Administrators of registered pension plans are statutorily required to provide certain information to plan members and other plan beneficiaries. As the administrator of a single employer pension plan is often the employer, that obligation, therefore, falls on the employer. In order to reduce liability, it is important that employers provide members and other plan beneficiaries with accurate and complete information and comply with their statutory obligations. In this blog post, we highlight some best practices in plan communications.
- Understand your statutory obligations: Under applicable pension standards legislation, plan administrators are required to provide members and other plan beneficiaries with communications throughout their plan membership. These include plan summaries or booklets, annual or biennial statements, termination statements and notices of plan amendments. If a plan administrator fails to provide statutorily required information to members and other plan beneficiaries, it is in breach of the applicable legislation and may be subject to penalty.
- Ensure plan documents are consistent: Confusion among plan members often arises when plan documents are inconsistent, when, for example, the retirement benefit is described differently in the employee booklet or annual statement than in the plan text. Such inconsistencies often occur when the official plan document is amended but the related documents are not updated to reflect the amendment. Administrators must ensure that the terms of the plan are described in a consistent manner in all plan documents.
- Provide full and complete information to plan members and other plan beneficiaries: Plan members and other plan beneficiaries may have to make a number of decisions during their period of plan membership. Should the member take early retirement? Should the member’s spouse waive her right to a joint and survivor pension? Plan administrators have been held liable in a number of Canadian cases for failing to provide necessary and relevant information to members and other plan beneficiaries. Although what is necessary and relevant information will vary depending on the situation, a plan administrator must ensure that members and other plan beneficiaries are provided with the information needed to make informed decisions under the plan.
- Maintain records of communications with plan members and other plan beneficiaries: Many communications between plan administrators and members and other plan beneficiaries are informal verbal discussions. To the extent possible, plan administrators should ensure that contemporaneous records of all such communications are maintained. In the event that a plan member relies on the communication to make a claim for benefits under the plan, the administrator may need to rely on the written records as a defense or counter to such claim.
- Check your facts: When faced with a question from a plan member or other plan beneficiary, a plan administrator must ensure that any information it provides in respect of the plan is accurate and reflects the terms of the plan. Although the member may prefer an immediate answer, a plan administrator should review the official plan terms before providing any information. If it does not, it risks making a mistake on which the member may later rely, to the detriment of the administrator and the plan.
Plan communications are an important and required part of the administration of a registered pension plan. Mistakes or omissions in communications may result in the administrator being found in breach of pension standards legislation or held liable under the common law.