Investment advisors help investors figure out their goals, create financial plans, and put those plans into action. There are a lot of them out there, too, meaning that finding the right professional for you or your family may seem daunting. But finding the best investment advisor for you can be a fairly painless process.
You’ll need to start with some basics, though, by learning the difference between an investment advisor and a registered investment advisor, what to look for when you hire an advisor, and more.
What Is an Investment Advisor?
An investment advisor is an individual or company that offers advice on investments for a fee. The term itself — “investment advisor” — is a legal term that appears in the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. It may be spelled either “advisor” or “adviser.”
Investment advisors might also be known as asset managers, investment counselors, investment managers, portfolio managers, or wealth managers. Investment advisor representatives are people who work for and offer advice on behalf of registered investment advisors (RIAs).
What Is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA)?
A registered investment advisor, or RIA, is a financial firm that advises clients about investing in securities, and is registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), or other financial regulator. While you may think of RIAs as people, an RIA is actually a company, and an investment advisor representative (IAR) is a financial professional who works for the RIA.
That said, an RIA might be a large financial planning firm, or it could be a single financial professional operating their own RIA.
An RIA has a fiduciary duty to its clients, which means they must put their clients’ interests above their own. The SEC describes this as “undivided loyalty.” This is different from non-RIA companies whose advisors are often held only to a suitability standard, meaning their recommendations must be suitable for a client’s situation. Under a suitability standard, an advisor might sell a client products that are suitable for their portfolio but which also result in a sales commission for the advisor.
RIAs generally offer a range of investment advice, from your portfolio mix to your retirement and estate planning.
What’s Required to Become a Registered Investment Advisor?
The following steps are required to become a registered investment advisor (RIA).
• Pass the Series 65 exam, or the Uniform Investment Adviser Law Exam, which is administered by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). Some states waive the requirement for this exam if applicants already hold an advanced certification like the CFP® (CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™) or CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst).
• Register with the state or SEC. If an RIA has $100 million in assets under management (AUM), they must register with the SEC — though there are sometimes exceptions to this requirement. If they hold less in AUM, they must register with the state of their principal place of business. This requires filing Form ADV.
• Set up the business. These steps require making a variety of decisions about company legal structure, compliance, logistics and operations, insurance, and policies and procedures.
How to Choose an Investment Advisor
Finding the right investment advisor is about finding the right fit for you. While personal preference plays a part, there are a variety of other things you might consider when you’re searching:
Look to helpful databases of financial professionals that can help you pinpoint some advisors in your area. Here are a few to consider:
• Financial Planning Association. Advisors in this network are CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERS™ (CFP®s) and you can search by location, area of specialty, how they’re paid and any asset minimums that may exist.
• National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. All advisors in this database are fee-only financial planners, meaning they receive no commissions for selling products.
• Garrett Planning Network. All advisors in this network charge hourly.
One of the best ways to find a financial professional is to ask friends, family, and acquaintances if they’ve worked with someone they can recommend. While there are ways to build wealth at any age, it may be beneficial to ask people who are in a similar financial situation or stage of life. For instance, if you’re relatively young with a lot of debt and very little savings, you may not want the same investment advisor who’s working with wealthy retirees.
Ask About Credentials
Ask investment advisors what certifications they have, what was required to get the certification, and whether any ongoing education is necessary to keep it. Some certifications require thousands of hours of professional experience or passing a rigorous exam, while others may only require a few hours of classroom time.
Other certifications are geared toward investors at a specific life stage or with specific questions. The Retirement Income Certified Professional (RIPC) certification, for instance, focuses on retirement financial planning. Those with a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification are probably good sources for tax planning.
Check Complaint History
Depending on who oversees the advisor or the firm, you should be able to check whether there are complaints on record. If FINRA provides oversight, you can research them on FINRA’s BrokerCheck tool. If the SEC oversees them, the SEC has an investment advisor search feature to find information on the advisor and the company. Remember: One complaint might not be a red flag, but multiple complaints might give you pause.
Find Out About Fees
Investment advisors may be paid, or charge fees, several different ways. They may charge a percentage of assets under management, meaning that the fee will depend on the assets they’re managing for you. For example, if the fee is 1% of assets under management and you’re having them manage $500,000, you’d pay $5,000 annually for their services.
Others may charge an hourly fee or a flat project fee for specific services. There are also advisors that are paid commissions from the products that they sell to clients. It’s important to understand how an investment advisor makes money and how much you’ll pay in fees each year, and then decide what you’re comfortable with.
Get Details on Their Work Style
Communication and working style may be just as important as credentials and expertise. For instance, how often do they want to meet with you? Would you be working with them directly or with a wider team of people? Do they like to communicate via phone call, email, or text? This is something else to consider.
Take a Test Drive
Many advisors will offer a phone consultation or in-person visit to see if you’re a good fit. You may want to take them up on it. Finding the right investment advisor is as much a matter of chemistry as credentials.
Questions to Ask an Investment Advisor Before Hiring Them
It can be a good idea to find out as much as possible about an investment advisor so you can make an informed decision. Here’s a list of questions you might want to ask:
• What are your qualifications?
• What type of clients do you typically work with?
• Are you a fiduciary?
• How are you paid? And how much will I be charged?
• Do you have any minimum asset requirements?
• Will you work with me, or will members of your team work with me?
• How (and how often) do you prefer to communicate? (Phone, email, text?)
• How often will we meet?
• What’s your investment philosophy?
• What services do you provide for your clients?
• How do you quantify success?
• Why would your clients say they like working with you?
An investment advisor can help you think about investing for the future, plan to save enough for all your goals, and understand how to get it all done. Finding one isn’t hard, but it does take time and some research to connect with an investment advisor that meets your expectations and feels like a good match.
With that in mind, getting the right advice can be critical even before you start investing. Someone with experience in the markets helping guide you can be invaluable.
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