The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was enacted in 1974 to protect employees who participate in retirement plans and certain other employee benefit plans. At the time, there were concerns that pension plan funds were being mismanaged, causing participants to lose benefits they had worked so hard to earn. ERISA protects the interests of plan participants and their beneficiaries by:
- Requiring the disclosure of financial and other plan information
- Establishing standards of conduct for plan fiduciaries
- Providing for appropriate remedies, sanctions, and access to the federal courts
It's the fiduciary provisions of ERISA that help protect participants from the mismanagement and abuse of plan assets. The law requires that fiduciaries act prudently, solely in the interests of plan participants and beneficiaries, and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits and paying reasonable expenses of administering the plan.
Fiduciaries must diversify plan investments to minimize the risk of large losses, unless it's clearly prudent not to do so. Fiduciaries must also avoid conflicts of interest. They cannot allow the plan to engage in certain transactions with the employer, service providers, or other fiduciaries ("parties in interest"). There are also specific rules against self-dealing.
Who is a plan fiduciary? Anyone who:
- Exercises any discretionary control over the plan or its assets
- Has any discretionary responsibility for administration of the plan
- Provides investment advice for a fee or other compensation (direct or indirect)
Plan fiduciaries may include, for example, discretionary plan trustees, plan administrators, investment managers and advisors, and members of a plan's investment committee.
Fiduciaries must take their responsibilities seriously. If they fail to comply with ERISA's requirements, they may be personally liable for any losses incurred by the plan. Criminal liability may also be possible.