401(k) Recordkeeper: What They Do And What To Look For

October 4, 2016 by Esther Kim

There are a lot of players in the industry, and there are a lot of different service providers behind the scenes when it comes to managing a 401(k) plan. There’s the investment advisor, Third Party Administrator, custodian, the 401(k) recordkeeper, and the list goes on. In this series, we’ll discover who the different players are in the 401(k) industry, what they do, whether you need one, and what kinds of fees they charge. Arming yourself with this information will take you one step closer to finding the best 401(k) provider for your company.

According to PlanSponsor’s 2016 Recordkeeping Survey, 401(k) recordkeepers hold $4.2 trillion of American’s retirement savings on their platform. So what exactly does a 401(k) recordkeeper do? What do they not do for you? And what should you expect in fees? 

Let’s start with the 401(k) recordkeeper.

The 401(k) recordkeeper is essentially the bookkeeper of the 401(k) plan, hence the name. The job of the recordkeeper is to track who’s in the plan, what investments they own, and what money is going in or out. They’re a fairly passive player typically — they don’t give advice, they don’t calculate whether you’re on track to pass the IRS nondiscrimination tests, and they don’t track whether the plan is meeting IRS requirements and staying compliant.

The role of the recordkeeper has been ripe for disruption, with technology platforms being built to take over the work that had traditionally been done by humans — enter the robo recordkeeper.

Bruce Shutan, former managing editor of Employee Benefits News, recently covered the rise of the robo recordkeeper. In his piece, Bruce interviews Fred Barstein, founder and executive director of The Retirement Advisor University. Barstein says, “Sophisticated algorithms can easily handle ERISA because it’s rules-based. While recordkeeping is built on scale, that’s not the case for consulting. Emerging players will have a much harder time providing the handholding and consulting expertise of established companies, especially for smaller plans that lack resources.” Barstein is invariable alluding to the more sophisticated roles other 401(k) service providers play — including that of the Third Party Administrator, the retirement plan consultant, and retirement plan advisors.

So what exactly does the recordkeeper do?

401(k) Recordkeeper (Keeps the records of “who” owns “what”)

Since the recordkeeper typically owns the main website where employees log in and payroll data is uploaded, this is likely the 401(k) player that your company’s employees are most familiar with.

What does a 401(k) recordkeeper do?

  • Process employee enrollment
  • Manage and tracks employee investments
  • Log the origins of the contributions (are these pre-tax contributions, Roth, employer pre-tax match, etc.)
  • Generate 401(k) plan documents that the employer will need to deliver to employees — this includes how the plan is administered, benefits of a 401(k) plan, and specific plan features (eligibility, company match, etc.) Most recordkeepers will mail these to employees for a fee.
  • Manage and record 401(k) loans and hardship withdrawals
  • Issue account statements to participants
  • Provide customer support

What does a 401(k) recordkeeper NOT do?

  • Give investment advice
  • Help with plan design
  • Sign the Form 5500
  • Manage compliance work on the plan
  • Employee education and onboarding
  • Partner with you to meet your goals with the 401(k) plan
  • Focus on employee experience

As you can tell, at its most basic definition, a 401(k) recordkeeper is the retirement plan’s bookkeeper.

What fees does the 401(k) recordkeeper charge?

Recordkeepers will either charge an asset based fee or a platform fee that generally includes a base fee with an additional per participant monthly fee. This will be paid either by the employer, directly from the participant balances, or indirectly from mutual funds in the plan. If you don’t see recordkeeping fees documented clearly, then you’re not alone — recordkeeping fees are among the worst offenders of the list of “hidden fees” typically founds in traditional 401(k) plans.

Curious how much your plan might cost on different recordkeepers? Use our price estimator tool to instantly compare fees across three of the best-known recordkeepers.


What are the different types of retirement plan recordkeepers?

  • Fund Companies:  These are companies that manage investments but also have a side recordkeeping business.  Some of the largest recordkeepers in the country primarily provide investment management services. These include: Fidelity, Vanguard, TIAA, MassMutual, and Schwab.
  • Payroll Companies: While their payroll platform is their bread-and-butter, payroll companies will sometimes add on a 401(k) product to build on their value proposition. The 401(k) that’s offered by payroll companies will either be fully outsourced to different company and simply available on their platform or partially taken care of in-house with elements of the work outsourced to third-parties. Some payroll companies that have a 401(k) product on their platform include: ADP, Paychex, and Gusto.
  • Insurance Companies: Kind of in the same boat as the fund companies, insurance companies sell their insurance products, investment products, and will also have a business segment that provides 401(k) recordkeeping services. These recordkeepers also make up some of the largest platforms in the country, including: Empower (a subsidiary of Great-West Annuity & Life Insurance), Voya (both an investment and insurance company), John Hancock, and Prudential.
  • Independent Recordkeeper: This company doesn’t sell funds, doesn’t sell insurance products, and doesn’t have additional payroll products.  They are all in on supporting the backend of retirement plan administration work. These are the companies that hold deep 401(k) and retirement plan recordkeeping expertise, since this is all they do. But they’re typically paired with another 401(k) platform or service provider, since independent recordkeepers aren’t exactly known for their frontend customer experience.

The role of the 401(k) recordkeeper is an important one. It’s where all of the transactions are accounted for, and serves as the source of truth for all employee activity in your company’s 401(k) plan. It also houses all plan documentation and tracks employee eligibility.

But it’s important to not confuse the role of the recordkeeper — that could lead to not hiring enough help, or thinking you hired an expert for a job that they won’t fulfill. The recordkeeper is not a replacement for an engaging onboarding experience. Nor is the recordkeeper your partner in ensuring your plan stays compliant. Nor does the recordkeeper provide investment advice or education. See our post on the Five Signs that Your Working with the Wrong Recordkeeper to learn more.

Who are some popular small business 401(k) recordkeepers?

Every year PlanSponsor Magazine lists out the most popular recordkeepers; the 2015 survey is here. The magazine categorizes plans into size by the amount of assets in the plan; plans with under $10 million in assets are more or less the “small business” plans. While these providers may be the most popular, they may or may not the right one for your company, so talk with an experienced advisor to find out which ones make sense for you!

Top providers serving plans under $10 million in assets

Rank Recordkeeper # of Plans
1 Paychex 67,800
2 John Hancock 53,079
3 Principal 48,482
4 ADP 46,908
5 Voya 44,557
6 Ascensus 43,863
7 American Funds 40,044
8 Nationwide 38,051
9 VALIC 31,503
10 MassMutual 31,171


Resources to compare recordkeepers

For a closer look at more of the industry’s top players, check out comprehensive overview of the top 401(k) providers –or top 403(b) providers for nonprofits. If you’re interested in John Hancock in particular, check out our recent fee study that shows the range of prices they charge for similarly sized plans. But in the meantime, if you want to know whether your current recordkeeper is right for you or want to learn more about how we work with recordkeepers, schedule time to chat or use our free recordkeeper cost comparison tool to instantly price your plan on several well-known providers. You may be surprised how much you and your employees could save. Finally, if you’re already in talks with various recordkeepers and want to make sure you get the best deal, download the 401(k) Fee Evaluation sheet below!

The following two tabs change content below.
Esther Kim

Esther Kim

Esther brings a wealth of industry and marketing experience to ForUsAll. She’s spent four and a half years as a marketing leader in fintech companies, with a focus on 401(k) solutions. Esther got her start at Qualcomm, honing her corporate communications chops serving the executive team within Government Affairs. She's rolled up her sleeves to build marketing and customer success teams at Lever and SigFig. Esther joined ForUsAll after serving with the founding team at Financial Engines. Esther earned her BA in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego. In her free time, Esther is learning French, loves to be outdoors, and is an avid Korean dumpling maker.
Esther Kim

Latest posts by Esther Kim (see all)