Monday, March 6, 2017

What Does Your Plan Document Really Say?

What does your plan document really say?

That's right. You read my question correctly. You probably know the words that are there. And, you certainly know what they say. But, would everyone else agree with you? That may be the really key question.

Let's limit our discussion here to retirement plans, both qualified and non-qualified. Those are usually complex documents. They contain an awful lot of words that are intended to both inform the plan participants of their benefits and attendant rights and to tell the person or people administering the plan exactly how to do that. And, we all know that because the English language is so precise that no two people would ever disagree on the meanings of those words, would they? Of course, they would, and they often do.

Perhaps that's a key reason that there is so much litigation related to retirement plans. If a plan participant took his summary plan description (SPD) and calculated his own monthly benefit and determined that it was $2,000 and a few weeks later, he received a benefit determination that his monthly benefit would be $1,000, he's not going to be happy.

Perhaps his reading of the SPD was irrational. Perhaps the SPD specifically says everywhere that pensionable earnings shall be based on the participant's years with highest base pay and he read that to include bonuses and car allowances and equity grants as well.

On the other hand, perhaps his reading was different than yours, but rational. To quote Scooby Doo (I always wanted to quote Scooby Doo in a retirement benefits post), "Rut ro."

How do we avoid this problem?

There are presumably legal safeguards that are typically inserted into a plan document to get past this problem should it occur. Clearly, however, they don't always work. If they did, no plan sponsor would ever lose in litigation. We know that's not reality.

To help to ensure that you're not one of those litigation losers, wouldn't it make sense to have an independent review of those documents?

I'll leave it up to the attorneys to tell you how that should be structured. But, I am going to tell you that it's important to have attorneys and non-attorneys working together on this review.

Why? Attorneys certainly know how to read documents, especially the ones that they write. But, in practice, they won't be administering your plan. And, a person without legal training may read those legal words differently than an attorney will.

Additionally, since we are talking about retirement plans here, administration may include what I've heard a number of attorneys refer to as a dirty word -- math. While some are very good at it, I've heard many attorneys say that math was always their worst subject in school. They fought through it, but they never understood it.

And, sometimes, those plan documents serve to prove that. Suppose the attorney wrote the document to mean exactly what he thought it was supposed to. But, perhaps to a person with a little bit better understanding of the math involved, the calculation would work out differently. I'll say it again -- rut ro.

Use counsel as you should. Consider getting them to engage consultants on your behalf who can help them and you to understand when your plan may be interpreted differently than they had intended. By saving litigation costs down the road, it may be the cheapest money you've ever spent.

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