Financial planners Jeff Simon (from left), Don Duncan, Mike Walther, Jean Marden, Kevin Meehan, Sharon Allen and Ed Gjertsen offer their advice.
Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM
Choosing a financial planner is a complicated process. There's a huge amount of financial advice out there -- ranging from free to extraordinarily expensive. And it becomes quite a task to evaluate and compare the services, costs (some hidden), and performance of all of the people who are advertising that they're ready to help you manage your money.
The labels don't help much. The term "financial planner" can be used by almost anyone and is often mistaken for those who truly can use the term "Certified Financial Planner" or CFP because they have had extensive education, testing, experience and certification. They've passed courses not only in investments, but in insurance, taxation, estate planning, retirement income planning and other aspects of creating a well-rounded financial plan.
A registered CFP has a fiduciary duty to "at all times place the interest of the client ahead of his or her own." To learn more and search for a CFP in your area, go to www.cfp.net.
Certified financial planners may be compensated in different ways. Some only charge a fixed fee for their advice. They are called "fee-only" planners, and you can find them at www.feeonly.org, which is the Web site of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers. Other planners are paid through commissions on the products they sell, or a combination of fee and commission.
What about stockbrokers? Many brokerage firms now call their employees "financial advisers" or "wealth managers" instead of stockbrokers, but unless they are registered as an "investment adviser," they do not have the same fiduciary duty to their clients to fully disclose all conflicts of interest, including commissions or other payments they earn on the sale of products. And they are not necessarily trained in other important aspects of financial planning, beyond investments.
It can be difficult to determine who is on your side, and who is just trying to sell you a financial service or product. Some insurance agents call themselves planners, and you'll even find "financial planning consultants" who appear to work for a bank but are actually employees of a brokerage firm within the bank!
What advice do you need?
As long as you understand the differences among these professionals, you can pick and choose the correct adviser -- or group of advisers -- to suit your needs. Those could range from your estate planning attorney to your accountant, from your insurance agent to your stockbroker.
While you need professionals for legal and tax issues, you may decide to handle your investments yourself, taking advantage of the free portfolio advisory services offered by mutual fund companies such as Fidelity and Vanguard. Even funds with no "load," or upfront commission, will charge annual management fees, so you should ask about and compare those costs.
A big component is your own personal comfort level and ability to organize these various aspects of your life. If you want someone else to do it all for you, then choose a Certified Financial Planner. You'll need to have a certain chemistry with the person -- or people -- you choose to advise you. But don't just rely on instinct. Ask for, and check, references of people who are their clients in similar situations. And ask in advance how the planner is compensated.
Starting your search
One of the easiest ways to find a good financial planner is to ask successful friends for their recommendations -- just as you would do when seeking a doctor or attorney.
Set up appointments with at least three planners before making a choice. There should be no charge for the initial session. Be prepared by taking the necessary information about your current assets and investments.
Don't be intimidated. Ask appropriate questions and listen carefully for the answers. Be aware of whether the adviser asks appropriate questions of you -- your situation and risk tolerance -- and isn't just hurrying to get a list of your assets.
Ask to see the adviser's form ADV, (or form CRD for stockbrokers), which must be filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission and/or your state securities commissioner.
Use the "BrokerCheck" tool at www.finra.org to research both individuals and brokerage firms, as well as investment advisers. Or call their toll-free hotline at (800) 289-9999.
The direct link to BrokerCheck is http://www.finra.org/Investor Information/InvestorProtection/ ChecktheBackgroundofYour InvestmentProfessional/index.htm.
You'll almost need to become an expert yourself to make the proper choice of adviser. This is one decision where it pays to do your homework. And that's The Savage Truth!