The Frugal Fiduciary Small Business 401(k) Blog
Get the latest industry news, deadlines and tips you need to know to help tackle your fiduciary responsibility needs.
When a business owner needs help picking investments for their 401(k) plan, my advice to them is always the same – hire a fiduciary-grade 401(k) financial advisor. The reason – only advisors bound by a fiduciary standard of care have a legal obligation to give impartial investment advice to their clients. In contrast, it’s perfectly legal for non-fiduciary advisors – who are bound by a lesser “suitability” standard – to give conflicted advice by steering their clients towards high-commission investments when lower-cost alternatives exist. In general, fiduciary-grade 401(k) advisors include investment advisers, but not brokers and insurance agents.
401(k) plan fiduciaries are often concerned about their fiduciary liability – little surprise when they can be personally liable for fiduciary failures. To mitigate this risk, fiduciaries must understand the sources of liability. A way to do that is asking insurance companies about the factors that increase the price of 401(k) fiduciary liability insurance.
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As a business owner, you want to understand the basic fiduciary hierarchy applicable to all 401(k) plans and the responsibilities of each role within it. This understanding can make the oversight of your 401(k) plan – basically ensuring that your fiduciary responsibilities are met – much more straightforward.
There are few industries where the phrase “you get what you pay for” is less applicable than the 401(k) industry. Equally competent 401(k) providers can charge dramatically different fees for comparable administration services and investments. This variability is a big problem for employers – who have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the interests of plan participants by paying only “reasonable” 401(k) fees. Employers that fail to meet their responsibility can be personally liable for restoring participant losses due to excessive fees.
Employers have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the fees paid by their 401(k) plan are “reasonable” – so excessive fees do not reduce the investment returns of plan participants needlessly. To do that job, employers should ”benchmark” their 401(k) fees periodically by comparing them to industry averages and/or the fees charged by competing 401(k) providers. Sounds straightforward, but this information is hard to find and often harder to compare on an apples-to apples basis.
401(k) plans must define a 12-month “plan year” for annual administration purposes. Most plans choose a calendar year for administrative ease. A new plan can specify a period that’s shorter than a full 12-months for its initial plan year by choosing a mid-year effective date. However, establishing a short plan year with a mid-year effective date is often a bad idea. Most plans are better off making their effective date retroactive to the first day of the normal plan year - January 1 in the case of a calendar-based plan – to establish a 12-month initial plan year.