Like many other watershed events, tax reform and the stock market collapse have sent people scurrying for financial advice. Seminars on taxes, investments and retirement planning held by a financial planners' organization in 150 cities last month drew more than double last year's attendance.

Lots of people need help periodically on one or more of these or other money matters; almost half (45 percent) of all Americans now have their taxes done by preparers.

Some people are given specialized advice. Budget counseling, for example, might be appropriate for a person who is overextended on credit card purchases.

But if someone feels in need of a complete financial checkup, then a financial planner may be indicated.

Generally, financial planners don't like to take on clients without sizable assets. Each planner sets his or her minimum, but a rule of thumb might be a minimum salary of $35,000 for singles, $50,000 for couples, and a substantial amount of capital exclusive of one's residence. But a low-income person who receives a windfall or a high-salaried person who has not yet acquired assets might also be candidates.

In the Washington area, top planning firms have even higher requirements. It is not cost effective to do a comprehensive plan for a person with less than $50,000 income and a like amount of capital, said John H. Cammack of Alexandra Armstrong Associates in the District.

Beyond money, engaging a planner requires a certain degree of financial sophistication on the part of the client, because he or she is expected to participate in the process. It also requires of the client the willingness to bare his or her financial soul to a planner, the need or desire to plan ahead for specific goals and, perhaps most important, the discipline to stick to the plan over the long term.

Financial planning is probably not suitable for the person who lives from paycheck to paycheck, buys on impulse, saves little and has no clear idea of where he or she wants to go financially. It also may not be for the person who has a one-time problem and who does not want to pay for a comprehensive plan or have a continued relationship (and the attendant costs) with the planner.

This fall, 18 years after the International Association for Financial Planning was founded, the first formal standards for a comprehensive financial plan were be published. The IAFP's Registry of Financial Planning Practitioners, its standard-setting group, proclaimed that the process consists of 13 steps.

The first three deal with information gathering, outlining the client's goals and objectives, such as providing for children's college education, and identifying issues and problems.

The planner next prepares a balance sheet showing the client's assets, liabilities and net worth, then does a cash-flow analysis to show where the money comes from and where it goes.

The planner reviews income tax returns for several years and spots any potential problems, such as investments that might push the client into the alternative minimum tax. Next come analyses of insurance coverage and investments. At this point, the planner studies the client's willingness to take risks, his or her exposure to loss of invested capital, the suitability and diversification of investments, and the degree to which the client wishes to manage his or her financial affairs.

In the projection phase, the planner estimates how much money will be available in the future to cover the client's needs, such as retirement. Finally, the control, disposition and taxation of the client's estate are planned.

The planner then prepares written recommendations, including a schedule for priorities. Finally, recommendations are implemented. This could include such things as updating a will or buying more life insurance.

It should be noted that this is the Rolls-Royce of plans. Economy models -- such as those generated by a computer using the client's personal data -- are also available at banks, brokerages and elsewhere.

Comprehensive financial planning is practiced by people who pride themselves on having the ability to "look at the whole picture." They often liken themselves to the family doctor. Though the physician would prefer that the patient have annual physicals, he or she recognizes that many people only go to the doctor when they have a pain.

In the same way, a client with a tax problem could go to an accountant. But if he or she went to a financial planner, the client might discover that investments were causing the tax headache. If investments were the problem, the client might be referred to an accountant, said committee member Michael Stoddard of Dallas.

At a convention of accountants this fall, humorist Art Buchwald got laughs with the joke: "What does a CPA do after messing up an audit and losing his license to practice? He becomes a financial planner."

While it's true that anyone can hang out a shingle as a financial planner -- and there are still many "polyester gold dust peddlers" in the business -- it is also true that an increasing number of certified public accountants in good standing are becoming financial planners.

(The profession also includes people with backgrounds in securities, insurance, banking, real estate and law, plus a growing number of people who start out in financial planning.)

At latest count, CPAs represented 13 percent of the IAFP's membership, compared with just 8 percent in 1985. Last year the 7,000 CPAs who do financial planning formed their own group so that those who have passed an additional examination and met other experience requirements use the new designation of accredited personal financial specialist (APFS).

The APFS designation appears to be roughly comparable to membership in the registry, created in 1983 by the IAFP. Leo C. Loevner, a Fairfax financial planner who has taken both examinations, calls them equally difficult.

From the client's viewpoint, there are two major differences between registry members and the CPA elite: APFSs cannot recommend specific investments by name and cannot take commissions or accept contingency (referral) payments. The Federal Trade Commission is challenging the code of ethics of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants that permits them to charge only by the hour.

For many years financial planners have been criticized on two fundamental points: The profession is generally unregulated, and many financial planners get fees or commissions on the sale of products they recommend, which critics regard as a conflict of interest. According to the IAFP, only one state -- Virginia -- has passed a law regulating financial planners, and even that does not cover all financial planners.

The CPAs who engage in financial planning claim an advantage in these areas because they are licensed by state boards of accountancy and they are independent in that they do not sell products.

No financial plan is worth a penny until it is implemented. If that means buying products -- as it often does -- then a counterargument can be made that it is better to deal with a planner who has specific products in mind to carry out the plan. Unlike a CPA, a financial planner who is also a registered investment adviser can do this.

Some CPAs are skirting the commission ban by practicing outside the aegis of the AICPA. The reason is money. The average hourly rate for CPAs is $100, according to Jerry Cohen, president of the American Association of Personal Financial Planners, whose members are CPAs.

Financial planners earn their money by charging clients an hourly fee, a flat fee or a percentage of assets, or by charging commissions on the products they sell to implement their plans, or a combination of both. Those who get commissions as well as a fee can earn 40 percent to 100 percent more than fee-only planners, in the opinion of H. Lynn Hopewell, a Falls Church financial planner. Once the client is "hooked" with a low-cost plan, the planner is in a better position to sell to the client investments that generate big commissions for the planner.

"Experience has shown that the process is so powerful that 9 out of 10 clients will follow the planner's recommendations," he said.

Hopewell is convinced that the fee-only approach can be more profitable for the planner in the long run. Instead of charging a large upfront fee for the plan, he advocates that clients pay in installments, preferably a percentage of their assets. He insists that separating the sale of advice from the sale of products is the only way to resolve the conflict of interest. Others disagree.

Two-thirds of planners surveyed by the College for Financial Planning in Colorado still derive their income from commissions. And fewer than 10 percent of IAFP members exist only on fees.

But that may be changing. There is already a shakeout going on in the financial planning industry. Robert N. Veres reported in last month's issue of Financial Planning magazine that the 18 largest financial planning broker-dealers lost a total of $2 million in 1986. Tax reform has put a large dent in sales of limited partnerships, which paid planners high commissions; loads on mutual funds do not begin to make up the lost revenues. IAFP membership, which had been growing rapidly, leveled off this year; the number of members with securities backgrounds was cut in half in the most recent survey.

The presence of fewer brokers and more CPAs in financial planning may nudge the profession more in the direction of fee-only planning. William L. Anthes, president of the College for Financial Planning, recently predicted that there will be "less of a need for commissions with a trend toward fee-based planning ... and specialization."

But in the end, one shouldn't get hung up on the issue of compensation, says Charles G. Hughes Jr., president of the Institute of Certified Financial Planners. "What is going unnoticed is a potentially more serious problem {of} ... adviser incompetence." The real issue, he concludes, is "whether the client knows and trusts the adviser."