Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #71

Recordkeepers and Financial Wellness Programs

This is my 71st 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 my last post, Angles #70, I highlighted the three types of work that we are doing for recordkeepers as a result of the DOL’s fiduciary regulation and exemptions. This post goes into more detail about the development of financial wellness programs and the acceptance by recordkeepers of fiduciary responsibility for some of the services.

As background, the goal of financial wellness programs is to provide help to participants in achieving their short-, intermediate-, and long-term financial objectives. Recordkeepers are uniquely suited to provide those services, because of the information they already possess and because of their call centers. The services most often provided cover advice about:

  • Contributions and benefit adequacy.
  • Repayment of indebtedness.
  • Budgeting and management of expenses.
  • Savings for unexpected expenses.
  • Investing their 401(k) accounts.
  • Roll-ins to the 401(k) plan.
  • Rollovers from the 401(k) plan.

Some of that advice is fiduciary and some is not. Let’s take a closer look at that.

Clearly, recommendations about repayment of indebtedness, budgeting and management of expenses, and the accumulation of savings for unexpected expenses is not fiduciary advice. However, the recommendations must be reasonable in light of the circumstances (under the laws of most states). In addition, advice about the level of deferrals to 401(k) plans is not fiduciary advice, so long as it is based on an objective standard. For example, financial wellness programs may recommend that, as a first step, participants defer at least enough to benefit from the full match offered by the employer. In addition, those programs typically recommend at some point in the process that participants defer enough to achieve benefit adequacy at retirement (for example, a 70% income replacement ratio).

On the other hand, investment advice for participants’ accounts and recommendations of roll-ins and rollovers, is fiduciary advice. Those types of recommendations will cause the recordkeeper to become a fiduciary for those purposes. As a result, recordkeepers will need to have prudent processes in place to develop and deliver the recommendations. In addition, where the recordkeeper, or an affiliate, would make more money if a participant agrees to the recommendation, the recordkeeper will need to comply with a prohibited transaction exemption. Usually, that will the Best Interest Contract Exemption, or BICE.

For example, if a recordkeeper recommends that a participant rolls in his or her money from another plan or an IRA, the recordkeeper will need to do a prudent analysis of the relevant facts and then make a prudent and loyal recommendation to the participant. While the DOL has not provided detailed guidance about roll-ins, a reasonable approach would be for the recordkeeper to gather information about the investments, services and expenses in the IRA or old plan; the same type of information about investments, services and expenses in the recordkeeper’s plan; and information about the needs, circumstances and preferences of the participant. (As a general rule, in order to provide prudent advice, a fiduciary must gather the information that a knowledgeable person would consider relevant to making the decision. However, we are left to speculate about the specific information that would be required for a roll-in recommendation.)

In any event, recordkeepers must gather the relevant information and make prudent and loyal recommendations where they provide fiduciary advice under a wellness program. In addition, where a recordkeeper would receive additional compensation if the recommendation is accepted by the participant, the recordkeeper would need to satisfy the conditions of BICE which, in addition to the best interest standard of care, would include a prohibition on compensation in excess of a reasonable amount and would prohibit any materially misleading statements. The recordkeeper should also have written policies and procedures, together with supervision, for the development and delivery of the fiduciary recommendations.

If those conditions are satisfied, recordkeepers could provide so-called “conflicted” advice. (In this context, “conflicted” means that advice that will cause the recordkeeper or an affiliate to receive additional compensation.)

Where the financial wellness program also includes discretionary investment management of participant accounts, the issues are more complex. That is because BICE does not provide an exemption for discretionary investment management. In that case, the recordkeeper will need to either utilize an independent third party investment manager for the discretionary services or will need to use another exception (for example, the Frost Advisory Opinion or Prohibited Transaction Exemption 77-4).

Having worked on programs that offer these services to participants—and, therefore, having given it some thought, I believe that these programs will provide valuable services to employees. The financial world is increasingly complex and young employees are often burdened by substantial student loans. As a result, there is a need for help with financial decisions.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

The material contained in this communication is informational, general in nature and does not constitute legal advice. The material contained in this communication should not be relied upon or used without consulting a lawyer to consider your specific circumstances. This communication was published on the date specified and may not include any changes in the topics, laws, rules or regulations covered. Receipt of this communication does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In some jurisdictions, this communication may be considered attorney advertising.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Faegre Drinker.