The answer to the question in the headline is “You don’t know!” And if you don’t know, what should you look for in selecting a financial planner?

That was the question, along with my answer, that a prospective client asked when he was interviewing me to become his financial planner. He did become my client after further discussion of important criteria to use in making his selection.

Always consider using this question when you interview a financial planner. You may shock them, but you don’t want to hear them say, “You can trust me. I would never do that!”

Trust is earned over time and there is no basis for credibility in telling someone you are trustworthy. Be very suspicious if someone tries to convince you they are trustworthy.

The ultimate objective in your search for a planner is to find someone you can both trust and has the knowledge and skillset to work with you and your financial life.

Byrke Systok, CFP of Rightirement in Harrison, New York, suggests having a meeting with at least two financial planners. His advice: “Find someone you like and feel comfortable with. Financial planning is an intimate relationship.”

How do you find a planner to start interviewing? Begin with what I call the “surrogate” approach.

Ask friends, neighbors, attorneys, and CPAs if they work with a financial planner. You don’t want only a name. You want to find someone who has experience working with a planner for five to 10 years. If you get a positive report about a planner then put their name on your list.

Then go to This is your gold standard for everything related to a certified financial planner (CFP).

Consider the following reasons why you will want your planner to be a CFP.

The College for Financial Planning created the CFP designation. It developed the first academic requirements for CFPs. After passing the five tests of the curriculum, the College was awarded the CFP designation.

In 1985, the College created and funded what is now the CFP Board of Standards. The Board is totally independent of any other entity.

The Board has defined a challenging process for a planner to become a CFP. The process includes significant education, a very challenging final exam, at least two years of experience, and a continuing confirmation of ethical standards. The Board also requires a four-year college degree.

The Board has stringent enforcement of the standards. It has revoked the designation from several CFPs for unethical or illegal activities.

All CFPs are required to function as fiduciaries. This not only means a planner must put a client’s interests before their own, but they must avoid and disclose any conflicts of interest. Anything illegal or unethical must be avoided. If a CFP goes bankrupt, it must be declared and appropriate action will be taken.

The CFP Board’s website provides 10 topics to discuss with a planner when interviewing them. These are very helpful starting points to help qualify them as your potential planner.

The shortened version includes:

What are your qualifications and credentials?

Consider a mandatory requirement to be a CFP. There is no substitute. Have them describe their work experience.

What services do you offer?

Do they have the skill set to address your needs and concerns?

Will you have a fiduciary duty to me?

A CFP must act as a fiduciary. Ask what that means to the planner. You should ask for and receive a written engagement that requires them to have a fiduciary obligation to you.

What is your approach to financial planning?

Financial planning is a dynamic process and not a product. Some companies treat this as a product and encourage their people to sell plans. Their motivation is the more plans that are sold, the greater the opportunity to sell their products, some of which may be proprietary. As a client, you get to decide who implements various parts of a comprehensive plan. It could be an attorney for legal issues and a CPA for tax issues. If the planner is implementing, you must know if the planner is paid a fee by you or is receiving commissions from any third party. This is where conflicts of interest often arise.

What types of clients do you typically work with?

Some planners specialize and they should disclose that. If they primarily work with doctors and you are an airline pilot, it may not be a good fit. The main objective is to make sure the planner has worked with clients who are similar to your situation. This does not mean the planner has to work with clients in the same occupation as you, but clients that have similar financial capabilities and concerns.

Will you be the only advisor working with me?

Is there a team approach? Does the planner work with outside-the-firm advisors? If so, then you must dig a little deeper.

How will I pay for your services?

In general, there are three ways: commission; fees and commission; or fees only. Ask for full disclosure on all fees that are involved and any other form of compensation. Ask how they will report the fees to you and how often. Generally, a fee-only planner will have fewer conflicts of interest.

How much do you typically charge?

What is it based on?

Do others stand to gain from the financial advice you give me?

Almost any planner is with a broker-dealer, a registered investment advisor, or both. These entities generally take a portion of the planner’s earnings for their services. This is part of the planner’s expense for being in business and is very legitimate. The firm may receive 5% to 25% of the planner’s fee. It’s important to know the planner’s net fee. Problems arise when a planner may place a piece of business with an entity like an insurance company where they may gain some kind of favoritism that could create a conflict of interest.

Have you ever been publicly disciplined for any unlawful or unethical actions in your career?

This is very important. Check out the planner. Start with a Google search and see if anything comes up. Then go to the FINRA website and look for Broker-Check. You can also check the SEC’s Investment Advisor Public Disclosure database. Any CFP Board disciplinary history of a CFP professional can be found through the CFP Board site.

Some complaints I have seen on FINRA’s Broker-Check of CFPs may be several years old. That may not mean anything because you are trying to assess character and that seldom changes over time.

Now you are ready to go to the CFP Board website once again. Complete a short form, click on Find a Professional, and CFPs in your area will pop up. Put two or three on your list and start calling.

Vern Hayden is a certified financial planner and the author of “Getting an Investing Game Plan.”