who do not follow the principles of conduct may be held responsible for restoring losses to the plan.
  • Gives participants the right to sue for benefits and breaches of fiduciary duty.
  • Guarantees payment of certain benefits if a defined benefit plan is terminated, through a federally chartered corporation, known as the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

ERISA also creates standards welfare benefit plans, but those plans are not discussed in this booklet.

What Are Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution Pension Plans?

Generally speaking, there are two types of pension plans: defined benefit plans and defined contribution plans. A defined benefit plan promises you a specified monthly benefit at retirement. The plan may state this promised benefit as an exact dollar amount, such as $100 per month at retirement. Or, more commonly, it may calculate a benefit through a plan formula that considers such factors as salary and service -- for example, 1 percent of your average salary for the last 5 years of employment for every year of service with your employer.

A defined contribution plan, on the other hand, does not promise you a specific amount of benefits at retirement. In these plans, you or your employer (or both) contribute to your individual account under the plan, sometimes at a set rate, such as 5 percent of your earnings annually. These contributions generally are invested on your behalf. You will ultimately receive the balance in your account, which is based on contributions plus or minus investment gains or losses. The value of your account will fluctuate due to the changes in the value of your investments. Examples of defined contribution plans include 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, employee stock ownership plans, and profit-sharing plans. The general rules of ERISA apply to each of these types of plans, bust some special rules also apply. To determine what type of plan your employer provides, check with your plan administrator or reach your summary plan description (see p.13).

A money purchase pension plan is a plan that requires fixed annual contributions from your employer to your individual account. Because a money purchase pension plan requires these regular contributions, the plan is subject to certain funding and other rules.

What Are Simplified Employee Pension Plans (SEPs)?

Your employer may sponsor a simplified employee pension plan or SEP. SEPs are relatively uncomplicated retirement savings vehicles. A SEP allows employees to make contributions on a tax-favored basis to individual retirement accounts (IRAs) owned by the employees. SEPs are subject to minimal reporting and disclosure requirements.

Under a SEP, you as the employee must set up an IRA to accept your employer s contributions. As a general rule, your employer can contribute up to 15 percent of your pay into a SEP each year, up to a maximum of $30,000.

If you work for a company employing 25 or fewer people, your employer may establish a salary reduction SEP. If your employer has such a plan, in addition to any employer contributions to your SEP, you may also elect to have SEP contributions made on your behalf from your salary on a before-tax basis, up to the lesser of 15 percent of your pay or $9,240 in 1995. Your deferral contributions are added to any employer contributions to determine the annual limit ($30,000 or 15% of your pay). Other limits may apply to the amount that may be contributed on your behalf. State and local governments and tax-exempt organizations are not eligible to establish salary reduction SEPs.

What Are Profit Sharing Plans or Stock Bonus Plans?

A profit sharing or stock bonus plan is a defined contribution under which the plan may provide, or the employer may determine, annually, how much will be contributed to the plan (out of profits or otherwise). The plan contains a formula for allocating to each participant a portion of each annual contribution. A profit sharing plan or stock bonus plan include a 401(k) plan.

What Are 401(k) Plans?

Your employer may establish a defined contribution plan that is a cash or deferred arrangement, usually called a 401(k) plan. You can elect to defer receiving a portion of your salary which is instead contributed on your behalf, before taxes, to the 401(k) plan. Sometimes the employer may match your contributions. There are special rules governing the operation of a 401(k) plan. For example, there is a dollar limit on the amount you may elect to defer each year. The dollar limit on the amount you elect to defer each year. The dollar limit in 1995 is $9,240. The amount may be adjusted annually by the Treasury Department to reflect changes in the cost of living. Other limits may apply to the amount that may be contributed on your behalf. For example, if you are highly compensated, you may be limited depending on the extent to which rank and file employees participate in the plan. Your employer must advise you of any limits that may apply to you.

Although a 401(k) plan is a retirement plan, you may be permitted access to funds in the plan before retirement. For example, if you are an active employee, your plan may allow you to borrow from the plan. Also, your plan may permit you to make a withdrawal on account of hardship, generally from your funds you contributed. The sponsor may want to encourage participation in the plan, but it cannot make your elective deferrals a condition for the receipt of other benefits, except for matching contributions.

The adoption of 401(k) plans by a state or local government or a tax-exempt organization is limited by law.

What Are Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs)?

Employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) are a form of defined contribution plan in which the investments are primarily in employer stock. Congress authorized the creation of ESOPs as one method of encouraging employee participation in corporate ownership.

What Is The Role Of The Labor Department In Regulating Pension Plans?

The Department of Labor enforces Title I of ERISA, which, in part, establishes participants rights and fiduciaries' duties. However, certain plans are not covered by the protections of Title I. They are:

  • Federal, state, or local government employee plans, including plans of certain international organizations.
  • Certain church or church association plans.
  • Plans maintained solely to comply with state workers compensation, unemployment compensation or disability insurance laws.
  • Plans maintained outside the United States primarily for non-resident aliens.
  • Unfunded excess benefit plans -- plans maintained solely to provide benefits or contributions in excess of those allowable for tax-qualified plans.

The Labor Department's Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration is the agency charged with enforcing the rules governing the conduct of plan managers, investment of plan money, reporting and disclosure of plan information, enforcement of the fiduciary provisions of the law, and workers benefit rights. But other agencies also are involved in pension law monitoring and enforcement. They are:

What Other Federal Agencies Regulate Plans?

  • The Treasury Department's Internal Revenue Service is responsible for ensuring compliance with the Internal Revenue Code, which establishes the rules for operating a "tax-qualified" pension plan, including pension plan funding and vesting requirements. A pension plan that is "tax-qualified" can offer special tax benefits both to the employer sponsoring the plan to the participants who receive pension benefits. The IRS maintains a taxpayer assistance line for employee plans at (202) 622-6074 (1:30-4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday- Thursday).
  • The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The PBGC, a non-profit, federally created corporation, guarantees payment of certain pension benefits under defined benefit plans that are terminated with insufficient money to pay benefits. The PBGC may be contacted at 1200 K Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005, telephone (202) 326-4000.



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