Most people spend decades saving and accumulating the wealth they need for their retirement. They often start with an IRA or a 401(k), and while the savings may start small, it can grow to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and even more.
When people get to that point, it can be exciting, but it can also be a perplexing fork in the road. As their wealth accumulates, investors realize there is even greater potential for larger gains as well as larger losses. Decisions surrounding money management become even more important, which brings us back to that fork in the road.
Some people manage their own investments through online brokerage houses with minimal fees as well as minimal advice and guidance. Others turn to financial advisers who meet with clients and customize portfolios and financial plans to fit individual needs.
The choice may seem simple, but choosing the right financial adviser isn’t always easy. There are different kinds of financial advisers, and most have no obligation to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own. In fact, the title “financial adviser” does not tell you much. When selecting an adviser, it’s important to look deeper into qualifications and affiliations.
A registered investment adviser, or RIA, has a legal duty to act as a fiduciary. That’s a technical way of saying the adviser must act in the client’s best interest. Less than 10% of the 300,000 financial advisers across the United States are fiduciaries, and within that small group of fiduciaries, more than 90% of them are “dually registered.” That means they’re only required to serve as your fiduciary some of the time.
In contrast, financial advisers who are registered exclusively as RIAs must act as your fiduciary all the time by disclosing conflicts of interest and disclosing all fees and expenses in writing.
Unfortunately, fiduciaries that are not dually registered can be hard to find. When engaging in a search for a financial adviser, remember that RIAs must make annual filings via a “Form ADV.” This filing provides prospective clients with tremendous detail and information about any RIA firm they are considering. For more on that, go to: https://www.sec.gov/fast-answers/answersformadvhtm.html.
Other financial advisers, such as broker-dealers, wire houses and insurance agents, are only required to fulfill a “suitability” obligation. They must provide suitable recommendations, but they don’t have to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own.
So how do you protect yourself? It’s important to meet with multiple advisers, and if they say they’re a fiduciary, ask if they’ll put it in writing, and then ask them a few key questions, such as:
Does anyone else pay them to advise their clients? If so, do they earn more to recommend certain products or services?
Do they participate in any sales contests or award programs that create incentives to sell a product?
Will they present your investment performance to you net of all your fees and expenses?
Can they tell you about their conflicts of interest, orally and in writing?
Do they earn fees for referring clients to specialists like insurance agents, estate planning attorneys and CPAs?
Ask these questions, and you’ll find out who you’re dealing with, especially when you ask them to put it in writing.
David T. Stanley is the chief executive officer and a founding principal of Full Sail Capital, an SEC registered investment adviser located in Oklahoma City. The firm is composed of financial advisers registered under the SEC as fiduciaries.