Download Profit Sharing Guide

Download Profit Sharing Guide

Learn top strategies to reward employees (and help owners shelter more income from taxes)

5 min read

The Quick-Start Guide to 401k Plan Documents and Records

Ben Werdmuller
February 7, 2018
The Quick-Start Guide to 401k Plan Documents and Records
Table of contents

Whether you’re staring down the barrel of a 401(k) audit or just being proactive, knowing the details on your 401(k) plan documents (and keeping them organized) can save you a lot of pain. We’re here to help with that.

Here’s a breakdown of your key 401(k) plan documents (including a table and some industry-insider tips).

Get to the plan document information you need faster:

  • Skip to the Table Breakdown
  • Core 401(k) Plan Documents
  • 401(k) Document Management Tips
  • Common Concerns and Answers
  • Can a 3(16) Fiduciary Help?

A Brief Introduction to Your 401(k) Plan Documents and Records

If you are reading this, you’re probably either:

  1. About to be dealing with a sea of documents (or already are)
  2. Looking to help someone who is dealing with the aforementioned sea of documents

To help you get your 401(k) plan documents in order, you need to know what you’re getting into. So let’s dive right in.

Properly managing a 401(k) requires juggling administrative bureaucratic duties with investment management.

On the administrative end, you frequently deal with tracking employee eligibility, transferring employee contributions into the plan trust, and making sure the information in your recordkeeper matches your payroll.

You also have to handle nondiscrimination testing, stay on top of required employee notices, and ensure forms like the IRS Form 5500 are completed correctly, and are signed and filed in a timely manner. And that’s just the beginning. As you know, there’s much more to 401(k) plan administration.

At the same time, there are also numerous investment and finance management duties involved. Normally these include constructing a fund lineup, monitoring performance and fees, and ideally, providing your retirement plan participants with help on asset allocation and personal finance decisions.

401(K) administration made easy. Watch video.

The Core 401(k) Plan Documents and Records

Cleary, being a plan sponsor or administrator means you’ve already got already a lot to handle. But, unfortunately, every responsibility of a 401(k) plan sponsor also involves documentation – some of which should be kept on hand, and others that you need to save for reference.

The most important 401(k) plan documents and records are:

  • Basic plan document
  • Summary plan description
  • Summary annual report
  • 401(k) adoption agreement
  • Plan amendments
  • Hardship withdrawals and participant loans
  • IRS determination letter
  • ERISA Fidelity Bond
  • Fee Disclosures

Basic Plan Document

If you adopted features from a Volume Submitter Plan Document, you'll have a Basic Plan Document. This document fully explains all of the possibilities that could be adopted by your plan within the range covered by the IRS determination letter, including essential information like elective deferral, eligibility requirements, employer contributions, profit sharing conditions, vesting, and much more.

401(k) Adoption Agreement

Your 401(k) adoption agreement identifies the specific features of your Plan.  You will need to be very familiar with this document as it spells out your Plan’s rules around eligibility, contributions, enrollment features and distribution provisions, among others. It is critical that you follow these rules in order to keep your plan compliant.

Summary Plan Description

The Summary Plan Description describes in detail, (using plain language) all of the features of your Plan.  The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requires plan administrators to deliver the Summary Plan Description to plan beneficiaries.

Summary Annual Report

This document summarizes the information on Form 5500 for the benefit of plan participants. To be compliant, this document must include the total plan assets, the administrative expenses incurred by the plan, and benefits paid to participants – whether as pre-tax or roth post-tax contributions. ERISA requires plan administrators to deliver the Summary Annual Report to plan participants each year.

Plan Amendments

As your business evolves and 401(k) tax laws change over the years, you may need to amend your adoption agreement. It is the plan sponsor’s responsibility to document these changes. These are the “plan amendments” – and should reflect the most up-to-date features of  your 401(K).

Hardship Withdrawals and Participant Loans

Sometimes a participant faces financial circumstances that cannot be resolved without accessing funds from their retirement account. These interruptions to the retirement plan, called “hardship withdrawals” and “participant loans,” come with a hefty list of requirements and stipulations imposed by ERISA. They also require careful and thorough documentation.

IRS Determination Letter

This is a “stamp of approval” from the IRS. It’s a letter from the IRS to the plan sponsor that states that at the time of their review, your 401(k) was a qualified plan and met the legal requirements and complied with tax code.  Generally, if a plan has received a favorable determination letter and subsequently follows the plan documents, then the plan will retain its qualified status (assuming no changes in the regulations).

ERISA Fidelity Bond

ERISA requires everyone who will be handling plan funds to be bonded – usually meaning every fiduciary and administrator of a qualified retirement plan. These bonds act as a safeguard and cover the plan against loss due to dishonest or fraudulent activity. Generally, if your Plan does not hold your company’s stock, the maximum Fidelity Bond required is 10% of plan assets up to $500,000.  A record of your current fidelity bond should be kept with your plan documents.

Fee Disclosures

These are notices (again required by ERISA), in which plan sponsors must disclose the plan’s administrative, individual, or investment-related expenses and fees to the 401(k) participants.

If you’re facing a 401(k) audit and want a first step, you’ll be in a much better position if you have these plan documents and records handy and ensure they are complete.

Remember, though these are the core documents, they are by no means the only critical ones. Below, we’ve broken out these important 401(k) plan documents (and many more) into a helpful table.

Table Breakdown Of Critical 401(k) Plan Documents to Have on Hand

## Important 401(k) Plan Documents and Records
**General Plan Documents:**Basic Plan Document Adoption Agreement [Summary Plan Description]( Trust Agreement [IRS Determination Letter]( These key documents explain the provisions of your company’s 401(k). See more above in the Core Documents section.
Updates and AmendmentsPlan documents must be updated to reflect changes in the law, or policy changes to your company’s  401(k) plan.
Summary Annual ReportThe Summary Annual Report, or SAR, summarizes the information that appears on a plan’s Form 5500. See more above in the Core Documents section.
Service Provider AgreementsRetain all contracts and arrangements with service providers. Include all fee schedules as you will want to evaluate the reasonableness of the fees charges, as well as to compare proposed fees against your actual experience.
ERISA Fidelity BondA fidelity bond is required. Read more in the Core Documents section.
Investment Policy StatementWhile not required, an IPS can be a great asset to your investment committee. This can serve as a guideline for fund menu construction and monitoring.
Summaries of Contribution FilesYou should have access to payroll reports showing total employee contributions, employer contributions, and loan repayments for each paycheck date. This information may be requested in a DoL audit.
Listing of Plan Asset Deposit LocationsThis includes not only custodians, but any limited partnerships investing 401(k) plan assets. Include the contact information of those who have the authority to make deposits and withdrawals.
408(b)(2) Fee DisclosuresThese are the fee disclosures from those providing services to the plan.
404a-5 Participant DisclosuresThese are the fee disclosures that have been prepared and delivered to plan participants.
Participant CensusThis is a listing of contact and SSN info for participants  in the plan.
Fund, Fee, and Recordkeeper Benchmarking ReportsWhen you or your advisor compares competitors to your current funds or providers, be sure to retain this information.

Tips for Managing Retirement Plan Documents

Stay Organized – It’ll Save You Time and Hassle

Keep your 401(k) plan documents organized neatly and in digital format – if they aren’t already. It’s a simple concept, but the actual task can involve some hard work. Thankfully, if you’re dealing with an impending audit, rounding up your documents is a fantastic first step.

Here’s how we organize 401(k) plan documents in the ForUsAll platform – feel free to use it as a guide for your own files:

401k plan document vault

Even if you aren’t in the Department of Labor’s crosshairs this year, just remember that 1 out of every 6 companies get audited each year. Having these documents handy is a practice of good plan administration. Just having everything organized, easy-to-find, and readily available could make it as easy as clicking a button to get all your 401(k) plan documents ready for the auditors if and when they come.

Here’s how easy it is to get documents audit-ready in a few seconds on ForUsAll’s platform:

401k plan document vault ForUsAll

401(K) administration made easy. Watch video.

Document Everything. Seriously.

When it comes to a 401(k) – the rule of thumb is always “better safe than sorry.” Document everything having to do with your 401(k) – but pay particular attention to the essential documents that plan administrators often misplace (or just don’t hang onto in the first place).

One of the most important categories in this documentation effort is your communications to employees. These communications, oftentimes emails involving employee eligibility or the delivery of notices and plan information to participants, must be documented. This documentation will help you prove that you are complying with participant notice requirement, and confirm that you are doing so within the required deadlines.

Common Plan Sponsor Concerns

Am I following my plan document correctly?

There are a lot of ways that plan administration can accidentally deviate from plan documentation guidelines. Much of the time, these mistakes or omissions can result in compliance issues that may cost you big if you are audited. Unless you have total confidence that your 401(k) documents in order, you should regularly review your plan documents and records to confirm that they are.

Who is liable if a mistake is made or an error isn’t caught?

Unless you have a fiduciary, any mistakes uncovered by a DoL audit are the financial responsibility of the plan sponsor. Unfortunately, liability can be a heavy burden. Just a few years ago, Forbes reported that 75% of companies failed their DoL audits. The average fine: a painful $600,000 per plan.

It is critical to remember that the signatory of IRS Form 5500 is personally liable for any errors, oversights, or malicious actions – and these are unlikely to go unnoticed (or unpunished) if your plan is audited. In fact, just last year, the DoL issued 113 indictments, and 79 of their criminal investigations resulted in a guilty plea or conviction. We’ll say it again: liability can be a burden.  

Is all this a good use of my time?

Maybe. But there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that 401(k) management is complex, tedious, has serious financial consequences, and that trying to do it well is takes up time that could be better spent on your business.

Not sure if you’re wasting time? Do a quick check. Are you spending a lot of time on the following tasks (or maybe you aren’t, but you have a feeling that you should be)?

  • Reviewing and processing participant loans
  • Tracking employee eligibility
  • Evaluating/approving hardship withdrawals
  • Submitting IRS filings, including Form 5500
  • Ensuring employee contributions are processed correctly
  • Distributing required participant notices

Does this feel like your everyday experience with 401(k) plan documents?

401k plan document struggles

If these tedious tasks are weighing heavily on your time (or your mind), you might want to consider enlisting a 3(16) fiduciary to help.

What Can A 3(16) Fiduciary Do For You?

A 3(16) fiduciary is an option for 401(k) management laid out under ERISA. With this service, a business or individual agrees to take full responsibility (and liability) for the plan and its day-to-day management.

A good 3(16) fiduciary:

  • Manages day-to-day 401(k) plan administration
  • Reduces your workload
  • Reduces plan sponsor liability

At ForUsAll, not only do we offer full 3(16) fiduciary services on all plans, we simultaneously deliver a vast array of extra services to completely streamline your 401(k), including:

  • Robust payroll integration that connects with over a dozen of the most popular cloud-based payroll providers to eliminate tedious daily paperwork (like employee eligibility or savings rate updates).
  • 44 separate compliance checks every payroll cycle to identify and fix any issues that arise.
  • An easy-to-digest dashboard that provides details and transparent information.


If you’d rather run your business than wrestle 401(k) plan documents or deal with the government, then drop us a line. Our 401(k) Solution can save you hours while keeping your plan compliant. Schedule a demo today – or feel free to send any questions you have to

401(K) administration made easy. Watch video.
Download Profit Sharing Guide
Learn top strategies to reward employees (and help owners shelter more income from taxes)
Author profile pic
About Author -
Ben Werdmuller
Join our newsletter to stay up to date on features and releases.
By subscribing you agree to with our Privacy Policy and provide consent to receive updates from our company.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
This material has been prepared for informational and educational purposes only and should not be construed as a recommendation by ForUsAll, Inc., its affiliates or employees (collectively, “ForUsAll”)  to activate a cryptocurrency window or invest in crypto.  Investing in crypto can be risky and investors must be able to afford to lose their entire investment.  You should consult with your own advisers before activating a cryptocurrency window or investing in crypto.  ForUsAll does not provide legal, tax, or accounting advice. Please refer to your Plan's fee disclosure for more details.© 2023 ForUsAll, Inc. All rights reserved.
1 Schwab 2022 401(k) Participant Study - Gen Z/Millenial Focus, October 2022.
2 As of 12/31/2022. Employees include both current employees and terminated participants with a balance.
3 "Morgan Stanley At Work: The Value of a Financial Advisor" Morgan Stanley, March 2022.
4 Sarah Britton was a client when she provided this testimonial through an independent third party review website. She received no compensation for her remarks. There are no known conflicts of interest in the provision of her comments related to the services provided.