Human Resources

What is Form 5500? Understanding Form 5500: A Guide to Your Employee Benefit Plan Reporting Requirements

Understanding and complying with employee benefit plan reporting requirements is essential for employers. At the heart of this obligation is Form 5500, a mandatory filing with the federal government that provides comprehensive information about an employer's benefit plans. 

This guide will simplify the concept of Form 5500, explaining its significance, who is required to file it, and the essential details it must present. 

What is Form 5500?

In very simple terms:

Form 5500 is a yearly report that companies are required to submit to the Department of Labor (DOL), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). This report contains financial details, investment information, and operational data of employee benefit plans like pension and welfare plans. 

To understand better, you could think of Form 5500 like a report or assessment card for your company's employee benefit plans. It's a form you have to fill out every year to tell the government and your employees how these plans are doing financially and operationally.

Basically, it covers:

  1. Who's Who: It starts with basic info like who's running the benefit plan and what it's called.
  2. Money Matters: You need to spill the beans on how much money is in the plan, where it came from (both from the company and from employees), how much was spent, and where it went.
  3. People Stuff: Tell them about the people in the plan—how many started, how many left, and what kind of money moves they made.
  4. Investments: Share what the plan's money is invested in—stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.—and how those investments are doing. 
  5. Following the Rules: You've got to confess if you've broken any rules or had to fix any problems with the plan.
  6. Who's Helping Out: List the companies that help manage the plan, like insurance providers or financial advisors.
  7. Extra Details: Depending on your plan, you might need to attach some extra forms to give more info about specific parts of the plan.

Of course, all the content for the Form 5500 have their names and filing guidelines, which we would provide in this article. Essentially, you should understand that the form is a way for the government to keep tabs on how well companies are managing their employee benefit plans and making sure everyone is following the rules. It's also a way for employees to see what's going on with their benefits.


The Purpose of Form 5500

To understand the purpose of the form 5500, you should be aware of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). 

ERISA is a law that applies to most private companies that offer benefits like health insurance and retirement plans. It sets rules to make sure both workers and companies are treated fairly and protected. It requires companies to follow certain rules about how they manage and provide these benefits to employees.

ERISA protects you and your employees, and Form 5500 is a key part of its way of sharing and reporting information that ensures that all financial protective measures are executed. 

What the ERISA does with the form is to assure the regulatory agencies: Department of Labor (DOL), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), that your benefit plan is transparent, compliant, and leaves no stone unturned in ensuring that your employees are well compensated. 

To break it down, here's why it's necessary to file the Form 5500:

1. Transparency: Form 5500 provides transparency by requiring detailed information about the plan's financial condition, investments, and operations. This transparency allows regulators, participants, and beneficiaries to assess the plan's performance and financial health.

2. Compliance: By mandating the submission of Form 5500, the Department of Labor (DOL), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) can monitor compliance with various laws and regulations governing employee benefit plans. This includes regulations related to fiduciary responsibilities, reporting and disclosure, and participant protections.

3. Fiduciary Responsibility: Form 5500 requires plan administrators to disclose information about plan investments, fees, and other expenses. This helps ensure that plan fiduciaries are fulfilling their duties to prudently manage plan assets and act solely in the interest of participants and beneficiaries.

4. Participant Protection: The information provided on Form 5500 enables participants and beneficiaries to understand their rights and benefits under the plan. It also allows them to monitor the plan's performance and financial stability, helping to safeguard their interests.

5. Enforcement: Government agencies use Form 5500 data to identify potential compliance issues and enforce applicable laws and regulations. This includes conducting audits and investigations to address violations and protect the rights of plan participants.

Who is Required to File Form 5500?

Generally, any company sponsoring a retirement savings plan is obligated to submit a Form 5500 annually as long as the plan retains assets. The form is also required for the following plans if they have 100 employees or more:

  • Medical, vision, dental, or other health plans
  • Any life insurance plans
  • Flexible spending accounts
  • Cafeteria plans
  • Vacation plans
  • Holiday plans
  • Disability plans
  • Any other employee benefit or fringe benefit plans.

We could group these plans and do breakdown to understand better:

  • Pension Plans: Pension plans are retirement plans funded by employers that provide retirement benefits to employees. They can be defined benefit plans, where the employer promises a specified retirement benefit, or defined contribution plans, where the employer and/or employee contribute to individual accounts. Pension plans must file Form 5500 to disclose financial and operational information to regulatory agencies.

  • 401(k) Plans: A 401(k) plan is a type of defined contribution retirement plan where employees can contribute a portion of their pre-tax earnings to individual accounts, often with employer matching contributions. These plans are highly popular in the United States and are subject to ERISA regulations, requiring filing of Form 5500 to report plan details.

  • Welfare Benefit Plans: Welfare benefit plans provide non-pension benefits such as health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, and other fringe benefits to employees. These plans are also subject to ERISA regulations and must file Form 5500 to disclose information about plan operations, funding, and compliance.

However, there are also exceptions and exemptions within the Form 5500 filing requirements:

  • Small Plans: Plans with fewer than 100 participants at the beginning of the plan year may be eligible for simplified reporting ONLY under Form 5500-SF. We will treat the different variants of the form 5500 in the later part of this article. 

  • Certain Plan Types: Some types of plans are exempt from filing Form 5500. These include unfunded or excess benefit plans, governmental plans (such as those sponsored by federal, state, or local governments), and church plans (plans established by churches for their employees).

It's crucial for you to grasp the filing requirements and exemptions specific to each type of employee benefit plan to guarantee compliance with ERISA regulations and reporting duties. Failure to comply with filing requirements can result in penalties and potential legal consequences. Therefore, you should carefully review the specific regulations and seek professional guidance if needed to navigate the complexities of the Form 5500 filing. 

Understanding the Different Types of Form 5500

For the exceptions and exemptions, they are not left out in this documentation procedure that protects workers and employers. There are variants of the Form 5500 that caters to each business category. 

Asides the Form 5500 itself, which is typically used for an Employee Benefit Plan (EBP) that encompasses a participant base of a minimum of 100 individuals, different versions of the form, such as Form 5500-SF for small plans with fewer than 100 participants and Form 5500-EZ for one-participant plans, serve specific purposes in reporting employee benefit plans.

  • Form 5500-SF: This form is designed for small plans with fewer than 100 participants. It is a simplified version of Form 5500 and requires less detailed information compared to the full Form 5500.

  • Form 5500-EZ: This form is intended for one-participant plans, typically used by self-employed individuals or small business owners without employees other than a spouse. It is the simplest version of the form and is designed for minimal reporting requirements.

The criteria determining which form variant an employer should use depend on factors such as the number of plan participants and the structure of the plan. You should consider the following when selecting the appropriate form:

1. Number of Participants: If the plan has fewer than 100 participants, Form 5500-SF may be appropriate. For plans with only one participant, Form 5500-EZ is typically used.

2. Plan Structure: The complexity and structure of the employee benefit plan may also influence the choice of form. Plans with simpler structures may be eligible for the simplified reporting options provided by Form 5500-SF or Form 5500-EZ.

3. Regulatory Requirements: You should ensure that the chosen form variant meets the regulatory requirements set forth by the Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

The Components of Form 5500

The form 5500 contains different key sections and Schedules. When completing the Form, you will provide specific details about your employee benefit plan which may include:

  • An accountant's report, if the plan meets the audit requirement threshold.
  • Contact information for actuaries (for defined pension plans).
  • Details about all utilized insurance contracts if applicable.
  • Schedules outlining liabilities and assets.

All details you will have to provide can be grouped and be geared towards:

  • Plan Identification: This section collects basic information about the plan, including plan name, plan number, employer identification number (EIN), plan administrator, and plan year.

  • Financial Information: This section includes financial statements such as balance sheets, income statements, and schedules of assets. It provides a snapshot of the plan's financial health.

  • Compliance Questions: This part requires information regarding compliance with various regulations and laws, such as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

There are schedules which are attachments to Form 5500 that provide additional details about specific aspects of the plan. The schedules to be filed depend on the type of plan and its characteristics. Each schedule collects specific information relevant to the plan's operations, investments, and compliance with regulations.

  • Schedule A (Insurance Information): If the plan provides benefits through insurance contracts, this schedule reports information about insurance premiums and carriers.

  • Schedule C (Service Provider Information): This schedule lists service providers and the compensation they receive from the plan.

  • Schedule D (DFE/Participating Plan Information): If the plan is a direct filing entity (DFE) or participates in a multiple employer plan, this schedule provides additional details.

  • Schedule G (Financial Transaction Schedules): This schedule reports financial transactions, including purchases, sales, and exchanges of plan assets.

  • Schedule H (Financial Information): This schedule provides more detailed financial information, including details on investments, receipts, and disbursements.

  • Schedule I (Financial Information - Small Plan): Similar to Schedule H, but for small plans with fewer than 100 participants at the beginning of the plan year.

  • Schedule R (Retirement Plan Information):  This schedule is for plans subject to ERISA and provides information on plan eligibility, participation, contributions, and distributions.

  • Schedule MB: This schedule provides detailed actuarial information about the plan's funding status, including the plan's assets, liabilities, and funding methods. It includes information on participant demographics, such as the number of participants, their ages, and years of service, as well as details about the plan's investments and assumptions used in calculating funding levels.

  • Schedule SB: Specifically for single-employer defined benefit pension plans subject to the funding requirements of Section 412 of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), Schedule SB provides detailed actuarial information similar to Schedule MB, but it focuses on the plan's funding requirements under the IRC. It includes details about the plan's assets, liabilities, contribution requirements, and funding methods, as well as participant demographics and assumptions used in calculating funding levels. This schedule helps plan administrators and actuaries ensure compliance with the funding rules set forth in the IRC and maintain the plan's financial stability.

Filing Process and Deadlines

First of all, the responsibility for filing Form 5500 typically falls on the plan administrator or the person or entity designated as such in the plan documents. This can vary depending on the type of retirement or benefit plan being administered.

In most cases, however, a company's finance, HR, or operations department, are either individually or collectively responsible. However, you may also choose to enlist a third-party administrator for filing the form.

How to File 

To file Form 5500, follow these steps:

  1. Gather Information: Collect all relevant information about the plan, including financial data, participant information, plan assets, and contributions.

  1. File via EFAST2: Employers are mandated by the DOL to electronically submit Form 5500 through the ERISA Filing Acceptance System (EFAST2) portal.

To use the EFAST2 system for filing Form 5500 electronically, follow these steps:

  1. Open an Account: Visit the EFAST2 website and register for an account if you haven't already done so. You will need to provide basic information about yourself and your plan.

  1. Log in: Once registered, log in to the EFAST2 system using your username and password.

  1. Select Filing Type: Choose the type of filing you want to make (e.g., Form 5500, Form 5500-SF, Form 5500-EZ). 

  1. Enter Filing Information: Enter the required information for your filing, including plan details, financial information, participant data, and any applicable schedules.

  1. Upload Documents: Attach the completed Form 5500 and any supporting documents, schedules, or attachments to your filing.

  1. Review and Submit: Review all information entered for accuracy and completeness. Once satisfied, submit your filing through the system.

  1. Receive Confirmation: After successfully submitting your filing, you will receive a confirmation email or message indicating that your submission has been received.

  1. Or File Extensions (if needed): If you require additional time to file, submit Form 5558 to request an extension. This must be done before the original due date of Form 5500.

  1. Keep Records: Maintain copies of all filed forms and supporting documentation for your records. These may be needed for future reference or in case of an audit.

  1. Monitor Status: You can track the status of your filing through the EFAST2 system. It will provide updates on the processing status and any additional actions required.

Standard Timeline

The standard deadline for filing Form 5500 is the last day of the seventh month after the plan year ends. For calendar year plans, this deadline is July 31st.

However, if you need more time to file, you can request an extension by filing Form 5558. This extends the deadline by 2.5 months, making the extended deadline October 15th for calendar year plans.

Remember to adhere to these deadlines to avoid penalties for late filing.

Common Mistakes and Compliance Tips

Common mistakes when completing Form 5500 include:

  1. Inaccurate or Incorrect details:  Providing inaccurate plan names, numbers, or EINs, counts of participants, beneficiaries, or contributions, mistakes in reporting financial information such as assets, liabilities, or income, are common mistakes companies make when filing. 
  2. Incomplete data: While the data entered might be correct, it's possible to miss out on filling out some details such as all required schedules or attachments, electronic signatures. 
  3. Lack of Participation in Plans: Businesses commonly note a lack of participants in certain plans, often citing their newness as the primary reason.
  4. Termination of Plans: some companies refrain from completing Form 5500 due to the dissolution of a specific plan.
  5. Declaration of Fraud: Form 5500 inquires about losses from fraud or dishonesty within the plan, and some companies frequently provide incorrect responses.

To ensure accuracy and compliance, do these:

  1. Double-check entries: Review all information entered on the form for accuracy and completeness.

  1. Refer to instructions: Consult the Form 5500 instructions provided by the Department of Labor and IRS to ensure compliance with reporting requirements.

  1. To be on the safe side, leave the fraud declaration area blank if you’ve not experienced fraud. 

  1. Maintain thorough records: Keep organized records of all documentation related to the plan, including financial statements, participant data, and filings.

  1. Use professional assistance: To prevent inaccuracies like entering incorrect figures, consider employing a third-party administrator for your benefits filing.

  1. File early and ensure thorough check before final submission: Penalties for late or incorrect filings of Form 5500 can be significant and can vary depending on the circumstances. Here are some potential consequences of not meeting filing requirements:
  •  Penalties and fines: The Department of Labor (DOL) imposes penalties for late filing, failure to file, or in a urate filing which can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars per day, depending on the size of the plan and the duration of the delinquency. 
  • Plan Disqualification: In extreme cases of non-compliance or repeated failures to file, the IRS has the authority to disqualify the plan, which could have severe consequences for both employers and participants. This could result in the loss of tax-favored status for the plan, leading to adverse tax consequences for participants.


Conclusion: Ensuring Compliance with Form 5500 Reporting

Form 5500 plays a vital role in audits and disclosures for employee benefit plans, providing detailed insights into their financial status, operations, and compliance. It serves as a crucial document for government agencies, auditors, and participants to evaluate the plan's performance, regulatory adherence, and financial well-being. This transparency fosters trust and confidence among participants, ensuring accountability and oversight by regulatory bodies. Seeking assistance from specialized financial advisors or benefit plan administrators familiar with ERISA and Form 5500 can help ensure accurate and compliant filings, navigating regulatory complexities and reducing the risk of errors or non-compliance.


  1. What professional third party administrators can I use to file the form 5500?

Answer: Some notable and trusted companies you can consult are: ADP Retirement Services, Fidelity Investments, and Gusto. However, we advise you to do your thorough research and review of each company before consulting with one. 

  1. What's the penalty for not filing or filing late? 

Answer: Employers who miss the deadline for filing their Form 5500 may face penalties from both the IRS and DOL. The IRS can impose fines of up to $250 per day, while the DOL penalties can reach as high as $1,100 per day. These penalties may increase further based on inflation rates. 

If a plan administrator fails to file Form 5500 altogether, the penalties can be even more severe. The DOL can assess penalties of up to $2,259 per day until the required filing is submitted. The IRS may also impose additional penalties.

  1. What's the main difference between Form 5500, 5500-SF, and 5500-EZ? 

Form 5500-SF and Form 5500-EZ are both used for reporting information about retirement plans, but they differ in terms of eligibility and complexity. 

Form 5500-SF is for small plans with fewer than 100 participants and is simpler to complete, with fewer reporting requirements compared to Form 5500-EZ. 

Form 5500-EZ is specifically for one-participant plans or plans with one or more participants that do not meet the filing requirements for Form 5500-SF. It typically involves more detailed reporting and is used by smaller businesses or self-employed individuals. 

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