Q&A: How a fee-only financial planner differs from a fee-based one

Dear Liz: What is the difference between a fee-based financial planner and a fee-only financial planner? I have had a few complimentary meetings with a fee-based financial planner regarding retirement planning and income-generating strategy. I am 61 and currently have $325,000 in a traditional IRA and a 401(k) from a former employer, with 70% of both accounts held in stocks. The planner suggests that I put the whole $325,000 into a fixed indexed annuity, which he says is no risk. Is this a good idea?

Answer: Someone who is “fee based” typically accepts commissions or other incentives for selling certain investments in addition to charging fees. “Fee only” advisors accept money only from their clients.

Another important word that starts with f: fiduciary. Fiduciary advisors promise to put your interests ahead of their own. A fiduciary advisor, for example, typically wouldn’t recommend putting all your money in a single investment since having all your eggs in one basket is rarely in your best interest.

Most advisors are not fiduciaries, however, and may recommend poorly performing or expensive products to you when better options are available because those lesser options pay them more. Indexed annuities can pay high commissions to the people selling them, for example, and that can be a powerful incentive for your advisor to gloss over their potential disadvantages.

Indexed annuities are sold as a way to benefit from some of the upside of the stock market without the risk of loss if the market falls. But these annuities are complex and insurers can typically change the rules that govern your returns. In addition, you may face surrender charges if you need to take your money out.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has issued investor alerts about indexed annuities. These alerts urge potential investors to thoroughly investigate how the contracts are structured, how returns are figured and how the calculations can change. Anyone who is considering an indexed annuity would be smart to run the purchase past a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner to see whether it really makes sense for their situation.

By the way, there’s no such thing as a no-risk investment. Every investment poses some kind of risk, and a fiduciary advisor will take the time to explain those to you so you can make an informed judgment.

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  1. Chris Arndt says

    One of the things that I learned when I was looking for a fee-only financial planner is that there are 2 types of them. One charges a percentage annually of the total amount you have invested with them, generally 0.5-1%. The other is a flat hourly fee based on how much work you require from them. I found an investment arm of my bank that does it either way. Right now, I’m hourly.

    • Liz Weston says

      Some also charge a monthly or quarterly retainer fee (XY Planning Network is one place to find those).