What the “F” ?
A four part series that will address important themes of plan management
Thus far we have looked at some complicated “F”s in funds and fees, in today’s blog we are going to address one of the most overused and misunderstood “F”s in our industry: fiduciary. The basic definition of fiduciary is any individual or entity that has, or exercises discretionary control over the management of the plan or the plan’s assets. A plan may have one than one fiduciary and/or one individual serving in more than one fiduciary capacity. From there, the functional definition of fiduciary goes in several different directions.
When assessing whether or not you fall into a fiduciary role using the functional test you must consider the following: even with no expressed appointment or delegation of fiduciary authority if you are considered in control or procession of authority over the plan’s asset, management, or administration than you are considered a functional fiduciary. Many times this will include members of the Employer’s Board of Directors or Trustees, voting and non-voting, with power to exercise discretion and control. One important distinction to make is that the person who performs administrative ministerial functions, such as processing payroll, approving distributions or loans, or submitting data for testing, is not considered a fiduciary. In other words, the president of the company is usually a fiduciary because he or she has the discretion to implement plan decisions and to hire parties to assist in the administration of the plan; while a payroll clerk is not a fiduciary if he or she is processing the payroll in the 401(k) vendor’s website.
As a plan fiduciary, you may also be presented with opportunities to hire or appoint additional co-fiduciaries. There are different varieties of co-fiduciaries including 3(16), 3(21) , and 3(38) fiduciaries. A 3(16) co-fiduciary acts as the plan administrator and is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the plan. Some functions may include determining the eligibility of employees, maintaining all plan documents and records, providing annual notices, rendering decisions regarding participant claims, and fixing plan operational errors. This may be confusing since we have already determined that the individual within your company that provides many of these administrative functions like sending out notices and approving distributions is not a fiduciary; the difference is in that a named 3(16) fiduciary is an individual outside of your company that provides these administrative duties without consulting you, the plan sponsor. A 3(21) fiduciary is a paid professional who provides investment recommendations to the plan sponsor, but the plan sponsor retains ultimate decision-making authority and approves or rejects the advice of the 3(21) fiduciary. There is no discretion given to the 3(21) fiduciary. A 3(21) provides investment advice on a regular basis to the plan that the plan sponsor relies on to make a decisions pursuant to a mutual agreement or understanding (written or not) that is specialized to the plan for a fee. Finally, a 3(38) fiduciary is an investment manager in that the investment manager has discretion to make changes in the plan investment line-up or allocation without consent of the plan sponsor. A 3(38) must be appointed in writing by contract. The main difference between a 3(21) and a 3(38) is discretion. It is also important to note that even if you as a plan fiduciary hire a 3(16), a 3(21), and a 3(38), you still cannot absolve yourself of your personal fiduciary responsibility.
If you’ve made it this far in the blog, I’m sure it is clear to you why the definition of a fiduciary is anything but clear and you may be asking yourself why you should take the time to even bother with trying to understand your role and whether or not you are or are not a fiduciary. The reason understanding your role and acting properly as a fiduciary can be so important is that fiduciaries who do not follow the basic standards of conduct may be personally liable to restore any plan losses to the plan, or to restore any profits made through improper use of the plan’s assets resulting from their actions. While this is very true and taken directly from the Department of Labor’s commentary on fiduciary responsibility, it can be hard for many plan fiduciaries to conceptualize because chances are you have not, do not, and will not ever know anyone who loses their home or personal assets over a fiduciary breach. Nonetheless, there are very real examples of plan fiduciaries who have cost their companies a significant amount of many and/or lost their job due to improper fiduciary management. Look no further than Caterpillar, Fidelity, Lockheed Martin, Intel, Boeing and State Farm for companies that have faced or are currently facing case action lawsuits involving the management of their respective 401(k) plans (not all cases have been settled, nor have all companies been found guilty).
Moreover, as a plan fiduciary you have the unique and important role of providing the greatest opportunity for retirement savings that most of your employees will have. By properly managing the plan, you are playing a vital part in helping your valued employees get to their retirement goals. Check out my next installment when we will look closer at this role you play in the ultimate “F”.
Jamie Kertis, AIF®, QKA
Retirement Plan Specialist
Grinkmeyer Leonard Financial
1950 Stonegate Drive / Suite 275 /Birmingham, AL 35242
Office: 205.970.9088 / Toll-Free: 866.695.5162