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A Primer on How Financial Advisors Are Compensated

Commissions

These advisors charge you nothing and earn their income instead from the products you purchase based on their recommendations. While the low or no upfront cost for planning might be attractive, critics believe this business model is more subject to conflicts of interest.

If you do elect to work with a commission-based advisor, make sure you carefully consider both the products being recommended and the fees involved. Remember, the impact of high fees over your investing lifetime can be dramatic.

Fees

With the rise of fee-only financial planning, the large investment firms began promoting a model referred to as “fee-based.” Careful investors might assume that fee-based and fee-only are the same, but generally they are not. (For related reading, see: Fee-Only Financial Advisors: What You Need to Know.)

A fee-based planner might offer to put together a plan and recommend investments that don’t involve a commission. However, beyond that, fee-based planners do typically receive commissions when it comes to recommending insurance, and they may accept referral fees as well. If you are concerned that this outside compensation might represent a conflict of interest, then consider a fee-only planner.

Fee Only

True fee-only advisors do not sell commissionable products or accept referral fees. The only income they earn is what you pay them and they fully disclose the cost of their advice. This model removes most conflicts of interest, and the primary one that remains is that those advisors that charge on the basis of assets under management (AUM) will earn more if you decided to increase the amount of assets they manage.

To find a fee-only financial advisor near you, visit the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.

One last point to consider when reviewing how an advisor is compensated is whether the advisor adheres to a fiduciary standard. A fiduciary is required to act in the client’s best interest at all times. Fee-only advisors and some fee-based advisors generally follow the fiduciary standard. It is less common among commission-based advisors.

Beyond the simple question of how advisors are compensated, when it comes to fee-only advisors there are a couple of different business models. If you elect to work with a fee-only financial advisor, you’ll want to understand what model they use. These are the most common models:

Hourly

Some advisors simply charge by the hour. They should be able to provide an estimate of time required before beginning work on a planning engagement. (For more, see: How to Find a Financial Advisor Who's Right for You.)

Assets Under Management

These advisors charge based on assets under management. More specifically, they charge a percentage of the total value of the portfolio they are managing. One percent is a pretty common starting point for fees. As an example, the annual fee for an ongoing financial advisory retainer for a client with a $1 million portfolio would be $10,000.

Net Worth

Some financial advisors charge clients based on their overall net worth which includes real estate and other assets, less any liabilities like mortgages.

The advisor’s rationale is that they do much more than just manage a client’s financial portfolio and this holistic management positively benefits a client’s net worth. Advisors who bill based on net worth typically use a lower fee schedule than those who bill based on assets under management

Flat Fee

Some advisors provide ongoing financial planning and investment management services (also referred to as wealth management) based on a flat fee. The fee is usually determined based on your overall financial situation, such as portfolio size, income, the overall complexity of your financial situation, and so on.

The determination of the fee is more opaque than is the case with the AUM or net worth models, but the rationale is that such an approach is more reflective of the value an advisor brings than the former two approaches.

There is one last point to note with regards to how fee-only financial advisors determine their fee. Many planners working under the hourly model don’t offer ongoing investment management, while those who offer retainers (via the last three models above) may only work with clients who are interested in a retainer or have asset or fee minimums that put them out of reach for potential clients. Make sure you are aware of the services an advisor offers and whether or not there are any relevant fee or asset minimums.

It's important to be aware of how your advisor is compensated so you can ensure that you are comfortable with the way your money will be spent. (For more from this author, see: What a Personal Financial Plan Should Include.)