Many ERISA plan sponsors are unclear regarding a primary fiduciary responsibility concerning plan document retention (which and when documents may be purged).
Most plan sponsors adopt an assumed “reasonable” amount of time to retain documents prior to purging them. Unfortunately, IRS rules may not always be complicit with what may be assumed to be “reasonable”. Don’t find yourself falling prey to the type of fiduciary breach described below.
Recently a random IRS 401(k) plan investigation shed an uncomfortable light on the issue of plan document retention. When pressed to produce certain specific documents that were not readily available, the plan administrator decided to contact the plan’s service provider. The plan administrator was informed that the Third Party Administrator (TPA) purges its files after each plan restatement and expects the plan sponsor to meet any document retention obligations under IRS or ERISA. This is actually standard procedure for many TPAs. (https://ferenczylaw.com/solutions-in-a-flash-to-purge-or-not-to-purge-that-is-the-question/)
Depending on the document category, there are different standards for how long documents need to be kept. For example: participant benefit records must be retained “as long as a possibility exists that they might be relevant to a determination of the benefit entitlements of a participant or beneficiary.”1 While the regulations were never finalized, the Department of Labor (DOL) has taken the position those record retention obligations apply beginning when the DOL issued its first set of proposed regulations under Section 209 on February 9, 1970 because employers were put on notice of the obligations. As such, plan sponsors should consider whether benefit plan records need to be maintained indefinitely.
Record retention rules are accessible in both the DOL regulations as well as ERISA statutes. Statutes of limitations on plan sponsor liability for administrative functions concerning retirement plans also are codified.