Q&A: Be wary of advisor motives

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you discussed the difference between fee-only vs fee-based financial planners. Most of my retirement dollars are in an IRA with one of the better-known investment companies. One of the advisors with that firm has advocated for an annuity with a well-known insurance company as a component of my portfolio. So, does this affect the advisor’s status of fee-only vs fee-based, or is this person to be only on the fee-based side of the equation? Or am I just confused?

Answer: You’re confused because it’s confusing — deliberately so. Many investment companies, including the better known ones, don’t make it clear that their advisors do not have to put your best interests first. Most are held to a lower “suitability” standard that allows them to recommend an investment that isn’t as good as the alternatives, simply because it pays them a higher commission.

If you want an advisor that puts your interests ahead of their own, seek out a fee-only financial planner — one who only accepts fees paid by clients rather than commissions and other incentives. This advisor should be a fiduciary, meaning the advisor is required to put your best interests first. The advisor must be willing to state, in writing, that they will put your interests ahead of their own.

It’s especially important to check with such a fiduciary advisor before purchasing an annuity, since these are complex products with potentially significant downsides that could be glossed over by someone who’s being paid to sell you one. An annuity could be the right fit for you, or it could be an expensive mistake. Get an objective review from a fiduciary before you buy one.

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