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Annuity provider selection safe harbor for defined contribution plans

“Has the Department of Labor (DOL) issued guidance on how to prudently select annuity providers for a defined contribution (DC) plan?”

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings and income plans, including nonqualified plans, stock options, and Social Security and Medicare. We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business.  A recent call with a financial advisor from Massachusetts is representative of a common inquiry related to annuities within defined contribution plans.

Highlights of the Discussion

Yes, the DOL has described a five-step, “safe harbor” procedure for plan sponsors and their advisors to follow in order to satisfy their fiduciary responsibilities when selecting and monitoring an annuity provider and contract for benefit distributions from DC plans. (Note: The DOL is contemplating proposed amendments to the annuity selection safe harbor related to the assessment of an annuity provider’s ability to make all future payments.)

According to DOL Reg. 2550.404(a)-4, issued in 2008, and as further clarified by DOL Field Assistance Bulletin 2015-02, in order to satisfy the safe harbor selection process a plan fiduciary must

  1. Engage in an objective, thorough and analytical search for the purpose of identifying and selecting providers from which to purchase annuities;
  2. Appropriately consider information sufficient to assess the ability of the annuity provider to make all future payments under the annuity contract;
  3. Appropriately consider the cost (including fees and commissions) of the annuity contract in relation to the benefits and administrative services to be provided under such contract;
  4. Appropriately conclude that, at the time of the selection, the annuity provider is financially able to make all future payments under the annuity contract and the cost of the annuity contract is reasonable in relation to the benefits and services to be provided under the contract; and
  5. If necessary, consult with an appropriate expert or experts for purposes of compliance with these provisions.

The safe harbor rule provides that “the time of selection” means:

  • the time that the annuity provider and contract are selected for distribution of benefits to a specific participant or beneficiary; or
  • the time that the annuity provider is selected to provide annuities as a distribution option for participants or beneficiaries to choose at future dates.

The fiduciary must periodically review the continuing appropriateness of the conclusion that the annuity provider is financially able to make all future payments under the annuity contract, as well as the reasonableness of the cost of the contract in relation to the benefits and services to be provided. The fiduciary is not, however, required to review the appropriateness of its conclusions with respect to an annuity contract purchased for any specific participant or beneficiary.

Conclusion

Similar to selecting plan investments, choosing an annuity provider for a DC plan is a fiduciary function, subject to ERISA’s standards of prudence and loyalty. One way to satisfy this fiduciary responsibility is to follow the DOL’s safe harbor selection process as outlined in DOL Reg. 2550.404(a)-4 and Field Assistance Bulletin 2015-02.

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