Five Red Flags

Shopping for a pro, or considering whether or not the one you have is right for you? Consider the following five red flags:

An advisor who doesn't listen
Before you hire a financial pro, you should know precisely what questions you want answered -- and what you're paying for -- before you write that first check. (We play Fool Shrink and help you unearth your needs in "When To Get Advice.") It should be a two-way effort, with both of you probing for a good fit. In particular, when you ask questions, do you understand the answers? When you ask for clarification, does the subsequent explanation make more sense? Are you comfortable admitting that you don't understand something? Be wary of somebody who either desperately wants your business or can't "lower themselves" to your level. Oh, and if a life insurance salesperson seeks out your business offering a free consultation. No, thank you. Trust us on that one.

"Please sign here. I'll explain later."
It goes without say, but we like to repeat ourselves: Don't sign anything that you don't understand. Don't write out checks directly to the planner for financial products and investments. Most importantly, don't sign a "discretionary authority" unless you know exactly what you are doing. This enables a planner to buy and sell investments without consulting you ahead of time.

Pros masquerading as pros
It pays to check up on professional credentials, and can save you a few calls to the Better Business Bureau before it's too late. Don't rely on the simple title "financial planner." Even the shadiest of characters is free to use it. However, to use the title Certified Financial Planner (CFP), for example, a candidate must pass a two-day exam, agree to abide by certain ethical standards and financial-planning practices, and -- to maintain the license -- obtain 30 or more continuing education units (two of which must be on the topic of professional ethics) every two years.

CFP is not the only financial planning credential, though. To help you decode the other strings of letters that may follow a candidate's name, we provide a guide to the most common credentials in "Whom To Hire." Try to find planners on your own, rather than waiting for salespeople to descend upon you. Ask for referrals from friends and family with good instincts and financial sense. If possible, talk to people with financial concerns similar to yours.

Any person who provides financial planning services and manages investment assets of $25 million or more has to file Form ADV with the Securities and Exchange Commission. (Those who manage less than $25 million in assets must disclose similar information with their own state's security agency.) Along the same lines, any professional who sells securities will have a Central Registration Depository (CRD) file. It gives you a 10-year history of the provider, including any disciplinary actions taken against that person. What if the individual provider or firm principal is not registered with the SEC or the state securities agency? Find the "Exit" sign and follow it out to your car.

Advice you don't need
Unless you are specifically looking for stock picks, be wary of an advisor who is preoccupied with them, especially if they generate commission income by getting you to actively trade. Good advisors always put the basics -- like insurance and cash flow -- before investment advice, and all specific investment recommendations should be fit into a larger framework built around your financial goals. Any discussion of investments should involve risk. If an advisor promotes any investment as a risk-free "sure thing," or offers you "exclusive access," find another advisor, especially if the promised reward is very attractive.

That churning-gut feeling
Do you trust your right-hand man or woman's advice? You're paying for it, you should. If you're wary, then maybe your gut instincts are telling you something about your level of trust. If your advisor's guidance makes sense, make sure you follow it - you paid good money for it, after all. As Berkeley professor Matthew Rabin has argued, procrastination plays a big role in economics. So if your advisor says you need to open a Roth IRA and you agree then do it. Not doing so is a waste of your money.

No matter where you seek financial advice, be it with your hometown financial planner or with our TMF Money Advisor service, remember that it is your money - and you are an at-will customer. In the end, you call all of the shots. If you encounter a third party who insists that you relinquish all the thinking to them, then we humbly suggest that this may not be the best pro for you.


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