29 CFR § 2509.95-1 - Interpretive bulletin relating to the fiduciary standards under ERISA when selecting an annuity provider for a defined benefit pension plan.
(a) Scope. This Interpretive Bulletin provides guidance concerning certain fiduciary standards under part 4 of title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1104-1114, applicable to the selection of an annuity provider for the purpose of benefit distributions from a defined benefit pension plan (hereafter “pension plan”) when the pension plan intends to transfer liability for benefits to an annuity provider. For guidance applicable to the selection of an annuity provider for benefit distributions from an individual account plan see 29 CFR 2550.404a-4.
(b) In General. Generally, when a pension plan purchases an annuity from an insurer as a distribution of benefits, it is intended that the plan's liability for such benefits is transferred to the annuity provider. The Department's regulation defining the term “participant covered under the plan” for certain purposes under title I of ERISA recognizes that such a transfer occurs when the annuity is issued by an insurance company licensed to do business in a State. 29 CFR 2510.3-3(d)(2)(ii). Although the regulation does not define the term “participant” or “beneficiary” for purposes of standing to bring an action under ERISA § 502(a), 29 U.S.C. 1132(a), it makes clear that the purpose of a benefit distribution annuity is to transfer the plan's liability with respect to the individual's benefits to the annuity provider.
Pursuant to ERISA section 404(a)(1), 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1), fiduciaries must discharge their duties with respect to the plan solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries. Section 404(a)(1)(A), 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1)(A), states that the fiduciary must act for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to the participants and beneficiaries and defraying reasonable plan administration expenses. In addition, section 404(a)(1)(B), 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1)(B), requires a fiduciary to act with the care, skill, prudence and diligence under the prevailing circumstances that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use.
(c) Selection of Annuity Providers. The selection of an annuity provider for purposes of a pension benefit distribution, whether upon separation or retirement of a participant or upon the termination of a plan, is a fiduciary decision governed by the provisions of part 4 of title I of ERISA. In discharging their obligations under section 404(a)(1), 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1), to act solely in the interest of participants and beneficiaries and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to the participants and beneficiaries as well as defraying reasonable expenses of administering the plan, fiduciaries choosing an annuity provider for the purpose of making a benefit distribution must take steps calculated to obtain the safest annuity available, unless under the circumstances it would be in the interests of participants and beneficiaries to do otherwise. In addition, the fiduciary obligation of prudence, described at section 404(a)(1)(B), 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1)(B), requires, at a minimum, that plan fiduciaries conduct an objective, thorough and analytical search for the purpose of identifying and selecting providers from which to purchase annuities. In conducting such a search, a fiduciary must evaluate a number of factors relating to a potential annuity provider's claims paying ability and creditworthiness. Reliance solely on ratings provided by insurance rating services would not be sufficient to meet this requirement. In this regard, the types of factors a fiduciary should consider would include, among other things:
(1) The quality and diversification of the annuity provider's investment portfolio;
(2) The size of the insurer relative to the proposed contract;
(3) The level of the insurer's capital and surplus;
(4) The lines of business of the annuity provider and other indications of an insurer's exposure to liability;
(5) The structure of the annuity contract and guarantees supporting the annuities, such as the use of separate accounts;
(6) The availability of additional protection through state guaranty associations and the extent of their guarantees. Unless they possess the necessary expertise to evaluate such factors, fiduciaries would need to obtain the advice of a qualified, independent expert. A fiduciary may conclude, after conducting an appropriate search, that more than one annuity provider is able to offer the safest annuity available.
(d) Costs and Other Considerations. The Department recognizes that there are situations where it may be in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries to purchase other than the safest available annuity. Such situations may occur where the safest available annuity is only marginally safer, but disproportionately more expensive than competing annuities, and the participants and beneficiaries are likely to bear a significant portion of that increased cost. For example, where the participants in a terminating pension plan are likely to receive, in the form of increased benefits, a substantial share of the cost savings that would result from choosing a competing annuity, it may be in the interest of the participants to choose the competing annuity. It may also be in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries to choose a competing annuity of the annuity provider offering the safest available annuity is unable to demonstrate the ability to administer the payment of benefits to the participants and beneficiaries. The Department notes, however, that increased cost or other considerations could never justify putting the benefits of annuitized participants and beneficiaries at risk by purchasing an unsafe annuity.
In contrast to the above, a fiduciary's decision to purchase more risky, lower-priced annuities in order to ensure or maximize a reversion of excess assets that will be paid solely to the employer-sponsor in connection with the termination of an over-funded pension plan would violate the fiduciary's duties under ERISA to act solely in the interest of the plan participants and beneficiaries. In such circumstances, the interests of those participants and beneficiaries who will receive annuities lies in receiving the safest annuity available and other participants and beneficiaries have no countervailing interests. The fiduciary in such circumstances must make diligent efforts to assure that the safest available annuity is purchased.
Similarly, a fiduciary may not purchase a riskier annuity solely because there are insufficient assets in a defined benefit plan to purchase a safer annuity. The fiduciary may have to condition the purchase of annuities on additional employer contributions sufficient to purchase the safest available annuity.
(e) Conflicts of Interest. Special care should be taken in reversion situations where fiduciaries selecting the annuity provider have an interest in the sponsoring employer which might affect their judgment and therefore create the potential for a violation of ERISA § 406(b)(1). As a practical matter, many fiduciaries have this conflict of interest and therefore will need to obtain and follow independent expert advice calculated to identify those insurers with the highest claims-paying ability willing to write the business.