From the August 2004 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Who's best? it all depends

Asking which financial planning software is best may be the wrong question. What you should ask is, "Which is best for me?" Fortunately, you can download the demo versions from planning software vendors to see which ones make the most sense for your practice.

Naomi Scrivener runs BackOffice Solutions in Georgetown, Texas, a service bureau for Money Tree, NaviPlan, and MoneyGuide Pro (a Web-based planning application). A planner who did not like the sales side of the industry, she started a business serving fee-only planners by doing the dirty work in planning software: inputting data, running reports, and finding the best planning strategies for planners to deliver to their clients. To run the outsourcing service successfully, Scrivener has had to learn about a range of products, and she says that "you need to match the software with your type of planning."

For instance, the most widely used comprehensive planning software is NaviPlan Extended. However, some planners give up on it because it demands so much data entry. "If you're only doing three or four comprehensive plans a year," Scrivener says, "you may actually forget how to use the more complex parts of Extended between plans." NaviPlan CEO Mark Evans says the new, browser-based version of Extended attempts to smooth out the data demand on users by allowing the planner to turn off some components for a client. But if you are a detail maven who wants every bell and whistle and tax twist covered in a 20--year, cash-flow-based plan, Extended is probably right for you.

Financial Profiles Professional lags in developing a Web-based version. But it sounds like it is adding the functionality to compete with NaviPlan Extended at the detailed cash-flow level. Still, its marketing director echoes the need for using the right tool for a job. "You can start a plan in Forecaster, our goals-based program, with less data output, and then do more work on it in Professional as the client grows," says VP Charlie Davidson. "As we made our Professional program able to handle more complexity, high-end planners liked it but some of our customers complained that it was too complex, which is why we developed Forecaster."

MoneyTree also offers a range of tools. Silver Financial Planner is a standalone product that only handles simple planning calculations. MoneyTree's Total Planning System offers comprehensive goals-based planning and cash flow planning. However, MoneyTree does not allow you to calculate cash flows on complex trusts. While it allows a planner to input cash flow numbers on an ILIT or credit shelter trust, it won't handle GRATs, CRTs, and other complex trusts. It lets you illustrate how a charitable remainder trust works, but doesn't calculate its cash flows.

"No matter what you do with projections of trusts right now, the whole estate planning landscape is in such flux that what you do is likely to be incorrect anyway," says MoneyTree Chairman Mike Vitkauskas. "We'd rather give illustrations a client can understand and let the planner decide how much to rely on current law for future projections. There are more important things our customers wanted, especially since most planners hand off estate planning to attorneys."

Also, beware of complexity. Dave Freitag, VP for client development at Financial Profiles, believes that "a simpler plan that is updated regularly is better for most practitioners and clients than a complex one, and a complex planning application is often a barrier to getting plans done."--Andrew Gluck

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