Why we cannot assume CFP® equals “Fiduciary”

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Rick Kahler MS CFP

By Rick Kahler MS CFP®

One of the most important ways to find competent and trustworthy investment advisers is to be sure they owe you a fiduciary duty.

This means the advisers’ legal and ethical responsibility is to act in your best interests, not their own or their employer’s.

An ongoing legal case featured in an October 31 article by Ann Marsh in the online Financial Planning magazine highlights both the importance and the difficulty of finding a fiduciary adviser. (Disclosure: I am one of several advisers quoted in the article.)

The whistleblower case against J. P. Morgan involves an adviser and former J. P. Morgan employee, Johnny Burris, who says he was fired after refusing to give in to pressure to sell some of his employer’s high-priced products that he did not believe to be in his clients’ best interest.


Here is why this case is important to anyone looking for financial advice: many advisers at investment firms like J. P. Morgan hold the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation. According to the website of the CFP Board of Standards, the organization that awards the certification, CFP’s are required “to put your interests ahead of their own at all times and to provide their financial planning services as a ‘fiduciary’—acting in the best interest of their financial planning clients.”

This sounds straightforward enough. Since 2008, the CFP Board has positioned the CFP designation as an indicator that an adviser will put clients’ interest first.

Unfortunately, that isn’t quite accurate.

Here is the tricky part: Advisers who sell financial products are allowed to “wear two hats” in their interaction with consumers. Any time they are giving financial advice and acting as financial planners (as defined by the CFP Board), they are expected to act in the best interest of the client/customer.

Yet if they don’t give any financial advice other than what is ancillary to the sale (a very confusing concept) of financial products to the same client/customer, that fiduciary requirement does not apply. The consumer is apparently expected to have the exceptional discernment and knowledge to know which hat is being worn at any given time.

As a consumer, you can assume that advisers holding the CFP® designation have completed many hours of education and passed tests to assess their professional competence.

However, because of the CFP Board’s hairsplitting, you cannot assume “CFP” equals “fiduciary.”

You still have to ask two essential questions:

The first is “In this engagement with me, who are you primarily responsible to, me or your company?” An adviser employed by a brokerage house or investment bank is very likely to be held most responsible to their company and expected to sell that firm’s financial products. This sets up a conflict of interest, in that the products with the highest fees will make the most money for the firm and the adviser, while those with lower fees may well be in the best interest of the clients.

A CFP® adviser who works for an independent financial planning firm may be less likely to be pressured to sell a given line of products. They also may do enough financial planning to be required to be a fiduciary.

However, you still need to ask the second question: “How do you get paid?” Any adviser who receives income from selling financial products cannot fully represent clients as a fiduciary without first overcoming an inherent conflict of interest.


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An adviser who doesn’t sell any products, who gives investment advice, and whose income comes solely from client fees is answerable and responsible to those clients as a fiduciary. You can trust that such a fee-only adviser will genuinely put your interests first. 


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6 Responses

  1. Fiduciary

    A legal term that has always been near and dear to me and a word that has long been toxic to brokerages and traditional investment firms, and a concept generally not understood by consumers at large. But, not to CMPs.

    After long debate and relentless lobbying by traditional banks and brokerages against a universal fiduciary rule, the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) new Fiduciary Rule will finally become effective on June 9, 2017. As such, it’s been getting a lot of buzz. The concept is no longer just arcane legalese spoken by lawyers and regulators.

    Ultimately this rule will expand the definition of “investment advice fiduciary” under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and plans under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (the “Code”), including individual retirement accounts (“IRAs”).

    Dr. David Marcinko MBA CMP®


  2. Richard

    Agree with the above. Here is more as a fully staffed SEC could fast-track the best interest regulation and as observers expect only modest changes from comment letters, and look ahead to a vote to enact new advisor and broker regulations.


    Dr. David E. Marcimko MBA


  3. CFP – From Trademark to License?

    Historically, the competency standards to become a financial advisor have been very low. All someone really needed to do was pass a three-hour regulatory exam that required a week or so of preparation. This low barrier for entry has meant that even licensed insurance salespeople who technically can’t be paid for dispensing advice can call themselves advisors.

    Not surprisingly, the disconnect sows confusion among consumers, which in turn degrades our skill set and knowledge. And given the SEC’s lax enforcement of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, there’s not a strong regulatory partner in this fight.

    It may be time then to shift CFP certification from a trademark into an actual license — e.g., the advisor’s equivalent of a CPA.


    Mike Kitces
    Via Ann Miller RN MHA


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