Hiring a professional financial advisor is tough. First you have to assess your finances from top to bottom and decide whether you need one. Then you have to find one who will put your interests first and help you achieve your financial goals, which takes a lot of time, research, and one-on-one chats with prospective advisors.
To make your search a little easier, here are six questions to ask any financial advisor before you decide to trust them with your hard-earned money.
1. How do you get paid?
You should fully understand all the ways in which your financial advisor will be compensated. If the advisor is fee-only, then their pay comes solely from the fees he or she charges you, whether they're based on a percentage of the assets under the advisor's management, an hourly fee, or a flat fee.
Fee-based advisors may charge fees for their services and receive commission on the financial products they sell you. Meanwhile, advisors who are compensated solely by commission earn money by selling you various financial products.
While it is up to each investor to decide which is the best arrangement for them, choosing a fee-only advisor is generally the safest route. The other methods come with inherent conflicts of interest. If an advisor is paid a commission for selling particular products, then he or she is motivated to sell those products regardless of whether they're the best choice for you.
If the advisor you're meeting with works for a brokerage, also ask whether the company pays employees extra for selling proprietary products. This sort of arrangement creates the same conflict of interest mentioned above.
2. Are you bound to a fiduciary standard?
Ask whether the advisor is acting under the fiduciary standard, which means he or she has pledged to place their client's interests first when recommending financial or investment products. For example, let's say there are two investment products that are identical except for their fees, and either one would suit your needs. Under the fiduciary standard, your advisor would be obligated to choose the best option for your situation, even if the sale earned the brokerage and/or your advisor less money.
The brokerage industry uses what's called the "suitability standard," but this standard falls far short of the fiduciary standard, giving advisors much more leeway in their recommendations and allowing for conflicts of interest.
3. Do you have experience working with clients like us?
Every client's situation is unique. However, individual financial advisors often work with clientele who have similar situations and needs.
If you're a thirtysomething looking to grow your wealth exponentially as you move up the career ladder, you may not want to hire a financial advisor who works almost exclusively with clients who are in their 60s and almost ready to retire.
When looking for a financial advisor, be sure to ask questions about their experience, the types of clients they work with, and where you fit in terms of their client list. If your account would be much smaller than the average client's, would you receive the level of attention that you deserve?
There's no surefire way to verify that a prospective financial advisor has the expertise and experience you need. However, during the initial conversation you should ask questions that are specific to your situation. Any prospective financial advisor should be prepared to answer any questions you have on the subjects that matter to you, whether it's estate planning, college savings, or handling company stock options. And don't settle for general answers.
4. What experience, education, and credentials do you have?
It's important to understand the financial advisor's knowledge base. What is the advisor's educational background? Does the person have a degree in a related area? Does the person keep current in his or her field through continuing education? How long has this person been providing financial advice to clients?
It's also important to find out whether the advisor has any professional certifications, such as the CFP (Certified Financial Planner) or the PFS (Personal Financial Specialist), which is a designation bestowed upon some CPAs (Certified Public Accountants). Both designations require that the advisor have a certain level of experience in the field, pass a comprehensive exam demonstrating their competence, and complete ongoing educational requirements. Neither designation is easy to obtain. While there are some differences between the two, these are the premier professional certifications in the financial planning arena.
No designation will guarantee that an advisor will give you the best possible advice, but these and other designations will give you a sense of the advisor's commitment to their profession.
5. Do you have any disciplinary issues on your record?
You will want to know whether a financial advisor has ever been disciplined by a regulatory agency. If the advisor isn't forthcoming, you can do your own homework using FINRA's Broker Check site, BrightScope0 , or the CFP board's site if the advisor holds that designation.
6. How, and how often, will you communicate with us?
How often should you expect to meet with the financial advisor? How will the person communicate with you between meetings? Can you call or email at any time with questions or concerns? You're hiring a financial advisor to provide advice, and you should know what to expect in terms of communication and accessibility before entering into a relationship.
The bottom line
Making the decision to seek the advice of a financial advisor is a big decision unto itself. The process of finding the right advisor should be thorough and can seem a bit overwhelming. While there are no guarantees that you will end up with the right person, the more diligent you are, the better your chances of getting the best professional advice will be.
In looking for the right financial advisor, do your homework and ask many questions. A good financial advisor should welcome your questions and answer them honestly. Make sure you're comfortable with this advisor before signing anything and trusting this person with your financial future.