Summary plan descriptions (SPDs) are required for all retirement, health, and welfare plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). However, misconceptions about this requirement are widespread. ERISA attorney Stacy H. Barrow, partner with Marathas Barrow Weatherhead Lent LLP, had a chat about the importance of having proper ERISA documentation and the consequences of failing to do so.
THR: What types of employers need to have an SPD?
SHB: We tell all employers — of any size — who offer plans subject to ERISA that they need to have an SPD. This is the first item in every Department of Labor (DOL) audit. If you don’t have one and you get audited or a participant asks for plan documents, you will be scrambling to put documents together and you can’t do them fast enough to avoid an issue. In addition, cafeteria plans can only be adopted prospectively, so if you don’t have a written cafeteria plan in place, you may be jeopardizing the tax qualified status of your plan.
THR: Won’t my broker or carrier take care of these documents?
SHB: Employers may think that brokers or carriers take care of all required benefits documentation, but at the end of the day, it’s the employer who is responsible for complying with ERISA’s SPD requirement. Your broker may help you, but they might not be aware of every benefit you offer or your eligibility guidelines. The carrier’s documentation often is missing some of the required language, which is why you use a wrap. You don’t specifically have to use a wrap to develop your SPD, but the carrier document won’t get you there and an wrap is often the best way to comply. If the plan documents aren’t compliant, that’s not the carrier’s or broker’s responsibility, it’s the employer’s.
THR: Do I really need to be concerned about a DOL audit?
SHB: Employers can get complacent about documentation, thinking that only large employers get audited, or it won’t happen to them. It’s not only the large corporations that get audited. It can happen to employers of any size or type. It’s important to make sure you have good benefits documentation, because if you don’t, and you do get audited, it might cause the DOL to dig deeper and look for other problems, such as looking into your 401(k) plan.
Plan documentation is a huge part of every DOL audit. I can’t stress strongly enough that they will want to see the summary plan description and plan documents. If you can get good, compliant documents to the DOL, it increases the chances of a speedy resolution. If you can provide them quickly, it sends a message that you are ready and in compliance.
THR: What are the consequences of being out of compliance?
SHB: Not having the proper documents may be an issue if you get audited or there is litigation over a denied claim. You need to be prepared for this possibility. If the DOL audits and imposes penalties, it may not be because the employer didn’t have a wrap document, but rather because the document wasn’t updated, wasn’t compliant, or wasn’t distributed to employees. And the DOL may impose penalties of up to $152 per day for failure to provide an SPD upon request. Also, failure to inform participants of plan changes may invalidate those changes.