Jan 12, 2024

Financial planning

How an RIA, broker, and custodian interact

Emily Luk

CPA, CFA - CEO and Cofounder of Plenty

We believe that everyone–not just the wealthy few–deserves access to great financial products and tools to make wealth building simple. Part of that is also providing thoughtful content to help people learn the ins and outs of money. 

For today’s topic, we hope you’ll enjoy getting a bit nerdy with us as we go behind the scenes of how your investment accounts are actually built. You’ll get to learn all about what RIAs, brokers, and custodians are, how they interact, and why they’re important. All three play crucial roles in the dynamic world of finance.

What is an RIA?

Registered Investment Advisors, or RIAs, are financial professionals who take on the responsibility of managing portfolios and providing investment advice. Think of them as financial tour guides, offering personalized strategies to help individuals and institutions navigate the complex landscape of investments and get to where they want to go. 

Unlike others in the financial industry, RIAs are bound by a fiduciary duty, which means they must always act in their clients' best financial interests. This commitment is enforced through regulatory action and sets them apart, as it seeks to provide a level of trust and transparency in their client relationships. 

What is a broker-dealer?

Next, enter the broker-dealer, a financial entity that plays two key roles. On one hand, they act as brokers, facilitating the buying and selling of securities on behalf of clients. On the other, they operate as dealers, trading securities for their own accounts. 

If that was confusing, think of them as seasoned matchmakers–they connect buyers and sellers. 

A broker-dealer has less responsibility than an RIA. They typically have to adhere to a suitability standard, not act as fiduciary. This means they are just expected to be reasonably sure that investments are suitable for their clients based on their financial situation.

What is a custodian?

Now, let's talk about custodians. Custodians are like the bodyguards or guardians of your investments. They hold and safeguard your assets—think stocks, bonds, and other securities—ensuring they are secure and accounted for at all times. 

Custodians don't make investment decisions or provide financial advice though. Instead, they focus on what they do best, which is safekeeping your investments and executing transactions. When you open an investment account, it is opened with and held at the custodian. RIAs and broker-dealers often partner with custodians to ensure the safety and integrity of their clients' assets.

Differences in function, responsibilities, and scale

RIAs, broker-dealers, and custodians may operate in the same financial arena, but their functions and responsibilities differ. Take a look:

Primary function:

  • RIAs mainly focus on managing investments and providing personalized financial advice.

  • Broker-dealers act as intermediaries in buying and selling securities, sometimes trading for their own accounts.

  • Custodians safeguard and hold assets.


  • RIAs act as fiduciaries, putting their clients' best interests first.

  • Broker-dealers adhere to a suitability standard, ensuring their recommendations are suitable for clients’ financial situation.

  • Custodians focus on the safekeeping of transactions, not making investment decisions.


  • RIAs manage assets for individuals and institutions, often ranging from small boutique firms to large financial powerhouses.

  • Broker-dealers handle a broad spectrum of clients, including retail investors and institutions, with varying sizes of firms.

  • Custodians serve as support for RIAs and broker-dealers, holding vast amounts of assets collectively.

Rules, requirements, and regulatory stuff

For the sake of protecting investors and maintaining order in our financial markets, there are lots of requirements, rules, and regulations that RIAs, brokers, and custodians must follow. Here’s a quick rundown.

RIAs are required to register with either the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or state authorities and operate under a fiduciary duty. They also need to disclose important information like their investment styles, fee structures, and potential conflicts of interest. If an RIA breaks the rules, they can face enforcement actions by the SEC.

Broker-dealers must register with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and follow rules that govern securities transactions. They also must follow the suitability standard, with oversight from FINRA.

Custodians are subject to regulations that ensure the secure and proper handling of client trades and assets. Their job is to keep everything safe and in order.

Differences in offerings: RIAs vs. brokers

There are key differences in the products and services that RIAs and brokers can provide. For example, RIAs stand out by offering personalized advice and creating customized investment strategies with a legal obligation to put clients' interests first. 

On the flip side, brokers have to uphold a suitability standard but may not always carry the same fiduciary duty. Also, brokers can offer a broader array of investment products but may not provide the same level of personalized guidance as RIAs.

Can an RIA also be a broker?

Yes, the lines can blur. An RIA can indeed wear both hats. Some RIAs operate as hybrid advisors, functioning as both RIAs and brokers. This dual role allows them to provide personalized advice as fiduciaries (the RIA part) while also executing trades and offering a broader range of products (the broker part).

The terrific triad

Many RIAs need to collaborate with both brokers for executing trades and custodians for safeguarding and managing clients assets, creating a terrific triad. This collaborative approach allows RIAs to leverage the strengths of different players in the financial ecosystem.

In conclusion, RIAs, broker-dealers, and custodians each contribute unique threads that weave together to form a landscape where investors can seek guidance, execute transactions, and safeguard their assets. 

What does Plenty do?

Great news, Plenty is a registered investment advisor (RIA) you can trust. We chose the triad approach to provide the best in product offerings, security, and safeguards for our members, which in turn lets us bring the most innovative, customized, and success-driven solutions to you.

Our brokerage services provider is Atomic Brokerage LLC and our clearing and custody services provider is BNY Mellon / Pershing. They are also SIPC members (click to learn what SIPC is and why it’s so important).

Ready to start achieving your goals as quickly and easily as possible? Here at Plenty we have all the tools you need to plan, invest, and track your savings so you’ll be ready for anything life has in store.

Start your free trial today!


Emily Luk

CPA, CFA - CEO and Cofounder of Plenty

Emily is the ceo and cofounder of Plenty. Started by a husband and wife team, Plenty is a wealth platform built for modern couples to invest and plan towards their future, together. Previously, she was VP of Strategy and Operations at Even (acquired by Walmart/One) and a founding team member of Stripe's Growth and Finance & Strategy teams. She began her career as a VC, and was one of the youngest nationally to complete her CPA, CA and CFA designations.


Financial planning

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