What Is a Fiduciary? Why Are They Important? Explore the role of a fiduciary, understand fiduciary duty and discover why they're pivotal in financial decisions and personal finance.

By Entrepreneur Staff

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The term "fiduciary" often emerges when discussing personal finance, investment advisors and financial planning. But what exactly is a fiduciary, and why are they so crucial?

At its core, a fiduciary is a person or an organization that holds a legal and ethical duty to act in the best interest of another party or parties — often managing money or other assets. Fiduciaries must avoid conflicts of interest, and adhere to certain fiduciary duties.

This article delves into the critical role of fiduciaries and their duties in various sectors.

What is fiduciary duty?

Fiduciary duty comes with both legal and ethical obligations. Depending on the role of the fiduciary, different duties may apply. That said, all fiduciaries are expected to be highly loyal to the person they owe the duty: the principal.

There are two main components to this duty: the duty of care and the duty of loyalty.

The duty of care requires fiduciaries to inform themselves of all relevant information before making decisions on behalf of principals. That means going beyond simply accepting whatever information is present. To meet the duty of care, a fiduciary must look at all of the information with a critical eye.

The duty of loyalty requires fiduciaries to put their client's interests above their own, avoiding conflicts of interest and making full disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest.

For example, if a registered investment advisor (RIA) were to be offered a commission for promoting a specific investment product, they are prohibited from making trades that would result in a higher commission.

Fiduciary relationships exist in various sectors, from financial services to real estate agents and corporate directors. In every case, the fiduciary must prioritize their principal's interests above their own.

What do fiduciaries do in the financial industry?

In the financial industry, fiduciaries play a pivotal role, especially as registered investment advisors (RIA) and certified financial planners (CFPs).

As fiduciaries, they must put the client's needs above their own, a key distinction from broker-dealers or non-fiduciaries, who must meet a lesser standard — the suitability standard.

The suitability standard requires the broker to make recommendations that suit the needs and preferences of the client. Still, they are not obligated to put their client's interests above their own.

The fee structure often distinguishes fiduciaries from non-fiduciaries. A fiduciary financial advisor generally operates on a fee-only model, charging a flat fee for their services, thereby minimizing potential conflicts of interest.

On the other hand, broker-dealers or brokerage services might earn a commission, leading to potential conflicts of interest as they might be incentivized to promote certain products over others.

Related: 9 Questions You Should Ask Before Hiring a Business Broker | Entrepreneur

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulates certain professionals, like Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs), to ensure that they adhere to fiduciary standards to protect consumers.

These regulations ensure that professionals put client's needs above their own when providing financial advice or managing their assets.

What are fiduciary relationships like beyond the financial industry?

Fiduciary relationships extend beyond the financial sector, playing critical roles in real estate transactions, corporate governance and legal affairs.

In real estate, for instance, agents often serve as fiduciaries for their clients. They are legally obliged to put their client's best interest before their own, providing full disclosure about a property's condition, price and other relevant details.

Likewise, corporate directors and board members have fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders. They're obliged to act in the shareholder's best interest, to maximize shareholder value.

If they fail to do so — say, by making deals that unduly benefit themselves above the corporation — they could be held legally liable for breaching their fiduciary duty.

Power of attorney is another instance where fiduciary duties are crucial. When an individual grants power of attorney to someone else, that person steps into a fiduciary capacity, tasked with making decisions in the individual's best interest, often in financial, legal or health-related matters.

They must act in the principal's best interest, avoid conflicts of interest, keep records of all transactions and manage the individual's affairs with prudence and diligence.

Related: Does Your Business Need a Power Of Attorney? | Entrepreneur

How do you recognize conflicts of interest?

Conflicts of interest can pose a significant risk to fiduciary relationships, and understanding them is vital to maintaining the integrity of these relationships.

Simply put, a conflict of interest arises when a fiduciary has personal or professional interests that could compromise their ability to put the client's interest above their own.

For instance, a financial advisor might recommend an investment product that pays a higher commission than one best suited to the client's financial goals.

Or, a real estate agent might rush the sale of a property to earn their commission sooner rather than holding out for a better offer for their client.

These situations could constitute a breach of fiduciary duty, as the fiduciary is not putting the client's interest ahead of their own. Breaches can result in legal damages and significant harm to the fiduciary's professional reputation.

Consider a few examples of fiduciary breaches. A corporate director might sell confidential information about the company to a competitor, or an attorney with power of attorney might misuse the client's funds.

In the financial sector, a common breach might involve a registered investment advisor (RIA) recommending an investment product to a client without properly disclosing the associated risks, fees or potential conflicts of interest.

In such scenarios, the bottom line is that fiduciaries are legally and ethically required to prioritize their client's best interest over their own, avoiding conflicts of interest and maintaining a duty of care.

And as a client, knowing your rights and what constitutes a fiduciary breach can go a long way in protecting your interests.

What is the role of a fiduciary in personal finance?

In personal finance, the role of fiduciaries is critical to effective financial planning and achieving financial goals.

Working with a fiduciary financial advisor such as a certified financial planner (CFP) or a registered investment advisor (RIA) can offer a client peace of mind.

Related: 3 Keys to Building and Increasing Personal Wealth Today | Entrepreneur

These professionals, bound by fiduciary duty, can provide comprehensive financial advice, helping clients build a robust investment portfolio, save for retirement or plan for significant life events like buying a house or sending kids to college.

They put the client's assets to work best according to their specific financial situation and goals, while always keeping the client's best interests above their own.

Related: 5 Signs It's Time to Change Your Financial Advisor | Entrepreneur

How do you choose a fiduciary?

Choosing the right fiduciary is crucial, as this decision can profoundly impact your financial future. Here are a few pointers to help you make an informed choice.

Related: 8 Considerations When Choosing Your Financial Adviser | Entrepreneur

One of the first things to consider is the professional's certifications.

For instance, certified financial planners (CFP) have met rigorous education and experience requirements and are bound to uphold the fiduciary standard. This means they must put the client's best interests above their own.

Other professionals, such as Registered Investment Advisors (RIA), are also bound by fiduciary duty and must adhere to higher standards of care.

Next, due diligence is paramount in selecting a financial professional. Don't hesitate to research potential advisors, check their credentials and look into any disciplinary actions or complaints against them.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) offer tools to verify the registration status of advisors and uncover any past issues.

When meeting with potential advisors, come prepared with questions to assess their suitability. Ask about their experience, approach to financial planning and how they handle conflicts of interest.

Don't shy away from asking about their fee structure. Fee-only advisors, for instance, only earn money from what you pay for their advice, not commissions on the products they sell, which helps mitigate potential conflicts of interest.

Related: 10 Questions to Ask a Financial Advisor - Choosing a financial planner - Entrepreneur.com

Finding the right fiduciary can be a significant step toward achieving your financial goals. With careful consideration and thorough vetting, you can find a professional with your best interest at heart.

What fiduciary rules and regulations should you know?

Navigating the world of fiduciaries can be complicated, especially when it comes to understanding regulations. In the United States, the Fiduciary Rule is one such regulation that has garnered significant attention, though it has yet to be implemented.

The Fiduciary Rule, first proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor, aimed to extend fiduciary responsibilities to certain financial professionals advising on retirement accounts. It proposed that these advisors must put their client's financial interests ahead of their own.

However, the rule was never implemented and was ultimately vacated by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also plays a critical role in regulating fiduciaries. Registered investment advisors (RIA) are regulated primarily under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, which clearly defines the fiduciary standard of care.

This means they must provide full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and always put the client's best interest above their own.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), a self-regulatory organization, regulates broker-dealers and other financial professionals.

Although broker-dealers traditionally operate under a suitability standard rather than a fiduciary one, FINRA ensures ethical business practices and protects investors.

What is fiduciary capacity?

The term "fiduciary capacity" applies to a person holding or controlling money or property on behalf of another person, and acting as a fiduciary. For example, you might say that a certified financial planner (CFP) is serving in a fiduciary capacity for their clients.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Hiring a Financial Advisor | Entrepreneur

What is the significance of fiduciary relationships?

It's important to underscore the fiduciaries' role in personal finance and investment. Their commitment to protecting and prioritizing the best interest of their clients can mean the difference between achieving financial goals and falling short.

Fiduciaries ensure that each investment decision, financial strategy and advice is crafted and executed with the client's best interests at heart. This level of commitment often translates to optimized returns, minimized risk and a more secure financial future.

If you're embarking on your personal finance journey, it is strongly advised to consider enlisting the help of a fiduciary.

Remember, their dedication to your financial well-being and commitment to act with a duty of care could significantly impact your financial prosperity.

As you delve deeper, you'll be better equipped to make informed decisions that bring you closer to your financial goals.

For more information about fiduciaries and other financial relationships, check out some of Entrepreneur's other articles.

Entrepreneur Staff

Entrepreneur Staff

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