Fiduciary vs Suitability: Finding Qualified Advisors

3/15/2022 - By Chris Stennett, CFP

In a previous article, I discussed some of the most common reasons people seek out the help of a financial advisor. But knowing you need financial help and actually receiving good help can be challenging if you don’t know what to look out for. So how do you find a qualified financial professional who will put your goals ahead of their own?

Finding Qualified Advisors 

If you’ve spent any time trying to search for a qualified financial professional, you know it can be confusing. First, there are a dizzying amount of job titles to search for: Financial Advisor, Wealth Manager, Financial Planner, Financial Consultant, etc.). A job title alone isn’t enough to help you determine if an advisor is qualified to help you.

A few years ago, the Certified Financial Planning Board of Standards put out a tremendous marketing campaign to help raise public awareness around working with qualified financial professionals. The commercial cuts together different video clips of a nicely dressed man in a large corporate conference room talking to various people about “Retirement and 401ks” ultimately asking each of them, “Would you trust me to be your financial advisor?” to which they all respond, “I would.” It is then that he reveals that he is not a financial advisor, nor does he have any investment experience. Rather, this well-dressed man is actually a DJ who benefitted from a makeover and a SAG card. Fortunately, no real damage was done, but the commercial did illustrate how challenging it can be to find qualified advice. 

To identify potential qualified advisors via online search, I recommend you start by finding a reputable database of advisors to choose from. Sites like cfp.net, financialplanningassociation.org or napfa.org, will help you find a list of advisors in your area who operate as fiduciaries for their clients. 

A Client’s Best Interest

Next, you have to worry about an advisor’s ulterior motives. When an advisor gives an individual specific investment advice, the hope is they are giving advice irrespective of any conflicts of interest – meaning the advisor is removing their personal beliefs and potential financial considerations from the advice they are providing. Unfortunately, financial services is not historically known for its altruism. So how can you be sure your advisor is legally bound to always act in your best interest? One way to tell is by looking at the organization that employs the financial professional. In the financial services industry, there are two primary organization types that can offer investment advice: Registered Investment Advisors (RIA) and Broker/Dealers. While the investment advice you receive from these parties may be similar, a key difference exists within the two competing standards each party is bound to uphold: the Fiduciary Standard and the Suitability Standard.

RIA vs Broker/Dealer

Financial advisors who work at an RIA operate under the Fiduciary Standard. They are legally obligated to act in the clients’ best interest and provide conflict-free - or fully disclosed - advice. Conversely, financial professionals who are employed by Broker/Dealers and insurance agencies are held to the Suitability “Best Interest” Standard. Under this relationship, a financial professional providing advice is only required to recommend investments they believe to be suitable for their clients, not necessarily the best overall solution for that specific client. Unfortunately, the rules governing suitability standards leave extensive room for interpretation for both the broker and their firm.

Why is that an issue? Well, financial advisors employed by Broker/Dealers typically have production goals, requiring them to “sell” a certain number and/or type of financial product per year to maintain their employment. Additionally, they might be compensated more for recommending one type of product over another. This is especially common with insurance contracts and annuities. These account types are often more restrictive or have high fees limiting your potential for returns. The potential for conflict will undoubtedly exist when it could be financially advantageous for an advisor to recommend one type of investment over another. Individuals in search of a financial advisor should be asking each prospective advisor about their compensation structure. Additionally, the advisor is required to disclose all conflicts of interest at the onset of the relationship and with each future recommendation.  

What Sets Saltmarsh Apart

As Registered Investment Advisors, Saltmarsh Financial Advisors is governed by the Fiduciary Standard across all client accounts. We do not sell products or receive compensation from the investments we recommend. To understand if your best interest is a top priority for your financial professional, ask if they are regulated under the Fiduciary or Suitability Standard. 

Questions? 

If you have any questions about your current investments or the investment options available to you, contact me or a member of the Saltmarsh Financial Advisors

About the Author | Chris Stennett, CFP®

Chris is a senior financial advisor and Certified Financial Planner® practitioner for Saltmarsh Financial Advisors, LLC, an affiliate of Saltmarsh, Cleaveland & Gund. He serves individuals and organizations as a comprehensive financial planner and coordinator of investment activities. His areas of expertise include investment management, income planning, tax and estate planning and risk management. Chris has over a decade of experience as a wealth manager working with teachers, federal and state employees, retired Armed Forces and private-sector employees. 


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