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How to Choose a Financial Planner

Beware the good adviser who does bad things with your money

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What planners want from you

I'm a certified financial planner (CFP) and a member of the Financial Planning Association (FPA). Roughly 70 percent of the FPA's 23,800 members are CFPs; earning the designation typically requires months of study to pass a reasonably tough exam.
 
About half of the members have been in business at least 15 years. As an organization, we want to establish planning as a true profession, one seen in the same light as medicine, the law and accounting.

But that's not our only motivation: Planners have financial aspirations of our own. We make money by getting it from you. This isn't evil in its own right. But it is a conflict of interest, and it pervades everything we do.

Initials galore

We spend a great deal of effort trying to win your trust. A CFP is a serious designation, but that's not true of all the strings of initials after our names: At least 100 financial designations are in circulation, each meant to convey expertise in something. Some prove only that the planner passed an easy exam.

One organization, representing the Certified Retirement Financial Advisor (CRFA) designation, solicited me in 2007 to obtain both this “prestigious designation” and to sell me the names and contact information for older people who might want to buy an annuity. (CRFA spokesperson Lynda McColl says that the organization is under new leadership and has not sold names since 2007; its current certification requirement consists of a 100-question test.)

Other businesses will anoint us (for a fee) with even loftier distinctions. For instance, I've received an America's Top Financial Planners award from the Consumers' Research Council of America.

Forbes.com found that the council's Washington, D.C., address was a rented mailbox, and its vetting process is questionable, to say the least: To memorialize my honor, I called the 800 number the council gave me and received a $183 acrylic plaque — bearing the name of my dachshund, Max Tailwag’er. After I wrote about this in my MoneyWatch column, the council contacted Forbes.com (but not me) to demand the plaque’s return.

And there’s the email I recently got from AmericasTopAdvisors.com, telling me I was among the top 1 percent of advisers in the United States. Recipients of this honor are chosen via “peer nomination, industry recognition, or significant press mention,” the message said. To earn this accolade, I had only to pay an annual fee of $995 (minus a 20 percent discount).

Next: What financial planners can't do for you. »

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