Welcome back to the 256th episode of the Financial Advisor Success Podcast!
State-Registered Investment Advisers (RIAs) are subject to numerous regulations in the state(s) where they do business, which, though they vary from state to state, generally have the goal of protecting investors from fraudulent sales practices. These rules require RIAs to file documents (such as Form ADV) with the state, maintain books and records, provide disclosures to clients, and act in the clients’ best interests whenever providing financial advice. Additionally, many (but not all) states set minimum financial requirements – in the form of minimum net capital and/or surety bond requirements – that RIA firms must maintain in order to become (and remain) licensed, to protect consumers from both the risk of fraud, and simply the consequences of negligent or inaccurate advice that could cause them harm. Because of the many differences between each state’s requirements, though, it’s important for RIA owners (especially the founders of new firms) to know their state’s particular rules and how to comply with them.
In this post, Kitces Senior Financial Planning Nerd Ben Henry-Moreland discusses how owners of state-registered RIAs can better understand their minimum net capital and surety bond requirements, and what protection they do (and don’t) provide for both clients and financial advisors themselves.
In states that set minimum net capital requirements, an RIA must hold a certain level of assets over its liabilities. This amount varies not only from state to state, but also often within states, depending on whether the RIA holds custody of client assets and/or has discretionary trading authority over client funds. In practice, states most commonly require RIAs to hold $35,000 of net capital if they have custody, $10,000 if they have discretionary trading authority (but not custody), and to have at least a $0 (i.e., positive and not-negative) net worth if they are an advice-only firm (no custody or discretion), which must be satisfied by holding cash or other marketable (i.e., liquid) investment assets.
In lieu of maintaining a certain amount of capital, though, some states permit RIAs to cover some or all of their net capital requirements with a surety bond instead. State rules for surety bonds can also vary widely, with some states requiring RIAs to hold a surety bond, others allowing firms to purchase a surety bond in lieu of maintaining the state’s net capital requirements, and some choosing not to sanction the use of surety bonds whatsoever. In states that do allow (or require) surety bonds, RIA owners need to know how surety bonds function, what the potential risks of having a surety bond may be, how their state’s surety bond and net capital bond requirements interact (and how to decide whether or not to buy a surety bond if they have a choice), and how to find the best surety bond provider to meet their needs. Though ultimately, surety bonds are appealing relative to net capital requirements because of their significantly lower cost – typically about 1% of the face amount, which means paying $100/year for a $10,000 surety bond.
While net capital and surety bond requirements provide some level of financial protection to RIA clients, that protection is minimal compared to what many clients may actually stake on their advisors’ recommendations. In practice, a legal claim by a dissatisfied client could result in a liability for the RIA that is many times greater than the state’s minimum financial requirements. Accordingly, RIA owners can protect themselves with additional layers of coverage (such as Errors & Omissions insurance) above the minimum amounts that may be required by the states in which they operate. Especially since a surety bond provider has the right to collect any client claims from the advisor, which means it does help ensure a client is made whole – similar to E&O insurance – but doesn’t actually protect the advisor’s own assets the way E&O coverage does!
The key point, though, is simply that because financial advisors are expected to give good advice, and can be held financially liable for advice that results in undesired financial outcomes for their clients, they must have the financial wherewithal available to cover any liabilities resulting from a client’s legal claims. State minimum financial requirements are one of the few ways to ensure that RIAs have assets available (or a surety bond in lieu of assets, where permitted) so clients can be compensated for any damages. But part of being a trusted professional is taking full accountability for the consequences of professional advice… which means it’s essential for the RIA to know not just how much coverage they need to secure to meet their state’s requirements (and in what form), but also how much additional coverage they may need to fully protect themselves (and their clients)!
Enjoy the current installment of “Weekend Reading For Financial Planners” – this week’s edition kicks off with the news that CFP Board is increasing its efforts to enforce its requirement for CFP certificants to report information about their own misconduct or ethical violations… by increasing the sanction for failure to report the information from a private to a public censure. Notably, however, CFP Board will not (yet?) be imposing a fine or “administrative fee” on certificants for failure to report, as was proposed earlier this year. But it is reportedly still evaluating the measure, which would have broad implications, since imposing a fine positions the CFP Board as more of a regulator, and not “just” a standards-setting nonprofit organization?
Also in industry news this week:
- The House Financial Services Committee approved a bill that would end the practice of mandatory arbitration clauses in brokerage and advisory client agreements, but the bill faces stiff opposition from the financial industry and Republican lawmakers (that makes its passage unlikely at this point)
- FINRA released an overhaul of its Continuing Education requirements, increasing the frequency of its Regulatory Element requirement from once every three years to once per year, and creating a new program enabling individuals who temporarily terminate their registration to reinstate their qualifications within 5 years by completing CE requirements
From there, we have several articles on (the hidden costs of) investing, including:
- How “free” investment services often obscure hidden costs, as highlighted by the recent class-action lawsuit against Schwab’s Intelligent Portfolio recommendation of high allocations to its proprietary (and profitable) cash sweep account
- Why the practice of Payment-For-Order-Flow remains controversial and highly scrutinized by regulators, even when (as brokerage firms argue) it may actually result in better trade pricing for retail investors
- How mutual funds can (and sometimes do) choose benchmarks that make their own performance look better by comparison, and even switch benchmarks to boost their relative historical returns after the fact, potentially misleading investors yet without violating any existing securities regulations
We also have a number of articles on how advisors can approach the upcoming holiday season:
- A rundown of the types of gifts different advisors give to clients, from custom-made chocolate to donations to a client’s favorite cause
- Why giving experiences rather than “stuff” is more likely to provide a happiness boost to the client who receives the gift
- How advisors can write an effective and engaging holiday letter to clients
We wrap up with three final articles, all about the wide range of experiences Americans from different backgrounds have with money and the financial industry:
- How culture and identity can impact an individual’s attitudes and behaviors toward money
- A survey showing the disparate experiences individuals of different races have with the financial services industry
- A study showing how the racial wealth gap could expand in the future, and potential ways advisors can improve financial outcomes for historically underserved groups
Enjoy the ‘light’ reading!
Financial advisors who offer comprehensive planning services often attract prospective clients in a variety of ways – through their websites, with content creation, and by referral, to name a few. In these cases, prospects are generally aware of the types of services the advisor offers. However, for an advisor who buys a book of business from a life insurance agency, clients who have had policies sold to them may not be looking to work with an advisor on an ongoing basis, let alone be aware of comprehensive financial planning services at all.
In our 73rd episode of Kitces & Carl, Michael Kitces and client communication expert Carl Richards discuss how financial advisors who take over a book of business from a life insurance firm (or other product-sales-based business) can work with clients who may only be familiar with advisors working on commission, primarily focused on product sales.
Advisors who are concerned that such clients may consider a pitch for comprehensive planning as too ‘salesy’ can approach the situation by not pitching planning services right away. Instead, they can help shift their new clients’ mindset by simply helping the client assess whether the product they were originally sold is still appropriate for their situation. And by asking good questions and listening to the client, refraining from doing most of the talking themselves, advisors can engage in conversations that not only generate client trust but also provide valuable information about the client’s personal situation. Which helps advisors gradually introduce the concept of service (that will truly benefit the client) beyond sales, without coming across as too ‘salesy’.
Additionally, taking the time to discover a client’s potential pain points in their financial lives (e.g., worrying about running out of money in retirement or supporting a child’s education), can help the advisor demonstrate how they can add value by showing clients how to resolve those pain points, either in meetings with the client or through other resources provided by the advisor (e.g., emails, blog posts, or other marketing channels). While advisors might not get an immediate return from these efforts, they still ensure that clients are aware of how a comprehensive planning relationship can be helpful when they become ready to engage in one.
Ultimately, the key point is that when working with new clients who are only familiar with previous advisors focused on product-based sales, financial advisors can help shift clients’ mindsets about their role by generating trust and demonstrating to the client that they have their best interests at heart. Advisors can accomplish this by asking the right questions, listening closely, and identifying how their services can help solve the client’s unique and specific pain points. Importantly, because such clients may not be seeking a comprehensive relationship at first (at least initially), advisors should be prepared to play the ‘long game’ of consistently demonstrating their value!
According to the latest 2021 Genworth Cost of Care study, a private room in a nursing home costs almost $300/day, or nearly $9,000 per month. Fortunately, individuals in need of such institutional health care, who don’t have the means to pay for such care themselves, can generally rely on Medicaid to cover at least most of those long-term institutional care costs. However, as a means-tested program operated as a Federal-state partnership, Medicaid places extremely low limits not just on an individual’s income, but also on their “Countable Assets” that they are entitled to keep before they can qualify for coverage. Accordingly, those who will eventually rely on Medicaid to cover their cost of care must ‘spend down’ their own income and assets first… which can have a significant impact on the individual’s (and their families’) standard of living. Which raises the question of what planning can be done to help protect at least the other members of the family in situations where a Medicaid spend-down must occur.
While the limits on Countable Assets (including most of an individual’s assets such as cash, investments, bank accounts, and real estate) vary by state, the most commonly observed is a mere $2,000 in 2021. However, to allow a healthy spouse (with an ill partner applying for Medicaid) to maintain at least a minimal level of the couple’s assets and income to live on, the Medicaid rules include standards that set the amount of income and assets that can be maintained from the couple’s assets (and the institutionalized individual’s income) to maintain the healthy spouse’s standard of living without an obligation to spend them down for the ill spouse’s care.
To prevent couples from simply trying to ‘impoverish’ themselves to qualify for Medicaid, though, Medicaid rules include a five-year “Look-Back Period” (2½ years for California), which prevents recipients from simply giving away assets to (non-spouse) family members to meet Medicaid’s asset limits. Notably, though, when it comes to spousal income, the treatment is different, with the healthy spouse’s income generally being left out of the eligibility calculation altogether.
As a result, one strategy for married couples to preserve assets in light of the Look-Back Period for asset transfers, but the exclusion of the healthy spouse’s income, is to purchase a “Medicaid Annuity”. Essentially, assets in excess of the Countable Asset limit are used to purchase a Medicaid Annuity (such that the couple’s assets are within their allowed Countable Asset limit); then, annuity payments are made payable only to the healthy spouse. In doing so, the Countable Assets that would have otherwise been required to have been spent down to pay for the care of the institutionalized spouse are removed – but not as a gift, avoiding a look-back penalty period – and instead become income of the healthy spouse (which are effectively ignored for purposes of Medicaid eligibility).
Notably, though, not all states currently permit the use of Medicaid Annuities. And in states that do, to be Medicaid-compliant, the Medicaid Annuity must name the State (in those states that permit their use) as the remainder beneficiary for no less than the amount of Medicaid benefits it paid on behalf of the institutionalized individual. Which doesn’t limit the healthy spouse’s ability to leverage the Medicaid annuity for their own standard of living… but does mean that at least if both spouses do not survive the Medicaid annuity payout period, the State can recover Medicaid benefits it paid before those assets are bequeathed to subsequent heirs.
Ultimately, the key point is that for seniors or chronically disabled individuals who may need Medicaid benefits for their long-term care but fear the impact that spending down assets will have on their healthy spouse’s own standard of living, the Medicaid Annuity is a useful tool (at least in the states that permit them) to help the couple preserve assets by converting them into an annuity income stream. Which can be a valuable option to consider, especially in light of the last-minute ‘crisis’ nature that is often characteristic of Medicaid planning, when it’s too late to simply gift assets to family members by the time it’s necessary!
Welcome back to the 255th episode of the Financial Advisor Success Podcast!
My guest on today's podcast is Cody Garrett. Cody is the founder of Measure Twice Financial, an independent RIA based in Houston, Texas, who has managed to quickly grow to nearly $150,000/year in annualized financial planning fees in barely more than 6 months since launching.
What's unique about Cody, though, is his “Advice-Only” approach to financial planning, where clients don’t have the obligation, expectation, or even the option to have their investment managed by Cody’s firm… which has allowed him to quickly attract a waiting list of clients who may be Do-It-Yourselfers when it comes to implementation but are not Learn-It-Yourselfers and are happy to pay Cody for more personalized education.
In this episode, we talk in depth about how Cody first came to the Advice-Only model after talking to a frustrated prospect who had interviewed 10 fee-only advisors looking for someone who would just charge him for financial advice and couldn’t find anyone who would do the plan without an expectation of also managing his money, how Cody has managed to find a niche with a certain segment of Do-It-Yourself consumers who are quite ready and willing to pay financial planning fees for advice and education, and how Cody has been able to quickly generate a steady pipeline of new clients by immersing himself into Facebook Do-It-Yourself FIRE communities of extreme early retirees.
We also talk about what Cody actually does in his financial planning process for DIY clients, the 3-month 3-meeting process for which he charges a $6,400 planning fee, why Cody eschews using traditional financial planning software in order to earn his planning fees, and the 25-plus ‘one-pagers’ that Cody provides as his educational financial planning deliverables to clients.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Cody shares how building an Advice-Only model has allowed him to build the ideal practice for his own lifestyle, the way he’s quickly systematized his process to the point that he doesn’t need to work any more than 10 hours per week to generate nearly $150,000/year in financial planning fees, how his lean approach to building his practice with high-value clients means he’s able to take home more than 90% of his gross revenue after all business expenses, and what he’s looking to do with the rest of his time in giving back to the advisor and consumer communities he’s involved with now that he’s been able to achieve his lifestyle goals.
So whether you are interested in learning how Cody provides advice-only services to DIY investors, how he gains referrals by "giving it all away", or why he charges all of his clients the same amount, then we hope you enjoy this episode of the Financial Advisor Success podcast, with Cody Garrett.