DOL FAQs on 408(b)(2) Fiduciary Disclosures

This is my 57th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

The Department of Labor has issued a new set of “Conflict of Interest FAQs (408(b)(2) Disclosure Transition Period, Recommendations to Increase Contributions and Plan Participation).”

This article discusses the DOL’s relief from the 408(b)(2) requirement that a “change” notice be given for advisers who became fiduciaries to ERISA-governed retirement plans because of the June 9th expansion of the definition of fiduciary advice.

Before getting into the details of the relief, let’s look at what the DOL’s FAQs did not do. First, if an adviser (or his or her supervisory entity) was a fiduciary, functional or acknowledged, before June 9th, but did not give a 408(b)(2) notice of fiduciary status, that is not covered. In other words, it is a violation that is not remedied by the Department of Labor’s guidance. Second, the relief does not cover new relationships with retirement plans after June 9th. That is, if an adviser started working with a new plan after June 9th, and the adviser is a fiduciary under the new regulatory definition, that would need to be acknowledged in the 408(b)(2) disclosures given to the plan fiduciaries. Third, if the adviser’s prior 408(b)(2) disclosures, or agreement, stated that the adviser (and his or her supervisory entity) is not a fiduciary, then relief is not provided and a disclosure must be given.

So, what does that leave?

The DOL’s relief applies where the adviser provided a non-fiduciary service to an ERISA plan prior to June 9th, but became a fiduciary on June 9th solely because of the change of definition. But, the relief from disclosing the new fiduciary status only applies if “the covered service provider furnishes an accurate and complete description of the services that will be performed under the contract or arrangement with the plan, including the services that would make the covered service provider an investment fiduciary under the currently applicable Fiduciary Rule.”

In other words, the covered service provider (for example, a broker-dealer) must provide an accurate and complete description of its fiduciary services. For example, those services could be recommendations about the selection and monitoring of the investments in a 401(k) plan. My experience is that, few—if any—broker-dealers made that representation in their previous 408(b)(2) disclosures (since it would have resulted in fiduciary status under the old rules). As a result, it is likely that advisers, and their supervisory entities, will need, at the least, to give more detailed descriptions of their services in order to take advantage of the 408(b)(2) relief. Needless to say, that should be done as soon as possible. (Technically, the DOL FAQs say that these disclosures should be made “as soon as practicable after June 9, 2017, even if more than 60 days after June 9, 2017.”)

Even if those conditions are satisfied and, therefore, the relief is available, the requirement for the 408(b)(2) fiduciary notice is only delayed until the applicability date of the final exemptions (that is, the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE) and the Principal Transactions Exemption). If the fiduciary definition remains the same, or substantially similar, the pre-June 9th 408(b)(2) disclosures will need to be updated at that time to declare fiduciary status. However, there is at least an outside chance that the regulation will be modified to define some sales practices as non-fiduciary. Obviously, if that change is made, there would not be a need to disclose fiduciary status for those non-fiduciary sales practices.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.