ERISA's "Church Plan" Exception
By Danielle Capilla, Chief Compliance Officer at United Benefit Advisors
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was signed in 1974. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is the agency responsible for administering and enforcing this law. For many years, most of ERISA's requirements applied to pension plans. However, in recent years that has changed, and group plans (called "welfare benefit plans" by ERISA and the DOL) now must meet a number of requirements. Government and church plans do not need to comply with ERISA.
However, some employers are unsure if they meet ERISA's "church plan" exception. Entities associated with churches such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and charities are often unclear about whether they meet the exception. Under ERISA, a church plan is "any employee benefit plan established and maintained by a church or by a convention or association of churches that is exempt from tax under IRS Code Section 501 with respect to which no election has been made under IRS Code Section 410(d). The plan must be established and maintained primarily for benefit of the employees of a church or convention or association of churches. Substantially all the covered individuals under the plan must be employees of the church or the convention or association of churches.
Although this might seem straightforward at first glance, determining whether a church or convention or association of churches exists is dependent on the facts and circumstances of an organization. Organizations may request a DOL opinion letter, or an IRS private letter ruling (although the DOL reserves the right to review IRS determinations via private letter) to determine if they meet the definition. To add another layer of uncertainty, courts are not bound by either DOL or IRS determinations.
For more information on the three-factor test that determines if a plan meets ERISA's "church plan" exception, the related 2017 Supreme Court ruling, and ambiguous areas employers should be aware of, request UBA’s Compliance Advisor, “ERISA's ‘Church Plan’ Exception”.