Advisor Designations and What They Mean

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When looking for a financial advisor, you’ve probably noticed the “alphabet soup” of letter combinations that can follow an advisor’s name. There are over 100 different financial advisor certifications, so it can be confusing to determine what these letters mean, and which advisor might be best for you based on these qualifications. So, what is a CFA®? And what’s the difference between a CFP® and a CFA®? Here, we break down some of the most common financial advisor designations and what they mean for you.

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The Different Types Of Financial Advisor Designations

CFP® - Certified Financial Planner

A Certified Financial Planner certification or CFP® mark is one of the most common financial certifications and indicates that the financial planner has significant expertise surrounding personal financial planning, portfolio management, budgeting, estate planning, and taxes.

For a CFP® professional to receive the designation, they must complete an extensive education program followed by a meticulous exam. Every CFP® professional also has three years of relevant experience and must complete 30 hours of continuing education every two years. In total, this equals over 1,000 hours of financial planning coursework and exams. There is also an ethical component to the certification process, as each CFP® professional must meet ethical fitness standards and agree to always put the client's needs first.

Although a CFP® professional wears many hats, these financial planners are typically found working with individual investors to build a financial plan.

CFA® - Chartered Financial Analyst®

The Chartered Financial Analyst® or CFA® designation is an internationally recognized certification issued by the CFA Institute. It is earned by completing a self-study program and three 6-hour exams increasing in difficulty over several years. These studies typically take about 700-950 hours to complete, and then a CFA® charterholder must complete four years of relevant work experience.

A CFA® charterholder is educated and tested on a wide array of topics including investments, statistics, and statistical analysis, along with economics, financial modeling, and corporate finance. A CFA® charterholder must also follow all prescribed ethical guidelines.

Someone with this designation often works in the corporate investing field and provides a high level of investment counsel, working with clients on investment and financial analysis.

CIMA® - Certified Investment Management Analyst®

The Certified Investment Management Analyst® or CIMA® certification indicates an advisor's skills in evaluating investment managers and others who provide financial products and services. A CIMA® professional can serve clients by helping to determine what products and investments are in their best interest.

After about nine months, 250 hours of study, and two passing exams at a top 20 business school, an individual must then complete three years of industry experience before the CIMA® certification is earned. Some parts of these studies include a deep dive into statistics and portfolio theory for both individuals and institutions. Forty hours of continuing education must be completed every two years as well.

Those with a CIMA® designation have deep knowledge and interest surrounding investments, portfolio management, behavioral finance, and economics. These types of financial professionals focus on asset allocation and investment consulting. A CIMA® professional frequently works with larger financial consulting firms, where they have extensive interaction with clients and manage large accounts. A CIMA® professional typically advises high net worth companies or individuals, assessing risk and even making decisions for entire corporations or funds.

CPA - Certified Public Accountant / PFS - Personal Financial Specialist

Unlike the preceding certifications, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is more likely to work as an auditor or tax professional than a financial planner, although some do still work in financial advisory positions.

A CPA must stay current on accounting rules and regulations for both individual and corporate taxes. There are many underlying specialties in the CPA field, such as financial planning and the Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) credential.

A PFS holder is a CPA with additional expertise in all aspects of financial and wealth management like estate planning, investing, insurance, and personal financial planning. To earn the PFS credential, one must complete a separate exam and have two years of financial planning experience.

ChFC® - Chartered Financial Consultant®

The Chartered Financial Consultant® or ChFC® certification is similar to the CFP® certification but doesn’t require completing a board exam. The ChFC® certification focuses on all aspects of financial planning like investments, tax, estate planning, and insurance.

To acquire this certification, one must pass an education program through the American College and have three years of full-time business experience. A ChFC® professional must also complete 30 hours of continuing education every two years.

Typically, a ChFC® professional works on comprehensive financial planning and consulting like employee benefits planning, asset protection, and tax planning – including estate tax, transfer tax, and gift tax.

CDFA® - Certified Divorce Financial Analyst®

A CDFA® professional is a financial planner, accountant, or someone with a legal background that goes through an intensive training program to be able to offer guidance regarding the financial issues of divorce.

With this designation, the person can provide guidance on all aspects of finances during a divorce such as the short- and long-term impacts of dividing property, pension and retirement plan issues, tax issues, and insurance needs. A CDFA® professional works hard to find innovative solutions throughout the often challenging and complex process of divorce.

AAMS® - Accredited Asset Management Specialist

An Accredited Asset Management Specialist (AAMS®) professional is a financial planner who has special credentials for asset management and has been certified after the completion of a self-study program and passing a rigorous exam. An AAMS® professional must also complete 16 hours of continuing education every two years.

Advisors with the AAMS® certification are highly educated on the asset management process, including asset allocation and selection, policy and relevant changes, risks and returns, and investment strategies and performance. An AAMS® professional can work with a wide variety of people, from individuals with retirement concerns to business owners with evolving investment considerations.

AIF® - Accredited Investment Fiduciary®

An Accredited Investment Fiduciary® (AIF®) designee earns this title by completing Fi360’s course on ethics and fiduciary services, passing an exam, and completing six hours of continued education every year. An AIF® designee is trained to act in their client’s best interests above all else. This credential is aimed at optimizing client service and creating trust between clients and the fiduciary.

CLU® - Chartered Life Underwriter®

A Chartered Life Underwriter® or CLU® specializes in life insurance and estate planning and shows a deep understanding of personal risk management and insurance planning issues.

To earn the CLU® designation, individuals must complete five core courses plus three elective courses and pass eight 100-question, two-hour examinations.

FPQP - Financial Paraplanner Qualified Professional

A FPQP professional has completed the Foundations in Financial Planning program to improve their expertise in financial planning and advising clients. A FPQP professional stays up to date with the latest industry knowledge and has a deep understanding of the financial planning process.

The FPQP certification is more of an entry-level certification that often serves as a foundation for the CFP® designation.

CRPC® - Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor

A CRPC® professional has completed a program focused only on retirement planning. Advisors with this certification are experts in helping clients prepare for retirement. To become a CRPC® professional, one must go through hours of training, pass an exam, and regularly participate in continuing education. In their courses, a CRPC® professional learns the ins and outs of pre-and post-retirement needs, asset management, estate planning and guidance, and the retirement planning process.

What Advisor Certifications Don’t Tell You

Although a financial advisor’s certifications can tell you a lot about their expertise, specialties, and interests, it’s important to learn what else sets an advisor apart from the rest. When meeting with an advisor, make sure to ask about their continuing education and what kinds of clients they work with most – they may serve a particular niche that is not reflected in their designations. It’s also important to understand how an advisor is compensated, and that is not going to be obvious through their designations (learn more about this in our previous post “The Importance of Working with a Fiduciary Advisor”). Check out our team and their credentials, or contact a Wealthspire office to start the first step in finding the right advisor for you.

Article By Crystal Cox, CFP®, CRPC,® Wealthspire Advisors

Wealthspire Advisors LLC is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary company of NFP Corp.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (CFP Board) owns the certification marks CFP®, Certified Financial Planner, and CFP® (with plaque design) in the United States, which it authorizes use of by individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

CFA® and Chartered Financial Analyst® are registered trademarks owned by CFA Institute.

Investments & Wealth Institute® (the Institute) is the owner of the certification marks “CIMA®” and “Certified Investment Management Analyst®.” Use of CIMA®, and/or Certified Investment Management Analyst® signifies that the user has successfully completed the Institute’s initial and ongoing credentialing requirements for investment management professionals.

PFS is a trademark of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

The ChFC® and CLU® marks are the property of The American College, which reserves sole rights to their use, and are used by permission.

Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® or CDFA® professionals must develop their theoretical and practical understanding and knowledge of the financial aspects of divorce by completing a comprehensive course of study approved by the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts. CDFA® professionals must have two years minimum experience in a financial or legal capacity prior to earning the right to use the CDFA® certification mark.

ACCREDITED ASSET MANAGEMENT SPECIALIST, AAMS®, Financial Paraplanner Qualified Professional, and FPQP®, CHARTERED RETIREMENT PLANNING COUNSELOR, and CRPC® are trademarks or registered service marks of the College for Financial Planning in the United States and/or other countries.

The Center for Fiduciary Studies owns the mark AIF®, which it awards to individuals who successfully complete initial and ongoing accreditation requirements.

This information should not be construed as a recommendation, offer to sell, or solicitation of an offer to buy a particular security or investment strategy. The commentary provided is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon for accounting, legal, or tax advice. While the information is deemed reliable, Wealthspire Advisors cannot guarantee its accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose, and makes no warranties with regard to the results to be obtained from its use. © 2021 Wealthspire Advisors