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Fiduciary Standard: Moving the Ball Forward
Thursday, November 1, 2012
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Over the last several weeks there has been a growing conversation in blogs, columns and other venues about Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards' fiduciary standard -- when and to whom it applies and whether it is sufficiently comprehensive to benefit the public. On one blog, Scholarly Financial Planner, Ron Rhoades, CFP, challenged the CFP Board to “move the profession forward” by requiring that “those who hold themselves out as CFP certificants [be] held to fiduciary status at all times.”

We welcome the dialogue, particularly the opportunity to clarify our fiduciary standard and CFP Board’s commitment to advancing the fiduciary standard of care.    

As Rhoades correctly observes, the CFP Board was well ahead of the fiduciary curve when, in 2007 -- more than three years before Dodd-Frank became law -- it adopted its current Standards of Professional Conduct.  The board faced significant opposition when it required CFP professionals, regardless of their legal or regulatory obligations, to adhere to a fiduciary standard of care in providing financial planning services.  Hundreds chose to relinquish their CFP certification rather than be subject to the CFP Board’s heightened standard.

Rhoades is also correct in noting that a CFP professional is not subject to a fiduciary standard at all times for all purposes, and that the CFP Board’s fiduciary standard is not identical to the common law standard.

The CFP Board established a two-tiered requirement for CFP professionals.  First, a CFP professional “shall at all times place the interest of the client ahead of his or her own.”  Second, a CFP professional who provides financial planning services or material elements of financial planning “owes to the client the duty of care of a fiduciary as defined by CFP Board.” We define a fiduciary as “one who acts in utmost good faith, in a manner he or she reasonably believes to be in the best interest of the client.”

Determining a Fiduciary Relationship

As is the case with the common law fiduciary standard, a determination of when and how the standard applies under CFP Board’s rules involves an evaluation of the totality of facts and circumstances.

Yet Rhoades mistakenly accuses CFP Board of placing a “huge emphasis on whether the financial planning engagement touches on more than one subject area.”  In actuality, the degree to which multiple financial planning subject areas are involved is just one of a number of factors the board considers in determining whether a CFP professional is in a fiduciary relationship. 

Other key factors are the client’s understanding and intent in engaging the CFP professional, the comprehensiveness of the CFP professional’s data gathering and the breadth and depth of his or her recommendations.  A fiduciary standard may apply even when services are limited to a single subject area, depending on the application of these factors.  Very simply, there are no bright lines or simple tests -- just as in the common law application. 

Education Efforts

That is precisely why, since our Standards became effective in July 2008, we have been working diligently to educate CFP professionals on how to meet them.

We developed a comprehensive set of frequently asked questions, which has been updated on several occasions.

We have put on a series of compliance webinars for CFP professionals, such as How to apply the fiduciary standard to a financial planning practice.”

We developed a series of short, detailed multimedia scenarios to help CFP professionals better understand their fiduciary obligation.  We also established a Business Model Council, in which we work directly with legal and compliance professionals in brokerage, advisory, banking and insurance firms; we educate them about our fiduciary standard and discuss how CFP professionals can meet their fiduciary obligations within specific business models.

Most recently, we developed and presented a Compliance Checklist to provide CFP® professionals and compliance officers with a convenient checklist to facilitate compliance with our rules.

But Rhoades and others are urging the CFP Board to do more.  Rhoades says: “I hope the CFP Board will revise and clarify its Standards of Professional Conduct ... to recognize that all those who hold themselves out as CFP certificants should be held to fiduciary status at all times. To do otherwise is fraud.”

Fiduciaries at All Times?

(2) Comments
With appreciation to Kevin Keller for his views, I reply. http://scholarfp.blogspot.com
Posted by Ron R | Thursday, November 01 2012 at 9:56PM ET
I am in full agreement with Ron Rhoades that a CFP should act as and be held to the Fiduciary Standard at all times. This, in my opinion, is the only way to safeguard the investing public. I commend Undersecretary Borzi for her dilligent efforts to institute the Fiduciary Standard for all in our in our industry. Thpmas F.
Posted by Thomas F | Thursday, November 14 2013 at 11:37AM ET
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