Federal ERISA Requirement

Would you like to understand exactly what ERISA is, why a plan and it's trustee must be bonded, and how much bond you must purchase? Ok, you asked for it! This is not a quick read but if you digest it, you can quickly become an ERISA bond expert. The following ERISA bond information is provided by the U.S. Department of Labor on Field Assistance Bulletin 2008-04.

What losses must an ERISA bond cover?

An ERISA section 412 bond (sometimes referred to as an ERISA fidelity bond) must protect the plan against loss by reason of acts of fraud or dishonesty on the part of persons required to be bonded, whether the person acts directly or through connivance with others. ERISA § 412; 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-1. The term "fraud or dishonesty" for this purpose encompasses risks of loss that might arise through dishonest or fraudulent acts in handling plan funds or other property. This includes, but is not limited to, larceny, theft, embezzlement, forgery, misappropriation, wrongful abstraction, wrongful conversion, willful misapplication, and other acts where losses result through any act or arrangement prohibited by 18 U.S.C. § 1954. The bond must provide recovery for loss occasioned by such acts even though no personal gain accrues to the person committing the act and the act is not subject to punishment as a crime or misdemeanor, provided that within the law of the state in which the act is committed, a court would afford recovery under a bond providing protection against fraud or dishonesty. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-9. Deductibles or other similar features that transfer risk to the plan are prohibited. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-11.

[See also Bond Terms and Provisions, Q-26 through Q-30.]

Is an ERISA fidelity bond the same thing as fiduciary liability insurance?

No. The fidelity bond required under section 412 of ERISA specifically insures a plan against losses due to fraud or dishonesty (e.g., theft) on the part of persons (including, but not limited to, plan fiduciaries) who handle plan funds or other property. Fiduciary liability insurance, on the other hand, generally insures the plan against losses caused by breaches of fiduciary responsibilities.

Fiduciary liability insurance is neither required by nor subject to section 412 of ERISA. Whether a plan purchases fiduciary liability insurance is subject, generally, to ERISA's fiduciary standards, including section 410 of ERISA. ERISA section 410 allows, but does not require, a plan to purchase insurance for its fiduciaries or for itself covering losses occurring from acts or omissions of a fiduciary. Any such policy paid for by the plan must, however, permit recourse by the insurer against the fiduciary in the case of a fiduciary breach. In some cases, the fiduciary may purchase, at his or her expense, protection against the insurer's recourse rights.

Who are the parties to an ERISA fidelity bond?

In a typical bond, the plan is the named insured and a surety company is the party that provides the bond. The persons "covered" by the bond are the persons who "handle" funds or other property of the plan (i.e., plan officials). As the insured party, the plan can make a claim on the bond if a plan official causes a loss to the plan due to fraud or dishonesty.

[See also Bond Terms and Provisions, Q-31 and Q-32.]

Can I get an ERISA bond from any bonding or insurance company?

No. Bonds must be placed with a surety or reinsurer that is named on the Department of the Treasury's Listing of Approved Sureties, Department Circular 570 (available at fms.treas.gov/c570/c570.html). 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-21, § 2580.412-23, § 2580.412-24. Under certain conditions, bonds may also be placed with the Underwriters at Lloyds of London. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-25, § 2580.412.26. In addition, neither the plan nor a party-in-interest with respect to the plan may have any control or significant financial interest, whether direct or indirect, in the surety, or reinsurer, or in an agent or broker through which the bond is obtained. ERISA § 412(c); 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-22 and §§ 2580.412-33 to 2580.412.36. If a surety becomes insolvent, is placed in receivership, or has its authority to act as an acceptable surety revoked, the administrator of any plan insured by the surety is responsible, upon learning of such facts, for securing a new bond with an acceptable surety. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-21(b).

Who must be bonded?

Every person who "/handles funds or other property/" of an employee benefit plan within the meaning of 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-6 (i.e., a plan official) is required to be bonded unless covered under one of the exemptions in section 412 for certain banks, insurance companies, and registered brokers and dealers, or by one of the regulatory exemptions granted by the Department in its regulations.

[See Exemptions From The Bonding Requirements, Q-12 through Q-15, Funds Or Other Property, Q-17, and Handling Funds Or Other Property, Q-18 through Q-21.]

Plan officials will usually include the plan administrator and those officers and employees of the plan or plan sponsor who handle plan funds by virtue of their duties relating to the receipt, safekeeping and disbursement of funds. Plan officials may also include other persons, such as service providers, whose duties and functions involve access to plan funds or decision-making authority that can give rise to a risk of loss through fraud or dishonesty. Where a plan administrator, service provider, or other plan official is an entity, such as a corporation or association, ERISA's bonding requirements apply to the natural persons who perform "handling" functions on behalf of the entity. 29 C.F.R. § 2550.412-1(c), § 2580.412-3 and § 2580.412-6.

Who is responsible for making sure that plan officials are properly bonded?

The responsibility for ensuring that plan officials are bonded may fall upon a number of individuals simultaneously. In addition to a plan official being directly responsible for complying with the bonding requirements in section 412(a) of ERISA, section 412(b) specifically states that it is unlawful for any plan official to permit any other plan official to receive, handle, disburse, or otherwise exercise custody or control over plan funds or other property without first being properly bonded in accordance with section 412. In addition, section 412(b) makes it unlawful for "any other person having authority to direct the performance of such functions" to permit a plan official to perform such functions without being bonded. Thus, by way of example, if a named fiduciary hires a trustee for a plan, the named fiduciary must ensure that the trustee is either subject to an exemption or properly bonded in accordance with section 412, even if the named fiduciary is not himself or herself required to be bonded because he or she does not handle plan funds or other property.

If the plan purchases an erisa bond to meet section 412's requirements, may the plan pay for the bond out of plan assets?

Yes. Because the purpose of ERISA's bonding requirements is to protect employee benefit plans, and because such bonds do not benefit plan officials or relieve them from their obligations to the plan, a plan's purchase of a proper section 412 bond will not contravene ERISA's fiduciary provisions in sections 406(a) and 406(b). 29 C.F.R. § 2509.75-5, FR-9

Do ERISA's bonding requirements apply to all employee benefit plans?

No. The bonding requirements under ERISA section 412 do not apply to employee benefit plans that are completely unfunded or that are not subject to Title I of ERISA. ERISA § 412(a)(1); 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-1, § 2580.412-2.

Are SEPs and SIMPLE IRAs subject to ERISA's bonding requirements?

There is no specific exemption in section 412 for SEP (IRC § 408(k)) or SIMPLE IRA (IRC § 408(p)) retirement plans. Such plans are generally structured in such a way, however, that if any person does "handle" funds or other property of such plans that person will fall under one of ERISA's financial institution exemptions. ERISA § 412; 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-27, § 2580.412-28.

What does it mean to "handle" funds or other property of an employee benefit plan so as to require bonding under section 412?

The term "handling" carries a broader meaning than actual physical contact with "funds or other property" of the plan. A person is deemed to be "handling" funds or other property of a plan so as to require bonding whenever his duties or activities with respect to given funds or other property are such that there is a risk that such funds or other property could be lost in the event of fraud or dishonesty on the part of such person, whether acting alone or in collusion with others. Subject to this basic standard, the general criteria for determining "handling" include, but are not limited to:

1. physical contact (or power to exercise physical contact or control) with cash, checks or similar property;

2. power to transfer funds or other property from the plan to oneself or to a third party, or to negotiate such property for value (e.g., mortgages, title to land and buildings, or securities);

3. disbursement authority or authority to direct disbursement;

4. authority to sign checks or other negotiable instruments; or

5. supervisory or decision-making responsibility over activities that require bonding.

29 C.F.R. 2580.412-6(b).

[See also Funds Or Other Property, Q-17.]

"Handling" does not occur, on the other hand, and bonding is not required, under circumstances where the risk of loss to the plan through fraud or dishonesty is negligible. This may be the case where the risk of mishandling is precluded by the nature of the "funds or other property" at issue (e.g., checks, securities, or title papers that/cannot/be negotiated by the persons performing duties with respect to them), or where physical contact is merely clerical in nature and subject to close supervision and control. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-6(a)(2), § 2580.412-6(b)(1). In the case of persons with supervisory or decision-making responsibility, the mere fact of general supervision would not, necessarily, in and of itself, mean that such persons are "handling" funds so as to require bonding. Factors to be accorded weight are the system of fiscal controls, the closeness and continuity of supervision, and who is in fact charged with or actually exercising final responsibility for determining whether specific disbursements, investments, contracts, or benefit claims are bona fide and made in accordance with the applicable trust or other plan documents. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-6(b)(6). Again, the general standard for determining whether a person is "handling" plan funds or other property is whether the person's relationship with respect those funds is such that he or she can cause a loss to the plan through fraud or dishonesty.

Do the regulations require that an erisa bond take a particular form?

The Department's regulations allow substantial flexibility regarding bond forms, as long as the bond terms meet the substantive requirements of section 412 and the regulations for the persons and plans involved. Examples of bond forms include: individual; name schedule (covering a number of named individuals); position schedule (covering each of the occupants of positions listed in the schedule); and blanket (covering the insured's officers and employees without a specific list or schedule of those being covered). A combination of such forms may also be used. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-10.

A plan may be insured on its own bond or it can be added as a named insured to an existing employer bond or insurance policy (such as a "commercial crime policy"), so long as the existing bond is adequate to meet the requirements of section 412 and the regulations, or is made adequate through rider, modification or separate agreement between the parties. For example, if an employee benefit plan is insured on an employer's crime bond, that bond might require an "ERISA rider" to ensure that the plan's bonding coverage complies with section 412 and the Department's regulations. Service providers may also obtain their own bonds, on which they name their plan clients as insureds, or they may be added to a plan's bond by way of an "Agents Rider." Choosing an appropriate bonding arrangement that meets the requirements of ERISA and the regulations is a fiduciary responsibility./See/29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-10 and § 2580.412-20.

[See also ERISA Fidelity Bonds, Q-3, Q-4, Q-10, and Bond Terms and Provisions, Q-26 through Q-34.]

Can a plan or service provider obtain erisa bonds from more than one bonding company covering the same plan or plans?

Yes. Nothing in ERISA prohibits a plan from using more than one surety to obtain the necessary bonding, so long as the surety is an approved surety. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-21. Persons required to be bonded may be bonded separately or under the same bond, and any given plans may be insured separately or under the same bond. A bond may be underwritten by a single surety company or more than one surety company, either separately or on a co-surety basis. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-20.

[See also ERISA Fidelity Bonds, Q-4.]

If an employee benefit plan is added as a named insured to a company's existing crime bond, which covers employees but specifically excludes the company owner, does the plan's coverage under the crime bond satisfy the requirements of section 412?

If the crime bond excludes the company owner, and the owner handles plan funds, then the company bond does not fully protect the plan as required by ERISA section 412 and the Department's regulations. The company owner would then need to be covered under a separate bond or, alternatively, if the crime bond has an ERISA rider, that rider must ensure that the company owner is not excluded from coverage with respect to the plan.

Can the ERISA bond have a deductible?

No. Section 412 requires that the bond insure the plan from the first dollar of loss up to the maximum amount for which the person causing the loss is required to be bonded. Therefore, bonds cannot have deductibles or similar features whereby a portion of the risk required to be covered by the bond is assumed by the plan or transferred to a party that is not an acceptable surety on ERISA bonds. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-11. However, nothing in ERISA prohibits application of a deductible to coverage in excess of the maximum amount required under ERISA.

Must the plan be named as an insured on the ERISA bond for the bond to satisfy ERISA's requirements?

Yes. The plan whose funds are being handled must be specifically named or otherwise identified on the bond in such a way as to enable the plan's representatives to make a claim under the bond in the event of a loss due to fraud or dishonesty. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-18.

May an ERISA bond be written for a period longer than one year?

Yes. Bonds may be for periods longer than one year, so long as the bond insures the plan for the statutorily-required amount. At the beginning of each plan year, the plan administrator or other appropriate fiduciary must assure that the bond continues to insure the plan for at least the required amount, that the surety continues to satisfy the requirements for being an approved surety, and that all plan officials are bonded. If necessary, the fiduciary may need to obtain appropriate adjustments or additional protection to assure that the bond will be in compliance for the new plan year. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-11, § 2580.412-19, § 2580.412-21.

If an ERISA bond is issued for more than one year, is it acceptable to use an ERISA "inflation guard" provision with regard to the amount of the bond?

Yes. Nothing in section 412 or the regulations prohibits using an "inflation guard" provision in a bond to automatically increase the amount of coverage under a bond to equal the amount required under ERISA at the time a plan discovers a loss.

How much coverage must the erisa bond provide?

Generally, each plan official must be bonded in an amount equal to at least 10% of the amount of funds he or she handled in the preceding year. The bond amount cannot, however, be less than $1,000, and the Department cannot require a plan official to be bonded for more than $500,000 ($1,000,000 for plans that hold employer securities) unless the Secretary of Labor (after a hearing) requires a larger bond. These amounts apply for each plan named on a bond in which a plan official has handling functions. ERISA § 412; 29 C.F.R. §§ 2580.412-11 through 2580.412-13, § 2580.412-16, § 2580.412-17.

[See also Funds Or Other Property, Q-17 and Handling Funds Or Other Property, Q-18 through Q-21.]

Can an ERISA bond be for an amount greater than $500,000, or $1,000,000 for plans that hold employer securities?

Yes. The Department's regulations provide that bonds covering more than one plan may be required to be over $500,000 in order to meet the requirements of section 412 because persons covered by such a bond may have handling functions in more than one plan. The $500,000/$1,000,000 limitations for such persons apply only with respect to each separate plan in which those persons have such functions. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-16(e). The regulations also provide that the Secretary may prescribe a higher maximum amount for a bond, not exceeding 10 per cent of funds handled, but only after due notice and an opportunity for a hearing to all interested parties. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-11, § 2580.412-17. Further, although ERISA cannot/require/a plan to obtain a bond in excess of the statutory maximums (absent action by the Secretary, as noted above), nothing in section 412/precludes/the plan from purchasing a bond for a higher amount. Whether a plan should purchase a bond in an amount greater than that required by section 412 is a fiduciary decision subject to ERISA's prudence standards. 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-20.

In addition to the general rule described above, if a plan's fidelity bond is intended to meet both the bonding requirements under section 412 and the enhanced bond requirement under the Department's small plan audit waiver regulation, 29 C.F.R. § 2520.104-46, that bond must meet the additional requirements under the audit waiver regulation. Pursuant to the audit waiver regulation, in order for a small plan to be exempt from ERISA's requirement that plans be audited each year by an independent qualified public accountant, any person who handles "non-qualifying plan assets" within the meaning of 29 C.F.R. § 2520.104-46 must be bonded in an amount at least equal to 100% of the value of those non-qualifying assets if such assets constitute more than 5% of total plan assets. For more information on the audit waiver requirements under 29 C.F.R. § 2520.104-46, go to "Frequently Asked Questions On The Small Pension Plan Audit Waiver Regulation" at www.dol.gov/ebsa/faqs/faq_auditwaiver.html.

What happens if the amount of funds handled increases during the plan year after the ERISA bond is purchased---must the ERISA bond be updated during the plan year to reflect the increase?

No. The regulations require that, with respect to each covered person, the bond amount be fixed annually. The bond must be fixed or estimated at the beginning of the plan's reporting year; that is, as soon after the date when such year begins as the necessary information from the preceding reporting year can practicably be ascertained. The amount of the bond must be based on the highest amount of funds handled by the person in the preceding plan year. ERISA § 412; 29 C.F.R. § 2580.412-11, § 2580.412-14, § 2580.412-19.