Understanding the Different Types of Financial Advisors

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Part of “adulting” is beginning to better manage our money, investing, and planning for retirement. If you are at the stage of your life where you are ready to put some real plans in place to get out of debt, grow your wealth, and start making solid plans for your financial future, you may be seeking financial advice.

Even so, you may be unsure about what type of help you need, especially if you are just getting started on your investment or retirement planning journey. There are plenty of professionals that specialize in different areas of financial advising, and it can be helpful to have a basic understanding of the different types of financial advisors, and their specialties and certifications. Armed with this information, you can better determine which type of advisor specializes in the advice and planning that is most relevant to you.

What is a CFP?

A certified financial planner, or CFP, is someone that has passed rigorous test on the specifics of personal finance. This test is administered by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. In order to become a CFP, a person must take extensive exams and complete ongoing education in the areas of financial planning, taxes, insurance, estate planning, retirement, and ethics.

Properly trained CFPs are equipped to offer sound financial advice in a variety of areas and are typically the best option for those looking for thorough and well-rounded financial advising in a wide range of areas.

What is a CPA?

While certified public accountants (CPAs) are most often associated with taxes, they can also act as trusted financial advisors. Because they know and understand their clients’ specific tax situations, CPAs can advise them on strategies that will help minimize tax liability while investing and/or saving for retirement at the same time.

A CPA has passed the CPA Exam, completed work experience requirements, and kept up on continuing professional education courses to maintain his or her certification.

What is an EA?

Many people choose to work with an enrolled agent (EA) instead of a CPA. An EA is authorized by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to represent taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service for audits, collections, and appeals, according to the National Association of Enrolled Agents (NAEA). They can advise, represent and prepare tax returns for any person or entity that is required to report income and pay taxes, including individuals, partnerships, corporations, estates, and trusts.

In addition to tax preparation, many EAs specialize in tax resolution. EAs must undergo an IRS-administered testing and application process, and complete a minimum of 72 hours of continuing education every three years.

What is a PFS?

A personal financial specialist (PFS) is essentially an add-on to the CPA certification. Offered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the PFS is intended for CPAs who want to branch out into financial planning. To earn a PFS, a CPA must have two or more years of personal financial planning experience in either business or teaching. A PFS must maintain the CPA designation and adhere to the standards defined in the Statement on Standards in PFP Services.

What is an RIA or investment advisor?

Registered investment advisors (RIAs), also known simply as investment advisors, provide information and guidance specific to securities and do not focus on other kinds of investments. Investment advisors are required to register with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) when handling more than $110 million in client assets. If they are managing less than $110 million they are required to register with their state securities regulator.

RIAs have met the licensing or examination requirements enforced by the regulatory body overseeing the firm for which they work. Licensing often includes the Series 65 or the Series 66 and the Series 7. These requirements can be waived for those who hold advanced professional certifications such as a CFA.

Because they are in the business of selling securities, RIAs are not necessarily the best option for general financial advising.

What is a registered representative/stockbroker?

A registered representative is a person who works for a brokerage company and is well versed in investment products including stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Registered representatives are required to have passed their Series 6 and/or Series 7 exams and to register with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). Registered representatives, also known as stockbrokers, are licensed by their state’s securities regulator. Stockbrokers work on commission and so, like their RIA counterparts, are not the most objective when it comes to offering general financial advice.

What is an estate planning attorney?

An estate planning attorney can advise clients on how to get their financial and other affairs in order to prepare for the possibility of mental or physical incapacitation, the need for long-term care, and eventually death.

There is more to estate planning advice than the preparation of a last will and testament. Attorneys specializing in this field can also draft living trusts and educate clients on ways to mitigate or avoid estate taxes. They can also advise clients on ways to ensure that their life’s savings and assets are safe from beneficiaries’ creditors after your death.

Which financial advisor should you choose?

If you are looking to invest, a CFP is likely your best option. Because they are educated in personal finance and have no conflict of interest or agenda based on commissions for selling products, they are the best suited to offer objective advice.

If you need a financial advisor that can also assist you with tax-planning or other accounting-related needs, then you may want to consider a PFS. That being said, if you already have a trusted CPA, EA, or other tax preparer, they can also provide invaluable advice based on their knowledge of your specific situation.

While those in the other roles mentioned can also provide valuable financial advice if you are already somewhat savvy in the type of investment you would like to make, they are not held to such stringent education and experience requirements. That means they may have a solid understanding of their own products and the potential benefits, but may have less general personal finance savvy and training.

When getting started with investing and financial planning it can be helpful to begin by first obtaining a clear picture of your current debts, liabilities, and credit report.

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