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If you read nothing else in this week’s blog, promise me you and every one you discuss this with will, when it’s time to seek financial planning and investment advice, make sure the person you choose to work with is held to a fiduciary standard. If you’re busy this week and need to move on, you’re free to go.

With all the talk about health-care reform, March Madness, Tiger and the other stories of the day, an issue quietly gliding under the radar is the pending financial services reform making its way through Congress.

I won’t lull you to sleep with all the ins and outs of what’s being discussed or the less than savory politics and lobbying going on behind the scenes. Instead, I want to focus on one issue.

One of the biggest challenges facing legislators is a concept known as the fiduciary standard. This standard simply states that anyone who holds themselves out as a financial advisor be required to act in their clients’ best interests.

Got it?

You pay an advisor to manage your assets and help you plan for your financial future and the advice they offer is in your best interest; not because they get a bigger commission, not because they go on a fancy trip, but because they think it will help provide you a successful investment experience. Seems like a no-brainer, right?

Unfortunately, across the industry, especially the brokerage and insurance firms, millions of lobbying dollars are being spent to make sure this standard doesn’t expand industry-wide. I’ll forego bashing those who are fighting this and let you draw your own conclusions. You can read more about those arguments in an article by Tara Siegel Bernard of the New York Times. My goal is to set the record straight on why this doesn’t need to be the confusing issue that it has become in the face of so many salespeople posing as advisors.

The bottom line is, if you’re looking for someone to pick a few hot stocks for you from time to time, feel free to seek out a non-fiduciary salesperson. Also understand that you’re participating in speculation, not investing. There’s nothing wrong with this. It is similar to buying a racing form or paying a handicapper to get a tip on a horse. You pay for this advice race after race after race and sometimes you win, but does your win cover the costs of what you spent on the advice?

On the other hand, if you’re discussing how to meet your long term investment goals, ensuring that your money outlives you and not the other way around, you should make absolutely certain that the advisor you choose is required, at all times, to put your interests before their own.

If you or anyone you know is shopping for this type of advice, it should be as easy as asking if the person you are talking to is a salesperson or a fiduciary advisor. Just ask. If you receive any answer other than, “Yes, I am held to a fiduciary standard, I have no conflicts of interest in the way in which I will help you and I receive compensation solely from the management fees my clients pay me,” keep looking.

Chip Workman, CFP®