June 1, 2001
Dear Mr. Sapienza:
This is in response to your request for guidance regarding the qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA).1 In particular, you ask whether an income withholding notice issued by the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Division of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE), or a county child support enforcement agency operating under DCSE guidelines, is a judgment, decree, or order within the meaning of section 206(d)(3)(B)(ii) of ERISA.
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 New York. 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 State IV-D agencies.
Section 466(a) of the Social Security Act (the Act) requires that, as a condition for receiving Federal funding under Title IV-D, States have procedures to effectuate withholding from the income of obligors amounts payable as child support in cases that are subject to enforcement by the State. Section 466(b) of the Act prescribes procedures that the States must provide for with respect to such income withholding. That section also defines income for purposes of the withholding requirements to include periodic payments due to an individual pursuant to a pension or retirement program. You represent that State IV-D agencies, including DCSE, routinely issue income withholding notices pursuant to Federal and State law to enforce child support orders against obligor parents. The child support orders are made pursuant to State family or domestic relations law. The income withholding notices may seek to enforce the child support obligation from various sources of income, including benefits due to a participant in a pension plan.
You represent that notices issued by DCSE and county child support enforcement agencies are frequently determined not to be QDROs by plan administrators. You represent that these plan administrators contend that an income withholding notice is not a judgment, decree, or order, and therefore not a domestic relations order as defined in section 206(d)(3)(B)(ii) of ERISA. As a result, when a pension plan rejects an income withholding notice, DCSE or the county child support enforcement agency must obtain a court order requiring the plan to withhold the necessary child support payments, which order then generally will be accepted as a QDRO by plan administrators.
Section 206(d)(1) of ERISA generally requires that benefits provided under a pension plan may not be assigned or alienated. Section 206(d)(3)(A) of ERISA provides that the anti- assignment and alienation provisions of section 206(d)(1) apply to the assignment or alienation of benefits pursuant to a domestic relations order, unless the order is determined to be a qualified domestic relations order. Section 206(d)(3)(A) further provides that pension plans must provide for the payment of benefits in accordance with the applicable requirements of any QDRO.
Section 206(d)(3)(B) of ERISA defines the term qualified domestic relations order for purposes of section 206(d)(3) as a domestic relations order which creates or recognizes the existence of an alternate payees 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 a plan, and which meets the requirements of section 206(d)(3)(C) and (D).2
The term domestic relations order is defined in section 206(d)(3)(B)(ii) as any judgment, decree, or order (including approval of a property settlement agreement) which 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 is made pursuant to a State domestic relations law (including a community property law).
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.
Section 206(d)(3)(G) of ERISA requires the plan administrator to determine whether a domestic relations order received by the plan is qualified, and to administer distributions under such qualified orders, pursuant to reasonable procedures established by the plan.
When a pension plan receives an order requiring that all or 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 an income withholding notice issued by DCSE or county child support enforcement agencies (as described in your submission) as part of the States IV-D program, is a domestic relations order as defined in section 206(d)(3)(B)(ii) of ERISA. The notice relates to the provision of child support to a child of a participant in a pension plan, enforces a child support order that is made pursuant to State family or domestic relations law, and is made by DCSE or a county child support enforcement agency, which have jurisdiction over child support matters. We note in particular that section 206(d)(3)(B)(ii) does not specify that in order for a judgment, decree, or order to be a domestic relations order for the purposes of section 206(d)(3) that it must be issued by a court.
While a withholding notice issued by DCSE may constitute a domestic relations order for purposes of section 206(d)(3) of ERISA, the administrator of a pension plan that receives such a notice is still obligated to determine whether the notice is a qualified domestic relations order as defined in section 206(d)(3)(B). Whether any notice issued by the State, including the Order/Notice To Withhold Income For Child Support (the form developed by OCSE that State IV-D agencies are required to use to enforce child support obligations), satisfies the requirements of section 206(d)(3)(C) and (D) is an inherently factual question on which the Department is unable to opine.
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.
Chief, Division of Fiduciary
Office of Regulations
1 References to the Internal Revenue Code sections that parallel the provisions of section 206(d)(3) of ERISA (the QDRO provisions) are omitted from the following, but may be assumed to be incorporated by reference when the parallel provision of section 206(d)(3) is cited.
2 Section 206(d)(3)(C) provides that in order for a domestic relations order to be qualified, the order must clearly specify (i) the name and 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 participants 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 not qualified if it requires (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); or (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)(E) provides that an order may not provide that an alternate payee receive a benefit earlier than the date on which the participant reaches his or her earliest retirement age, unless the plan permits payments at an earlier date. Earliest retirement age is defined as the earlier of (1) the date on which the participant is entitled to receive a distribution under the plan, or (2) the later of (a) the date the participant reaches age 50 or (b) the earliest date on which the participant could begin receiving benefits under the plan if the participant separated from service with the employer.
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