DOL on ‘orphan’ accounts: try harderNews added by Benefits Pro on August 19, 2014

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Joined: September 07, 2011

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By Marlene Y. Satter

Got a problem with missing plan participants?

The Department of Labor now has some new and improved advice on what to do. Fiduciaries, it says, should use certified mail, check related plan and employment records, ask the designated plan beneficiary, and scour the Internet to find these people.

Fiduciaries, of course, have an obligation to find missing plan participants and make sure they get what’s owed them when a defined contribution plan is being terminated. That’s not always as easy as it may seem.

“Orphaned” retirement accounts — those left behind by employees who went on to greener pastures — numbered 15 million in 2010 and amounted to some $1 trillion. In other words, fiduciaries can have a real problem on their hands when it comes to locating participants and making payouts. The DOL’s latest guidance on missing participants is aimed at helping.

In the 10 years since the agency issued Field Assistance Bulletin 2004-02, its last bulletin on the topic, two of the methods that fiduciaries used to use have been eliminated. Neither the Social Security Administration nor the IRS still make their letter-forwarding services available to plan fiduciaries that are searching for missing participants or beneficiaries. Those methods have been replaced, though, with more up-to-date ways to locate account holders who have disappeared.

According to Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2014-01, fiduciaries should rely on cheap and effective methods first and resort to “more expensive approaches ... when the account balance is large enough to justify an additional plan expense and other efforts have failed.”

After tackling the more obvious ways of trying to find people – certified mail, reviewing employer records, checking with the beneficiary, etc. – fiduciaries can also turn to public record databases (such as those for licenses, mortgages and real estate taxes), obituaries and social media, the DOL said.

When those have been exhausted, fiduciaries can also try commercial locator services, credit reporting agencies, information brokers, investigation databases and “analogous services” that may involve charges.

Those expenses may, the bulletin says, be charged to the participant’s account, but the amount “must be reasonable and the method of allocating the expense must be consistent with the terms of the plan and the plan fiduciary’s duties under ERISA.”

The DOL also includes options to be used when the plan is terminating and a distribution needs to be made, even when a participant cannot be located. The preferred method is to distribute missing participant benefits into an individual retirement plan such as an IRA or annuity, and fiduciary judgment must be exercised, although there is a safe harbor regulation for plan fiduciaries who follow this course.

Other distribution options include putting the money into a federally insured bank account in the name of the missing participant or turning the money over to state unclaimed property funds.

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