Plan Documents



The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requires that every ERISA employee benefit plan be established and maintained pursuant to a written instrument.  That instrument must give plan participants the most important facts they need to know about their health benefit plan including plan rules, financial information, and documentation on the operation and management of the plan. Some of these facts must be provided to participants regularly and automatically by the plan administrator. Others are available upon request, free-of-charge or for copying fees.

What Must Be in an ERISA Plan Document?

By statute, an ERISA plan must:

How Does a Plan Document Differ from a Summary Plan Description (SPD)?

ERISA provides for a plan document that must be provided to a participant only upon request and for a summary plan description that must be routinely distributed to all participants. Comparing the Geek Out! Summary Plan Description on SPDs with the list above, it is apparent that while there is some overlap between these requirements, they are not identical and that the list of required elements for the SPD is much longer.

There are two basic ways that plan sponsor handle these separate requirements. The first is simply to have two distinct documents. The other is to make the SPD a part of the Plan document (this is frequently called a “wrap” document.)

Employers with insured plans often do not have any documentation other than the insurance policy and certificates of coverage. While the insurance policy is likely to include many of the requirements of the SPD and plan document, it may not include them all.

For example, it may or not include some or all of the ERISA- required discourses about the plan sponsor and plan administrator, notice of ERISA rights, or information about amending or terminating a plan. This is not intended to be an all-inclusive list. Employers with insured plans should review with their counsel the need to have a separate plan document in addition to the insurance policy.

Copies for Examination

Copies of plan documents should be made available for examination by participants and beneficiaries in the principal office of the plan administrator.

These documents include:


A plan administrator must provide a copy of the plan document within 30 days after a participant’s written request. Failure or refusal to do so may result in penalties of up to $159 per day (for 2020) from the date of such failure of refusal, but not to exceed $1,594 per request.

Additional Resources

How To Obtain Employee Benefit Plan Documents From DOL.