The only things certain in life are death and taxes," Ben Franklin famously said. If you file a Form 5500 on behalf of your company's pension or health and welfare plans, the filing deadline for calendar-year plans is July 31. There are a number of changes in store for plan years 2010 (and any years prior that have not yet been filed) that might cause you to allow more than the usual preparation time.

Generally, large employers (100 or more participants) that sponsor retirement plans need to file Form 5500, along with audited financial statements. Small employers (less than 100 participants) that sponsor retirement plans file Form 5500-SF. Generally, small employers do not file financial statements. Unless the plan is unfunded or fully insured (or a combination unfunded/fully insured) with less than 100 participants, welfare benefit plans need to file Form 5500. The plan administrator has the fiduciary responsibility to file Form 5500 and make sure that the filing is done properly.

Think of Form 5500 as a tax return for benefit plans, due seven months after the end of the plan year. Like individual tax returns, an extension is available. Plan sponsors can file Form 5558 to obtain an extra two-and-a-half months for filing, provided the Form is filed before the normal due date.

As of Jan. 1, 2009, the Department of Labor required employers to file Form 5500 for their health, welfare and retirement plans electronically through EFAST2 or IFILE. EFAST2 is the name of the government's electronic system for filing Form 5500. For plan sponsors using external resources to prepare the Form 5500, preparation must be on approved third-party software. IFILE is the government's no-frills, free Internet-based filing tool offered as an alternative to using approved third-party software.

Mary Andersen, whose firm, ERISAdiagnostics, Inc., specializes in Form 5500 preparation, offers nine practical tips:

1. Inventory your employee benefit plans and determine which plans require Form 5500 filing.

2. If you file on behalf of a welfare plan, determine what plans you need to file for. If you don't think you have to file because you offer voluntary plans, you may want to verify whether or not your voluntary plan is really an ERISA plan.

3. Make sure your list of plans requiring a filing is complete. Look at what you filed last year and account for all schedules.

4. Don't assume your broker will file your Form 5500. More and more brokers are offering 5500 preparation services, but not all do. It is ultimately the plan sponsor's responsibility to file Form 5500.

5. If you find that you are filing multiple 5500s for your welfare plans, consider a wrap plan approach.

6. Determine who will sign the Form 5500 and make sure that the signer prints and saves his/her signing credentials. The DOL permits plan sponsors to authorize service providers to submit the 5500, but this requires additional steps in the Form 5500 preparation.

7. Be very careful entering your credentials when you submit forms electronically.

8. Be on the lookout for Form 8955 SSA. It's a substitute for Schedule SSA that was used to report separated participants with deferred vested benefits. Employers are required to file this form with the IRS and not through the EFAST2 system. The Form and related instructions are expected to be released sometime this year.

9. When in doubt, go to the DOL website and access the EFAST2 tutorial and FAQs at

Contributing Editor Leanne Fosbre, CEBS, is a senior plan description writer with HighRoads, an HR IT consulting company headquartered in Woburn, Mass. Leanne is a certified employee benefits specialist and an ICEBS Fellow. She can be reached at  

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