Retirees must watch out for surprise fees, other expenses tied to their 401(k) accounts

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The pandemic accelerated the retirement of millions, forcing many to come face to face with the critically important question, “What should I do with decades of diligently accumulated savings in my employer’s 401(k) plan?” The stakes are high and challenge great, as pointed out by articles like “Rollover Ripoff,” highlighting studies that estimate retirees pay tens of billions in excess investment management fees due to conflicted investment advice.

Here are the Top 4 things you should investigate to protect your savings.

Keep your investment management fees low

Investment management fees are essentially invisible, but they compound at an alarming rate and can consume huge chunks of your retirement assets over time. Reducing these fees by just one percent per year on a $500,000 account over a 25-year period will save you an estimated $184,000 in fees.

When faced with the question of whether to roll your savings out of your employer’s plan and into an IRA, know that according to the 401(k) Averages Book (, because a 401(k) plan typically purchases funds as an institutional investor, the average 401(k) plan’s investment management fees are anywhere from one-half to one-third the cost of what an average retail investor pays.

Remember, it’s perfectly legal to leave your accumulated retirement savings in your employer’s plan after you retire, so before you jump at the first IRA recommendation that comes your way, understand what you’re currently paying for investment management services within your employer’s plan and how that cost will change if you move to an IRA. Once you know the differential, you can better evaluate if it makes sense to make a change.

Don’t be tricked into paying a lifetime of high asset-based fees for a one-time asset allocation recommendation and check writing privileges.

Understand how the advisor is being paid

Understand whether the investment advice you’re receiving is conflicted. Conflicts arise when an advisor’s compensation is affected by what their clients do. You really should know if the organization from whom you’re receiving investment advice has a financial interest in your decision before you ask, “Should I roll my retirement assets out of my employer’s plan?”

An advisor without conflicts gets paid the same amount no matter what the advisee does. Think of it like your relationship with an accountant or attorney. You pay them a set amount of compensation for their advice, based on the amount of time and expertise required to help you arrive at the best solution.

If your employer provides you investment advisory services through your plan’s recordkeeper, there’s a good chance the advice is conflicted. That’s because 401(k) recordkeeping is a low margin business. To meet profitability targets, most recordkeepers try to augment their revenue by persuading terminating plan participants to rollover plan assets into their proprietary investment products and services where individuals pay much higher investment management fees.

Despite promises to do what’s in your best interest, when a recordkeeper’s profitability and their advisors’ annual bonus are affected by how much of your retirement savings ends up invested in their investment products or programs, many independent studies have concluded the cost of conflicted investment advice runs high. Bottom line – its buyer beware when it comes to 401(k) rollover advice.

Evaluate the ease of access to your retirement savings

Some 401(k) recordkeepers make it difficult for retirees to access their savings. If you’re planning on leaving your retirement savings in your employer’s plan after retirement, you’re wise to investigate what kind of distribution flexibility your plan’s recordkeeper offers retirees. While there are almost always work arounds, if your former employer’s plan has rigid distribution provisions, this should be a consideration when deciding whether to keep your savings in your employer’s plan.

Consider your need for protection from creditors

If you believe you’re particularly vulnerable to personal lawsuits, consider the level of legal protection you want for your retirement assets. Understand the assets you hold in your employer’s 401(k) plan are protected by a federal law called ERISA which shields them from creditors. Assets held in an IRA, on the other hand, are protected by state law, making them more accessible to creditors in some states. Know that regardless of where your retirement assets are held, there are two creditors from which you can never escape: the IRS and a former spouse.

Deciding what to do with a lifetime of accumulated retirement savings is a huge decision. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to investigate the investment management costs you’re currently paying and to compare them with the alternatives you’re considering outside your plan. Take time to ask the tough questions and understand any conflicts of interest plaguing an advisor from whom you seek assistance. By doing the research, you can greatly increase your chances of maximizing your retirement savings.

This column was also featured in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The material provided is for informational purposes only. Neither the information nor any opinion expressed constitutes a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security. Francis Investment Counsel does not offer personal tax or legal advice.

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