Registered Investment Advisers (RIAs) are generally required to enter into an advisory agreement with their clients prior to being hired for advisory services. And while there is no standard ‘template’ language applicable to all advisory agreements, there are a number of best practices that RIAs can follow in drafting and reviewing their agreements to ensure they can pass legal and regulatory muster.
In this guest post, Chris Stanley, investment management attorney and Founding Principal of Beach Street Legal, lays out the statutory requirements for RIA advisory agreements and some of the essential elements for advisory agreements to include when describing the RIA’s services and fees.
Advisory agreements for SEC-registered RIAs are governed by Section 205 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. In terms of specific advisory agreement language, the Advisers Act focuses essentially on three items:
- First, the law restricts RIAs from charging performance-based fees unless the client is a “qualified client” (in most cases, a client with at least $1.1 million under the management of the adviser, or with a total net worth of at least $2.2 million);
- Second, advisory agreements are required to give clients the opportunity to consent to their advisory agreement being ‘assigned’ to another adviser (including when an RIA changes ownership by merging with or being acquired by another firm); and
- Third, advisory agreements of RIAs organized as partnerships are simply required to contain a clause informing the client of any change in the membership of that partnership “within a reasonable time after such change”.
But even though the specific requirements of the Advisers Act are relatively narrow in scope, a well-crafted advisory agreement will contain additional elements, including descriptions of the RIA’s services and fees.
When describing the RIA’s services, advisory agreements should lay out the specific services – such as discretionary or nondiscretionary asset management, and the scope and duration of any financial planning services – to be included in the arrangement.
When it comes to fees charged to clients, advisory agreements should include – at minimum – the exact amount of the fee (either as a dollar amount or percentage of assets under management), when the fee will be charged, how the fee will be prorated at the beginning and end of the agreement, how the client can pay the fee, and which of the client’s accounts may be billed. For AUM-based fees, agreements should also include breakpoints for multi-tiered fee schedules (and whether breakpoints are applied on a ‘cliff’ or ‘blended’ basis) and how AUM is calculated (and whether it is based on assets at a single point in time or averaged over a specific period, and if it includes cash and/or margin balances). Any fees for third-party advisers or subadvisers should also be described in the agreement. While these constitute only two core elements of advisory agreements, there are numerous other essential components for RIAs to include (so many, in fact, that covering them all will require another separate article!).
The key point, however, is that a good advisory agreement requires a solid grasp of the Federal and state statutory requirements, and clearly lays out the RIA’s services and fees. For established firms, understanding these points more deeply will allow RIA owners to review their existing agreements – to ensure not only that they comply with existing regulations, but that they also include the elements constituting a valid agreement between RIA and client!