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Frequently Asked Questions

Who can participate in your employer's retirement plan?

Answer: Once you have learned what type of retirement plan your employer offers, you need to find out when you can participate in the plan and begin to earn benefits. Plan rules can vary as long as they meet the requirements under Federal law. You need to check with your plan or review the plan booklet (called the Summary Plan Description) to learn your plan’s rules and requirements. Your plan may require you to work for the company for a period of time before you may participate in the plan. In addition, there typically is a time frame for when you begin to accumulate benefits and earn the right to them (sometimes referred to as “vesting”).

Find out if you are within the group of employees covered by your employer’s retirement plan. Federal law allows employers to include certain groups of employees and exclude others from a retirement plan. For example, your employer may sponsor one plan for salaried employees and another for union employees. Part-time employees may be eligible if they work at least 1,000 hours per year, which is about 20 hours per week. So if you work part-time, find out if you are covered.

What does ERISA do?

Answer: Requires plans to provide participants with information about the plan including important information about plan features and funding. The plan must furnish some information regularly and automatically. Some is available free of charge, some is not.

Sets minimum standards for participation, vesting, benefit accrual and funding. The law defines how long a person may be required to work before becoming eligible to participate in a plan, to accumulate benefits, and to have a nonforfeitable right to those benefits. The law also establishes detailed funding rules that require plan sponsors to provide adequate funding for your plan.

Requires accountability of plan fiduciaries. ERISA generally defines a fiduciary as anyone who exercises discretionary authority or control over a plan’s management or assets, including anyone who provides investment advice to the plan. Fiduciaries who do not follow the principles of conduct may be held responsible for restoring losses to the plan.
Gives participants the right to sue for benefits and breaches of fiduciary duty.
Guarantees payment of certain benefits if a defined plan is terminated, through a federally chartered corporation, known as the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

What are employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs)?

Answer: Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) – A type of defined-contribution plan that is invested primarily in employer stock.

Can a plan reduce promised benefits?

Answer: Defined benefit plans may change the rate at which you earn future benefits but cannot reduce the number of benefits you have already accumulated. For example, a plan that accrues benefits at the rate of $5 a month for years of service through 2016 may be amended to provide that for years of service beginning in 2017 benefits will be credited at the rate of $4 per month. Plans that make a significant reduction in the rate at which benefits accumulate must provide you with written notice generally at least 45 days before the change goes into effect.

Also, in most situations, if a company terminates a defined benefit plan that does not have enough funding to pay all of the promised benefits, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) will pay plan participants and beneficiaries some retirement benefits, but possibly less than the level of benefits promised. (For more information, see the PBGC’s Website at

In a defined contribution plan, the employer may change the amount of employer contributions in the future. Depending on the plan terms, the employer may also be able to stop making contributions for a few years or indefinitely.
An employer may terminate a defined benefit or a defined contribution plan, but may not reduce the benefit you have already accrued in the plan.