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Ask the Experts

Am I Paying Too Much in 401(k) Fees?

New rules will require clear disclosure of what's deducted

En español | Q. How can I find out how much I'm paying in fees for my 401(k)?

A. For now, it's a bit of a puzzle. You can ask your account's sponsor, typically the organization that you work for, or the investment company that administers your plan. You may or may not get a clear answer.

But gradually regulations are coming into effect with a goal of getting those fees out into the open.

See also: Survey of 401(k) participants' knowledge of fees.

Figure out how high your 401 K fees are

Soon investment companies will be required to disclose 401(k) fees. — Photolibrary

On Feb. 2, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a final 401(k) fee disclosure rule that requires financial institutions that run the plans to disclose to sponsoring employers the fees and administrative costs they charge. Designed to increase transparency for employer-sponsored defined contribution and pension plans, the rule was proposed in October. The department has now pushed back the effective date of the rule from April to July 1, 2012, to give service providers more time to come into compliance.

The rule is intended to encourage employers who sponsor these plans to shop around and compare costs. The hope is that the fees will become more competitive and take less of a bite out of workers’ retirement plan balances.

Under a second set of rules, investment companies will be required by Aug. 30, 2012, to issue statements to plan participants disclosing the fees that are deducted from their defined contribution plans — costs for such things as record-keeping, administration and redemption.

If you’d rather not wait to find out, you may be able to get answers from new tools designed to help you do your own research. If you work for a large employer, CNN Money offers a free tool that shows the impact of the fees in your employer’s plan.

If your employer is not in CNN Money’s database, you could use a tool like just to calculate the impact that a couple of percentage points in fees makes over your lifetime and see how they may impact your retirement income.

The debate about hidden fees associated with 401(k) plans gained momentum after a series of class-action lawsuits were filed against large employers, alleging they violated their fiduciary duty by allowing employees to be charged excessive, undisclosed fees in their retirement plans. Those lawsuits spurred consumer and investor groups to push for greater transparency regarding these fees.
Even before the Department of Labor finalized its rules, some plan providers were already taking steps toward disclosure, showing investors what they're paying in transaction fees and services.

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.

You may also like: 5 mistakes in retirement planning.

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