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Trust Examination Manual

September 29, 1999

Brian G. Belisle
Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly LLP
Plaza VII
45 South Seventh Street, Suite 3400
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402-1609
1999-13A
ERISA Sec. 206(d)(3)

Dear Mr. Belisle:

This is in response to your request on behalf of the UAL Corporation (UAL) and United Air Lines, Inc. (United) for an advisory opinion. Specifically, you ask how a plan administrator should treat domestic relations orders the plan administrator has reason to believe are “sham” or “questionable” in nature.(1)

UAL is a holding company. Its major wholly-owned subsidiary is United. You represent that employees of United participate in three pension plans — an employee stock ownership plan (the ESOP); a 401(k) plan that is a profit sharing plan qualified under section 401(a) of the Code (the 401(k) Plan); and a defined benefit pension plan. The ESOP is a combination leveraged ESOP and non-leveraged stock bonus plan that is qualified under section 401(a) of the Code. Substantially all of the assets in the ESOP are invested in UAL stock.

You represent that the named plan administrator of the ESOP is UAL. UAL has assigned many of its administrative duties under the ESOP, including the duty to establish procedures for determining whether a domestic relations order constitutes a “qualified domestic relations order” (QDRO), to an ESOP Committee consisting of employees of United. The ESOP Committee has delegated to United’s Pension Programs Department (Pension Programs) the responsibility of reviewing and determining whether a domestic relations order received by the ESOP Committee is a QDRO within the meaning of section 206(d)(3) of ERISA. Appeals of QDRO determinations are made to the ESOP Committee.

You further represent that the ESOP permits an alternate payee to request the immediate lump sum distribution of any benefits under the plan that are assigned pursuant to the terms of any domestic relations order that the ESOP Committee determines is a QDRO. The ESOP otherwise permits lump sum distributions only following a participant’s termination of employment (including by way of the participant’s death).

The named plan administrator of the 401(k) Plan is United. United has delegated the authority to control and manage the administration of the 401(k) Plan, including the duty to establish procedures for determining whether a domestic relations order constitutes a QDRO, to a Pension and Welfare Plans Administration Committee (PAWPAC) consisting of employees of United. PAWPAC in turn has delegated to Pension Programs the responsibility for reviewing and determining whether a domestic relations order applying to the 401(k) Plan is a QDRO. Appeals of a QDRO determination are made to PAWPAC. As with the ESOP, the 401(k) Plan permits the immediate distribution of benefits under the plan that are assigned pursuant to the terms of a QDRO. Although an alternate payee may thus receive an immediate lump sum distribution from the 401(k) Plan, participants or beneficiaries are entitled to distributions from the 401(k) plan only following termination of employment (including by way of the participant’s death) or upon financial hardship.

You represent that Pension Programs currently has under review 16 domestic relations orders concerning benefits under the ESOP and the 401(k) Plan that Pension Programs believes may be “questionable” or “sham” in nature.(2)

You detail the grounds for Pension Programs’ suspicions as to the nature of these domestic relations orders as follows. Pension Programs received within a very short period of time five domestic relations orders from the same lawyer (two of the orders were mailed in the same envelope). Each order related to participants working in United’s maintenance facility located in Indianapolis, Indiana. Each of the five orders identically provided for an assignment of 100 percent of the participant’s benefit in the ESOP and the 401(k) Plan to an alternate payee. Each order made no provision for any assignment of these participants’ benefits in United’s defined benefit pension plan. In each of the orders, the alternate payee and participant were shown as having the same address. Despite its suspicions, Pension Programs determined that each of the five orders was qualified because they satisfied the requirements of section 206(d)(3) of ERISA. In Pension Programs’ view, these orders differed from other domestic relations orders processed by Pension Programs in that they dealt only with the ESOP and the 401(k) Plan; they provided for assignment of 100 percent of the participant’s benefit; and they showed the participant and alternate payee as having the same address.

After its determination that these five domestic relations orders were QDROs, Pension Programs received and reviewed 16 other orders that had unusual characteristics similar to those of the original five orders. These 16 orders similarly provided for a 100 percent assignment of benefits payable under the ESOP and/or the 401(k) Plan, made no mention of the defined benefit pension plan, and specified in most cases that the alternate payee and participant shared the same address. You represent that Pension Programs performed additional investigation in its review of these 16 domestic relations orders to determine whether they were qualified.(3) While these orders were pending review with Pension Programs, two participants from the Indiana facility called at different times to determine the status of the review of their orders. You indicate that, during those conversations, each participant asserted that his order was not one of the “fraudulent QDROs.” You represent that these statements led Pension Programs to heighten its scrutiny of the 16 orders assigning 100 percent of the participant’s right to the ESOP and 401(k) benefits.

You further represent that, after beginning its investigation of the 16 domestic relations orders in question, Pension Programs learned of a pamphlet entitled “Retirement Liberation Handbook” that was being distributed by at least one United employee in the Indianapolis, Indiana area.(4) The pamphlet advocated, as a method of acquiring a distribution of pension plan benefits before reaching retirement age, that participants and their spouses obtain a divorce for the sole purpose of securing a court order assigning pension plan benefits and then remarry. Such a sham divorce, according to the Liberation Handbook, would enable the participant to obtain direct control over the investment of the participant’s pension benefit. The Liberation Handbook also suggested that single employees could go through a sham marriage and subsequent divorce, by paying an individual a percentage of the anticipated pension distribution as compensation for acting as spouse, or could instead quit employment in order to obtain a similar early distribution and later get rehired. The Handbook described in some detail how distributions from pension plans are handled for tax purposes and discussed various options for distributions and investments of the distributions.

After reviewing the Liberation Handbook, Pension Programs determined that all of the 16 orders in question, as well as the original five orders it had previously deemed qualified, had significant similarities to the specific format promoted by the Liberation Handbook. For example, two of the initial five orders requested that distribution be made to an inappropriate account named in the Liberation Handbook.

In addition, all of the orders identified by Pension Programs as questionable relate to the ESOP and 401(k) benefits of employees who, at the time of the order, resided in the Indianapolis area and were in related work groups, and all had a number of common characteristics not typically seen in Pension Programs’ review of domestic relations orders. Included in these were rapid remarriage and continued use by the putative alternate payee of United’s no-cost travel for spouses.

You represent that Pension Programs engaged local counsel in Indiana to determine whether and to what extent the questionable domestic relations orders might be valid under Indiana law. Indiana counsel opined that, if the orders had been obtained as promoted by the Liberation Handbook, (i) the participant and alternate payee would have committed perjury; (ii) the parties would be in contempt of court; (iii) the order would have been fraudulently obtained; and (iv) if the foregoing could be established to the satisfaction of a judge, the order likely would be vacated by the court.

You have asked for an advisory opinion as to whether, and if so when, a plan administrator may investigate or question a domestic relations order submitted for review to determine whether it is a valid “domestic relations order” under State law for purposes of section 206(d)(3)(B) of ERISA.

Section 206(d)(1) of ERISA generally requires pension plans covered by Title I of ERISA to provide that plan benefits may not be assigned or alienated. Section 206(d)(3)(A) of ERISA states that section 206(d)(1) applies to an assignment or alienation of benefits pursuant to a “domestic relations order” unless the order is determined to be a “qualified domestic relations order” (QDRO). Section 206(d)(3)(A) further provides that pension plans must provide for payment of benefits in accordance with the applicable requirements of any QDRO.

Section 206(d)(3)(B) of ERISA defines the terms “qualified domestic relations order” and “domestic relations order” for purposes of section 206(d)(3) as follows:

(B) For purposes of [section 206(d)(3)] —

(i) the term “qualified domestic relations order” means a domestic relations order —

(I) which creates or recognizes the existence of an alternate payee’s right to, or assigns to an alternate payee the right to, receive all or a portion of the benefits payable with respect to a participant under a plan, and

(II) with respect to which the requirements of subparagraphs (C) and (D) are met, and

(ii) the term “domestic relations order” means any judgment, decree, or order (including approval of a property settlement agreement) which —

(I) relates to the provision of child support, alimony payments, or marital property rights to a spouse, former spouse, child, or other dependent of a participant, and

  1. (II) is made pursuant to a State domestic relations law (including a community property law).

    Section 206(d)(3)(C) requires that in order for a domestic relations order to be qualified such order must clearly specify (i) the name and the last known mailing address (if any) of the participant and the name and mailing address of each alternate payee covered by the order; (ii) the amount or percentage of the participant’s benefits to be paid by the plan to each such alternate payee, or the manner in which such amount or percentage is to be determined; (iii) the number of payments or period to which such order applies; and (iv) each plan to which the order applies.

    Section 206(d)(3)(D) specifies that a domestic relations order is qualified only if such order does not require (i) the plan to provide any type of benefit, or any option, not otherwise provided by the plan; (ii) the plan to provide increased benefits (determined on the basis of actuarial value); and (iii) the payment of benefits to an alternate payee that are required to be paid to another alternate payee under another order previously determined to be a qualified domestic relations order.

    Section 206(d)(3)(G) of ERISA requires the plan administrator to determine the qualified status of domestic relations orders received by the plan and to administer distributions under such qualified orders, pursuant to reasonable procedures established by the plan. In administering QDROs, plan administrators must follow the plan’s reasonable procedures, as required under section 206(d)(3)(G), and must assure that the plan pays only reasonable expenses of administering the plan, as required by sections 403(c)(1) and 404(a)(1)(A) of ERISA. In this regard, plan fiduciaries must take appropriate steps to ensure that plan procedures are designed to be cost effective and to minimize expenses associated with the administration of domestic relations orders. See Advisory Opinion 94-32A (Aug. 4, 1994).

    When a pension plan receives an order requiring that all or a part of the benefits payable with respect to a participant be paid to an alternate payee, the plan administrator must determine that the judgment, decree or order is a “domestic relations order” within the meaning of section 206(d)(3)(B)(ii) of ERISA — i.e., that it relates to the provision of child support, alimony payments, or marital property rights to a spouse, former spouse, child or other dependent of the participant and that it is made pursuant to State domestic relations law by a State authority with jurisdiction over such matters. Additionally, the plan administrator must determine that the order is qualified under the requirements of section 206(d)(3) of ERISA. It is the view of the Department that the plan administrator is not required by section 206(d)(3) or any other provision of Title I to review the correctness of a determination by a competent State authority pursuant to State domestic relations law that the parties are entitled to a judgment of divorce. See Advisory Opinion 92-17A (Aug. 21, 1992). Nevertheless, a plan administrator who has received a document purporting to be a domestic relations order must carry out his or her responsibilities under section 206(d)(3) in a manner consistent with the general fiduciary duties in part 4 of title I of ERISA.

    For example, if the plan administrator has received evidence calling into question the validity of an order relating to marital property rights under State domestic relations law, the plan administrator is not free to ignore that information. Information indicating that an order was fraudulently obtained calls into question whether the order was issued pursuant to State domestic relations law, and therefore whether the order is a “domestic relations order” under section 206(d)(3)(C). When made aware of such evidence, the administrator must take reasonable steps to determine its credibility. If the administrator determines that the evidence is credible, the administrator must decide how best to resolve the question of the validity of the order without inappropriately spending plan assets or inappropriately involving the plan in the State domestic relations proceeding. The appropriate course of action will depend on the actual facts and circumstances of the particular case and may vary depending on the fiduciary’s exercise of discretion. However, in these circumstances, we note that appropriate action could include relaying the evidence of invalidity to the State court or agency that issued the order and informing the court or agency that its resolution of the matter may affect the administrator’s determination of whether the order is a QDRO under ERISA.(5) The plan administrator’s ultimate treatment of the order could then be guided by the State court or agency’s response as to the validity of the order under State law. If, however, the administrator is unable to obtain a response from the court or agency within a reasonable time, the administrator may not independently determine that the order is not valid under State law and therefore is not a “domestic relations order” under section 206(d)(3)(C), but should rather proceed with the determination of whether the order is a QDRO.

    This letter constitutes an advisory opinion under ERISA Procedure 76-1, 41 Fed. Reg. 36281 (1976). Accordingly, this letter is issued subject to the provisions of that procedure, including section 10 thereof, relating to the effect of advisory opinions.

    Sincerely,
    Susan G. Lahne
    Acting Chief, Division of Fiduciary Interpretations
    Office of Regulations and Interpretations

    Footnotes

    You do not ask and we do not opine as to whether any of the individual domestic relations orders at issue is “qualified” pursuant to section 206(d)(3) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA) and section 414(p) of the Internal Revenue Code (Code).
  2. Pension Programs processes between approximately 200 and 300 domestic relations orders per year for all of its qualified retirement plans.
  3. You represent that United pays all expenses related to the administration of domestic relations orders and QDROs, including all of the investigative efforts relating to any questionable QDROs and all legal expenses. You state that no plan assets of either the ESOP or the 401(k) Plan have been used directly or indirectly to pay for the expenses of investigating the QDROs at issue here.
  4. The Liberation Handbook apparently first appeared in the classified section of a local advertising exchange.
  5. Appropriate action could take other forms, depending on the circumstances and the fiduciary’s assessment of the relative costs and benefits, including actual intervention in or initiation of legal proceedings in State court.



 
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