Discretionary Trustees vs. Directed Trustees

Trustees Catherine Ripley and Ken Gibson
Image by dave.cournoyer via Flickr

Plan sponsors need to understand that their service provider does not, ordinarily, assume any fiducisry liability. Many service providers use a marketing gimmick to sell plans by making empty promises. If you read the fine print a ‘fiduciary warranty’ offers virtually no protection.

Perceptions and Reality
A directed trustee is the most common kind of trustee associated with plan assets. The functions assigned to the trustee in most standardized plan documents and trust agreements such as prototype plans are those of a directed trustee. In many cases, a directed trustee is a trust company that provides an asset custody service as part of a mutual fund family that offers bundled record-keeping services such as the case with Fidelity Management Trust Company and the Fidelity investment arm in DeFelice, and Merrill Lynch Trust Company and the Merrill Lynch investment arm in WorldCom.The perception that trust companies and other such entities ordinarily provide legal protection to plan sponsors for the selection, monitoring, and replacement of plan assets is wrong. While the custodial and trustee services offered by trust companies and other such entities are valuable, even a directed trustee under ERISA, such as a trust company, cannot offer plan sponsors legal cover simply because their agreements with these sponsors make sure that the sponsors–not the directed trustee–remain ultimately liable for plan assets, in accordance with the law of ERISA.

As I’ve noted in previous columns, mother always said to read the fine print. So once again, I’ll remind advisors to remind their fiduciary clients to read their agreements with trust companies and other such entities because it is usually these documents that will govern the ultimate legal liability of their clients, not oral sales representations or written sales brochures.

Plan sponsors need to understand the difference between marketing gimmicks and actual transfer of risk.

Please comment or call to discuss how this affects you and your company retirement plan.

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