Private Pensions:

Clarity of Required Reports and Disclosures Could Be Improved

GAO-14-92: Published: Nov 21, 2013. Publicly Released: Dec 17, 2013.

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What GAO Found

Sponsors of private sector pension plans are required to submit various reports to federal agencies and disclosures to participants depending on the plans' type, size, and circumstances. GAO identified more than 130 reports and disclosures stemming from provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA), and the Internal Revenue Code, as administered largely by three ERISA agencies: the Department of Labor (Labor), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). Although each plan sponsor is required to submit only certain of these reports and disclosures, determining which ones can be challenging and the agencies' online resources to aid plan sponsors with this task are neither comprehensive nor up-to-date.

Plan sponsors' reports to the ERISA agencies involve minimal duplication, but the management of data on one report raised concerns. Notices that the Social Security Administration (SSA) sends to retirees listing vested benefits left behind with previous employers can be misleading, because management of the data is fragmented across three agencies and none assumes responsibility for ensuring the data are accurate. Beyond issuing the form and instructions, IRS views its role as merely to pass the data through from sponsors to SSA, SSA views its role as merely to provide retirees with whatever data SSA receives from IRS, and Labor views its role as merely to respond to retirees' inquiries. As a result, the SSA notices can be misleading, listing benefits that have already been paid.

Participant disclosures are numerous and do not always communicate effectively. Various groups GAO interviewed said that participants often find the content overwhelming and confusing. Although certain disclosures are required by law to be written in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant, the three ERISA agencies acknowledged that enforcement of these provisions has not been a priority. Also, GAO found that several model notices that these agencies had developed as templates for sponsors to use in developing their disclosures fell short when evaluated against federal plain language guidelines.

Why GAO Did This Study

The private sector pension system in the United States represents trillions of dollars in assets and is a key source of financial security for millions of Americans. To promote transparency and enhance retirement security, legislation and regulations require that plan sponsors provide numerous reports to Labor, IRS, and PBGC, and numerous disclosures to plan participants. GAO was asked to review this system of private sector pension plan reporting and disclosure.

In this report, GAO examined (1) the reports and disclosures pension plans are required to make to government agencies and plan participants; (2) the ways, if any, reports to agencies may be inefficient or ineffective, and (3) the ways, if any, disclosures to participants may be inefficient or ineffective. In conducting this work, GAO reviewed relevant statutes and regulations; analyzed inquiries to Labor's participant help line; assessed certain disclosures for readability when evaluated against criteria based on federal plain language guidelines; and interviewed agency officials, plan sponsor representatives, service providers, and participant advocates.

What GAO Recommends

GAO asks Congress to consider shifting responsibility and necessary resources to Labor for managing the pension benefit data that SSA provides to retirees. GAO also recommends that the agencies improve their online tools on reporting requirements and facilitate better readability of disclosures. In response, the agencies generally agreed with our findings and are taking steps to address the issues we identified.

For more information, contact Charles Jeszeck at (202) 512-7215 or jeszeckc@gao.gov.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: No congressional action has been taken in response to this recommendation.

    Matter: To increase the accuracy of "potential private pension benefit information" notices that SSA sends to Social Security claimants, Congress should consider legislation shifting responsibility and necessary resources to Labor for (a) electronically collecting form 8955-SSA information on participants' deferred vested benefits, (b) maintaining an accurate federal database of those benefits, and (c) periodically sending SSA accurate information about such benefits for recent Social Security claimants identified by SSA, so that SSA may provide notices to retirees.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In November 2013, Labor officials said that they would consult with their colleagues at the Treasury Department/IRS and PBGC regarding creation of one unified online tool for plan adminstrators to search for the reports and disclosures they are required to submit based on a plan's type, design, and circumstances. However, in FY 2014, officials indicated that, although they will continue to consult with their other agency colleagues regarding creation of such a tool, they now tentativley disagree with the recommendation and believe that such a tool could be confusing, especially for small employers. In 2015, Labor raised concerns about this recommendation, continuing to question whether a unified tri-agency online tool would be valuable for sponsors of large pension plans and may be confusing to some plan sponsors, especially small employers. They further noted that they do not believe it would be appropriate for EBSA to adjust its regulatory or guidance priorities at this time or reallocate resources currently dedicated to other priority projects in order to further explore any possible merit of such an online tool. GAO continues to believe just the opposite, that a well-designed comprehensive online tool could be very helpful, especially for small employers.

    Recommendation: To ease the burden on plan sponsors, enhance compliance, and help ensure that disclosures to participants are written in a manner that can be understood by the average participant, Labor, IRS, and PBGC should work together to create and regularly update a comprehensive online tool for plan sponsors to search for the reports and disclosures they are required to provide based on plan type, design, and circumstances.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: IRS officials initially noted that they are continuing their efforts to ensure that plan sponsors have access to comprehensive and up-to-date online resources. They said they had met with Labor and PBGC officials to discuss the value and feasibility of developing and maintaining a comprehensive online tool. However, with decreased resources, they believe it is unlikely for the agency to create and regularly update such a tool. However, they would continue to confer with Labor and PBGC colleagues to determine if it is possible to cross-reference existing agency resources online. GAO continues to believe that such a tool would be beneficial to plan sponsors of all sizes.

    Recommendation: To ease the burden on plan sponsors, enhance compliance, and help ensure that disclosures to participants are written in a manner that can be understood by the average participant, Labor, IRS, and PBGC should work together to create and regularly update a comprehensive online tool for plan sponsors to search for the reports and disclosures they are required to provide based on plan type, design, and circumstances.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: PBGC officials said they generally agree with GAO's findings and will continue to work together with their colleagues at Labor and Treasury/IRS in exploring their options to address the issues our report raises. In 2016, PBGC reported that they collaborated with Labor and IRS on their guides for employee benefit plans reporting and disclosure requirements, which were posted on the agencies' websites.

    Recommendation: To ease the burden on plan sponsors, enhance compliance, and help ensure that disclosures to participants are written in a manner that can be understood by the average participant, Labor, IRS, and PBGC should work together to create and regularly update a comprehensive online tool for plan sponsors to search for the reports and disclosures they are required to provide based on plan type, design, and circumstances.

    Agency Affected: Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: Labor officials stated that, while sensitive to plan sponsor concerns regarding liabilities that may result from ambiguities that arise when complex information is summarized using plain English criteria, they will, nevertheless, explore the application of readability standards in this context. Officials indicated they may decide it would be helpful to engage a contractor and undertake a survey or other data collection in order to evaluate this recommendation, but do not have resources budgeted in FY 2014 for such an exercise. In the meantime, they plan to continue to use modern communication techniques (such as focus group testing) to improve the effectiveness of their model notices and other standardized disclosures. In 2015, Labor reported that they need to explore the application of readability standards in light of concerns about liabilities that may result from ambiguities when complex information is summarized or presented using "plain English" criteria. Contracting for data collection would help them make an informed evaluation of this recommendation but they do not have the budgeted resources and believe it would not be appropriate to adjust priorities or reallocate resources. They will use techniques such as focus group testing to improve the effectiveness model notices and other standardized disclosures. GAO continues to believe it is important to implement a requirement to have clear, simple, brief highlights.

    Recommendation: To ease the burden on plan sponsors, enhance compliance, and help ensure that disclosures to participants are written in a manner that can be understood by the average participant, Labor, IRS, and PBGC should work together to define criteria for complying with the readability provisions in ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), and apply the criteria to agency-generated model notices as well as those developed by plan sponsors. As part of these criteria, consider requiring clear, simple, brief highlights at the beginning of disclosures, reflecting federal plain language guidelines.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: IRS officials said that they are committed to using the Federal Plain Language Guidelines as a resource in preparing model disclosures and that they will consider including brief highlights at the beginning of model disclosures. They said that it is unclear that imposing defined readability criteria on employer and plan communications is in the best interests of plan participants, administrators, sponsors, and the retirement system as a whole. However, they do see merit in directing employers and plan sponsors to the Guidelines as a resource for developing readable notices and disclosures, and are considering how best to communicate that resource to stakeholders.

    Recommendation: To ease the burden on plan sponsors, enhance compliance, and help ensure that disclosures to participants are written in a manner that can be understood by the average participant, Labor, IRS, and PBGC should work together to define criteria for complying with the readability provisions in ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), and apply the criteria to agency-generated model notices as well as those developed by plan sponsors. As part of these criteria, consider requiring clear, simple, brief highlights at the beginning of disclosures, reflecting federal plain language guidelines.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: PBGC officials said they generally agree with GAO's findings and will continue to work together with their colleagues at Labor and Treasury/IRS in exploring their options to address the issues our report raises. In 2015, PBGC reported that it continues their efforts to improve readability and make compliance information available on their website. In 2016, PBGC reported that they engaged in discussions with Labor and IRS to establish "plain English" standards for agency model notices and other disclosures and communications. The agency also posted a Plain Language Guide on their website and encouraged employers, plan sponsors, and plan administrators to use the guidelines as a resource in developing notices and disclosures. In addition, PBGC incorporated plain English standards in participant notice requirements in recent final regulations for a Multiemployer plan action.

    Recommendation: To ease the burden on plan sponsors, enhance compliance, and help ensure that disclosures to participants are written in a manner that can be understood by the average participant, Labor, IRS, and PBGC should work together to define criteria for complying with the readability provisions in ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), and apply the criteria to agency-generated model notices as well as those developed by plan sponsors. As part of these criteria, consider requiring clear, simple, brief highlights at the beginning of disclosures, reflecting federal plain language guidelines.

    Agency Affected: Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: Labor officials said that they generally support implementing such a requirement, subject to a legal determination of their authority absent legislation to issue such a directive. However, rather than addressing the recommendation as a stand-alone item, they believe it would be better to consider the benefits of such an intranet posting requirement in connection with efforts to expand or modify disclosure standards in response to their 2011 Request for Information (RFI) regarding electronic disclosure. Moreover, officials noted that, during FY 2014, Labor was focusing its regulatory resources on other higher priority projects and did not have a specific timeline for any next action on e-disclosure issues. In their 2015 response, Labor reiterated their agreement from agency comments. Based on comments from their RFI, they understand that many plan sponsors, especially those that have intranet websites, already post plan-related information for employees and that input from consumer advocates that have expressed concern about replacing employees? paper disclosure rights under ERISA with internet access. Labor has not added an e-disclosure project to its regulatory agenda but is still focusing its regulatory resources on other higher priority projects. GAO continues to believe that this is an important pursuit.

    Recommendation: To better ensure plan participants have access to information about their rights and benefits, as currently in force under their plans, Labor should direct plan sponsors to post to any intranet website maintained by the employer, as soon as determined feasible by Labor, a copy of the most current summary plan description (SPD) and any summary of material modifications issued subsequent to that SPD.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

 

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