Commonwealth Ordered to Pay $93 Million — A Cautionary Tale for Investors Who Think They Are Better Served by Large National RIAs

In the world of wealth management, transparency and fiduciary responsibility are not just buzzwords but the cornerstones of trust between clients and their advisors. Clients entrust their hard-earned assets to financial advisors, expecting them to act in their best interest and keep them informed about transaction costs affecting their investments. A recent legal battle involving the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) against Commonwealth Equity Services, LLC d/b/a Commonwealth Financial Network (“Commonwealth”), a prominent national brand, vividly illustrates the ramifications when these principles are compromised.

Commonwealth, a nationally recognized registered investment adviser (“RIA”), extends its advisory services to clients through approximately 2,300 investment adviser representatives. However, it’s worth noting that mainstream financial institutions like Commonwealth may compel their advisors to engage exclusively with specific partners who offer revenue-sharing agreements, potentially compromising transparency and creating conflicts of interest detrimental to clients’ interests.

In light of such challenges, investors seeking an alternative path to personalized, transparent wealth management may find solace in EsqWealth. Unlike large national RIAs, EsqWealth embodies a small, cohesive group of professionals dedicated to prioritizing client interests and fostering transparency in every aspect of financial planning. With EsqWealth, clients can expect a tailored approach that prioritizes their financial well-being above all else.

The Case Against Commonwealth Financial

In 2019, the SEC sued Commonwealth alleging that it negligently failed to disclose material conflicts of interest to its advisory clients and failed to adopt and implement policies and procedures as required by the Advisers Act and its regulations. The SEC alleged that Commonwealth required most of its clients to use its clearing broker National Financial Services, LLC, an affiliate of Fidelity Investments, and that Commonwealth received revenue-sharing payments from the Fidelity unit when it invested client assets in certain classes of mutual funds. The SEC further alleged that Commonwealth knew of lower-cost alternatives to these share classes, their availability to clients, that those lower-cost alternatives would generate less or no revenue for Commonwealth, and Commonwealth failed to make robust disclosures regarding the revenue it generated from the higher-cost shares.  In short, Commonwealth clients had to pay more in costs so that Commonwealth could make more money. 

This case underscores the critical importance of transparency and fiduciary responsibility in financial advisory services.

The Court’s Findings

On March 29, 2024, United States District Judge Indira Talwani ordered Commonwealth to pay approximately $93 million for what she described as “egregious” failures to disclose to clients that the company was investing their money in costly mutual fund share classes when cheaper options were available. Commonwealth breached its fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of its clients. Judge Talwani sided with the SEC and determined that Commonwealth was aware that lower-cost share classes of funds in which its clients were invested were available. The company knew that it was generating revenue from keeping its clients in the higher cost share classes, and yet failed to disclose any of this to its clients.

Judge Talwani ordered Commonwealth to disgorge nearly $65.6 million that it allegedly earned through a cost-sharing arrangement. In addition to disgorgement, Judge Talwani ruled that Commonwealth must pay interest of $21.2 million and a $6.5 million civil penalty.

SEC’s Victory

The ruling is a victory for the SEC, which has been scrutinizing large broker-dealers and registered investment advisors for their use of revenue-sharing agreements.

Not surprisingly, Commonwealth expressed disappointment in the ruling and stated that it was exploring all options to continue to defend its position in the legal system. However, the SEC’s division of enforcement was pleased with the Court’s decision holding Commonwealth liable for failing to fairly and fully disclose its economic conflicts of interest and causing financial damage to its clients.


The SEC v. Commonwealth case serves as a poignant reminder of the potential pitfalls inherent in entrusting your assets to large, impersonal firms that may prioritize corporate interests over client welfare and require their advisors to work only with certain partners. It highlights the critical importance of transparency and the fiduciary duty of financial advisors to act in the best interest of their clients.

For those seeking a departure from the impersonal approach of mainstream financial institutions that may require advisors to use specific partners who offer revenue-sharing agreements, EsqWealth offers a compelling alternative. EsqWealth is a wealth management firm that, in conjunction with its affiliated professionals and alliances, is made up of small cohesive group of experienced lawyers and financial professionals with advanced degrees, certifications, and first-hand life-experience in taxation, asset protection, and high-net-worth wealth management. With an exclusive focus on no more than 25 high-net-worth clients, EsqWealth ensures that each client receives the attention and care they deserve, with their financial well-being as the firm’s foremost priority.

Furthermore, in instances where investors suspect misconduct or violation of their legal rights, EsqWealth collaborates with the esteemed law firm Johnson Fistel, ready to serve as steadfast advocates. As a nationally recognized law firm with a track record of significant recoveries in securities fraud class actions, Johnson Fistel offers legal guidance and unwavering representation for shareholders nationwide.

In conclusion, the SEC v. Commonwealth case underscores the importance of seeking personalized, transparent services in wealth management and legal advocacy. Through EsqWealth and Johnson Fistel, clients can confidently navigate the complexities of the financial world, knowing their interests are diligently protected and safeguarded.

The information above is not intended to and should not be construed as specific advice or recommendations for any individual. The opinions voiced are for general information only and are not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. To discuss specific recommendations for any unique situation, please feel free to contact us.


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