Decoding the “Alphabet Soup” of Advisor Designations

Decoding the “Alphabet Soup” of Advisor Designations

July 10, 2018

CFP®. CRPS®. ChFC®. AEP®. AIF®. How many times have seen these acronyms following the names of many advisors--including my own--on web sites, business cards and correspondence? They may look like technical jargon, but each actually represents a respected industry designation an advisor has earned through rigorous study on specific areas of financial planning and investment management. Let's define some of the common certifications, starting with those held by myself and other advisors here at Canby Financial.


While many advisors call themselves financial planners, only those who have fulfilled the certification and renewal requirements of the CFP Board can use the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM certification. To earn and maintain this certification, CFP® professionals must meet the following requirements.

  • Education: CFP® professionals develop theoretical and practical financial planning knowledge by completing a comprehensive course of study at a college or university offering a financial planning curriculum approved by the CFP Board.
  • Examination: CFP® practitioners must pass a comprehensive, six-hour CFP® Certification Examination that tests their ability to apply financial planning knowledge in an integrated format. The exam covers the financial planning process, tax planning, employee benefits and retirement planning, estate planning, investment management, and insurance.
  • Experience: Because CFP® professionals must have at least three years of hands-on experience in the financial planning process, they possess financial counseling skills in addition to technical knowledge.
  • Ethics: CFP® practitioners agree to abide by a strict code of professional conduct, known as the CFP Board's Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility, which sets forth their ethical responsibilities to the public, clients, and employers. The CFP Board also performs a background check on candidates for CFP® certification, who must disclose any investigations or legal proceedings related to their professional or business conduct.


Advisors who create and manage employer-sponsored retirement plans often earn the Chartered Retirement Plans Specialist (CRPS) credential, awarded by the College for Financial Planning. To earn the credential, advisors must complete a specific training regimen and pass an exam to demonstrate their expertise. Every two years, CRPS professionals must complete 16 hours of continuing education and pay a nominal fee to continue using the designation.


The Chartered Financial Consultant® (ChFC®) program provides in-depth knowledge of the skills needed to perform comprehensive financial planning for clients. ChFC® practitioners specialize in identifying and establishing specific financial goals for their clients, as well as formulating, implementing, and monitoring comprehensive plans to pursue them. Candidates must meet prescribed ethical, experiential, and educational requirements to earn the designation.


An Accredited Estate Planner® (AEP®) designee meets the highest standards of knowledge, skill, ethical conduct, and experience in estate planning. The AEP® designation is the only graduate-level, multi-disciplinary accreditation that focuses specifically on estate planning. It emphasizes multiple disciplines, including law, accounting, insurance, financial planning, and trust services. The AEP® brings together these diverse areas of practice into one personalized plan.

The AEP® designation is administered by the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils. Founded in 1962, the association's core belief is that the client is best served by a team approach to estate planning, involving attorneys, accountants, trust officers, insurance and financial planners, and other qualified professionals.


The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) created the Personal Financial Specialist (PFS™) credential for CPAs who are also financial planners. To earn this credential, CPAs must pass a series of exams that covers the financial planning processes and disciplines, including tax, estate, retirement, investment, and insurance planning. CFP professionals can earn the PFS credential without taking the exam if they have already received their CFP or ChFC certifications.


The Chartered Life Underwriter® (CLU®) designation is the professional credential for individuals who specialize in life insurance and estate planning. The CLU® program provides in-depth knowledge of various insurance solutions and prepares candidates to serve the needs of their individual and business clients. To earn the designation, candidates must meet prescribed ethical, experiential, and educational requirements.


Advisors who have earned the Accredited Investment Fiduciary® (AIF®) designation have acquired a thorough knowledge of fiduciary responsibilities. AIF® designees are required to successfully completed a program on investment fiduciary standards of care at the Center for Fiduciary Studies and have passed a comprehensive examination of the Center's 27 Prudent Investment Practices. Designees are also required to adhere to continuing professional education requirements, which keep them abreast of recent events in the industry.

Why do these designations matter?

Advisors who have earned these designations have committed a great deal of time educating themselves on industry-standard practices in financial planning, investment management, and regulatory compliance. Designees are expected to incorporate what they've learned into their practices.

  • Most certifications require designees to serve in a fiduciary capacity, acting solely in their clients' best interest and minimizing potential conflicts of interest.
  • In addition to the knowledge they gain earning a particular credential, most sponsor organizations require the designees to earn a certain number of continuing education credits each year to keep up with industry developments.

As a client or potential client, don't be afraid to ask any advisor what their designations stand for, how they influence their actions, and how you, as a client, will benefit.


Chris Gullotti is a financial advisor located at Canby Financial Advisors, 161 Worcester Road, Framingham, MA 01701. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 508.598.1082 or

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