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Have You Hugged Your TPA Today?

Practice Management

If you work with TPAs—third party administrators—you might want to avoid bugging them this week. 

As you may well know (certainly if you work with TPAs), this year, Monday (Oct. 17th) is the deadline to file Form 5500s, and for most TPAs, that’s a pretty all-consuming focus. So much so that every year on the day AFTER the Form 5500 filing deadline, John Hancock declares an annual day of recognition for TPAs

Now, to its credit, John Hancock goes so far as to note that National TPA Day is also a reminder to financial professionals (especially those still getting established) that partnering with TPAs may be an important pathway to success. Not that everyone feels that way, of course.

I’m talking about the disconnects in focus between retirement plan advisors and TPAs—an issue that is, perhaps, as old as ERISA itself—this “tension” between these two critical roles. Not in every case, of course—there are plenty of advisors that will tell you how many times their TPA partner has gotten them out of a real mess, and TPAs that will commend the leadership demonstrated by their advisor teammate. But that, it seems, isn’t the majority experience, though it proves it can be that. 

As it turns out, I’ve spent some time on both sides of that “divide,” and a fair amount of time able to observe both from a distance. I’ve listened to groups of TPAs gripe about advisors who “won’t stay in their lanes”—and advisors frustrated with TPAs who, when asked what time it is, insist first on explaining how a watch is made. I can remember personal experiences trying to explain complex plan design decisions with real-world implications—only to have the decision-makers decide it was time to step out for the equivalent of “brandy and cigars” with the plan advisor, leaving the decisions—undecided.   

The beauty of these times—and our associations—is that I was able to reach out on an ad hoc basis to folks that I knew could also appreciate both sides of the “debate,” and who cared enough to try and do something about it. This core group—Mary Patch, Chad Johansen, JD Carlson, Shannon Edwards, Justin Bonestroo & Amanda Iverson—have given up a LOT of their time and energy over the past many months to this undertaking. COVID helped in some ways—nobody was travelling as much, and we’re all now well accustomed to meeting virtually to solve problems. 

Our collective sense was that what makes the difference in these relationships is having a shared set of goals and expectations, alongside role clarity and confidence in the perspectives and expertise of the partner(s). We started with posts that have run on NAPA-Net on a monthly basis beginning last year (links below), came to something of a crescendo with a special TPA panel at the 2022 NAPA 401(k) Summit, and ultimately culminated in a checklist of sorts that you can find here. Think of it as a relationship pre-screener.

That checklist alone (and we’re hoping you’ll reconsider Compliance Administrator or Compliance Consultant as replacements for that awful TPA moniker) won’t solve all communication/expectation issues, but we hope it will be a solid foundation to open a dialogue. At its most basic, it should allow you to find out what services potential (or current) TPA partners provide, which are standard to their practice(s), and which are “extra.” But ultimately—and most significantly—it is designed to align expectations. 

There may well be things on this list of which you are unfamiliar—if so, this would be a good time to find out more about them, as I assure you, they are important, and SOMEBODY should be attending to them.  The core team is now working on some background explanations—if some jump out at you for a quicker explanation, please let me know. I—and indeed the entire core team—would love for you to begin using this checklist in your partner discussions—and to let us know what works—and of course, what doesn’t in the days and weeks ahead.

My undying thanks again to the core team for the love, humor, friendship and passion on this effort–– and to about a dozen advisors (you know who you are) who provided some terrific insights and perspective as the checklist neared completion. 

And ultimately to you, gentle reader, for helping us build this bridge…

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