It’s (Almost) June 9! Are You Ready to Comply with the Final Fiduciary Rule?

At 11:59 p.m. on Friday, June 9, 2017 (the Effective Date), the ERISA definition of a fiduciary will expand to include, for the first time, many financial firms and advisors that provide investment advice to certain employer-sponsored retirement plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs).  This is because part of the final Department of Labor (DOL) Fiduciary Rule (described in our prior post) takes effect at this time, and will apply to anyone receiving a fee for providing a “recommendation” regarding covered investment transactions. “Recommendation” is broadly defined to include communications that are likely to be considered a suggestion to take, or to refrain from taking, a particular course of action.

After the Effective Date, ERISA fiduciary duties will also extend to the provision of a recommendation regarding whether or not to take a rollover or distribution from an ERISA retirement plan or an IRA, even if the rollover or distribution recommendation is not accompanied by investment advice.

While the Fiduciary Rule most directly impacts investment advice providers, employer sponsors of ERISA  retirement plans should also be aware of the new rules and of the ways in which plan service provider arrangements and internal human resources practices may be impacted by them.

Key requirements and recommendations for both investment advisors and employer retirement plan sponsors are briefly summarized, below.

Action Items for Advisors

Unless an exception or exemption applies, financial advisors who give investment advice to participants of covered plans and IRAs must now observe impartial conduct standards, and some portions of the DOL Best Interest Contract (BIC) exemption or Principal Transaction exemption (if applicable). This means that advisors must, as of the Effective Date:

  • provide advice in participants’ best interests;
  • receive no more than reasonable compensation; and
  • avoid misleading statements.

By January 1, 2018, the remainder of the BIC and Principal Transaction exemption rules apply and affected advisors must:

  • maintain (and adhere to) written anti-conflict policies and procedures;
  • make required disclosures to advice recipients; and
  • enter into enforceable written contracts relating to the provision of investment advice services relating to covered employer retirement plans and IRAs.

Advisor Transition-Period

Under a temporary non-enforcement policy issued by the DOL on May 22, 2017, neither the DOL nor the IRS will enforce potential violations of the prohibited transaction rules, provided that the advisors are working diligently and in good faith to comply with the new rules.  This temporary non-enforcement policy will end on January 1, 2018, which is also when the remaining parts of the Fiduciary Rule (and exemption) requirements take effect.

Taxes and Penalties for Violation

After January 1, 2018, an advice fiduciary that fails to comply with the new rules, and thereby engages in a prohibited transaction, may be required to refund all fees earned from the transaction and to pay an annual excise tax of 15% on such fees until repayment occurs.  To the extent that such a prohibited transaction relates to an ERISA-subject retirement plan, a violation of the rules could potentially also result in legal claims by retirement plan sponsors or IRA investors, civil penalties, and personal liability for losses or improper profits.

Certain Assets Unaffected

The new rules do not affect any health, disability, term life, or other health-related arrangements or assets that do not contain an investment component.  Personal brokerage accounts (not involving an employer-sponsored retirement plan or any IRA) are also unaffected by the changes.

Action Items for Employer Plan Sponsors

Employer retirement plan sponsors should consider taking the following steps:

  • Review existing educational materials provided to participants to determine whether they remain non-fiduciary “investment education,” or whether they now constitute fiduciary “investment advice.”
  • Review practices relating to rollovers into and out of the plan to determine whether they trigger fiduciary advice-related obligations.
  • Confirm that in-house employees who provide advice to participants (if any) are not being separately compensated for such advice.
  • Review contractual arrangements with advisers to determine which advisers are fiduciaries under the new rules.  For those service provider serving as a fiduciary for the first time under the Fiduciary Rule, expect that agreements will be amended or replaced before January 1, 2018. Any resulting fee changes must be clearly disclosed.
  • Expect to receive additional disclosures beginning in 2018 from investment advice fiduciaries that will rely on the BIC exemption to continue receiving certain types of compensation.  Among other things, these disclosures must describe any of the advice fiduciary’s conflicts of interest, and the types of compensation paid in connection with plan investment recommendations.
  • Carefully review all fee disclosures you receive to ensure that you understand what fees are being charged for plan services. Confirm that the fee structure and amounts of compensation received by advisers are reasonable, in light of the services performed.

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