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Is Your Employer Shorting You on Your Retirement?

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Many employers see the retirement plans they sponsor for their workers as an employee benefit. But once they take on the responsibility for helping to support their employees' retirement, employers have to follow through. If they don't follow the rules, you have the right to seek justice -- and the government is watching over employers' shoulders to make sure they don't short you on your retirement benefits.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Kamkaies.

Workers at Sunkist Growers found out last week just how effective that oversight can be, as a court ordered the orange grower to restore $1.6 million in losses to their employee benefit plans. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's allegations, Sunkist took money out of their retirement plans to reimburse company expenses, including pay for workers and managers at the company. The Labor Department argued that those payments were impermissible under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and the court agreed, issuing a consent order requiring the repayment.

Dealing with retirement risks at work
Unfortunately, workers face many threats to their retirement in the plans that their employers provide for them. Here are just a few:

  • A recent study from business-school professors working with the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when mutual-fund companies work as trustees of employers' 401(k) plans, they're more likely to favor their own funds over those of other providers. Specifically, the paper found that 401(k) plan trustees are more likely to add poor-performing funds from their own fund families and less likely to take them off the list of investment options, leaving employees with worse long-term returns.
  • Employers don't always use their full bargaining power to get the lowest fees possible. A case involving Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) alleged that the retailer failed to obtain the least expensive fund options from financial institutions, even though the size of its plan would have given Wal-Mart plenty of leverage to obtain such concessions. The case was eventually settled.
  • Profit-hungry financial institutions are targeting retirement plans as a major growth driver for their businesses. Three years ago, Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) raised controversy when it sought to increase its share of the employer-sponsored retirement plan market, given its history of questionable practices during the financial crisis.

Is your company responsible?
When companies take on the job of managing a 401(k) plan or pension plan, they have a fiduciary duty to do it well. That means acting solely in the interest of employees and other plan participants, including surviving family members and other beneficiaries. It also means following plan documents, diversifying the investment options under the plan, and paying only reasonable expenses that the plan incurs. If a company can't follow through on those duties itself, it has the responsibility to hire professionals who can -- without imprudently multiplying the fees involved.

What it doesn't mean is that workers' 401(k) balances are guaranteed to go up. Lawsuits alleging breach of fiduciary duty from allowing employees to invest in their own company stock have been quite common over the years, especially when share prices plunged dramatically. Ford (NYSE: F  ) and Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) are just a couple of companies that faced such allegations as a result of poor share-price performance. Yet in most cases, company stock was just one of many options under the plans involved, and workers deliberately chose company stock over safer options that would have turned out better for them.

Be smart about your retirement
The times when workers could rely on their employers to take care of all of their financial needs in retirement are over -- if they ever existed in the first place. To protect your retirement, you need to watch over your employer to make sure that the retirement-plan options you have available to you meet your employer's fiduciary duties toward you and your fellow workers. Otherwise, you might well find that your best alternative is to take advantage of IRAs and other self-directed investment accounts that let you invest the way you want and avoid any potential problems with unreasonable 401(k) plan options.

Want to retire rich?
If that's the route you decide to go, you'll want to make sure you pick the best investments for your retirement portfolio. Your best investing approach is to choose great companies and stick with them for the long term. The Motley Fool's free report "
3 Stocks That Will Help You Retire Rich" names stocks that could help you build long-term wealth and retire well, along with some winning wealth-building strategies that every investor should be aware of. Click here now to keep reading.

Tune in to Fool.com for Dan's regular columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance. You can follow him on Twitter: @DanCaplinger.


Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (9)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 02, 2013, at 8:57 PM, GETRICHSLOW2 wrote:

    Many companies are starting to offer the Self-Directed Brokerage windows in their 401K's. If your's does not, you should request your company to do so. This would also be a good subject for a Motley Fool article.

    This allows you to pick your own mutual funds and spread your money out over as many funds as you like instead of being stuck with the handful of options offered in the plan.

  • Report this Comment On November 02, 2013, at 9:50 PM, emailnodata wrote:

    I've got maybe over 100k that I could not get because of "vesting" rules.

    Talk about your basic horse-crap.

  • Report this Comment On November 03, 2013, at 9:50 AM, JustJared wrote:

    My employer is Walmart...been there the past 8 years. I have a question about the investment percentage in 401(6) the maximum amount the company will match is 6% of your pay. I currently make a little more than $12 an hour. I contribute 6% of each check to my 401(k) while the company matches the contribution. A few people have said that 12% is the ideal percentage point. However while currently contributing 6% I occasionally find it difficult financially to get by. So my question is, the 12% that people have suggested is that 12% employee contribution or does that figure also include employer contribution?

  • Report this Comment On November 04, 2013, at 1:46 PM, HClark2000 wrote:

    When my husband signed the contract to work for his current company, part of the incentive package was 150% match in his 401K. Over the past few years the company has decreased his match down to 75%. Is that legal since one of the reasons he agreed to take the job was the 150% match?

  • Report this Comment On November 04, 2013, at 5:09 PM, OutofFavor wrote:

    @Just Jared - I have to assume the 12% they are talking about is your 6% contribution plus the match. In no way is there an "ideal" contribution. Everyone has different financial and life circumstances to consider.

  • Report this Comment On November 08, 2013, at 2:48 PM, Franktothesecond wrote:

    When you leave your employer, consider investing in your own business with your 401k. You can run your own business and grow your retirement plan at the same time, without taxes or penalties on the investment. Check out 401kfinancinginsiders.com to learn more!

  • Report this Comment On November 08, 2013, at 5:47 PM, ballengerm wrote:

    @JustJared,

    I think most people would recommend trying to milk the maximum you can out of your employer's matching benefit, which would mean contributing at least the maximum that your employer will match. It sounds like you're doing pretty well there.

    Beyond that, its up to you. As much as you can without causing your lifestyle to suffer more than you want it to.

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Dan Caplinger
TMFGalagan

Dan Caplinger has been a contract writer for the Motley Fool since 2006. As the Fool's Director of Investment Planning, Dan oversees much of the personal-finance and investment-planning content published daily on Fool.com. With a background as an estate-planning attorney and independent financial consultant, Dan's articles are based on more than 20 years of experience from all angles of the financial world.

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