What Is an Independent Financial Advisor?

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Updated on Friday, October 29, 2021

An independent financial advisor is one who’s unbound from larger financial institutions. As such, they can work independently or as part of an investment advisory firm. The potential benefit of working with an independent financial advisor is that they may be less likely to promote particular products or services, which could lead to fewer conflicts of interest.

When entering into a relationship with an advisor, it’s important to know how they’re compensated and which companies they work with, as some advisors receive commissions or other incentives to promote certain products or services. Even if an advisor is independent, you should still evaluate them on an individual basis.

Independent financial advisors vs. nonindependent financial advisors

Here are some of the key differences between independent and nonindependent financial advisors:

 Independent advisorsNonindependent advisors
OwnershipOften self-employed or partnered with other independent advisorsEmployed by large investment or brokerage firms
OfferingsAble to provide broad services unrelated to a specific companySometimes tied to proprietary financial products
ResourcesMay have some limitations relative to investment and brokerage firmsAble to maximize research and analysis capabilities of large companies
Fee structuresOften (but not always) fee-only with no commissionsOften (but not always) fee-based with commissions
CustodianshipAssets generally held with a third-party entityAssets generally held with advisor’s employer

As you can see from the table above, there are upsides to working with both independent and nonindependent advisors — as well as downsides — which we’ll cover in more depth below.

How are financial advisors independent?

The differences between financial advisors who are considered independent and those who aren’t can be subtle. An important distinction is that independent advisors normally work for themselves or as part of a small independent advisory firm, while nonindependent advisors generally don’t. Because independent advisors don’t operate as part of a larger financial institution, they aren’t tied to the products of a specific brokerage or investment firm.

“Where an advisor who works for a specific firm may be required to use that firm’s proprietary investment products, insurance products and technology, an independent advisor has more freedom in selecting investments and products from the broader universe of providers,” explains Jeffrey McDermott, a Florida-based certified financial planner (CFP) and founder of Create Wealth Financial Planning, a fee-only financial planning firm.

An advisor’s fee structure is another way to help determine whether an advisor is truly independent or not. Investment advisors who are fee-only are paid directly by their clients and don’t earn commissions for selling certain products. But if an advisor acts as a representative for a broker-dealer or as an insurance agent, earning commissions for selling certain products, that may be a tipoff that they’re not independent.

“What differentiates independent from nonindependent advisory firms are ties to a bank, broker-dealer, mutual fund company or insurance company who may incentivize sales of certain investment or insurance products,” said David Huebner, the founder of Huebner Financial Planning in North Dakota. “Advisors at these types of companies are usually told what they can and cannot sell or invest client funds into.”

Before entering into an agreement with a financial advisor, be sure to determine whether there are incentives that may lead them to recommend investment strategies or financial products that may not be in your best interest.

Pros and cons of independent financial advisors

Pros

  • Potentially fewer conflicts of interest: Independent financial advisors often have fewer incentives to sell certain financial products to their clients. This is because they’re not working for a larger brokerage or investment firm that may have products or services within other divisions that they want to offer to clients.
  • Freedom to choose which assets they think are best: Independent financial advisors aren’t tied to a particular company’s limitations on how they can invest, so they have the ability to explore more strategies with funds from a variety of brokerages.
  • Third-party custodians hold client assets: Independent advisors typically designate a third-party custodian to hold client assets, unlike advisors who may have their clients’ assets held at their own firm — which may be considered another conflict of interest.

Cons

  • Other advisors may have more resources: Independent financial advisors might not have the same depth of research, tools and other resources as an advisor who works for a large brokerage firm or a company that’s part of a larger financial services behemoth.
  • No access to proprietary financial products: Nonindependent financial advisors may have access to proprietary financial products that aren’t publicly available, such as mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and bonds. An advisor with a large firm could offer access to those types of funds that are otherwise inaccessible to the general public.

Are independent financial advisors unbiased?

Every financial advisor has their own preferences when it comes to investments. Those preferences aren’t necessarily biases, but they do inform how the advisor guides their clients.

Financial advisors who are truly independent usually offer financial planning and investment management services that aren’t affected by incentives set by an employer or their fee structures. But even those financial advisors may have their own priorities and preferences when it comes to investing.

When looking for a financial advisor, what’s important is to be sure to find an advisor whose outlook mirrors your own and who is fully transparent.

How to find an independent financial advisor

Choosing the right financial advisor can sometimes be a challenge, especially if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. MagnifyMoney has resources to help you find a financial advisor, and you can also check out industry search tools. NAPFA, for instance, offers a tool to help you find a fee-only financial advisor.

During preliminary interviews with potential advisors, you can ask how they are compensated and whether they may have any potential conflicts of interest to assess their independence. You can also check a firm’s Form ADV filed with the SEC to see who owns the firm — this can reveal if an advisor is part of a larger organization.

Of course, there are plenty of factors to consider when choosing a financial advisor beyond just whether or not they are independent. You’ll also want to look for someone who has experience serving clients with situations similar to yours, who offers the services you need and who you feel like you can trust to help you build your financial future.

The “Find a Financial Advisor” links contained in this article will direct you to webpages devoted to MagnifyMoney Advisor (“MMA”). After completing a brief questionnaire, you will be matched with certain financial advisers who participate in MMA’s referral program, which may or may not include the investment advisers discussed.