Finding pension filings best way to watch plan
By Adam Geller
By Adam Geller
NEW YORK — At a time of great uncertainty about pensions, it's not always easy for workers to keep tabs on their own retirement plans. But keeping an eye on paperwork and asking questions can help.
Employers sponsoring traditional pension plans are required to provide covered employees with a summary of the plan, explaining how it works. In addition, each year, employers are required to make available an individual benefit statement for each worker.
That notification — sent out automatically by many companies, but issued by some only in response to a written request — specifies the amount a worker can expect to receive in their monthly pension checks at retirement.
Employers also are supposed to provide a summarized annual report on the plan. Companies with pension plans that have been less than 80 percent funded for the past two years are required to provide covered individuals with a written notice.
Pension advocates caution that just because a plan is underfunded doesn't mean workers need to worry. The value of pension plans fluctuates over time.
For an employee or retiree to get a more in-depth look at the well-being of their pension plan, they may need to dig beyond the paperwork the company provides them.
One place to look is in the annual financial statement, known as a 10-K, that must be filed by companies whose stocks trade publicly. Pension information is contained in a footnote to those reports, which are posted online. Workers looking for the footnote should search for the term "ABO," an acronym for "accumulated benefit obligation."
The note will show a company's pension liabilities — the amount it owes workers and retirees — and the current market value of its pension plans.
"You want your market value of assets to be close to or above that number. Then you know it's 100 percent funded," said Ron Gebhardtsbauer, senior pension fellow with the American Academy of Actuaries.
The problem with the figures in the 10-K is that they are a total of all of a company's pension plans. But many companies run multiple plans, and without a breakout, people can't see how their plan is faring, he said.
The answer, albeit an imperfect one, is to look at paperwork that companies must file with the federal government each year. Form 5500 provides comprehensive data but is often two years old.
Once you've located the one covering your particular plan, Gebhardtsbauer said, people should focus on the part known as Schedule B, and look at line 1b(1), labeled Current Value of Assets. That is the amount held by the pension plan. Then look at line 2b(4), in the total benefits column. That shows total benefits the pension plan owes.
Again, people should be looking for assets that equal or exceed what is owed.
Workers may be able to obtain the Form 5500 from their employers. But there are alternatives. The paperwork filed by each company can be obtained from the government. To obtain the Form 5500 filed by a plan sponsor, write to the U.S. Department of Labor, EBSA Public Disclosure Room, 200 Constitution Ave. NW, Suite N-1513, Washington, D.C., 20210.
If you think your pension plan was terminated and you are entitled to benefits, contact the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the federal agency that insures traditional pension plans.
In cases where a company has changed name or ownership, the personnel or benefits department can often provide assistance to former workers seeking information on pensions. For assistance in tracking down lost companies or resolving claims for benefits, consider contacting one of the pension counseling offices nationwide. The offices are funded by the federal Administration on Aging but operate independently.