Last year's Bernie Madoff scandal left many families in crisis - in many cases, with no financial security, and in some extreme situations, with completely depleted assets. Imagine the devastating impact of having to not only downgrade your lifestyle, but maybe even struggle to meet your basic necessities. As the ripple effects from this and other scandals continue to play out, what can you do to protect yourself and your family from unscrupulous financial advisors?
If you're not particularly savvy when it comes to things financial, it still makes sense to have a trusted expert to help you manage your investments, analyze cash flow versus spending and plan for future education costs and retirement. Given all the bad press about financial advisors recently, you may feel more comfortable with someone whom you can look in the eye and ask the tough questions, to evaluate his or her integrity, investment philosophy and practices.
Many big banks have wealth management divisions where, by design, clients are dealt with on the phone and via client web sites. We learned through the 2008 meltdown of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns that bigger is not necessarily better. Find a firm, perhaps one that is local to you, with a good reputation that is willing to meet you in person to discuss your family's financial needs. Make sure you bring your significant other, or a trusted family member or friend, to the meeting.
Don't be embarrassed to ask lots of questions, even tough ones that can help you spot a crook. It's your money and your future; the best advisors will be proud to answer any and all questions to give you the comfort level you need.
Who will be the keeper, or custodian, of my assets? Be very wary of an advisor that's its own custodian, a la Bernie Madoff. Choose one that houses your assets with an established third-party custodian (such as Charles Schwab, Fidelity or TD Ameritrade). Make sure that your advisor and its custodian send separate reports of your investments: When the statements come in the mail, it's your job as the investor to make sure they match up.
Have you ever been disciplined for unethical or improper conduct? Sued by a client? Ask, but don't take the advisor's word for it. Check the advisor's history for violations or disciplinary actions with state and federal agencies and industry organizations. Checking is free and usually can be done online.
What are all your sources of income? You want objective advice, so you need to know if the advisor has any divided loyalties. Understand if the advisor is receiving income only from clients ("fee-only"), or is paid by sales commissions, or both ("fee-based" or "fee-plus-commission"). If the advisor is a straight product pusher who gets paid by selling you more financial products, turn on your heel and move on.
How easy is it to fire you? Don't sign any contracts that obligate you to keep an advisor for a set period of time.
What are your qualifications and training? Only a handful of the more than 100 financial designations mean much. Top credentials are CPA (particularly CPA/PFS) for income- and estate-tax work, CFP® for financial planning, and CFA® for investments. The ideal situation would be to hire a firm that provides you with a team of seasoned professionals with all of these credentials.
Will you personally handle my account? At a large firm, you may first meet a salesperson you'll never see again. Ask to meet with everyone who will be making decisions that affect you.
How did your clients do in the last down market? Remember, everyone is a genius in a bull market. You also want your advisor to be able to protect you in down markets.
Can you describe your investing approach? Does the firm rely on one or two "stars," or is the approach institutionalized and reliably reproducible over many years?
Are you sensitive to taxes when investing? Some advisors don't care, but one who takes a holistic approach will help you keep more of what you make.
What is your client-to-employee ratio? If close personal attention is what you want, a firm with a ratio of 25-to-1 or less is more likely to satisfy you then one where the ratio is over 100-to-1.
Families that don't proactively manage their finances are not likely to grow them. Finding an attentive, responsible and skilled financial advisor can help you keep what you earn, increase your assets and leave a legacy to your loved ones that will give them a great start in life.
Robert DiQuollo is President of Brinton Eaton Wealth Advisors, a boutique wealth advisory firm based in Madison, NJ. For more information visit www.brintoneaton.com