By Nevin E. Adams, JD
Chief Content Officer
American Retirement Association

There’s an old saying that when you assume… well, here are some assumptions that can create real headaches for retirement plan fiduciaries.

Assuming that the worst-case deadline for depositing participant contributions IS the deadline for depositing participant contributions.

The legal requirements for depositing contributions to the plan are perhaps the most widely misunderstood elements of plan administration. A delay in contribution deposits is also one of the most common signs that an employer is in financial trouble—and that the Labor Department is likely to investigate.

Note that the law requires that participant contributions be deposited in the plan as soon as it is reasonably possible to segregate them from the company’s assets, but no later than the 15th business day of the month following the payday. If employers can reasonably make the deposits sooner, they need to do so. Many have read the worst-case situation (the 15th business day of the month following) to be the legal requirement. It is not.

Assuming that not being required to have an investment policy statement means you don’t need to have an investment policy.

While plan advisers and consultants routinely counsel on the need for, and importance of, an investment policy statement (IPS), the reality is that the law does not require one, and thus, many plan sponsors—sometimes at the direction of legal counsel—choose not to put one in place.

Of course, while the law does not, in fact, specifically require a written IPS—think of it as investment guidelines for the plan—ERISA nonetheless basically anticipates that plan fiduciaries will conduct themselves as though they had one in place. And, generally speaking, plan sponsors (and the advisors they work with) will find it easier to conduct the plan’s investment business in accordance with a set of established, prudent standards—if those standards are already in writing, not crafted at a point in time when you are desperately trying to make sense of the markets.

In sum, you want an IPS in place before you need an IPS in place.

Assuming that ERISA’s required fiduciary bond covers your liability as an ERISA plan fiduciary.

These are two very different things with similar names. Suffice it to say that the Fidelity Bond required by ERISA protects the plan and its participants from potential malfeasance on the part of those who handle plan assets. The plan is the named insured in the fidelity bond.

On the other hand, Fiduciary Liability Insurance typically protects the plan’s fiduciaries from claims of a breach of fiduciary responsibilities—an important protection since ERISA plan fiduciaries have personal liability, not only for their actions, but for the actions of their co-fiduciaries. The cost of the insurance can be paid by the employer or by the plan fiduciary—but not from plan assets.

Assuming that hiring a fiduciary keeps you from being a fiduciary.

ERISA has a couple of very specific exceptions through which you can limit—but not eliminate—fiduciary obligations. The first has to do with the specific decisions made by a qualified investment manager—and, even then, a plan sponsor/fiduciary remains responsible for the prudent selection and monitoring of that investment manager’s activities on behalf of the plan.

The second exception has to do with specific investment decisions made by properly informed and empowered individual participants in accordance with ERISA Section 404(c). Here also, even if the plan meets the 404(c) criteria (and it is by no means certain it will), the plan fiduciary remains responsible for the prudent selection and monitoring of the options on the investment menu (and, as the Tibble case reminds us, that obligation is ongoing).

Outside of these two exceptions, the plan sponsor/fiduciary is essentially responsible for the quality of the investments of the plan—including those that participants make. Oh, and hiring a 3(16) fiduciary? Still on the hook as a fiduciary for selecting that provider.

Assuming you have to figure it all out on your own.

ERISA imposes a duty of prudence on plan fiduciaries that is often referred to as one of the highest duties known to law—and for good reason. Those 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 aims.”

The “familiar with such matters” is the sticking point for those who might otherwise be inclined to simply adopt a “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” approach. Similarly, those who might be naturally predisposed toward a kind of Hippocratic, “first, do no harm” stance are afforded no such discretion under ERISA’s strictures. That said, the Department of Labor has stated that “[l]acking that expertise, a fiduciary will want to hire someone with that professional knowledge to carry out the investment and other functions.”

Simply stated, if you lack the skill, prudence and diligence of an expert in such matters, you are not only entitled to get help—you are expected to do so.