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Evaluating financial advisers' credentials

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has recently delivered

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has recently delivered a report to Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission entitled "Senior Designations for Financial Advisers: Reducing Consumer Confusion and Risks." Credit: iStock

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has honed in on an important question: What do the various "senior designation" titles that financial advisers use to market their services really mean? As an answer, the bureau recently delivered a report to Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission entitled "Senior Designations for Financial Advisers: Reducing Consumer Confusion and Risks." (The report can be downloaded at

There are more than 50 different senior designations used in the marketplace, and while some do convey special training and experience in providing financial advice to seniors, others are a way to target older consumers and sell them "inappropriate and sometimes fraudulent financial products and services." In the topsy-turvy world of advice, a salesman can call himself an accredited retirement advisor, even though the bureau reported this designation is not accredited at all.

How can consumers sift though the designations? The bureau admits seniors have insufficient information to determine the legitimacy and value of different senior designations. To help, the report recommends creating a centralized tool through which senior investors can verify a financial adviser's designations; establishing a mechanism to capture complaints and enforcement actions against senior designation holders; and requiring senior advisers to disclose their qualifications and the meaning of the senior-specific certification.

Unfortunately, the bureau did not weigh in on the elephant in the room: the fiduciary standard, a set of core principles that advisers can adhere to, most importantly, their commitment to put the interests of their clients first. Consumers can eliminate many of the hucksters by doing business only with professionals who commit to the standard.

Because I receive so many questions about financial professional designations, I am repeating my favorites:

CFP certification The Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards requires candidates to meet "the four E's":

--Education (through one of several approved methods, must demonstrate the ability to create, deliver and monitor a comprehensive financial plan covering investment, insurance, estate, retirement, education and ethics).

--Examination (a 10-hour exam given over a day and a half; most recent exam pass rate was 62.6 percent).

--Experience (three years of full-time, relevant personal financial planning experience required).

--Ethics (disclosure of any criminal, civil, governmental or self-regulatory agency proceeding, or inquiry). Certified financial planners must adhere to the fiduciary standard.

CPA personal financial specialist The American Institute of CPAs offers a separate financial planning designation. In addition to already being a licensed CPA, a CPA/personal financial specialist candidate must earn a minimum of 75 hours of personal financial planning education and have two years of full-time business or teaching experience (or 3,000 hours equivalent) in personal financial planning, all within the five-year period preceding the personal financial specialist application. They also must pass an approved personal financial planner exam.

Membership in the National Association of Personal Financial

Advisors The association maintains a high bar for entry. Professionals must be registered investment advisors and must also have either the CFP or CPA- personal financial specialist designation. Additionally, association advisers are fee-only, which means they do not accept commissions or any additional fees from outside sources for their recommendations. Fee-only advisers can charge based on an hourly or flat rate, or based on a percentage of your portfolio value, often called assets under management. Either method is fine with the association; however, if the adviser collects a commission from an insurance company or a fee from a mutual fund company as part of the financial plan, that adviser is precluded from membership.

In addition to being fee-only, members of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors must be fiduciaries and must provide information on their background, experience, education and credentials, and are required to submit a financial plan to a peer review. After acceptance into the association, members must fulfill continuing education requirements. The requirements make the association's members among the smallest percentage of registered investment advisers, with only 2,400 total current members.

It's certainly possible to get good advice from an adviser without these designations, but these certifications do help protect investors from some of the most egregious salespeople. No matter what, if you feel pressure from any financial professional, run the other way!

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