Many people look for assistance with financial goals. When hiring advisors, know exactly what services you need, what services advisors can deliver, and limitations or biases that might influence their recommendations.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission tells consumers to beware: Anyone can claim to be a financial planning expert. Only a select few have credentials reflecting formal education, training, and professional acceptance. Most often cited are:

  • Certified Financial Planner: For CFP certification, candidates must have at least three years of planning experience and college or university degrees that include a CFP-board-approved financial planning curriculum.  They must also pass the 10-hour CFP certification exam that covers the financial planning process, tax planning, employee benefits and retirement planning, estate planning, investment management and insurance.
  • Personal Financial Specialist: The PFS credential is awarded only to American Institute of Certified Public Accountants members who have completed at least 80 hours of personal financial planning and successfully passed the PFS exam.
  • Chartered Life Underwriter and Chartered Financial Consultant: Both the CLU and ChFC designations – sponsored by The American College of Bryn Mawr College – require three years of business experience. The CLU involves a six-course curriculum, with exams after each one, while the ChFC – an advanced financial planning designation -requires those same six courses, plus three more. Most advisors with these credentials obtain licenses to sell insurances and annuities.
  • Master of Business Administration: In recent years, a few MBA programs have included a financial-planning track.
  • Certified Public Accountant: CPAs are licensed to practice public accounting by the California Board of Accountancy. License requirements include completing a program of accounting studies at a college or university, passing the Uniform CPA Exam, and obtaining a specified amount of professional work experience in public accounting.

Not all financial advisors have the extensive experience and training of those listed above. In fact, new titles that primarily target older adults spring up each year. Some require minor training; others none at all.

Here’s an example: The Society of Certified Senior Advisors – a for-profit organization – provides a certification for Certified Senior Advisors. As noted on its website (csa.us), even an inexperienced applicant can enroll and have the designation in hand within a few weeks. To obtain it, applicants must pay for 3½ days of classroom training or online lectures, instructional materials, and then score at least 70 percent on the 150-question multiple-choice final exam.

The way financial advisors get paid may influence the suggestions you actually receive. Different financial compensation arrangements include :

  • Commission: Many financial advisors receive compensation by selling investment products, insurance, and annuities. The question to ask: Are your advisor’s recommendations influenced by high-commission products?
  • Assets Under Management: If investments continue to be managed by a financial planner, the annual fee will be a percentage of the total investment. So, if the fee is 1 percent of managed assets and $200,000 has been invested, the planner will be entitled to receive $2,000 each year.
  • Fee-Only: Fee-only financial planners do not accept commissions, but charge set amounts to gather clients’ financial data, analyze the numbers, and recommend plans of action.

H.E.L.P.’s Ask First! Questionniare assists consumers in evaluating the qualifications of financial planners or other advisors.  Review the answers they have provided, check the licenses and other credentials, and investigate past complaints and sanctions by contacting the California Department of Corporations at corp.ca.gov, and in the search box type in “Investment Check Out.”

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