I had the opportunity to attend a law school class with my daughter, Stephanie Berger. She is a third year law student at George Washington University School of Law. The class was on ERISA Law. ERISA Law is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. In my Estates and Trusts practice ERSIA comes up regularly as our firm advises clients and beneficiaries on how they can collect pension and 401k benefits. The practical answer is that companies have latitude in setting up plans and the plan administrators are tasked with complying with the plan. Our job is to ensure that the plan stays within Federal Law. The most practical application is what happens if there is no beneficiary named for the 401k benefits. Most plans will pay the deceased plan members benefits to the estate of the deceased. Other plans will have a priority system based on relationship with the decedent such as spouse or children. Either option is allowed by ERISA as long as the requirements for beneficiaries are spelled out in the plan documents and the administrator complies with the plan.
In contrast to our daily use of the ERISA to deal with practical problems, law school classes deal with challenges to the law by unions, employees, or companies. The cases can involve a conflict between State and Federal law. Often matters can end up in the Supreme Court as decisions can affect so many workers who depend on their retirement plans. The class brought me back 30 years to my days in law school. There were no laptops in class in those days, but discussing the conflicts between parties and the theories to support those positions is the basis for teaching future lawyers to be champions for their clients. Stephanie and her classmates at George Washington are prepared for this challenge.