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 - SeniorSite.com - Seniors Finances Boomers Financial News And Planning
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401(k)s: Auto enroll, advice get OK

More employers are likely to enroll workers in 401(k) retirement plans even if they don't sign up, and to give them investment advice.

The act eases a key concern that some companies have had about automatic enrollment. It does so by pre-empting state laws that bar employee wage withholding without their permission.

The provision also allows financial firms to give employees guidance about where to put their money, as long as the overall asset-allocation advice comes from a computer model reviewed by an independent third party.

This could lead to "a major shift toward advice," rather than just investment education, says Lynn Dudley of the American Benefits Council.

Automatically enrolling employees in 401(k) plans and giving them investment advice have been gaining popularity as ways to boost low worker participation and savings levels in retirement plans. But some employers had been reluctant to take these steps for fear of violating state laws, inciting lawsuits or boosting plan costs.

Passage of the bill into law would be like "shooting the gun at the starting gate," helping these strategies to take off, says Judith Mazo of consulting firm Segal Co.

Already, more than one-third of large employers provide retirement-plan participants with access to third-party investment advice, and about one-fourth automatically enroll some workers in 401(k) plans, according to 2005 survey data by Hewitt Associates. (Employees can always opt out of 401(k) plans if they prefer not to participate.)

Among large companies that don't offer automatic enrollment or investment advice, one of the top reasons for not doing so was concern about regulatory issues, according to Hewitt.

Roughly one-third of employers without automatic enrollment said they needed clarification about state laws or guidance about default investment options before offering this to employees. The Labor Department plans to propose a rule that would address appropriate default investments in 401(k) plans.

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