What Should I Know about Beneficiaries?

When you open most financial accounts, like a bank account, life insurance, a brokerage account, or a retirement account (e.g., a 401(k) or IRA), the institution will ask you to name a beneficiary. You also establish beneficiaries, when you draft a will or other legal contracts that require you to specify someone to benefit in your stead. With some trusts, the beneficiary may even be you and your spouse, while you’re alive.

Bankrate’s article entitled “What is a beneficiary?” explains that the beneficiary is usually a person, but it could be any number of individuals, as well as other entities like a trustee of your trust, your estate, or a charity or other such organization.

When you’re opening an account, many people forget to name a beneficiary, because it’s not needed as part of the process to create many financial accounts. However, naming a beneficiary allows you to direct your assets as you want; avoid conflict; and reduce legal issues. Failing to name a beneficiary may create big headaches in the future, possibly for those who have to deal with sorting out your affairs.

There are two types of beneficiaries. A primary beneficiary is first in line to receive any distributions from your assets. You can disburse your assets to as many primary beneficiaries as you want. You can also apportion your assets as you like, with a certain percentage of your account to each primary beneficiary. A contingent beneficiary receives a benefit, if one or more of the primary beneficiaries is unable to collect, such as if they’ve died.

After you’ve named your beneficiaries, it’s important to review the designations regularly. Major life events (death, divorce, birth) may modify who you want to be your beneficiary. You should also make certain that any language in your will doesn’t conflict with beneficiary designations. Beneficiary designations generally take precedence over your will. Check with an elder law or experienced estate planning attorney.

Finally, it is important to understand that a minor (e.g., typically under age 18 in most states) usually can’t hold property, so you’ll need to set up a structure that ensures the child receives the assets. One way to do this, is to have a guardian that holds assets in custody for the minor. You may also be able to use a trust with the same result but with an added benefit: in a trust you can instruct that the assets be given to beneficiaries, only when they reach a certain age or other event or purpose.

Reference: Bankrate (July 1, 2020) “What is a beneficiary?”

Some Counterintuitive Retirement Strategies

There are way too many people who choose to go with their gut, when planning for retirement. Investopedia’s recent article entitled “7 Counterintuitive Retirement Strategies” discusses some big misconceptions people commonly believe when it comes to retirement planning—along with the correct ways of thinking and approaches.

The first myth is that you should constantly be moving in and out of stocks, timing the market and that a buy-and-hold strategy is really a losing one. However, many studies have repeatedly shown that it is often less risky to hold stocks for longer periods. You know, it’s tough to find a 10-year period when the stock market had a negative return. Stocks and real estate are the two big asset classes that have outpaced inflation over time, and—even with a few bearish periods—they’ve slowly gone up in value and will likely continue to do the same. However, that doesn’t mean you can simply fund and forget. Periodically monitor your portfolio and its performance.

Another misconception is that if I don’t sell a losing position, then I don’t have a loss. That is just hogwash. You’re losing money in a declining stock or other security, despite the fact that don’t sell it. You won’t be able to claim a loss on your tax return, if you don’t actually divest. However, the difference between realized and recognized losses is only for taxes. Your actual loss is the same, no matter what is recognized on your tax return.

Myth Number Three is that you can just let your money managers handle it. While professional portfolio management is a good choice in many cases, you still need to be personally engaged in the management of your finances. You can assign market trading and day-to-decisions to a pro, but don’t leave the overall course of your finances totally with your broker or banker.

Next, don’t sell an investment and then buy it back again. Instead, just hold it. No, you can (and probably should) sell a depressed holding and declare a capital loss prior to year’s end to recognize a tax deduction. Why hold on? If the asset does recover, you could plunge in again. Buying an identical stock 30 days before or 30 days after the date of the sale of the original triggers the IRS’s wash sale rules. As a result, your capital loss claim will be void.

Another misconception is that my Social Security benefits will be enough to pay for my retirement years. This is not true. The average monthly Social Security payment for retirees was only $1,471 in June 2019. Benefits vary a lot, but your benefits were never designed to be more than 40% of your pre-retirement wages.

The next myth is that I should put all of my retirement money in totally secure income-oriented investments, especially after I retire. That is not necessarily true. Low-risk vehicles, of course, are more of a priority at this point in your life. However, most retirees should have at least some of their savings in growth and equities in some form, either through individual stocks or mutual funds.

The final misconception is that retirement is a long way away, and so I needn’t worry about it for a while. This is a very dangerous myth, because you’ll be poor and dependent on relatives if you don’t get this straightened out ASAP. It takes time for your investments to grow to what they’ll need to be to keep you through your retirement. Get going! Talk to your estate planning attorney for more information.

Reference: Investopedia (Oct. 21, 2019) “7 Counterintuitive Retirement Strategies”

Are You One of the Many Headed toward Financial Disaster?

You may be saving for retirement, paying down debt or simply budgeting for your everyday expenses. Whatever your goal is, it’s critical to have a plan in place. Some planning now can go a long way in making sure your finances are as healthy as possible. Without any type of plan, you’re just blindly throwing your money around and hoping for the best.

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “A Whopping Number of Older Adults May Be Headed Toward a Financial Disaster” says that millions of older adults are making a critical mistake as they plan for the future. If they don’t make any changes soon, it could be extremely expensive.

More than one-third (34%) of baby boomers admit that they haven’t conducted any financial planning whatsoever in the last two years, according to the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. Therefore, they haven’t planned for retirement, managed a budget, set any goals, reviewed their investments, considered their insurance needs, or done any tax or estate planning. It’s not just baby boomers who aren’t planning. Almost a quarter (24%) of Gen Xers also say they haven’t done any financial planning over the past two years. The generations most likely to have thought about the future are the millennial generation and Gen Z — only 16% and 15%, respectively, said that they haven’t done any recent financial planning.

While all of us should be thinking about our future plans, it’s even more essential for older Americans to focus on their finances. If you’re close to retirement age and haven’t reviewed your investments or thought about your retirement plan recently, you’ll have a hard time knowing if you’re on track. The longer you wait to know if you’re off track, the more difficult it’ll be to make changes and to catch up.

Baby boomers should have plans in place, in case the worst happens. Review your insurance and make an estate plan to be certain that your family is protected if something happens to you. Look at your plans regularly to make sure everything is up to date.

The first part of creating a financial plan is to set goals, like preparing for retirement, paying down your debt, or creating an emergency fund. Next, examine your money situation to find extra cash to put toward those goals. Begin monitoring your spending to get a good idea of just where your money is going every month. It’s a lot harder to stay on a budget and save more, if you don’t know how much you’re spending. Once you get into the habit of tracking your spending, it’ll be easier to discover parts of your budget to cut back. You can start reallocating that money toward your financial goals.

You should also remember that you’ll need to review your plan regularly to make adjustments when needed. This is especially vital when saving for retirement, because there many factors to consider as you’re saving. At least once a year, check that your retirement savings goal is still accurate, and decide whether your current savings are on track to reach that goal. Take a look at your investments to see if your asset allocation is still aligned with your risk tolerance.

Reference: Motley Fool (Feb. 8, 2020) “A Whopping Number of Older Adults May Be Headed Toward a Financial Disaster”

Some Surprising Facts about Retirement

It’s crucial to have a plan for your retirement, so let’s get educated. There are some facts you might not know about retirement, like the way in which your Social Security benefit can be taxed and how to factor in travel expenses.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “5 Surprising Facts to Know About Retirement” gives us five important facts to learn about retirement.

Your Social Security May Be Taxed. Your Social Security benefit can be taxed, up to 85% of it. If your provisional income as an individual is more than $34,000 or over $44,000 as a couple, the IRS says that up to 85% of your benefit is taxable. You only have to receive $25,000 in provisional income as an individual or $32,000 as a couple for 50% of your benefit to be taxed. What’s more, there are several states that impose taxes on some or all Social Security benefits including: Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia.

No Age Limit for Contributing to a Roth IRA. You are able to contribute earned income to a Roth IRA for the rest of your life. You also never have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from a Roth. Note that after-tax dollars are contributed to a Roth and qualified distributions are tax-free.

Those 65+ Can Take a Larger Tax Deduction. You don’t have to be retired to get a slightly larger standard deduction. When you turn 65, your standard deduction as an individual goes up by $1,300 and for a couple filing jointly where both members are 65 or older, it increases by $2,600 for the 2019 tax year.

Many Don’t Include Travel Expenses. Many retirees want to travel after they stop working. However, a Merrill Lynch survey found that 66% of those 50 and older say they haven’t saved anything for a trip.

Roughly a Third of Retirees Who Live Independently Also Live by Themselves. Older adults who live outside of a nursing home or hospital are living independently, but about 33% of these adults live alone, according to a study from the Institute on Aging. The study found that the older people get, the more likely they are to live alone. Women are also twice as likely as older men to live alone. This has financial implications, considering the high cost of and likelihood of needing long-term care.

Understanding what your expenses and your income will be in retirement, are the first steps in making a comprehensive plan.

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 11, 2019) “5 Surprising Facts to Know About Retirement”

Mistakes to Avoid when Planning Estates

Because estate planning has plenty of legal jargon, it can make some people think twice about planning their estates, especially people who believe that they have too little property to bother with this important task.

Comstock’s Magazine’s recent article entitled “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate” warns that without planning, even small estates under a certain dollar amount (which can pass without probate, according the probate laws in some states) may cause headaches for heirs and family members. Here are five mistakes you can avoid with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney:

Getting Bad Advice. If you want to plan an estate, start with a qualified estate planning attorney. There are plenty of other “experts” out there ready to take your money, who don’t know how to apply the law and strategies to your specific situation.

Naming Yourself as a Sole Trustee. You might think that the most trustworthy trustee is yourself, the testator. However, the estate plans can break down, if dementia and Alzheimer’s disease leave a senior susceptible to outside influences. In California, the law requires a certificate of independent review for some changes to trusts, like adding a nurse or an attorney as a beneficiary. However, this also allows family members to take advantage of the situation. It’s wise to designate a co-trustee who must sign off on any changes — like a trusted adult child, financial adviser, or licensed professional trustee, providing an extra layer of oversight.

Misplacing Assets. It’s not uncommon for some assets to be lost in a will or trust. Some assets, such as 401(k) plans, IRAs, and life insurance plans have designated beneficiaries which are outside of a last will and testament or trust document. Stocks and securities accounts may pass differently than other assets, based upon the names on the account. Sometimes people forget to change the beneficiaries on these accounts, like keeping a divorced spouse on a life insurance policy. When updating your will or trust, make certain to also update the beneficiaries of these types of assets.

Committing to a Plan Without Thinking of Others. When it comes to estate planning, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. For example, for entitlement or tax reasons, it may make sense to transfer assets to beneficiaries, while the testator is still living. This might also be a terrible idea, depending on the beneficiaries’ situation and ability to handle a sum of money. He or she may have poor spending habits. Remember that estate planning is a personal process that depends on each family’s assets, needs and values. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to be sure to consider all the angles.

Reference: Comstock’s Magazine “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate”

Are You Ready for Retirement?

While retirement planning may seem daunting, it’s critical to be certain that you have enough savings set aside for your golden years.

According to the Federal Reserve, 26% of non-retirees say they have nothing saved for retirement. Zero.

CNBC’s recent article, “Make these 6 moves now to be financially prepared for retirement,” provides the steps you should take right away to start building your retirement savings.

  1. Put on your thinking cap. Picture as accurately as you can what your ideal retirement will look like—and what it will cost. Use an online retirement savings calculator to help you see if you’re on the right spending and savings path.
  2. Get a checkup. Get educated about Medicare and weigh the alternatives for long-term care, such as long-term care insurance.
  3. Be sure your estate plan is up to date. See your attorney and be sure that all your estate documents work with the laws of the state where you’re retiring. Look at any possible concerns about estate taxes. Keep beneficiary designations up to date because, regardless of what’s said in your will, beneficiaries listed on specific accounts, such as IRAs, will inherit those funds.
  4. Think of charities now. With more time on your hands, consider selecting a cause or two. You can lend a hand or make a donation.
  5. Review your portfolio. You may have your money primarily deposited in a target-date fund that keeps your investment mix of stocks, bonds, cash, and other assets appropriate for your retirement time horizon. However, it’s a good idea to make certain that your asset allocation is where you want it. Remember that portfolio growth and market shifts can change your allocation at any time, and the closer you get to actual retirement—or if you’re already there—the more conservative an allocation you’ll want to have. You should also monitor the account fees you’re paying in funds and consider lower-cost alternatives.
  6. Get professional advice. If you’re not already working with a money and tax expert, consider it.

Reference: CNBC (November 11, 2019) “Make these 6 moves now to be financially prepared for retirement”

Don’t Forget to Update Your Estate Plan

There are some people who sign their will once in their life and never change it. They may have executed their estate plan late in life, or after they were diagnosed with a serious disease. However, even if your family life and finances are pretty basic, there are still changes in the law that you may need to incorporate into your estate plan.  Some of the people that you named in your will could also have died or moved away.

Forbes’ recent article, “Why You Should Change Your Will Now,” warns us that if you’ve taken the “one and done” approach to your estate plan, think again. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, your assets may have changed dramatically since you signed your will. The plan you put in place years ago, may not have considered new federal and state estate taxes. Now that you’ve accumulated significant wealth that will be passed on to your children, you might need to review your plans for that wealth for your children.

You may want to include grandchildren to help pay for their college education.

It is also not uncommon for parents to want to protect their children from themselves. This can be because of addiction issues or a lack of financial literacy. If that’s an issue, some parents elect to hold monies in trust for adult children, as a way to ensure that the funds will be there throughout the child’s lifetime.

A person’s estate plan should grow with them over time. An estate plan for a twenty-something may be very basic, but a newly-married couple will want to include provisions for their spouse. Parents need to think about providing for and protecting their children. Adult children have another set of concerns and you need prepare for the possibility of divorcing spouses, poor life choices, addiction issues and just poor money management. There are many stages in life when you may need to readjust the provisions for your children in your estate planning documents.

If you haven’t looked at your will in a while, do it now.

Reference: Forbes (August 27, 2019) “Why You Should Change Your Will Now”

What are the Details of the New SECURE Act?

The SECURE Act proposes a number of changes to retirement savings. These include changes to parts of IRAs and 401(k)s. The Act is expected to be passed in some form. Some of the changes look to be common sense, like broadening access to IRAs and 401(k)s, as well as including updating the rules to reflect that retirement is now a longer period of life. However, with these changes come potential limitations with stretch IRAs.

Forbes asks in its recent article “Are Concerns Over Stretch IRAs And The SECURE Act Justified?” You should know that an IRA is a tax-wrapper for your investment that is sheltered from tax. Your distributions can also be tax-free, if you use a Roth IRA. That’s a good thing if you have an option between paying taxes on your investment income and not paying taxes on it. The IRA, which is essentially a tax-shield, then leaves with more money for the same investment performance, because no tax is usually paid. The SECURE act isn’t changing this fundamental process, but the issue is when you still have an IRA balance at death.

A Stretch IRA can be a great estate planning tool. Here’s how it works: you give the IRA to a young beneficiary in your family. The tax shield of the IRA is then “stretched,” for what can be decades, based on the principle that an IRA is used over your life expectancy. This is important because the longer the IRA lasts, the more investment gains and income can be protected from taxes.

Today, the longer the lifetime of the beneficiary, the bigger the stretch and the bigger the tax shelter. However, the SECURE Act could change that: instead of IRA funds being spread over the lifetime of the beneficiary, they’d be spread over a much shorter period, maybe 10 years. That’s a big change for estate planning.

For a person who uses their own IRA in retirement and uses it up or passes it to their spouse as an inheritance—the SECURE Act changes almost nothing. For those looking to use their own IRA in retirement, IRAs are slightly improved due to the new ability to continue to contribute after age 70½ and other small improvements. Therefore, most typical IRA holders will be unaffected or benefit to some degree.

For many people, the bulk of IRA funds will be used in retirement and the Stretch IRA is less relevant.

Reference: Forbes (July 16, 2019) “Are Concerns Over Stretch IRAs And The SECURE Act Justified?”

How Does a Roth 401(k) Work?

Most Americans have most of their retirement savings in a 401(k) plan or similar employer-sponsored retirement account, which is great. Your contributions to a 401(k) plan can decrease your taxable income today. However, eventually, when you take distributions from the account, you’re going to owe ordinary income taxes.

CNBC’s recent article, “A Roth 401(k) offers tax advantages. Here’s how it works” says that more employers are offering another option for your retirement savings—a Roth 401(k). When you contribute to a Roth 401(k), the contribution won’t lower your taxable income today. However, when you withdraw money in the future, like a Roth IRA, it’s tax-free. A Roth 401(k) lets you save much more than a Roth IRA. You can only contribute $6,000 to a Roth IRA, and if you’re age 50 or older, you can make an additional catch-up contribution of $1,000.

401(k) plans are more liberal with what you can save. The limit is $19,000 a year to a 401(k) in 2019, and Roth 401(k) plans share that limit. If you are over age 50, you can save an additional $6,000. However, the amount you earn also makes a difference. Roth IRAs have an income cap. You can’t contribute to a Roth IRA, if you earn more than $203,000.

The biggest negative with a Roth 401(k) is how contributions might affect your tax liabilities today. If you earn $100,000 a year and save $19,000 to a traditional 401(k), your taxable income would be only $81,000. However, by contrast, if you make the same $19,000 contribution to a Roth 401(k), you’ll still have taxable income of $100,000.

There are no tax consequences when you take money out of a Roth 401(k), when you’re 59½ and you meet the five-year rule. However, if you take a similar distribution from a traditional 401(k) plan, the money you withdraw is subject to ordinary income tax.

There are also required minimum distributions (RMDs). Roth 401(k) account owners have to take the RMD at age 70½. This is not for Roth IRA owners. Therefore, you may want to roll your Roth 401(k) account over to a Roth IRA account before you turn 70½.

If you are interested in learning more about IRA’s and 401 (k)’s click here.

Reference: CNBC (April 23, 2019) “A Roth 401(k) offers tax advantages. Here’s how it works”

What’s The New Top Retirement Destination?

Watch out, Florida, and step aside Arizona. CNBC’s recent article, “Retirees are flocking to these 3 states — and fleeing these 3 states in droves” says that New Mexico is the new top retirement destination.

Those were the results of a survey by United Van Lines of nearly 27,000 of its customers who moved last year, through Nov. 30, 2018. Among those who moved to New Mexico, 42% said they did so because of retirement, making the state a top destination. Good old Florida was second, with 38% of people moving there citing “retirement” as a reason. Then, Arizona followed in third.

On the flip side, retirement is also a main reason why people fled New Jersey, with a third of households citing that as a reason for leaving the Garden State. Maine and Connecticut were the next states people are moving away from for retirement.

There are a number of reasons why people near retirement might want to relocate. One of the biggest is the need to stretch their savings and their Social Security checks. A top reason for leaving California is more favorable income tax rates in other states.

Another consideration is how your destination state treats retirement income. These states tax Social Security: Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah and Vermont.

In addition, there are other taxes to consider. For example, New Jersey has an effective property tax rate of 2.13%, which is the highest in the country. It also has a top individual income tax rate of 10.75%, which is applied to income exceeding $5 million.

Affordability is an important factor when deciding where to live in retirement. However, there are also other considerations. This includes whether you want to be close to nearby family and friends.

Before you pack up the moving van, take an extended visit in your potential retirement location. Get to know what your destination is like, before you settle down.

In addition, take a hard look at your finances to be sure your move is financially sensible, and ask your estate planning attorney to review your estate plans.

Reference: CNBC (April 17, 2019) “Retirees are flocking to these 3 states — and fleeing these 3 states in droves”