Illustration by Jenn Liv

Financial planning has become a universally critical tool in planning for retirement. When hiring a financial planner, heed the advice that Mark Miller provides in this excellent article.

Source: The New York Times, January 6th, 2023

Financial Planning for Retirement: It’s More Accessible, but Be Careful

Financial planning and advice is no longer just for the wealthy. It can be especially important when planning for your later years.

By Mark Miller

It’s very hard to beat the stock or bond markets with any regularity.

I’ve been writing and researching articles on finance and money for most of my career, and covering retirement for the past 15 years. But my wife and I haven’t picked a stock or mutual fund for our own retirement accounts since the late 1990s, or written our own retirement plan. For that, we rely on a financial planner.

Hiring a planner is one of the smartest financial moves we have made. This type of advice was once a subset of the wealth management business, which — as the name suggests — was available mostly to the wealthy. But over the past couple of decades, financial planning has become more accessible to average folks, and its approach has become far more professional and holistic.

The most encouraging development has been sharp growth of the best type of advice you can get, which comes from planners who are fiduciaries — a term that applies only to advisers who are obligated to put the best interests of clients ahead of their own. Technology has automated some of the most basic planning functions, which has helped to bring down the cost of advice. And, the fees charged by good planners will be more than covered by the value of the advice they provide.

However, you must step carefully here. The landscape is littered with people who call themselves financial advisers and planners. Unfortunately, a muddled regulatory landscape over the past two decades has allowed many of the large broker or agent sales units of the biggest Wall Street firms, including banks, mutual fund companies, and insurance companies to continue peddling commission-based stock brokerage as financial advice, which it is not. You can also find plenty of people selling dangerous exotica like cryptocurrency.

Here are some of the most important challenges that financial planners can help you solve — and the key benefits of engaging them.

Manage complexity. You’ve probably noticed that your financial affairs become more complex as you get older. By the time retirement comes into view, you probably have a mortgage, and perhaps other debt for your car, credit cards and maybe even old student loans. If you are trying to play catch-up on retirement savings, there are questions to answer about investment vehicles and contribution rates. You might be balancing your own needs against those of adult children who need your help paying for their education or other financial needs.

Manage the transition to retirement. Planning for retirement is fairly straightforward when you are young. The key task is to save as much as possible — the so-called accumulation phase. If you invest in low-cost passive mutual funds, the investment choices are fairly simple. But the transition to retirement presents some complex issues. What are the results of working longer or retiring earlier? When should you file for Social Security and Medicare? What type of Medicare coverage should you select? How about long-term care insurance?

Manage the retirement years. In retirement, the aim is to ensure you will have adequate income and to manage resources safely and efficiently. A number of complex questions can arise. Which savings accounts to tap first? What is a safe withdrawal rate? How to plan to minimize tax burdens? If you have a pension, should you accept a lump-sum distribution, or take payments as a monthly annuity? How will you react during ups and downs of the stock market, and will you need advice on managing through bear markets? Should you roll over your 401(k) to an individual retirement account at the point of retirement, or leave it where it is? Convert some of your tax-advantaged savings to a taxable account?

Protect against cognitive decline risk. A growing body of evidence points to the unpleasant fact that our ability to manage our finances declines with age. More than half of the U.S. population over age 85 suffers from some level of cognitive impairment. This situation leaves older people vulnerable to financial fraud and abuse.

Combine this vulnerability with several other trends, and you have a perfect storm of financial risk: the increasing reliance on self-managed retirement income through individual savings and 401(k) accounts, growing use of debt by older households, and more problems with financial scams, computer security and hacking.

Peace of mind. If you do not have a formal plan for retirement, you are flying blind. A planner will use software to build a model of your household finances that projects your odds of success and can provide valuable what-if scenarios as you think through retirement options. Most advisers use planning software that projects outcomes depending on when you retire, the age when you claim Social Security, and how much you have accumulated in retirement accounts.

These software programs provide only projections — they are not crystal balls. But they provide a context for decision-making: With just a keystroke, your adviser can illustrate the effect of retiring a couple years earlier — for example, are you likely to have sufficient income to live comfortably, or should you work longer? What happens if you adjust the mix of equities and fixed income holdings in your portfolio to protect against the risk of a market downturn? Do you have sufficient assets set aside to handle a long-term care need? Perhaps you would like to make a midlife career change that will reduce or grow your compensation — how will that affect the plan? What happens if you become self-employed, and need to adjust your financial affairs?

Illustration by Jenn Liv

You can find a wide variety of financial advisers, but there really is one critical distinction to consider when you’re looking for this kind of help: Is the adviser a fiduciary at all times, or not? There are advisers whose first loyalty is to you as a client, and then there are “advisers” (with the same or similar titles) whose loyalty is to the companies whose products they sell.

The legal litmus test is fiduciary duty, which means that advisers are obligated to put the client’s best interest ahead of their own. You’re getting the highest level of professional care. And the fiduciary relationship comes with key legal protections. Should you ever wind up suing a fiduciary adviser who you think did harm, the burden is on that adviser to prove that what she or he did was in your best interest.

With nonfiduciary advisers, the burden of proof rests with you. Wall Street, consumer advocates, and regulators have been wrangling for more than a decade over fiduciary standards for financial advisers. Current U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulations allow advisers to provide conflicted advice so long as the conflicts are disclosed to the client. The disclosures come in the form of lengthy fine-print documents — the kind few of us ever bother to read. Even worse, the “Best Interest” standard sounds a lot like a fiduciary obligation — but it’s not.

For now, that means the buyer must beware. But here’s a simple way of looking at this: if you have the opportunity to work with an adviser who is a fiduciary — and is legally obligated to put your own interests first — why wouldn’t you do that?

Your best choice is a Registered Investment Advisor who works on a fee-only basis. Under this arrangement, advisers are compensated only for the time they spend working for you, rather than with a commission based on what they sell to you. These are fiduciaries who usually work independently or are affiliated with small firms. They will have access to a wide array of financial products from a variety of providers, rather than a captive set of offerings from their own employer. R.I.A.s are regulated by the S.E.C. and in some cases by state authorities. They’re held to a fiduciary standard of care.

Like investing, the fees you pay an adviser matter — a lot — in your ultimate success. So it’s important to understand the various ways planners are compensated, and how to keep fees reasonable. Fee-only planners can be compensated in a number of ways: by the hour, by the project, or on a scale adjusted for the complexity of your financial affairs.

Sometimes they are paid a percentage of your assets under management — typically 1 percent annually up to $1 million under management (and declining for higher amounts). This fee structure gets expensive quickly, considering that you’re paying it every year — and it’s overkill in most cases. Advisers who use it like to argue that it aligns your interests with theirs — “I succeed when you succeed.” But this argument doesn’t hold much water. Your portfolio grows for all sorts of reasons, and if you are in passive index funds there are really only two reasons: your contributions and the performance of the broad stock market. Advisers don’t do more work managing $100,000 for you than they do $500,000 — so why pay more?

These fees are often negotiable, and flat fees are more and more common. You can look at the list of tasks an R.I.A. offers and choose what you need. Try to negotiate a flat annual fee instead of a fee based on your assets under management.

Another approach is to hire an adviser for a stand-alone project to deliver a financial plan that you execute.

When you hire a financial planner, treat the process as though you’re an employer hiring someone to do an important job in your company. Start by assembling a list of at least three candidates you’ll interview in depth. Getting recommendations from friends can be a good way to start. You can also search online directories of fiduciary advisers in your area. Even better are recommendations from other trusted professionals, such as your lawyer or accountant — ask them for names of advisers they have worked with whom they respect and trust.

Ask candidates to provide access to current clients who can provide references and discuss their experiences with the adviser — but only in a general way. Most clients won’t want to talk about the personal details of their finances with you, and advisers are bound by privacy considerations. Also ask the prospective adviser to provide a list of professional character references.

Additionally, ask prospective advisers for references of professionals who know the adviser’s work and are in a position to make an endorsement. “It could be a C.P.A., an attorney, or an elder-care specialist,” said Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner and a leading figure in the movement to educate Americans about the importance of trustworthy fiduciary advice. “You want references from the people the adviser has worked with.”

In interviews, ask questions about advisers’ experience, client base size, compensation model, investment philosophy and loyalties — it’s absolutely critical to understand whether the adviser really works for you, or a financial services company selling a product.

Also determine if the adviser is a Registered Investment Advisor with the S.E.C. and in which states — and ask for a document called an ADV Part II, which will indicate the states in which the adviser is registered and other important disclosure information.

Finally, you want a planner with a spotless record. Ask candidates if they’ve ever faced public discipline for any illegal or unethical professional actions. You can try to verify their track record yourself at websites such as those operated by FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (a self-regulatory organization that oversees broker-dealers) and the S.E.C. However, remember that only the most egregious violations are reported — especially with FINRA.

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