MONEY College

Why Your College-Bound Kid Needs to Meet Your Financial Planner

Parents showing jars of money
Jamie Grill—Getty Images

Sheltering children from tough money choices now can lead to unhappiness later on.

When I schedule a meeting with parents to talk about college costs, I always ask if the student will be attending the consultation.

About 80% of the time, the parents say no. Their usual response: “He’s too busy,” or “We would rather not include her.”

That’s a big mistake.

What I do is help estimate the final costs that the parents will be facing, taking into consideration projected financial aid, merit awards and the family’s current resources. Those costs can vary widely, from $5,500 a year to attend a community college while living at home to over $70,000 per year to go to a private college such as New York University.

Students should be involved from the start, so they can understand the financial issues that their parents will be facing. Students need to see the great disparity in cost outcomes among the different colleges on their wish list.

When I meet with the whole family, we can narrow down the types of schools that would be affordable to the parents as well as meet the academic and social needs of the student.

That way, we can avoid a situation in which a high school student, ignorant of any financial implications, pursues whatever college he is interested in. Then, in April of his senior year, when all of the acceptances and awards arrive, his parents review the options and say, “We can’t afford any of these.”

At that point, the only choices are for the student to attend a school he’s not happy with (such as a local college commuter school), or for the parents to go into deep debt in order to finance an education they cannot afford.

So I try my best to convince the parents to invite their student. Perhaps the parents are trying to shield their finances from their children. Eventually, however, the kids will be part of the parent’s estate planning. The earlier the children know about the parent’s financial situation the better. If a family limits the college search to the types of colleges that meet all needs (financial, academic, and social), then the only outcome in senior year will be a happy one for both the parents and the student!

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Paula Bishop is a certified public accountant and an adviser on financial aid for college. She holds a BS in economics with a major in finance from the Wharton School and an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley. She is a member of the National College Advocacy Group, whose mission is to provide education and resources for college planning professionals, students and families. Her website is www.paulabishop.com.

MONEY Aging

As You Age, You Need to Protect Your Money — From Yourself

Piggy Bank Locked Up
Andy Roberts—Getty Images

A financial planner explains why he couldn't help his client when she became delusional.

After three decades as a financial planner, I’m seeing more and more clients reach, not just retirement, but their final years. An issue that becomes especially important at this stage of life is how to help clients protect their financial resources from an unexpected threat — themselves.

One of my saddest professional experiences came several years ago when one of my long-time clients, a woman in her late 80s with no family and few close friends, abruptly fired me. Because Mary had no one else, I had helped her in many ways beyond the usual client/planner relationship and even reluctantly agreed to serve as her trustee and power of attorney in case she became incapacitated.

At what proved to be our final quarterly review meeting, Mary initially seemed confused. I was able to reassure her about the stability of her finances, and she seemed clearer by the time we finished. Three weeks later, I received a handwritten letter from her: “You have my finances in a mess. I can’t get to my money. You are fired.”

I was stunned. Yet ethically I was required to comply with her wishes by moving her holdings to another broker.

Several subsequent conversations demonstrated that Mary was suffering from periodic memory loss and delusion. Had she been disabled by a sudden accident or a stroke, I could have stepped in. Yet, because her decision to fire me was made at a time when she was arguably still competent, my hands were tied.

In theory, I could have gone to court with my power of attorney or in my position as trustee and petitioned to have Mary declared incompetent. But that posed a problem: Essentially, I would have been telling a judge, “Mary fired me as her adviser. I’d like to have her declared incompetent so I can re-hire myself as her adviser.” There was no way I was going to ask a judge to do that. I had a clear conflict of interest.

Since this experience, I have confirmed the wisdom, given the potential for conflict of interest, of never serving as a trustee or power of attorney for a client. With the help of suggestions from several other planners, I’ve also learned some strategies to help protect clients from themselves.

One tool is to ask clients to sign a statement authorizing a planner concerned about possible irrational behavior to contact someone, such as a family member or physician, designated by the client. While this would not prevent a client from firing an adviser, it would provide a method of discussing the issue and also involve another person in the decision.

Another possibility is to put clients’ assets into either an irrevocable living trust or a Domestic Asset Protection Trust (in states that allow them) and naming someone other than the client or the planner as trustee. While the client, as the beneficiary, would have the power to fire the trustee, concern about a trustee being fired irrationally could be mitigated to some degree by having a corporate trustee. In addition, with a DAPT, the beneficiary client would not have the power to amend the trust without the agreement of the trustee. This would give some protection against self-destructive choices by a client who was gradually losing competency. One disadvantage of this approach is cost, so it isn’t an option for everyone.

Perhaps the most important strategy is to work with clients to create a contingency plan in the event of mental decline. It could include arrangements to consult with family members or other professionals such as physicians, social workers, and counselors. For clients without close family members, the plan might authorize the financial adviser to call for an evaluation, by professionals chosen in advance by the client, if the client’s behavior appeared irrational. This team approach might alleviate clients’ fears about being judged incompetent by the person managing their assets.

The possibility of mental decline is something no one wants to consider. Yet it’s as essential a financial planning concern as making a will. Helping clients build financial resources for old age includes helping them create safety nets to protect those resources from themselves.

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Rick Kahler is president of Kahler Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning firm. His work and research regarding the integration of financial planning and psychology has been featured or cited in scores of broadcast media, periodicals and books. He is a co-author of four books on financial planning and therapy. He is a faculty member at Golden Gate University and the president of the Financial Therapy Association.

MONEY Financial Planning

What My 3-Hour Lunch Says About Good Financial Advice

Women at a lunch meeting
Colorblind—Getty Images

Financial planning isn't about investing for retirement or saving for college; it's about turning your vision into reality.

It was Suzanne’s birthday. I really wanted her to have the next best thing to a day off. So I, the adviser, and Suzanne, my client, scheduled our meeting at Guglhupf, a lovely local restaurant.

In 2005, when I formed my company, I was sitting at one of Guglhupf’s upstairs tables when I came up with the tagline of my firm: “Driven by a Vision.” Now, years later, spending a sunny afternoon on Guglhuph’s patio with Suzanne, I had a powerful moment of living that ideal.

Suzanne is a visionary, an entrepreneur. She first came to me as a client because she wanted to be sure that the various ventures she had underway didn’t encumber too much of her wealth — that her assets wouldn’t all be at risk and that she would have enough set aside for her family’s future needs and her own retirement.

At its core, financial planning is helping people realize their vision. And for my entrepreneurial clients, I’m helping them navigate some very complicated waters at a time that’s emotionally charged due to hope, desire, exhaustion, and frankly, being stretched too thin.

These conversations can’t happen inside financial planning software, and they don’t happen on the pages of a financial plan. They aren’t about “Do I have enough money to fund my financial goals?” These conversations are about figuring out how to make those goals come to life.

And this is without my being a business consultant. I don’t know the trades of the businesses my clients start. What I do know is that there are risks associated with what they’re doing, and that likely their venture’s cash flow isn’t going to be as healthy as the projections project. I expect that there’ll be a need for another capital infusion. All of these things are going to impact their other financial planning goals: paying for their child’s education, for example, and being financially independent one day. They know all this too.

However, I believe that when a person has a strong vision for a world they want to impact — their community, their life’s energy making that impact — that inner urge trumps saving for retirement. It doesn’t trump it to the point of being reckless and blinded by today’s enthusiasm, but we recognize that they’re standing at the center point of the see saw, one foot on either arm, finding that balance between today and the long-term tomorrow.

I’ve never snuffed out their flame by saying, “You can’t do that.” I think that’s because I know what it’s like to be driven by a vision. It is my role to identify the risks I see, offer suggestions of how to look at it from another angle, ask them to name a Plan B, and beat the drum of the importance of managing cash flow. Then, I support them in their new venture, in whatever way reasonable.

At this meeting with Suzanne, there was an extra-special payoff. While I do try to stay out of the specifics of my clients’ businesses, over the course of our three-hour lunch we brainstormed about how she might finance one of her new ventures. I realized I knew some people who might be interested in funding it, and I promised to put Suzanne in contact with them. I later did, and they ended up providing money to Suzanne for this project.

So this meeting epitomized my work: My clients are driven by a vision, and I am driven to help them achieve that vision. And if we can enjoy a decadent dessert together, that’s even better.

MONEY financial advice

How Listening Better Will Make You Richer

140724_HO_Listening_1
Ruslan Dashinsky—iStock

A financial adviser explains that when you hear only what you want to hear, you can end up making some bad money choices.

Allison sat in my office, singing the praises of an annuity she had recently purchased. She was 64 years old, and she had come in for a free initial consultation after listening to my radio show.

“The investment guy at the bank,” she crowed, “told me this annuity would pay me a guaranteed income of 7% when I turn 70.”

I asked her to tell me more.

Allison had invested $300,000 as a rollover from her old 401(k) plan. She was told that at age 70, her annuity would be worth $450,000. Beginning at age 70, she could take $31,500 (7% of $450,000) and lock in that income stream forever.

“And when you die, what will be left to the kids?” I asked.

“The $300,000 plus all my earnings!” she said.

Suddenly my stomach began to sour.

Allison, I was sure, had heard only part of what the salesperson had told her.

I followed up with another question: “Besides the guaranteed $31,500 annual income, will you have access to any other money?”

“Oh yes,” she answered. “I can take up to 10% of the account value at any time without paying a surrender charge. In fact, next year I plan to take $30,000 so I can buy a new car!”

This story was getting worse, not better.

It was time to break the news to Allison.

I asked her to tell me the name of the product and the insurance company that issued it. Sure enough, I knew exactly the one she bought, since I had it available to my clients as well.

That’s when the conversation got a little tense.

I explained that if she withdrew any money from her annuity prior to beginning her guaranteed income payment, there was a strong likelihood she wouldn’t be able to collect $31,500 per year at age 70. Given the terms of the annuity, any such withdrawals now would reduce the guaranteed payment later.

She disagreed.

I explained that, with this and most other annuities, if she started the income stream as promised at $31,500, she would not likely have any money to pass on to the children.

She told me I was wrong — and defended the agent who sold her the annuity. She said that she bought a guaranteed death benefit rider so that she could protect her children upon her death.

I encouraged her to read the fine print. As expected, she reread the paragraph that stated that the “guaranteed death benefit” was equal to the initial investment plus earnings, less any withdrawals. When I told her that her death benefit in all likelihood would be worth nothing by age 80, she quickly said, “I need to call my agent back and check on this.”

I have conversations like this a lot, and not just with annuities. When it comes to investments, whether they’re annuities, commodity funds, or hot stocks, people often hear only what they want to hear. At various points in his sales pitch, the annuity salesman had probably said things like “guaranteed growth on the value of the contract,” “guaranteed income stream,” “can’t lose your money,” and “heirs get everything you put in.” What she had done was merge the different parts of the sales pitch together and ignore all the relevant conditions and exceptions.

When people hear about a product, there’s an emotional impact. “I want to buy that,” they think. They focus only on the benefits of the product; they assume the challenging parts of the product — the risks — won’t apply to them.

This story has a happy ending. Before Allison left my office, I asked when she received her annuity in the mail. “Three days ago,” she said.

I reminded her of the ten-day “free look” period that’s given to annuity buyers as a one-time “do-over” if they feel that the product they purchased isn’t right for them.

She called me back within two days. “The agent doesn’t like me very much,” she said. She had returned the annuity under the “free look” period and expected to get a full refund. The annuity salesman had just lost an $18,000 commission.

And I once again saw the wisdom of something I tell my clients every day: Prior to ever making a financial decision, it is absolutely critical you evaluate how this decision integrates into your overall financial life. That’s what’s important — not falling in love with a product.

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Marc S. Freedman, CFP, is president and CEO of Freedman Financial in Peabody, Mass. He has been delivering financial planning advice to mass affluent Baby Boomers for more than two decades. He is the author of Retiring with Confidence for the GENIUS, and he is host of “Dollars & Sense,” a weekly radio show on North Shore 104.9 in Beverly, Mass.

MONEY financial advice

Why Financial Advisers Have a Failure to Communicate

tin can toy telephone
James Porter / Alamy

Investment pros try to impress their clients with jargon, but the message isn't getting through.

Here’s a little quiz:

With each pair of phrases below, which do you think resonates more positively with everyday people? Which of the two sounds better to a client sitting across the desk from a financial adviser?

  1. Investment Strategies | Investment Solutions
  2. Straightforward Fees | Transparent Fees
  3. Financial Security | Financial Freedom.

I’ll get to the answers below.

I took this quiz myself recently at a presentation by Gary DeMoss from Invesco Consulting, a subsidiary of the money-management firm Invesco. The subject of the presentation: How financial advisers can better connect with clients by using the right words. The takeaway: We financial advisers are so familiar with investing jargon that we assume our clients understand it. But many don’t.

One study DeMoss’s group did with investors was to give them dials connected to a monitoring system and then have them listen to pre-recorded explanations of various financial and market topics. As the investors listened they moved their dials one way or another to rate if they liked what was being said or not. The consultants could then see which words made people react more positively or more negatively.

At one point in the presentation to this group of very experienced financial advisers, we were given a small deck of cards with words on the front and back. We were asked to guess which side we thought had resonated more positively with the investors tested.

Most of the advisers sitting around me — and me, too — got more wrong than right.

As for the three pairs of investment terms above, the first of each rated higher.

As DeMoss pointed out, it’s is not what we advisers say that matters, but what the client hears. I think many of us are guilty of trying to impress clients with our knowledge. We don’t realize that we need to speak in clearer, simpler terms. The specific words that we use make a difference.

We have to choose our words carefully and use less investing jargon. We should encourage clients to stop us whenever they don’t understand what we’re saying.

This will help us get our information across in a less intimidating manner — and serve our clients better.

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Raymond Mignone has been a certified financial planner and fee-only investment adviser since 1989, with offices in Boynton Beach, Fla., and Little Neck, N.Y. He is the author of the book RINKs – Retired, Independent, No Kids. His website is www.RayMignone.com.

 

MONEY Rollovers

Why Wall Street Is Wooing Women and Their Future Wealth

Businesswomen in a black car
Riccardo Savi—Getty Images

Women will receive 70% of inherited wealth over the next two generations, and Wall Street wants their business. Here's what you—and the advisers wooing you—need to know.

Is there a target on the back of my dress? Because it feels like there is a target on the back of my dress.

It was painted there by the financial services industry, which has grown hyper-aware of the fact that women have a lot of money and are about to have a lot more.

According to a 2009 study from the Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, women will inherit 70% of the money that gets passed down over the next two generations, and that excludes the increasing amounts they earn on their own. Women already own more than half of the investable assets in the United States.

Companies like Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch, Prudential Financial, and TD Ameritrade are studying the investing behavior of women, in the hopes of winning more of our dollars.

They know that when a husband dies, his widow often switches money managers.

Indeed, the Certified Financial Planning Board of Standards is trying to lure more women to the business of financial advice.

Sallie Krawcheck, who ran Merrill at Bank of America, recently bought a women’s network and started a mutual fund that seeks to invest in companies led or heavily influenced by women.

Last week, Barclay’s Bank moved in the same direction, creating a Women in Leadership index and related investments.

It’s great to be wooed, but it’s also scary to be the focus of a great marketing effort. It could all end badly if the industry simply pink-washes inferior financial products.

Here are a few bits of advice for women and Wall Street, as they circle each other warily:

Questions

There will be questions. Women are infamous in some financial advisory circles because we ask so many more questions than men. That is good. Do not invest in something you don’t understand. Advisers who want us to invest in complex products and services need to be willing to explain them clearly and simply.

Female Advisers Not Necessary

We don’t need our advisers to be women. It’s not like going to a gynecologist. A male financial adviser is fine with me, as long as he’s competent, straightforward and good with my money.

We also don’t need pink folders for our statements or ladies’ investment products. We like green, and want the products and services that will secure our money and make it grow.

Funds that invest in women-led companies may do well in the future; there’s some research that diverse boards govern winning companies. But women and men should be cautioned not to be over-dependent on niche funds and not to overpay for them.

Keep Costs Low

Women control most household income and tend to be price and budget conscious. So don’t try to win us with high-priced mutual funds when there are less expensive ones that do the job.

Don’t charge us a lot to recommend a generic plain-vanilla index fund portfolio we could find on our own.

Women, Worry Less

Survey after survey reveal that women are more afraid of managing money than men (which is not the same thing as being worse at it) and they are more afraid of market risks than are men.

Women keep a lower proportion of their money in stocks than men do, even though women live longer and the stock market has long proven itself to be the best place for long-term investors to keep money.

Advisers, Worry More

A good adviser won’t prey on those fears; she or he will help female clients overcome their worries and invest in low-cost products that balance risks and rewards.

And if they don’t? There’s another new company out there that is explicitly targeting women investors. It’s called FireMyAdvisor.com.

MONEY retirement planning

Answers to 5 of Twitter’s Most-Asked Questions About Retirement

Following a recent Twitter chat, a retirement expert expands on answers to queries about Roth IRAs, Social Security and more.

The Twitterverse has questions about retirement. What’s the best way for young people to get started saving? Are target-date funds good or bad? Should we expand Social Security to help low-wage workers?

Those are just a few of the great questions I fielded during a retirement Tweet-up convened this week by my colleagues at Reuters. Since my column allows for responses beyond Twitter’s 140-character limit, today I’m expanding on answers to five questions I found especially interesting. You can view the entire chat —which included advice from personal finance gurus from Reuters and Charles Schwab—on Twitter at #ReutersRetire.

Q: What’s the best way for parents to help young adult children save for the long term? How about Roth IRAs?

Roth IRAs are no-brainers for young people. With a traditional IRA, you pay taxes at the end of the line, when you withdraw the money. With a Roth, you invest with after-tax money, and withdrawals (principal and returns) are tax-free in most situations. That’s especially beneficial for young retirement investors, since most people move into higher income-tax brackets as they get older and make more money.

Q: How would you expand Social Security? Any current proposal appealing?

This question was posed during Twitter chatter about the difficulty low-income workers face building retirement saving, and ways to make our retirement system more equitable. Expanding Social Security may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which argues that rising longevity should dictate reductions in future benefits, not increases. But this is a case where the conventional wisdom is wrong.

An expanded Social Security system is the most logical response to our looming retirement security crisis because of its risk pooling and progressive approach to income distribution. Social Security replaces the highest percentage of pre-retirement income for workers at the low end of the wealth scale.

Several ideas are kicking around Congress. Most would raise revenue by gradually phasing out the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax ($117,000 in 2014) and raising payroll tax rates over a 20-year period. Some advocates also would like to see a surtax on annual incomes over $1 million. On the benefits side, advocates want to increase benefits across the board by 10%, recognize the value of family caregivers by awarding work credits toward Social Security benefits and adopt a more generous annual cost-of-living adjustment formula.

Q: With the myriad questions about retirement, can “live” advisers really be replaced by automated advice and data-driven programs?

Online software-driven services—so-called robo-adviser services – can’t fully replace human advice. But they address a key problem: how to deploy retirement guidance to mass audiences at a low cost. Services like Wealthfront and Betterment interact with clients online using algorithms, with low fee structures—typically 0.25% of assets under management or less.

Another variation on this theme: services that deliver advice through a combination of software and human advice, such as LearnVest. One of the most interesting tech-enabled experiments is Vanguard’s Personal Advisor Services, which provides access to a managed portfolio of Vanguard index funds and exchange-traded funds, along with portfolio management services from a human adviser.

Vanguard charges just 0.3% of assets under management for the service. The service is in test mode with a small group of clients, and only available to clients with $100,000 to invest. The minimum will be reduced when the service expands, and it should be rolled out more broadly over the next 12 to 18 months, a spokeswoman says. Given Vanguard’s huge scale, it’s a venture worth watching.

Q: What’s the final verdict on target-date funds—good or evil?

We don’t have a final verdict yet, but target-date funds (TDFs) are doing more good than evil—though they generate plenty of controversy, confusion and misunderstanding. The general idea is to reduce the risk you’re taking as retirement approaches by cutting your exposure to stocks in favor of fixed-income investments—the “glide path.” But some TDFs glide “to” your retirement date, while others glide “through it.” Experts debate which is better, but you should at least know which type of fund you own.

Many retirement investors misuse TDFs by mixing them with other funds, a recent survey found. These funds are designed as one-stop investment solutions that automatically keep your account balanced; doing otherwise will hurt your returns.

Bottom line? TDFs do more good than harm by automatically keeping millions of retirement portfolios balanced with reasonably good equity-to-fixed-income allocations. And they are the fastest-growing product in the market: Some $618 billion was invested in TDFs at the end of 2013, according to the Investment Company Institute, up from $160 billion in 2008.

Q: Anyone know what the highest Social Security income is for a retiree today versus what’s expected 30 years from now?

This year’s maximum monthly benefit at full retirement age (66) is $2,642. The Social Security Administration doesn’t have projections for future benefit levels, but the answer certainly will depend on how Congress decides to deal with the program’s long-term projected shortfalls. Solutions could include tax increases (discussed above) or higher retirement ages. Boosting the retirement age would mean a lower benefit at age 66.

MONEY financial advisers

A Simple Trick for Learning How Much Your Broker Makes

Stock broker or trader
iStock

At big brokerages, a broker's title can help you guesstimate how much that broker gets paid.

For all that U.S. securities brokers make their living by talking about other people’s money, they don’t like to talk about their own. But savvy clients can learn a lot by analyzing a broker’s business card.

Brokerage firms link status-enhancing titles like “senior vice president” and “associate director” to how much revenue a broker generates for the firm, Reuters has found, after reviewing compensation manuals at the biggest retail brokerages and interviewing advisers.

Titles are conveyed virtually automatically to brokers who bring in enough money, even if they are relative newcomers, as long as they have not run afoul of regulations or internal rules.

That little known but well-established practice is in contrast to what happens elsewhere in the financial services world, where top titles are typically tied to years of experience and a change in function.

Top brokers at full-service firms keep around 46 percent of the commissions and fees they collect plus additional bonuses for hitting profitability and practice management targets that change each year, according to a new study from Ernst & Young. So a broker’s earnings can be guesstimated by anyone who cracks the code of how much revenue is tied to the title used by the broker.

A financial adviser who is a “managing director” is likely at the top of his game, but the honorific has different meanings at different company.

A Morgan Stanley broker who is a managing director had to bring in $8 million over the previous three years (earning the broker about $1.2 million a year); at Wells Fargo it’s $1 million in each of the two prior years (earning the broker $460,000 annually, not counting bonuses and deferred awards).

Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch Wealth Management reserves the managing director title for advisers who produced at least $3.75 million of revenue in each of two previous consecutive years (roughly $1.7 million for the broker). UBS Wealth Americas, the smallest of the big four brokerage firms, has a complicated formula, limiting the title to those who produced at least $2.6 million in the previous year and brought in $6 million over the previous two years. UBS said it looks for leadership qualities and also confers the title on any broker who has been with UBS at least 25 years.

Though the wealth management industry has been moving toward charging clients explicit fees for advice, most traditional brokers still earn the bulk of their money by selling products carrying commissions.

The U.S. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the brokerage industry’s self-regulator, has said it is vital for clients to know details of a broker’s compensation to assess whether he or she has a conflict of interest in selling certain products or services.

“Clients still don’t know exactly how they are being charged unless they are ultra-high-net-worth,” said Nalika Nanayakkara, a principal in E&Y’s financial services practice, referring to worth clients who generally have at least $10 million at a firm. “Those clients can demand breakdowns and get what they want.”

FINRA has been trying to pass a rule requiring brokers to disclose signing bonuses they receive when they switch firms but has met resistance from the industry.

To be sure, each firm determines payout and titles a little differently. All the large brokerage firms have five recognition titles except for Morgan Stanley, which has six.

All the big firms permit brokers to keep titles they’ve earned forever, unless they have run afoul of regulatory or other behavioral guidelines. So the title might not be a sign of how much a broker is making now, but how much he or she made in years gone by.

MONEY financial advisers

Political Campaigns Can Be Hazardous for Financial Advisers

Political campaign supporters
Blend Images - Hill Street Studi—Getty Images

A Pennsylvania firm agreed last month to pay a $300,000 fine after the SEC alleged it had violated campaign-contribution rules.

Election season is under way, which means opportunities are mounting for public retirement plan advisers to do the wrong thing.

Investment advisers and certain employees who donate to many types of political campaigns are not allowed to advise state and local governments for two years, according to a 2010 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rule. Advisers who stray over that line can face tough consequences.

The SEC’s “pay-to-play” rule is in place to prevent advisers from using campaign contributions to persuade state and local governments to hire them. States, municipalities and government agencies typically have their own versions.

Advisory firms that fail to follow those rules can face hefty penalties.

In the SEC’s first such enforcement case against an investment adviser, TL Ventures Inc agreed on June 20 to pay nearly $300,000 to end charges that it received advisory fees from state and city pension funds after one of its associates had donated to a Philadelphia mayoral candidate and the Pennsylvania governor in 2011.

The Wayne, Pa., private equity firm neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s allegations.

The case is rattling advisers, said New York lawyer Jisha Dymond, who counsels companies and candidates about political law.

MANY MINEFIELDS

Advisers must also slog through other versions of pay-to-play rules from individual states and municipalities, Dymond said.

Among the concerns: conflicts between the rules. In New Jersey, for example, advisers to public pensions cannot contribute to state political party committees. But the SEC does not impose that restriction, Dymond said. Advisers can, however, get in trouble with the SEC for pushing others to contribute to political parties.

“In an election year, there’s so many different ways to hit a trip wire in terms of compliance,” Dymond said.

In the coming months, gubernatorial elections will be held in 36 states and U.S. three territories, according to the National Governors Association. That is in addition to state and municipal elections slated for November.

The SEC rule applies mainly to advisory firm executives and employees responsible for snagging business from state and local governments.

It typically does not involve federal elections, such as U.S. Senate campaigns for November midterm elections. But it could kick in when a state governor runs for a federal office. That is because he or she can still influence the selection of state financial advisers, said Ronald Jacobs, a Washington lawyer who specializes in political law.

ELECTION PREP

Now is an ideal time for firms that advise pensions to review their campaign donation procedures and the various rules, lawyers say.

Remind employees who fall under the rule that the firm’s compliance staff must approve their contributions in advance, said Jacobs.

Some advisers simply ban contributions. “It’s easier than trying to figure out nuances,” said Stefan Passantino, a Washington lawyer who advises companies and candidates on pay-to-play issues.

But that might be overkill, Jacobs said. Many advisory firms limit their business to a specific state or municipality, or their employees live in a certain area. That makes it easy to decide which rules apply.

MONEY financial advisers

You Mean I Have to Pay for Financial Advice?!?

When financial advisers switch from working on commission to charging clients directly, they can run into resistance.

Financial advisers who transition from a commission-only business to a fee-based model are often stymied about how to explain their new fees without sending existing clients packing.

Some fear clients will feel sticker shock upon hearing they need to pay fees out of pocket instead of having costs deducted from investment accounts. Advisers also worry clients may question why they’re now paying a fee equal to one percent of their assets under management, instead of a fraction of that for their load funds.

The problem is that most investors don’t understand how adviser compensation works or how it affects the services they receive, says John Anderson, a practice management consultant with SEI Advisor Network, a unit of SEI Investments in Oaks, Pa. Many investors do not know what it means for an adviser to be a fiduciary, or somebody who acts in a client’s best interests, Anderson says.

A 2011 study by Cerulli Associates, a consulting firm in Boston, showed that 31 percent of investors thought financial planning services were free and one-third didn’t know how they paid for advice. What’s more, most investors prefer to pay hidden commissions instead of account fees, according to Cerulli studies.

Some clients might push back when advisers begin asking for fees, but their concerns usually dissolve once advisers show clients the benefits.

FOCUS ON SERVICES

Morgan Smith, an adviser in Austin, explained the ethical obligation of a fiduciary to his clients when he transitioned to a fee-only practice. “I asked, ‘Would you rather work with someone whose compensation structure has nothing to do with your best interest or someone whose structure is based on your best interest and goals?'” he says.

Every client except one, a day trader, stayed on. But some asked why they would pay him if their investments declined. He told them his advice would pay off more in a down market and that “when your investments go down, I get paid less,” he says.

Sheryl Garrett, whose Garrett Planning Network includes more than 300 fee-only advisers, says clients need to understand the difference between advisers who can afford to give advice because they sold a product and advisers who are objective because they have “no skin in the game.”

Clients who are paying for advice also need to know what other problems advisers are solving in exchange for the additional compensation, says Anderson. He tells advisers to create a one-page list of their services. That may include rebalancing clients’ portfolios and analyzing their future social security benefits.

He also starts client conversations by highlighting what they’ve recently accomplished, such as filling in paperwork to name beneficiaries for IRA accounts.

Anderson and Garrett both believe in showing clients that their daily decisions have more of an impact on their finances than the investments or insurance products they buy. It’s a holistic approach that often wins over clients, they say.

Related: Find the Right Financial Planner

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