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Should personal planners charge for advising on employer plans?

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How do personal financial planners advise on client 401(k) plans when they have so little control over them?

Although advisers may all agree on the desired outcome -- that they want to help clients with employer-sponsored plans -- their approaches likely vary based on their client base and advisory business model.

“We’ve had had clients walk in with $750,000 of assets managed by someone and $1.2 million in a 401(k) plan that no one is looking at,” says CFP Anthony Ogorek.

“That’s an incredible disservice to clients,” he says. “Oftentimes, this is their most significant investible asset.”

The different approaches are sometimes exemplified by advisers’ fee policies.

“It’s our belief that if you’re advising a client, you are an adviser on all their assets,” says Ogorek, founder of Ogorek Wealth Management in Williamsville, N.Y. “I think it’s intellectually dishonest to say that because I cannot collect a fee on a specific account that I can just give it a lackadaisical look once in a while.”

That is why Ogorek charges clients for his work on their 401(k)s, on the same schedule that he charges for other planning services. His firm will analyze the investment offerings from a plan sponsor, crafting the best choices among the sometimes limited options and making sure that they align with the rest of his client’s portfolio.

Ogorek’s firm also makes the trades for his clients, usually on the plan’s platform itself.

The importance of charging for 401(k) management, he says, is that he is being compensated for his work but also that it demonstrates that he is willing to be responsible for what, in many cases, are clients’ largest investible assets.

Other advisers take a different approach.

Although CFP Maria Cornelius thinks that it is crucial for personal planners to counsel clients on their 401(k)s, she doesn’t believe in charging clients for it.

“We’re more than happy to help people with their 401(k)s,” she says, but because personal financial advisers have little control over company retirement accounts, she views them differently from the other investments she advises on.

“We don’t consider them assets under management,” Cornelius says.

Cornelius, executive vice president of Burt Wealth Management in Rockville, Md., also says that because of the limited choices that most employees have, setting up clients’ 401(k) elections and monitoring them once or twice a year isn’t a heavy burden.

Unlike Ogorek, Cornelius’ firm generally doesn’t execute changes for clients.

“We really would prefer it that they do it themselves,” she says. “But if the client wants it, we’ll do it, and we’re still not charging for it.”

Other firms, with the bulk of clients’ investible assets in retirement plans, might approach the fee issue very differently, but Cornelius says that the best way to advise her clients on 401(k)s is to offer those services gratis.

“It’s not that I can’t understand why some people would charge for it, but for us, it’s something that we’re willing to do to add value,” she says.

This story is part of a 30-30 series on tools and strategies for retirement.

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