How Is Your Financial Adviser Paid?

Why you should care

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Roger Wohlner

Many clients do not understand how their financial adviser is paid. The three basic compensation models are:

Commissions. The adviser is compensated for the sale of investments, insurance, and other financial products. Compensation is paid by the firm that provides the financial product, usually a mutual fund or an insurance company. This may be in the form of an up-front charge, trailing (ongoing) fees, or a combination of both.

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Fee-based. Typically the adviser will charge a fee for putting together a financial plan for you. If you chose to implement the recommendations in the plan, such as the purchase of insurance, an annuity, or investments, the implementation will typically be done via the sale of commissioned products.

Fee-only. The adviser charges a fee for the services rendered. This can be one-time or ongoing, depending on the nature of your relationship and the services rendered. Fees may be hourly, flat, or retainer based, or based upon a percentage of the assets under advisement.

Why should you care how your adviser is paid? Because his/her compensation can impact the choice of the products recommended to you and your return from those products. Moreover, the adviser’s compensation structure can create a conflict of interest between what is best for you the client and what is best for the adviser’s wallet.

While there are many fine financial advisers who receive all or part of their compensation from the sale of financial products, a client can never be fully sure that the adviser’s recommendations are fully made with the client’s best interests at heart. Will the adviser suggest a mutual fund that does not pay a commission even if that fund is the best one for the client?

Fee-only advisers do not have this conflict of interest because they are paid by the client, not the financial product provider. They are free to suggest the best investment vehicles and financial products for each client’s individual situation. Full disclosure: I am a fee-only adviser, and I absolutely feel this is the best compensation method for clients.

When selecting a financial adviser, be sure to understand how he or she will be paid from working with you. Compensation structure should clearly not be the only metric used when choosing an adviser. There are many questions to ask a perspective adviser. Most of all, be sure that the person that you choose to work with is competent and that he or she fully understands your situation, your goals, and your expectations from the relationship.

Roger Wohlner, CFP®, is a fee-only financial adviser at Asset Strategy Consultants based in Arlington Heights, Ill., where he provides advice to individual clients, retirement plan sponsors, foundations, and endowments. He recently cofounded Retirement Fiduciary Advisors to provide direct investment and retirement planning advice to 401(k) plan participants. Follow Roger on Twitter and LinkedIn. Roger also blogs at Chicago Financial Planner.