As the ranks of CFP certificants are on the rise, the CFP certification is increasingly transitioning from a "nice to have" designation to the minimum standard for financial planners. Yet as the popularity and adoption of CFP certification grows, simply having one is no longer the differentiator that it once was. Instead, advisors are increasingly faced with pressure to move beyond "just" the CFP marks, and explore "post-CFP" education to truly demonstrate expertise and differentiate.
Fortunately, the reality is that there is a growing range of post-CFP educational programs available. Ironically, though, trying to navigate the 'alphabet soup' of available programs can be as difficult for advisors choosing a credible program as it is for consumers choosing a credible advisor! Nonetheless, from designations designed to deepen subject matter expertise, to those built outright to support a standalone niche unto itself, there are a large number of choices available to those who have completed CFP certification and are now asking"what's next?"
In today's blog post, we look through the list of the more credible programs that are available, from advanced designations in financial planning, wealth management, investments, and retirement, to niche educational programs for working with doctors, divorcees, or the LGBT community, and more. Have you considered what your next step will be in your post-CFP studies?
Choosing What's Next After CFP?
As someone who has the proverbial "alphabet soup" of designations myself, I am often asked by advisors what they should do next after completing their CFP certification. Yet the reality is that once the CFP certification is obtained as an initial "minimum competency standard", the next step from there really depends increasingly on the advisor's own career and professional goals.
In carving up the landscape of available post-CFP certification programs, there are two general tracks of designations and educational programs that emerge: 1) subject matter expertise; 2) serving a niche clientele. In the former category include designations for everything from retirement planning to advanced financial planning and wealth management to various insurance subspecialties. In the latter include programs to work with doctors, divorcees, or the LGBT community.
So the question of "what's next" really depends on what you want to pursue? Are you trying to deepen your subject matter expertise in a particular area? Is there a weak spot you want to strengthen, or alternatively a strength you want to develop further? Are you trying to steer your practice towards a particular niche to better differentiate yourself from the mass of other CFP certificants?
Whatever your path, hopefully this list below will help you navigate the wide array of professional designations out there, some of which are far more professional and credible than others (hopefully, as the CFP certification increasingly becomes a minimum standard and only quality "post-CFP" programs continue to have value, the landscape of specious designations will thin out a bit!). While I cannot say that I have taken every single one of these programs personally, these are all programs with which I have at least some familiarity, either through the curriculum, the teachers or sponsoring organization, or the community/association that supports those who have the certification.
And of course, if there's something that you don't see on the list that you think should be here, please leave your feedback in the comments section at the end!
Post-CFP Subject Matter Expertise
General Financial Planning
ChFC (Chartered Financial Consultant) - Offered by The American College, the ChFC curriculum technically includes all of the core educational content of the CFP certification itself, plus requiring three additional courses. While historically the ChFC has been framed as a "competitor" to the CFP marks (with more educational content required, but without a comprehensive exam), it is better viewed as a good "post-CFP" educational program in financial planning to take after completing the CFP program itself. The ChFC includes a wide range of electives that advisors can select to round out the additional three required post-CFP classes (notably, these classes can also partially "double-dip" into other American College designations as well for those interested in pursuing several).
Master's in Financial Planning (MSFP or MSFS) - Although ultimately there are many degree-granting institutions that offer a Master's in Financial Planning, for those who have already left the undergraduate/graduate school environment and are now practitioners, the most popular options seem to be the MSFS from the American College, or the MSFP program from the College for Financial Planning (unless there happens to be a geographically-convenient local institution offering a program). What's the difference between getting a graduate degree in financial planning, and "just" the CFP certification? Simply put, the Master's degree programs go deeper into the subject matter (even for those who already have their CFP marks, as in the end CFP classes are the equivalent of "just" undergraduate-level coursework).
CPWA (Certified Private Wealth Advisor) - The CPWA from the Investment Management Consultants Association (IMCA) is arguably "the" certification for private wealth management. While the terms "financial planning" and "wealth management" are often used somewhat interchangeably amongst practitioners, IMCA has worked hard to clearly define what truly is the domain of wealth management and how it differs, utilizing the same "job task analysis" approach that is actually used to build the CFP topic list as well. In IMCA's view, the primary distinction between financial planning and wealth management is primarily about the net worth of the target clientele, and the kinds of issues that are relevant to such clients. Thus, the CPWA goes far deeper than the CFP into areas like private equity and hedge fund investment, ultra high net worth estate planning strategies, planning for executives and closely-held businesses (potentially worth tens or hundreds of millions), etc. The CPWA is a strong option for those specifically serving the high net worth marketplace and wishing to take their knowledge to the next level.
CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) - While the CFA charter is arguably the "gold standard" of certification in the world of investments, the practical challenge of the CFA for financial advisors is that its curriculum delves far deeper into financial analysis than what advisors typically address in crafting portfolios for clients. For those who actually wish to learn more about how to roll up their sleeves and really analyze company financials to evaluate stocks and bonds, there's nothing better than the CFA (its roots are in the world of certifying investment research analysts and [future] mutual fund managers). However, for those financial advisors who are more focused on staying at the "portfolio" level rather than doing any individual securities analysis, the CFA may be "overkill" and of limited practical use (though you may wish to have someone on your investment team obtain one). (For those who do wish to pursue the CFA, it's worth noting the College for Financial Planning has a nice graduate degree program in Financial Analysis that is designed to line up with the CFA exam's 3-year testing cycle.)
CIMA (Certified Investment Management Analyst) - The CIMA certification from IMCA has its roots in the business of "manager search and selection" - i.e., brokers and investment management consultants helping to select investment managers to use (from hedge funds and separately managed accounts to mutual funds). However, the IMCA body of knowledge itself continues to evolve as financial advising has evolved, and in fact is in the midst of rolling out its latest version of the curriculum and exam in 2014. For advisors who are more focused on portfolio design, asset allocation, and selecting investment vehicles or investment managers to fill out those asset classes, the CIMA may be your best option in the investments category. Notably, the CIMA is also very helpful for those in the business of "selling" managed investment solutions (e.g., as a wholesaler).
CLU (Chartered Life Underwriter) - Offered by the American College (in fact, as its first designation almost 80 years ago!), the CLU is the gold standard in education for life insurance professionals. Its popularity appears to have waned as interest in being a life insurance agent itself has declined over time (and insurance agents have increasingly become "financial advisors" instead). Nonetheless, for those looking to really get a deeper base of knowledge in life insurance and its proper applications from a credible educational program (though its parent organization sometimes leaves much to be desired in how it represents CLU certificants!), there really is nothing better than the CLU.
CPCU (Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter) - For those interested in getting a deeper understanding of property and casualty insurance (e.g., homeowners, automobile, commercial, etc.), the CPCU is to P&C insurance what the CLU is to life insurance. Though less common amongst 'traditional' financial advisors who tend to be focused more on life, disability, and long-term care insurance than P&C coverage, the education is a deep dive for those who want to become more knowledgeable in these areas, and/or those who are considering whether to add P&C insurance to the range of solutions offered to clients.
CLTC (Certified in Long-Term Care Insurance) - The CLTC program is intended specifically for those who want to get up to speed on the technical rules and issues of long-term care insurance. The program is fairly "light weight" in comparison to some of the other educational programs listed here (it's generally taught in a 2-day Master Class), the CLTC is nonetheless recognized as the most credible designation for those working specifically in the LTC insurance space.
RICP (Retirement Income Certified Professional) - The RICP from the American College has quickly emerged as the most popular retirement income planning designation, exploding onto the scene with its launch in 2013 and by late in the year already approaching 3,000 registered to take the program, with several hundred already having earned the designation. The RICP curriculum is comprised of three core courses, specifically focused on constructing retirement income strategies and looking at a wide range of approaches from portfolio-based strategies to those using annuities and other guaranteed products.
RMA (Retirement Management Analyst) - The RMA was created by the Retirement Income Industry Association (RIIA), which focuses on its "view across the silos" look at retirement income with strategies across the various channels of financial services. The RMA takes a somewhat more "academic" approach to evaluating retirement income strategies, including a heavy component of research from the economist "lifecycle finance" perspective of flooring strategies. While some have celebrated the academic leanings of the RMA, its curriculum has been slower to catch on, and it still is just barely approaching 100 certificants after several years.
CASL (Chartered Advisor of Senior Living) - The CASL designation from the American College was one of the first 'credible' designations for advising seniors, and still continues to cover the landscape effectively. Those who have already earned their CFP certification will have completed some of the material, but the CASL requires additional content on understanding and working with seniors, health and long-term care financing, some of the decisions for seniors transitioning into retirement. While the preceding programs (RICP and RMA) are focused rather specifically on retirement income for seniors, the CASL focuses on most of "the rest" of the issues for retirees.
RFG (Registered Financial Gerontologist) - The RFG designation is offered by the American Institution of Financial Gerontology, and its core curriculum overlaps the CASL heavily. As the AIFG founder puts it, the mission of the organization is not to teach finance, but to teach gerontology (the study of aging) to financial professionals. The RFG is offered in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and though it is a credible educational curriculum, the base of RFGs is significantly smaller than the number of CASLs.
AEP (Accredited Estate Planner) - The AEP designation is technically made available by the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils (NAEPC), though the curriculum itself is offered by the American College. The designation requires two graduate-level courses in estate planning (though those serious about advanced estate planning education may wish to do more), and the AEP itself is only available to those who have already completed certain other designations or licenses as well (including JDs, CPAs, CFPs, and ChFCs).
CAP (Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy) - The CAP program, again from the American College, offers an advanced 3-course graduate-school-level program specifically around charitable planning (with a strong estate planning tilt to it). The courses all go well beyond the CFP certification, and may be especially appealing to those who work in ultra high-net-worth private wealth management settings where these types of advanced charitable estate planning strategies are often part of the equation.
CPA (Certified Public Accountant) - Technically, the CPA is not a designation but a state license to practice accounting. The educational requirements for CPAs include a 150-credit-hour requirement including the completion of a graduate degree in accounting, and usually several years of experience in accounting (and/or auditing; requirements vary by state). While the CPA license is arguably at the pinnacle of tax credentials, from a practical perspective the educational and experience requirements - which often include heavy components of accounting and auditing work and study outside of taxation - make it an impractical pursuit for experienced advisors who didn't already start out pursuing the CPA educational and career route.
MTAX or MST (Master's in Taxation) - For those who wish to get the depth of tax knowledge but without the accounting and auditing requirements, a Master's in Taxation may be an appealing alternative to obtaining a CPA. Graduate school programs in taxation are available from a wide range of universities, on both a local basis (if there's a geographically convenient option in your area) or via a distance-based/online program. Notably, a Master's in Taxation may include several courses in areas less commonly practiced by advisors (e.g., taxation of corporate mergers, or state and local taxation).
EA (Enrolled Agent) - An enrolled agent is someone licensed by the Federal government (via the IRS itself) to prepare individual and business tax returns, and represent taxpayers before the IRS (similar to CPAs and attorneys, though only in tax matters and not other legal/accounting issues). The content of the EA includes a heavy focus on how to properly comply with the US tax laws, including the proper reporting and filing of IRS forms, and is less focused on the long-term tax planning that advisors often do. Nonetheless, it's helpful for deeper knowledge on tax issues, especially if the advisors actually plan to offer tax preparation services.
CTS (Certified Tax Specialist) - Offered by the Institute of Business and Finance, this tax designation has a heavy overlap to the CFP tax curriculum, but does go deeper and extend beyond in certain areas. Given the rather significant depth of the other tax education programs discussed above, the CTS may be an appealing "mid-point" beyond the CFP but less intensive than getting an EA or a Master's degree.
While the aforementioned educational programs are focused primarily on particular subject matter expertise areas, the designation programs below are generally targeted more directly at serving a particular niche type of clientele, and the education that's needed to understand and serve them more effectively. While the earlier designation programs might be taken simply to expand and deepen knowledge for a wider range of uses, the designations below are generally only pursued if there's a specific goal or intention to offer
CDFA (Certified Divorce Financial Analyst) - Offered by the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts, the CDFA is designed for financial advisors who specifically want to specialize in working with divorcees and the issues that arise in the process of divorce. Education focuses on areas specifically relevant to the divorce process and how advisors can fit into it, from supporting on divorce litigation, to serving as a financial expert in a contentious divorce (either behind the scenes or as an expert witness), or helping to collect data and prepare a budget to determine support needs. As with many such 'niche' designations, the CDFA is backed by a membership organization that aims to help advisors become more successful in this unique practice area.
ADPA (Accredited Domestic Partnership Advisor) - The ADPA designation offered by the College for Financial Planning is designed to help advisors address the unique needs and issues of couples who are not considered to be married under state or Federal law (or both), including both the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, as well as unmarried heterosexual couples. Those interested in working further in this area may also wish to join PridePlanners, the separate membership organization for those serving the LGBT community.
CFT (Certified Financial Transitionist) - The CFT designation is offered by Susan Bradley's "Sudden Money Institute" and is designed for advisors who wish to specialize in those going through significant sudden life (and financial) changes and transitions, from big inheritances to lottery windfalls to a pro-sports contract or the sale of a business. While these scenarios characterize a wide array of different clientele, the notable continuity is the set of issues that arise when people face a sudden influx of financial wealth all at once, and the personal/emotional as well as financial decisions they face, for which the CFT designation is designed to help.
CMP (Certified Medical Planner) - The CMP designation was created by Dr. David Marcinko (who also wrote the "Financial Planning Handbook for Physicians and Advisors"), and is intended for advisors who aim specifically to serve physicians and the medical community. Content focuses not only on the insurance and investment issues relevant to physicians, but also provides an understanding of the business of medical practices themselves so advisors can help work with their physician clients to have more successful businesses as well.
CExP (Certified Exit Planner) - Offered by Business Enterprise Institute (BEI), the CExP designation is intended for those who aim to work with business owners selling/exiting their businesses, who need help and guidance in how to execute an effective exit plan. Curriculum covers not just some of the business issues of exit planning, from ownership transfers to third parties versus insiders, business continuity and deferred compensation, but also how to navigate some of the family and personal issues.
ChSNC (Chatered Special Needs Consultant) - Another specialized program from the American College, the ChSNC curriculum is a series of three courses designed specifically to educate advisors who want to serve clients who have special needs children/family members, and navigate the unique personal/lifestyle issues, as well as the tax, healthcare, and Medicaid complexities that arise. Notably, the program actually requires a CFP certification (or one of a few other advanced designations) first. (For those interested in serving the special needs community, you may also wish to explore joining the Protected Tomorrows community and becoming an Advocate.)
So what do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below! Have you been through any of the post-CFP programs listed here? Are there any other designation/certification programs you have completed that you think should be on this list?