Saturday, August 22, 2009

“To Do” List—Part 2


Being a plan fiduciary is a tough job—and one that, it’s probably fair to say—is underappreciated, if not undercompensated. In my experience, most who find themselves in that role (see “IMHO: Duty Call”) do an admirable job of living up to the spirit, if not the letter, of their responsibilities.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of areas in which we could do a better job. In this week’s column, we’ll touch on the rest of my “10 things you’re probably doing wrong” list:


6. Thinking your plan qualifies for 404(c) protection—and misunderstanding what that means.

Any number of studies suggest that many, perhaps most, plan sponsors think their plan meets the standards of ERISA 404(c ), a provision that ostensibly shields them from being sued for participant investment decisions, so long as certain conditions are met.

On the other hand, industry experts are nearly uniform in their assessment that very few, perhaps no, plans meet those standards (though the courts have been somewhat more liberal in their application). So, even if you think your plan does comply—check. And even if your plan does comply, understand that, while 404(c)’s shield may offer some protection against an individual participant suit, it offers no insulation against a participant suit predicated on an inappropriate investment option. Remember, too, that the DoL thinks you’re responsible for every participant investment decision except those behind 404(c)’s “shield.”

7. Depositing contributions on a timely basis.

The legal requirement for when contributions must be deposited to the plan is perhaps one of most widely misunderstood elements of plan administration. Unfortunately, a delay in contribution deposits is also one of the most common flags that an employer is in financial trouble—and that the Labor Department is likely to investigate.

Note that the law requires that participant contributions be deposited in the plan as soon as it is reasonably possible to segregate them from the company’s assets, but no later than the 15th business day of the month following the payday. If employers can reasonably make the deposits sooner, they need to do so. Many have read the worst case situation (the 15th business day of the month following) to be the legal requirement. It is not.

8. (Not) monitoring providers on a regular basis.

In some sense, we all “monitor” the performance of plan providers all the time. Is the Web site available when people try to access it? Do checks and statements arrive on time? Are the balances displayed accurate? The reality is that, for most of us, no news is seen as “good” news. After all, if the answer to any of those questions was “no,” we’d not only know about it, we’d be complaining about it (after fending off our own set of complaining phone calls). Odds are that you have a very full-time job dealing with the things that are “broken”—why go looking for trouble?

However, relationships with providers are like any other relationship—we all slip into “ruts” of complacency—and the best way to keep that new customer “honeymoon” feeling alive is to do something as simple as ask your current provider for a regular service review. At least once a year—no matter how well things are going—you should determine if your plan has access to the new services that have come online since you converted; that you are getting the advantages of the most current thinking about costs and fees; and how your plan’s participation, deferral, and asset diversification stack up. And every three to five years (sooner if there are problems, of course), you should go through a formal request for information (RFI) or request for proposal (RFP) process—on your own, or with the help of an adviser (who doubtless has more experience with such things).

Remember also that the DoL says that, “Among other duties, fiduciaries have a responsibility to ensure that the services provided to their plan are necessary and that the cost of those services is reasonable.”

9. Not following the terms of the plan document.

Plan documents are, after all, legal documents and can skirt the fringes of readability. Retirement plans develop certain patterns or routines—the way things are handled—that may not, over time, remain consistent with the terms of the plan. Particularly if you are using a plan document prepared by a provider (or, worse, an ex-provider) that may well accommodate that provider’s approach, but may not match (or may not have kept up with) how you actually administer the plan. It is a good idea to do a document/process “audit” every couple of years; don’t assume that “the way we’ve always done things” is supported by the legal document governing your plan.

10. Not realizing who is a fiduciary—and what that means.

The first thing to understand is who a plan fiduciary is, and to understand that the “test” isn’t what you call yourself (or, in some cases, what you avoid calling yourself), but your ability to control and influence plan assets. A fiduciary is any person or entity named in the plan document (e.g., the plan sponsor and trustee); any person or entity that has discretionary authority over the management of a retirement plan or its assets (all individuals exercising discretion in the administration of the plan, all members of a plan’s administrative committee—if it has such a committee—and those who select committee officials); and any person or entity that offers investment advice with respect to plan assets, for a fee.

Remember too, that the authority to appoint a fiduciary makes you a fiduciary—and that hiring a “co-fiduciary” does not make you an “ex” fiduciary.

If you are a fiduciary, and you feel that you lack the expertise to make those decisions, you will of course want—and, in fact, are expected—to hire someone with that professional knowledge to carry out the investment and other functions.

Finally, remember that, IMHO, you’re more likely to get sued for not doing something you should be doing than for doing something you shouldn’t be doing.


—Nevin E. Adams, JD

You can find more information on fulfilling your fiduciary responsibilities at the Employee Benefits Security Administration’s (EBSA) Web site HERE

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