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Case of the Week: DOL Fiduciary Investigation Guidelines

The ERISA consultants at the Learning Center Resource Desk, which is available through Columbia Threadneedle Investments, regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs and qualified retirement plans.

A recent call with a financial advisor in Ohio is representative of a common question related to DOL investigations. The advisor asked:

“Are there specific guidelines the DOL follows when investigating an employer-sponsored retirement plan for fiduciary violations?”

Highlights of Discussion

Yes, the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) division of the DOL has a very detailed Enforcement Manual, which the public may access through the DOL’s website. Chapter 48 of the manual pertains specifically to the Fiduciary Investigation Program (Program 48), applicable to employee benefit plans such as 401(k) plans.

Program 48 includes several DOL checklists — referred to as Figures in the text — that the DOL auditor completes as part of an investigation. For example:

  • Figure 3 is a Bonding Checklist

  • Figure 4 is a Reporting and Disclosure Checklist

  • Figure 5 is an Individual Benefit Statement Compliance Checklist

  • Figure 6 is the DOL’s General Investigation Guidelines
  • The DOL clarifies that the Investigation Guidelines (Figure 6) should not be considered as either mandatory or all-inclusive, but should be used to the extent deemed appropriate for the plan.

    The Investigation Guidelines are arranged in two parts:

  • Part I, Background Information, covers data related to the type and size of the plan, and the responsible parties.

  • Part II, Review Procedures, explores compliance with ERISA and probes for potential violations of ERISA, particularly fiduciary violations.

  • The investigator may apply additional investigative steps if deemed necessary.


    Plan sponsors can use Chapter 48 of the Enforcement Manual as a guide for conducting their own fiduciary reviews to uncover any potential deficiencies in their plans and implement remedies before the DOL targets them for formal investigations. For plan sponsors who have already been notified of a pending investigation, Chapter 48 can give them an idea of what to expect.

    The Learning Center Resource Desk is staffed by the Retirement Learning Center, LLC (RLC), a third-party industry consultant that is not affiliated with Columbia Threadneedle. Any information provided is for informational purposes only. It cannot be used for the purposes of avoiding penalties and taxes. Columbia Threadneedle does not provide tax or legal advice. Consumers consult with their tax advisor or attorney regarding their specific situation.

    Information and opinions provided by third parties have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed by Columbia Threadneedle.

    Columbia Threadneedle Investments (Columbia Threadneedle) is the global brand name of the Columbia and Threadneedle group of companies.

    © 2015 Columbia Management Investment Advisers, LLC. Used with permission.