‘Fee-based’ vs. ‘fee only’ financial planners: There’s a big difference

'Fee-based' vs.  'fee only' financial planners: There's a big difference

Dear Liz: How do you find a fee-based financial planner? I just inherited a lot of money, and trying to figure out our future is stressing me out.

Answer: That’s understandable. Getting sound advice can mean the difference between growing your newfound wealth and wasting it. But finding a good, honest, competent planner requires some work.

Most advisors aren’t fiduciaries, so they aren’t required to put your interests ahead of their own. Instead, they can recommend investments that cost more or perform worse than available alternatives, simply because the recommended investments pay them more.

Such advisors often call themselves “fee based,” hoping you’ll confuse them with “fee only” planners. Fee-only planners are compensated only by the fees you pay; they don’t accept commissions or other compensation that could influence their advice.

The National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors and the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners are two organizations that represent fee-only planners, many of whom charge a percentage of your investable assets. You can find fee-only planners who work on an hourly basis at Garrett Planning Network and those who charge monthly retainer fees at XY Planning Network.

Interview at least three candidates. Ask them how they are paid and what your “all-in” costs — their fees plus the cost of investments they recommend — are likely to be. Ask about, and verify, their credentials. (You can check a certified financial planner’s status at cfp.net/verify-a-cfp-professional.) Find out about their education and experience, including whether they’ve advised people similar to you.

They should be willing to assert in writing that they will be fiduciaries. Finally, check their backgrounds, including their disciplinary history, at BrokerCheck.finra.org.

Health savings account rules

Dear Liz: I established a health savings account when I was self-employed using an HSA-compliant healthcare plan. Now I am employed. My employer does not offer a health plan that was designated as an HSA, but my deductible is $7,000, higher than the minimum for an individual. Can I continue to contribute to my existing HSA?

Answer: Unfortunately, no. To contribute to an HSA, you must be covered by an HSA-compliant high-deductible healthcare plan, and you may not be covered by other health insurance, including Medicare.

HSAs were created as a way to encourage people to choose high-deductible health insurance plans, but many people use them as an additional way to save for retirement. HSAs have a rare triple tax break: contributions are pretax, the account can grow tax deferred and withdrawals are tax free if used to pay qualifying healthcare expenses.

Unlike flexible spending accounts, which are “use it or lose it,” HSAs allow people to roll unused balances over from year to year. Plus, balances can be invested for long-term growth. Many people value these tax advantages so highly that they pay medical expenses out of pocket, leaving their HSA balances to grow for the future.

But HSA-compliant health insurance policies must meet certain criteria, including a minimum deductible of $1,400 for individuals and $2,800 for families for 2022. (The average deductible in 2021 was $2,349 for individuals and $5,217 for families, according to KFF, the healthcare research organization formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation.) The maximum out-of-pocket limit — including deductibles and co-pays, but not premiums — is $7,050 for individuals or $14,100 for families in 2022.

As you can see, you’ve wound up with the worst of both worlds: a very high deductible with no option to save in an HSA. Perhaps your employer is compensating you so handsomely in other areas that you can overlook this deficit in your benefits. If not, it might be time to look for an employer who can offer more.

Social Security and inflation

Dear Liz: If I wait until I am 70 to claim Social Security, my benefit will increase 8% a year. With inflation above 8%, should I take Social Security early? I am almost 68.

Answer: This question was answered in a previous column but needs to be addressed again because so many people misunderstand how Social Security cost-of-living increases work.

Social Security applies cost-of-living adjustments to your benefits whether you’re currently receiving them or not. In other words, your benefit has been receiving inflation adjustments since you turned 62, when you were first eligible.

Applying now doesn’t get you anything extra and, in fact, costs you because you’re giving up the 8% annual delayed retirement benefits you would otherwise receive.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.

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