How do you know you can trust your financial advisor?

  • To weigh a potential advisor's trustworthiness, look for competence, honesty and reliability.
  • Industry organizations such as Finra and the Center for Fiduciary Studies offer online credentials and criminal history checks of financial professionals and their firms.
  • Professionals with a fiduciary responsibility must put clients' needs first.

I often hear clients talk about having a trusted advisor. I am not sure what they mean. Bernie Madoff was a trusted advisor for some very wealthy names. He has now become the icon of a wealth advisor who should not have been trusted.

Baroness Onora O'Neill, a British philosopher, said in her recent TED Talk [that she] "would aim to have more trust in the trustworthy but not in the untrustworthy. ... Intelligently placed and intelligently refused trust is the proper aim."

She provides structure for evaluating trust that I will apply to wealth advisors. The judgment of trust requires us to look at three things: Are they competent? Are they honest? Are they reliable?

How can you be sure that your financial advisor is trustworthy?
Thomas M. Barwick | Getty Images
How can you be sure that your financial advisor is trustworthy?

Let's start with competence. Many types of professionals call themselves a "wealth advisor." Attorneys, certified public accountants, insurance salespeople and professionals registered to sell securities (stocks, bonds, options, etc.), to name a few. There is no "wealth advisor" designation. Some professionals who refer to themselves as wealth advisors have obtained qualifications, such as Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Financial Analyst and Chartered Financial Consultant, to name a few.

A CFP has passed a series of exams on topics such as retirement planning and estate planning. Then, similar to a lawyer's bar, they must pass a comprehensive exam at the end. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority lists CFP and similar designations on its website and provides a brief summary of each.

If you're like many people in search of a wealth advisor, you talk to friends and family or allied professionals. Most people tell me they want someone who is trustworthy. Finra provides BrokerCheck, which allows you to look up the regulatory record for registered financial professionals. Many investors are unaware of the professional conduct of the person that they're working with. Regulatory issues do not necessarily mean expulsion from the industry. That is why it is important that you check your investment professional using BrokerCheck.

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You may or may not think that the firms that they work for have actually done this due diligence. However, if a professional provides the firm a lot of business, it may be in their interest to look the other way regarding certain historical violations.

A fiduciary is someone who keeps your interests ahead of their own. That's the relationship you have with your attorney and your doctor. Investment professionals with an investment advisor representative title work for you as a fiduciary. Professionals who become a CFP take an oath to work as a fiduciary, or risk losing their designee status. Many people prefer to work with someone who does have to keep their interests first. Should your advisor be forthcoming with that information, or should you find out after the fact?

The CFP Board of Standards also has its own website, where you can check out your professional or verify that he or she is a CFP. The Center for Fiduciary Studies, which confers the Accredited Investment Fiduciary designation, also has a website to verify if your professional has met its standards.

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This is probably the most difficult of all to judge. This likely will require that you simply experience their services and continue to keep your antenna up.

  • Do the strategies they recommend work as explained?
  • Do they meet the expectations that they set?
  • Do they show up for meetings on time?
  • Are they prepared?
  • Do they speak in language that you can understand?
  • Are they transparent and forthcoming with information that you may not have asked about?
  • Do they have to keep your interests ahead of their own in the interests of their firm? At the least, you may always need to concern yourself about this conflict of interest in evaluating their recommendations — especially those that are irrevocable or have high costs to undo.

This list is not exhaustive but provides some guidance to assist you in evaluating your current or future wealth advisor.

"Many people prefer to work with someone who does have to keep their interests first. Should your advisor be forthcoming with that information, or should you find out after the fact?"

As O'Neill said, "If we find that a person is competent in the relevant matters, and reliable and honest, we'll have a pretty good reason to trust them, because they'll be trustworthy.

"But if, on the other hand, they're unreliable, we might not. … I have friends who are very confident they can do certain things, but I realize that they overestimate their own competence," she added.

Would your wealth benefit from a second opinion or an opinion from a CFP, accredited investment fiduciary or investment advisor representative?

(Editor's note: This guest column originally appeared on Investopedia.)

— By James Brewer, president of Envision Wealth Planning

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