DEPARTMENT OF LABOR

Appendix A - Department of Labor Advisory Opinion Letters

90-46A

Dec. 4, 1990

Ms. Ellen O. Pfaff
Lane Powell Moss & Miller
3800 Rainier Bank Tower
Seattle, Washington 97101-2647

Dear Ms. Pfaff:

This responds to your request for an advisory opinion, on behalf of the trustee of the Bruce A. Nordstrom Self-Employed Retirement Plan (Plan), concerning the application of sections 514 and 206(d) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) with respect to the court order described below.l Your submission contains the following facts and representations.

The Plan is a tax-qualified retirement plan2 under which benefits are payable upon the participant's retirement or death. The Plan provides that benefits may not be assigned or alienated except in the case of a "qualified domestic relations order." Bruce A. Nordstrom is a Plan participant whose benefit account is not in pay status.

Bruce Nordstrom's wife, Frances W. Nordstrom, died October 5, 1984. Her will was admitted to probate in the Superior Court for the State of Washington at King County (the Court). Subsequently, the estate of Frances Nordstrom (the Estate) filed a petition asking the Court to require the Plan to divide and segregate that portion of Bruce Nordstrom's benefits which represents the interest of the Estate. You indicate the request was made on the grounds that, inter alia, Frances Nordstrom owned at her death an undivided one-half community interest in Bruce Nordstrom's accrued benefits pursuant to the community property law of the State of Washington and that a court order for such division and segregation of benefits could issue in accordance with section 206(d)(3) of ERISA. The court granted the petition and entered an order styled "Qualified Domestic Relations Order and Order Dividing Retirement Benefits" (the Court Order).

You request the views of the Department of Labor concerning whether the community property law of the State of Washington is preempted by section 514 of ERISA and whether the Court Order falls within the scope of section 206(d)(3) of ERISA. Section 514(a) of ERISA generally preempts all state laws insofar as they relate to employee benefit plans covered by title I of ERISA. Therefore, a state community property law that considers the pension earned by a married spouse to be community property is preempted under this provision, unless some exception applies.

Section 514(b) of ERISA specifies certain exceptions from the broad preemptive effect of section 514(a). Of those exceptions, only that provided by section 514(b)(7) has relevance to community property laws. Section 514(b)(7) states that preemption under section 514(a) does not apply to "qualified domestic relations orders" within the meaning of ERISA section 206(d)(3)(B)(i).

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 the 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 judgement, 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

        (II) is made pursuant to a state domestic relations order.

The term "alternate payee" is defined by ERISA section 206(d)(3)(K) to mean "any spouse, former spouse, child, or other dependent of a participant who is recognized by a domestic relations order as having a right to receive all, or a portion of, the benefits payable under a plan with respect to such participant."

Sections 514(b)(7) and 206(d)(3) of ERISA were enacted as part of the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 (REA), which aimed primarily at assuring greater and more equitable opportunity for women working as employees or homemakers to receive private pension income. The legislative history of the QDRO provisions of REA contains numerous statements indicating that Congress was focusing on the division of pension benefits in marital dissolution or dependent support situations. For example, Congressman William Clay described the QDRO provisions during a House floor debate on the legislation as follows:

    Finally, women may be denied their right to pension benefits by the dissolution of a marriage by divorce, regardless of how many years she served as an economic partner to a man covered by a pension plan. Even in cases in which the State domestic relations court is willing to consider the pension an asset of the marriage and award the ex-wife a share of it, her rights have been thwarted. Pension plans have refused to honor those court orders claiming that they required an impermissible assignment of benefits and were preempted by ERISA.

    H.R. 4280 makes it clear that honoring a legitimate State court order awarding an ex- spouse some or all of a worker's pension does not violate the antiassignment clause of ERISA. In addition, the legislation creates an exception from ERISA's broad preemption of State laws for qualified domestic relations orders.3

Moreover, the report of the Senate Committee on Finance made specific mention of state community property laws in observing that "[s]everal cases have arisen in which courts have been required to determine whether the ERISA preemption and spendthrift provisions apply to family support obligations (e.g. alimony, separate maintenance, and child support obligations).4 The report noted "[t]here is a divergence of opinion among the courts as to whether ERISA preempts State community property laws insofar as they relate to the rights of a married couple to benefits under a pension, etc., plan,5 and cited two cases in which application of state community property law to pension benefits was at issue in the context of marital dissolution proceedings.6

It thus appears Congress generally intended that the QDRO provisions of ERISA would have application in those court proceedings conducted primarily to resolve domestic relations issues. With respect to ERISA section 206(d)(3)(B)(ii)(II), it is the view of the Department of Labor that Congress intended the QDRO provisions to encompass state community property laws only insofar as such laws would ordinarily be recognized by courts in determining alimony, property settlement and similar orders issued in domestic relations proceedings. We find no indication Congress contemplated that the QDRO provisions would serve as a mechanism in which a non-participant spouse's interest derived only from state property law could be enforced against a pension plan.

In the case at hand, the Court Order was issued in a probate proceeding and would recognize an interest in pension benefits of the surviving spouse solely on the basis of the state community property law. Consistent with the views discussed above, it is the opinion of the Department of Labor that the Court Order is not a "domestic relations order" within the meaning of section 206(d)(3)(B)(ii) of ERISA and, therefore, does not constitute a QDRO for purposes of sections 206(d)(3) and 514(b)(7) of ERISA. Accordingly, it is the opinion of the Department of Labor that the Court Order is unenforceable against the Plan.

This letter constitutes an advisory opinion under ERISA Procedure 76-1. Section 10 of the procedure explains the effect of advisory opinions.

Sincerely,

Robert J. Doyle
Director of Regulations
and Interpretations

____

1For convenience, this letter refers to the provisions of section 206(d) of ERISA rather than to the corresponding provisions in sections 401(a)(13)(B) and 414(p) of the Internal Revenue Code, to which your request refers.

2You indicated in a telephone conversation with a representative of this Office that the plan has a number of participants and is covered by title I of ERISA.

3130 Cong. Rec. 13327 (1984).

4S. Rep. No. 575, 98th Cong., 2d Sess. 18 (1984).

5Id. 19.

6The cases cited were Stone v. Stone, 632 F. 2d 740 (9th Cir. 1980) and Francis v. United Technology Corp.,458 F. Supp. 84 (N.D. Cal. 1978).


August 21, 1992

 

92-17A
ERISA Sec.
206(d)(3)

 

Ms. Anne E. Neydon
Sachs, Kadushin, O'Hare
Helveston & Waldman, P.C.
1000 Farmer
Detroit, Michigan 48226

Dear Ms. Neydon:

The Internal Revenue Service has referred to us your request for an advisory opinion on behalf of the Cement Masons' Pension Trust Fund (the Plan) concerning the application of the "qualified domestic relations order" (QDRO) exception to the anti-assignment and alienation rules contained in section 206(d)(3) of Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), and sections 401(a)(13)(B) and 414(p) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (the Code), to an order from the Circuit Court for the County of Wayne, Michigan. Your submission contains the following facts and representations.

The Plan is qualified under section 401(a) of the Code. The Plan has received a proposed Qualified Domestic Relations Order (the Order) in connection with a domestic relations proceeding in the Circuit Court for the County of Wayne in the State of Michigan. The Order states that X is a Plan participant whose benefit account is not in pay status. As a result of such proceeding, a property division was entered into between X and Y. The property division was executed prior to, and is referenced in, the Order.

According to the terms of the Order, which you enclosed with your letter, the Court approved the property division prior to granting an annulment ab initio of the marriage between the parties. You represent that, at the time of the property division and before the annulment, the parties had been married for 38 years and the marriage had produced six children. Under the Order, and pursuant to the terms of the property division, Y is designated as the "alternate payee" assigned 50% of the participant's accrued benefit as of the date of the Order. The Order further designates Y as the surviving spouse of X. You indicate that Michigan domestic relations law provides for the division of property and the entry of such an order upon the annulment of a marriage.1

You request an opinion as to whether a state court correctly ruled that a party to an annulled marriage (1) is a "former spouse" of a participant for purposes of the definition of "alternate payee" in section 206(d)(3)(K) of ERISA, and (2) is designated as a "surviving spouse" pursuant to section 206(d)(3)(F) of ERISA for purposes of the joint and survivor and pre-retirement annuity provisions. In essence, you are requesting an opinion on whether the plan administrator is required to review such rulings as part of the process of determining whether a domestic relations order is qualified under section 206(d)(3) of ERISA.

Under the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, as amended (REA), the Secretary of Labor has authority to issue regulations interpreting the QDRO provisions in section 206(d)(3) of ERISA, as well as the parallel provisions in sections 401(a)(13)(B) and 414(p) of the Code. To date, the Department has not issued regulations interpreting these provisions. Because your inquiry presents issues on which the answer seems to be clear from the application of these statutory provisions to the facts described, the Department has determined, in accordance with section 5.03 of ERISA Procedure 76-1, 41 Fed. Reg. 36281 (Aug. 27, 1976), that it is appropriate to issue an advisory opinion in this case. For convenience, references to Code sections that parallel provisions of Title I of ERISA are omitted from the following discussion, but may be assumed to be incorporated by reference when the parallel section in Title I of ERISA is cited.

Section 206(d)(1) of ERISA generally requires pension plans covered by Title I 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 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" 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 the 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 judgement, 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

        (II) is made pursuant to a state domestic relations order.

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 which are required to be paid to another alternate payee under another order previously determined to be a qualified domestic relations order.

The term "alternate payee" is defined by section 206(d)(3)(K) to mean "any spouse, former spouse, child, or other dependent of a participant who is recognized by a domestic relations order as having a right to receive all, or a portion of, the benefits payable under a plan with respect to such participant."

Sections 206(d)(3)(F) of ERISA provides, with respect to the joint and survivor and pre- retirement annuity provisions, that, to the extent provided in any qualified domestic relations order:

    (i) the former spouse of a participant shall be treated as a surviving spouse of such participant for purposes of section 205 (and any spouse of the participant shall not be treated as a spouse of the participant for such purposes), and

    (ii) if married for at least 1 year, the surviving spouse shall be treated as meeting the requirements of section 205(f).

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. Upon receipt of the order, the plan administrator must promptly notify the participant and each alternate payee named in the order of its receipt by the plan and of the plan's procedures for determining the order's qualified status.

Based on the foregoing, when a pension plan receives an order requiring that all or a part of the benefits payable with respect to a participant be distributed 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 a 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)(B)(i) 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 that an individual is a "spouse," "former spouse," "child," "other dependent" or "surviving spouse" of the participant under state domestic relations law.2

With respect to your submission, you have represented that the Order assigns to former spouse Y, as "alternate payee" 50% of participant X's accrued benefit under the Plan, and designates Y as the "surviving spouse" of X. Further, you indicate that Michigan domestic relations law provides for such a division of property upon the annulment of a marriage. Accordingly, it is the view of the Department that, to the extent the Order was executed by a court of competent jurisdiction pursuant to Michigan domestic relations law, neither the determination under the Order that Y is a "former spouse," and thus meets the requirements to be an "alternate payee" for purposes of section 206(d)(3)(B) of ERISA, nor the determination that Y is a "surviving spouse" for purposes of section 206(d)(3)(F) of ERISA, are required to be reviewed by the plan administrator. The Department expresses no view regarding the qualified status of the domestic relations order in this case.3

This letter constitutes an advisory opinion under ERISA Procedure 76-1. Accordingly, it is issued subject to the provisions of the procedure, including section 10 thereof relating to the effect of advisory opinions.

Sincerely,

Robert J. Doyle
Director of Regulations
and Interpretations

____

1Section 552.19 of the Michigan statute states that "upon the annulment of a marriage, a divorce from the bonds of matrimony or a judgment of separate maintenance, the court may make a further judgment for restoring to either party the whole, or such parts as it shall deem just and reasonable, of the real and personal estate that shall have come to either party by reason of the marriage, or for awarding to either party the value thereof, to be paid by either party in money." (MCLA 552.19)

2While the question of whether an order is a qualified domestic relations order under 206(d)(3) of ERISA is a Federal question, determinations regarding an individual's status as a "spouse," former spouse," "child," "other dependent" or "surviving spouse" for purposes of a QDRO are questions of state law.

3As indicated in sections 5.01 and 5.04 of ERISA Procedure 76-1, the Department ordinarily will not issue opinions on matters which are inherently factual in nature, or on the form or effect in operation of particular plan provisions. Accordingly, the Department will not issue advisory opinions as to whether any particular domestic relations order constitutes a QDRO, or whether a specific plan procedure for determining the qualified status of domestic relations order satisfies the requirements of ERISA section 206(d)(3)(G)(ii).


August 4, 1994

 

94-32A
ERISA SECTION
404(a)(1),
206(d)(3)

Mr. Homer L. Elliott
Drinker Biddle & Reath
Philadelphia National Bank Building
Broad and Chestnut Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Dear Mr. Elliott:

This responds to your request for an advisory opinion on behalf of the VIZ Manufacturing Company (the Company) regarding its Savings and Investment Profit-Sharing Plan (the Plan). Your request concerns the application of the "qualified domestic relations order" (QDRO) exception to the anti-assignment and alienation rules contained in section 206(d)(3) of Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and sections 401(a)(13)(B) and 414(p) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (the Code).1 At issue is a proposed amendment to the Plan that would allow the costs of determining and administering a QDRO to be charged against the account of the participant affected by the QDRO. Your submission contains the following facts and representations.

The Plan is maintained to provide retirement benefits to eligible employees. Consistent with the Plan documents, alienation of benefits payable under the Plan is prohibited except in the case of a QDRO or any domestic relations order entered before January 1, 1985.

The Plan has received and continues to receive domestic relations orders that purport to be QDROs. In each instance the Plan Administrator must comply with certain notice and procedural requirements in determining whether the domestic relations order is a QDRO. You represent that it is not unusual for a domestic relations order to go through several modifications before it meets the requirements necessary to be a QDRO and each time the Plan Administrator may need to seek the advice of an attorney concerning whether or not the order is a QDRO.

Section 14.4 of the Plan provides that Plan expenses shall be paid solely out of the trust established with respect to the Plan. You represent that the expenses incurred in the determination and administration of any particular domestic relations order affect the earnings available to be allocated to the accounts of all plan participants. Further, you state that since the determination and administration of any particular domestic relations order does not affect all participants and beneficiaries, but only the participant (and any alternate payee(s)) subject to the domestic relations order, the Company desires to amend the Plan to provide that the costs associated with determining the qualified status of a domestic relations order and with administering distributions under a QDRO be charged against the account of the participant affected.

Section 206(d)(1) of ERISA generally requires pension plans covered by Title I 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 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" 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 the 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 judgement, 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

      (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 which 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. Upon receipt of the order, the plan administrator must promptly notify the participant and each alternate payee named in the order of its receipt by the plan and of the plan's procedures for determining the order's qualified status.

Section 206(d)(3)(I) of ERISA specifies, among other things, that if a plan fiduciary acts in accordance with part 4 of Title I of ERISA in the administration of a domestic relations order, including the determination of whether to treat a domestic relations order as being (or not being) a qualified domestic relations order, then the plan's obligation to the participant and each alternate payee shall be discharged to the extent of any payment made pursuant to ERISA.

Section 206(d)(3)(J) of ERISA provides that a person who is an alternate payee under a QDRO shall be considered a beneficiary under the plan.

As appears from the foregoing, section 206(d)(3) of ERISA expressly grants an alternate payee the right to receive pension plan benefits payable under a QDRO. In general, it is the view of the Department that a plan may not encumber the exercise of a right mandated by Title I of ERISA by imposing conditions on the exercise of the right that are not contemplated by the statute.2 We note, in this regard, that nothing in Title I of ERISA requires or permits a plan to impose any separate fees or costs (apart from the appropriate allocation of reasonable administrative expenses of the plan as a whole) in connection with a determination of the status of a domestic relations order or the administration of a QDRO.3

Accordingly, it is the view of the Department that imposing a separate fee or cost on a participant or alternate payee (either directly or as a charge against a plan account) in connection with a determination of the status of a domestic relations order or administration of a QDRO would constitute an impermissible encumbrance on the exercise of the right of an alternate payee, under Title I of ERISA, to receive benefits under a QDRO. Additionally, in the Department's view, because Title I of ERISA imposes specific statutory duties on plan administrators regarding QDRO determinations and the administration of QDROs, reasonable administrative expenses thus incurred by the plan may not appropriately be allocated to the individual participants and beneficiaries affected by the QDRO.4

This letter constitutes an advisory opinion under ERISA Procedure 76-1. Accordingly, it is issued subject to the provisions of the procedure, including section 10 thereof relating to the effect of advisory opinions.

Sincerely,

Robert J. Doyle
Director of Regulations
and Interpretations

____

1References to the Internal Revenue Code sections that parallel these provisions of Title I of ERISA are omitted from the following, but may be assumed to be incorporated by reference when the parallel section of Title I is cited.

2The Department distinguishes such statutorily-granted rights of participants and beneficiaries from rights that a plan may, but is not required to, provide under Title I of ERISA. Thus, for example, under ERISA sections 404(c) and 408(b)(1), and the Department's implementing regulations, reasonable expenses associated with a participant's exercise of an option under the plan to direct investments or to take a participant loan may be separately charged to the account of the individual participant, provided such charges are consistent with Titles I and IV of ERISA and in accordance with the documents and instruments governing the plan.

3By contrast, Title I of ERISA expressly permits plans to impose separate administrative costs in a variety of cases. For example, section 104(b)(4) of ERISA states that the plan administrator may impose a reasonable charge to cover the cost of furnishing copies of plan documents or instruments upon request of a participant or beneficiary. See also, section 602 of ERISA, which permits a group health plan, subject to certain conditions, to require the payment of 102% of the applicable premium for any period of continuation coverage elected by an eligible participant or beneficiary.

4Of course, in administering QDROs, plan administrators must follow 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, it is the view of the Department that 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.

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