What Is a Certified Financial Planner (CFP)?

Certified Financial Planner (CFP) is a formal recognition of expertise in the areas of financial planning, taxes, insurance, estate planning, and retirement. Owned and awarded by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc., the designation is awarded to individuals who successfully complete the CFP Board's initial exams, then continue ongoing annual education programs to sustain their skills and certification.

What's Required to Become a Certified Financial Planner?

Earning the CFP designation involves meeting requirements in four areas: formal education, performance on the CFP exam, relevant work experience, and demonstrated professional ethics.

The education requirements comprise two major components. The candidate must verify that he or she holds a bachelor's or higher degree from an accredited university or college recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Second, he or she must complete a list of specific courses in financial planning, as specified by the CFP Board. Much of this second requirement is typically waived if the candidate holds certain accepted financial designations, such as CFA, or CPA, or has a higher degree in business, such as an MBA.

The CFP exam comprises 170 multiple-choice questions that encompass more than 100 topics related to financial planning. The scope includes professional conduct and regulations, financial planning principles, education planning, risk management, insurance, investments, tax planning, retirement planning, and estate planning. The various topic areas are weighted, and the most recent weighting is available on the CFP board website. Further questions test the candidate's expertise in establishing client-planner relationships and gathering relevant information, and their ability to analyze, develop, communicate, implement, and monitor the recommendations they make to their clients.

As for professional experience, candidates must prove they have at least three years (or 6,000 hours) of full-time professional experience in the industry, or two years (4,000 hours) in an apprenticeship role, which is then subject to further individualized requirements.

Lastly, candidates and CFP holders must adhere to the CFP Board's standards of professional conduct. They must also regularly disclose information about their involvement in a variety of areas, such as criminal activity, inquiries by government agencies, bankruptcies, customer complaints, or terminations by employers. The CFP Board also conducts an extensive background check on all candidates before granting the certification.

Even successful completion of the above steps doesn't guarantee receipt of the CFP designation. The CFP Board has final discretion on whether or not to award the designation to an individual.

Details on the CFP Exam

Here's some additional information on the administration, costs, and scoring of the CFP exam.

  • Timing: Candidates sit for two three-hour sessions on a single day; a 40-minute break period separates the sessions. Exams are typically offered in three different one-week windows, in March, July, and November.
  • Cost: $725 for an exam administered at a U.S.test site, with a discount for early applications and a surcharge for late ones.
  • Passing Score: This is criterion-referenced, which means performance is measured according to a set level of required competency, rather than against the scores of other individuals who have written the same exam. This prevents any advantages or disadvantages that can occur when past exams were of lower or higher difficulty.
  • Retaking the test: In 2018, about 60% of those who took the test passed it. if you fail, you may retake the test up to four additional times over your lifetime.