Three Things You Need to Know When Hiring a 401(k) Adviser

401-k-advisor-image“Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.” – Alexander the Great

As a Human Resources Professional, C-level executive, or team leader, you depend on those around you to give their best, as you give your best to them. At the start of this new year, maybe it is time to ask yourself if you are demanding that same level of quality from the professionals you hire outside your company walls. That highest level of professionalism is especially important when hiring an adviser to manage your company’s 401(k) plan. With increased scrutiny on fiduciary responsibility and the roles that each professional plays in the management of the plan, here are three things to consider when hiring or evaluating your 401(k) adviser.

  1. Is your adviser focused on 401(k)s?

“Jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind when thinking of a financial adviser who does not focus on one specific area of expertise. While there is nothing to say that an adviser cannot be good at multiple financial disciplines, when it comes to managing 401(k) plans it is imperative that your adviser know enough to stay on top of changing regulations and best practices. Aside from the fiduciary focus, there is also renewed attention on target dates and how they are selected and monitored. Your adviser should understand these rules and be able to document how your plan is addressing them. Additionally, review your adviser’s qualifications and designations looking for industry designations that specifically address their fiduciary knowledge.

  1. Is your adviser on a team or a sole practitioner?

There is not a right or wrong answer to this question, rather something to consider as a best fit for your plan. I work on a team and cannot imagine trying to go it alone and properly manage all of the responsibilities to the plan, the plan committee, and the participants. On my team, I focus on the analytical, detailed, “left-brain” tasks and my partner focuses on educating the plan participants and keeping the message relatable. Additionally, we have found that when working with committees there are times when my style and personality work well with some committee members and times where his is a better fit.

  1. How is your adviser compensated?

This is especially important to know ahead of the April 1, 2017, start date of the new fiduciary rules. It will be more difficult for your adviser to be compensated if he or she is receiving commissions from the investments in the plan. A commission is a fixed amount paid out to an adviser from an investment that is included in the cost of the investment and does not have to be paid separately or approved by the plan sponsor. The other way an adviser is compensated is to charge a fee to the plan. This fee can be in the form of an asset based charge, usually represented as a percentage, or as a flat fee. Typically, the fee is fully disclosed, is not paid by the investments, and can either be paid by the plan sponsor or passed on to participant accounts.

If you are unsure of the answers to any of the questions above, please reach out to me at or 205.970.9088 and I’ll be happy to get you some answers!

A Quick Guide to Understanding Fiduciary Definitions

fiduciary-duty-imageAs it stands today, the Department of  Labor’s (DOL) Fiduciary Conflicts of Interest Rule is set to take effect on April 10, 2017. As with most new rules or regulations, there are a lot rumors and speculation surrounding how the rule will be applied and who will be impacted. If you are a plan sponsor of a qualified retirement plan, like a 401(k), then now is the time to educate yourself as to who is working with the plan and how his or her role will be impacted by this rule. Here are the definitions of some commonly used terms that are associated with the rule.

Glossary of Terms: DOL Fiduciary Rule

Best Interest Contract Exemption
This provision of the DOL rule requires an advisor to enter into a written agreement with a client before advising him or her and receiving commission-based compensation. The agreement should confirm the advisor will act in the client’s best interest and disclose any conflicts of interest that may exist.

This type of compensation pays a percentage of a product sold on each transaction. Trails are a form of recurring commission that pays a stated percentage annually for a sale made in the past.

Department of Labor (DOL)
The United States DOL oversees services and advice provided to retirement accounts, and it is one of the agencies responsible for enforcing ERISA. The DOL has proposed this revised fiduciary rule with the goal of expanding protection for clients’ retirement assets.

Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA)
ERISA regulates and protects retirement assets by establishing rules that plan fiduciaries must follow.

In fee-based accounts, advisors charge a management fee based on the amount of assets. The opposite form of compensation would be transaction based, such as commissions.

In qualified retirement plans, advisors charge a fee for services provided. The fee may be based on a percentage of plan assets or a flat fee.

ERISA defines “fiduciary” as anyone who exercises discretionary authority or control over a retirement plan’s assets or provides investment advice to a plan. Fiduciaries are held to a higher standard of accountability than are brokers, and they are required by law to act in the best interest of their clients. The DOL rule seeks to expand the definition of fiduciary to anyone providing advice on retirement plans.

A suitability standard requires advisors to reasonably believe their recommendation will meet a client’s needs, given the client’s financial situation and risk tolerance. This standard is not as strict as a fiduciary standard.

If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed or confused by what is involved, you are not alone and we are here to help. Please contact me at or 205.970.9088 to learn more.

When CYA is Exposing Rather than Covering Your Assets

shutterstock_286288565.jpgI recently had the privilege of attending the National Plan Advisors Association (NAPA) annual conference where some of the best and brightest minds in the retirement plan industry gather to discuss best practices, pending and recent legislation, and industry trends. In one of the sessions it was noted that it is a fiduciary breach to make decisions just to protect yourself as a fiduciary. For me this was one of those “ah-ha” moments that made me sit back and think about the way that we make decisions as a co-fiduciary. Are we keeping the best interests of the participants first or focusing so myopically on fiduciary best practices from a CYA (cover your behind) perspective that we miss out on the big picture? Since I was forced to contemplate our process, I thought I would also share the basics of fiduciary duty with you as well.

 The plan is in place to serve the best interests of the
plan participants and their beneficiaries.
It’s as simple as that!

 One of the most important ERISA fiduciary rules is the exclusive purpose rule, established by ERISA Sections 403 and 404: “A fiduciary shall discharge his duties with respect to a plan solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries.” In order to fulfill your requirements of sole interest, ERISA established 4 guidelines for fiduciaries to follow.

  • The first is loyalty. To demonstrate this quality the fiduciary must act for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to participants and their beneficiaries; and defraying reasonable expenses of administering the plan. In essence this guideline sums up that you work for your plan participants when running the 401(k) plan and it is your responsibility to make sure they get appropriate services for a reasonable fee.
  • The next is prudence. Fiduciaries must act with the care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like goals. This is where the advice of an investment professional can be the most valuable as it is expected for you- the fiduciary – to not just act with good intentions, but also with knowledge and care.
  • The third guideline is diversification of investments. Fiduciaries must diversify the investments of the plan so as to minimize the risk of large losses, unless under the circumstances it is clearly prudent not to do so. In my opinion, this is one of the most difficult demands to balance since most investors expect to have positive returns in their account every quarter despite market conditions or investment mix. However as the plan fiduciary, you have the responsibility to protect the participants from themselves.
  • The final guideline is to follow the plan’s governing documents. Fiduciaries must operate the plan in accordance with the documents and instruments governing the plan insofar as such documents and instruments are consistent with [ERISA] provisions. While this may seem like a “no-brainer”, it is in this guideline where I have seen the most common problems arise. We have seen everything from not having a signed plan document to incorrectly following the plan’s definition of compensation to mismatched vesting schedules.

In nearly all cases, plan fiduciaries act in the best interest of their participants through their actions without even thinking twice about it. However, there are very strict and expensive rules around making sure that you do so consistently and that you don’t inadvertently shift focus from them to you and your assets.

jamie kertis headshotJamie 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

Contact Jamie

Follow Jamie on LinkedIn

Follow Jamie’s Blog


What the “F” ? – Part 4 – Future

wtf4What the “F” ?
A four part series that will address important themes of plan management

 If you’ve stayed with me through this four part series on the critical “F”s in 401(k) plan management (and thank you if you have), then hopefully you will agree that I have saved the best and most crucial “F” for last – Future. When you think about the last three “F”s , funds, fees and fiduciary, they all center around producing the best outcomes for the retirement future of your plan participants. Moreover, the main purpose of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) is to protect the assets of millions of Americans so that funds placed in their retirement plans during their working lives will be there when they retire. So much focus is placed on protecting, growing and maintaining the assets during work that it leaves us asking what happens when your participant is ready to retire with those assets that he or she has worked so hard to amass or worse yet, what happens when your employee starts to plan his or her retirement and realizes there is not enough there to allow them to retire.

First let’s focus on how to best assist your employee during their working career to earn, grow and protect their retirement assets. As we have discussed, making sure that the funds in your plan are appropriate to help asset growth, monitoring the fees in your plan to protect against plan asset erosion, and acting in the proper fiduciary manner in order to maintain a compliant plan are all steps that you can take to help your employees while they are participants in your company’s 401(k) plan. Additionally, many retirement plan recordkeepers offer tools and calculators that your participants can utilize to model the potential shortfall or overage that they will have in monthly income during retirement. To clarify, most tools will calculate 75% – 80% of the participant’s preretirement income and turn that into a monthly amount. From there, the tool will analyze how much the participant can expect to generate on a monthly basis from the balance of their retirement account considering both current and future contributions and average market performance. The more dynamic tools will also let the participant enter outside sources of income, model for social security, account for medical expenses, and more. The participant will then be able to fairly quickly determine if they will have an overage or a shortfall in monthly income in retirement. This tool is commonly referred to as “Gap Analysis” and if the plan that you work with does not currently offer something like it, it may be time to consider adding it.

Providing tools like Gap Analysis to your participants is a great first step; however, we believe that it is essential that you take another critical step in assisting your plan participants by offering a dynamic education plan that encompasses both informative group meetings and impactful one-on-one meetings. We believe that our industry as a whole has done a poor job of reaching out to the average participant in a way that makes very difficult and often intimidating financial concepts surrounding a 401(k) understandable. Therefore, we believe in some basic concepts when it comes to educating your participants. The first is a concept in education called “Chunking” whereby a person attempts to make sense of something complex by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable units. We attempt to take daunting items like asset allocation, asset classes, match structures and vesting schedules and explain them in a way that is relatable to most participants. Furthermore, we believe that it is imperative to not only engage the left brain, analytic side of the brain when describing investment concepts, but also to involve the right brain, emotional side to truly appeal to the participant. I’d be willing to bet that you have seen the look before in your employee’s eyes when you start into a dry or, dare I say boring, concept in an employee meeting and immediately the stares glaze over and the head nodding begins. By engaging the creative and emotional side of the brain, we have found that we get a much better engagement and communication in our employee education events which can lead to more action when it comes to making a decision to participate in the plan. Caleb Bagwell, our employee education specialist says, “Participants have been told their entire working life that they need to save.  It’s not a foreign concept to them.  The problem is that no one has taken the time to show them why! Why should they be using the 401(k)? Why can’t they depend on social security? We need to bridge the gap between the discomfort of delaying gratification now, and the payoff they will receive in retirement, and that bridge is built through education.”   I would encourage all of my readers to visit Caleb Bagwell’s blog, Motivated Monday, to learn more about how he is taking a fresh approach to engaging and inspiring employees to take a new look at their retirement futures.

Finally, when it comes to weighing the importance of your participant’s future against the immediate needs that are constantly pressing, we urge you to consider the potential cost that employees who cannot afford to retire may have on your business’s bottom line. We know and fully appreciate that there are situations where the experience, knowledge and wisdom that comes with long time employees cannot be replaced, but we are also fully aware, as should you be, that the more senior the employee the greater the potential for higher costs associated with that employee. These costs can include anything from greater absenteeism to higher salaries to increased medical costs. Case in point, we have a business contact who hired a practice manager over 6 years ago to streamline their operations in anticipation that many of the staff members that currently served in administrative roles would soon be retiring. Flash forward to today and that company now has the highly paid practice administrator that they hired 6 years ago along with all of the other 9 employees that were planning on retiring who cannot because they cannot afford to. This is an all too real situation that many companies find themselves facing, but we believe with proper education it can possibly be avoided.

John Adams, our second President, said “There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.” We could not agree with this statement more whole-heartedly when it comes to educating employees about their retirement futures. It is absolutely a balance between making your living and living the life you want now and in the future. If you feel like there may be a better way to help your employees achieve the future that they want, we’d love to hear from you.

Jamie Kertis, AIF®, QKA jamie kertis headshot
Retirement Plan Specialist
Grinkmeyer Leonard Financial
1950 Stonegate Drive / Suite 275 /Birmingham, AL 35242
Office: 205.970.9088 / Toll-Free: 866.695.5162

Contact Jamie

Follow Jamie on LinkedIn

Follow Jamie’s Blog

What the “F” ? – Part 3 – Fiduciary

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®, QKAjamie kertis headshot
Retirement Plan Specialist
Grinkmeyer Leonard Financial
1950 Stonegate Drive / Suite 275 /Birmingham, AL 35242
Office: 205.970.9088 / Toll-Free: 866.695.5162

Contact Jamie

Follow Jamie on LinkedIn

Follow Jamie’s Blog