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Which financial planner designations are meaningful?

October 7, 2011: 5:05 AM ET

We are looking at acquiring the services of a certified financial planner. But with all the designations, what else is relevant? Are some designations just a simple "correspondence course" or do some have substance to them? I thought a CWS (Certified Wealth Strategist) and/or CWA (Certified Wealthcare Analyst) would make sense for developing my financial plan now that I am 5-7 years from potential retirement, but after spending time on the internet investigating these designations I am a bit overwhelmed and confused as to what ones make sense. -- D.P.

The alphabet soup of financial designations certainly is confusing. A financial adviser could spend a career earning certifications but be a lousy practitioner, so don't allow yourself to be overly impressed with a business card that reads like the bottom line of an optometrist's eye chart. Certifications offer no guarantee that a financial adviser will serve you well, even though they often — but not always — indicate the adviser has studied coursework and passed an exam.

The CFP (Certified Financial Planner) is the most common credential for financial professionals who develop financial plans for your retirement. Comprehensive financial planning involves not only budgeting analysis and investments, but also insurance, tax and estate planning. A CFP has studied all these fields, passed an extremely rigorous exam, and been practicing at least three years.

You've asked about two relatively new designations that don't approach the CFP's credibility and standards.

The Certified Wealth Strategist (CWS) program, offered by the private, for-profit educational company Cannon Financial Institute since 2005, includes 26 weeks of online study and exams as well as four days of classroom study focusing on client service in investment, insurance, tax and estate planning issues. About 2,500 financial advisers hold a CWS, according to Cannon.

"What CWS gives you is the practice management system of how to run a wealth advisory business," says Cannon's CEO, J. Phil Buchanan, who holds both the CWS and CFP designations. "It's all of the things that go into how you serve your client base, how you work to ensure changes in their financial life are reflected in planning and wealth management."

The Certified Wealthcare Analyst (CWA) designation, just seven years old, is held by only 43 financial advisers, according to Wealthcare Capital Management, which created the program.

Wealthcare's CEO, David Loeper, says his program is highly skeptical of traditional long-term financial planning, and emphasizes a flexible approach that tries to accommodate consumer desires and "make the most of each client's life." But he readily concedes the CWA designation is not a reason to hire an adviser. "I wouldn't hire anyone because of a designation. That would be silly," says Loeper. "The main thing you want is someone you can trust."

A good rule of thumb for deciding the value of a particular designation is to see how much effort goes into earning it. A Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA), for example, requires about 900 hours of study on average and four years of experience. That's a lot more valuable than a credential that takes a weekend of study and an open-book test.

Be sure to interview any planner and check references before entrusting him or her with your financial future. For further advice on how to find an appropriate financial adviser, check out this recent story from MONEY.

— Allan Chernoff

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