I have long recommended that consumers look for a Certified Financial Planning (CFP) certificant when shopping for a financial planner.
But don’t stop there. A CFP is no guarantee that someone is a competent, ethical, fiduciary professional. It only ensures that you are choosing from a pool of 85,000 financial services providers who are educated in the technical aspects of financial planning. It doesn’t mean the person is engaged in financial planning, is a fiduciary, or has a spotless ethical history.
In a troubling Wall Street Journal article on August 9, 2019, columnist Jason Zwieg writes that the “CFP Board’s online search directory neglected to inform the public that thousands of planners listed” have known “customer complaints, criminal histories, financial problems or regulatory proceedings.”
“Among these CFPs were 499 who have faced criminal charges, 324 who left a previous firm amid allegations of misconduct, 323 who had been disciplined or investigated by regulators and 68 who filed bankruptcy within the past 10 years,” Zweig notes. Yet none were ever disciplined by the CFP Board.
Let’s not lose perspective—these “bad apples” amount to less than 2% of CFP certificants. Every profession has those few who use its licensing and credentialing as a cover to manipulate, deceive, and abuse consumers. No amount of regulation or oversight will ever eliminate all the crooks.
In addition, you cannot simply assume because a professional has a certain license, designation, or formal degree that they are competent. In the graduate class I teach at Golden Gate University, not all students earn As and Bs. Many earn Cs. A few earn Ds and Fs. While I am not sure the D and F group ever graduate, I am sure I would not want them doing my financial planning without convincing evidence that their poor performance in my class was a one-off due to extenuating circumstances.
As the consumer, you cannot know if a prospective financial planner was that student. Nor can you know if they have a tainted criminal background, unless you dig deeper.
That digging includes looking for any past criminal or disciplinary charges brought by licensing agencies. It also includes determining whether the advisor is legally bound to a fiduciary standard—required to put your interests ahead of theirs—but has any conflicts of interest, especially by making a significant amount of their income from commissions on the sale of financial products.
Here are a few tips for digging deeper:
1. Go to brokercheck.finra.org to see if FINRA has brought disciplinary actions against the advisor.
2. Go to the SEC’s website to look for disciplinary actions.
3. Have the prospective advisor sign a written disclosure that you are a client and they have a fiduciary duty to put your interests above their own, rather than a customer where they have no such obligation and will usually put the interests of their company first. Many advisors, especially those not legally bound to be fiduciaries, don’t understand the difference, so insist on getting this assurance in writing.
4. Have the prospective advisor sign a statement disclosing what percentage of their company’s gross revenues comes from fees charged to clients. These might be paid as hourly fees, annual retainers, or separate charges for advice. The lower the percentage of income from fees, the greater the chance of a significant conflict of interest. I recommend finding firms receiving over 90% of gross revenue from fees; I prefer 100% because such firms advertise themselves as “fee-only” or will offset any commissions against a flat fee.
To find a trustworthy financial planner, I still recommend the CFP designation. Just remember that it’s a starting point, not a guarantee.