After almost a year of often-public discussions, the CFP Board recently delivered its decision to financial planner Rick Kahler that, because he owns a (commission-based) real estate brokerage firm to which his financial planning clients are sometimes referred, he will no longer be permitted to label himself as "fee-only" and must describe his compensation as "commission and fee" instead, in light of the commission-based related party. In response, Kahler has declared that he will likely drop his CFP certification (after being the first in South Dakota to earn the CFP certification over 30 years ago), and may even file a lawsuit with the CFP Board over the issue, after failing to find any other remedy to the situation in more than 10 months of talks with CFP Board staffers.
In point of fact, though, the CFP Board's "related party" rules were arguably designed to catch situations precisely like Kahler's - the whole point of the rule is that a planning firm cannot make itself "fee-only" by simply splitting off its commission-based work into a separate business still owned by the CFP certificant. To allow such behavior would render compensation disclosure meaningless, as all advisors could be both "fee-only" AND "commission-only" by just hanging two shingles! As a result, it appears that this time the CFP Board may have really gotten its ruling right in this case.
However, the reality that the CFP Board could not come to an amicable resolution with Kahler about how to unwind the situation highlights what is still the CFP Board's fundamentally flawed interpretation of its own compensation disclosure rules. Kahler offered to cease providing referrals to the real estate firm, or even to outright bar any of his financial planning clients from doing business with the real estate firm, yet the CFP Board still insists that the mere fact that he owns the private-held firm "taints" his fee-only status, and that even if Kahler can prove that 100% of his clients pay only 100% fees from this day forward, forever, Kahler is still required to "disclose" client commissions that wouldn't actually exist or face potential sanction.
Instead, the CFP Board insists that the only solution is for Kahler to divest himself of his non-majority stake in a family firm he has owned for over 40 years, for what would surely be a significant personal financial loss to Kahler in trying to sell an illiquid closely-held business. But should the CFP Board really be allowed to dictate to fee-only CFP certificants what are and are not "permissible" investments to own for personal investment purposes apart from their financial planning clients? Ultimately, Kahler's dilemma about how to come back into compliance with the fee-only rules - and his inability to do so without divesting himself of a family business that he is willing to legitimately run separate from his financial planning clients - emphasizes the continued absurdity of how the CFP Board is interpreting its own three bucket doctrine for determining compensation to disclose.