Dear Liz: I have met with a financial advisor, but he wants every investment to go through him. Although he is an advisor, he works for a company and wants me to buy their products. I'm a little resistant about this. What's your advice?
Answer: Anyone can call himself or herself a financial advisor or a financial planner. There are no education, experience or ethics requirements for using those titles. A more accurate job description for this guy might be "product salesman." He may not charge you upfront, but he'll make commissions from those products and will recommend them even if there are better, cheaper options available.
If you want someone who puts your interests first, look for a fee-only advisor who's willing to act as a fiduciary. "Fiduciary" means the advisor promises to act in your best interests. And don't confuse "fee only" with "fee based." Fee-only advisors are compensated only by their clients. Fee-based advisors may charge their clients while accepting commissions for the products they recommend. You can get referrals to fee-only advisors from the Garrett Planning Network at www.garrettplanningnetwork.com and the National Assn. for Personal Financial Advisors at www.napfa.org.
If you want someone to give you comprehensive financial planning advice, make sure that he or she has the appropriate credential such as Certified Financial Planner (CFP) or Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) and that you verify the credential with the group that issued it (the CFP Board of Standards for the CFP, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants for the PFS).
If all you want is help with investment management, though, you may not even need an advisor right now. "Robo advisors" offer automated portfolio management using computer algorithms. Robo-advising began with start-ups like Betterment and Wealthfront and it's now offered by more established companies, including Charles Schwab and Vanguard.
Cleaning up your credit score
Dear Liz: I have several small dings on my credit. I'm now in the position to pay them off, but how do I know my credit will be improved? Should I call the companies and ask if they will remove it if I pay in full and get it in writing?
Answer: Paying off collections won't help your credit scores, and creditors rarely agree to delete collection accounts in exchange for payment. You can always ask, but don't count on this as a way to improve your credit. The best way to recover from "small dings" is to use credit responsibly in the future. That means paying bills on time and using less than 30% of your available credit on your cards. You don't need to carry balances to improve your credit.
Avoiding estate taxes
Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about what a wealthy couple could do to reduce future estate taxes, and you mentioned the annual exclusion. They also could pay education and medical expenses for anyone, and there's no annual limit.
Answer: Absolutely — and the couple's estate planning attorney almost certainly would have informed them of this option.
The original letter came from one of the couple's children, asking what their parents could do to reduce future estate taxes, in addition to the irrevocable trust that already had been set up. The reader lamented that the estate was bigger than the current exemption limits (now $10.98 million for a married couple) and so could incur estate taxes.
My answer was that the couple's attorney would have told them of other options. One of those options is to use the annual exclusion of $14,000 per recipient to gift tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their estate. If the couple chooses not to use available options, and instead lets the estate incur the taxes, there's not much the heirs can do about it.