The recent investment and home-price losses have endangered the retirement goals of millions of Americans. If this describes you, or even if you just feel nervous, hiring a financial adviser could help you get back on track. While most financial advisers are skilled, trustworthy professionals, some may lack the necessary experience, skills or motivation to help you.

Best first move: Ask trusted friends whether they would recommend their own financial advisers. If so, listen to how they describe these advisers — they should paint a picture of a trusted partner who is dedicated to understanding them and how they make financial decisions.

If your friends do not strongly recommend their financial advisers, ask your lawyer or accountant for referrals. If this doesn’t pan out either, ask other members of your community whom you respect.


When you meet with a candidate, be sure to ask…

What professional certifications have you earned? Make sure he/she is a Certified Financial Planner (CFP), a Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA) or a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA). These designations ensure that the adviser receives ongoing financial training and has passed a difficult exam. Titles such as “investment adviser” or “financial adviser” do not have the same guarantee.

If I had lost a lot of money as your client during the recent market crisis, what would you be telling me now? The answer should include some basics — such as how to rebalance your portfolio following stock losses and how to sell securities that have declined in value to offset taxes — as well as suggest a long-term perspective.

The adviser also should understand that his job is about managing a client’s emotions as well. The amount of risk that a client is predisposed to take often does not correspond with the amount of risk that makes sense for his situation, and the adviser must be able to steer clients into an appropriate portfolio in a way that still allows them to sleep at night.

I’m retired, and my portfo­lio has lost a lot of money. What can I do to get my savings back on track? It’s an excellent sign if the adviser’s sug­gestions include spending less and saving more and/or taking a part-time job during retirement. A financial adviser must be willing to provide painful advice when necessary just as a doctor must be willing to tell a patient to “lose weight” or “stop smoking.” You should be extremely wary if an adviser suggests some aggressive strategy to “make it back.”

What should I be doing to manage my financial risk? Many financial advisers will discuss asset selection and diversification. That’s fine, but it’s a bad sign if the adviser doesn’t also mention insurance.

Insurance is crucial for risk management — if you don’t have enough, one mishap or lawsuit could cost you everything you own. Types of insurance to discuss could include homeowners’, umbrella, business, auto, life, health, disability and long-term-care insurance.

I’m worried about the bleak economic forecasts on the news. What should I do? The adviser should encourage you to turn off the news and spend your free time thinking about more enjoyable matters. Becoming wrapped up in the endless recession coverage won’t help you make informed decisions — it will lead you to make knee-jerk emotional decisions that are likely to be detrimental to your mental and financial health.

What financial decisions will you make for me? This is a trick question. The adviser should answer that he will provide guidance on a wide range of financial decisions but will not make your decisions for you. The adviser might take the lead in making decisions about specific investments if this is what the client wants — but he still should discuss these decisions and what they mean with the client before proceeding. The best financial advisers have a collaborative approach but are also likely to have strong opinions.

What words would your clients use to describe you? Most advisers will cite words such as intelligent, experienced, trustworthy and prudent. Make sure the list includes “accessible” — it shows that the adviser understands that being available when needed is part of his job. The list also should include a word like “confidant” to show that the adviser stresses a personal connection with clients.

How many clients do you have? If it is more than 250 (for a solo practice), it’s unlikely that he can give each client the time and attention that each deserves. If you’re investing millions of dollars, anything more than 100 clients is probably too many, unless there is a strong support team. Large portfolios tend to be more complex and time-consuming for advisers, and if you have this much money, it is worth it to pay a little more for one who can give you extra attention.

How often will we meet? You should have at least two face-to-face meetings per year. If your assets are well into the millions, you should probably have four meetings. Phone conversations can be useful, but most people feel more comfortable when they have in-person contact with the adviser who is handling their money… and this gives the adviser a better chance to learn his client’s goals and fears.

How do you charge? Select an adviser who charges a fee for his services, not one who charges commissions. Don’t make a decision based on price. Base it on your sense of an adviser’s competence, perspective and “fit.” Chemistry is vital. (Fees often are based on the amount of assets under management even though the adviser should provide guidance beyond investment advice.)

What is your typical client’s net worth? This adviser might not have much experience with the financial issues most important to you if his other clients have significantly more or less money.

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