What to Look For In A Financial Planner

With the economic crisis over the past year, people are more conscious of their finances. It has been a wake-up call for some who realize they didn’t have much of a plan in place for their money during tough market conditions. For others, they have learned the hard way that the people they put in charge of their plan let them down. I have spent over 15 years working for a Financial Planner and will share with you some of the things that help to build a successful relationship with the person in whose hands you place your financial future.

EXPERIENCE:

1105756_96956529The longer one has been working at their profession, the better positioned they should be to put that knowledge to work the right way the first time. When interviewing a Financial Planner ask for their bio. Obviously you want to know how long they have been working specifically as a planner. But if that experience is limited, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

They may have been working within the Financial Services industry for many years in a different role such as a money manager, in client services, leading underwriting teams or writing mortgages. Perhaps they focused in areas of estate planning as an attorney or accountant. All of these realms interact with financial planning and a background in any of them should not be discounted.

If your planner is straight out of college and learning the ropes, make sure their degree was in finance, that they are pursuing professional designations within the planning field and that they are affiliated with a firm that has a good longstanding tradition in the area with experienced mentors working jointly with newcomers.

PROFESSIONAL DESIGNATIONS:

948188_28574738Often times the alphabet soup following a planner’s name can look impressive, but knowing what they stand for can clarify their level of training.

  • CLU stands for Chartered Life Underwriter and means that educational courses have been completed to provide in-depth training on life insurance needs for individuals and businesses.
  • ChFC stands for Chartered Financial Consultant and means that educational courses have been completed to provide in-depth training on financial planning areas focused on income tax treatment, retirement and estate planning through insurance and investments.
  • CFP stands for Certified Financial Planner and means that detailed training courses on all phases of financial planning have been completed and a certification exam has been passed. Continuing Education courses are required every two years with a special ongoing Ethics requirement.
  • Registered Representative means that your planner is licensed to sell investments through a Broker Dealer firm approved by FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority – formerly called the NASD). Securities exams (such as Series 6 for mutual funds and variable annuities or Series 7 for stocks) must be passed before Registered Rep status occurs.
  • RANGE OF SERVICES:

    767836_84874726Life Insurance Agents can all sell the same products from the same companies. And Registered Representatives can sell most of the same mutual fund and annuity products not considered proprietary to big broker firms. What sets them apart is their ability to offer a range of products and tools within their planning practice.

    This means they should be licensed to sell life insurance, disability insurance, long term care insurance, mutual funds, fixed and variable annuities, stocks, bonds and CD’s. They should be able to coordinate the installation of a retirement plan, interpret a business valuation, and implement Buy Sell Agreements for small businesses. They should be able to recommend accountants, attorneys, Medicaid planners, mortgage brokers and Third Party Administrators for retirement plans.

    And they should carry licenses in more than just your resident state. This shows a commitment to their clients, willing to ensure they will be able to be a long-standing coordinator of your financial plan regardless of where you move or retire.

    FIND THEIR SPECIALTY:

    485085_76263127Regardless of their broad range of products and services, a planner will have a specialty or niche that you should inquire about. Some are experts in family owned businesses, others know everything there is to know about college savings plans. They may focus their practice on insurance, or investments might be their strong suit. Knowing that they can help you in whatever your specific needs are is important.

    Learning what they specialize in can make their services more or less valuable to you.

    MEET THEIR STAFF:

    1208423_12758677The reason your planner is effective is because they have the time to do what they do best – learn, educate and implement. The reason your planner has this time is because they have support staff focused on proposals, research, paperwork, underwriting, licensing coordination and customer service.

    Since you are the customer, you should know who you will be talking to regularly when you have questions or concerns about your accounts and policies. The quality of the people rather than the number of staff employed is what is important to you as a client. Constant turnover in staff can be a red flag – if the planner can’t keep a consistent staff in place, their time is spent interviewing, hiring and training rather than working on your financial goals.

    If their staff seems incompetent or unreliable, how can you put your faith in their employer to know how to manage your money?

    MATCH THEIR PERSONALITY:

    683292_50743243A first impression can go a long way into knowing how you feel about your planner. Your planner may have met your experience and professional qualification standards, but if their personality leaves you frustrated, intimidated, uncomfortable or wary then it may not be the best match for you. Some prefer an incredibly outgoing and personable planner, chatting as much about personal tastes and hobbies as they do your portfolio. It makes for a nice relationship and trust builder. Others might take that as unprofessional and wasteful of time, preferring instead an all business approach.

    Whatever your preference, listen to your gut – the slightest bit of concern or discomfort with a person can plant a seed of distrust throughout the relationship – with or without merit, it can undermine the goal of a solid financial plan.

    KNOW THEIR APPROACH:

    787736_89554850If you find your planner through a seminar, chances are they spend a lot of time running them. This may mean that they are out to sell a particular concept or product rather than taking time to discover your specific needs, or it may mean that it is a very effective use of their time in meeting potential clients who best fit their area of expertise.

    Ask your planner during the first meeting what their process is for helping you to determine your needs and implement your goals. They may offer fee based planning where they evaluate your current tax returns, investments, policies, debts and income and present an in-depth report with recommendations you should implement in order to reach your current and future needs. It is then up to you to decide with whom you wish to buy the products from. Or they may work specifically off of sales where they provide the same type of needs-based analysis and help you decide which product, rider or account type to purchase, at which time they receive a commission.

    Either way, your initial meeting should be without cost.

    AGREE ON EXPECTATIONS:

    1204495_63422068If you expect to hear from your planner whenever the market drops, and your planner’s standard practice is to provide reviews annually, you will be disappointed in the lack of communication and all the while your planner will think they are being proactive by calling you for a meeting each spring. Ask your planner how they communicate with their clients and the frequency. If the answers don’t match your preference, let your planner know about it.

    Their standards may be flexible and if nothing else, they should be willing to find an acceptable compromise. They may offer to teach you how to read your quarterly statements and give you a tutorial on how to view your policy or account information online as well as agree to touch base by phone in between live reviews to monitor a specific fund or value level. A financial plan is not rigid and set in stone. It should be flexible dependent upon life events.

    When something changes in your life, your planner needs to know about it and you should feel confident that you can call upon your planner as important changes occur, regardless of the formal review schedule in place.

    PERFORMANCE:

    740189_77139831A list of referrals from your planner gives you a way to talk to people happy with how your planner’s methods have performed for them. But word of mouth is a better, more honest gauge. Having a friend, neighbor or co-worker speak glowingly of their planner is an unsolicited vote of confidence and a good way to begin your search. Looking their name up on FINRA is an even better way to determine if any complaints have been formally filed against them.

    Once you have started work with your planner, hold them accountable for reaching your goals. If you are unhappy with the direction things are going, let them know about it. Listen to their explanations. Are they sticking with your agreed upon long-term vision or are they reactionary? Their job is to devise a plan and help you stick to it. Their job is to monitor the options available and recommend a change in product if something better comes along. Your job is to give them information and input.

    In the end, it is your money. You can do what you want with it. But if you use the above lessons in your search for a planner, you are more likely to find a planner you trust to keep your financial future secure and less stressful than it probably feels right about now.

    ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF SXC.HU

    Comments

    1. Susan says:

      Molly, we’ve had a CFP for a few years now and he has really helped us navigate the murky waters of investments and retirement planning. It still amazes us the work he puts into it with very little cost to us.

      Great article!

      • Molly G. says:

        Glad to see the strong endorsement of your experience with a CFP. Finance and Estate Planning can indeed be overwhelming to navigate and finding a qualified person you trust to lead the way can be such a relief.

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