Where can you turn if a financial planner took your money and did you wrong?
In this largely unregulated industry, there is no formal body that sets the rules and disciplines the rule breakers. Yet a self-serving plannner can burn you just as badly as a self-serving broker, as a growing number of lawsuits attests.
Here's a sampling of typical claims against planners, according to The Stanger Register:
Misrepresenting the tax benefits and investment outlook for a limited partnership.
Failing to tell the truth about how large a fee the planner was earning.
Presenting rosy tax-loss and cash-flow projections for partnership investments.
Selling numismatic coins at hugely inflated values.
You can't sue a planner just because an investment went sour. It's not crooked to be mistaken, thoughtless or dumb.
To pursue a claim, you need some evidence that the planner misrepresented the risk, falsified the investment, flew in the face of your expressed investment goals, bought investments without your permission, bought wholly unsuitable investments, or left you further out on a limb than your personal assets could support.
And, of course, there are always the outright frauds: nonexistent investments, Ponzi schemes and misrepresentations of every sort.
If you think you have grounds for suing your planner, start by trying to work out a settlement personally -- either with the planner or with his firm. A letter from your lawyer often helps.
If you're stonewalled, your next step depends on the exact nature of his business. If he's basically a stockbroker, your brokerage agreement may require that all disputes be taken to securities-industry arbitration panels.
Even without an agreement, you might prefer arbitration if the planner will consent. It's cheaper, easier and quicker than going to court. Consider using the New York-based American Arbitration Association, which hears cases throughout the country.
Always get in touch with your state securities commission (or insurance commission if the planner is an insurance agent), says Lewis Brothers, director of the Virginia securities division. Virginia was the first state to require most financial planners to register as investment advisers.
"The state is interested in the prevention of fraud and misrepresentation, and the adviser might do it again," Brothers said.
As a matter of course, keep good records of all your dealings with a financial planner, right from the first hello:
At the start of the relationship, give your planner a letter specifically outlining your income, assets, ability to risk principal and tolerance for chancy investments. If he or she tells you that an investment is safe or low risk, ask for a letter confirming that diagnosis. This is the kind of "paper trail" that supports a winning lawsuit.
"Get recommendations in writing," warns Hubert Harris of the International Association for Financial Planning (IAFP). And keep notes of your conversations. Recollections can differ or change over time. In a confrontation, you might find that the planner kept his own notes, which a court or arbitration board might consider more credible that your memory. Some customers (and planners) record telephone conversations after getting the other's permission.
If your planner sends you a letter that differs from your recollection, call him and straighten out the misunderstanding. Follow up with a letter stating the course you expect him to take. You can also complain to the planner's professional association, such as the IAFP in Atlanta, or the school that granted the degree, such as the American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., or the International Board of Standards and Practices in Englewood, Colo., which investigates complaints against planners holding the Certified Financial Planner degree.
All the bodies can do is yank an offender's professional degree or membership -- hardly an onerous penalty from a consumer's point of view.
"We can't act as a collection agent for the consumer and reimburse him for the money lost," says Larry Hayden, president of the IBSP. But complain anyway. The industry is trying to clean up its act and needs all the information you can give.