Money Essentials

Need financial help? Here are some options

The ins and outs of hiring a financial adviser to manage your affairs or just give you some help.


Let's face it: making financial decisions is hard. There's a lot you can figure out on your own, but we can all use help when it comes to something as important as how to save, invest and plan for the future.

Nevertheless, few American households use a personal financial planner. Why not? Chalk it up to confusion and fear. After all, it can be daunting to entrust your financial future to a stranger. And it's tough knowing where to turn for help because a changing marketplace has blurred the line between the likes of insurance salesmen and your stockbroker. In fact, these days everyone - from law firms to tax planners, mutual fund families, and brokerages - is competing hard to manage your money.

What's more, because there are no state or federal regulations for the planning industry, anyone can call himself a financial planner. As a result, you'll want to hire a planner who's earned credentials, such as a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) or a Personal Financial Specialist (PFS).

The credentials are awarded only to those advisers who've demonstrated a certain degree of knowledge and experience - and who've passed exams covering major planning subjects. For example, to earn the CFP credential, a planner must pass an exam that tests knowledge of insurance, investment planning, tax planning, retirement planning, employee benefits, and estate planning and more.

Because qualified planners are trained to deal with myriad personal financial topics, they can help you set financial goals and priorities, then recommend specific steps to meet them. This means they may give advice on how you should allocate your investments, what kind of insurance you really need and explain how certain moves may affect your taxes or estate.

It's then up to you to decide if you want to follow that advice. A good planner will also recommend when you need more specialized help, say, working with a trusts and estates attorney who can help protect assets in a family businesses.

A roundup of the different types of help available:

GENERAL

Credential: CFP (Certified Financial Planner)

What they do: Roughly 59,000 CFPs nationwide provide financial planning and advice on topics from retirement planning, investments, tax and estate planning, employee benefits and insurance needs.

Requirements: Pass college-level courses in topics including retirement planning, estate planning, tax planning, investment analysis, and employee benefits. Then pass a two-day, 10-hour exam. Planners must also have a bachelor's degree and a minimum of three years of professional experience working with clients. A bachelor's degree is required for new applicants.

Credential: CPA/PFS (Certified Public Accountant/Personal Financial Specialist)

What they do: Provide overall financial planning with an emphasis on taxes and accounting.

Requirements: The PFS credential is given to CPAs who have a certain level of professional experience and are members of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

A CPA must have practiced a minimum of 3,000 hours of financial planning over a five-year period prior to applying for the PFS exam, which covers risk management, retirement planning, investment planning, goal setting, tax planning, and estate planning.

The 4,100 CPAs nationwide who've earned the PFS title must reapply for the PFS credential every three years.

INVESTMENT PLANNING

Credential: IA or RIA (Investment Adviser or Registered Investment Adviser)

What they do: As the name suggests, an IA advises clients about securities. Note: A financial planner or broker may be an investment adviser but not all investment advisers are planners or brokers.

Requirements: Investment advisers who manage at least $25 million must register with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

IAs who manage less than $25 million have to register with their state securities agency. To find your agency, check the Investment Adviser Registration Depository or ask to see your adviser's "Form ADV." This is the registration form that he or she must file with the SEC or his state. This two-part form lists complaints, disciplinary actions, the adviser's education, employment history, fees, and investment strategies.

Title: Broker

What they do: Brokers are paid to trade securities on behalf of customers. Note: This is different than giving investment advice, though some brokers may also be registered investment advisers. Some firms may call a broker different titles such as an "account executives" or a "registered representative," and some brokers may specialize in one type of investment.

Requirements: Before they can buy or sell securities for clients, brokers must pass exams on trading procedures by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), such as the Series 7 in general securities or Series 6 in variable annuities and mutual funds. Brokers must register with FINRA, so before you do business with one, check his or her background on FINRA's Broker Check.

Credential: CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst)

What they do: CFAs are generally portfolio managers and analysts for institutional clients, such as banks or mutual funds. But some of the 90,000 global CFA members advise wealthy individuals or families who have sophisticated investment needs.

Requirements: Candidates are recommended to spend 250 hours studying for three exams covering financial accounting, debt, equity analysis, and portfolio management. They must also have at least four years of professional experience in investments. To keep a CFA status current, a CFA must re-sign an ethics pledge each year.

Credential: CIMA (Certified Investment Management Analyst)

What they do: Advise high-net worth private clients on investments, although a few CIMCs advise institutional clients such as pension funds or trusts.

Requirements: Analysts have passed two, two-hour exams on topics like risk management, performance measurement, development of investor policy statement, and asset allocation. They must also have three years of professional experience as financial advisers.

Next, CIMA candidates must complete a six-month self-study educational component, in which the candidate can read or take courses in order to pass a Level I online qualification exam. The Level II material and exam are a one-week class held at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania or the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. CIMAs must also adhere to a Code of Professional Responsibility and maintain 40 hours of continuing education every two years.

Credential: CFS (Certified Fund Specialist)

What they do: Planners advise clients on mutual funds, and may buy and sell funds for clients. Some CFS holders provide general financial planning services for clients as well.

Requirements: Candidates must pass three multiple-choice exams covering the use of mutual funds as well as annuities and financial planning. They must sign a code of ethics before they can use the CFS credential. To keep the CFS status, a designee must take 30 hours of continuing education once every two years.

TAX PLANNING

License: CPA (Certified Public Accountant)

What they do: Those CPAs who specialize in taxes can help clients with tax planning and preparation. (Some CPAs may not deal with tax planning but instead focus on audits or accounting.) Unlike some other tax advisers, CPAs are authorized to represent clients before the IRS.

Requirements: Candidates must pass the rigorous Uniform CPA Examination. A CPA also must be licensed by the board of accountancy in the state where he or she works.

License: EA (Enrolled Agent)

What they do: Enrolled Agents are licensed by the IRS to represent clients before the agency during audits, hearings, or collection procedures. An EA may also provide tax-planning advice and tax-preparation services.

Requirements: Candidates must take a computer-based exam on major points of tax law, including income-, corporate-, estate-, and gift-taxes. Former IRS employees may qualify for an EA license without taking the test if they have worked five years at the agency in a position requiring relevant tax experience. All EA candidates must pass a background check by the IRS.

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