After our recent Educational Series webinar on An ERISA Foundation: Laying the Groundwork for Successful Fiduciary Oversight, Chase Tweel, J.D., LL.M., a Pension Consultants ERISA Analyst responded to the questions the audience asked. There were so many great questions that we’ve broken the Q&A into two sections. Here’s “Part 1” of what he had to say.
Question: From the webinar, I learned that employees’ benefits plan provided by the state, such as a state-funded community college, are exempt from ERISA. But what about the 403(b) plans that are offered as an alternative to the employees, do they have to follow the ERISA standards?
Chase: That’s a good question, and the short answer is, no. The 403(b) plans that are sponsored by governmental employers are exempt from ERISA’s requirements. Some types of 403(b) plans are subject to ERISA. The determining factor in whether or not ERISA is going to apply to one of these special types of plans, such as a 403(b) plan, hinges on the status of the employer. Two types of employers can sponsor a 403(b) plan, governmental plans and certain private organizations that qualify as 501(c)(3)s, charitable organizations. The charitable organizations that are private and sponsor a 403(b) plan have a choice whether or not they want the plan to be subject to ERISA.
There is an ERISA safe harbor under the 403(b) rules that allow charities to exempt their plans from ERISA if they meet a certain set of requirements. If they don’t meet those requirements, then the plan will be subject to ERISA.
Going back to the original question, if it’s clearly determined that the employer is a governmental employer, you don’t even need to look at the ERISA safe harbor for 403(b) plans. All of the plans will be exempt from ERISA by virtue of the employer’s governmental status.
Question: How do I know who to be designated a named fiduciary? What kind of guidance can you provide on that?
Chase: Who should be the named fiduciary is a different question than from who is the named fiduciary. I’ll first address how you know who the named fiduciary is under the plan. The first place to look is the plan document. Most likely in the definitional section or in the plan administration section you’ll see the employer named as the named fiduciary. Now, that’s a pretty broad, not very helpful or specific provision if it’s just the employer name. The next place to look would be at board resolution to see who the employer, as a named fiduciary, has actually delegated specific responsibilities of plan administration.
The question “who should be the fiduciary in a plan?” is going to vary depending on the size and complexity of the plan and depending on the size and complexity of the employer. In a small plan sponsored by a relatively small employer, it may be sufficient to have a single individual who’s the benefits director or who has responsibility for human resource duties to be named as the plan administrator.
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