Financial planning first emerged as an organized industry 15 years ago. Yet it is just in the past year or two that the art of creating a blueprint for the orderly accumulation, retention and distribution of capital has really taken off.

"Spurred by Madison Avenue and the media, financial planning has become a buzzword of an affluent generation," Registered Representative, a trade journal for stock brokers, declared in September. "Ironically, most people who talk about financial planning aren't quite sure what it means. And legally, neither the practice nor its practitioners even exist."

The term covers a variety of financial services, many provided separately for generations. Now the pressures and demands of inflation, recession, two-income families, Yuppie life styles and the aging population have fueled the engine of comprehensive planning.

The International Association for Financial Planning, founded in 1969, grew by 40 percent last year to 20,500 members. The College for Financial Planning, established in 1972, turns out 2,800 certified financial planners a year. And Hollywood personalities do television commercials promoting financial planning by household names such as Sears Roebuck and Merrill Lynch.

This is the Washington Post's ninth annual special section on the subject. The first one featured an explanation of Individual Retirement Accounts, which Congress had just extended to many Americans. Much of the early emphasis was on pensions and retirement income. In successive years, the scope was broadened to include financial planning for younger persons.

The section has presented information on taxes and real estate, Social Security and shelters, investments and insurance. It has dealt with different types of plans and fee structures, the costs involved, how to find a planner and other topics such as conflict of interest, regulation, developments in education and ethics.

This year's section addresses similar issues, but it also contains several departures from tradition. First is a list of 25 names from among the more than 500 persons in the Washington area engaged in financial planning. They are the cre me de la cre me. Their names were taken from the IAFP registry, which admits only those meeting rigorous qualifications, including, for the first time this year, a lengthy examination.

Second, Jeffrey Lauterbach, an associate editor of Financial Planning magazine who has made an in-depth study of automated plans, analyzes and rates some of the financial plans offered by major national corporations. Both lists are meant to assist readers in selecting a financial plan or planner from the many now available. The recommendations do not constitute an endorsement by The Washington Post.

Finally, a word about the financial planning industry itself.

At this fall's IAFP convention, one speaker mused that the industry must be maturing because the media, tired of explaining what financial planning is, were now beginning to criticize it. He mentioned a newspaper article containing "horror stories" reported by clients who complained that they had been taken in by financial planners.

That raises the question of how to tell a good planner from a bad one. The simple answer is, you can't.

If your worry is possible criminal activity, check newspaper or court records or the Securities and Exchange Commission.

While many of the professionals who call themselves financial planners -- tax lawyers, CPAs, stock brokers, bankers and insurance agents -- are licensed or supervised by public agencies, there are as yet no laws regulating financial planners as members of a distinct occupation. This can make checking them out an involved, time-consuming chore.

For example, financial planners who offer investment advice must register with the SEC, but the agency does not regulate other members of this heterogeneous industry. Several states, including Maryland, however, currently are said to be discussing legislation to regulate the whole industry.

Financial planning services are now tailored to fit all pocketbooks, from a boilerplate computerized printout costing less than $200 to a kid-glove, customized plan costing more than $10,000. There are also enough financial planners from enough disciplines to allow consumers a significant range of choice. For example, a person who has a tax problem would best avoid a planner with a real estate background.

For years the industry has strugggled to achieve credibility through educational programs, a code of ethics, a registry of qualified practitioners and, most recently, a rigorous examination -- aiming to transform financial planning into a profession like medicine, law or accounting, with a professional designation that commands the kind of respect that the MD or the CPA does.

Unfortunately, the recent popularity of planning has spawned confusing imitations. Last summer, Best's Review, a leading insurance industry publication, listed an alphabet soup of professional designations that financial planners may append to their names: included were CLU (Certified Life Underwriter); ChFC (Chartered Financial Accountant); CFP (Certified Financial Planner); RFP (Registered Financial Planner); RFPS (Registered Financial Planner Senior); RFPM (Registered Financial Planner Master); and several others.

Moreover, three rival trade associations with names similar to the IAFP have sprung up. While one serves fee-only planners, the others two, says Best's, seem to be little more than fronts for entrepreneurs operating in the Grand Caymans and Saudi Arabia.

But, even if financial planners one day achieve professional parity with physicians and lawyers, the question will still remain: how do you find the most competent planners? Credentials are a means, not an end. They guarantee nothing. It's results that count.

The industry asks people to trust its members with perhaps the second most important aspect of their lives after physical and spiritual health: their financial well-being. That is the ultimate meaning of "establishing a relationship," a frequently used phrase.

Some financial planners who use the medical analogy tend to adopt the Dr. Feelgood approach: It's enough, they say, that the patient has peace of mind. And yet, a physician's performance can be rated: a drop of several points in the blood pressure of a person suffering from hypertension, so many pounds lost by the obese patient put on a diet. One also can check a physician's malpractice suits, or whether a surgeon's mortality rate for certain types of procedures exceeds the average.

Why should a financial planner not be judged in terms of results? Should performance not be rated? But, if so, how could it be done?

Richard J. Wollack, a California consultant who has criticized planners for accepting bonuses from packagers of financial planning products that they sell, called it "conceptually valuable, if some objective reliable test could be found." James H. Wilson, a Bristol, Tenn., certified public accountant who is now a professor of management, said he foresees a rating system for financial planners resembling the peer review exercised by CPAs. With a code of ethics and measurable technical standards, even "soft work" such as updating wills and establishing trusts performed by financial planners could be rated for clients, he added. Disclosure of this information could stop abuses and protect the public.

However, most planners who were questioned responded negatively or skeptically to such suggestions. Stephen J. Loewinger, a Bethesda CPA, said that there are too many variables, that mistakes would not surface for two to four years, and that it would require a tremendous amount of paperwork. Other planners declared that there was no way to quantify such tasks as setting up trust funds or reviewing insurance coverage. Reservations aside, however, the bottom line of financial planning is money, which is quantifiable.

With a few exceptions -- for example, the elderly person seeking to transfer money to a child -- most people who consult a financial planner care mainly about reducing taxes and increasing net worth. Why, therefore, would it not be possible for a planner to state on an annual basis the average percentage reduction in taxes achieved in the past year for all the planner's clients, or the average increase in client net worth?

Planner A's record might indicate, for example, that she cut her clients' taxes by an average of 20 percent and raised their net wealth by 15 percent last year, while planner B's might show that he sliced an average of 30 percent off his clients' taxes and caused their bottom lines to increase by 25 percent. Were such results published, would a client be more likely to seek the services of planner A or B?

One planner objected that because a decrease in taxes is often a function of how much risk the client is willing to take in sheltering funds, it could reflect poorly on a planner with a lot of conservative clients, whose tax savings would be smaller. True, but a similar situation occurs when comparing the results of aggressive (risky) mutual funds with blue-chip stock investments; the reader builds in risk factor.

Other objections voiced were the need for audits or an independent analysis. Silver Spring planner Edward S. Dove, CFP, suggested, as alternatives, rating planners by the amount of assets they manage, or even by how long they retain their clients.

Private services could tabulate net worth and tax changes, much the way that Donaghue's Money Market Fund Report lets subscribers know which fund earned the best return, that Savers Rate News tracks interest rates paid by banks on certificates of deposit, or that Hulbert Financial Digest ranks investment advisers on their portfolio performance.

Technically, information-gathering should be relatively easy for large firms that store clients' complete financial records in their mainframe computers. Moreover, advertising campaigns based on the results would follow the genre currently used by large brokerage companies and banks. The tax angle would be a natural for H&R Block, which is still experimenting with a computerized financial plan.

But still the best way, to find either a doctor or a financial planner, is a personal recommendation. A survey of Washington Post employes who have used financial planning produced comments ranging from enthusiastic to bitter. "He a tax lawyer gave me the help I needed to make some difficult decisions about educational trust funds , and it netted me a $600 refund . We are sticking with this guy," said one. Another, who paid $300, said "basically we were left with a sort of sleazy feeling that the only thing they would recommend us buying were things they could make money on."

Yet because financial planning is more like cosmetic surgery -- a new, trendy, expensive and somewhat iffy procedure -- than general practice, referrals by friends may be hard to generate. Information about results in such cases may be helpful. Such knowledge also might help to clarify the argument made by many independent planners that the computerized printouts offered by major banks and brokerage firms are not really financial planning.

For independent financial planners who view their efforts -- and want them valued -- like those of physicians or lawyers, performance-based advertising might be abhorrent. On the other hand, in the future it might be the best way, perhaps even the only way, of meeting the competition.

If financial planning is here to stay, maybe it's time to assess the results.