How retirement plan sponsors should handle the new fee disclosure requirements

Kimberly Flett, CPA, QKA, QPA, Director, Retirement Plan Design and Administration, SS&G

Employer-sponsored 401(k) plan fees can cut retirement savings by 30 percent over a lifetime, according to Demos, a public policy research group. However, recently enacted disclosure requirements will shine a light on the hidden fees for plan sponsors and participants.

For employers that sponsor retirement plans, there is a fiduciary responsibility.

“You, as a plan sponsor, might be overwhelmed due to lack of expertise and wish to avoid extra time spent thinking about and understanding retirement plan fees,” says Kimberly Flett, CPA, QKA, QPA, director of retirement plan design and administration for SS&G. “However, you are ultimately responsible for adequate disclosures if you are the owner of a company that maintains a qualified plan.”

Smart Business spoke with Flett about how employers can take responsibility as retirement plan sponsors beyond passing along a stack of papers or website addresses to participants.

What are the new fee disclosure requirements for plans?

The Department of Labor was concerned that 401(k) plans with underlying investments of different types and the related providers — investment managers, brokerage houses — that maintain the investment accounts take out revenue from the various funds to pay fees without sharing or disclosing the information to plan participants. The disclosure requirements hold the investment managers accountable and educate participants about the costs in the underlying investments within the retirement plans.

The new fee disclosure requirements have been established for a while, with additional retirement expenses being reported on many retirement plans’ Schedule C as part of Form 5500 reporting to the DOL. They were brought to the forefront more expeditiously because of how the economy plummeted a few years ago. Several interim regulations were passed, with final regulations taking place in 2012.

What does disclosing these fees entail?

There are two parts to the disclosure. Under the first part, the covered service provider that manages your retirement funds was required to begin disclosing to you, as plan sponsor, all the plan costs as of July 1, 2012. These included items such as name and type of investment, performance data, benchmarks, ratios used in calculating expenses and the allocation of all fees — to a third-party administrator, the adviser or licensed dealer, or the company that maintains the fund. The formulas used with those amounts also had to be disclosed.

As of Aug. 30, 2012, the plan sponsors of qualified plans had to start disclosing this information to participants in the plan, explaining what the fees are and how they work. The plan’s statements had to be updated to comply with the regulation.

How much do plan sponsors and their accountants need to understand about the disclosures?

Ultimately, as the plan sponsor, you bear what is called fiduciary responsibility. Therefore, you need to work closely with professionals, advisers and vendors who know how to interpret these disclosures. Take time to read the disclosures and understand how the investment provider is complying. Then make sure your participants are truly being informed and will continue to be so on an ongoing basis.

It’s a good idea, for example, to appoint your HR manager, internal accountant and CFO to an internal 401(k) committee with the responsibility of reviewing the data, educating themselves and then sharing their knowledge with participants. Does this committee have to be experts? No, but they have to make a reasonable effort and know where to go if they don’t have the answers, such as to an attorney familiar with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 or a third-party administrator.

Your employees, once they get their third quarter statements, will be coming to you with questions. You need to be able to connect them with the right experts so employees can receive the necessary answers.

If a company’s provider fails to properly disclose its costs, will the company be held accountable?

Failure to comply with the regulation is considered a prohibitive transaction that can be subject to fees and penalty impositions from the DOL. But there are further ramifications beyond the DOL coming after the plan sponsor for improper disclosures.

A participant might leave your company and be unhappy with the funds or platform that you, as the plan sponsor, chose, because he or she lost money. That former employee could seek out the DOL and get an attorney. Then you could have to prove that you took every precaution to ensure the plan ran smoothly and made smart investments. If the plan did not, you might be held accountable.

It’s too soon to say what the short- or long-term ramifications will be, but as a plan sponsor the first thing you need to do is arm yourself with the right expert advisers. Then make inquires to be forearmed; the preparation phase will help curtail a lot of negative fallout that could potentially happen.

How do you think this will affect the retirement planning industry?

Third-party administrators will be needed more than ever for their expert advice. This disclosure law also brings visibility to the industry, which opens doors for discussion that sets up additional chances for education and awareness about retirement plans.

Despite more costs being in the open, employers should still take a comprehensive approach to retirement planning. Looking at service, benchmarking and longevity, as cheap is not always better. A company might have the highest number of new plans each year because of the low costs, but it also could have low retention rates because of service


Kimberly Flett, CPA, QKA, QPA, is the director of retirement plan design and administration for SS&G. Reach her at (330) 668-9696 or [email protected]

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