Last week, I heard from a Navy retiree who wondered what he should do with the money he built up in his Thrift Savings Plan, the federal government retirement plan that looks a lot like a 401(k).
My recent columns on finding a financial planner were fortuitous because he has been grappling with the daunting decisions that face most people when they retire. He and his wife are eager to find a trusted adviser who can answer questions like this one: Should they keep the money tucked inside his TSP, where it's invested conservatively, or move it to an Individual Retirement Account?
In his quest for answers, the couple consulted with a financial professional who is affiliated with their local credit union. To his credit, the retiree grilled the guy on whether he was a fiduciary. The adviser assured him that he was indeed a fiduciary. Our Mr. Fiduciary, however, urged the retiree to dump his TSP, which is a fabulous plan that contains super inexpensive index funds, and move the cash into a horribly expensive variable annuity inside an IRA. It would be tough to imagine more asinine advice.
The retiree's experience illustrates what even the most earnest investors are up against when they hunt for an adviser. The naval civil servant has been an Eagle Scout of an investor. He wisely maxed out his retirement plan since day one, but now faced with one of the biggest financial decisions of his life, he wasn't sure whether he should seal the deal with this annuity peddler, who obviously had gotten the memo: If someone asks, by golly, you're a fiduciary. How do you know if your adviser or a prospective candidate is really working in your best interest? One way to find out is to use a detailed questionnaire when talking with these guys. And don't worry, I'm not suggesting that you dream up your own questions.
You can find an excellent questionnaire, "The NAPFA Comprehensive Financial Planning Diagnostic," by visiting the Web site of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org). At the same time, you'll need to print out the companion document, "The NAPFA Comprehensive Financial Planning Checklist." Prospective advisers often will provide a complimentary session where you get a feel for whether you'd be comfortable with the person sitting behind the desk. Take advantage of this opportunity and don't forget to take the questionnaire.