Advisor Service Agreements: The Weak Link

Today's blog post is provided, courtesy of Mr. Phil Chiricotti, President of the Center for Due Diligence. Since the topic of contract review as an important element of proper due diligence is one which I have addressed elsewhere on www.pensionriskmatters.com and in my articles and speeches, I asked Phil for permission to reprint his article and he kindly agreed.         

                                          Advisor Service Agreements: The Weak Link

Enormous attention has been centered on retirement plan fees in recent years, including the new 408(b)(2)disclosure requirements. The liability has also increased for those who fail to comply. Lost in this shuffle is the fact that fees are only one piece of the puzzle.

While a well drafted, reviewed and understood service agreement can help preclude errors and claims, the service agreement is also the primary defense against liability caused by service provider mistakes and negligence. In spite of this important role, many plan sponsors - particularly small plan sponsors - sign standard service agreements without adequate review or counsel.

In addition to agreeing to vague service agreements, some sponsors engage advisors without a service agreement or verification of insurance coverage and bonding. As noted many times, most small plan sponsors also lack first party fiduciary liability insurance. A combination of the aforementioned is nothing less than a nuclear accident waiting to happen.

The DOL's new regulations provide an increase in both fee disclosure and clarity for comparative shopping, but 408(b)(2) does not preclude the need for an equitable service agreement. In our minds, the service agreement remains a weak link in the advisor vetting process, particularly in the small plan market. Indeed, the service agreement may not even reflect what was discussed and/or negotiated during the vetting process.

As noted by many attorneys, ERISA's primary focus has been on regulating the relationship between plan sponsors and participants. Beyond prohibited transactions and prior to the DOL's new disclosure regulations, little guidance was provided on how to manage the relationship between sponsors and service providers, including those assuming a fiduciary role.

The courts have not spoken uniformly about recourse between the plan and outside fiduciaries, but the plan sponsor's supervisory role, or the lack of it, has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Because errors and disputes are a fact of life, it is long past time for the service agreement to become an integral part of the advisor vetting process from the beginning.

 

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