For anyone with surplus cash -- or those who wish they had some -- a financial planner sounds like the ideal solution: Simply turn over your money and watch it multiply.

Over the last five years, a lot of people have done just that. An estimated 200,000 people -- working independently, at banks, brokerage or accounting firms or insurance agencies -- call themselves financial planners, directing the fortunes of households with incomes of $40,000 and up. Among the most frequent clients: 30- to 40-year-olds trying to save more and middle-agers planning retirement.

"People are a little confused about what to do with the multiplicity of new products -- money market accounts, IRAs, NOW accounts, discount brokerages, savings and loans competing with non-banks -- and they're looking for information as to where to put their money," says John Barnes, a California financial planner and author of Who to Trust With Your Money. "Investors have the opportunity to invest in so many things these days, they're getting confused."

Financial planners are eager to help investors out of their confusion. But finding the right adviser and profiting from the advice can be a complex task.

For a planner to do a good job, the proper groundwork must be laid. For those whose financial records are in disarray or scattered, this process can make doing your taxes seem as simple as sending in a check. The planner needs copies of tax returns for the past several years, as well as copies of contracts, wills, trust agreements, real estate data, lists of assets and other financial documents.

Choosing a planner is difficult because the field is essentially unregulated, which means that anyone can set themselves up in the business without necessarily having the qualifications. The Council of Better Business Bureaus estimates that unscrupulous planners have cheated consumers out of $90 million over the past three years.

Finally, clients part with a fair amount of cash up front, depending on the complexity of their assets and the type of plan chosen. The first-year fee for a personalized plan can range from $300 to 10 times that much -- money the plan must earn back for the investor before he even begins to show a profit on the relationship.

Many investors -- particularly those at the lower end of the financial spectrum -- are unsure if they even need a planner. Most planners recommend you earn a minimum of $25,000 a year, although planner Stanley J. Cohen of the New York brokerage of Moseley, Hallgarten says that's way too low.

Someone earning $25,000, Cohen says, should take advantage of his company's retirement planning, get an IRA, and, if he or she is married and has young kids, should buy the cheapest possible term life insurance. Beyond that level, "a planner can't do anything to justify charging a fee."

For those who either earn more or have a lump sum to invest, perhaps the best way to decide if a consultant is needed is by talking with planners recommended by friends and coworkers. Another method: Schedule a (usually free) exploratory consultation with one of the planners in your area. This is where the International Association for Financial Planning in Atlanta or the Institute of Certified Financial Planners in Denver can help.

"Because there are so many financial planners in existence, there are a lot of questions on behalf of the public on how to distinguish them," says IAFP spokeswoman Maureen Ordman. "People say, 'I know where to turn when my physical health is no good, but where do I turn when my fiscal health is no good?'fs,2 "

As an aid to consumers' fiscal health, the 24,000-member IAFP is developing a registry of planners who have been practicing for three years, have passed a comprehensive examination and hold financial planning credentials. A total of 570 planners are now listed; names of those in a specific area are available on request from the IAFP.

The 18,000-member Denver institute takes a similar approach. The College for Financial Planning, also in Denver, confers the Certified Financial Planner designation, which is considered one of the best credentials in the industry. A list of certified planners for a particular area is available from the institute.

"One protection you have is certification," says Cohen, who is both certified and a former member of the Denver institute's board. "That's not a guarantee, but it's strong evidence that the guy is a real financial planner."

Another decision for investors: whether to go with an independent planner or a larger firm, such as a brokerage chain. While the independents have generally tended to concentrate on wealthier clients and larger companies on the mass-market, there are no rigid distinctions.

"I find that people feel if they go to a brokerage firm the focus might be on the investment first and the planning second," says Alexandra Armstrong, IAFP president and head of the Washington planning firm that bears her name. "That might be why you would choose an independent. And a smaller planner can more easily get involved in a special situation that might be a real buying opportunity."

Richard Perkins, financial planning coordinator at E.F. Hutton's International Square office, argues that the issue is who's better informed.

"With the tax laws changing as rapidly as they are, it's necessary to be up to speed," he says. "I feel like I've got resources that are perhaps not available at some of the smaller independent firms. I've also got enough range of product that I can address any financial needs that come up, without having to emphasize a particular product."

Financial planners can be further separated into those who charge only a fee, those who charge a fee plus commission and those who charge only a commission. Obviously, there are possible problems with the fee side, which can leave implementation up to the investor and can give the planner the inclination to sell a more costly plan, and the commission-only group, which has the potential for plumping only those products that will earn them big dollars. Most planners are fee-plus-commission.

Most importantly, warns Cohen, the investor should "never deal with someone who's not a generalist. Avoid someone who has an ax to grind for one particular investment. The guy who's going to steer you wrong is a tax shelter or insurance salesman pretending to be a complete financial planner."

At its most basic level, a plan is a computer-generated printout developed from information about the investor's financial status. It is this type of plan that has come in for the heaviest criticism as both unhelpful and unnecessary, especially after January's Consumer Reports evaluated plans from seven major financial services firms.

The magazine's conclusion: "None of the mass-marketed plans available for less than $500 represented a good value." Agrees Cohen: "A $75 plan is not a plan, and these people would do better to read a survey of the subject than some canned data."

The difference between these plans and the more personalized kind, says Armstrong, "is similar to the difference between a will that you get through the mail and one a lawyer draws up for you . . . The shorter form can still be good for some people, particularly people starting out."

At the more complex -- and expensive -- level, most financial planners work with computer-assisted plans, in which the adviser talks extensively with the client.

Among likely attitudinal questions: Do you intend to stay with your job? Is your spouse going to continue to work? What is a satisfactory return on your investments? Do you like your home, or would you be happier in a bigger or smaller home? What's the best investment you ever made? The worst? Do you have anyone who may become dependent on you in the future?

The client's financial figures are then run through the computer, and the planner analyzes each facet of the economic portrait that emerges. The client will end up with a series of recommendations. If he agrees with the advice, most planners can then help implement it, which is where the commission comes in.

"There's nothing magic about a financial plan itself," says Hutton's Perkins. "It's a piece of paper. The magic comes with someone who can help you implement it, and who can tell you how to make your money work for you."

Selection of a planner should be made with the expectation of a long-term relationship. Still, if you think your money isn't doing as well as it should be, you'll want to reevaluate after the first year.

"It takes that long to find out what the planner is doing, and to build up a trust," says Armstrong. By the time of your first annual review, she says, you should expect to see some improvement.

"You have to exceed savings and loan interest. Otherwise, you might as well keep it in the bank, where you have the added security of insurance," adds author Barnes. "If you're going to assume a businessman's risk, then 15 to 20 percent a year is a reasonable expectation."

With savings and loans currently paying 5 1/2 percent and money market funds only a little more, that rate of return might look good to most investors, especially if it involves freedom from worry. All the more reason, then, to carefully decide if you want a planner, and if so, which one.

"It isn't practical to think you can just go to another guy if this doesn't work out," says Cohen. "With my clients, I always assume we're stuck with each other for life."