Meeting Your Fiduciary Responsibilities

Offering a retirement plan can be one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, decisions an employer can make.  The employees participating in the plan, their beneficiaries, and the employer benefit when a retirement plan is in place.  Administering a plan and managing its assets, however, require certain actions and involve specific responsibilities.  To meet their responsibilities as plan sponsors, employers need to understand some basic rules, specifically the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). ERISA sets standards of conduct for those who manage an employee benefit plan and its assets (called fiduciaries).

What are the essential elements of a plan?

Each plan has certain key elements. These include:

  • A written plan document that describes the benefit structure and guides day-to-day operations;
  • A trust fund to hold the plan’s assets;
  • A recordkeeping system to track the flow of monies going to and from the retirement plan; and
  • Documents to provide plan information to employees participating in the plan and to the government.

Employers often hire outside professionals (called third-party administrators) to manage some or all of a plan’s day-to-day operations. In addition, there may be one or a number of officials with discretion over the plan. These are the plan’s fiduciaries.

Who is a fiduciary?

Many of the actions involved in operating a plan make the person or entity performing them a fiduciary. Using discretion in administering and managing a plan or controlling the plan’s assets makes that person a fiduciary to the extent of that discretion or control.  Thus, fiduciary status is based on the functions performed for the plan, not just a person’s title.  A plan must have at least one fiduciary (a person or entity) named in the written plan, or through a process described in the plan, as having control over the plan’s operation.

What is the significance of being a fiduciary?

Fiduciaries have important responsibilities and are subject to standards of conduct because they act on behalf of participants in a retirement plan and their beneficiaries. These responsibilities include:

  • Acting solely in the interest of plan participants and their beneficiaries and with the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to them;
  • Carrying out their duties prudently;
  • Following the plan documents;
  • Diversifying plan investments; and
  • Paying only reasonable plan expenses.

 

The duty to act prudently is one of a fiduciary’s central responsibilities under ERISA . It requires expertise in a variety of areas, such as investments.  Lacking that expertise, a fiduciary will want to hire someone with that professional knowledge to carry out the investment and other functions.  Prudence focuses on the process for making fiduciary decisions.  Therefore, it is wise to document decisions and the basis for those decisions.

Limiting Liability

With these fiduciary responsibilities, there is also potential liability. Fiduciaries that do not follow the basic standards of conduct may be 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.

However, fiduciaries can limit their liability in certain situations. One way fiduciaries can demonstrate that they have carried out their responsibilities properly is by documenting the processes used to carry out their fiduciary responsibilities.

Bonding

As an additional protection for plans, those who handle plan funds or other plan property generally must be covered by a fidelity bond.  A fidelity bond is a type of insurance that protects the plan against loss resulting from fraudulent or dishonest acts of those covered by the bond.

How do these responsibilities affect the operation of the plan?

Even if employers hire third-party service providers or use internal administrative committees to manage the plan, there are still certain functions that can make an employer a fiduciary.

Employee Contributions
If a plan provides for salary reductions from employees’ paychecks for contribution to the plan (such as in a 401(k) plan), then the employer must deposit the contributions in a timely manner. 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.  For plans with fewer than 100 participants, salary reduction contributions deposited with the plan no later than the 7th business day following withholding by the employer will be considered in compliance.

Hiring a Service Provider
Hiring a service provider in and of itself is a fiduciary function.   For a service contract or arrangement to be reasonable, service providers must provide certain information to you about the services they will provide to your plan and all of the compensation they will receive. This information will assist you in understanding the services, assessing the reasonableness of the compensation (direct and indirect), and determining any conflicts of interest that may impact the service provider’s performance.

An employer should document its selection (and monitoring) process, and, when using an internal administrative committee, educate committee members on their roles and responsibilities.

Fees
Fees are just one of several factors fiduciaries need to consider in deciding on service providers and plan investments. When the fees for services are paid out of plan assets, fiduciaries will want to understand the fees and expenses charged and the services provided. While the law does not specify a permissible level of fees, it does require that fees charged to a plan be “reasonable.” After careful evaluation during the initial selection, the plan’s fees and expenses should be monitored to determine whether they continue to be reasonable.

Providing Information in Participant-Directed Plans
When plans allow participants to direct their investments, fiduciaries need to regularly make participants aware of their rights and responsibilities under the plan related to directing their investments. This includes providing plan and investment-related information, including information about fees and expenses, which participants need to make informed decisions about the management of their individual accounts. Participants must receive the information before they can first direct their investment in the plan and annually thereafter. The investment-related information needs to be presented in a format, such as a chart, that allows for a comparison among the plan’s investment options.  If you use information provided by a service provider that you rely on reasonably and in good faith, you will be protected from liability for the completeness and accuracy of the information.

Investment Advice and Education
More and more employers are offering participants help so they can make informed investment decisions. Employers may decide to hire an investment adviser offering specific investment advice to participants. These advisers are fiduciaries and have a responsibility to the plan participants. On the other hand, an employer may hire a service provider to provide general financial and investment education, interactive investment materials, and information based on asset allocation models. As long as the material is general in nature, providers of investment education are not fiduciaries. However, the decision to select an investment adviser or a provider offering investment education is a fiduciary action and must be carried out in the same manner as hiring any plan service provider.

How do employees get information about the plan? How are employers required to report plan activities?

ERISA requires plan administrators to furnish plan information to participants and beneficiaries and to submit reports to government agencies.

Informing Participants and Beneficiaries

Many different types of documents must be furnished to participants and beneficiaries.  For more details on specific notices and timing for distribution, please ask your Pension Studio Plan Consultant.

Reporting to the Government
Plan administrators generally are required to file a Form 5500 with the Federal Government. The Form 5500 reports information about the plan and its operation to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). These disclosures are made available to participants and the public. Depending on the number and type of participants covered, the filing requirements vary. The form is filed and processed electronically under the ERISA Filing Acceptance System II (EFAST2).  There are penalties for failing to file required reports and for failing to provide required information to participants.

What help is available for employers who make mistakes in operating a plan?
The Department of Labor’s Voluntary Fiduciary Correction Program (VFCP) encourages employers to comply with ERISA by voluntarily self-correcting certain violations. The program covers many different types of transactions.  In addition, the Department’s Delinquent Filer Voluntary Compliance Program (DFVCP) assists late or non-filers of the Form 5500 in coming up to date with corrected filings. The Pension Studio can assist with both programs.

Tips for Employers with Retirement Plans
Understanding fiduciary responsibilities is important for the security of a retirement plan and compliance with the law. The following tips may be a helpful starting point:

  • Have you identified your plan fiduciaries, and are they clear about the extent of their fiduciary responsibilities?
  • If participants make their own investment decisions, have you provided the plan and investment related information participants need to make informed decisions about the management of their individual accounts? Have you provided sufficient information for them to exercise control in making investment decisions?
  • Are you aware of the schedule to deposit participants’ contributions in the plan, and have you made sure it complies with the law?
  • If you are hiring third-party service providers, have you looked at a number of providers, given each potential provider the same information, and considered whether the fees are reasonable for the services provided?
  • Have you documented the hiring process?
  • Are you prepared to monitor your plan’s service providers?
  • Have you identified parties in interest to the plan and taken steps to monitor transactions with them?
  • Are you aware of the major exemptions under ERISA that permit transactions with parties in interest, especially those key for plan operations (such as hiring service providers and making plan loans to participants)?
  • Have you reviewed your plan document in light of current plan operations and made necessary updates? After amending the plan, have you provided participants with an updated SPD or SMM?
  • Do those individuals handling plan funds or other plan property have a fidelity bond?

Content from U.S. Department of Labor Employee Benefits Security Administration Publication- Managing Your Fiduciary Responsibilities – February 2012