The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requires plan administrators -- the people who run plans -- to give plan participants in writing the most important facts they need to know about their retirement and health benefit plans including plan rules, financial information, and documents on the operation and management of the plan. Some of these facts must be provided to participants regularly and automatically by the plan administrator. Others are available upon request, free-of-charge or for copying fees. The request should be made in writing.
One of the most important documents participants are entitled to receive automatically when becoming a participant of an ERISA-covered retirement or health benefit plan or a beneficiary receiving benefits under such a plan, is a summary of the plan, called the summary plan description or SPD. The plan administrator is legally obligated to provide to participants, free-of-charge, the SPD. The summary plan description is an important document that tells participants what the plan provides and how it operates. It provides information on when an employee can begin to participate in the plan, how service and benefits are calculated, when benefits becomes vested, when and in what form benefits are paid, and how to file a claim for benefits. If a plan is changed, participants must be informed, either through a revised summary plan description, or in a separate document, called a summary of material modifications, which also must be given to participants free-of-charge.
In addition to the summary plan description, the plan administrator must automatically give participants each year a copy of the plan's summary annual report. This is a summary of the annual financial report that most plans must file with the Department of Labor. These reports are filed on government forms called the Form 5500. The summary annual report is available at no cost. To learn more about the plan assets, participants may ask the plan administrator for a copy of the annual report in its entirety.