5 Things That (Should) Scare Plan Fiduciaries

Halloween is the time of year when one’s thoughts turn to trick-or-treat, ghosts and goblins, and things that go bump in the night. But what are the things that keep – or should keep – plan fiduciaries up at night?

Well, there are the things like…

Getting Sued

Plan sponsors will often mention their fear of getting sued (actually, their advisors frequently broach the topic), and little wonder. The headlines are (still) full of multi-million dollar lawsuits against multi-billion dollar plans, and if relatively few seem to actually get to a judge (and those that do have – to date – largely been decided in the plan fiduciaries’ favor), they nonetheless seem to result in multi-million dollar settlements. Oh, and not only has this been going on for more than a decade, the issues raised are evolving as well.

As a plan fiduciary, you can be sued, of course; and let’s not forget that that includes responsibility for the acts of your co-fiduciaries, and personal liability at that (see 7 Things an ERISA Fiduciary Should Know).

That said – and more than a decade after the first series was launched – those cases (still) seem to involve a relatively small group of rather large plans. If it’s (still) astounding that some of the plans do the things they are alleged to do (and not do), for those familiar with the math of contingent fee litigation, there’s little mystery to the big plan focus.

Of course, most plan sponsors won’t ever get sued, much less get into trouble with regulators. And those who do are much more likely to drift into trouble for things like late deposit of contributions, errors in nondiscrimination testing, or not following the terms of the plan.

Still worried about getting sued? As one famous ERISA attorney once told me, they might as well worry about getting hit by a meteor.

Plan Costs

Whether you feel that the aforementioned wave of litigation has been a force for good or ill, it has certainly contributed to a heightened awareness of fees by plan sponsors – and one that finally seems to be moving beyond squeezing that extra pound of flesh from recordkeepers (though there’s still plenty of that).

These days it’s as likely to show up in questions about shifting to passive options, or at least an inquiry about a different share class. Questions are good – actions potentially better.

Regardless, it would seem to be difficult to live up to ERISA’s fiduciary admonitions to ensure that the fees and services provided to the plan are reasonable if you don’t know what you’re getting, or how much you’re paying.

Target Date Fund Glidepaths

Remember 2008 – when so many discovered for the first time that target-date funds and their glide paths really are  different? Over the last decade, the sheer amount of money that has been invested in these QDIAs (most defaulted along with the expansion of automatic enrollment) – nearly $2 trillion at the end of 2017 – means that participants are likely better diversified than ever before, with portfolios that are regularly and professionally managed and rebalanced.

With luck, things like the 2008 financial crisis won’t recur in our lifetime. On the other hand, on the offhand chance that that – or something like it – does, this might be a good time to look under the bed – er, glidepath – and make sure that the assumptions incorporated there are consistent with expectations.

Personal Liability

Most of the aforementioned concern about being sued seems borne from a concern about the damage – both reputational and financial – to the organization that sponsors the plan. While that is certainly a well-founded and rational concern, plan fiduciaries, particularly plan sponsors, often seem oblivious to the reality that their liability as an ERISA fiduciary is… personal.

You can, of course, buy insurance to protect against that personal liability — but that’s likely not the fiduciary liability insurance that most organizations have in place. And it may not be enough.

Failing to Engage the Knowledge of a Prudent Expert

ERISA’s “prudent man” rule is a standard of care, and when fiduciaries act for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits, they must act at the level of a hypothetical knowledgeable person and must reach informed and reasoned decisions consistent with that standard.

The Department of Labor notes that “[l]acking that expertise, a fiduciary will want to hire someone with that professional knowledge to carry out the investment and other functions.”

Indeed.

Because, when it comes to the former, most people do – and as for the latter, many still don’t.

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