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The First Step to Financial Happiness

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At The Motley Fool, we've always maintained that you are the very best person to manage your money. You are the CEO of your personal financial empire. No one is more committed to your interests than that guy or gal staring back at you in the mirror.

That said, every CEO has limitations -- time constraints, expertise gaps, or even lack of interest in mastering certain topics. (Death care! Exciting!) And while it may be hard to admit we need help, most of us do hire professional help at some point during our lives.

What's most likely to inspire that first phone call to a financial-advice hotline? A crisis, of course. Like preventative medicine and car maintenance, most people push non-emergency financial tasks to the back burner ... until they catch on fire.

What will make you ask for help?
Here are some life/money events that spur folks into the arms of a financial pro:

Death of a parent: You may be the executor of the estate, but now may not be a good time to bone up on all the complexities involved.

  • Marriage: You've just tied the knot and decided to blend your finances into one.
  • Divorce: Do you still file taxes jointly this year? Can the stay-at-home former spouse still make an IRA contribution?
  • Complex financial products: Reverse mortgages, annuities, liability insurance -- you can do the homework on your own, but you don't want to get burned by anything in the fine print. (Simple financial products, such as term life or automobile insurance, can easily and cost-effectively be researched and purchased online. So avoid paying advisor fees for these products if possible.)
  • Buying and selling a house: The hallmark of these transactions is a sudden string of big-dollar decisions with little time to think them through.
  • Estate planning: Who will manage the kids' inheritance should you die unexpectedly? Should you set up a trust? You don't want to accidentally leave your loved ones destitute because you didn't properly fill out the paperwork.
  • Retirement: Four brokers have shown you four different plans; two say you can retire and two say you can't. Could you use an objective review of all four plans?
  • Employee stock options: What are the tax implications of exercising your options?

Obviously, it's best to line up your trusted advisors before emergency strikes. That way you have time to vet your pro and make sure you're getting expert, affordable, independent advice. It's important to know your team members and their allegiances. After all, it's your fortune and financial well-being on the line, not theirs.

Don't pay for tainted advice
The best way to screen for conflicts of interest is to find out how your advisor gets paid. Flat fee? Hourly? Asset-based? Commission? (Here's a quick rundown of how the industry pays its pros.)

Commissions can sway even the best financial planner's recommendations. (Hey, advisors have needs, too: They have kids to put through college and orthodontia costs to cover.) That's why we recommend that Fools get their advice from advisors who are paid by the hour or by the project -- not by commission. (Plug alert!: We've lined up a limited-time 10% discount with the Garrett Planning Network, an international network of fee-only financial planners. Find one near you on this map and look for the Motley Fool icon to identify participating advisors.)

Remember, when you pay for advice, it's the information you're buying. You're still head honcho, The Boss, CEO, and Top Dog of your financial empire. The final decisions are yours to make.

Dayana Yochim sent her parents to the Garrett Planning Network years ago. And, no, it had nothing to do with securing her inheritance. She swears. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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