NEW YORK (MainStreet) — With your financial future on the line, it really does help to know what motivates the financial professionals managing your money.

Sure, in most employer-sponsored retirement plans, portfolio managers at the investment firms working with your employer are the direct stewards of your retirement planning money. But millions of Americans also work with financial advisors and stockbrokers on retirement savings, and there is a big difference between the two that retirement savers should know about.

"There is a perpetual problem in the industry that doesn't seem to be getting a lot of attention," say Peter Mallouk, a certified financial planner and founder of Creative Planning, a Kansas City, Mo., investment management firm. "Many clients hire an 'independent advisor' only to find out the independent advisor is also a broker."

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The reason is largely an industry-based one, Mallouk says, but leads to potential trust problems between investment advisors and clients.

"Many advisors are leaving big firms like Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo, etc. and going 'independent,' but they are also staying brokers," he says. "This is an extremely dangerous advisor — because this advisor can say they are an investment advisor and is held to the fiduciary standard and would be telling the truth. But the same person can switch from being an investment advisor with a fiduciary duty to act in your best interests to a broker who can sell you something and not act in your best interests in the same conversation."

Here's how Mallouk breaks down the difference:

  • If your advisor is an investment advisor and governed by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, the advisor serves as fiduciary to you and must put your interests above his own and act in your best interest.
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  • If your advisor is a broker and overseen by the private Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the broker has no fiduciary duty to act in your best interest. (Why would you ever want to pay for advice from someone who doesn't have a need to act in your best interest? Mallouk wonders too.)

Ask your investment advisor or broker to explain their exact professional status, and to detail whether he or she earns a direct commission on any specific stock, bond or fund that winds up in your portfolio based on their advice.

Don't disregard the distinction between an investment advisor and a broker. The difference could wind up affecting your retirement portfolio by moving your assets into investments that may not be in your best interests. So ask questions, get answers and ensure you're getting a fair shake from your investment professional.

— By Brian O'Connell for MainStreet