Fiduciary Meaning: What Is a Fiduciary Duty? - NerdWallet (2024)

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What is a fiduciary?

A fiduciary is an individual or organization who manages money and has a legal duty to act in the best financial interests of someone else. Fiduciaries have a bond of trust with clients and must avoid conflicts of interest. Fiduciary relationships exist across many types of professions.

For example, board members may have certain fiduciary duties to their companies, trustees owe fiduciary duties to their beneficiaries, and retirement plan administrators typically have a fiduciary duty to their company’s employees.

In the world of finance, only certain types of financial advisors, such as certified financial planners and registered investment advisors, are bound by fiduciary duties.

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What is fiduciary duty?

Fiduciary relationships are not governed by one specific law. The exact duties a fiduciary is beholden to will depend on their profession and any laws or regulations surrounding their role. Examples of fiduciary duty can include a duty of care, loyalty, good faith, confidentiality, disclosure, and prudence.

Financial advisors who have fiduciary duties must only recommend investments and other financial planning products that are the best fit for their clients.

Fiduciary financial advisors

A fiduciary financial advisor manages their clients’ investments in a way that is aligned with the clients’ best interests. They must follow certain rules and regulations.

Some financial advisors can act in a fiduciary capacity, but be careful — this does not mean that all advisors are fiduciaries. A financial advisor who isn’t a fiduciary may recommend products for which they receive a commission or other form of payment.


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Fiduciary duty vs. suitability standard

The main difference between a fiduciary duty and the suitability standard is that fiduciary duty means an advisor must act in the best interest of their clients. The suitability standard means a broker-dealer must have a reasonable belief that an investment, transaction or the frequency of transactions is suitable for the customer.

The Investment Advisers Act of 1940 states that an investment advisor (or anyone in the business of giving investment advice) has a fiduciary duty to their client. The act itself calls these measures broad and doesn't provide specific regulations beyond requiring that advisors act in the best interest of a client.

The suitability standard is set by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA. The “reasonable belief” in the suitability standard leaves room for broker-dealers to recommend products that will increase their bottom line through commissions, but may not necessarily be the best investment for you.

Registered investment advisors are legally fiduciaries, but broker-dealers and other types of money managers are not. Some financial advisors, such as certified financial planners, may also be fiduciaries.

A broker-dealer is a broader term used to describe a person or firm that buys and sells securities on behalf of a client as well as for themselves or their organization. They aren't uniformly governed by a fiduciary duty, though under particular circ*mstances (such as state law), some may be held to a fiduciary standard.

If your financial advisor doesn't have a fiduciary duty to you, they may be able to recommend investments or products that pay them a bigger commission over ones that would be the best fit for you, which could cost you more. Fiduciaries, on the other hand, must act in your best interest. That's why it's considered better to work with a fiduciary rather than an advisor who is simply following the suitability standard.

How do I know if I'm working with a fiduciary financial advisor?

There are many different types of financial advisors, and beyond that, several certifications and licenses those advisors can hold. Few titles beyond investment advisor and broker-dealer are regulated at all, including common titles like “wealth advisor” and “financial advisor,” so it’s especially important to vet any potential advisors before committing to one.

The easiest way to verify that a potential advisor is a fiduciary financial advisor is to simply ask and then verify their status.

To check that they’re registered with the SEC, use FINRA’s BrokerCheck database. If you’re working with an investment advisor firm, you can also check for an advisor’s Form ADV on the SEC’s IAPD page, which catalogs their registration with the SEC or state, along with disclosures about the firm, the firm’s business operations, and any misconduct the firm or advisor may have been involved in.

Another way to ensure your advisor is a fiduciary is to work with a certified financial planner — a highly trained specialist with significant financial education and experience. The CFP code of ethics states that all CFPs “must act as a fiduciary, and therefore, act in the best interest of the client.” So if you see the CFP designation, you know you’re in good hands. You can verify a CFP through the CFP Board’s website.

» Not sure how to choose? Here are 10 questions to ask a financial advisor

How much does a fiduciary financial advisor cost?

Financial advisors have different ways of charging for their services. Some charge a flat fee, typically in the range of $2,000 to $7,500 per year, while others charge a percentage of the client’s assets. Learn more about how much financial advisors cost.

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Is a robo-advisor a fiduciary?

Robo-advisors use computer algorithms to build and manage an investment portfolio for you based on personal factors, such as risk tolerance. Many robo-advisors are registered as investment advisors with the Securities and Exchange Commission and have a fiduciary duty to their clients. However, many robo-advisors have a limited understanding of clients, which may mean they’re unable to help with broad financial planning guidance, such as debt management. Robo-advisors are often less expensive than human advisors, but critics of robo-advisors often cite their limitations as enough to disqualify them as fiduciaries.

» Need to back up a bit? What is a robo-advisor?

If you’re looking solely for investment management, many robo-advisors offer that in the capacity of a fiduciary. However, most won’t be able to take your full financial picture into account the way a traditional advisor might.

» Ready to get started? Here’s our roundup of the best robo-advisors

Fiduciary Meaning: What Is a Fiduciary Duty? - NerdWallet (2024)


What is the meaning of fiduciary duty? ›

A fiduciary duty is the legal responsibility to act solely in the best interest of another party. “Fiduciary” means trust, and a person with a fiduciary duty has a legal obligation to maintain that trust. For example, lawyers have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of their clients.

What are the three main fiduciary duties? ›

Three Key Fiduciary Duties
  • Duty of Care. Duty of care describes the level of competence and business judgment expected of a board member. ...
  • Duty of Loyalty. Duty of loyalty revolves primarily around board members' financial self-interest and the potential conflict this can create. ...
  • Duty of Obedience.
Mar 8, 2022

What is the most important fiduciary duty? ›

There are many different fiduciary duties that an individual must uphold, including the duty of loyalty, good faith, care, confidentiality, prudence, and the duty to disclose. However, a fiduciary's overarching and most important duty is to always act in the beneficiary's best interest.

What are three examples of breaches of fiduciary duty? ›

Here are some common breach of fiduciary duty examples.
  • Misappropriation of Assets. ...
  • Conflict of Interest. ...
  • Self-Dealing. ...
  • Negligent Management of Assets. ...
  • Inadequate Record-Keeping or Failure to Account. ...
  • Failure to Distribute Assets.
Sep 22, 2023

How do you prove a breach of fiduciary duty? ›

The standard for proving a breach of fiduciary duty varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Typically, a claim for breach of fiduciary duty includes four elements: 1) the existence of a fiduciary duty; 2) a breach of that duty (through an act or omission); 3) damages; and 4) causation.

What is the proper purpose of the fiduciary duty? ›

Fiduciary duties require you to act in the best interests of the company and its shareholders. Courts follow a two-step step test to determine whether a director has used their power for an improper purpose: determine the scope of the director's power; and.

What are the 5 fiduciary duties? ›

Fiduciary duty describes the relationship between an attorney and a client or a guardian and a ward. Fiduciary duties include duty of care, loyalty, good faith, confidentiality, prudence, and disclosure. It's been successfully argued that an employee may have a fiduciary duty of loyalty to an employer.

What happens when fiduciary duties are not fulfilled? ›

In the case of an executor or trustee, a breach of fiduciary duty may result in their suspension, removal and/or a surcharge – a court order requiring them to pay money damages for the harm caused by the breach. In the rarest of cases, fiduciaries can face criminal charges.

What is the most fundamental of all fiduciary duties? ›

The duty of loyalty is one of the most fundamental fiduciary duties owed by an agent to his principal.

How do fiduciaries get paid? ›

The fees fiduciary advisors receive often are calculated based on the value of the assets they manage on a client's behalf. Fees also may be charged on an hourly, project or subscription basis.

How to get rid of a fiduciary? ›

How do You Remove an Executor, Trustee, or Administrator? To remove a fiduciary, you will need to file a Petition with the Surrogate's Court.

What is a common breach of the fiduciary duty of accountability? ›

Some examples of a breach in a small business context include: Self-dealing. Misuse of company assets. Non-disclosure of conflicts of interest.

What is a fiduciary misconduct? ›

Trustee or executor misconduct occurs when the fiduciary violates their duty of loyalty to beneficiaries/heirs by acting in bad faith and/or not placing their best interests first.

What types of actions constitute a violation of fiduciary duties? ›

In the event the fiduciary did act to benefit himself or herself at the expense of the beneficiary, was purposefully dishonest in their business practices, or did not otherwise live up to the duties of loyalty and disclosure, legal consequences can then result.

What is negligence of fiduciary duty? ›

Fiduciary negligence is a type of professional malpractice in which a person fails to honor their fiduciary obligations and responsibilities. Fiduciary negligence generally comes in the form of passive behavior, in that it is a failure to take action or take any steps to stop or address the actions of others.

What best describes fiduciary duty? ›

A fiduciary duty involves actions taken in the best interests of another person or entity. Fiduciary duty describes the relationship between an attorney and a client or a guardian and a ward. Fiduciary duties include duty of care, loyalty, good faith, confidentiality, prudence, and disclosure.

What is another word for fiduciary? ›

fiduciary (noun as in financial person) Strong matches. curator depositary guardian trustee.

What is the act of a fiduciary duty? ›

When someone has a fiduciary duty to someone else, the person with the duty must act in a way that will benefit someone else financially. The person who has a fiduciary duty is called the fiduciary, and the person to whom the duty is owed is called the principal or the beneficiary.


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