When Linda and Bill came into my office, I could sense their hesitancy right away. And when they told me their story, I could understand why they were so apprehensive about meeting with a financial advisor. They had, quite simply, learned not to trust.
Like many people, they’d realized they needed to stop being “do-it-yourselfers” and begin working with a financial professional. What they didn’t know was how to find a good advisor whose advice was based on their needs—not the advisor’s pockets. Unfortunately, it took them many years to understand the difference. “When I retired, our advisor gave me all the reasons why I should roll over my retirement savings into an IRA, and it seemed like a good idea,” said Linda. “But what I didn’t understand was that it was probably more of a good idea for him than for me.” That understanding came when a friend pointed out the fees she’d paid—and how much her advisor had earned in commissions from the transaction. Linda handed me the article her friend had shared with her that called out the practice of advisors receiving big perks (“say, a six-day, five-night resort vacation in Maui”) for selling a particular product. Ouch. Then Bill chimed in: “When I was 68 and had been collecting Social Security for two years already, someone told me I should have waited to claim until I was 70…that it would have added 30% to my monthly check,” he said. “When I asked our advisor why he hadn’t advised me on this, he said I’d never asked. I hadn’t, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know!”
The conversation got me thinking: with news about Trump signing an executive order delaying the DOL Fiduciary Rule—and even potentially doing away with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, investors need more education than ever. And if these regulations do fall away in the wake of the new administration, caveat emptor—or “let the buyer beware”—should be the phrase on everyone’s lips, and it should be driving every financial decision you make, from how and where to invest your hard-earned savings to whom you choose to work with to help guide your financial decisions.
The good news for consumers is that many of the anticipated benefits of the DOL Fiduciary Rule have already taken root. The media attention on the rule brought the idea of “fiduciary responsibility” into the mainstream, shining light on the difference between a fiduciary who is legally bound to act in the best interest of his or her client and ensure no conflict of interest, and a non-fiduciary advisor who is typically compensated by commission and is held only to a suitability obligation. (For more on this topic, see my blog When did it become ok to be financially illiterate?) But even with that knowledge, how do you choose an advisor who is not only working in your best interest, but is also a good fit for you?
The first step is to do your research. Get referrals from investors and other financial professionals, and be sure the advisor is a fiduciary who is, indeed, working in your best interest. When you meet face to face, here are five questions to ask to help you get the information you need to make a smart, informed choice:
- What are your credentials? The most trusted in the industry are Certified Financial Planner® (CFP®), Personal Financial Specialist (CPA/PFS), and Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC). This article talks about the benefits of each.
- How are you compensated? Fee-only advisors minimize conflict of interest by receiving compensation only from the client. Fee-only advisors receive no commissions or other perks for the products they recommend. Other compensation models include fee-based, which is a combination of fees and commissions, and commissions only. If the advisor does earn commissions, ask if they come from product sales, from securities trading, or both, as well as specifically how much that commission is. (Yes, it’s okay to ask!)
- May I see your ADV? Every Registered Investment Advisor is required to file a Form ADV with the SEC. The ADV outlines the details of the practice, including compensation, experience, service offerings, and any disciplinary history. Consider the ADV your advisor’s resume.
- What services do you offer? Know what you want and, even more importantly, what you need. Investment management may be at the top of your list, but what about financial and retirement planning? Do you need a Social Security claiming strategy? Do you have the right type of insurance and the right level of coverage? What about estate planning? Understand what your advisor offers and if she has a network of trusted professionals to support the needs she doesn’t provide in-house.
- How can you help me simplify and improve my personal finances? Like Linda and Bill, you may not know what you don’t know. This question can help you uncover unexpected ways the advisor can help you make changes that can lead to greater financial confidence and a better long-term financial outlook. After all, your financial success—today and far into the future—is the ultimate goal.
In our own Investment Policy Statement (and no matter who you choose to work with, be sure you receive and review this contract carefully!), we break down the roles and responsibilities of the three key partners in the road to financial wellness: the custodian (whose job it is to hold and protect your assets), the advisor (whose job it is to design and implement a financial and investment plan based on your needs and goals, and to regularly monitor the performance of that plan), and the investor—that’s you!—who has three key responsibilities: 1) to oversee your advisor, 2) to understand what you want to achieve and communicate those goals to your advisor even as they change over time, and 3) to carefully review your statements and be sure you understand how your money is being invested, how you are being charged, and if your plan is fulfilling your needs. If you’re clear about those roles and responsibilities and do your part, a well-chosen advisor should serve you well.
No matter how you feel about what role the government should play when it comes to protecting consumers, ultimately, you alone are responsible for managing your money. Trusting your advisor is important, but the person you really need to trust is yourself. Keep in mind the definition of caveat emptor: “the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made.” And remember, it’s your money. It’s your responsibility.