Leveraging Technology to Scale Fiduciary Processes

People throw out a lot of buzz words (cloud computing, big data, etc.) in talking about financial technologies. We focused on pragmatic application of technology to financial advisor workflows; allowing them to serve more clients with the same resources.

Leveraging Technology to Scale Fiduciary Processes

technology

What Does Being a “Fiduciary” Mean, Exactly?

fiduciary insights
Any individual or organization that exercises discretion regarding their plan or any plan assets is a fiduciary, which is one of the highest standards in the law. So what does this mean in practice?

OVERSEEING SERVICE PROVIDERS

While plan sponsors can delegate many responsibilities of managing a retirement plan to service providers such as recordkeepers, investment advisors, and others, a plan sponsor cannot completely wash their hands of all fiduciary duty. A plan sponsor must carefully select and monitor their service providers, and is ultimately liable for ensuring the providers are doing right by their employees.

ACTING IN EMPLOYEES’ BEST INTERESTS

A fiduciary must exercise a duty of loyalty by operating the plan in the best interests of participants. After all, the plan sponsor is caring for their employees’ retirement assets. Proceed with caution when considering hiring plan providers that also do work for the company or individual owners. The plan sponsor should not receive any kind of compensation or anything of value from operating the plan. Consider the “smell test.”

SELECTING APPROPRIATE INVESTMENT OPTIONS

Plan sponsors should make sure that participants are offered a diversified set of investment options at reasonable cost, though that doesn’t mean they need to have the lowest fees. However, selecting  the initial plan lineup is not a “set it and forget it” exercise. Sponsors should continue to monitor the investment options available to participants to ensure they are offered investment options that will balance their risk and help meet their retirement goals.

FOLLOWING THE PLAN DOCUMENT

Plan sponsors must operate the plan in accordance with the terms of the plan document. Disconnects are common and usually arise in connection with administering loans, using the wrong definition of “compensation” for purposes of calculating benefits, and with submitting late remittances. Failure to comply can  become an issue, but fortunately, corrective actions are well spelled out by regulators and easy to fix.

MAINTAINING RECORDS

The best protection of all is for plan sponsors to know their plan documents, know what their service providers are doing to support the plan, and make careful decisions – and document them – about all activities relating to the plan. Have on hand all documents that show the plan sponsor’s decision-making process and actions  taken for the benefit of participants as well as how decisions are implemented consistent with terms of the plan. Keep all of those records permanently.

PROTECTING AGAINST LOSSES

Fiduciaries must have an ERISA bond and should consider obtaining fiduciary insurance to cover any losses to the plan caused by a fiduciary breach.

The rules are complicated and the waters are muddied. But there are many resources available to you for more education about your fiduciary duties. Vestwell and Goodwin Procter offer regular webinars on this topic, and we also recommend free programs offered by the Department of Labor.

3 Steps to a Smoother Plan Audit

audit

By Allison Brecher, General Counsel, Vestwell 

If your plan has 100 or more participants, it’s time to prepare for an annual plan audit. A typical audit examines two things: compliance with various tax and regulatory requirements and the accuracy of financial reporting on the plan’s Form 5500. Whether your plan already has 100 participants or you anticipate growing to this size in the future, there are steps you can take now to make the audit process go more smoothly – and save you some headaches along the way.

1. Collect Important documents

Every audit is different, depending on the nature and complexity of your plan, but one thing is certain: the auditors will want to see documentation. These documents must substantiate the amounts selected for processing contributions, benefit payments, deferral changes, and all other employee and employer contributions. As a best practice, keep the following documents in an easily accessible place:

  • Adoption agreements and amendments
  • Payroll files
  • Benefit selection forms
  • Contracts with plan service providers
  • Meeting notes from plan sponsor’s benefit committees, if applicable
  • All other plan-related documentation

As a best practice, work with your recordkeeper to store and coordinate the delivery of these documents to the auditor.

 

2. Make sure your plan’s operations follow the plan document

Once you have collected relevant documents, ensure your plan’s operations are running as outlined. You can save considerable time by reviewing the plan documents for ambiguous provisions as well as by making sure the plan is being administered in a way that’s consistent with the your intentions. This includes looking at things such as the effective date of plan amendments and current loan policy statements. Make sure the plan’s service providers also have the current plan documents and confirm they are following them.

One particular area to focus on is defining what “compensation” is eligible for deferrals and employer matches. Some plans define compensation as “all compensation reported for W-2 purposes” which would include salary, tips, and bonuses and exclude moving expenses and deferred compensation. A mismatch can occur when the payroll system is set up without aligning with the plan’s definitions, resulting in overpayments to participants. This can be a time consuming and expensive issue to correct down the road.

 

3. Automate processes where possible

Manual procedures are prone to error, so evaluate areas where administration can be automated. For example, auto-enrollment and auto-escalation are effective ways to ensure that all eligible employees are aware of your retirement plan offering and have the opportunity to participate or opt-out. Another good automation is around payroll integration. Ask your recordkeeper if it can obtain payroll files and data fees directly from your payroll provider so that you don’t have to spend time following up with your employees. This will minimize the risk of denying eligible employees access to the plan.

Going through a plan audit can seem like a daunting task, but taking the time to prepare in advance will make  managing your fiduciary responsibilities much easier. Between collecting plan documents, ensuring you and service providers are aligned, and automating processes, you’ll establish habits that help keep your plan compliant this year and for years to come.

How to Know When It’s Time to Switch Your Service Provider

service provider

By Allison Brecher, General Counsel, Vestwell

The new year is a great time to take stock of your company offerings and, for plan sponsors, that should include a thorough review of your retirement plan. With fiduciary duty on the line, not taking the time to carefully review and make any changes can be a costly mistake. But how do you know when it may be time to pull the plug and switch your service provider, rather than just make tweaks to your plan? Here are some things to keep an eye out for.

Your service provider is not proactive about compliance and/or charges extra to keep your plan compliant

Tax savings is often a main driver for offering a retirement plan, but your plan can lose its tax qualified status and fiduciaries can become liable for potentially significant penalties if your service provider falls short on compliance. Is your recordkeeper proactively monitoring your plan and complying with the legal and regulatory requirements? Or does it only get involved after an issue arises, which can be years later and typically more time consuming and costly to correct? Does your provider review your plan documents for compliance with changing regulations and prepare any necessary amendments?  Or do they alert you to regulatory changes and leave the rest in your hands?

Your service provider does not have adequate data security protections

Think about the kind of data your service provider has on your employees and then think about what can happen if that data gets into the wrong hands. A data breach can put your employees’ personal information at risk, create strained relationships with your workforce, and expose company fiduciaries to liability. It’s important to know how your service provider protects your employees’ information and what it will do when something goes wrong. Most importantly, your provider should:

Have information security protocols in place that have been independently tested and verified by outside experts. In particular, your provider should encrypt all of your employees’ data and store it securely at all times.

Stand behind its procedures by agreeing to pay for and handle instances when data becomes compromised.

Be willing to report any data security incidents to you within 24 hours.

Have cyber coverage to make sure your company is protected and that the amount of coverage is sufficient.

Always be able to restore employees’ data and accounts with minimal or no downtime and disruption. Especially in the current volatile market, your employees should be able to access their accounts 24/7.

Your provider’s fees are unreasonable

It is critical to dig into the details of your recordkeeper’s fees, especially in light of the numerous class actions where plan sponsors and fiduciaries are being sued for operating a plan with allegedly excessive fees. You do not need to select the least expensive provider, but you do need to make sure the fees are reasonable for the services provided. Some things to look out for include:

Fees that are disguised by being included with mutual fund expenses  – – sometimes in the proprietary funds offered by affiliates of your recordkeeper – – that are then kicked back to the recordkeeper. Make sure your provider has disclosed all such conflicts of interest.

Services that cost extra, since some providers will charge sponsors for things such as compliance activities and plan document reviews.

Fees that are reasonable in comparison with others. However, you  cannot know for sure whether a service provider’s fees are reasonable until you ask and shop around. You can do that by getting proposals from other providers or benchmarking their fees. If you determine that your provider’s fees are excessive, you have no choice but to get them reduced and, if your provider refuses, you must terminate them in order to avoid violating your fiduciary duties.

Advisors have a golden opportunity to help sponsor clients understand what they’re getting and the reasonableness of the charges. While some plan sponsors may want to avoid change due to the change management associated with switching providers, the implications of staying with the wrong provider are far greater.

Not Knowing Your Plan’s Fees Can Cost You Plenty

By Allison Brecher, General Counsel, Vestwell

In order to make good investment decisions, it’s important to be informed. Yet one of the more impactful components of any retirement plan is also the area where employers and participants tend to feel least clear: plan fees. While fees are not the only consideration when creating your portfolio or selecting service providers to the plan, high fees can erode retirement savings for participants and can create fiduciary – ie: personal – liability for you, the plan sponsors.

Despite the risks, many sponsors don’t take the time to carefully examine their plan fees or, worse yet, needlessly increase their risk by overpaying service providers who may be charging “hidden” fees. What you don’t see can hurt you, but what questions should you ask to prevent these pitfalls?

First, let’s understand what services are being provided to a typical retirement plan. There are three general categories:

Investment advisory – investment advisors select the investment lineup that they believe is suitable for the plan.

Administration  – recordkeepers and other service providers keep track of the transactions in your account, such as payroll deductions and employer contributions, and make sure the plan is operated in compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.

Direct charges – participants and sponsors are charged for services specifically provided to them, such as for loans, hardship withdrawals, or amending the plan.

All of these services are necessary to successfully operate a qualified retirement plan and, while there is nothing wrong with getting paid, the challenge is to understand how these service providers get paid, the reasonableness of the fee in light of the value of the services, and whether the fee has been disclosed. Unfortunately, it is often not as simple as just asking the service providers because these fees can be embedded in the expense ratios of the mutual funds offered in the investment lineup.

Given all this, how can you get to the bottom of what you’re actually paying and what you’re getting in exchange for those fees?

1. Start with the documents

You should have just received year-end fee disclosures that list all of the expenses paid by the plan. Those notices and the plan’s benefits statements will help you understand the total plan-related fees charged to their account. The plan administrator should be able to provide a list of all direct service charges. All of the expenses paid by the plan or individual participants should be clearly itemized; if they are not, you should probably ask why.

2. Understand share class

Very large employers get the benefit of being able to invest in institutional share classes, which often have lower costs. Some mutual funds create a share class specifically for smaller retirement plans, called Sub-TA fees, which include the fees paid to recordkeepers, plan administrators, or other providers. In other words, the providers’ fees are aggregated with the mutual funds’ expenses and therefore make it impossible for plan sponsors to separately identify and benchmark them. However, you can ask for them to be itemized separately. If you don’t know or understand your share class, you should find out. If you are in one with a high cost, you can insist that your plan be placed in one with lower expenses.

3. Understand conflicts of interest

If your plan provider is an insurance company, there is a good chance your plan’s investments are variable annuities and not mutual funds. Variable annuities are mutual funds owned by an insurance company “wrapped” or protected by an insurance policy, thus increasing expenses with “wrap fees,” surrender charges, or sales commissions in the process. Those fees can turn a low cost mutual fund into an expensive and illiquid investment. The same could be true for plans supported by a mutual fund provider, which has a built-in incentive to use its own funds as part of the investment lineup. Conflicts of interest are not inherently wrong; they just must be disclosed so that the plan sponsor can make informed decisions.

4. Ask about revenue sharing

While the word “kickback” could make you cringe, revenue sharing is just that—a payment made by a mutual fund to compensate service providers that use their funds. Salespeople, brokers, and insurance agents may receive finders’ fees for bringing new business to the mutual funds or negotiated loyalty incentive compensation. Regardless of the type of fee, they are all revenue sharing and they increase the investment’s expenses and reduce investor returns. Sometimes these fees are disclosed as 12(b)-1 fees, but sometimes fund companies pay different levels of fees through multiple share classes. You should ask your investment advisor or read the prospectus. Don’t overlook footnotes about how your plan expenses “may notinclude any contract-level or participant recordkeeping charges. Such charges, if applicable, will reduce the value of a participant’s account.” That is likely a red flag telling you there may be hidden fees.Ask your investment advisor whether it is receiving 12(b)-1 fees, the annual value of those fees, and whether your same mutual funds can be purchased for a different share class with lower revenue sharing fees.

5. Investigate transaction fees

These fees can be especially difficult to understand, yet they are one of the largest expenses that a participant can bear. Every time a mutual fund manager buys or sells the underlying securities within a mutual fund, there is a cost to the trade. Actively managed funds have higher transaction costs than passive funds, like index-based funds, and the participants’ investment returns are reduced by the cost of those trades. While transaction costs cannot be avoided entirely in actively managed funds, they can include brokerage commissions and other compensation paid to the service provider that should be scrutinized. Transaction fees can be found (often with some difficulty) in a fund’s Statement of Additional Information and annual report.

So how are the fees justified? There is nothing wrong with compensating service providers; again, they perform necessary services to successfully operate a qualified retirement plan. But sponsors must ask what services justify these fees and whether the provider yielded material results for participants and beneficiaries. In short, the question fiduciaries should be asking is:  Do these fees exist to pay for reasonable, legitimate, and valuable services that benefit participants of qualified retirement plans and enhance their retirement security?  Or do they exist to support the financial services industry at the expense of participants?

You can largely avoid these issues altogether by investing in lower cost mutual funds, like Exchange Traded Funds or Target Date Funds, and consider using service providers that are not financially incentivized to use certain mutual funds as plan investments. You should be asking yourself the ultimate question regularly:  Have I properly investigated and paid only those fees that were appropriate and reasonable? Hopefully after addressing the questions above, your answer will be “yes”.

 

Plan Sponsor Record Retention Guide

retention guide

Between hiring, benefits, meetings, and day-to-day management, employers have a lot to do in addition to being fiduciaries. As several sponsors approach year end for their plans, help them prepare by sharing this simplified record retention guide.

What to Consider When It Comes to 404(c) & QDIA Compliance

QDIA

In order to receive the benefits of ERISA §404(c), plan fiduciaries must comply with certain requirements. The following recommendations will help advisors and plan sponsors evaluate their efforts.

1. Fiduciaries should not “set it and forget it” when it comes to Target Date Funds (TDFs).

Fiduciaries should follow an objective process to evaluate TDFs, understand the TDFs’ investments and fees, and periodically review them. Key areas of focus and questions to consider include:

  • Review the fund lineup to ensure it includes a review of the funds included in the TDF and the individual managers that oversee the TDF. When considering a pre-packaged product offered by an investment firm that may also serve as the plan recordkeeper in bundled situations, examine whether the TDF comprises only proprietary funds of a single firm. Don’t fail to compare other available options without proprietary funds.
  • “To” versus “through” matters. Off-the-shelf TDFs are not customized to the specific circumstances and characteristics of particular plans. Decide whether the TDFs’ glidepath of “to retirement” or “through retirement” is appropriate. Consider, for example, participants’ contribution and withdrawal patterns, the average retirement age, and the existence of other benefit programs, all of which can affect the investment time horizon for the TDF.
  • Managing fees is important since they directly erode participants’ assets and they can vary significantly. Pre-packaged TDFs may include bundled fees including asset management fees for the various investment mandates. Bundled fees may be appropriate, but fiduciaries must understand the fee structure and components to accurately compare TDF products. If the expense ratios of the individual component funds are substantially less than the overall TDF, fiduciaries should ask what services and expenses make up the difference.
  • If the TDF is not pre-packaged, make sure the TDF provider understands the other benefit plans offered by the sponsor, including traditional defined benefit plans, salary levels, turnover rates, contribution rates and withdrawal patterns so that the sponsor and provider can together consider the impact of the TDF’s glidepath and asset allocations on the employee population.
2. Advisors can develop custom ETFs to help plans meet their fiduciary duties and control the risk exposures and fees for participants, but must be sure they are appropriate for the plan. Some questions to consider:
  • What asset classes does it include and how does the glide path progress?
  • Should the fund include alternative investments, and, if so, what would be the appropriate investment allocation.
  • What is the mix of active and passive management?
  • What are reasonable fee levels?
  • Do any pre-packaged TDFs satisfy the analysis?
  • What is the best way to implement the custom TDF?
3. If you’re considering ESG investments as part of a plan lineup, consider competing views.

Selecting an ESG-themed investment option without regard to possibly different or competing views of plan participants or the returns of comparable non-ESG options would raise questions about the fiduciary’s compliance with ERISA. For example, selecting as ESG target date fund as a QDIA would not be prudent if the fund would provide a lower expected rate of return than available non-ESG alternative target date funds with similar degrees of risk.

4. For plans that include TDFs with a lifetime annuity option, make sure the fund satisfies IRS requirements in order to avoid separate nondiscrimination tests.

Most of those options are only offered to older employees and they cannot include certain employer securities that are not readily tradeable on an established securities market, as well as other regulatory requirements.

5. Don’t blindly recycle last year’s QDIA notice.

If the plan provides default investment options for participants who fail to make affirmative selections, make sure participants receive a QDIA notice that complies with legal requirements. Participants must be provided with the notice 30 days in advance of the effective date and each year. They should also be given the prospectus, any material relating to voting, tender or similar rights provided to the plan, a fee disclosure statement, and information about the plan’s other investment alternatives. The investments comprising the QDIA should also be reviewed to make sure they satisfy DOL Reg § 2550.404c-5(e).

6. Check all documents thoroughly.

Plan fiduciaries should check the plan’s investment policy statement, investment management agreement, investment guidelines and related plan documentation to ensure that any investment option is permitted by the plan.

7. Make sure to document the evaluation of these and other appropriate considerations and keep it in a centralized file.

While you’re at it, calendar future review dates so that they don’t get overlooked. Some questions to ask:

  • Has the fund’s strategy or management team changed significantly?
  • Is the manager effectively carrying out the fund’s stated objective?
  • Has the plan’s objectives changed and should any funds in the lineup be changed?
  • Review the fund’s prospectus and offering statement. Do the fiduciaries understand the strategies and risks? Do any TDFs continue to invest in volatile assets even after the target date and, if so, do the fiduciaries understand and have they clearly communicated that to participants?
8. Revisit employee communications.

Employees should understand the investment options available to them and communications should be written with a style and content appropriate for the workforce. If they do not understand a TDF’s glidepath when they invest, for example, they may be surprised later if it turns out not to be a good fit for them. Consider surveying employees or a sample of them to make sure they understand.

Questions?

 

 

Allison Brecher
Vestwell
allison.brecher@vestwell.com

 

 

Carol Buckmann
Cohen & Buckmann
carol@cohenbuckmann.com

Lauri London
Cohen & Buckmann
lauri@cohenbuckmann.com

Keeping your clients compliant amidst tax code changes

tax code

Mid-year is a great time to review your company’s retirement plan to make sure it complies with all legal and operational requirements. This is especially true given the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) that was signed into law in late 2017, which changed the tax code in several ways that may impact your plan. We’ve identified a few key areas we believe deserve a second look.

Ensure you’re complying with new fringe benefit provisions

Usually plan sponsors have a generous remedial period in which to make any necessary plan amendments to comply with changes to the tax code, but not so in the case of employer-provided transportation fringe benefits and loans. Several of TCJA’s changes took effect January 1, 2018.

* Employees must include moving expenses paid for by the employer in gross income unless the employee is a member of the Armed Forces on active duty or needs to move pursuant to military order.

* Employer-sponsored commuting benefits must now be included in gross income, except for some “de minimis” fringe benefits like transit pass or parking benefits of $21 or less. This may be an especially important issue for employers in Washington, DC, New York, or other states that require employers to offer these benefits. Employees can exclude from gross income occasional overtime transportation and some transportation costs for safety concerns that are paid by the employer.

* The TCJA also expands the time period for an employee who terminates employment or separates from service with an outstanding loan to repay the loan or roll over any distribution to the due date for filing the employee’s tax return for that year (including extensions).

* For employers based in Puerto Rico and other hurricane-affected areas, the TCJA also includes disaster relief on plan distributions.

Make necessary plan amendments now to avoid operational errors in the future

The TCJA changes may necessitate plan amendments so that plans align with current legal requirements. For instance, if your plan defines compensation to exclude employer provided transportation benefits in gross income, those provisions need to be changed to comply with the TCJA. Retirement plans that do not provide hurricane relief will also need to be amended by December 31st. You may need to make similar changes to any loan provisions of your plan.

Once you’ve made the necessary changes, it’s important to ensure your payroll system is coded consistently with the plan document. If not, the result is an operational error that could be very expensive and time consuming for the employer to fix. It is also a common finding in a DOL or IRS audit, which could have other implications for your plan.

Consider reviewing plan design to best support employees

With the TCJA bringing corporate tax rates to unprecedented low levels, some employers are using their windfalls to reward employees with salary increases, matches, and bonuses. This is great news for retirement plans since these benefits translate into more efficient retirement savings.

Now that the TCJA has been in effect for about six months, it may be a good time for sponsors to review their plan designs to make sure the plan serves your goals such as helping employees boost their retirement savings, attracting and retaining talent, or maximizing tax savings. Now may be the right time to implement automatic enrollment or escalation features, start or increase the default savings rate, or allow Roth contributions. Sponsors should also consider revising the plan’s eligibility rules to encourage employees to start saving sooner. Employers can also reduce turnover through an attractive employer match programs.  You can benchmark your matching program against peers and evaluate whether the match or the scope of employee deferrals matched needs to be changed to meet your financial or cash flow needs.

There will be more legislative activity in the coming year that could affect your retirement plan, with everything from requiring after-tax contributions to expanding availability of multiple employer plans.  It is a good idea to get into the habit now of making sure your plan is ready for even more changes ahead.

Understanding the Risks of Being a 3(38) Fiduciary

3(38) fiduciary

Retirement plan sponsors often turn to their financial advisors to help them handle key responsibilities. Since navigating the legalities and complexities of retirement plans is typically not their core competency, it’s natural for plan sponsors to offload many of the associated tasks required for proper plan administration.

Enter your role as a 3(38) fiduciary.

While you may welcome the business relationship of being assigned as the 3(38) fiduciary, it’s also important to understand the legal implications and risks involved with performing the role.

What’s a 3(38)?

In a retirement plan, 3(38) fiduciaries are given discretion over most decisions regarding investment choices, such as implementing the lineup of suitable and appropriate investment options to be offered in the plan. While plan sponsors are still responsible for overseeing these fiduciaries, they generally transfer much of the risk and responsibility associated with plan monitoring and selection over to a 3(38) fiduciary.

This is unlike the role of a 3(21) fiduciary, also known as a “co-fiduciary,” who has less authority when it comes to plan decisions. While plan sponsors may rely on the advice of a 3(21) fiduciary’s investment analyses and recommendations, it is ultimately the plan sponsor’s role to make major investment plan selections.

Today, the latter relationship is more common, with 82% of retirement plan advisors serving as 3(21) fiduciaries, despite the the number of 3(38) offerings doubling since 2011, likely due to the rise in litigation targeting 401(k) plan sponsors.

With great power, comes great responsibility

While you may charge a premium for performing the 3(38) role, you may not wish to take on the added risk of fulfilling much of the ERISA plan sponsor’s legal requirements. This is especially true for smaller plans where you may not be able to make the business case for the services involved. It’s worth considering the amount of business you’ll be providing in relation to the responsibility that comes with it.

As a 3(38) fiduciary, you are committing to serve as the formal investment manager for an employer’s plan. As such, you will be required to provide regular fiduciary reports to the plan sponsor, and document your rationale for investment and fund change recommendations as well as any time you execute on said recommendations.

Adherence to IPS

With the addition of full investment discretion, you must document that you are adhering to the plan’s Investment Policy Statement (IPS), and that all investment decisions are made in the plan participants’ best interests. You may even be asked to help develop an IPS. Importantly, as a 3(38) fiduciary, your processes and methods must be that much more detailed and circumspect than those of a 3(21) fiduciary.

Expertise Required

Being a 3(38) fiduciary is a specialized role that requires specialized expertise. Advisors who dabble in the 401(k) space and advise only a few plans may not wish to take on the responsibility – and liability – required. Fortunately, that’s where external providers can help with the heavy lifting. Integrated solutions now offer you the option to offload the certain levels of fiduciary liability while still putting the power in the advisor’s hands to personally guide clients with their retirement decisions. We recommend exploring how these options ease the fiduciary liability you carry while giving your sponsors and participants the customized plans and advice they value most from their trusted advisor.

 

Your Clients’ Plan Audit Qs, Answered

 

Plan Audit

If your plan sponsors aren’t already, they should be preparing their year-end report. The penalties for failing to conduct an audit can be substantial. Issues can surface during the audit that may be easier and less expensive to correct now versus down the road.

For plans with 100 or more eligible participants at the start of the plan year, the annual report must include an audit report issued by an independent qualified public account stating whether the plan’s financial statements conform with generally accepted accounting principles. An audit should comfort participants, knowing their plan’s operating processes are in good order.

We’ve put together some common questions and answers to help your plan sponsor understand the audit rules – and so you can ensure your clients are taking them seriously.

IS THE PLAN EXEMPT FROM THE AUDIT REQUIREMENTS?  

Governmental plans, church plans, and certain 403(b) plans that qualify under safe harbor are exempt from the audit requirements.

HOW DOES A PLAN SPONSOR FIND AN AUDITOR?

ERISA requires that the auditor be independent. and Sponsors should utilize a firm that is separate from the employer’s accounting firm and does not do any other business with the company or any of its directors or owners.

HOW IS THE NUMBER OF ELIGIBLE PARTICIPANTS CALCULATED?

The eligibility rules can be complicated.  In general, plans with 80 to 120 participants at the beginning of the current plan year may choose to complete the current annual report using the same “large plan” or “small plan” category used for the previous year. If the Plan previously filed as a “small plan” last year, it may wish to again for the following plan year.

WHAT DOCUMENTS DO PLAN SPONSORS NEED TO PROVIDE?

Every audit is different, but the auditor will likely need to review records relating to participant enrollment, plan contributions and distributions, auto-enrollment, and payroll files. Sponsors may need to provide records relating to tax compliance, related party transactions, and the Plan’s benefits committee (if it has one).

HOW LONG WILL THE AUDIT TAKE?

Sponsors should begin the audit process at least 90 days before the Form 5500 deadline to allow enough time to gather documents, follow up on open items, prepare financial statements, and wrap up.

HOW MUCH WILL THE AUDIT COST?

An auditor may charge $2,500 – $10,000, or more, depending on the size and complexity of the plan.