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Plan Sponsors Have a Remedy for Small Balance Retirement Accounts

Plan Sponsors have a Remedy for Small Balance Retirement Accounts

Many plan sponsors struggle with small-balance accounts left by terminated participants. However, there is a solution — encouraging account consolidation.

Recently, BenefitsPro examined the factors contributing to the rise of small-balance retirement plan accounts, the challenges these accounts create for plans, and what plan sponsors can do to encourage account consolidation. Factors like a mobile workforce (the average employee changes jobs 10 times during their working years), employee turnover, mergers, and acquisitions all contribute to the proliferation of small-balance accounts. Another perhaps surprising factor? Auto-enrollment. Sure, auto-enrollment encourages higher participation levels, but it can also unintentionally result in a larger number of small-balance accounts as participants move on for various reasons.

The BenefitsPro article also highlighted a list of “headaches” plan sponsors must deal with related to small-balance accounts, including reduced retirement readiness metrics; higher plan costs; added administrative duties associated with locating missing participants, handling returned mail, etc.; and heightened fiduciary risk due to missed mailings (i.e., statements, Summary Plan Descriptions (SPDs), etc. and risk of DOL and IRS audits related to missing participants.

The issues related to small-balance accounts present a variety of challenges. The solution, however, is simple — promote consolidation of the accounts. Offering participants more portability and flexibility effectively solves the small account problem for sponsors. BenefitsPro offers some recommendations for implementing strategic consolidation programs:

  1. An automatic rollover program (ARO) that handles distributions for separated participants with account balances of less than $5,000.
  2. A roll-in program for existing plan participants, regardless of balance, facilitated by an independent service provider. In other words, offer help for roll-ins so participants don’t have to do it themselves.
  3. A roll-out program for separated participants with balances greater than $5,000, which reduces stranded accounts, cashouts, and missing participants, and also helps avoid unnecessary fiduciary risk.

The BenefitsPro article also recommends some “tactical” solutions to the small-balance account problem, including hiring an address location service to help track down missing participants. Anywhere from 3-6% of participants are missing, according to industry sources, which can result in returned mail, uncashed distributions and unpaid benefits — all of which significantly increases a plan sponsor’s fiduciary risk. Uncashed check services are another option sponsors may consider. These services create after-tax rollover IRAs where returned checks can be deposited, and they will also conduct periodic searches to try to find former participants and reunite them with their lost savings.

Small-balance accounts are a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Using a combination of strategic and tactical approaches, sponsors can manage their fiduciary risks, as well as makes it easier for themselves and their participants to reap the benefits of small account consolidation.

Robyn Kurdek

Robyn Kurdek

Freelance writer with nearly 2 decades of financial industry experience, with niche expertise in the defined contribution (DC) industry. I also have defined benefit (DB) plan knowledge. I write all types of content for retirement plan participants, sponsors and advisors, including web copy, newsletters, white papers, fact sheets, blog posts, financial wellness articles, and more. "I speak DC."
Robyn Kurdek

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