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What is a “flexible” ERISA 3(38)

“Is there such a thing as a ‘flexible’ ERISA 3(38) fiduciary?”  

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 New Hampshire is representative of a common inquiry related to ERISA fiduciary services.

Highlights of the Discussion

According to a strict reading of ERISA and its regulations under 29 U.S.C. Title 29 §3(38)—no; there is no such legally defined entity. However, in practice, there are ERISA 3(38) fiduciary services that are advertised as “flexible.” Let’s start with the definition of an ERISA §3(38) plan fiduciary. An ERISA 3(38) fiduciary is an investment manager that is a registered investment advisor (e.g., RIA, bank or insurance company), appointed by the plan sponsor to fully manage the assets of the plan. Such individual or entity has the power to manage, acquire, or dispose of any asset of a plan; is responsible for selecting, monitoring and replacing plan investment options; and has full discretion regarding a plan’s investment management process. When the 3(38) fiduciary is appointed, a written agreement must be executed acknowledging the 3(38)’s fiduciary responsibility for managing the assets of the plan. ERISA 3(38) relieves the plan sponsor of fiduciary liability with respect to the selection, performance, monitoring and replacement of the investments for a plan when the sponsor has prudently selected the 3(38) investment manager; and the sponsor continues to monitor the 3(38)’s services. As one can see, the strict definition of an ERISA 3(38) does not seem to leave room for too much, if any, flexibility.

A few firms that offer 3(38) services have added the “flexible” moniker or adjective to describe situations where the plan sponsor can provide the 3(38) investment manager with “suggestions” regarding the investment line up. These plan sponsor suggestions could range widely from encouraging the 3(38) to take over and assume responsibility for an existing investment line up; providing input on investments the plan sponsors would like the 3(38) to add to the 3(38)’s available options; or having the ability to select from a broad universe of investments that are within the 3(38)’s fiduciary coverage universe to create the investment line up. The gnawing question becomes has the plan sponsor exerted discretion over the investment decisions and, thereby, clawed back some of the fiduciary responsibility it sought to relinquish? There is no clear answer. It is another one of those “facts and circumstances” situations the DOL and courts would evaluate on a case by case basis. But it is important to be aware of and take into consideration when making a decision that flexibility can muddy the fiduciary liability and relief waters.


Some firms advertise a flexible 3(38) investment management solution. Plan sponsors and their advisors should be sure they 1) understand what precisely the flexibility is; 2) evaluate if it could potentially affect liability; 3) make a prudent, educated decision based on the information; and 3) record the decision making process for their fiduciary process records.

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