Trust means everything in relationships, whether we’re focusing on those in romance, family, or finances.

Trust is especially relevant in financial matters, which can be as emotionally draining, destructive and costly as anything else that we experience in our lives. An unscrupulous financial advisor can cause an unsuspecting investor to be badly hurt or even tragically wiped out of a lifetime of hard work and savings.

Key Takeaways

  • Many people seek out professional financial advice from a professional, but with so many options to choose from it may seem overwhelming to find an advisor.
  • First, determine what level of advice and service you require and how much autonomy you'd like to give away to a professional.
  • Look for professional certifications and designations after an advisor's name, such as CFA, CFP, or CIMA.
  • Determine the fee structure you're most comfortable with: fee-only, commission-based, or based on assets managed.

Understanding Financial Advisors

Today, the question of a financial advisor’s trustworthiness has taken on heightened importance. The fact that prominent New York investment advisor Bernard Madoff fleeced so many sophisticated and highly accomplished people still haunts some. Plus, there are so many ways today for investors to make—and lose—money. Wall Street seems to invent new financial products on an almost daily basis, each more alluring (and yet potentially confusing) than the next.

That's why the public needs people to counsel them. But these investments also carry heavy risks. Individual investors naturally rely on the expertise and involvement of financial advisors.

Further complicating the picture, not every investor has the same needs at the same time. A young person might eschew the highly conservative notion of capital preservation because they will be working and earning money for decades to come. This individual might be much more willing to go into speculative financial instruments than, say, someone nearing retirement age who has doggedly amassed a healthy nest egg and primarily wants to preserve it without unnecessary aggravation or risk.

To raise your personal comfort level with an investment advisor, experts suggest checking an advisor's background with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s (FINRA) website. If an advisor has a history of non-compliance with regulations such as The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), it would be hard to trust that the advisor will make your finances their priority.  

Savvy investors ask an advisor questions on these five essential subjects:

1. Core Values

Find out what your advisor's core values are. A person of integrity should be capable of reciting their values to you. If an advisor keeps trying to sell you a financial service that generates a commission regardless of how well it suits you, this person's values are probably not aligned with yours. An advisor who believes in having a long-term relationship with you—and not merely a series of commission-generating transactions—can be considered trustworthy.

Ask for referrals and then run a background check on the advisors that you narrow down such as from FINRA's free BrokerCheck service.

2. Payment Plan

Make sure you understand how the advisor is being compensated for investment advice or transactions, so you aren’t automatically forfeiting a chunk of your nest egg to someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. “Be crystal clear on how much money you are paying for their services,” said Joe De Sena, a private wealth advisor with J. De Sena & Associates on Long Island.

Is there an annual fee? Are you paying by check each time for their services? Or will the fee be automatically deducted by the advisor from your assets? Are you paying that person based on the level of their performance? Plus, the clients should receive, for tax purposes, an accounting of exactly how much they paid the advisor.

3. Level of Expertise

Dan Masiello, a financial advisor in Staten Island, N.Y., stresses the importance of an advisor’s expertise, training, and education. “For your own comfort level as a customer, you will want to look at someone’s education, certifications in the business, and a number of advanced degrees,” he said.

It is also important to make sure your prospective advisor has not had scrapes with regulatory authorities or negative references in the business media or experienced a history of investigations for misconduct. “A referral gives the client a certain degree of comfort in allowing you to speak with their clients,” Masiello said.

“The keyword here is transparency, which contributes to being able to trust someone. You’d prefer to see a level of stability. Has your advisor been committed to the same organization for some time and been in the profession for a long time?” Notable financial certifications to look for include the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA), Certified Financial Planner® (CFP), Certified Fund Specialist (CFS), and Chartered Investment Counselor (CIC). 

4. Service

Do you hear from them on a regular basis?” said Derek Finley, a financial advisor with WJ Interests in Sugar Land, Texas, which manages 201 clients and $390 million. A straightforward, excellent question! This point can be as much of a deal-breaker, ultimately, as anything sordid or even criminal.

How annoying and frustrating is it for an investor not to be kept apprised of a new development that could affect their portfolio, such as a price change in a stock, a shake-up at a prominent company, or an acquisition in an industry that has a bearing on stocks in the customer’s portfolio? The advisor could cost the client money by not keeping them apprised of major occurrences.

Of course, that doesn't mean that all phone calls from your broker are a positive sign. Be leery of brokers who badger you with calls that are only made to sell your products and increase commissions. 

5. Patience

Will your advisor take the requisite time to explain, methodically and patiently, their recommendations? Notes Trent Porter of Priority Financial Planning in Denver, which manages 131 clients and $28 million: “One of the biggest red flags is if you don't understand your investments, especially if your advisor isn't able or willing to explain to them when asked. Investors need to be very leery of advisors who take custody of their assets, a la Madoff." 

The Bottom Line

You can take measures to help yourself beyond these important points, too. “Having a third-party custodian directly holding and reporting on your assets helps to guard against fraud,” Porter said. “Also, be aware of whether or not they are a fiduciary, which legally requires them to put your interest in front of their own. Shockingly, not all advisors are required to do so. Just because they are a fiduciary doesn't mean you won't get ripped off. But it's a good start.” To get a third-party custodian, contact a provider of custodian services, such as Charles Schwab, TDAmeritrade, or Fidelity.