Erika Penner had prided herself on being a generalist for years after she began her financial planning practice in 1998. But by 2006, Penner’s clients began to require more guidance in the post-retirement portion of their plans, so Penner began looking for ways to hone her skills in retirement-income planning.

“I was dealing with a lot of retirement plans,” says Penner, an independent financial planner in Richmond, B.C. “But I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a ‘specialist’ without the education to back it up.”

Penner began searching for a retirement-income planning course. The program for the master financial advisor designation, provided by The Knowledge Bureau Inc., an education provider based in Winnipeg, caught her eye.

“I looked at a lot of education providers, but no one [else] was offering that type of training at the time,” says Penner, who completed the MFA and became an investment and retirement services specialist in 2007.

The investment and retirement services specialist program Penner took is one of three specialized MFA programs. The other programs cover succession and estate planning, and business services.

Penner has not only felt more confident in creating retirement plans since acquiring her MFA designation, she also has developed a greater appreciation for the sensitive issues that seniors can deal with in retirement, such as downsizing their homes.

“Plans aren’t just about math,” Penner says. “You have to understand what clients are going through when they make important life changes. My clients have noticed the difference in how sensitive I have become.”

The MFA was launched in 2005 to fulfil a void many financial advisors face as they find their practice evolving and their clients facing more complex needs, says Evelyn Jacks, founder and president of the Knowledge Bureau.

“There is a gap between the basic financial planning knowledge advisors have,” Jacks says, “and the deeper set of skills they need to help their clients through certain trigger points.”

“Trigger points” are life events, such as retirement, at which clients may need specific advice. Financial trigger points include receiving an inheritance and needing advice on how to manage it. Economic trigger points are significant general events, such as significant market downturns, after which clients may start making significant changes to their financial plans.

When advisors lack the knowledge to advise their clients following a trigger point, they may refer clients to professionals such as lawyers or accountants for more advanced counselling. But as a client gets passed around among experts, says Jacks, the client may become demoralized, especially if some of the advice given is inconsistent.

“They don’t know who they can trust the most,” says Jacks. “We have found that clients find a ‘silo’ approach frustrating. They would rather deal with one central person who knows their situation inside out.”

The MFA program is geared toward giving advisors the specific knowledge they need to become that central steward of a plan, Jacks says. For example, an advisor with a practice that involves many small-business owners would enter the business-service specialty stream of the MFA program. After completing the program, the advisor might no longer need to refer some clients to an accountant.

Dan Allen, a financial advisor since 2003 and owner of Dan Allen Financial Inc., an independent financial advisory practice based in Kitchener, Ont., decided to embark on obtaining his MFA to improve his insurance knowledge. He had more than 25 years of industry experience in banking, but he felt he needed more training to deal with his clients’ insurance needs.

“I wanted to build up my knowledge in insurance and estate planning,” Allen says, “to ensure I really was adding value to clients’ plans.”

Acquiring the designation was worth the effort, Allen says: “I have been able to talk to my clients about their insurance and estate planning needs in a much more educated fashion.”

It’s difficult to place a dollar value on the effect a designation such as an MFA has on a practice, says George Hartman, president and CEO of Market Logics Inc. in Toronto. But more education always helps. “The more designations you have,” he says, “the less people question your credibility.”

The MFA program is delivered remotely through the Knowledge Bureau’s website. This year, new courses include debt and cash-flow management, as well as a revamped course on tax strategies for financial advisors and tax-efficient investment.

The 180-hour, six-course program costs $3,570. For more information, visit  IE