You get what you pay for
Many financial planners make some or all of their money from commissions by selling investments and insurance, but this system creates an immediate conflict between the planners' interests and yours. Why? Because the products that pay the highest commissions, such as life insurance and high-commission mutual funds, are generally not the ones that pay out the best for the customers. Overall, we think the best advice is to avoid commission only planners. You should also be wary of fee-based planners, who earn commissions and also receive fees for their advice.
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That leaves only financial planners. They don't sell financial products, such as insurance or stocks, so their advice probably isn't biased or influenced by their desire to earn a commission. They just ask for their advice. Fee-only planners can charge a flat fee, a percentage of your investments - usually 1 percent - under their control, or hourly rates from about $ 120 an hour. Still, you can generally expect to pay $ 1,500 to $ 5,000 in the first year when you receive a written financial plan, plus $ 750 to $ 2,500 for ongoing advice in subsequent years.
Where to get help
If people you trust can't recommend planners in your area, or if you'd like to broaden the field you choose from, you can get lists of local planners from the following industry associations. Check out each group's website.
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* National Association of Personal Financial Advisors
* Financial Planning Association
* American Institute of Certified Public Accountants
Trust but verify
After you have compiled a list of at least three candidates, you can arrange in-person interviews. These consultations are usually free. Some of the questions you will want to ask are:
* Are you specialized? Many planners try to be all-rounder and take every customer who can pay. However, some work primarily with a certain type of customer, such as small business owners or widows. Others tend to focus on one area of financial planning, such as retirement issues or college financing. You want to make sure that the planner has experience working with people whose financial lives are similar to yours.
* How will you be reimbursed? Any reputable planner will not shy away from asking this question. It is imperative to find out in advance how you will be charged and how much.
* May I see your ADV form? This is a report that the planner submits to regulators. Part I of an ADV (the name stands for advisor) will alert you to any legal or regulatory issues in the planner's past. Part II describes his or her experience, investment strategies and potential conflicts of interest. Planners are required by law to show you Part II if you request it. They may refuse to show you Part I, but that's a good reason to refuse to give them your business.
* Can I have the names of three customers that are similar to me? You want to talk to these customers about their experience with the planner. It's also a good idea to ask for at least one recently written plan; the planner can block the customer's name to protect his or her privacy.
Finally, be on the lookout for canned sales presentations, which are not uncommon in the financial advisory field. And give the highest marks to a consultant who listens to you and asks clarifying questions. Comments Stuart Kessler, former president of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, "Anyone who is not a good listener will not understand what you are looking for."