The 5 biggest red flags a financial planner isn’t working in your best interest

People tend to have a lot of preconceived notions about what a financial planner looks like and what they do for a living.

And that’s understandable: The phrase “financial planner” or “financial adviser” doesn’t actually indicate what kind of training, education, or experience someone has.

The title is just that: a title. It’s not regulated, and literally anyone can call themselves a planner or adviser if they want.

That puts the burden on you, as the client, to figure out when someone is working in your best interest … and when they might be no better than a salesperson looking to score their next commission.

It’s a lot of pressure, but the good news is that you can learn to spot the differences if you know the telltale signs that a financial professional isn’t as interested in what’s best for you as they are in gaining something for themselves.

Here are five red flags you need to watch for if you plan to hire a financial planner to help you with your money.

1. They’re not a fiduciary, and will just do what’s ‘suitable’ for you

This is the No. 1 red flag that should catch your attention. Why? Because there are two standards in the financial advisory world: the fiduciary standard and the suitability standard.

Most people who call themselves financial advisers will fall under the umbrella of the suitability standard, and that’s bad news if you’re looking for someone working in your best interest.

The suitability standard says a professional only has to recommend a product, service, or action that is suitable for you. They are not legally or ethically required to recommend what is best for you. 

That means they are perfectly free to recommend a mutual fund or insurance product that “suits” your needs — and provides them with a nice commission — rather than the fund or product that is best for you and your situation. 

In the real world, this can manifest as an adviser selling you more insurance than you really needed or putting you in an investment fund that carries higher fees when a similar, lower-cost option was available to you.

Fiduciaries, on the other hand, must always act in your best interest. It might seem crazy that this is not required of everyone you could pay to help you with your money, but the reality is only fiduciaries have a legal and ethical obligation to put your interests ahead of all others, including their own. 

2. They’re a fiduciary … sometimes

This gets even trickier when you consider that some financial advisers will work for you in a fiduciary capacity some of the time, but not all the time. The challenge for you as the client is, when are they acting under the fiduciary standard and when do they switch to the suitability standard?

To avoid this confusion (and a lot of conflicts of interest), consider working together with someone who is a fiduciary 100% of the time and won’t flip-flop on you. And don’t just take someone’s word for it: Ask them to put it in writing.

Legitimate, honest fiduciary financial planners will sign a fiduciary oath on your behalf. If someone refuses to do so, think twice before handing over the reins to your financial life.

3. They’re not a CFP®

CFP® stands for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, which is a designation managed by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc.

To earn these marks, a financial planner must adhere to a strict code of ethics, take intensive college-level coursework on the core tenets of financial planning and how to apply them to make quality planning decisions, pass a rigorous board exam, and have at least three years of experience working in an advisory role. 

As a CFP®, planners are also required to behave with integrity, remain objective and fair, and put client interests ahead of their own.

Someone with this level of experience, education, training, and ethics is likely a good candidate to help you if your primary goal is to develop a comprehensive financial plan and make complex decisions about what to do with your money to build the life you want.

If you talk with someone who promises to do that for you but lacks these marks, it’s not a reason to write them off immediately — but it does signal you need to ask more questions and understand why this person who claims to provide a financial planning service does not have their CFP®.

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4. They offer to create a financial plan for you ‘for free’

The temptation of getting something for free is strong, especially when it’s something really intangible like financial planning. If you haven’t done any kind of planning work before, it might be difficult to fully understand what the process will look like once you get to experience it.

That makes the offer to get a free financial plan all the more appealing. It sounds like you get to try before you buy so you can make a fully informed decision about what you’re getting into, right?

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. When professionals offer to do free financial planning for you, this is usually a marketing or sales tactic — and a big red flag that you need to proceed with caution. 

Advisers who offer this are not giving up hours of their time or donating their expertise out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re looking for new business, and in a majority of cases, there’s a hidden motive behind financial planning freebies.

What generally happens is this: A financial planner offers to provide you with a financial plan for free. The result is a deliverable that’s thin on details and may only focus on basic recommendations like, “open a Roth IRA for retirement and contribute the maximum each year.” 

… But it will contain a lot of explanation on why you might need to buy a whole life or permanent life insurance policy, or pushes for very specific and complicated investment funds and shares that you don’t quite understand.

This is a common tactic of salespeople at major insurance brokerages. They tend to work on commission, and provide products, not comprehensive financial planning and advice as fiduciaries. 

Again, just because someone offers to do some planning work for you without cost doesn’t automatically mean they’re out to sell you something else. But a service you would normally expect to pay for that’s being offered “for free” deserves a closer look and more follow-up questions.

5. They rub you the wrong way

This last red flag is completely subjective — but it’s important, because how you feel about someone you want to work with to improve your financial life really matters!

A good, honest financial planner who wants to work in your best interest will listen to and respect you. They’ll ask questions and seek to understand what’s important to you, not what they think is best.

If someone makes you feel like you’re a transaction instead of a valued client, or scoffs at your goals and puts down your dreams, walk away.

Money is a complicated, touchy, emotional subject, and you need to feel like you can talk openly with the financial professional you work with, without fear of them judging you or belittling you. 

If you just don’t vibe with a planner, that’s okay, too. Comprehensive planning can take months, even years to develop and execute properly, so you should be comfortable with the financial planner you work with — and arguably, you need to like them too. After all, it’s hard to truly trust someone you don’t even like.

It’s not always easy to tell who is working in your best interest, and who just wants to sell you something else.

But watching for these five red flags should help you begin to understand when you need to dig deeper, question more, or simply walk away from a professional who is not the best fit for you and your needs.

Eric Roberge, CFP, is the founder of Beyond Your Hammock. He helps professionals in their 30s do more with their money.

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