If you want to make sure you're getting the best retirement investing advice, you're going to have to remain as vigilant as ever. On Tuesday, the fiduciary rule, an important federal investor protection that would have ensured that your adviser was acting in your interest, was put on the back burner.

The Labor Department announced that it would delay implementation of the rule by 60 days, to June 9.  The department also said, however, that it expects to review other regulations in the rule that require firms to provide disclosures to investors and that it does not expect to complete that process until Jan. 1, 2018.  

The move wasn't all that surprising. In February, President Trump signed an executive order that was expected to delay the implementation of a consumer-friendly, Obama-era regulation nicknamed the fiduciary rule. The Department of Labor rule, which had been intended to go into effect April 10, requires all retirement advisers to adhere to a "fiduciary standard" in the investor's best interest. Under President Trump's orders, the Labor Department is now reviewing the rule to determine whether it may adversely affect the ability of Americans to gain access to retirement information and financial advice. 

An adviser adhering to a fiduciary standard would recommend, say, investing in low-cost mutual funds for a fixed fee instead of comparable funds that charge more in commissions. He would have to promise no hidden fees that might surprise you later. And if he had any conflicts of interest that could sway his judgment about which investment is best for you—say, a six-day, five-night resort vacation in Maui (PDF) he'd get for selling you a particular product—he'd be required to tell you. 

Currently savers have the option of turning to commission-based advisers who may not be fiduciaries. These advisers are only required to make investments on your behalf that are "suitable" for your needs. That means that while the investments your adviser chooses could be appropriate for your financial goals, you could end up paying more money in commissions and other fees than if you had hired a fiduciary.

Critics in the financial industry have repeatedly fought the rule, contending that it left consumers with fewer investment choices and could saddle them with higher costs if they had to move away from commission-based investments.

Brokerages Are Taking Different Approaches

With the slowdown or halting of the fiduciary rule, investors now find themselves in a strange limbo. Some investment companies and brokerages offering retirement advice will be going full steam ahead with plans to adhere to a fiduciary standard, and some may slow down. So while the onus always was on the consumer to ask probing questions of their advisers, it's more important than ever to know where your adviser and his or her employer stand on the topic of fiduciary duty.

In February, when President Trump signed the executive order, Tom Bradley, president of retail distribution at the discount broker TD Ameritrade said, "We remain focused on complying with the rule, which we were well positioned with from the start." 

At that time, Bradley said that TD Ameritrade would continue to offer both commission-based and fee-based investments to retirement savers. "We will weigh the costs and benefits of a fee- vs. commission-based retirement account from a client-centric perspective, based on how often the client trades and the level of investment advice they desire," he said. 

Merrill Lynch, which has taken a different approach to the fiduciary rule, had a more muted response.

"We will continue to implement a heightened standard of care for delivering personalized investment advice, especially for investment advice about retirement accounts," said Andy Sieg, head of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.  

Merrill last year announced that in response to the rule it would no longer provide advised individual retirement accounts to its brokerage customers. Retirement accounts already in force would continue to receive advice for prior investments, but Merrill would not provide advice on any new IRA holdings.

Some Fiduciary Rule Benefits Are Already Here

Consumers already have reaped collateral benefits from the fiduciary rule, the details of which were materially finalized one year ago, in April 2016. In response to the rule and to client demand for low-cost investments, numerous investment companies have lowered fees and dropped minimum investments required on their mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, noted Michael Wong, an equity analyst covering capital markets and investment services firms for Morningstar, the investment research company.

In January, Bloomberg reported that Morgan Stanley was lowering commissions for trades involving stocks and exchange-traded funds and improving customer disclosures, among other changes. Fidelity Investments, Charles Schwab, and BlackRock are also among those large companies that have reduced fees for retirement investors. 

"Many firms cannot undo the changes they’ve already implemented or have announced they're going to implement," Wong said. "It's extremely unlikely we’re going to see those fee changes go back up."

The Labor Department has estimated that when financial advisers choose investment products that come with high fees and commissions, those investments reduce the returns of retirement savers by an average of 1 percent per year, or about $17 billion annually. A 2016 analysis by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers showed that a typical working person who got this kind of "conflicted advice" when rolling over a 401(k) balance to an IRA at age 45 could lose about 17 percent from that account because of fees by the time he reached the age of 65. A $100,000 rollover, with the potential to grow to $216,000 in those 20 years would instead grow to just $179,000.

Studies have repeatedly shown that investors assume that their financial advisers are working in their best interest, even when they aren't. These concerns have led numerous consumer groups, including Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, to push for a fiduciary rule that clarifies how advisers are compensated.

What to Do to Protect Yourself

Some professionals—certified financial planners and registered investment advisers—have been acting as fiduciaries for years. But regardless of the future fate of the fiduciary rule, it's always wise to ask a prospective adviser—or your current one—for written confirmation that he or she will act as your fiduciary. And if an adviser can't assure you that he or she is a fiduciary, find one who can. 

If you work with a broker, you may be asked to pay a management fee to make up for the loss of sales commissions. If the requested fee is more than 1 percent of your assets, find another adviser or consider low-cost advice alternatives, such as a computer-based robo-adviser. Robo-adviser services (which are fiduciaries, according to the DOL rule) often offer low-cost investment options for set fees.

In the end, it is still up to you to ensure that the person giving you retirement advice and selling you financial products such as mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and annuities is acting in your best interest. Get used to bringing up the term "fiduciary" to your current adviser or any new financial adviser you're considering. And ask other salient questions as well.