Your guide to end-of-the-year 401(k) notices

The final quarter of 2017 has arrived, and with it the reminders of important year-end notices for retirement plan sponsors. Here’s a quick guide to some important notices, and why they matter:

October 1: Safe Harbor establishment

The deadline to establish a new safe harbor 401(k) plan for 2017 was October 1.

For those companies still wanting to contribute to a retirement plan for 2017, they might consider establishing a profit-sharing plan for this year, and then starting a safe harbor 401(k) plan early in 2018.

For those unfamiliar with safe harbor plans, the main advantage is that they provide a means for business owners and highly-compensated executives to contribute the maximum amounts to their 401(k) accounts.

This can, at times, create a problem if the company’s workforce does not contribute enough for the plan to pass its various discrimination tests regarding the amount deferred by the highly comped, versus non-highly compensated employees.

In exchange for enhanced matching or a contribution for all employees that is immediately vested, the highly comped employees are not restricted in the amount of salary they can defer, up to statutory plan limits.

In summary, these plans can greatly enhance the ability of business owners and highly- compensated employees to save for their own retirements.

November 1: SIMPLE conversion to a 401(k)

For employers offering a SIMPLE IRA who want to convert the plan to a 401(k), the deadline for notifying employees is November 1.

Rules stipulate that an employer cannot offer both a SIMPLE IRA and a 401(k) in the same calendar year.

When planning the conversion, employees under 59½ who pull their money out of a SIMPLE plan within the first two years of participation face a 25% penalty fee of their investment balances for doing so.

Employers, then, will want to ensure that they don’t unintentionally subject their employees to this penalty.

Safe Harbor plan for 2018

Employees must be provided with a notice that the plan will offer a safe harbor provision no later than December 1 of each calendar year.

This notification is required for existing plans that already offer safe harbor provisions, and for existing plans that wish to convert to a safe harbor plan in 2018.


Clients who offer small business 401(k) plans may not be aware of all required year-end notices, or of the benefits of a safe harbor plan.

You can help plan sponsors are on top of the requirements and important dates, while establishing yourself as a trusted expert on the subject.

Who’s the Fiduciary?

While the DOL’s fiduciary rules for financial advisors are new, fiduciary standards among 401(k) plan sponsors are not.

Even before the new DOL rules, plan sponsors were targets of lawsuits regarding the 401(k) plans offered to their employees. To avoid such ugly situations, it’s more important than ever for retirement plan sponsor to understand the responsibilities involved in being a fiduciary.

What is a fiduciary?

According to the Department of Labor, someone is a fiduciary if they perform certain functions with regard to the 401(k) plan. These include discretion over a plan’s administration as well as the selection of the plan’s assets. The focus is on the functions performed with regard to the plan.

Plan fiduciaries must:

  • Act solely in the best interest of all plan participants
  • Execute their duties prudently
  • Follow the specifications of the plan’s documents
  • Diversify the plan’s investments
  • Pay only reasonable plan expenses

Delegating fiduciary responsibilities

Plan sponsors can hire outside service providers to share in their fiduciary responsibility, however, they cannot abdicate this responsibility.

Here are a few types of fiduciary roles these service providers can assume.

A 3(38) fiduciary has the full discretion to make all plan decisions, including the those regarding the investments offered.

In this capacity, advisors are the decision maker for the plan’s investments; they are not merely offering suggestions. The plan sponsor’s fiduciary obligations are more limited here than for other arrangements, but it does have the responsibility to select the investment manager and to ensure that the chosen manager is properly executing the plan’s fiduciary duties.

A 3(21) fiduciary typically recommends investments to the plan sponsors, monitors those investments, and makes recommendations when investments need to be replaced. The final decision, however, lies with the plan sponsor. 3(21) advisors provide counsel and guidance to the plan sponsor, but they do not exercise discretion over the plan investments as a 3(38) does.

A 3(16) fiduciary must ensure that the plan is created and managed according to the ERISA rules. This is typically a role filled by a third-party administrator, either in an unbundled setting or as part of a bundled plan. If there is no outside administrator, then this role must be filled by the plan sponsor.

Using outside service providers

Typical service providers include an investment advisor and a third-party administrator.

VestWell can help you offer a top-notch plan even to your smallest plan sponsor clients. We can act as a 3(38) fiduciary via our arrangement with Palladiem. We can serve as a 3(21) advisor in partnership with you via our relationship with Morningstar. We can also support you as the 3(21) advisor with our cutting-edge administrative capabilities.

Additionally, we can help you offer your clients plan design options including new comparability plans, 403(b) plans and even a cash-balance pension option.

It makes sense to partner with experts in this area to enable sponsors to meet their fiduciary obligations. You can help plan sponsors offer a plan that meets their goals of attracting and retaining employees while helping their employees meet their retirement goals. Hiring the right partners allows the sponsor to focus on what they do best: growing their business while mitigating their fiduciary liability. And it makes you look really good as their advisor!

It’s National 401(k) Day!

Happy National 401(k) Day! How will you be celebrating it?

What’s that — You’re not celebrating it? That’s understandable. After all, every day is a holiday now — In addition to Halloween and Mother’s Day, there’s National Ice Cream Day (Ben and Jerry’s gives out free cones!), national Pokemon day, and Hug a Farmer Day. You can even register your own holiday. But National 401(k) day is a day you should actually pay attention to — it’s the day you should do your Annual 401(k) Checkup.

Looking into your retirement savings sounds about as much fun as going to the dentist (which, crazy enough, experts say you’re supposed to do twice a year). Fortunately, this isn’t as painful as you think, and getting your 401(k) set up right can make a big difference in terms of having a brighter future. With a quick checkup, you could make changes that could forever improve your future.

This article is written from the perspective that your employer is offering you a plan. Fortunately, about 80% of Americans are offered some sort of plan by their company, though many small businesses don’t have one available.

Increase Your Contributions
Are you already contributing to your 401(k)? If so, that’s a great start. Only about 44% of Americans are contributing. The first thing you should check is whether you’re maxing out your employer matching. Many employers offer additional funds to employees who contribute to their account. If you’re not maxing it out, you’re leaving money on the table.

Even if you are maxing out your company match, you should probably contribute more. Try bumping up the amount of money you contribute every month — The maximum for people under 50 years old is $18,000 a year. Now, that may sound like a big chunk of your paycheck, but remember it’s pre-tax dollars, so it’s the equivalent of only about $12,000 in take home pay. So regardless of how much you decide to invest, if you took it as salary, you’d only get about two-thirds of it, and the rest would go to taxes. So try saving more and see how it feels — you can always dial it back down later. Your future self will thank you.

Optimize Your Investments
Saving money for retirement isn’t enough — you also have to make sure it’s invested properly for your needs. A few tips: Think about how comfortable you are with risk. Long-term investments are all about remaining comfortable while weathering the storm of volatile markets, and though it can feel counterintuitive, it’s oftentimes best to just stick with your investments. Still, if you’re particularly risk averse, there are ways to invest your money which are less tumultuous.
Think about your future needs. When do you plan to retire? And is your 401(k) your sole source of retirement funds, or do you have a partner who will also be contributing? Thinking ahead can make a world of difference.

Roll Over Your Old Accounts
Have you switched jobs over your career? Most of us have, particularly younger Americans, who tend to jump from company to company with high frequency. When you switch jobs, it’s easy to forget about money laying around in old 401(k) accounts. A good option may be to “roll over” those accounts into your current 401(k) provider for a number of reasons. First of all, consolidating accounts is an opportunity to save on fees. Many older retirement accounts charge surprisingly high fees. Even a 2% fee can cost you a fortune by the time you retire.

Consolidating accounts makes it easier to see all your money in one place and keep track of it. It can be easy to lose track of old accounts, particularly when your previous employers may not have your new address after you move.

At Vestwell, we believe that everyone deserves the right to receive unbiased advice and quality investment services at an affordable price. We’re proud to be at the forefront of a wave of 401(k) reform. You can learn more about our offering on our website at

#XYPN17 FinTech Competition Award

By Aaron Schumm

I am pleased and humbled to share with you the great news that Vestwell has been selected as the winner of the XY Planning Network’s annual FinTech Competition.  This honor is especially meaningful because we were up against such impressive competition.

The other contenders included CSLA Tech, which has an awesome offering that helps advisors reduce the long-term consequences of student loans, as well as DataPoints, Loan Buddy, RobustWealth, ROL Advisors and Tolerisk, which are also designing amazing technology for the financial planning services community. Together, all of us are working to meet the needs of the next generation of advisors and their clients.

More than anything, this award speaks to the promise of FinTech and the need for continuous innovation. We are thankful that XY Planning selected Vestwell, as it affirms our mission to provide the next generation of solutions that advisors need and clients demand.

We are committed to keep pushing the envelope on solutions that enable every financial advisor to be able to offer their clients a low-cost, fiduciary and automated retirement platform. With these tools, advisors can focus on what they do best – building their business by focusing on establishing and nurturing exceptional customer service and relationships.

Thank you for partnering with us.  We’re looking forward to a bright future for all of us.

Turbocharge 401(k) Participation: Two Smart Strategies for Advisors to Turbocharge Retirement Plans

Two Resources, Two Effective Tactics, Two Essential Steps

By Vestwell Staff

Meet Allison. At 24, she is a second year auditor in the Boston office of a regional consulting firm. When Allison joined the firm, she sat in a room with 40 fellow recruits to listen to a mandatory presentation about the firm’s benefit package. Squeezed between inventory training and the happy hour, that session was a blur of legalese. How was she supposed to pick the right funds if they all looked the same? On her way out the door, Allison tossed the thick 401(k) paperwork package into her desk drawer. That’s where it still sits, two years later.

Robert, the IT support team leader with an office a few doors down from Allison’s desk, has his own retirement worries. Robert is a baby boomer, and fears of being unable to retire are looming large on his radar. He is a well-respected professional with a long, successful career, yet his contributions to the company’s 401(k) plan have always been just the bare minimum. While Robert worries about his lifestyle in retirement, without a clear understanding of his investment options or tools to make intelligent decisions, he struggles to find the motivation to invest more.

Allison and Robert are not alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 55% of the American workforce has access to a 401(k) plan, yet only 38% of them choose to participate. And it is not only Millennials that are not adding to their savings. Half of baby boomers, many of whom are already past their peak earning years, have retirement savings of less than $100,000.

We believe that a major source of this problem is the way that retirement plan options are presented to employees.

Many employees just like Allison and Robert are discouraged from enrolling in their company’s 401(k) plan or using it to its full advantage. Common obstacles include the cumbersome onboarding processes, confusing investment fund options, cryptic language and intimidating systems.

It does not have to be this way.

At Vestwell, we envision a future where companies can rely on retirement planning advisors to offer a new generation of plans.

Here is what the future looks like.

Retirement Plans Must Offer Customized Solutions

The problem with traditional 401(k) plans is that employees are limited by poor choices when it comes to fund options. Many 401(k) offerings have excessive costs, poor performing funds and not enough diversification opportunities to allow investors to properly manage risk. Put bluntly, these “off the shelf” product offerings force employees into portfolios that are just not good enough.

Then there is the lack of independence. Too many 401(k) plans still lock employees into proprietary funds. This practice dates back to the early 1990’s when many of the 401(k) platforms were offered through large mutual fund companies. At the time, investment options were limited to the affiliate’s funds in part because the record keeping technology did not allow a broader spectrum of investment products. Technology has since advanced, but many providers remain stuck in the past.

The solution is clear. Plan sponsors need a modern platform that will allow them to offer a wide range of independent investment options. Otherwise, underperforming and poorly managed funds will continue to limit the potential of plan participants to save enough for retirement.

Streamlined Onboarding and Plan Maintenance Are Key

Pensions were once the gold standard of retirement planning. A guarantee of retirement income was provided in exchange for years of service. Today’s 401(k) participation is anything but automatic. Employees must complete numerous paper forms and read through hundreds of pages of boilerplate disclosures. The convoluted enrollment process, combined with complex terminology, means that many employees fail to opt into their company’s 401(k) plan participation out of sheer confusion.

But it is not just employees who are exasperated and confused by the status quo.

The first 401(k) plans were launched back in 1982, yet the volume of paperwork that plan sponsors have to deal with has only increased. They also have to manually track enrollment status and participant changes and there is a stubborn lack of visibility into the fee structure of funds, which makes it difficult to compare costs across providers.

The maintenance of a 401(k) plan has become a full-time job for sponsors and the results (measured by plan participation and fund returns) leave much to be desired.

What would it take to turn 401(k) plans into the valuable engine for retirement savings that they were intended to be? We believe that the answer lies in maximizing the use of technology. If vendors and partners could automate the time-consuming and error-prone processes of enrollment, account maintenance and reporting, plan management would become much easier. Adapting the design of the plan to fit the changing needs of the plan sponsor should take a few clicks, not dozens of forms and weeks of waiting.

The benefits of automation should also extend to plan participants. Vestwell’s research shows that companies with automatic 401(k) enrollment can double employee participation rates. Other surveys have shown that employees with automated enrollment begin saving for retirement earlier. They also report that saving for retirement is easier. A strong 401(k) savings plan can go a long way towards retaining valued employees, recruiting new promising talent and creating better retirement outcomes.

Tips for advisors to turbocharge retirement plans

The current state of retirement savings enrollment is costly, cumbersome and confusing. If your company’s retirement plan participation statistics are disappointingly low, maybe it is time for a new approach. The 401(k) may not be the magical cure, but when used correctly it can be a powerful tool for creating peace of mind in your employee’s retirement.

Contact us at for more information about turning your 401(k) offering into a benefit that is easy to administer and manage.

Day of Reckoning with the DOL

By Aaron Schumm, Vestwell’s CEO and Founder

It.  Is.  Here.  Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta has made a wave in the political landscape by not further delaying the applicability date of the DOL Fiduciary Rule.  Many suspected the can would be kicked down the road, with another delay.  Without taking a political stance, this is a prime example of a highly publicized regulation not being “pared back” by the new administration by way of an executive order.

Forward-thinking shops have already moved to spiritually fulfil their fiduciary obligations – (Link).  But, as we all know, there are procrastinators.  The “wait & see” camp have been left scrambling for solutions.  The anecdote by John Castelly of Personal Capital perfectly captured the state of procrastinators, “This turnaround with a June 9 deadline is just like when we were back in school, thinking we would have a substitute teacher, so we didn’t do our homework, but the real teacher showed up instead and we are now not prepared.”

So, what does it mean for you?  Still, there remains a void that will be filled by the fiduciary rule becoming regulation on June 9.  In the simplest terms, the rule is about transparency of fees, suitability of financial products, and alignment of interests between advisor and consumer.  As it pertains to the 401(k) industry, there are a few key areas we will highlight.

Fee transparency. There can be no “hidden” fees, such as 12b-1’s, sub-transfer agent fees, etc.  Of interest to you, whether a company or an employee, might be the 408(b)2 and 404(a)5 fee schedules to understand who is being paid and how much.

Reasonable Fees. Expanding on point 1, the advisor and plan sponsor’s fiduciary responsibilities now include selecting providers and investments with a reasonable fee.  What’s a reasonable fee?  While that is debatable depending upon a number of factors, a strong argument can be made that with advent of low-cost investment products like index ETF’s and efficient technology platforms to help operationally scale, the total fees (including advisory, admin and investments)  can be totaled at well below 2%, and may be closer to 1% in practice (depending on the investments and service).

Fiduciary roles – There are 4 main areas in defined contribution plans:

    1. Named Fiduciary – This is typically borne by the plan sponsor but can also be aided by the platform provider.
    2. Named Investment Manager – If you’re picking the fund lineup for the employees, you’re picking up that responsibility.  But, investment managers, MF/ETF strategists, DCIO’s, financial advisors, and platform providers can step in to take on this role for you.  This is usually done under the SEC 3(38) and/or 3(21) construct.
    3. Named Administrator – This role is responsible for the final administrator processes on behalf of the company & employees.  Typically, the plan administrator named in the agreement is the plan sponsor.  However, it can be outsourced to a third-party administrator (TPA) and/or ERISA 3(16) provider.
    4. Named Trustee – This is the party acting as the trustee on behalf of the plan. Again, this is typically carried by the plan sponsor, but can be outsourced to a trust company or other third parties.

As the industry thankfully moves towards simplistic, fee-based, low-cost, and transparent environment, understanding the moving parts of retirement plans will become far less confusing for those less adept to 401k and 403b plans.

In every change, there is opportunity; the DOL rule may change the industry, in our eyes for the better.

If you have any questions around how the DOL rule impacts you as an advisor, company or employee, feel free to contact us here at Vestwell.  We are happy to help.

DOL Fiduciary Role Players

In response to: InvestmentNews’ Fidelity’s approach to DOL fiduciary rule rankles some 401(k) advisers

With the DOL fiduciary mandates effectively going into action, with a formal government action, financial service providers have begun to solidify their stances.

The question a provider asks themselves – Do I want to be a fiduciary to the plan sponsor and/or the participants?  Now, if you’re a provider that works with financial advisors and their clients, the answer is not black or white.

401(k) plans have been around nearly 40 years. During that time, they have been sliced one thousand ways, centering around different value propositions of the respective firms.  And for those of us that have spent a career working with financial advisors, we all know each advisor is unique in how they want to service their clients.

However, in lieu of the impending DOL fiduciary rule, some of the largest providers in the space have taken it upon themselves to push past their financial advisory network and strong-arm plan sponsor into a fiduciary offering that may not align with the advisor of record on the plan, nor the plan sponsor’s preference.  Firms have gone as far as sending 60-day negative consent letters to plan sponsors, whereby the they will be the named fiduciary for the plan sponsor as well as their employee participants.

Now, it can be applauded that firms taking this approach are looking out for their plan sponsor and participant clients.  But, where does that leave the advisors who want to help facilitate these important roles in the relationship?

There is still a lack of clarity about how far the “implemented” DOL fiduciary standards will go, but it is clear that the best interest of all parties will be front and center.  Many advisory firms have built their practices around this, dating back long before the DOL stepped in, simply to be pushed aside by their “partner” record-keeping and custodial providers, who want to play that role instead.  This will leave many advisors displeased, scrambling to articulate where they stand in their plan sponsor client relationships.

We believe that advisors should be enabled to play the roles in their client relationships where they feel they add the most value to their clients.  If s/he feels value is driven by the fiduciary services provided, and s/he wants to provide that service, that should be encouraged.  If the value prop is around investment selection, education, or advice, then they should provide that.  As the rule solidifies, and advisors get more comfortable with the new regulations, we will see increasing numbers of advisors offering fiduciary services to their list of client value add.

To encourage growing and enabling advisors, providers need to remain flexible around their platform and service capabilities.  The DC/DB plans need to be configured to compliment the services and advisor wishes to provide.  When servicing advisors, plan sponsors, and participants, we emphasize to advisors to think of us as an extension of their firm.   They provide the services they want to provide, and we round out the rest, as fiduciary or otherwise, acting as their technology and business support.

Just as the industry is constantly evolving, so are advisors.  We, as technology and services providers need to be there to equip advisors for the future of their businesses. 

Things to Consider Before Deciding on a Multiple Employer Plan (MEP)

Vestwell’s VP of Business Development, Elsa Chan, recently wrote an article about the important choices that companies face when selecting a retirement plan.

With MEP resurfacing as PEP in a recent legislation proposed by Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), a lot of advisors have asked me about MEP. I wrote this blog to open a dialogue with advisors and other industry stakeholders who are considering a MEP/PEP.

History of MEP
One-third of Americans have $0 saved for retirement. As many as 76 million people work for companies that don’t offer retirement benefits, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute. Yet according to AARP, workers are 15 times more likely to save when they have access to a retirement plan.

Read the rest of the article on LinkedIn