Reasonable Compensation for IRAs: When and How Long?

This is my twenty-sixth article about interesting observations concerning the fiduciary rule and exemptions.

This article is a little different than most of my previous posts. However, it is equally as important. To get to the point, I am writing this article about reasonable compensation for advice to IRAs because of a common misunderstanding about the requirement.

In the last month or two, I have seen a number of articles and heard several comments to the effect that it will be difficult to determine reasonable compensation for IRAs because the rule is so new. Stated a little differently, the point is that the reasonable compensation requirement for IRAs will first become effective on April 10, 2017. That is not correct.

Section 4975(c)(1)(C) provides that the “furnishing of . . . services . . . between a plan and a disqualified person” is a prohibited transaction. However, section 4975(d)(2) permits, as an exception to that general prohibition, “any contract, or reasonable arrangement, made with a disqualified person for . . . services necessary for the establishment or operation of a plan, if no more than reasonable compensation is paid therefor.” (Section 4975(e)(2) defines a “disqualified” person as “a person providing services to the plan.” Then, 4975(e)(1)(B) defines a “plan” as “an individual retirement account.” And, (C) includes “an individual retirement annuity.”)

In other words, the reasonable compensation limitation is not new. It’s been with us for decades.

But, if that’s the case, why hasn’t there been more discussion and, in the bigger picture, more enforcement of the rule? There are two reasons. The first is that, by and large, the rule has been ignored. How is that possible? That’s because only the Internal Revenue Service can enforce the rule, but it hasn’t. In this case, the 15% excise tax under section 4975 would be enforced against the service provider, that is, the adviser. But, if the rule has been in effect for years without much publicity, why is there so much discussion now?

The answer is that the Department of Labor has, in conjunction with the fiduciary rule, issued two exemptions—84-24 for life insurance policies and fixed rate annuities, and the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE) for any and all investments that can be sold to plans and IRAs. Both of those exemptions—which are needed where prohibited compensation results from the investment or insurance recommendation—limit the adviser’s compensation for recommended investments and insurance products to be no more than a reasonable amount. In the case of BICE, for example, the Financial Institution (e.g., the broker-dealer) must agree that its compensation and the adviser’s compensation for their services will not exceed a reasonable amount. IRA and plan investors will be able to pursue breach of contract claims for excess compensation.

So, while the law limiting the compensation of advisers (and Financial Institutions) is not new, the enforcement mechanism will be.

While the new rules seem burdensome, I believe that a variety of services will be developed to assist Financial Institutions in determining reasonable compensation for different levels of services related to different types of products.