Saturday, April 07, 2018

College ‘Intuition’

Much remains unsettled – and, as yet, largely unadjudicated – in the large, and growing series of excessive fee litigation directed at university 403(b) plans. However, certain trends in the litigation have emerged – some very different than 401(k)s, others not. Here’s what to look (out) for.

The list of these so-called university 403(b) suits – the first were filed in August 2016 – now includes plans at Cornell University, Northwestern University, Columbia University and the University of Southern California, as well as Yale. Meanwhile, some of the earlier suits are just getting to hearings on motions to dismiss, specifically Emory University and Duke University – both of which are currently proceeding to trial – and the University of Pennsylvania, which recently prevailed in a similar case. Another – involving Princeton University’s 403(b) plans – is on hold awaiting an appeal in the University of Pennsylvania litigation.

By my reckoning, here are the grounds upon which the university 403(b) plans that have been sued thus far have in common.

They have more than one recordkeeper.

While not every university 403(b) plan against which a lawsuit has been filed employed the services of more than one recordkeeper, they all seem have done so at one point in their history.

Indeed, a couple of lawsuits filed against university plans that have consolidated to a single recordkeeper have pointed to the consolidation decision as proof that the plan fiduciaries knew that the multiple provider approach was inefficient and costly – and should have acted sooner.

They offer a “dizzying array” of funds (generally from each of the aforementioned recordkeepers).

In the 401(k) world, large fund menus have long been considered a nuisance, if not downright unproductive. We’ve even got a behavioral finance study involving jams to back up the sense that, given too many choices (whatever that may be – with jams, it’s apparently more than 6), people tend not to decide.

With university 403(b) plans – certainly the ones that have found themselves sued – the “norm” seems to be in excess of 100. And frequently they approach that number with each recordkeeping provider.

That said, at least one court presented with the issue has said “Having too many options does not hurt the Plans’ participants, but instead provides them opportunities to choose the investments that they prefer.” And a second one has just held that “plaintiffs have neither alleged that any participant experienced confusion nor stated a claim for relief.”

They offer “duplicative” investments.

One of the reasons the fund menus, at least in total, seem to be so large is that each recordkeeping provider seems to put forth their own optimal menu of choices – and if you have more than one recordkeeper – well, you apparently wind up with “duplicates” in what the plaintiffs frequently claim are “in every major asset class and investment style.”

And in numerous of these cases, the only funds offered are the proprietary offerings of those recordkeepers.

Their recordkeeper choice “tethered” them to certain fund options.

Many, though not all, of the lawsuits involve plans that had TIAA-CREF as recordkeeper, and those all cite how the choice of TIAA-CREF as recordkeeper bound (“locked” and “tethered” are other terms employed to describe the arrangement) the plan to include certain (allegedly inferior) TIAA-CREF investment options on the menu, notably the CREF Stock Account and Real Estate Fund. Other issues unique to some TIAA-CREF investments are certain transfer restrictions, and some differences in their loan account processing.

Share ‘Alike’

There are, of course, elements that these programs share with their 401(k) brethren.

They use retail class mutual funds and/or active when passive would “do.”

Yes, not only are those fund options “duplicative,” they are often retail, rather than institutional class. Or actively managed when passive varieties were available. And thus more expensive, so the argument goes.

They pay for those (multiple) recordkeepers via asset-based, rather than per participant fees.

This wasn’t always an issue in excessive fee litigation, but in recent years – well, it’s become something of a regular “feature” of this type litigation – and it’s been part and parcel of the fabric or 403(b) university plan litigation.

The argument, of course, is that recordkeeping is about keeping up with individual records, and whether that individual account balance is $100 or $100,000, the cost of keeping up with the balance is the same. However, not content to argue with the method of calculation, these days the plaintiffs nearly always take the next step – and proffer what they consider to be a reasonable per-participant fee – on their way to alleging that the fees being charged – are not.

They are big plans.

Nearly all of the 401(k) excessive fee lawsuits filed since 2006 (when the St. Louis-based law firm of Schlichter, Bogard & Denton launched the first batch) have been against plans that had close to, or in most cases in excess of, $1 billion in assets. There’s no real mystery here. Willie Sutton robbed banks for the same reason.

And if you’re a class action litigator, that also happens to be where a large number of similarly situated individuals can be found; a.k.a. plaintiffs.

Less cynically, the plaintiffs generally charge that, despite the plan’s large (“jumbo”) size, rather than “leveraging the Plans’ substantial bargaining power to benefit participants and beneficiaries, Defendant caused the Plans to pay unreasonable and excessive fees for investment and administrative services.”

Where does this leave your “average” multibillion dollar 403(b) university plan? Well, they say that forewarned is forearmed. However, the reality is that corrective actions now may not be enough to keep the plan out of “cite” – but it might be enough to keep your plan out of court.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD
 
Note: It bears acknowledging that the reason that so many of these suits allege the same things is not only that the plans have similar structures and characteristics, but that many of the suits have been filed by the same firm (Schlichter Bogard & Denton) – or by firms that have taken pages (literally in some cases) from the suits filed by that firm.


Saturday, March 31, 2018

Parental Guidance

Photo of Nevin and his mom.
Nevin and his mom.
This weekend will mark the 12th anniversary of my father’s passing. There’s sadness associated with that date, of course, but he left behind a rich legacy in friends, family, and his life’s ministry that manages in the oddest ways to touch me at least once a month, even now.

At 76, Dad lived longer than I think any of the men on his side of the family had to that point (as a lineal descendant, I’m happy to note that on my mother’s side, my grandfather and great-grandfather made it past 90). Ultimately, he was with us longer than he expected to be – but a lot less time than I ever anticipated. However, for all the good that Dad did in this life for others, as I have thought about my father this week, it’s my mother that is more often in my thoughts. Because she, like many women, have spent longer in retirement than their husbands.

As is the case in many families, “Mom” was our family’ CFO. She was the one who encouraged me to start saving in my workplace retirement plan as soon as I was eligible (and I did), and over her lifetime she has continued to practice what she preached.

Now nearly 88, Mom’s still independent, vibrant, financially self-sufficient – and that’s no accident. On top of the expenses of rearing four kids, Dad, a minister, considered self-employed for most of his working life, funded both the employer and employee portions of Social Security withholding and still found a way to set aside money in a tax-sheltered account (he also tithed “biblically,” for those who can appreciate that financial impact).

Mom, a school teacher, took a fairly significant (and unpaid) “sabbatical” so that she could stay at home with her four kids until the youngest was ready to head off to school. When she returned to work she was covered by a state pension plan, albeit one that required from her paycheck a much more significant contribution than most defer into 401(k)s). On top of that she saved diligently to buy back the service credits she had forgone during the years she worked in our home without a paycheck – and then set aside money in her 403(b) account (over Dad’s objections, I might add). Somehow, despite all those draws on their modest incomes during their working lives, they managed to accumulate a respectable nest egg – and bought a long-term care policy before such things were “cool” so as not to be a burden on their kids. Don’t tell me those of modest incomes can’t and won’t save.

Indeed, generally speaking, women face many more challenges regarding retirement preparation than men. They live longer (and thus are likely to have longer retirements to fund), tend to have less saved for retirement (lower incomes, more workforce interruptions, both when children are young, and as their parents age), and in addition to longer retirements, those longer lives mean that they are also more likely to have to fund what can be the catastrophic financial burden of long-term care expenses.

Sadly, because we all know how much difference it can make in retirement savings, women are less likely to work for an employer that offers a retirement plan at work (or to be part-time workers, and thus less likely to be eligible to participate). Only one in three women use a professional financial advisor to help manage their retirement savings and investments.

Oh, and like my mother, they tend to outlive their spouses –often by far more than the variance in average life expectancy tables suggest.

March has been designated Women’s History Month, and it seems a good time, even as it draws to a close, to acknowledge not only the special challenges that women face, but the amazing women out there – like my Mom, and perhaps yours – who are not only overcoming those challenges, but passing on the good habits of a lifetime to a new generation of savers, to boot.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, March 24, 2018

‘End’ Adequate? Are We Getting an Accurate Read on Retirement Readiness?

The title of a new report by the Society of Actuaries poses an intriguing question: “Retirement Adequacy in the United States: Should We Be Concerned?”

When all is said and done, the answer from the report’s authors seems to be “it depends.”

And, as it turns out, it depends on a lot of things: who is asking the question, who you are asking the question about, and what you think the answer should be. And that doesn’t even take into account the questions about the assumptions one makes to come up with the answers.

The SOA report draws some conclusions:
  • The current system of voluntary employment-based retirement plans has been largely successful from the perspective of companies sponsoring plans for individuals with long-term employment covered by such plans.
  • The mandatory Social Security system has done much to reduce poverty in old age, though adequacy studies using replacement ratios may overstate the success of this safety net for those in the lowest-income groups, because too many rely solely on Social Security as their sole source of support. Moreover, for households that don’t have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans, Social Security alone will not allow them to maintain their preretirement standard of living.
  • There is a need for future research that delves into the retirement challenges of particularly vulnerable populations, such as those who are widowed, divorced, long-term disabled or long-term unemployed.
But when it comes to answering the question posed in the title – well, the report’s authors concede that “significant differences in methodologies that are used in retirement adequacy research makes direct comparisons of results more difficult.” Specifically that most studies:1
  • do not adequately account for major unexpected expenses or shocks, such as poor investment performance, long-term care, death of a spouse and unexpected out-of-pocket medical expenses;
  • assume that the adequacy objective is to maintain pre-retirement living standards (surveys indicate retirees are willing to live more conservatively);
  • assume that people retire at a “normal” retirement age; and
  • differ significantly in their treatment of housing wealth (if housing wealth is accessible to meet retirement needs, overall adequacy is higher).
The report also offered some cautionary notes, specifically that:
  • You need to consider the source(s). “Different stakeholder groups are asking different questions, offering different solutions and measuring success in different ways.”
  • Reliance on replacement ratios can be misleading. While they are easily explained, can be compared over time, and may be used for individuals, groups of individuals or the entire retiree population, “there is no universally agreed-upon definition or consensus on what constitutes an adequate replacement ratio or on how to adjust for differences in individual circumstances.”
  • Post-retirement spending patterns can, and do, vary. Lifetime spending needs are also highly dependent on the length of the retirement period, changes that occur over time and whether a household experiences a spending shock during retirement. On the one hand, focus group and survey data show that most retirees are frugal and are satisfied with a lower standard of living in retirement than what is considered adequate in most research studies. However, large expense shocks “have a significant negative effect on retiree finances,” and many models ignore those impacts.
Ultimately, they conclude that some studies conclude that there is a retirement crisis in the United States and while others conclude that the system is in good shape – inconsistent outcomes that the authors say can be shown to be due to differences in research objectives, methodology, assumptions, definition of adequacy and population studied.

“The truth is that our retirement system has both successes and failures.”

Here’s to maximizing the first, and whittling away at the second – and not getting distracted by headlines in the meantime.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD
 
Footnote
  1. However inconsistent current reports are, things might be worse when it comes to considering the current state versus future retirements. The report notes that many of the current studies fail to take into account the impact of changes in retirement ages, phased retirement and work during retirement. And that most studies focus on the retirement adequacy of current and near retirees, although retirees of the future may face more difficulty than today’s retirees “because of demographic issues, high debt load, lower likelihood of being married and owning a home, potential future reforms to Social Security, shifts in employment, and changes in the structure of employee benefit plans.”

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Missing 'Inaction'

While it’s hardly a new topic, the subject of missing participants is much in the news today – and arguably a growing concern for plan sponsors, particularly with the expansion of automatic enrollment.

Earlier this year the Government Accountability Office published a report – and some recommendations – on the subject of (re)connecting participants with their “lost” account balances. That report noted that from 2004 through 2013, more than 25 million participants in workplace plans separated from an employer and left at least one retirement account behind, “despite efforts of sponsors and regulators to help participants manage their accounts.” The report acknowledged that there are costs involved in searching for these “lost” participants, going on to note that there are no standard practices for the frequency or method of conducting searches.

Once upon a time the IRS provided letter-forwarding services to help locate missing plan participants, but with the Aug. 31, 2012, release of Revenue Procedure 2012-35, the IRS stopped this letter forwarding program. Moreover, while the Labor Department has provided guidance to plan sponsors of terminated DC plans about locating missing participants and unclaimed accounts, they have yet to do so regarding ongoing plans.

That said, the GAO reported that they had been informed by DOL officials that they are conducting investigations of steps taken by ongoing plans to find missing participants under their authority to oversee compliance with ERISA’s fiduciary requirement that plans be administered for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits.1

In fact, the Labor Department’s Employee Benefit Security Administration’s Chicago Regional office adopted a “missing participant” regional initiative in fiscal year 2017, and – working with the PBGC, has reportedly recovered nearly $6.3 million for 133 participants, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

More recently Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Steve Daines (R-MT) reintroduced the bipartisan Retirement Savings Lost and Found Act, noting that many Americans leave their jobs each year without giving their employers directions with what to do with their retirement accounts – a trend the bill’s sponsors say has increased with the expansion of auto enrollment. The legislation calls for the creation of a national online lost and found for Americans’ retirement accounts – and claims to leverage data employers are already required to report to do so (though the devil may lie in the details). The legislation also purports to clarify the responsibilities employers and plan administrators have to connect former employees with their neglected accounts.

Indeed, in such matters, plan sponsors often feel trapped between the proverbial rock and the hard place – pressed hard on the one hand by regulators to locate these former participants (and potential beneficiaries) – on another by state agencies with an avid interest in the escheatment of those funds – and often squeezed by the growing costs not only of trying to locate these participants, but the costs of distributing a wide assortment of plan notices, not to mention the ongoing costs of maintaining these accounts in potential perpetuity.

Little wonder that among its recent recommendations, the GAO recommended that the Secretary of Labor “issue guidance on the obligations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 of sponsors of ongoing plans to prevent, search for, and pay costs associated with locating missing participants.”

Said another way, what’s “missing” is more than former participants – it’s some safe harbor guidance that would provide some comfort and structure to those trying to reasonably fulfill their duties as plan fiduciaries – an ongoing concern for plans2 that are an ongoing concern.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD
 
Footnotes
  1.  Speaking of missing participants, the headlines of late have focused on issues regarding defined benefit participants. Most notably perhaps, MetLife disclosed last year that it failed to locate some group annuity clients that had likely moved or changed jobs. Nor was this a recent problem – the issue, which the firm said involved some 13,500 pension clients, was attributed to a “faulty system” that the firm had been using for a quarter century – a system that assumed that if the firm was unsuccessful in contacting participants twice that the individual would never respond, and that therefore weren’t going to claim benefits. In fact, the Labor Department’s push for companies sponsoring pension plans to find missing participants cited above reportedly influenced MetLife’s decision to conduct the review. Enter Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin, who just announced that his office discovered “hundreds of Massachusetts retirees” who are owed pension payments by MetLife. Galvin noted that the regulator planned to look into what MetLife had done in the past to locate and pay the retirees. 
  • He also said his office’s investigation has been expanded to look into other firms who provide  retirement payments, including Prudential, Transamerica, Principal Financial, and Mass Mutual.
  1. You may recall that last fall the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the nation’s private pension plan insurer, announced the expansion of its Missing Participants Program beyond its historical focus on PBGC-insured single-employer plans as part of the standard termination process to cover defined contribution plans (e.g., 401(k) plans) and certain other defined benefit plans that end on or after Jan. 1, 2018. However, this only deals with terminating defined contribution plans.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

‘False’ Start?

There’s a new proposal being floated that proponents say would “increase retirement income security and reform Social Security.” And yes, a mandate is involved.

The proposal involves something tagged “Supplemental Transition Accounts for Retirement” (a.k.a. “START”), and it’s being touted by AARP. The proposal is the work of Jason Fichtner of George Mason University, Bill Gale of the Brookings Institute and Gary Koening of AARP’s Public Policy Institute. The basic concept is to help people postpone claiming Social Security benefits (the most common age to start claiming remains 62) since – as an executive summary of the proposal indicates – between the ages of 62 and 70, monthly Social Security benefits increase by about 7% to 8% for each one-year delay in claiming.

This is accomplished by creating the aforementioned START accounts, which are funded by a new layer of mandated withholding: 1% each from workers and employers (2% combined) up to the annual maximum subject to Social Security payroll tax (self-employed individuals pay both parts, as they currently do with Social Security). Worker contributions are post-tax and employer contributions are pre-tax – oh, and there is a federal government contribution for lower income workers (up to 1% for married filing jointly with adjusted gross income less than $40,000) as well.

Individuals wouldn’t be directing these investments. Rather, they would be “professionally managed in a pooled account with an emphasis on keeping administrative fees as low as possible,” with the oversight of an “independent board” that would “select the private investment firm(s) responsible for managing START assets” and setting the investment guidelines.

So, what would this mean for retirement security? Well, START’s proponents claim that the proposal would “reduce poverty significantly for people ages 62 and over “under current law’s scheduled benefits,” raising the net per-capita cash income the most for older Americans with the lowest lifetime earnings by 10% on average and 15% at the median in 2065 compared to scheduled benefits under current law.

Now, it’s not hard to imagine that an additional 2% mandated savings would improve outcomes – certainly postponing drawing on Social Security benefits alone would serve to increase the monthly benefits by some factor (though actuarially speaking, it shouldn’t have much impact on the fund itself). Not to mention those who aren’t currently saving at all (we’ll just assume they can come up with the 1% mandate) – and there’s that additional government “match” for lower income workers to add to the outcome mix.

And yet, the proposal’s authors would appear to claim more. While they make their comparison to “scheduled benefits under current law,” which would seem to infer a comparison of the additional mandate and timing to that available under Social Security, the executive summary of the proposal notes that the Urban Institute analyzed the proposal based on assumptions ranging from one where employees reduce their contribution either to zero or by the amount of the START contributions, whichever is smaller.

Said another way, the analysis – and those rosy outcomes – assumes that workers confronted with the mandate will not reduce their workplace contributions by an amount larger than the mandate. Nor is it clear from the report that the analysis makes any allowance for the reduction in employer matching contributions that might accompany reductions by workers in their 401(k) savings – not to mention employers who might well see a need to reduce their workplace savings plan match because they are now required to put an additional 1% into these new mandatory accounts.

As retirement income security projections go, that doesn’t seem like a very good place to… start.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, March 03, 2018

5 Key Industry Trends You May Have Missed

The Plan Sponsor Council of America recently released its 60th Annual Survey of Profit-Sharing and 401(k) Plans, documenting increases in participation, deferral rates, target-date funds, automatic enrollment and advisor hiring, among other key trends.

Here are five key trends highlighted in the survey that you may have missed.

Automatic enrollment is still (mostly) a large plan thing.

One of the most celebrated plan design features of the 401(k) era is automatic enrollment. Nearly as old as the 401(k) itself, once upon a time (when it wasn’t as popular) it was called a “negative election.” Regardless of the name, the concept has been extraordinarily effective at not only getting, but keeping, workers saving via their workplace retirement plans. However, adoption of the design, after a surge in the wake of the passage of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, now seems to have plateaued.

A decade ago, only about a third (35.6%) of respondents to the PSCA survey offered automatic enrollment. Now more than half (60%) do – and that increases to 70% among plans with more than 5,000 participants. However, only a third of plans with fewer than 50 workers do.

For some potential explanations – see Why Doesn’t Every Plan Have Automatic Enrollment?

Auto-escalation is escalating.

An incredible three-quarters of plans with automatic enrollment auto-escalate the deferral rate over time, compared with less than half (49.7%) a decade ago, according to the PSCA survey.

However, only one-third do so for all participants.

As for the rest, one in eight do so for under-contributing participants, and a third do so only if the participant elects to do so.

Plans are curing a fault with the default.

While you see surveys suggesting that a greater variety of default contribution rates is emerging, the most common rate today – as it was prior to the PPA – is 3%. There is some interesting history on how that 3% rate originally came to be, but the reality today is that it has been chosen because it is seen as a rate that is small enough that participants won’t be willing to go in and opt out – and, after the PPA, we have some law to sanction that as a target.

Sure enough, the PSCA survey found that the most common default deferral rate remains 3% (36.4%). However, more than half of plans now have a default deferral rate higher than 3%. Indeed, the second most common default (22.2%) is now 6%.

Roths remain on the rise.

Nearly two-thirds of plan sponsors now provide a Roth 401(k) option. In fact, in just a decade, the percentage of plans offering such an option has more than doubled; from about 30% in 2007 to 63.1% now.

Pre-tax treatment has, of course, been the norm in 401(k) plans since their introduction in the early 1980s. On the other hand, the Roth 401(k) wasn’t introduced until the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, and even in that legislation wasn’t slated to become effective until 2006 (and at that time was still slated to sunset in 2010). Significantly, participant take-up, which just a few years ago hovered in the single digits, is now in the 15-20% range (18.1% according to the PSCA survey, somewhat higher among smaller plans).

While industry surveys during the tax reform debate (including a flash poll from PSCA) indicated a fair degree of employer concern about the potential impact of so-called “Rothification” on participation, that doesn't seem to be slowing the opportunity for individuals to take advantage of tax diversification.

It’s (still) what goes in, not what comes out that ‘matters.’

It’s said that what’s measured matters – and yet, despite all the buzz around financial wellness, and a growing emphasis on outcomes, the latter still has a way to go in terms of being an established plan success benchmark.

Consider that in this year’s PSCA survey, a whopping 89.6% of plans cite participation rate as a benchmark to determine plan success – and even more (93.2%) of the largest plans rely on that gauge. Deferral rates were a distant second (72.6%), and average account balances ranked third (55%).

What about outcomes? Only a quarter of plans used that as a benchmark, though a third of the largest plans (33.8%) did.
Industry surveys, particularly those with a broad range of plan types and providers, and with the perspective of decades such as the PSCA survey provide an invaluable sense not only of where we are, but where we have been.

However, their real value lies in helping us see where we need to be.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

More information about the Plan Sponsor Council of America’s 60th Annual Survey of Profit Sharing and 401(k) Plans is available at www.psca.org.

NOTE: There will be a special workshop exploring the survey results and the implications for advisors at the NAPA 401(k) SUMMIT, April 15-17, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. If you haven’t registered, there’s still time (but the hotel blocks are filling) at http://napasummit.org.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

5 Things Plan Sponsors Should Know Before Hiring an Advisor

About a year ago, I was asked by an advisor if we had ever written anything about the potential pitfalls of hiring a relative as a plan advisor.

We hadn’t, as it turns out, in no small part because some things just seem (painfully) obvious to me – but it resulted in a column that, as I tried to point out at the time, was applicable to more than just familial relations.

In recent weeks I have received similar requests: one from an advisor looking for something on the hazards of “tying” bank business to providing services to a retirement plan, and another looking for validation of the wisdom of using a qualified 401(k) advisor on a plan rather than a part-timer.

Now, as someone who has been involved with ERISA and its fiduciary strictures his entire professional life, the responses to these questions are nearly self-evident. But let’s face it: Many, perhaps most, plan fiduciaries haven’t had that much exposure.

Before making a decision to hire an advisor – or for that matter, any decision involving the plan – here are some key considerations that plan fiduciaries should bear in mind.

If you’re a plan sponsor, you’re an ERISA fiduciary.

If you have discretion in administering and managing the plan, or if you control the plan’s assets (such as choosing the investment options or choosing the firm that chooses those options), you are a fiduciary to the extent of that discretion or control. Ditto if you are able to hire individuals to control or invest those assets.

If you’re an ERISA fiduciary, you have specific legal responsibilities.

There are several specific duties under the law, but the primary one is that the fiduciary must run the plan solely in the interest of participants and beneficiaries and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits and paying plan expenses.

Note the words “solely” and “exclusive purpose.” Now consider a plan fiduciary who decides to hire a service provider based on services they provide outside the plan. Would that be a decision solely in the interests of participants? For the exclusive purpose of providing benefits?

ERISA fiduciaries must avoid conflicts of interest.

ERISA fiduciaries must also avoid conflicts of interest – meaning, according to the Labor Department, “they may not engage in transactions on behalf of the plan that benefit parties related to the plan, such as other fiduciaries, services providers or the plan sponsor.”

That means that a plan sponsor must not cause the plan/participants to pay for services if it results in free and/or discounted services for the employer/plan sponsor. Oh, and that’s even if the price the plan/participants pay is deemed reasonable.

As an ERISA fiduciary, you’re expected to be an expert — or to hire help that is.

It’s one thing to find yourself in a job for which you are not immediately trained, or perhaps even qualified, but there’s no beginner track for ERISA fiduciaries. You’re not only directed to act for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits, but to do so at the level of an expert. The DOL has said that “Unless they possess the necessary expertise to evaluate such factors, fiduciaries would need to obtain the advice of a qualified, independent expert.”

There’s nothing that says that a relative can’t meet that standard, nor should providing other, unrelated services to the organization preclude a firm from consideration for offering services to the plan. And, of course, there is nothing that says a part-time advisor couldn’t provide a full-time level of service and attention.

On the other hand, as an ERISA fiduciary you need to be sure that they do, in fact, meet that standard.

As an ERISA fiduciary, your liability is personal.

ERISA holds plan fiduciaries to a high legal standard. Indeed, at least one federal court has described it as “the highest known to the law.”

There are any number of things that can go wrong in running a workplace retirement plan. That’s why it’s important to hire experts – and to keep an eye on them. But don’t forget that you, as an ERISA fiduciary, can be held personally liable to restore any losses to the plan, or to restore any profits made through improper use of the plan’s assets resulting from their actions.

It is, of course, possible that a brother-in-law, a banking relationship, or an individual who is only committed on a part-time basis is, in fact, an expert in such matters, that they bring real value to your plan and the participants and beneficiaries it serves, and that the decision to engage those services is based solely on your desire to fulfill your fiduciary obligations – for the exclusive benefit of the plan, its participants and beneficiaries.

Just make sure that you have made that determination independent of other factors, and that, perhaps particularly if those other factors are present, that your process and analysis is documented.

Your advisor-to-be will understand.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD