When you see your doctor for an annual physical, the main purpose is to evaluate your health to find any potential problems before they become irreversible or life-threatening. This is important: most of us can think of someone who attributes being alive to “catching something early” because of a routine checkup.
While primary care physicians are skilled at diagnosing and treating many conditions, they are also trained to recognize health concerns that are beyond their areas of expertise. In these cases, they will often refer patients to an appropriate specialist for further treatment.
In similar fashion, a true financial planner is also a generalist whose role is to evaluate and maintain your financial health. This includes diagnosing financial threats and potential threats. While the financial planner can address some of these conditions, others require referrals to specialists.
Here are a few examples of possible threats and a specialist whose help might be appropriate.
• Critical gaps in insurance coverage. An insurance agent.
• An inability to save for retirement. A financial therapist, if the financial planner has been unable to help the client resolve the emotional issues behind this behavior.
• Potentially devastating issues in existing wills. An attorney specializing in estate planning.
• Squandered tax-saving opportunities. An accountant and/or attorney with expertise in tax law and planning.
• Lack of personal or business record-keeping and money management. A bookkeeper.
• High-fee investment products that are draining retirement resources. This most often would be dealt with by the financial planner.
One of the many differences between doctors and financial planners is that most patients don’t have previous relationships with specialists, so primary care physicians often control the referrals they make. However, people often wait until they are in their 30s or 40s to engage a financial planner. This means they are likely to have existing relationships with attorneys, accountants, and insurance agents.
When a financial issue needing a specialist comes up, then, it’s common to assume one of the professionals you already know is the right person to deal with it. This may or may not be the case. For example, the attorney who handled your divorce or drafted your will is not necessarily an expert on real estate law or asset protection. Not every accountant understands the tax planning inherent in spendthrift trusts or life estates.
It’s often a better idea, if your financial planner recommends getting help from a specialist, to ask the planner to recommend someone who has the necessary expertise.
It might also be appropriate to ask for a recommendation from a current professional, such as your attorney or accountant. They may be glad to help, for two reasons. One, your relationship with them does not need to end because you engage a different professional whose particular skills you need. Two, they may well prefer not to take on a matter outside of their usual areas of expertise when a specialist could serve you better.
Keep in mind, as well, that it’s your financial health at stake. Whether a professional is your generalist financial planner or a financial specialist, you need them to act in your best interests. This includes making sure they are professional enough to know and acknowledge what they don’t know.