Many retirement plan sponsors don’t realize the significance of breaching their fiduciary responsibilities.
“Being a plan sponsor should not be taken lightly, and being a fiduciary especially should not be taken lightly. There can be, and have been, severe consequences for breach of fiduciary obligations,” says Rob Martin, ERPA, QPA, Senior Team Manager at Tegrit Group. “So, take them seriously and find sound professionals and service providers to guide you.”
Even though the company is sponsoring the plan, a fiduciary is a named individual. Therefore, with very egregious errors, the personal assets of the individual fiduciary could be at risk.
Smart Business spoke with Martin about handling fiduciary obligations.
What fiduciary obligations are retirement plan sponsors responsible for?
The fiduciary obligations are to look out for the best interests of the plan participants and to put their needs before any personal or employer needs. The plan sponsor must have a written investment policy statement that includes how the selection of fund offerings and service providers are made.
If one of the funds has a bad year, it doesn’t necessarily mean the sponsor didn’t do its job. As long as the process is in place to select that fund beforehand — a process that compares past history with benchmarks and other funds in that same category — then there will be no problems from a Department of Labor (DOL) standpoint.
What can happen if sponsors fail to meet their fiduciary obligations?
The DOL has made a point of emphasizing fiduciary obligations when it comes to auditing retirement plans. The DOL audits can occur randomly or if there’s been a complaint against the company.
If a DOL audit finds problems, the sponsor will need to correct them quickly. For egregious errors, the DOL will hold the fiduciary in violation and go through the legal system. Even if a fiduciary is found in good standing, it takes extra work and time, including possibly paying service providers, to find needed items.
Civil lawsuits are another danger if you’re not following DOL guidelines.
How should these obligations be managed?
One of the best places to find information is on the DOL’s Web page: Meeting Your Fiduciary Responsibility, www.dol.gov/ebsa/publications/fiduciaryresponsibility.html. Plan sponsors should call third-party investment administrators or investment advisors for further assistance.
Sponsors need to answer participant questions in a timely manner. Otherwise, participants may file a DOL complaint and/or lawsuit. Once a suit is filed, fiduciaries will have legal fees and face the consequences of the case’s outcome.
Plan sponsors should also have a default account, known as a Qualified Default Investment Alternative (QDIA). A QDIA protects the fiduciaries from participants who do not make an investment election or who fall short in making a full investment election.
What is the biggest hot button area to keep an eye on, as a fiduciary?
The hot button area right now is fees. Part of being a fiduciary is to provide the new fee disclosure notice to the participants. This started in 2012 and now must be provided annually or quarterly to the participants, depending on what’s being disclosed.
Another important fiduciary responsibility is making sure plans have reasonable plan expenses. The plan sponsor should have a process, as part of the investment policy statement, to examine service providers and see whether it pays reasonable plan expenses, by utilizing professionals who provide benchmarks for comparison.
Do late deposits remain a concern?
The DOL is still pursing this. These typically apply to making timely participant contributions and loan repayments — not employer contribution deposits. More specifically, for plans with fewer than 100 participants, the DOL considers timely to be within seven business days.
With all fiduciary obligations, the key is choosing professionals with a good understanding of the requirements, which can be investment advisors, third-party administrators or record keepers.
Rob Martin, ERPA, QPA is a Senior Team Manager at Tegrit Group. Reach him at (614) 458-2023 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For additional retirement planning tips, visit Tegrit’s Advisor Resource Center at www.tegritgroup.com/arc.
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