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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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Discretionary plan trustee vs. directed trustee

“What defines a discretionary plan trustee vs. a directed plan trustee?”

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 Kentucky is representative of a common inquiry related to retirement plan trustees.

Highlights of the Discussion

ERISA Section 403(a) (see page 207 of linked information) provides that the assets of a qualified retirement plan must be held in trust by one or more trustees. The trustee will be either named in the plan document or appointed by a person who is a named fiduciary. The appointment of a plan’s trustee(s) is an important fiduciary decision that must be undertaken in a prudent manner by the plan sponsor or retirement plan committee with the proper authority.

Not all trustees, however, have the same authority or discretion to manage or control the assets of a plan. A trustee that has exclusive authority and discretion to manage and control the assets of the plan is a discretionary trustee. A discretionary trustee may be an employee of the company, but, more than likely, this role is outsourced to a third party.

However, a plan can expressly provide that the trustee is subject to the direction of a named fiduciary who is not a trustee. This is a directed trustee. The scope of a directed trustee’s duties is “significantly narrower than the duties generally ascribed to a discretionary trustee …” (Field Assistance Bulletin 2004-03). While a directed trustee is still a plan fiduciary, his or her fiduciary liability is limited, because he or she is required to act upon the direction of another plan fiduciary. The use of a directed trustee is a common plan model in the retirement industry. Many organizations serve as directed trustees.

“Direction” of the trustee is proper only if it is “made in accordance with the terms of the plan” and “not contrary to the Act [ERISA].” Accordingly, when a directed trustee knows or should know that a direction from a named fiduciary of the plan is not made in accordance with the terms of the plan or is contrary to ERISA, the directed trustee should not, consistent with its fiduciary responsibilities, follow the direction.

Conclusion

There are two basic flavors of qualified retirement plan trustee: discretionary and directed. Check the terms of the governing plan document and trust agreement for a particular plan to determine which applies.

 

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Suspending Plan Loan Repayments

“Under what circumstances, if any, can a 401(k) plan participant with an outstanding plan loan suspend repayments?”

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, 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 plan loans.

Highlights of Discussion

There are just two scenarios under which the IRS will allow a plan to suspend loan repayments of a participant with an outstanding loan: 1) in the case of a leave of absence of up to one year or 2) for the period during which an employee is performing military service [Treasury Regulation Section 1.72(p)-1, Q&A-9(a) and (b)]. Check the terms of the plan document and loan agreement regarding a participant’s ability to suspend loan repayments.

If a plan permits loan repayments to be suspended during a leave of absence, upon return, the participant must make up the missed payments either by increasing the amount of each monthly payment or by paying a lump sum at the end, so that the term of the loan does not exceed the original five-year term.

EXAMPLE: Leave of Absence

On July 1, 2018, Adrian borrows $40,000 from her 401(k) account balance under the agreement that it will be repaid in level monthly installments of $825 over five years (by June 30, 2023). Adrian makes nine payments and then starts a one-year, nonmilitary leave of absence. When Adrian resumes active employment, she also resumes making her loan repayments. However, the amount of monthly installment is increased to $1,130 in order to repay the loan by the end of the initial five-year term. Alternatively, she could have continued making the monthly $825 installment payment, provided she repaid the full balance due at the end of the five-year term (i.e., make a balloon payment).

A plan may permit a participant to suspend loan repayments during a leave of absence for military service (as defined in Chapter 43 of Title 38, United States Code). In such cases, the participant will not violate the level payment requirement provided loan repayments resume at the end of the military service, the frequency and amount of payments is not less than what was required under the terms of the original loan, and the loan is repaid in full (including interest that accrues during the period of military service) by the end of the loan term, which is five years, plus the period of military service.  Consequently, the suspension could exceed one year and the term of the loan could exceed five years.

Of additional note on suspensions due to military service, the plan is limited on the rate of interest it may charge on the loan during the period of military service to six percent. A loan is subject to the interest rate limitation if the following are true: 1) the loan was incurred prior to the military service; and 2) the participant provides the plan with a written notice and a copy of the military orders within 180 days after the date of the participant’s release or termination from military service [Service Members Civil Relief Act of 2003 (SCRA) Pub. L. No. 108-189]. The plan must forgive any interest that exceeds six percent. For this purpose, “interest” includes service charges, renewal charges, fees, and any other charges (except bona fide insurance).

EXAMPLE: Military Service

On July 1, 2018, Joshua borrows $40,000 from his 401(k) account balance under the agreement that he will repay it in level monthly installments of $825 over five years (by June 30, 2023). Joshua makes nine payments and then starts a two-year, military leave of absence. His service ends on April 2, 2021, and he resumes active employment on April 19, 2021, after which, he resumes making loan repayments in the amount of $825. On June 30, 2025, Joshua makes a balloon payment for the full remaining balance due.

Alternatively, Joshua could have increased the monthly repayment amounts so no remaining balance was due at the end of the term (i.e., June 30, 2025).

Conclusion

Under limited circumstance, plans may suspend loan repayments for participants. Be sure to check the terms of the plan document and loan agreement for specific procedures and requirements.

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