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Your Ultimate Guide to Financial Advisers

Choose the best money expert to get the advice you need

post it note with the words financial adviser surrounded by question marks

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​Just as there’s a medical specialist for most every ailment, there’s a financial specialist for most every money-related problem or need. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), Wall Street’s self-regulatory organization, lists 212 different credentials or designations, ranging from AAI (accredited adviser in insurance) to WMS (wealth management specialist). 

So when the time comes to seek professional help to plan retirement finances, deal with debt, rethink investments or take on any other money-related task, your first move is to find the right expert.

​But all those abbreviations that pros list on their business cards — certifications, designations and memberships they use as evidence of their pedigree, education and expertise — can confuse more than inform. “Some designations have real coursework behind them, and others are designed to look like they do,” says Barbara Roper, senior adviser to the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.​ To make it easier to find the best advice for your particular financial need, here’s a guide to some key identifying marks and credentials of relevant experts.​

Remember, though: Credentials are only part of the equation. In the end, you want a pro who has real, hands-on experience helping people with situations like yours.​​

1. The tax preparer ​

If your return is fairly basic, you can hire any reputable professional who has what’s known as a preparer tax identification number, or PTIN, which is required for individuals who get paid to prepare returns. (You can also get your return prepared for free by an AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteer.)​ Got something more complex — for instance, do you own a business with inventory? Look for an enrolled agent (EA). Granted by the IRS, the EA designation indicates that a professional has expertise in tax procedures and, unlike many other tax preparers, can represent you in an IRS audit. EAs earn the credential either through working at the IRS or by passing a three-part exam.​ Like EAs, certified public accountants (CPAs) can do your taxes and meet with the IRS, but they can also handle other accounting needs; many have specialties, such as personal financial planning and business valuation. They undergo a lengthy course of study — usually several semesters’ worth of college-level courses — ​and pass a rigorous national exam.​​

Where to find one:​ 

2. The bill manager

​Sometimes it’s not the big picture that you need help with but the daily expenses. For instance, you may be a 60-year-old overwhelmed by tracking your 90-year-old mom’s medical bills and caregiving costs. A certified daily money manager (CDMM) can help you with tasks like paying household bills and filling out health insurance claim forms. ​Certification by the American Association of Daily Money Managers requires a minimum of 1,500 hours of paid daily money management work in the past three years (or its rough equivalent), a background check, and a passing score on a 100-question exam. Many daily money managers are also bonded and insured.​​

Where to find one:

Certified daily money manager (CDMM)


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3. The financial planner ​

For help with your overall finances, including investments, retirement and budgeting, a widely recognized standard is the certified financial planner (CFP) credential. “A CFP is the Swiss Army knife of helping you with all the planning for your future,” says Steve Gurney, publisher of the Positive Aging Sourcebook. Requirements for becoming a CFP include three years of financial-planning experience and a difficult exam. ​Some CPAs have the credential of personal financial specialist (PFS), indicating additional experience and training in core subject areas like estate planning and retirement.​ Like a CFP, a chartered financial consultant (ChFC) offers broad financial planning support to clients. Coursework for the designation is similar to that required for a CFP.​

Where to find one:

4. The insurance agent​

If you’re looking for auto, property or life insurance, you can compare policies online. But it often pays to use an agent — either one who works for a single company or an independent agent who can help you compare policies from different insurers. ​Although agents must have a state license, they don’t need any specialized credentials. “There are some very talented agents who don’t have any designations,” points out Loretta Worters, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute.​ Still, a designation indicates that an agent has taken extra steps to gain a thorough understanding of his or her field. A chartered life underwriter (CLU), for instance, has studied the role of insurance in estate planning and retirement planning, and how to use annuities. To earn this designation from the American College of Financial Services, agents must have three years of experience and complete eight courses.​ For property or auto insurance, look for an agent with a chartered property casualty underwriter (CPCU) designation. “The CPCU is one of the most respected designations in the industry,” says Worters. It typically takes two to three years to complete a CPCU, according to The Institutes, the organization that issues the credential.​

Where to find one: ​

5. The estate planner​​

Granted by the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils, accredited estate planner (AEP) is “the granddaddy of estate planning designations,” says Michael Finke, a professor at the American College of Financial Services. AEPs — licensed attorneys, CPAs and CFPs, among others — can help with life insurance, property transfers, charitable giving and more. (For drafting wills and other legal documents, seek out a licensed attorney.) ​AEP qualifications include five years of experience in estate planning and continuing education.​

Where to find one​:

Accredited estate planner (AEP)

Avoiding Fraudulent Advisers

​How to make sure you’re not being duped by a financial adviser​

  1. Check that the adviser is permitted to sell securities or give investment advice and has a clean record. Visit brokercheck.finra.org or call FINRA at 800-289-9999. Insurance sellers need a state license.
  2. If he or she uses a title, find out who awarded it and what it required. Some titles take little effort to obtain. FINRA has a directory of designations.​
  3. Watch for red flags when you first meet, such as promises of above-market returns or risk-free investing, a hard sell on certain products, or failure to ask about your specific financial needs and goals.​

​For help in finding a financial adviser who will put your interests first, use AARP’s Interview an Advisor tool.​

Karen Cheney is a veteran personal finance journalist whose work has appeared in Money, Real Simple and other publications.