An October 2017 article published by Wall Street Journal columnist, Jason Zweig, highlighted the growing confusion around the term “Fee-Only” when referring to how financial advisors are compensated. The article, “Some Fee-Only Advisors Charge Commissions Too,” made note of several concerns:
- Disciplinary actions by the CFP Board of six allegedly Fee-Only advisors who were receiving commissions
- A 2013 investigation showing 11% of CFP® advisors at brokerage firms receiving commissions while branding themselves as Fee-Only
- Discrepancies on firm ADVs versus their official brochure materials about their compensation method
- Advisory firms branding as Fee-Only, when their advisors may not be
Longview wants to make it very clear. Longview Financial Advisors is a 100% Fee-Only firm. Every Longview advisor is a Fee-Only Advisor. We believe this is the most transparent and objective way of serving our clients with fewer conflicts of interest.
With the confusion around terms, what exactly does Fee-Only and Fee-based mean?
What is Fee-Only?
As Zweig noted in the article, Fee-Only has no “official regulatory or legal definition.” Below are a few definitions offered by several credible organizations and sources.
The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) is the country’s leading professional organization of Fee-Only advisors. NAPFA offers this definition:
Fee-Only financial advisor is one who is compensated solely by the client with neither the advisor nor any related party receiving compensation that is contingent on the purchase or sale of a financial product. Neither Members nor Affiliates may receive commissions, rebates, awards, finder’s fees, bonuses or other forms of compensation from others as a result of a client’s implementation of the individual’s planning recommendations. “Fee-offset” arrangements, 12b-1 fees, insurance rebates or renewals and wrap fee arrangements that are transaction based are examples of compensation arrangements that do not meet the NAPFA definition of Fee-Only practice.
The CFP Board, governing body for the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification, offers this:
A certificant may describe his or her practice as “fee-only” if, and only if, all of the certificant’s compensation from all of his or her client work comes exclusively from the clients in the form of fixed, flat, hourly, percentage or performance-based fees.
Finally, Forbes contributor, David John Marotta, provides this:
Fee-only financial planners are registered investment advisors with a fiduciary responsibility to act in their clients’ best interest. They do not accept any fees or compensation based on product sales. Fee-only advisors have fewer inherent conflicts of interest, and they generally provide more comprehensive advice.
In a nutshell, a Fee-Only advisor does not sell products. They do not receive commission. There are no trails, kickbacks, referral fees, rewards, lockup periods, or surrender charges of any kind. No compensation is received from mutual fund companies or insurance companies. A Fee-Only financial advisor’s or firm’s compensation is derived directly from their clients. 100%. That’s it.
Furthermore, Fee-Only financial planning goes hand-in-hand with being a fiduciary. A fiduciary standard, when applied to a financial advisor, says the advisor has a legal duty to act in good faith and trust, placing your best interest above that of the advisor or their firm. The advisor is ethically and legally bound to act in this manner. You, as a client, must be made aware of any conflicts of interest that arise.
What is Fee-Based?
The term Fee-Based has muddied the compensation waters, and it is often time used by brokerage and insurance firms. The term sounds very similar to Fee-Only so it’s no wonder consumers are confused by the terminology, but there is a very real difference in Fee-Based vs. Fee-Only.
Fee-Based advisors can receive commissions, and those commissions are often referred to as “fees.” The commissions often come from sales of financial products, such as life insurance, annuities, and load based mutual funds. This creates an inherent conflict of interest. For example, is the product being offered to you the best fit for your financial need? Fee-Based advisors must be transparent in how those fees are received and are still required to act as fiduciaries.
What are Commissions?
A commission is a charge when purchasing an investment or selling a product, such as a mutual fund or annuity. A mutual fund commission is usually referred to as a load, and the load may be assessed when the buy is made (front-end load), when the security is sold (back-end load), or while the security is being held (level-pay load). For example, if buying 100 shares of a mutual fund at a price of $50 with a 4% front-end load fee, the investor would pay 4% of the $5,000 total cost, or $200, to the broker/advisor.
Receiving commissions does not prevent an advisor from acting as a fiduciary, but brokers only have to meet a suitability standard. This means the investment or product only needs to be suitable for the client’s financial need. The advisor only has to reasonably believe that the product meets the need; it does not have to meet the fiduciary standard thus creating an inherent conflict of interest between the broker and client.
In conclusion, there are advisors who fall under each of these three compensation models that act in a fiduciary manner. Unfortunately, there are advisors under each model that also do not honor the fiduciary standard. It’s up to you as the consumer to ask the questions about how your advisor is compensated.