By Jean Gruss
Whether you’re setting a budget, managing investments, creating a savings strategy, mapping out your retirement, or planning your estate, you want assistance and advice from the best experts available.
Assembling the right team of professionals can help you navigate tricky financial and legal issues. What’s more, these advisers can provide an unbiased perspective on sensitive family matters.
When building a financial team, it’s wise to cover three fundamental areas of expertise: personal finance, accounting, and legal counsel. Seek out specialists who adhere to the highest ethical standards and have unblemished records, and make a point of interviewing several candidates for each opening on your team. Be sure to inquire about each contender’s fees, experience, and willingness to work with other professionals on your team.
Expert: Financial Planner
Why you need one: A financial planner can provide you with an objective analysis of your finances and help you develop sustainable plans for saving, spending, and managing your money. Their advice is particularly helpful around transitional times and unexpected changes in your financial situation. Big life changes that typically require a higher level of expertise include marriage, divorce, buying or selling a home, retirement, a monetary windfall, a serious illness, and a death in the family.
How to find the right one: Start by looking for a Certified Financial Planner who has credentials from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. Advisers with a CFP designation have completed extensive training, adhere to a strict code of ethics, and must continue their education. To find one of 76,000 CFP designees, visit www.letsmakeaplan.org and search by city and state or zip code. You can also select the “advanced search” button that lets you look for planners who specialize in different areas of finance, such as retirement, healthcare planning, and investment management.
Background check: You can verify a CFP’s certification status online via the CFP website as well. This search function will identify individuals who are not currently certified but who may have been in the past. In addition, the search will reveal whether a planner has been publicly disciplined by the CFP Board or has filed for bankruptcy in the last 10 years. You can also check the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) website to view complaints or disciplinary actions against a specific adviser or firm.
Ask the right questions: The CFP Board offers a list of 10 key questions you should ask a prospective financial planner. Print out this list or write down your questions to take with you to your first meeting. You can find them here.
Expert: Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
Why you need one: Sometimes finances can be complicated enough that you need the expertise of an accountant. A CPA can help with tax preparation, bookkeeping, and financial planning objectives. Such services can be extremely beneficial for those who are dealing with tax issues, planning for Medicaid spend-down, or are simply keen on saving time and money without the hands-on involvement.
How to find the right one: Consider a CPA who has obtained the Personal Finance Specialist designation from the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA). Currently, there are about 5,000 CPAs with the PFS certification, says Susan Tillery, chair of the organization’s PFS credential committee. “CPAs help their clients with financial planning issues all the time. They’re educated and have the experience,” she says. Those with the PFS designation must have their CPA license and at least two years of active personal-finance experience. They have also pursued extra financial planning education in 12 disciplines, including retirement, estate and tax planning.
Start your search for a CPA online on the AICPA website. Select “Personal Financial Specialist Credential” from the drop-down menu under “refine your search.”
Background check: You can also use the AICPA website to see if the institute has taken disciplinary action against a CPA here. It is also helpful to check your state’s board of accountancy for disciplinary actions and license verification.
Ask the right questions: The AICPA publishes a useful guide to choosing the right CPA.
Expert: Estate-Planning Attorney
Why you need one: Everyone needs a will to direct the administration of their estate once they pass away. An attorney who specializes in estate-planning will write up crucial legal documents, like a will, and establish strategies for ensuring your assets are distributed in accordance with your wishes and in legitimate ways that minimize taxes, legal fees and difficulty for your heirs.
How to find the right one: The best place to start is your state bar association. Some of the top attorneys in this field also belong to The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. You can find one of the organization’s 2,700 members on their website.
If legal fees are a concern, the American Bar Association provides a list of resources that offer free and affordable legal help for low-income individuals.
Background check: Once you have narrowed down your selection, use your state’s bar association website to search for an attorney by name. Their personal bar profile will feature whether they have received any disciplinary action and whether they are eligible to practice law.
Ask the right questions: It’s a good idea to learn the basics of estate planning so you can ask the right questions. The North Carolina State Bar Association offers a helpful guide here.
Teamwork Is Key
Each member of your financial team brings a different kind of expertise to the table that will help you create and implement a sustainable, well-documented, and legal plan for managing your money. These individual players may be extremely educated and talented in their field, but an exceptional team will be able to work together to ensure you’re set up for a win.