Brokers are not necessarily required to act in their customers' best interest, even if they are advising on their retirement money. While that would seem to be a basic consumer protection, in Washington and on Wall Street it has proved to be wildly contentious.

Amid fierce pushback from the financial services industry, the Labor Department, which oversees retirement plans, recently delayed releasing a revised proposal that would require a broader group of professionals to put their clients' interest ahead of their own when dealing with their retirement accounts. The department said it would release the proposed rule in January, according to its regulatory agenda, instead of this August. (Phyllis C. Borzi of the Labor Department, had signaled that it could miss the deadline.)

"They have really been stymied by the financial industry, which is spending millions of dollars to fight this rule," said Karen Friedman, executive vice president and policy director at the Pension Rights Center, a nonprofit consumer group. "All the Labor Department is trying to do is modernize a rule that is out of date."

The agency is trying to amend a 1975 rule, part of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, known as Erisa, which outlines when investment advisers become fiduciaries -- the eye-glazing legal term describing brokers who must put their customers' interests first. The rules are stricter for fiduciaries who handle consumers' tax-advantaged retirement money compared to fiduciaries under federal securities law.

But it is easy to avoid becoming a fiduciary under Erisa, consumer advocates say, because brokers must first meet a five-part test before they are required to follow the higher standard: If the advice is provided on a one-time basis, for instance, the rule does not apply. On top of that, the consumer and the broker must also "mutually agree" that the advice was the main reason for the investment decision.

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