How does this sound as an “elevator speech”? “I want to help you achieve your financial goals, but I don’t want to be legally required to place your interests above mine because that would be too cumbersome for me to implement and my compensation may be diminished. There may be conflicts of interest that arise from time to time, but I will not disclose them to you. In addition, I don’t want to assume the additional liability that comes with a fiduciary standard. But I will do my best to help you.”

Sounds quite ridiculous, doesn’t it? And I doubt that consumers would choose to do business with someone who said that, particularly if they knew they had a choice. Yet we continue to get pushback from so many large financial institutions. And while I don’t agree with their position, I understand their motivation for maintaining the status quo. What I cannot fathom is why regulators and Congress, who purportedly have a duty to protect consumers, do nothing. However, I will leave that debate for others because the purpose of this article is not to lobby lawmakers or regulators but to discuss the spirit of being a fiduciary.

Forgive this personal reference, but our firm does not need a law to force us to do what is right for clients. A core value of RTD Financial Advisors is, “The clients’ interests always come first.” That value would not change if regulators chose to remove the requirement that RIAs be fiduciaries. When clients come to us for advice, they have every right to expect that we will do what is best for them regardless of the financial impact it may have on us. There are many examples where we are tested by clients, some obvious and some more subtle.

One example is when we get a call from one of our clients who ask us whether they should pay off their mortgage from funds that are invested. If we are compensated by a percent of assets we manage or commissions, paying off a mortgage from funds in portfolios we oversee will undoubtedly cost us money. If, without asking questions of our client about the emotional impact that has on their lives, we simply do a quantitative analysis that may point out that the likely return on their investments will exceed the interest they pay on their mortgage, are we in fact practicing the spirit of being a fiduciary?

Our experience has been that when clients call to ask questions like this they are most likely uncomfortable with their debt. So in our firm, we ask about how they feel about debt and whether they would feel more secure with the mortgage and their investment portfolio intact, or would a smaller portfolio and no debt reduce stress. The fact that your compensation would be affected by recommending that they pay off their mortgage should not in any way influence the recommendation you make. That is the spirit of being a fiduciary.

What if your client comes to you because they have been offered an investment opportunity and want your opinion? An advisor who practices the spirit will objectively review the investment. She will not look for reasons to say no, but will legitimately help her client evaluate whether this investment is appropriate for her clients’ situation. Once again, compensation will not be a factor.

Several years ago, we had a prospective client who was “shopping” for a financial planner. He was about to retire and had several important decisions he needed to make. One of those was whether he should take a lump sum or a monthly pension from his retirement plan. In our preliminary discussions, he informed us that between his Social Security and the monthly pension he would get from his company, it would provide him with enough income to pay his expenses. He told us that his inclination was to take the pension, but he wanted reassurance. Since this decision would have to be made rather quickly, he was asking the advisors he was interviewing whether taking a monthly income was a sound decision. It seemed to us that he was emotionally much more comfortable with the pension, so we told him that we agreed with his decision.

Several days later, after visiting another advisor, he called because that person advised him to take a lump sum, and he was conflicted. I once again asked which decision would make him more comfortable, and he reiterated that what he really wanted to do was take the monthly income. He then said to me that he believed the other advisor, who charged a percentage of assets, would, “make more money if I took a lump sum.” Recommending the lump sum over a pension was probably not a legal breach of the other advisor’s fiduciary obligation. However, in my opinion, he did not adhere to the spirit of being a fiduciary. And proving the fact that doing what is right for clients is good business, the prospect became and remains a client of our firm.

In many of our interviews with prospective clients, we have uncovered many other examples of advisors who do not practice the spirit of being a fiduciary. It seems to us that for these advisors a core value, though unstated, may be “the advisors’ interests always come first.” Some examples: selling a new annuity the moment the deferred sales charge expires; placing annuities in qualified plans; discouraging maximum contributions to 401(k) or 403(b) plans so that regular investments are made to accounts where the advisor is compensated; replacing perfectly suitable investments with products that pay commissions; selling permanent life insurance when term is more appropriate; ignoring upcoming cash needs, such as buying a new home, and investing that money in high-commission long-term investments; churning accounts.

We have actually encountered an advisor who sold a client a large annuity, put it in a qualified IRA account, charged a management fee in addition to the large commission earned and then charged an additional fee for market timing. Between the M&E charges of the insurance company, the management fees for the underlying investments, the advisor’s asset management fee, and the market-timing fee, this client was paying over 4.5% per year!

We know that being a registered investment advisor requires adherence to a fiduciary standard. However, being an advisor to people whose financial life depends on us requires an even higher standard. We have a moral obligation to do what is best for the people who seek our help. When we do so, we are not only fulfilling our legal obligations, we are practicing the spirit of being a fiduciary.

Roy Diliberto is the chairman and founder of RTD Financial Advisors Inc. in Philadelphia.