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Is your financial advisor overcharging you? Here are ways to protect yourself

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Some financial advisors may be overbilling for their services. Fortunately, there are steps a client can take to protect themselves.

A recent Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of advisors’ fees found several errors that resulted in clients overpaying.

In some instances, advisors charged fees that differed from their contractual rate, double-billed clients or assessed fees based on an incorrect account value, according to the SEC alert, published Nov. 10.

Further, the agency found some advisors furnished false or misleading fee disclosures to investors. Sometimes they didn’t have disclosures at all.

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Getting overcharged or receiving inaccurate fee information is especially harmful to financial advisors’ clients “because every dollar an investor pays in fees and expenses is a dollar not invested for the investor’s benefit,” according to the SEC.

This isn’t to say all, or even most, advisors make fee errors. (The SEC alert is based on data from examinations of 130 advisory firms.) And the errors might not be fraudulent; they may merely be accidental.

“There’s intentional fraud and there are mistakes,” said Andrew Stoltmann, a Chicago-based attorney who represents consumers in fraud cases. “Both can be rectified by verifying [account] statements, and not just taking the word of the advisor.”

Account statements

Clients should, at minimum, consult their annual statements from financial advisors. Make sure the charges and fees listed on the statement match those initially quoted by the advisor, Stoltmann said.

It’s a good idea to check more regular statements, whether monthly or quarterly, too, he said.

This may sound simple — but many clients don’t take these precautions, Stoltmann said.

Assessing a financial statement isn’t always easy, though. Financial advisors have many different fee structures, depending on the firm, some more complicated than others.

For example, the traditional way advisors bill is a flat percentage (perhaps 1%) of a client’s investment account value. (An advisor managing $1 million for a client would receive $10,000 a year.) Advisors often take fees directly from the client’s account; the client doesn’t write a check.

However, advisors may use other, more-involved methods, like “tiered” or “breakpoint” billing, whereby advisors charge different fees at various client asset levels.

The numbers may be hard for average investors to verify on financial statements. Locating the right information may not be easy since account statements can sometimes run 30 pages long, Stoltmann said.

“It’s hard to say there’s an easy, blanket solution,” said Dylan Bruce, financial services counsel at the Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group. “Because from firm to firm, there are a lot of differences.”

Challenge your advisor

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To circumvent a hard-to-decipher account statement, the best starting point is to ask your advisor for a detailed explanation of the fees on your account statement, at least once a year, he added.

“If in that process you’re not getting the full [rundown] about what you’re being charged, why you’re being charged it and what the effect on the account might be long-term and short-term — and if [the advisor] is not willing to have that discussion with you in enough detail to make you feel comfortable and fully informed — perhaps that’s a red flag about your investment advisor,” Bruce said.

Similarly, clients can also request a detailed fee breakdown in letter or spreadsheet form directly from the investment advisor, Stoltmann said.

“That’s a legitimate request,” Stoltmann said. “If they don’t follow it, that’s a huge issue.”

There are other avenues investors can take, too.

Investors may seek out advisors with less complex fee structures, for example.

Some firms have adopted hourly rates and monthly subscriptions for their services, giving more certainty over the dollars involved. (Of course, this may not work well for all investors, especially those who want their advisor to retain management of their investments.)

Investors may also request that advisors charge them directly for their services, instead of pulling fees from their account behind the scenes. It may not prevent advisors from charging incorrect fees, of course — but it may make investors more aware of and savvy about how much they’re paying.  

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