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Know Your Agencies #1: What parts of the government regulate retirement, and how they can help

Post 1 of 5: Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA)

The Pension Rights Center is located in Washington, D.C., where people regularly joke about how the government is made of “alphabet soup” because it is comprised of so many different agencies that we refer to by different combinations of letters.  Sometimes figuring out which agency does what can be really daunting.  So, the Pension Rights Center has put together a “know your agency” blog post series to help workers and retirees know what agencies can help in case they run into problems involving their retirement benefits.

Private retirement plans

Responsibility for administering federal laws governing retirement benefits that people earned by working for a private company or non-profit organization or from a union is divided between three different federal agencies: EBSA, the IRS, and the PBGC. This entry’s focus: EBSA.

EBSA is part of the U.S. Department of Labor. EBSA has jurisdiction over private retirement plans. In other words, it can regulate retirement plans that provide benefits to workers employed by companies, unions and nonprofit organizations. EBSA does not have the power to regulate plans for government employees, employees of international organizations, or employees of plans established by churches and other religious organizations. Its principal responsibilities are for two parts of the law. These relate to:

  • Fiduciary duties

The law requires people who run retirement plans to act wisely, carefully and in the interests of plan participants and beneficiaries. It has authority to stop retirement plan officials from abusing their power and neglecting their responsibilities. For instance, an employer can’t take money out of employees’ 401(k) accounts to pay for new inventory. Likewise, employers have to invest retirement plan assets prudently.

  • Disclosure 

Retirement plans have an obligation to give certain information about the plan to employees and retirees participating in the plan, and to spouses who have rights to benefits under the plan.  Disclosure includes things like benefit statements, a summary of the plan’s rules, and information about how well the plan is funded.

EBSA also oversees rules relating to internal plan claims and appeals procedures and the right to go to court if an appeal is wrongfully denied.  EBSA does not deal with situations arising before the enactment of the federal private pension law, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).

EBSA makes sure that plans meet their fiduciary duties, disclose what they’re required to disclose, and give employees and retirees a fair opportunity to make claims and appeal claim denials. If you think that your plan has failed to meet one of these requirements, you can reach out to one of EBSA’s benefits advisors.  Benefits advisors are able to provide you with information about the law, gather disclosure information from the plan, inform the plan if it is violating the law and provide informal mediation between you and your retirement plan. You can connect with a benefits advisor at (866) 444-3272.

Benefits advisors cannot give legal advice and they cannot write a claim or appeal letter for you, so if you think you need a lawyer to help you write a claim or appeal or to otherwise provide legal representation, you should contact a pension counseling project or call the Pension Rights Center at (202) 296-3776 for an attorney referral. 

FYI, EBSA benefits advisors can also help with other employee benefits offered by private employers, such as health benefits and disability benefits.

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