The agency found the current rollover process favors distributions to individual retirement accounts (IRAs). Waiting periods to roll into a new employer plan, complex verification procedures to ensure savings are tax-qualified, wide divergences in plans’ paperwork and inefficient practices for processing rollovers make IRA rollovers an easier and faster choice, especially given that IRA providers often offer assistance to plan participants when they roll their savings into an IRA.
In a report, the GAO said the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provide oversight and guidance for this process generally and can take steps to make plan-to-plan rollovers more efficient, such as reducing the waiting period to roll over into a 401(k) plan and improving the asset verification process. “Such actions could help make staying in the 401(k) plan environment a more viable option, allowing participants to make distribution decisions based on their financial circumstances rather than on convenience,” the agency wrote.
Plan participants often receive guidance and marketing favoring IRAs when seeking assistance regarding what to do with their 401(k) plan savings when they separate from their employers. The GAO found that service providers’ call center representatives encouraged rolling 401(k) plan savings into an IRA even with only minimal knowledge of a caller’s financial situation. Participants may also interpret information about their plans’ service providers’ retail investment products contained in their plans’ educational materials as suggestions to choose those products.
The agency contends the DOL’s current requirements do not sufficiently assist participants in understanding the financial interests that service providers may have in participants’ distribution and investment decisions.
In addition to being subject to inefficient rollover processes and the marketing of IRAs, the GAO found 401(k) plan participants separating from their employers may find it difficult to understand and compare all their distribution options. Information participants currently receive is either too generic and without detail, leaving participants without understanding of the key factors they need to know to make decisions about their savings, or too long and technical, leaving participants overwhelmed and confused.
The agency said DOL regulations do not ensure that 401(k) plans provide complete and timely information to participants on all their distribution options. Industry experts told the GAO that participants could benefit from simplified, concise and standardized information.
The report can be downloaded here.