Advisory Opinion

June 7, 2002

Alsee McDaniel, Director
Division of Child Support Enforcement
Department of Human Services
750 North State Street
Jackson, MS 39202


Dear Mr. McDaniel:

This is in response to your request for an advisory opinion concerning the application of section 206(d) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA), with respect to the Mississippi Department of Human Services, Division of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE). Your submission contains the following facts and representations.

DCSE is a state agency that administers the programs under Part D of Title IV of the Social Security Act (Title IV-D), generally known as the Child Support Enforcement (CSE), or IV-D, program, for the State of Mississippi. The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), Department of Health and Human Services, has the responsibility to establish standards for state IV-D agencies, and manages the distribution of Federal funding to the IV-D agencies.

Like other IV-D agencies, DCSE collects child support both for custodial parents who are receiving economic assistance from the state and for those who are not receiving such assistance, but have applied for the agencys services in collecting support payments. DCSE distributes the support payments that it collects on behalf of the custodial parent as follows. If the custodial parent has a public assistance arrearage(1) and is no longer receiving public assistance, DCSE transmits all child support payments it receives to the custodial parent as current child support payments plus any existing child support arrearage before any of the payment is applied to the public assistance arrearage. If the custodial parent has a public assistance arrearage and is currently receiving public assistance, DCSE applies the payments it receives first to the public assistance arrearage and transmits any remaining funds to the custodial parent as current child support payments. If the custodial parent is not receiving public assistance and has no public assistance arrearage, then DCSE transmits the entire payment to the custodial parent. In all cases, DCSE receives the child support payments, deposits them in its own account, and distributes a check representing the child support payment (minus any public assistance arrearages, if applicable) to the custodial parent.

Section 206(d)(1) of ERISA generally requires pension plans subject to Title I to provide that plan benefits may not be assigned or alienated. Section 206(d)(3)(A) provides an exception to the general rule for the creation, assignment or recognition of a right to any benefit payable with respect to a participant pursuant to a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO). Section 206(d)(3)(A) further requires that pension plans must provide for the payment of benefits in accordance with the applicable terms of any QDRO. Section 206(d)(3) describes the conditions that a domestic relations order must satisfy in order to be a QDRO, as well as additional rules regarding a plan administrator's determination of whether a domestic relations order is a QDRO, how benefits are to be administered pursuant to a QDRO, and definitions of certain terms used in section 206(d)(3).

Among other things, section 206(d)(3)(B) provides that a domestic relations order that creates or recognizes an alternate payee's right to, or assigns to the alternate payee the right to, receive all or a portion of the benefits payable with respect to a participant under a plan, and complies with the requirements of section 206(d)(3)(C) and (D) is a QDRO. A domestic relations order is defined as any judgment, decree, or order that relates to, among other things, the provision of child support to a child of a participant. Alternate payee is defined in 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.

You ask whether, under the circumstances described above, DCSE may be considered an alternate payee within the meaning of section 206(d)(3)(K) of ERISA, or, in the alternative, whether a domestic relations order that requires a pension plan to make payments to DCSE on behalf of any alternate payee named in the order may be a QDRO.

You argue that in cases in which the custodial parent received public assistance due, at least in part, to the non-custodial parent's nonpayment of ordered child support prior to the issuance of a QDRO, permitting the IV-D agency to be an alternate payee assures that such amounts are returned to state and federal governments when child support payments are made pursuant to the QDRO. In addition, you maintain that public policy favors allowing IV-D agencies to be alternate payees so that reliable records of all child support payments can be kept.

Section 206(d)(3)(K) of ERISA defines the classes of persons who may be alternate payees for purposes of the QDRO provisions. This provision is part of an exception to ERISA's general rule that benefits due to a participant from a pension may not be assigned or alienated, and thus is to be read narrowly. In the opinion of the Department, an alternate payee cannot be anyone other than one of the persons identified in section 206(d)(3)(K), i.e., a spouse, former spouse, child, or other dependent of a participant in a pension plan. Therefore, DCSE cannot be an alternate payee.

However, the Department recognizes that circumstances may arise that will necessitate another person's acting on behalf of an alternate payee, such as if an alternate payee is a minor or is legally incompetent. In such cases, a domestic relations order that requires that the plan make payment to someone with legal responsibility for the alternate payee, such as a guardian or party acting in loco parentis in the case of such child, or a trustee as agent for the alternate payee, may still be a QDRO.(2) You state that, while DCSE's relationship to a child does not rise to the level of a court-appointed guardian ad litem or to the fiduciary level of a trustee, DCSE is charged, by federal and state law, to act in the best interests of each child for which it is acting. DCSE is obligated by law to establish a non-custodial parent's child support obligation, to secure and collect child support payments from any person who is legally liable for such support, and to disburse support payments to the custodial parent. DCSE is authorized to use any method available under state law to establish and enforce a parent's support obligations. You therefore contend that DCSE has essentially the same level of responsibility as a guardian or trustee with respect to child support payments, since it is legally obligated to act on the child's behalf, and any child support received goes to the custodial parent on behalf of the child.

It appears that DCSE, in the circumstances you describe, acts as an agent for the child on whose behalf it is acting. The agency receives funds from a pension plan in which the obligor is a participant, and forwards all of those funds to the alternate payee, or the alternate payee's custodial parent, except for the reimbursement to DCSE of public assistance arrearages," which, as noted above, represent advances by the state to the custodial parent of unpaid support obligations. Under these circumstances, it is the opinion of the Department that the fact that a domestic relations order names DCSE as the party to whom payments are to be made on behalf of an alternate payee, would not constitute grounds on which a plan administrator could find the order not to be qualified.

This letter constitutes an advisory opinion under ERISA Procedure 76-1 (41 Fed. Reg. 36281, August 27, 1976). Accordingly, this letter is issued subject to the provisions of the procedure, including section 10 relating to the effect of advisory opinions.


Louis Campagna
Chief, Division of Fiduciary Interpretations
Office of Regulations and Interpretations



  1. Pursuant to the IV-D program, State laws provide that a custodial parent who receives public assistance from a State is deemed to assign to the State any right or claim to child support payments that the non-custodial parent is obligated to make, but has not made, to the extent of the owed child support payments plus the State's costs incurred in collecting such support payments. These public assistance payments are considered public assistance arrearages that are owed to the State IV-D agency. In such situations, the public assistance is, essentially, an advance by the State of the child support obligations of the non-custodial parent to the extent of nonpayment, and the retention by the State of all or a portion of the support payments subsequently secured from the non-custodial parent is reimbursement of such advances.

  2. See, Staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, Explanation of Technical Corrections to the Tax Reform Act of 1984 and Other Recent Tax Legislation, 100th Cong., 1st Sess. (Comm. Print 1987) at 222.