It's true: Anyone with a pulse can call themselves a financial planner, and many people have hired planners who later turned out to be salesman who didn't give a darn about their long-term plan. But that doesn't mean you should avoid hiring a planner. You just need to know how to find a good one.

It's true: Anyone with a pulse can call themselves a financial planner, and many people have hired planners who later turned out to be salesman who didn't give a darn about their long-term plan.

But that doesn't mean you should avoid hiring a planner. You just need to know how to find a good one.

Be sure to ask for references. Don't be afraid when you call the references to ask about more than their satisfaction with the planner. Ask about the services the planner has performed. Ask whether the planner helped with the estate plan, the portfolio, the business succession plan or whatever else is important to you. Also ask if the planner regularly reviews and updates the plans.

Ask about the financial planner's credentials and experience. You don't want to hire a rookie and you don't want to hire someone without credentials.

I'd see that the planner has the CFP designation or some other advanced designation that shows some training and experience. Acceptable alternatives may be CLU, ChFC, CPA or JD.

These credentials have codes of ethics that the certificate holder must follow. And remember, just because they have a credential or two doesn't mean that they have years of experience. Ask specifically how long they've been doing planning and see if that agrees with the references that they give you.

Ask if they are registered with the state or SEC as an investment adviser. It sounds weird, but the actual registration for financial planners is as an investment advisor - even if the planner is not an investment specialist. Also ask to see part 1 and part 2 of their form ADV. Form ADV is their registration form as an investment adviser.

Ask about conflicts of interest. There are debates over whether you should work with a fee-only advisor or one who also accepts commissions. I'm not hung up on the fee-only thing, contrary to most journalists. But I am big on disclosure and undisclosed conflicts.

There are many firms with independent sounding names who are really an insurance agency in disguise. It's not that an affiliation with an insurer makes the planner bad. It's just that many of those insurers limit the planners' access to products and require the planner to try to place the clients insurance with that company first.

John P. Napolitano is the CEO of U.S. Wealth Management in Braintree, Mass. He may be reached at jnap@uswealthcompanies.com. For online discussion and more information, go to www.makingcentsblog.com.