By definition, a fiduciary is a person or organization that acts on behalf of another person or persons to manage assets. Essentially, a fiduciary owes to that other entity the duties of good faith and trust. The highest legal duty of one party to another, being a fiduciary requires being bound ethically to act in the other’s best interests.
This term “fiduciary” is a very good thing to hear if you’re searching for a financial advisor. It means the advisor is “legally required” to put your interests first, rather than enhancing their compensation. Fiduciary duty eliminates conflict of interest concerns which makes advice more trustworthy. Not all financial advisors are fiduciaries. All investment advisors registered with the SEC or a State securities regulator (Registered Investment Advisors or RIA) must act as fiduciaries. Broker-dealers, stockbrokers and insurance agents are only required to fulfill a “suitability obligation”. This means that while the advice they give you may be suitable to your situation; they may substitute a higher cost product that pays them more for a similar product that better aligns with your interest at a lower cost. This same conflict exists – albeit in a less visible way – with a group of advisors known as “Hybrid” advisors. These advisors work for large firms that offer both “fee-based” services and brokerage services and manage some of your money on a Fee-based basis but also put some of your money in products where they receive a commission. Fee-only advisors are sometimes seen as operating with less of a structural conflict of interest than brokers or other advisors who earn commission, which can vary from one product to another. However, in that mode, the advisor might have the incentive to engage in excessive trading activity or favor a specific investment that will net the largest commission or fee.
What about automated / on-line or “Robo-Advisors” which advertise as RIAs? They insist that they are fiduciaries. They are registered investment advisors, but are they fiduciaries? They typically only offer advice based on a relatively short risk questionnaire, but rarely get a full financial picture or understanding of goals. An back and forth discussion of goals and attitudes toward risk seems critical to providing fiduciary services and cannot be adequately addressed by checking a few boxes.
Choosing a fiduciary financial advisor can give you greater peace of mind. With a fiduciary financial advisor, you’ll know that the person managing your money is legally obligated to make decisions in your best interest. While non-fiduciary advisors are not necessarily bad actors, it’s easier to ensure that you’re working with someone who has your best interest at heart if you opt to work with a fiduciary.