How can I reliably verify that a specific financial advisor is a true and full fiduciary – and that they’re not just conning and misleading me? Is there a respectable and independent professional group that independently investigates and reliably certifies that individuals named “advisors” truly act as fiduciaries? I’ve learned from a lifetime of depressing mistakes that I’m too trusting and gullible, so I’m deathly afraid of being lied to and cheated about something so critically important. I can’t afford any mistakes this time.
I’m sorry that you’ve dealt with this in the past.
Fortunately, the direct answer to your question is simple and definitive. Yes, there are multiple ways of verifying whether a financial advisor is a fiduciary. Several financial services industry organizations exist that require member advisors to adhere to a fiduciary standard as a condition of membership.
These organizations verify that applicants are in fact registered fiduciaries. They often have public directories available that anyone searching for a fiduciary financial advisor is able to access.
You can also verify it for yourself firsthand with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s investment advisor search tool. That’s because the legal requirement that an advisor act as a fiduciary is dependent on his or her registration as an investment advisor representative of a registered investment advisor firm (as opposed to a registered representative of a broker-dealer.)
What Is a Fiduciary Financial Advisor?
A fiduciary advisor is one who is required to place the client’s interests above his or her own in regard to advice and recommendations given to the client. It may feel painfully obvious that this is a base standard. The reality as you seem to be well aware is that it simply isn’t.
I’m always careful to point out that, in the context of this question and discussion, “fiduciary” is a legal standard. That means that the law compels advisors to place your interests above their own.
There are two key ideas I think are important to pull from that:
It’s a legal standard.
It’s not a guarantee.
Let’s dive into those more.
Fiduciary Legal Standard
Fiduciary duty is imposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Fiduciary duty is satisfied by full and fair disclosure of all material facts and conflicts of interest in a manner that allows the consumer to exercise informed consent.
The fact remains that financial advisors and planners are still humans at the end of the day who are capable of illegal and unethical behavior.
A famous example to illustrate this point is Bernie Madoff. At the time of his arrest, he was a fiduciary. His story is complex, of course, but the simple fact is that if “legally held to a fiduciary standard” is the only metric someone is using to judge a potential advisor, then Bernie Madoff was a solid choice on Dec. 10, 2008. You still need to do your own due diligence.
This is not a criticism of the fiduciary standard. I am a legal fiduciary.
There’s nothing in your questions to suggest you aren’t doing this. But for the sake of others who will read this, while it is great you are looking for a fiduciary advisor, I encourage you to narrow your search even further. Fiduciary status doesn’t imply any particular expertise. Find a financial advisor who specializes in your particular need or background as well.
It is important to do your own due diligence on an advisor that you are considering.
Professional Organizations Whose Members are Fiduciaries
Several professional organizations of registered fiduciaries exist. Note that membership in one of the following organizations means the organization has verified the member is a fiduciary. But not all fiduciaries are members of one of the following organizations.
If someone doesn’t appear on one of the membership rosters or a directory below, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still a fiduciary. Reference the SEC advisor search function for the definitive authority.
Here are some common organizations where members are fiduciaries:
The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA). Members of NAPFA provide comprehensive financial planning and complete ongoing continuing education.
Fee-Only Network. This is a directory of advisors who have been verified as fee-only fiduciaries.
XY Planning Network. In addition to the fiduciary standards, XYPN encourages members to obtain and hold the certified financial planner (CFP) marks. They also have no asset minimums.
Garrett Planning Network. Members of the Garrett Planning Network provide advice on an hourly, as-needed basis.
SmartAsset. Additionally, at SmartAsset all advisors on the platform are vetted fiduciaries, meaning they’re legally bound to place your interests above their own. SmartAsset partners with both local and nationwide firms. SmartAsset has an economic incentive to introduce advisors to consumers.
Clients have multiple avenues via which they can locate and identify fiduciary financial advisors. In addition to finding a fiduciary, consider finding an advisor with specific expertise in your area of need.
Brandon Renfro, CFP®, is a SmartAsset financial planning columnist and answers reader questions on personal finance and tax topics. Got a question you’d like answered? Email AskAnAdvisor@smartasset.com and your question may be answered in a future column.
Please note that Brandon is not a participant in the SmartAdvisor Match platform, and he has been compensated for this article.
Find a Financial Advisor
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