How a New Rule Could Change the Way Advisers Handle Your Retirement Money

It seems like an issue everyone can agree on: Financial professionals should be required to handle our retirement money with the utmost care, putting investors’ interests first.

But that type of care comes in degrees, and deciding exactly how far advisers should go has been the center of heated debate for nearly 15 years, pitting financial industry stakeholders, who argue their existing regulatory framework is enough, against the U.S. Labor Department, the retirement plan regulator, which says there are gaping holes.

The issue has re-emerged as the department prepares to release a final rule that would require more financial professionals to act as fiduciaries — that is, they’d be held to the highest standard, across the investment landscape, when providing advice on retirement money held or destined for tax-advantaged accounts, like individual retirement accounts.

Most retirement plan administrators who oversee the trillions of dollars held in 401(k) plans are already held to this standard, part of a 1974 law known as ERISA, which was established to oversee private pension plans before 401(k)s existed. But it doesn’t generally apply, for example, when workers roll over their pile of money into an I.R.A. when they leave a job or retire from the work force. Nearly 5.7 million people rolled $620 billion into I.R.A.s in 2020, according to the latest Internal Revenue Service data.

The Biden administration’s final regulation, which will be released this spring, is expected to change that and patch other gaps: Investment professionals selling retirement plans and recommending investment menus to businesses would also be held to its fiduciary standard, as would professionals selling annuities inside retirement accounts.

“It shouldn’t matter whether you’re getting advice on an annuity, any kind of annuity, a security — if it’s advice about your retirement, that should have a high standard that applies across the board,” said Ali Khawar, the Labor Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary of the Employee Benefits Security Administration.

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