Types of ERISA Fiduciaries

Under ERISA, there are several named classes of Fiduciaries, first and foremost of which is the Plan Sponsor. All qualified retirement plans have at least one named Plan Sponsor. The Plan Sponsor adopts the plan, and only employees (or beneficiaries thereof) of the adopting Plan Sponsor (or sponsors) may participate in and benefit from the plan. Since many Plan Sponsors of qualified retirement plans like to limit their fiduciary risk when it comes to the investment and disbursement of Plan Assets, it is possible for Plan Sponsors to mitigate their fiduciary liability by naming specific entities or individuals as fiduciaries. This article takes a look at determining who is a Plan Administrator, at investment advisors as fiduciaries, and the benefits of naming specific parties as certain types of named fiduciaries.

Plan Administrator under ERISA 3(16)

The Plan Administrator is responsible for the day to day duties of the plan, including determination and transmittal of contributions; distribution and loan review, approval and processing; annual compliance testing and the preparation of Form 5500 and related schedules. A Plan Sponsor can certainly hire outside service providers to handle most of these tasks, but unless the service provider specifically accepts Fiduciary status under ERISA Section 3(16), the Plan Sponsor or other specifically named parties are still considered the Plan Administrator, with all of the related Fiduciary Liability. To determine who is a Plan Administrator under 3(16), first review the Plan’s document. The Plan Administrator will be the individual named in the document. If the document does not name an individual, then the Plan Sponsor is the Plan Administrator. In the case where there are multiple employers, then the association, committee, joint board or trustees or other similar group of representatives of the parties who establish and maintain the plan may be named Plan Administrator. Some service providers are beginning to offer these services, for a fee, specifically accepting the title of 3(16) Plan Administrator.

Investment Advisors as Fiduciaries

A qualified plan financial adviser (or investment advisor) is a term for professionals who sell, advise, market or support qualified retirement plans. According to the U.S. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), terms such as financial adviser and investment advisor are general terms or job titles used by investment professionals and do not denote any specific designations.

ERISA 3(21) Fiduciaries

An investment advisor may be appointed as a fiduciary under 3(21) of ERISA directly by the Plan Sponsor. Persons can be deemed a 3(21) Fiduciary to the extent that they meet the following criteria; if they:

  • Exercise discretionary authority or control with respect to the management of the plan and the disposition of plan assets
  • Render investment advice for a fee or any other direct or indirect compensation; or
  • Have any discretionary authority or responsibility over the administration of the Plan

 Fiduciaries accepting 3(21) responsibility share that responsibility with the Plan Sponsor and Plan Administrator; however the Plan Sponsor retains the ultimate responsibility and must monitor the performance of the 3(21) fiduciary. For instance, an investment advisor accepting ERISA 3(21) responsibilities may recommend a potential menu of investment options for the plan, but it is up to the Plan Sponsor to accept or reject those investment options, and to ensure that the investment policy is enforced.

ERISA 3(38) Fiduciaries

A fiduciary who falls under 3(38) of ERISA must be a registered investment advisor, bank, or insurance company. This type of fiduciary has all of the responsibilities of a 3(21) fiduciary, however they must agree in writing to assume the liability of selecting and monitoring the investments of the Plan. A 3(38) fiduciary has full discretion for selecting and monitoring plan investments and must make judicious decisions when making their investment choices. This type of fiduciary assumes the legal responsibility and liability of investment decisions. Bringing forward our previous example, the investment advisor accepting ERISA 3(38) responsibilities may recommend a potential menu of investment options for the plan, however neither the Plan Administrator nor the Plan Sponsor would have a say in the ultimate investment of the funds.

Benefits of Naming a Fiduciary

From investments to the day to day management of the plan, it is not always possible for a Plan Sponsor be an expert in all aspects of a qualified plan. Hiring experts to help with these important and sometimes confusing requirements is not only prudent but may help limit the overall liability a Plan Sponsor is exposed to. For smaller plans, however, it may cost prohibitive to appoint an outside fiduciary. As the assets of the plan grows, so does the potential fiduciary liability and therefore the potential need for a named outside fiduciary. Ultimately, it is up to the Plan Sponsor to evaluate their own need and determine the scope of such an undertaking. More importantly, the Plan Sponsor also has the responsibility to monitor the fiduciary, as it would any other service provider, and make prudent decisions in selecting a 3(16), 3(21) or 3(38) fiduciary. The act of hiring such a fiduciary is itself a fiduciary act, so there is no way to eliminate all fiduciary liability. By making sensible, well documented decisions, and monitoring the results of the decisions, a Plan Sponsor can best defend themselves against any potential future litigation. The Sponsor must also take steps to ensure that the services received are commensurate with the cost of those services. There is no requirement under ERISA that any plan costs must be the cheapest around, only reasonable.

Meeting your fiduciary obligations under ERISA can be nuanced and not always obvious. You may also want to read our blogs in our fiduciary series, Are You a Fiduciary? and Fiduciary Responsibilities for Benefit Plans under ERISA.

 If you have questions about your particular responsibilities or risk, feel free to Contact us today.

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