What Is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)?

The term Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) refers to a federal law that protects the retirement assets of American workers. The law, which was enacted in 1974, implemented rules that qualified plans must follow to ensure that plan fiduciaries do not misuse plan assets. It also covers certain non-retirement accounts, such as employee health plans.

Under the law, plans must regularly inform participants about their features and funding. ERISA is enforced by the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), a unit of the Department of Labor (DOL).

Key Takeaways

  • The Employee Retirement Income Security Act is a federal law that implements standards for certain employer-sponsored retirement plans and regulations for plan fiduciaries.
  • The law has gone through a series of changes since it was first enacted in 1974.
  • ERISA prohibits fiduciaries from misusing funds and also sets minimum standards for participation, vesting, benefit accrual, and funding of retirement plans.
  • It also grants retirement plan participants the right to sue for benefits and breaches of fiduciary duty.
  • Regulations and standards established by ERISA also extend to employer-sponsored healthcare plans.

Understanding the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act was established by the federal government in 1974 and holds fiduciaries responsible for their actions as they relate to the maintenance of certain employer-sponsored retirement plans.

These plans include defined benefit contribution plans, defined contribution plans, such as 401(k) plans, pensions, deferred compensation plans, and profit-sharing plans. Non-retirement plans under ERISA include health maintenance organization (HMO) plans, flexible spending accounts (FSAs), disability insurance, and life insurance.

Under ERISA, a fiduciary is anyone who exercises discretionary authority or control over a plan’s management or assets, including those who provide investment advice to the plan. Fiduciaries who do not follow the principles of conduct may be held responsible for restoring losses to the plan. ERISA also addresses fiduciary provisions and bans the misuse of assets through these provisions.

The law also sets minimum standards for participation, vesting, benefit accrual, and funding. The law defines how long a person may be required to work before they're eligible to participate in a plan, accumulate benefits, and have a non-forfeitable right to those benefits. It also establishes detailed funding rules that require retirement plan sponsors to provide adequate funding for the plan.

In addition to keeping participants informed of their rights, ERISA also grants participants the right to sue for benefits and breaches of fiduciary duty. To ensure that participants do not lose their retirement contributions if a defined-benefit pension plan is terminated, ERISA guarantees payment of certain benefits through a federally chartered corporation known as the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

According to the DOL, ERISA oversaw 684,000 retirement plans, 2.4 million health plans, along with 2.4 million non-retirement benefit plans for a total of $7.6 trillion in assets. This covered 141 million workers and their beneficiaries.

Not every retirement plan is subject to the terms of ERISA. ERISA does not cover IRAs or plans set up and maintained by government entities and churches. Plans set up by companies outside the United States for nonresident employees are not covered by ERISA.

Special Considerations

ERISA rules can often be complicated. As such, they may deter some small business owners from setting up retirement accounts for their employees. There are alternatives that allow these companies to sidestep some of the confusing regulations.

Small businesses with 100 or fewer employees can use SIMPLE IRAs. While SIMPLE IRAs are covered by ERISA, they don't have the reporting and administrative burden that qualified retirement plans such as 401(k)s do, and are easier to set up using IRS forms 5304-SIMPLE or 5305-SIMPLE.

Employers must follow ERISA rules that dictate which employees are eligible and how a company handles employee contributions, and they are required to clearly spell out details of the plan's features within a summary plan description.

ERISA and Healthcare

ERISA provides protections to workers who participate in various healthcare plans, including mandatory plans, plans that receive employer contributions, as well as plans that outline how funds are to be administered. Any plans that don't come with these mandates are not covered by the law.

Under the legislation, providers must inform participants of any and all details of their plans, including:

  • Coverage eligibility
  • Benefits
  • Full disclosure about any associated costs, such as premiums, deductibles, and copays
  • Information about networks and how to make claims

The law was amended following the passing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), mandating that employers with 50 or more workers offer healthcare coverage, eliminating the denial of coverage because of preexisting conditions, and putting a cap on out-of-pocket expenses. People were also allowed to remain under their parents' plans until the age of 26.

ERISA Regulation and Standards

As noted above, ERISA is a federal law that is regulated by a division of the Department of Labor known as the Employee Benefits Security Administration. This agency provides assistance and education to individual workers, corporations, and plan managers about retirement and healthcare plans.

To ensure compliance with ERISA, plans must ensure they follow annual checklists involving plan updates and statements in the appropriate quarter. For instance, plan administrators must submit these statements to participants for the first quarter during the second quarter, for the second quarter in the third quarter, and so on. Certain notices and forms must also be sent to participants accordingly.

Plans must also make sure they follow plan document terms, provide regular fee disclosures every 12 months, update participants of any changes in the plan in a timely fashion, and make deposits and deferrals on time.

Plan administrators may choose to manage the paperwork on their own. But if it proves to be cumbersome, they may hire a third party to do the work for them. Doing so, however, doesn't absolve the plan from the fiduciary responsibility it has to its participants.

Retirement accounts that qualify under ERISA are generally protected from creditors, bankruptcy proceedings, and civil lawsuits. If your employer declares bankruptcy, your retirement savings are not at risk and your creditors cannot make a claim against funds held in your retirement account if you owe them money.

History of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)

Regardless of their intentions, workers may see changes in certain employer-sponsored accounts. Some of the issues have traditionally revolved around a lack of protection for workers with the administration of large pension plans.

For instance, more than 4,000 workers lost some or all of their pension plan benefits when Studebaker-Packard closed its Indiana factory in 1963. These benefits were shuttered because the plan was underfunded. The Teamsters' Central States Pension Fund brought the issue of fiduciary malfeasance related to retirement accounts into the public eye in the 1960s. This fund already had a history involving questionable loans to Las Vegas casinos.

These are just two examples that show the irregularities that ERISA proposed to address when it was first enacted. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the law in February 1974 and was sent to the Senate, where it was approved the following month. ERISA was signed into law by President Gerald Ford on Sept. 2, 1974.

The law increased the responsibility of EBSA and has gone through several changes since it was first enacted. For instance, lawmakers approved amendments to reduce the age limit required by employers for retirement plan participation, as well as expanding the total time a worker is allowed to be away from work before they lose out on their plan's vesting period.

Healthcare legislation also led to changes in ERISA. The COBRA program was added in 1985, which entitles the continuation of health insurance coverage after an individual's employment situation changes.

What Is the Main Purpose of ERISA?

The main purpose of ERISA is to protect the interests of workers who participate in employee benefit plans, including certain retirement and healthcare plans. Protections extend to retirees as well as plan beneficiaries. ERISA regulates plan administrators and sponsors to ensure they provide plan information to their participants and remain compliant with their fiduciary duties.

What Does ERISA Cover?

Plans that are covered under ERISA include employer-sponsored retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, pensions, deferred compensation plans, and profit-sharing plans. Plans can be either defined benefit contribution or defined contribution plans. ERISA also covers certain non-retirement plans like HMOs, FSAs, disability insurance, and life insurance.

Who Is Eligible for ERISA?

ERISA applies to anyone who works for a partnership, limited liability company, S-corporation, C-corporation, nonprofit organization, and even businesses with only one employee. Churches, religious organizations, and plans that operate outside the United States aren't covered.

What Does ERISA Have to Do With Health Insurance?

The majority of health insurance plans that are offered by employers are covered under ERISA. Plans that fall in this category include mandatory plans, plans that receive employer contributions, as well as plans that outline how funds are to be administered.

Is an Employer a Fiduciary Under ERISA?

Anyone who has discretionary authority or control of certain employer-sponsored retirement or healthcare plans, or anyone who provides investment advice on the direction of these assets is considered a fiduciary. This includes trustees, plan administrators, and investment committees. Employers aren't generally included in the list of fiduciaries.

What Are ERISA Violations?

ERISA violations occur when a fiduciary doesn't live up to their responsibility. For instance, a plan administrator who doesn't provide full disclosure about fees and plan benefits commits a violation. Someone who fails to send updated information about plans to participants, including statements, disclosures, and notices.