Recommendations to Contribute to a Plan or IRA
This is my 58th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.
In Angles article #56, I discussed the DOL’s position that recommendations of contributions to plans and IRAs were fiduciary advice. However, a week after that article was posted on my blog, the DOL reversed its position. The new guidance is found in the DOL’s “Conflict of Interest FAQs (408b-2 Disclosure Transition Period, Recommendations to Increase Contributions and Plan Participation).”
In the newly issued FAQs, the DOL posed the following question:
Q2. Plans and their service providers often encourage plan participants to make contributions to the plan at levels that maximize the value of employer matching contributions or to otherwise increase participants’ contributions or savings to meet objective financial retirement milestones, goals, or parameters based upon the participant’s age, time to retirement or other similar measures, without recommending any particular investment or investment strategy. Would it be fiduciary investment advice under the Fiduciary Rule to encourage additional savings or contributions to a plan or IRA in this manner?
The DOL then reversed its prior position by responding that those recommendations would not be fiduciary advice.
So, recordkeepers and advisers can unconditionally recommend contributions to plans and IRAs, right? Not so fast. A close reading of the guidance suggests otherwise. In other words, there may be traps for the unwary.
First, the recommended increase must be “objective.” For example, a non-fiduciary recommendation could be made to increase contributions to obtain the full benefit of an employer’s matching contributions. Also, a non-fiduciary recommendation for increased contributions could be “to meet objective financial retirement milestones, goals, or parameters based upon the participant’s age, time to retirement or other similar measures.” For example, a recommendation to increase contributions could be made based on calculations of the amounts needed for adequate retirement (for example, a 75% income replacement ratio in retirement). Another example is that, as a general rule of thumb, the combined employee-employer contributions should be 15% of pay in order to reasonably accumulate enough for a secure retirement.
Second, a recommendation to increase contributions is non-fiduciary advice where it is made “without recommending any particular investment or investment strategy.” So, for example, if the recommendation to increase contributions to a plan or IRA is made during a conversation that also includes a discussion of the investments, that could cause the recommendation to be fiduciary advice.
As a result, the “rules of the road” for recommending increased contributions to plans or IRAs, while avoiding fiduciary status, is to (1) make the recommendation based on an objective measurement, and (2) avoid a concurrent discussion of investments or investment strategies for the plan or IRA.
Even though there are traps in this guidance, the DOL’s position is a significant improvement.
The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.