Financial Planning

Be Wary of "Senior" Experts

Impressive credentials following an adviser's name may represent not much more than attendance at a weekend seminar.

Which financial adviser would you pick to give you advice on retirement: a planner with extensive training as a generalist or someone who claims special expertise in retirement issues?

If you said the latter, you could be setting yourself up for a scam -- or at least sketchy advice. Planners eager to mine the rich vein of retirement savings are using credentials such as certified senior investment planner and registered senior investment adviser to get you in the door and sell you products, according to a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Among the products they pitch are certain types of annuities that may be risky, overpriced or inappropriate.

Often, the impressive credentials or chain of letters following an adviser's name represent not much more than attendance at a weekend seminar or a few hours' study, if that. Ersatz "credentials" may even be used by scammers eager to get your business. "I've seen business cards that say 'HSG,' for 'high school graduate,' " says Gerri Walsh, president of the Finra Investor Education Foundation, which promotes financial literacy. These self-declared experts typically target older people (mostly men) who are affluent, educated and consider themselves financially savvy. "It's not the isolated little old lady" who is being drawn in, says Walsh. "Fraudsters go where the money is."

Real versus faux real. Not every adviser with a specialty aimed at seniors is using lightweight or trumped-up credentials. Some designations demand rigorous training, testing and follow-up. For instance, an accredited estate planner must also be a lawyer or similarly qualified professional, take two graduate-level courses, and have five years of estate-planning experience. Compare those credentials with those for an accredited retirement adviser, who can take a 100-question exam without any academic or professional prerequisite.

One easy way to identify an adviser with expertise is to look for the certified financial planner designation. The CFP credential indicates that the planner has taken a college-level program in financial planning or the equivalent, passed a tough exam, and clocked at least three years as a full-time personal finance planner.

So rigorous is the training that anyone who earns a CFP is unlikely to tack bogus credentials onto it, says Michael Kitces, a partner (and CFP) at the wealth management firm Pinnacle Advisory Group, based in Columbia, Md. "Why add the junk if you've already gotten a high-quality credential?" he asks. Kitces has suggested that regulators set a minimum standard for financial planners, such as the CFP. "If such a rule were put into place, I suspect that almost all the specious designations would vanish," he says.

As for other credentials, check Finra's "Understanding Professional Designations" database at Use the tool to find designations and compare them side by side, vetting their educational requirements, exam type, complaint process and accreditation status. You can also find background information on brokers and advisers, including their qualifications and disciplinary history, at

The Department of Labor has raised a related concern about brokers who offer retirement advice. The current standard requires only that brokers provide their clients with "suitable" advice, be it about rolling over a 401(k) into an IRA or about which products to buy. The DOL would bump up the current standard for brokers to a higher, fiduciary standard, which requires advisers to put their clients' interest before their own (see "Rule May Raise Standard for Investment Advisers").

Most Popular

Your Guide to Roth Conversions
Special Report
Tax Breaks

Your Guide to Roth Conversions

A Kiplinger Special Report
February 25, 2021
4 Strategies to Reduce Taxes in Retirement
retirement planning

4 Strategies to Reduce Taxes in Retirement

Don’t let the possibility of higher taxes in the future sink your retirement income plan. Consider these four ways to help manage your taxes, keeping …
May 31, 2021
12 Housing Stocks to Ride the Red-Hot Market

12 Housing Stocks to Ride the Red-Hot Market

The U.S. has a housing shortage and a love affair with home improvement, both of which could create tailwinds for this group of housing stocks.
June 8, 2021


33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes

33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes

Even with the federal exemption from death taxes raised, retirees should pay more attention to estate taxes and inheritance taxes levied by states.
June 16, 2021
As You Plan for Retirement, Also Prepare for the Unexpected
estate planning

As You Plan for Retirement, Also Prepare for the Unexpected

Whether you’re close to retirement or decades away, no one’s immortal. Things happen. Are you ready, or could you leave the people you love in a lurch…
June 12, 2021
Super Deals and Discounts for 2021
Smart Buying

Super Deals and Discounts for 2021

Consumer prices are popping as the economy reopens, and that means finding good values is more important than ever. We uncovered bargains on everythin…
May 25, 2021
What Kids Need to Know About Finances
Women & Money

What Kids Need to Know About Finances

In a digital world, it's even more critical to teach children how to handle cold, hard cash.
May 24, 2021