Are graduation ceremonies for apprentices a permissible use of plan assets under ERISA?


Your company would like to have a graduation ceremony for the trainees in its two-year training program. Is the payment of expenses associated with such a ceremony a permissible use of plan assets under ERISA?


Yes, as long as the ceremony is modest and certain conditions are met, according to a Field Assistance Bulletin issued by the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA).

Fiduciary duties. Employment-based job training and apprenticeship programs that constitute “employee welfare benefit plans” are subject to ERISA’s fiduciary duties, including the exclusive purpose rule. Plan fiduciaries must discharge their duties solely in the interests of the plan’s participants and beneficiaries, and for the exclusive purpose of providing apprenticeship or training benefits to participants and defraying reasonable expenses of administering the plan.

Special characteristics. ERISA-covered apprenticeship and training programs typically involve multi-year training in a program registered with the Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship or a state apprenticeship agency. Such programs assist industries in developing the skilled workers needed to compete in a global economy. Graduation ceremonies for these programs may support the training objectives of the plan by establishing an incentive and goal for participants to successfully compete the program.

Payment conditions. In light of the special characteristics of apprenticeship and training programs, a plan’s payment of expenses associated with a modest graduation ceremony is a permissible use of plan assets, provided:

    1. the amount of the expense is modest in relationship to the plan's assets;

    2. the expenses were approved in accordance with internal accounting, recordkeeping, and administrative controls designed to prevent inappropriate, excessive, or abusive expenditures of plan assets; and

    3. the expenses were for costs of the ceremony.

Permissible expenses. So, which expenses are permissible and which are not? A modest graduation ceremony offering light refreshments, diplomas or certificates for apprentices and token awards/gifts for plan instructors would be permissible, according to the bulletin. But a graduation dinner for all attendees, valet parking, or payments for travel or hotel accommodations for graduating apprentices or guests would be impermissible plan asset expenses.

Source: EBSA Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2012-01, April 2, 2012;

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