Finding the Right Advisor, Part 1

November 09, 2023

Readers of my column discover pretty quickly that I’m a big fan of financial planning. It isn’t just my profession; it is my passion. Anybody can live a better, more satisfying, and ultimately more successful financial life if they work with a capable financial planner.

A good planner can help clarify your money mind, focus your resources on what matters most to you, and help you avoid the unfortunate pitfalls of our complex world. However, a poor or dishonest financial planner (yes, they exist) can cause real havoc in your life.

With so much at stake, it pays to find the right planner. This week, I’m going to help you identify a pool of three or four qualified advisor candidates. Next week, I will guide you through a series of questions to help you select the right advisor from your pool of candidates.

The financial planning profession is an alphabet soup of credentials and designations. According to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), there are 245 different financial advisor designations currently in use. FINRA neither approves nor endorses any professional credential or designation, but it’s a good source for info about them. The FINRA website ( lets you search designations by name and get more details. Most designations are pure marketing fluff, but some are rigorous and worth considering in your search. Here are three credentials I think have significant professional heft:

  • Accredited Investment Fiduciary (AIF) –The AIF designation tells you that your advisor understands what it takes to be an investment fiduciary, and has a process for fulfilling her fiduciary duties. Candidates must complete ten hours of training and pass a qualifying exam. Maintaining this designation requires six hours of continuing education every year.
  • Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA) – Investment management is highly technical. CIMA designation holders must have at least three years of full-time investment experience, with a satisfactory record of ethical conduct. They must complete a comprehensive investment curriculum before passing a rigorous 5-hour proctored qualifying exam. CIMA holders are required to complete 40 hours of continuing education every two years.
  • Certified Financial Planner (CFP) – Undoubtedly the most important credential for a personal financial planner, the CFP requires a bachelor’s degree or higher, plus three years of full-time financial planning experience, or 6,000 hours of part-time experience. Additionally, the candidate must complete a rigorous curriculum in comprehensive financial planning and pass a challenging final exam. Finally, the CFP practitioner must take 30 hours of continuing education every two years while maintaining the CFP Board’s ethical and professional standards.

You can learn a lot about a financial planner from other trusted professionals, like CPAs and attorneys. A strong financial planning business takes years to build, on a foundation of trust and professional competence. If the planner you are considering is not well-known or well-established in the community, or lacks a good reputation, do yourself a favor and keep looking.

When you ask a professional for a referral, they will usually give you a list of three or four possibilities. Take time to explore how the referring professional knows the people on their list, whether they have mutual clients, and how long they worked with them.

Do a background check. Working with a financial planner will require you to share a lot of personal information, so you want to know that you’re working with someone worthy of your trust. You can request a basic check on the SEC advisor disclosure website ( If you need more information, consider hiring a firm to do a professional background check.

Finally, a note of caution about getting referrals from friends. Many well-meaning people perpetuate frauds by unwittingly introducing fraudsters to their circle of friends. Unless your friend has particular financial expertise, you are better off seeking referrals from professionals who are more likely to detect when something is off.

Please see important disclosure information here.

Steven C. Merrell MBA, CFP®, AIF® is a Partner at Monterey Private Wealth, Inc., a Wealth Management Firm in Monterey. He welcomes questions regarding investments, taxes, retirement, or estate planning. Send your questions to: Steve Merrell, 2340 Garden Road Suite 202, Monterey, CA 93940, or email them to