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Locating Missing Participants Is An ERISA Fiduciary Duty

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Have a missing plan participant in a defined contribution plan? Unsure of exactly what your options are? Take a page from the U.S. Department of Labor's (DOL) field assistance guidance for locating missing participants.


Prior to Field Assistance Bulletin 2004-02, there was minimal guidance available to instruct fiduciaries on how to deal with missing plan participants. According to the bulletin, plan administrators have a fiduciary responsibility under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act to try to locate missing participants when: 1) a defined contribution plan is being terminated, or 2) an involuntary cashout of less than $5,000 is about to be made and a distribution election can't be obtained from the participant.


As for how to track down missing participants, the DOL outlines four search methods. It's important to note that a plan fiduciary should not initiate any other steps involving a missing participant's benefits until each of these four methods has failed in locating the missing participant.

  1. Use certified mail. Certified mail can be used to easily ascertain, at little cost, whether the participant can be located in order to distribute benefits.

  2. Check related plan records. It's possible that other documents (e.g., a health plan, separation papers, etc.) has more up-to-date information on the participant. So a plan fiduciary should check out any other applicable records for a more current address for the missing participant.

    If there are privacy concerns (such as when dealing with health plans), a plan fiduciary can request that the keeper of the other records contact or forward a letter on behalf of the terminated plan to the participant or beneficiary, requesting him/her to contact the plan fiduciary.

  3. Check with the designated plan beneficiary. The plan fiduciary must attempt to identify and contact any individual that the missing participant has designated as a beneficiary (e.g., spouse, children, etc.) for updated information concerning the location of the missing participant.

  4. Use a letter-forwarding service. Both the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration offer letter-forwarding services. Check their posted guidelines.

In addition to using the above mandatory methods, consider using optional methods, like Internet search tools, commercial locator services, and credit reporting agencies.


To read Field Assistance Bulletin 2004-02 in its entirety, click on: http://www.dol.gov/ebsa/regs/fab_2004-2.html.

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