Crystal Ball

What's keeping financial advisors' clients up at night

Bull markets always challenge financial advisors to prove their worth to clients.

"People keep hearing that the stock market is at an all-time high, but their diversified portfolio hasn't done as well," said Ric Edelman, a certified financial planner and chairman and CEO of Edelman Financial. "Nobody objects to upside volatility, and they forget why they're diversified."

Tim Hall | Getty Images

Wanting to keep up with the Joneses is human nature—particularly from an investment perspective. The huge outperformance of large-cap U.S. stocks to just about every other asset class over the last several years has clients who pay fees to advisors wondering why they shouldn't just put their money in a low-cost index fund.

"Some years it doesn't pay to have the diversified portfolio that everyone suggests you should," said Tim Maurer, a CFP and director of personal finance for Buckingham and the BAM Alliance. "Last year was one of those years, and people ask the logical question."

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Maurer, like every other financial advisor adhering to the principle of asset diversification, gives them the logical answer.

"I tell them they underperformed because they did the sensible thing and diversified," he said. "We can't guess which asset class will do best, and we would be negligent if we tried. That would make us gamblers."

Sheryl Garrett, a CFP and founder of the Garrett Planning Network, said she's fielding similar questions from people, but for the most part, her clients buy into the idea of diversifying to control risk.

"I heard much of the same stuff about 'danged diversification' in the late '90s; then, a few years later, people said, "OK, I get it,'" she said.

Changing role of financial planner
Changing role of financial planner

Another common complaint Garrett and other advisors are hearing from clients concerns the persistently low-interest-rate environment.

Retirees and conservative investors who are used to living off interest payments continue to get paid very little for safe fixed-income investments. With credit spreads on riskier fixed-income investments slim, Maurer doesn't want his clients stretching for yield.

"There's not a lot to gain from taking on fixed-income risk," he said. Maurer said he is still leaning toward stable investments like guaranteed CDs and Treasury bonds on the fixed-income landscape.

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"The bonds are a stabilizing force in the portfolio," he said. "They help our clients stay invested in stocks."

Those people dependent on income from their investment portfolios are increasingly getting it from selling assets—many of them highly appreciated—not from clipping coupons, Edelman explained. "Our retired clients don't depend on rates for their income," he said.

How to afford illness

The concerns that Garrett hears about most from her clients have less to do with investment management than with retirement planning and balancing the needs of the present with their hopes for the future.

She said that five years ago many of her clients in their 40s and 50s had given up on the idea of retirement. With the boom in the financial markets post-crisis, however, they are back to considering the idea possible. "It's great to see, but now they have to do the planning," she said.

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The biggest worry on that front is health care and potential long-term-care costs.

"Most Americans, regardless of their income or age, have experienced a major health-care issue in their family, and they know it's a big deal," Garrett said. "Health-care costs are a huge component of planning for retirement."

Garrett runs numbers on expected health-care costs for her clients, assuming that prices of health care will continue to rise at probably double the rate of general inflation. A 55-year-old client spending $600 per month on insurance that is inflating at 6 percent annually can expect to be spending half her income on health care by the time she's in her 90s, suggested Garrett.

Long-term care is a recurring annual theme with clients. It's one of the major soft spots in people's overall financial planning.
Tim Maurer
director of personal finance at Buckingham and the BAM Alliance

"We have to come to terms with the fact that health care is extremely expensive and very hard to plan for," she said. The only solution is for people to become smarter about their alternatives and about how they consume health care. "Financial advisors have to devote time to bringing up the options available to them."

The same uncertainty surrounds the issue of long-term care—the great white elephant on the retirement landscape for most Americans. It's complex, expensive and generally sold very hard by insurance companies. "Long-term care is a recurring annual theme with clients," Maurer said. "It's one of the major soft spots in people's overall financial planning."

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The prices of long-term-care policies have skyrocketed over the last 10 years as actuarial realities about the costs of the care have sunk into the market. Most advisors say that lower-income clients can't afford the coverage, and wealthier families may be better off self-insuring and paying for care out of their own assets, if need be.

It's the married middle class that needs long-term-care insurance," Edelman said. "It's a crisis for the family, not for the patient. If you're rich or poor or single, you don't need it."

For his part, Maurer said he encourages clients to think about long-term care on a continuum and consider insuring part of the risk.

For example, rather than insuring potential costs of $250 to $300 per day, people can cover themselves up to $100 per day, or enough to pay for home care if feasible. "It can be a ticket to help someone avoid having to go into a nursing home," Maurer said.