Industry Welcomes Final Regulations for Default Electronic Delivery of Retirement Plan Disclosures

Scheduled for publication in the May 27th Federal Register are final regulations on default electronic delivery of retirement plan disclosures. These final regulations, issued by the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), provide an additional safe harbor that may enhance the ability of plan administrators and their service providers to deliver DOL-required disclosures to participants and beneficiaries of ERISA plans by electronic means.

An accompanying news release and EBSA fact sheet cite the presidential Executive Order of August, 2018, which directed the agency—in part—“to focus on reducing the costs and burdens that retirement plan disclosures impose on employers and others.” Proposed regulations were issued in October 2019, and public comments solicited at that time contributed to shaping these final regulations.

This guidance officially becomes effective 60 days following publication in the Federal Register. But the EBSA Fact Sheet notes that retirement plans may rely on these regulations immediately; no enforcement action will be taken against a plan for such premature reliance due to the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (The regulations’ preamble notes that the agency has chosen not to extend the guidance to welfare benefit plans at this time.)

Following are selected observations from an initial review of the final regulations and EBSA fact sheet.

The new safe harbor

The electronic delivery safe harbor can be satisfied by either of two means.

  • Website posting: A plan administrator is allowed to post covered documents (documents required to be furnished by ERISA Title 1 plans) on a website if appropriate notification of Internet availability is furnished to the electronic addresses of covered individuals.
  • Email delivery: A plan administrator may send covered documents directly to the electronic addresses of covered individuals, with the covered documents either in the body of the email or as an attachment to the email.

First step to e-delivery is on paper

As in the proposed regulations, a plan administrator intending to deliver some, or all, covered documents electronically must first notify participants—in a paper communication—of this intention.

Paper option remains

Not unexpected, recipients can opt out of receiving covered documents electronically and receive them in paper form, without charge. However, plan administrators need not (but may) offer recipients a “pick and choose” option to receive some documents in paper form and some electronically; the plan can require that an opt-out be “global;” (all or nothing). Conversely, a plan that uses electronic means to deliver some covered documents need not use electronic means for all.

Combining notices of Internet document postings

Certain notices of Internet postings can be combined in a single annual notice of Internet availability (NOIA), including the following.

  • Summary Plan Description (SPD)
  • Documents that must be provided annually; (e.g., Summary Annual Report (SAR))
  • Other documents authorized by the Secretary of Labor
  • Notices required by the Internal Revenue Code if authorized by the Secretary of the Treasury; (e.g., automatic contribution arrangement (ACA) notice)

Flexibility in definition of “website

The final regulations acknowledge the importance of including new and developing technologies in applying the guidance, as long as the safe harbor requirements can be met. Mobile applications qualify.

Informing participants of document posting

If covered documents are to be posted to a website, recipients must be able to receive a plan’s NOIA. An electronic address to which a NOIA is sent may be an email address. If it is a phone number, it must be capable of receiving written/text messages (plan administrators must confirm this). Delivery of a NOIA by voice message does not meet this requirement.

Availability of web-posted documents

A covered document posted to a plan’s website must remain there at least one year, or—if longer—until superseded (replaced by) an updated version of the same document.

Document description accompanying a NOIA
A NOIA alerting a participant to an Internet document posting need not include a separate description of the document, if the document’s name—included in the NOIA—would reasonably convey the nature of the document. If not (e.g., a blackout notice), a description of the document being posted to the Internet is required.

Readability

Detailed guidelines for readability in the proposed regulations (using the Flesch reading ease score) were removed, and are not included in the final regulations. The final regulations more simply require that communications under this guidance be “written in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant.”

Accessing and Understanding

The plan administrator has no affirmative obligation under the final regulations to monitor whether covered individuals have visited a website to view posted information. Unaddressed—but noted, in reference to a recent ERISA court case—is the issue of whether a recipient has read, understood, and has “actual knowledge” of the information posted.

Special rule for severance from employment from plan sponsor

Procedures should be in place to ensure that a plan administrator will continue to have a valid electronic address to which notices can be provided after severance from employment.

Transition relief, prior guidance superseded

For an 18-month period following the effective date of these final regulations, retirement plans can also rely on prior guidance for the delivery of certain covered disclosures. This guidance includes Field Assistance Bulletin (FAB) 2006-003, FAB 2008-003 (Q&A 7), and Technical Release 2011-03R. Thereafter, the relevant portions of the prior guidance are superseded by the final regulations.

Reasonable procedures for compliance

These final regulations add “technical maintenance” of websites as a circumstance that warrants consideration of facts and circumstances, when—for a reasonable amount of time—disclosure documents may be unavailable to a recipient.

We’re currently preparing a Washington Pulse article to provide further analysis of the final e-delivery regulations, and it will be posted to the the ascensus.com newsroom once available.