What kind of credentials should a planner have?

There are at least 100 financial designations, and many are just empty titles that don't mean much. The title "retirement specialist," for example, is a made-up label that has no backing from any industry group. The popular C.S.A. credential comes from a real organization, the Society of Certified Senior Advisors, but merely indicates that the "expert" studied how to communicate with (and market to) seniors. Earning the "certified retirement financial adviser" credential does involve financial training, but it's a self-study or four-day course and only requires passing a 100-question multiple-choice exam. (The group that grants the C.R.F.A. is owned by a firm that sells a seminar for marketing annuities to seniors, which doesn't inspire confidence either.)

The ones you want to look for are the ones that take a significant amount of time and expertise to master before the designation is awarded. These include the CFP (certified financial planner), the PFS (personal financial specialist) and the CFA (chartered financial analyst). Planners with these designations at least have a proven level of competency within financial planning and investing. To earn the CFP credential, for example, a planner must pass an exam that tests knowledge of insurance, investment planning, tax planning, retirement planning, employee benefits and estate planning.

But many other designations are engineered to lend credibility to the planner. When you see some initials after someone's name, look up that designation on the Web. Find out how difficult it is to obtain. If it looks easy, yet the planner brags about its meaning, you might want to steer clear.