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Financial Planning

How to Select a Financial Adviser

Selecting a financial adviser is like a job interview -- except you’re the one doing the hiring and the adviser is interviewing for the position of your chief financial officer. You want to ask about his or her education, experience and credentials.

Not all advisers are created equal. There are more than 300 financial designations. Some involve years of study and rigorous exams; others can be earned in a weekend seminar. A certified financial planner (CFP) is a generalist who should be able to help you with your whole financial picture. The chartered financial analyst (CFA) designation indicates expertise in investing. A chartered financial consultant (ChFC) has extensive training in insurance and estate planning. And a personal financial specialist (PFS) is a certified public accountant -- a tax pro who specializes in personal finances.

You want someone with at least five years of experience and who is licensed to represent a wide variety of investment and insurance products. If you’re looking for someone to manage your investments for you, make sure your adviser uses a third-party custodian. Convicted swindler Bernard Madoff didn’t do that. He held clients’ funds in his own custody, which is how he was able to drain their accounts and fake their account statements (see our video, How to Spot the Bad Guys). If your adviser uses an independent custodian, such as Charles Schwab, that institution will take possession of your money, and your account statements will come from that office -- not your adviser’s.

Also ask about the f word -- as in fiduciary. It means the adviser must put your interests first. Registered investment advisers are held to this standard, and eventually all other advisers will be, too, if the Securities and Exchange Commission gets its way. In the meantime, brokers may recommend what’s merely “suitable” for an investor -- even if there are better or cheaper choices. Watch our video to learn more about the fiduciary standard.

For a comprehensive list of questions to ask -- and answers you should expect -- download the checklist and diagnostic review in the “Tips and Tools” section of the “Consumer Information” page at