Fiduciary financial advisors are professionals who have a legal obligation to manage assets or give retirement advice with their client’s best interest in mind.
Among the guidelines fiduciary financial advisors need to abide by are avoiding conflicts of interest, being transparent (about fees and investments choices), acting in good faith, and being as accurate as possible.
Financial advisors aren’t the only professionals who can have fiduciary responsibilities. Lawyers, bankers, board members, accountants and executors can all be considered fiduciaries.
Fiduciary financial advisors cannot recommend investments or products simply because they would pay them bigger commissions. They can be held civilly responsible if they give advice that isn’t in the best interest of their clients.
What Is a Fiduciary?
A fiduciary is someone who manages property or money on behalf of someone else. “When you are named a fiduciary, you are required by law to manage the person’s money and property for their benefit, not yours,” according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a government watchdog agency.
The CFPB provides an example of this, along with the requirements of being a fiduciary:
“For example, a friend of yours may name you her fiduciary through a power of attorney (POA). This means that you are responsible for her finances if she becomes sick or injured.”
As a fiduciary, your four basic duties are to act only in your friend’s best interest, manage her money and property carefully, keep her money and property separate from your own, and keep good records. Basically, you are to do your very best to manage her finances honestly.
In this sense, a person who is named as a fiduciary may not have any particular financial planning expertise. Therefore, they may still choose to hire out the actual work of managing the money to a financial expert. In doing this, they are exercising fiduciary responsibility.
What Is the Fiduciary Responsibility in Financial Planning?
Someone who acts with fiduciary responsibility will act in the customer’s best interest.
There is no universal standard for fiduciary responsibility because there are multiple agencies that act as regulatory bodies in the financial services industry.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is one, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is another. Additionally, the organizations offering certifications, like the board of Certified Financial Professionals (CFPs), may provide their own guidance on fiduciary responsibility and code of conduct.
In 2016, the Labor Department issued what was called the “fiduciary rule,” requiring that any advisors offering retirement advice must act in their clients’ best interest. The rule was widely challenged from within the industry and subsequently overturned in the courts in 2018.
While there has been subsequent discussion about the DOL restoring the fiduciary rule, as of early 2023 there are no plans to do so. Rather, investors interested in working with financial fiduciaries are encouraged to inquire directly with various professionals, as there are still some guidelines in effect.
Broker-Dealer Fiduciary Obligations
In June of 2019, the SEC passed its own version of the fiduciary rule, called Regulation Best Interest (RBI). It says that all broker-dealers (which includes brokers) must act in the best interest of the retail customer when making recommendations, without placing their financial interest ahead of the customer’s.
According to the SEC, broker-dealers must adhere to the following obligations:
Disclosure Obligation: provide certain required disclosure before or at the time of the recommendation, about the recommendation and the relationship between you and your retail customer;
Care Obligation: exercise reasonable diligence, care, and skill in making the recommendation;
Conflict of Interest Obligation: establish, maintain, and enforce written policies and procedures reasonably designed to address conflicts of interest; and
Compliance Obligation: establish, maintain, and enforce written policies and procedures reasonably designed to achieve compliance with Regulation Best Interest.
Not everyone is convinced that the new RBI standards do enough to protect the consumer. Additionally, the new RBI rules may have actually weakened the need for some Registered Investment Advisors to work in a fiduciary capacity.
Questions to Ask a Fiduciary Financial Advisor
Because the rules of fiduciary responsibility remain somewhat up for interpretation, the waters remain a bit murky for some retail customers, and the responsibility for finding a fiduciary requires effort on the consumer’s part.
Ask questions, carefully consider investment recommendations, and challenge possible conflicts of interest. It is good to be in the habit of asking the person you intend to work with whether they’ll be acting with fiduciary responsibility. Do not hesitate to ask them outright, “Are you a fiduciary?”
Then, ask them to clarify what fiduciary responsibility means to them, their title, and the institution that they represent. Also, consider how they are being compensated, i.e. what does the financial advisor charge? Much, although not all, can be sussed out via the compensation model.
The Fiduciary Versus Suitability Standard
Previously, broker-dealers may have adhered to what is called the “suitability rule,” as opposed to a fiduciary rule. Although broker-dealers are now technically held to a fiduciary standard, it’s an important word to know, just in case you work with someone who does not fall under the SEC’s regulatory purview. Suitability is not the same fiduciary responsibility.
The rule by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), a non-governmental regulatory organization, requires that a firm or associated person have “a reasonable basis to believe” that a financial or investment recommendation is suitable for the customer.
The firm needs to make this determination based on the customer’s “investment profile,” which can include age, other investments, financial situation and needs, taxes, liquidity and risk tolerance, among other factors.
How to Find a Fiduciary Financial Advisor
Finding a financial professional that assumes fiduciary responsibility is a great start.
That said, there is more to finding a trusted financial advisor than simply adhering to fiduciary standards. Being a fiduciary doesn’t guarantee that a financial professional offers the right service for you, or even that they’re someone that you’ll want to work with.
For example, a doctor may have a license to practice, but not a good bedside manner. Or, you may need a dermatologist, so making an appointment with a pediatrician won’t do.
Here are a handful of the services offered in the financial help space, along with their respective adherence to fiduciary guidelines.
Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs)
Generally, RIAs manage investment portfolios on behalf of customers. They may or may not offer other services, such as comprehensive financial planning.
Previously, all RIAs were held to a fiduciary standard. Counterintuitively, this may have changed with the new RBI standards, which may have loosened standards for RIAs.
Brokers, such as a stock broker, are professionals who buy and sell securities on behalf of clients. Typically, a broker works on some form of commission from the sale of securities.
Before the RBI, brokers were not held to a fiduciary standard. They are now held to the new standards, though it remains to be seen exactly how this will shake out within the industry.
Certified Financial Planners (CFPs)
CFP® may offer more holistic financial services, such as financial planning, budgeting, and personalized investment advice. Not all financial planners are CFPs — you may want to ask about the credentials of the professional you want to work with.
The CFP Board “supports a uniform fiduciary standard of conduct for all personalized investment advice. This fiduciary standard of conduct should put the interests of the client first, and should include both a duty of care and a duty of loyalty.”
Again, it is important to seek out the professional that will best serve your needs.
If a financial professional suggests a product or strategy, do not be afraid to ask questions.
How Are Fiduciary Financial Advisors Compensated?
Financial professionals are compensated in several different ways:
In this case, you would pay a financial professional, such as a CFP®, a fee to sit down and discuss a financial plan or roadmap. This could be a one-time meeting, or meetings could take place at regular intervals (such as quarterly or annually). If a financial planner is fee-only, then they will not receive any additional commissions on products being sold.
An advisor who is fee-based may charge a fee and collect commissions. This fee could be a one-time or annual fee, or it could be measured as a percentage of assets under management. For example, an investment advisor could charge a 1% annual fee.
Assets under management
Similarly, some investment advisors and planners who manage an investment portfolio may charge a percentage on top of assets that are being managed.
Some financial professionals may charge by the hour. This may be more common for financial coaching and planning than wealth management.
Commissions typically come in the form of payments to the financial professional, from the company that creates the product. Commissions are common on insurance products, like annuities and life insurance, and some actively managed mutual funds.
It is possible that a financial professional be compensated in multiple ways. Be sure to ask.
A popular choice for those just getting started is a fee-only fiduciary financial planner. To find a fee-only fiduciary financial planner, you may want to check a database like XY Planning.
Fiduciary financial advisors are professionals who are legally obligated to invest money or give retirement advice that’s in the best interest of their clients.
Among the requirements fiduciary financial advisors need to abide by are minimizing conflicts of interest and being transparent about how they are compensated. Acting in good faith and giving accurate financial advice are also guidelines that fiduciaries are supposed to follow.
Investors looking for trusted help should try to find a fiduciary financial advisor. Some robo-advisors and online investing platforms offer access to a financial planner who can answer questions for investors.
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