How to Find a Financial Planner

6 steps to help you avoid swindlers and find a qualified adviser.

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You spend a lifetime working and saving, amassing a retirement nest egg and wondering how best to invest it and make it last. Then you meet a financial adviser at a free investment seminar at work. You come to trust the planner, who advises you to take a lump-sum payout of your retirement account and let him reinvest it. He says the money will last you as long as you live.

You can imagine how this story could have a nightmarish ending. The adviser puts your money in risky investments you don't understand and milks your account with high fees. Then a turn in the market makes your investments plunge in value. By the time you catch on, your plans for a lifetime of retirement income are a shambles. You might hire a lawyer to try to recoup your losses, but you yourself are guilty of trusting someone with your finances without doing a careful screening.

It can be confusing knowing where to turn for help. Myriad financial pros, all vying to manage your money, tout an alphabet soup of credentials. "Anyone can call themselves a financial planner or adviser," says Sheryl Garrett, founder of the Garrett Planning Network, an association of fee-only planners, and author of the Personal Finance Workbook for Dummies. "No minimum experience or education is required by law."

Legwork. Many designations used by planners are legitimate, including certified financial planner (CFP) and chartered financial counselor (ChFC), but some may not be. Finding the right financial planner takes time and legwork. People approaching or in retirement should take special heed. Nearly half of all investor complaints submitted to state securities agencies came from seniors, according to a recent survey by the North American Securities Administrators Association. As a result, the association is aggressively cracking down on unscrupulous brokers and others using titles like "certified senior specialist."

Impressive as they may sound, some titles can be highly misleading, says NASAA spokesman Bob Webster. Bogus senior specialists commonly target older investors through free-lunch seminars, with a follow-up call a few days later from a salesperson. Typically, he or she will offer to review seniors' assets and recommend liquidating securities and using the proceeds to buy indexed or variable annuities, Webster says.

With a little homework, you can steer clear of swindlers and find a legitimate professional. A good planner can devise an overall financial plan that will recommend how to allocate assets and determine if you've got the right blend to meet your specific retirement goals. What's more, a planner can advise you on how to draw down funds from your accounts when needed and handle estate-planning and tax matters. Here are six steps toward finding a planner who is right for you.

1. Gather names of at least three planners. Start your search by asking for references from friends or relatives. Of course, you may have to dig deeper to track down a good planner. Several reputable national organizations require members to earn credentials by passing exams. Each offers a searchable database with state-by-state contact information for planners. The groups include the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, the Garrett Planning Network, the Financial Planning Association, and the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants has a list of CPAs who've earned the Personal Financial Specialist designation.

2. Screen for credentials. Look for someone educated in a range of financial issues, not just a salesperson who's going to try to sell you a certain product. Many planners require that new clients have a minimum income or net worth. But, given the sheer number of planners to pick from, you should be able to find one who will work with you.

Be sure the planner has experience helping people with backgrounds similar to yours, advises Irene Leech, a consumer studies professor at Virginia Tech and a NAPFA consumer representative. Ask the planner to describe a typical client. Find out how long the person has worked as a planner. And ask if he or she is a fiduciary and will put that in writing. In doing so, the planner agrees to always put your interests first.