In the past, we have written about 401(k) lawsuits flourishing and what trust owned life insurance (TOLI) trustees can learn from them. This week, a research paper concerning 401(k) lawsuits landed on our desks that can provide guidance to trustees handling life insurance. The report published by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College notes that “over 100 new 401(k) complaints were filed in 2016–2017 — the highest two-year total since 2008–2009” (1).
The number of TOLI lawsuits has not increased like the number of 401(k) lawsuits has … yet. Regulations around 401(k) plans have been in place much longer than those concerning TOLI trusts. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which governs 401(k) plans, is almost 45 years old, but lawsuits have only proliferated over the last ten years. In the TOLI world, the Uniform Prudent Investor Act and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s Unique and Hard-to-Value Assets handbook are much more recent guides.
The guides mentioned above share one common characteristic that was pointed out in the research paper — they do not “spell out” specific directions for managing an asset. They all provide general guidance, but it is up to the trustee to take that guidance and develop a process to prudently manage the assets. ITM TwentyFirst has just published a free handbook that provides more specific direction.
The authors of the research paper cite three main areas of contention in the 401(k) world that can be applied to the TOLI world.
- Inappropriate Investment Choices: In the 401(k) world, this relates to options in the retirement plan. In the TOLI world, this could relate to the separate account investments in a variable policy or even a broader application — the choice of the policy type. Variable life investment options are chosen by the trustee, not the carrier, which layers in another trustee responsibility. (See Chapter 9 in the TOLI Handbook for guidance.) Moreover, the asset in a TOLI trust must match the trust’s temperament and goals as well as the grantor’s financial situation. (See Chapter 12 in the TOLI Handbook for guidance.)
- Excessive Fees: 401(k) investment fees are easy to see, but in the TOLI world, the costs within a policy can be much more opaque. We have witnessed situations in which trustees were ready to accept replacement policies that had internal costs that were 3–4 times more than the existing policy. Why? Because they had no process in place with which to review the new policy and instead relied on the word of the salesperson. Without a process in place, a trustee could easily be held liable. (See Case Study #5 starting on page 128 of the TOLI Handbook for guidance.)
- Self-Dealing: According to the Boston College research paper, self-dealing occurs when a fiduciary acts in “its own best interest rather than serving” its clients. In the TOLI world, we have had our own lawsuits in this area — one in which a major bank that had received a large commission on a policy in its trust fought back against a lawsuit by beneficiaries who charged that the trustee had “violated the prudent-investor rule” (see page 14 in the TOLI Handbook for more information on how), and another in which trustees were held liable for over one million dollars when the beneficiary charged that they had breached their fiduciary duties. (See page 17 in the TOLI Handbook for further explanation.)
Many pundits believe that the trustees of trust-owned life insurance policies will encounter increasing liability in the coming years. The well-informed trustee will be less likely to be among those facing litigation. The TOLI Handbook – available here – can help inform.
- George S. Mellman and Geoffrey T. Sanzenbacher, “401(k) Lawsuits: What Are the Causes and Consequences?” Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, May 2018.
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