Aging gracefully―a blueprint for your future

If you could peek into the future and the final 10-20 years of your life, what would that look like? Do you see yourself traveling, healthy, energetic and excited about experiencing new challenges? Or do you have visions of illness, body pains, lethargy, disengagement and a lonely life?

What if you could manage that trajectory to a more positive future with fewer deficits and more joy? Research is churning out reports on how we can slow down the negative parts of aging and enhance the joyful aspects of our lives.

Throughout my life, I’ve met many people on both sides of aging. It is clear that our attitude drives this journey. It can turn us into victims or champions over our lives. Often it begins with our attitude each day―do we resign ourselves to a self-defeating diagnosis and settle for dissatisfaction? Or do we take daily challenges as an opportunity to remain engaged and positive? Experts in aging are in agreement that we will be much happier as we age if we are comfortable in our chosen lifestyle (that is to say, we are in the habit of doing things that give meaning and value to us) and that we don’t let our “illness” or age-related challenges define our daily lives.

As technology continues its exponential growth, the key to managing and thriving in this ever-faster moving era is our ability to adapt and remain true to ourselves. I believe equally important is to allow ourselves time to unwind and gain perspective. Unfortunately, most of us would likely skip ‘self-time’ (time for meditation or reflection) in pursuit of getting more accomplished.

Though it doesn’t take a financial windfall to have a healthy retirement, it does help tremendously not to have financial worries. Financial plans and conscious financial choices will help minimize financial anxiety and create an opportunity for a healthy retirement. Beyond this opportunity, it is up to us to build lifestyles (and needed financial resources) that give us joy today and throughout our later lives.

Research on aging recommends that we include the following:

  1. Though we are all different and choose different lifestyles, we all benefit from activities that provide us with at least a minimal level of social interactions. It is social engagement, according to these experts, that can add years and quality to our lives. In addition, volunteering has been shown to reduce pain as well as increase endorphins. Even when homebound, it is essential to be active and motivated.
  2. It is no surprise that a graceful happy retired life must also include regular and vigorous mental engagement. Your financial plan should be your guide to attain your goals, but it will be your consistent financial behaviors that will keep you mentally engaged with your money later in life. We are all aware that as we age we have a higher risk of memory loss, dementia and even Alzheimer’s. We can’t control inherited diseases (50% of those over 85 are affected with a dementia-like Alzheimer’s disease but that also means, 50% are not!) but we can rise to the challenge and keep our brains mentally active.
  3. Improving your quality of life includes addressing your physical health and diet. It is recommended that we exercise regularly, including at least 45 minutes of aerobic activity. A diet with reduced portions and elimination of processed foods appears to also be connected with healthier happier lives.
  4. Though sometimes difficult, it is essential that we be able to ‘let go’ of hate, resentment and regret that reinforces negative emotions. Though it’s never easy, experts say that ideally you’ll forgive or ‘walk away’ to attain a healthier life. I find that smiling every day makes me happier and has the added bonus that it makes others smile too.
  5. Finally, stay true to your lifestyle and decision process throughout your life. If you are comfortable in your core values and habits then even the worst challenges will be manageable.

In short, a successful blueprint for a long and rewarding life entails the intentional effort to remain active, engaged and positive.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS

www.aikapa.com

‘Burn rate’ should be key to retirement savings

People often talk about “saving for retirement.” Few question the need to put aside adequate savings to ensure the successful funding of their retirement plan. The operative word though is “adequate.” How much in the way of savings is “adequate”? Of course, it differs from individual to individual, but you will most likely find that spending is the common variable that shapes the limits of what constitutes adequate savings. With few exceptions, our spending needs in retirement will exceed the amount provided by our inflation adjusted social security benefit. Everything else being equal, the success or failure of any effort to fund retirement is above all dependent on lifestyle and spending habits or ‘burn rate’.

To help you visualize “the power of spending” and its impact on a retirement portfolio, I’ve created four basic retirement funding scenarios. These scenarios assume the same retirement period (beginning 2017 and ending 28 years later), an annual social security benefit of $40K (adjusted for inflation), and a $1M diversified portfolio with a rate of return of 5.5%. The only varying parameter between scenarios is the amount of spending each year with associated tax liability. Each scenario was created using 500 cycles of Monte Carlo probability simulations that modify every parameter except length of retirement to address a range of economic variables and unexpected expenses. The charts include only four (out of 500) projection lines from “best case” to “worst case”.

For the first scenario, our hypothetical client spends $50K/year (before tax), having accumulated $1M at the point that she is ready to retire in 2017. As the chart demonstrates, for the best possible outcome the $50K annual spending client actually grows her nest egg to $1.4M over 28 years (this is the blue line or highest line at year 2045) ― leaving, I should add, a sizable chunk of change for a life beyond 28 years, long term care needs, or for her legacy (be it a favorite charity or her grandchildren). If all economic variables are worse than expected and things don’t quite pan out, she can still expect $250K in assets (see the gray line or lowest line at 2045) after enjoying 28 years in retirement. Not too shabby!

But what if our hypothetical client was in the habit of spending about $75K/year (before tax) instead of $50K? (again, assuming she starts her retirement in 2017 with a $1M portfolio). In this situation, assuming everything goes better than expected the Monte Carlo simulations show a surplus of over $1M after 28 years, BUT in a worst-case scenario the portfolio is depleted after 20 years (around 2037) ― enough to make a financial planner seek ways to protect against the worst-case scenario.

Approaching the Bay Area experience is a hypothetical client who spends $100K/year (before tax). What then? The $1M portfolio would not last her beyond 21 years (2038) even in the best scenario. Unfortunately, there is a higher probability that it will be gone after 15 years (2031). While the worst-case simulation shows that the portfolio could be depleted in as little as 10 or 11 years (2028).

Though there are many other possible spending targets (and also more parameters to consider than those in these scenarios), our final hypothetical client spends $150K/year (before tax) to maintain her lifestyle. In which case, the $1M portfolio would last 9 years tops (2026) and could well be depleted within 5 years (2022).

The story told by the 4 charts is very clear. Saving and spending levels must be aligned for a successful retirement strategy. Clearly, accumulated assets alone are not in and of themselves indicative of success over the long-haul. On the other hand, spending habits and your ability to adhere to a budget are very useful indicators. They can provide a realistic view of your retirement “burn rate” and better align your savings today with future need.

Think of it this way, your approach to spending and your connection to buying are formed throughout your life. It becomes an unshakable habit. For this reason, spending seldom decreases in retirement except with a great deal of stress, anxiety, and depression. To avoid this unhappy outcome, the smartest and healthiest action is to establish a realistic budget for the lifestyle that you seek, then plan your savings around the cost to sustain that lifestyle. The goal of your retirement savings would be to build enough wealth to support your lifestyle.

Though planning for retirement includes more than your burn rate and savings rate they are critical beginnings. What I like best is that these are aspects of retirement planning that we can control.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS

www.aikapa.com

Retirement Income Planning – Spend early or make it last?

During our working years we plan for retirement or financial independence in part by saving maximally and investing in assets that are likely to appreciate.  While we are working and saving for retirement we are in the accumulation phase. As we approach retirement (within about 5 years) we continue accumulating assets and begin the process of distributing those assets to sustain our chosen lifestyle throughout retirement. When we use an income stream from our assets we have entered the distribution phase.

During the accumulation phase we all focus on portfolio returns and tolerate some volatility. We can weather market fluctuations and lack of liquidity since we are not dependent on the portfolio and have our earnings to support our lifestyle. The main objective is to pay required taxes, support our lifestyle, save, and establish a life that encourages us to flourish.

As we approach the time when our assets alone will be used to support our lives, it becomes essential that we address the nuances of how the assets will be deployed – this is termed Retirement Income Planning.

Retirement Income Planning addresses in a pro-active manner how to create a stream of income for our remaining days (using accumulated assets) once our income from work no longer fully supports our lifestyle. Since the retirement time horizon is unknown, we must marry wishes for early retirement or plans for having larger income distributions with having assets last through an unknowable lifespan.

Running out of money is never an option in retirement but leaving money behind is also not acceptable, if it limits your lifestyle. This balance becomes a challenge as lifespans extend and health preservation becomes more successful and expensive. The latest survey shows that couples aged 65 have more than half probability (56%) of at least one spouse living to age 92. Despite these findings many feel they will not live past 80 and yet, if healthy and productive, they might feel very differently once they reach 90. Planning effectively for longevity is essential and must be weighed against the benefits of early spending.

For Retirement Income Planning, we also need to manage tax liability since we want to be sure that assets last as long as possible, particularly tax-deferred assets that are taxed at ordinary tax rates on withdrawal.

A market downturn can more greatly impact a portfolio early in retirement or just before the distribution phase. In retirement, unlike in the accumulation phase, it is much more difficult for the portfolio to recover from a market downturn. A robust retirement income plan must include ways to deliver the needed income regardless of market behavior.

The new reverse mortgages are income distribution tools that retirees can use to access home equity as part of a retirement income plan. For some, they provide at least three advantages early in retirement: reduced tax liability, longer investment time for the portfolio, and enjoyment of their home until retirees are ready to downsize.

For all retirees preserving their purchasing power (not just preserving the dollar amount) is an essential part of an income plan. Failure to include inflation protection is evident when retirees hold little to no significant equity portfolio and the consequences are dire. Though annuity and pensions are useful income distribution tools they fail unless combined with a strategy that protects against inflation. Sustaining purchasing power is even more significant when considering healthcare expenses. Keep in mind that healthcare costs grow due to inflation and also as a percent of annual spending as we age.

Scenarios that use all available tools to address how to best deploy retirement income will provide each retiring person with confidence to spend early and throughout retirement without fear of outlasting their assets.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS

www.aikapa.com

Identifying Your “Retirement Paradise”

For most of our clients their ideal retirement location or “Retirement Paradise” is in the Bay Area (or other high cost areas), near family and friends and a stimulating environment, but high taxes and the cost of living cause many to re-evaluate.
For those choosing to remain in the Bay Area, the purchase of a smaller home (downsizing) is often used as a way to reduce expenses or to make their home better suited for independent at-home aging.  To remain in the Bay Area (or other high cost areas) retirement saving goals must be very aggressive and fully funded to support the same lifestyle during retirement.

Some consider moving to lower cost US states and even overseas. The idea of downsizing away from California (or your home state), as a way to reduce expenses and bolster available retirement funds may not be as easy as selecting the lowest tax or lowest cost location.  Keeping in mind that retirement is not one uniform event, but a series of phases, let’s cover a few of the financial implications.

Relocating may indeed reduce some costs, but there are ramifications that are often overlooked.  For example, moving away from higher cost areas can reduce income taxes, but this may not offset the increased cost of travel, other taxes (such as real estate), services, and costs associated with changes to lifestyle.

We suggest that you give the town, state or country that you intend to relocate to a try for extended periods of time and at various seasons of the year with an eye toward evaluating how you will spend your retirement and what costs will be incurred. How does it feel to revisit the same place over several years? Can you see yourself developing the supporting network you’ll need as you grow older? How will your budget be changed?

Don’t underestimate the value of a community that can provide stimulating events that you would be interested in attending (the opera, symphony, music, college courses).  What about your family and friends? Will you want to be close to them while you age? What healthcare do you need and how does your future community support it?  Some areas have low taxes, but do they provide the services that you’ll need as you age?

If you enjoy particular hobbies, you’ll probably want to check out the ease of access to your interests, but don’t neglect other priorities such as transportation and communication. As you age, travel becomes more difficult, especially if you develop special needs. Give thought to public transit and convenience to major airports or rail lines. In our experience, clients will deliberately choose a populated community to move to (later in retirement) with well developed public transit.  Access to quality internet is also your lifeline to friends and family and to future independence.

Some states do not tax retiree income and some states provide extensive retiree services. Look to see which location provides benefits that you will need. Often states that do not tax an individual’s income have higher sales and property taxes, so you must do the numbers. Be mindful of Medigap policy costs and Medicare Part D (drug coverage) in your potential retirement paradise. Premiums can be lower in areas that have a lower cost of living or more retirees. The prohibitively high cost for healthcare and lack of services in some counties will likely surprise you.

It may seem a little pre-mature, but you should give some thought and consideration during the process of making your first retirement move to the possibility of a later move in life to be near loved ones or to an assisted-living facility. As we age, the process of moving becomes more challenging – though early in retirement it can be very exciting. You’ll find this stress can be reduced or avoided with some early planning and coordination.

A few words now about moving to a foreign country for some or all of your retirement years.  It is likely that you can find countries with a lower cost of living than the US and where you can maintain or enlarge your lifestyle, but you’d be well advised to examine this option over several extended trips.  If you are planning to remain abroad through only part of your retirement, you will need to determine how to fund your eventual return, or else how you will handle all retirement phases if you intend to remain permanently out-of-country.

All US “persons” (that’s the legal term for anyone deemed subject to US taxation authority) must file taxes annually. Typically the US has a treaty with other countries so that your earnings will not be double taxed, but most retirees do not work so double taxation is not a large concern. There are rules on what is or is not taxable to you as a resident of the foreign country and what is payable to the IRS. Consider that you will have to pay taxes on all pre-tax accounts, social security, pensions even while living overseas but you will likely avoid state tax. As a US person, you will have annual administrative financial filings (known as FBAR) while not residing in the US.  Healthcare is often an issue later in retirement (Medicare does NOT cover foreign health care costs) unless you verify that the services and specialties needed as you age are easily available in your new home.  Finally, currency differences will provide you with more purchasing power while the dollar is high. However, when the dollar drops, there may be a need to return to the US or find some other way to make up the shortfall.  These contingencies need to be planned for early so that you’ll have a framework regarding your choices later in retirement.

When planning for your retirement paradise, bear in mind the most important principle—to think beyond today and prepare as best you can for contingencies throughout all phases in retirement. As always, we’re here to listen and to help outline the implications of your choices for the various stages of retirement. Working together, we can examine financially realistic options so that you can make the best choices today while preparing for the realities of your “Retirement Paradise”.

When does it make sense to payoff your mortgage before retirement?

It is relatively easy to make paying off your mortgage a goal, largely because you think it will “feel good” or because you imagine that it will be “liberating” to throw a mortgage burning party. But be careful that you are not mixing a critical financial decision with an emotional reaction. It may seem illogical, but there are many reasons why it is sometimes a better financial decision not to pay off your mortgage. That said, there are also some very good reasons for paying off your mortgage prior to retirement. The balance is often tipped by the amount the client spends on their lifestyle budget, the amount they have saved in available non-home assets, their tax liability, the source of the money used to pay off the mortgage and what they have decided to do for unexpected expenses.

For most of our clients, a mortgage on their principal residence is a low-rate loan that can be used (since 1997) to reduced tax liability (usual tax refunds drop the effective mortgage interest rate by as much as 1-3% for our clients). A mortgage repayment is stretched out (amortized) over a long period of time (15 or 30 years are common) with most of the interest paid during the first 2/3rds of the amortized period. When combined with inflation and a healthy appreciation in real estate valuations, a mortgage provides the buyer an opportunity to expense a very low cost loan while building equity in the home with money that would otherwise (at least in part) go toward rent. A mortgage loan can also be used to maximize and grow savings pre-retirement, obviously freeing clients to use these savings later while in retirement. The argument can also be made that a diversified portfolio started with assets that might have been used to pay off a mortgage (though not guaranteed) can yield a rolling average of 6-9% (with a margin of safety) and provide assets that grow above the mortgage rate and that are available for use outside of the home asset.

Many of our clients will have reduced or no earned corporate income during their retirement years, and plan to rely primarily on portfolio, pension, and social security to support them for 30-40 years. During this time they might have lower taxable income, but that is only true if their lifestyle expenses are low enough (something that is difficult to do in the Bay Area). If not, they might increase their taxable income to support their lifestyle and would benefit from available tax deductions (including mortgage interest). Most of our clients would like to remain in their homes throughout retirement, but this adds a further complication if they do not have enough non-home assets to support their annual budget. We find that home owners are surprised that they can’t tap most of their home equity (at reasonable costs) until they sell their home.

Paying off a mortgage is sometimes worth considering when the client has sufficient assets to support retirement outside of (i.e., above and beyond) their home. As an example, consider someone with a lifestyle expense in retirement of $100K annually (after social security). We can roughly estimate that they will need about $3M in portfolio assets to support their lifestyle and to ensure that they will not be forced to sell their home to support themselves. This $3M is only an estimate since it may not be sufficient if there is no supporting plan to cover unexpected expenses. But assuming there is sufficient savings and buffer, paying off the mortgage becomes a viable option which would reduce lifestyle budget (since there should be no mortgage payments) and tax liability.

Since several clients would like to hear scenarios that highlight the advantages of paying off their mortgage prior to retirement I’ve outlined two below:

1)  When a client plans to live in a mortgaged home until they need care, have low lifestyle expenses AND enough money outside of their home asset to support their lifestyle budget, including maintenance of their home. In this situation (particularly when their tax rate will not benefit greatly from remaining Schedule A deductions) the reduced expense derived from not paying a mortgage provides measurable benefit and real financial freedom. In addition, leaving a home with little or no mortgage is popular with those who wish to provide a legacy. However, clients have to be prepared for a potential increase in taxes in retirement particularly if they need to draw more from their portfolios. There is also the possibility that they may need to sell their home to unlock equity to cover unexpected expenses.

2)  Another scenario that encourages paying off the mortgage pre-retirement applies to clients with a low taxable income, sufficient non-home assets to support their lifestyle expenses and a sudden influx of cash to cover their mortgage (this cash must be more than the amount they can contribute in a tax advantageous manner and not needed to support their lifestyle).

It has been clearly demonstrated that anyone with a fully diversified portfolio benefits most from maximizing tax-advantaged savings prior to retirement. Usage of funds that could be contributed to these types of accounts to pay off a mortgage often results in too much home and not enough cash (house rich, cash poor, as the saying goes). This is particularly the case in areas where home appreciation is high and home equity grows, but can’t be accessed cost effectively. A misconception is that a large mortgage is the best way to reduce taxes because you can minimize them through Schedule A deductions. This is patently not true. The best way to minimize your taxes is through tax-deferred savings, not deductions. Do note that in retirement, neither tax deferral nor the option to obtain a mortgage at a reasonable rate may be available.

Each person needs to consider the best way to manage their mortgage payments in retirement. In this article, I have sought to help you recognize some of the key components that factor into whether it makes sense to pay off your mortgage prior to retirement. It is important that you realize that there is no single answer for everyone and that we must balance your budget, taxable income, amortization period and plan to cover contingencies during retirement before making this decision.

Retirement – Vocation, Vacation or A bit of both?

You’ve heard it said: “idle hands make for idle minds.” The idea of an absolutely “work free” retirement may appeal to some, especially if you are passionate about a particular hobby or sport, but others may well find that an “endless vacation” loses its charm after some months or years. Don’t underestimate the benefits of continuing to work through your retirement. Continued employment keeps the mind engaged, provides a sense of personal identity, can aid in physical & mental fitness and, of course, can contribute positively to your finances.

Since I work primarily with self-employed individuals I hear first-hand just how many clients would actually prefer their retirement to include some form of meaningful part-time employment. For most, this work ought to be stimulating, engaging, productive and affirming with or without financial rewards.

What would you want in retirement? How do you determine what you prefer? What are some options?

Explore what would inspire you with colleagues, friends and family. This conversation can be with a group of similarly motivated and stimulating colleagues (or friends/friends) and help identify your ideal retirement. You might also examine your “motivators,” both existential and economic. Are you someone that thrives on intellectual stimulation, competition, growth and learning, is your identity tightly linked to the work you do? These are “motivators” for finding a vocation in retirement. On the other hand, do you work solely for economic reasons, are you primarily concerned with the rising cost of living, maintaining a given lifestyle, managing debt, or leaving more to your heirs? Vocation may be right for you if you are motivated by existential rather than economic reasons.

You can also use existing social entrepreneurship organizations (such as encore.org) that tap the altruistic resources of retired individuals. Even providing grants for mature adults to develop their ideas while connecting participants with others that share a similar calling.

You might consider that according to AARP nearly 90% of those over age 65 want to remain in their residence throughout retirement. Providing aging-in-place support to elderly in all facets, including bookkeeping, gardening, tutoring, transportation for outings and errands are all viable opportunities. Balance: This is your retirement. Find the combination that best suits you – be it as a vocation, a vacation or a bit of both.

There are unique considerations to working after your formal retirement. To make the most of your in-retirement earnings, you should work carefully with a financial advisor so that social security and taxes can be properly coordinated.

Social Security – an under appreciated but invaluable part of your retirement plan

Retirement planning entails finding ways to cover expenses when we ultimately cease or reduce our working income. The goal is to ensure that we don’t outlive our assets, regardless of our longevity.

To the surprise of many, one of the most valuable (yet under rated) tools to fund retirement is Social Security. Clients often ask about ways to bolster their retirement income; such as, maximizing their investments, reverse mortgages and annuities. They seldom consider how to maximize their Social Security benefits.

We pay for Social Security and Medicare through payroll taxes with the employer paying half of this expense and the employee, often grudgingly, paying the other half. In particular, I detect a sense of being “over taxed” by those who are self-employed and must therefore bear the full brunt of the Social Security tax. Some make it a goal to reduce their profit or earnings so that they can lower this tax, sometimes entirely avoiding paying any social security tax. And yet the very best inflation protected guaranteed income during retirement is Social Security. If you don’t pay the tax you don’t collect the retirement benefit.

I will outline a few interesting facts to help you understand aspects of Social Security that we consider when creating retirement projections.

Although you must have 10 years of Social Security taxed earnings to qualify for benefits the Social Security Administration actually uses the highest 35 years of earnings (any missing years are zeroed) to calculate your retirement benefit. To earn the maximum retirement benefit you would need to pay social security tax at the highest level allowed each year for 35 years. Each year the maximum social security taxable earnings changes. In 2014 it is $117K.

The earliest age you can begin to collect Social Security is 62 while the Full Retirement Age (FRA) is now between 66 and 67, dependent on your birth year. Unless in poor health, it is seldom advantageous to collect Social Security benefits before reaching FRA. Collecting Social Security prior to FRA will close the door on some options that can help maximize your Social Security income and should only be considered in unusual situations.

Many file for benefit at their FRA whereas others delay filing until sometime after FRA. Waiting until as late as age 70 to collect these benefits can significantly increase the Social Security payout for a lifetime.

One feature of Social Security that often surprises clients is the option to collect spousal benefits. Spousal benefits uses only your spouse’s work history to provide you with half of your spouse’s social security benefits. One way to use this option is (once you reach your FRA) to choose to delay filing for Social Security based on your own work history and instead claim half of your spouse’s benefits. Why would you do that? By collecting a reduced spousal benefit you can allow the benefit based on your own work history to continue to grow until up to age 70.

What are some considerations associated with receiving spousal benefits? The marriage must have lasted at least 10 years. You can claim based on your ex-spouse’s Social Security benefits so long as you’ve not remarried (or if you remarry after age 60). You can only claim a spousal benefit when you’ve both reached FRA. This feature works maximally for same age spouses since they can both claim spousal benefits on each other, therefore collecting Social Security while still allowing their own Social Security to grow until age 70.

One unpleasant feature of Social Security is called the Windfall Elimination Provision which can surprise workers who have worked for two employers where one was not subject to Social Security withholdings. The social security benefits are reduced even though the second earnings were subject to Social Security withholdings. We see the Windfall Elimination most often with teachers who also worked in other non-teaching positions.

So are Social Security benefits taxed? Yes. 85% of your Social Security earnings will be part of your retired taxable income. This can drop to 50% if the in-retirement AGI is low enough.

Your Social Security tax payment entitles you to guaranteed retirement income, an essential part of the retirement plan for most Americans. The important role Social Security plays in your retirement planning cannot be over stated. A sole conversation with Social Security Administration should not be enough. Considering that the Social Security handbook has over 2,700 rules in a thick manual called POMS (Program Operating Manual System) it should come as no surprise to you that the Social Security Administration can’t always provide the best information in relation to your own situation.

Take the time to determine what will be the best way to deploy your Social Security scenario since this retirement income will be both inflation protected and last you through your entire retired life.

Fixed Annuities – apply them with care

Fixed Annuities
– A limited but essential role in some retirement plans –

Fixed annuities represent a contract between an individual and an insurance company. Annuities provide a contractual way for an individual to guarantee that he or she receives income for life or for a set period of time. Other liquid financial products like equities, can pay dividends that can be used as retirement income the income is not guaranteed. A fixed annuity will guarantee an individual a stream of income as long as he or she lives or for a set number of years.

Sometimes you can start with Deferred Fixed Annuities

Like all annuities, except those that are immediate, deferred fixed annuities have two phases. The first phase is the accumulation phase. During this phase, which can be as short as a few years or as long as several decades, the annuity owner makes regular deposits into the account. These deposits are known as premiums.

All premiums contributed to a deferred annuity grow tax-deferred which means that the growth income received at retirement will be taxed as ordinary income.

When an annuity owner, who is known as the “annuitant”, decides to have distributions start, the annuity is “annuitized”. This is a critical process that converts it to an immediate annuity and you begin receiving payouts. The distributions can be paid monthly, quarterly or annually, depending on the preferences of the annuitant. An annuitant should think about his or her distribution schedule very carefully, because once it starts, it cannot be changed. An insurance company will also typically let the annuitant choose the length of time over which the distributions are paid. Guaranteed payments can be taken for life or for a specific number of years. This selection will affect the amount of each payment.  Life annuities are the only ones that will give the promised guarantee life long income.  Consider that life long income may not support your current lifestyle particularly in high inflationary periods.

Under current federal tax law, an annuity owner cannot begin taking payouts on a tax-deferred annuity prior to age 59 ½ without incurring a 10% penalty. Any tax-deferred annuity must begin in the year in which the annuitant turns age 70 ½.

What are Immediate Fixed Annuities?

An immediate fixed annuity is funded with a single premium. The premium is typically after-tax money paid as one lump sum. You can also set this up from a mandatory distributions taken on a qualified account. The distributions made by the life insurance company begin immediately, typically within 12 months of the start of the contract.

Immediate Fixed Annuities Pros and Cons

The return % paid on fixed annuity is always fixed. It could change year over year, but once it’s set for the year it will not change regardless of stock market fluctuations. This can be of great help to those on a tight retirement budget unless the market rises and therefore inflation rises. The advantage will be that you’ll know exactly the amount of each payment that will be made. While the rate paid on a fixed annuity could vary from year to year, most insurance companies will guarantee a rate of between 3% and 5%. It’s important to note, however, this guaranteed amount might not be enough to offset any cost of living increase. Inflation is a real and significant threat to retirement savings.  It is best to do immediate annuities when interest rates are high.

You could purchase a COLA (cost of living adjustment) rider that adjusts with inflation to retain some of your future purchasing power. The COLA rider is a costly component of  a fixed annuity contract, but it will increase the amount of money that is paid out each year. The amount should be enough to counteract measured inflationary pressures.  If you can afford the COLA you might consider it or consider leaving a portion of your assets in an equity portfolio so that it growth with the economy and provides a real inflation hedge.

For some, another risk factor associated with a fixed annuity is the premature death of the contract owner. If an annuitant dies before he or she has been repaid the amount he or she paid in premiums, the insurance company will keep the balance. To offset this, most insurance companies now give a guarantee of some sort on the premium.  For example, if the annuitant has an annuity worth $300,000 and dies after having only received $50,000 back, the beneficiary will receive the remaining $250,000. Or, the annuitant can choose an option called “period certain”. If he or she chooses a period of 20 years but dies during year 10, the beneficiary will receive payouts for the remaining 10 years.

I only consider premature death an important risk factor if you have beneficiaries or a legacy you want funded.  Even so, there are other ways to cover this risk factor than to purchase this type of rider – particularly if you still qualify for life insurance.

Who Should Buy Fixed Annuities?

Retired investors who need to guarantee income for life or for a set amount of time are often advised to consider a fixed annuity. Retirees who rely on equity dividends for most of their income may also want to consider a fixed immediate annuity. Dividends can provide substantial income but are not guaranteed. They can be cancelled by the company at any time should it need to conserve cash.

A retired investor may also fear that he or she will outlive the money he or she has saved. An immediate fixed annuity will also provide financial security. The payouts will be guaranteed for as long as the annuitant is alive, regardless of the amount of the premium. Even when the amount of the payouts exceeds the premium, the insurance company is obligated to make the payouts. For those in good health with few liquid assets, a fixed annuity could make a difference in their standard of living BUT they are extremely costly and impossible to exit gracefully if your situation changes.

A fixed annuity investor should always make sure he or she has enough cash for emergencies. As outlined earlier, an annuity contract cannot be cancelled except under the extreme circumstances. Once the contract is signed, the only way an investor can receive his or her money is through the payouts.

Consumers are strongly encouraged to purchase annuities only after a thorough analysis by a NON annuity sales financial professional.  This is a major investment that once signed can’t be undone – read the fine print and understand the nuances and their impact on your entire retirement before you sign.

Social Security – Have a plan

Maximize your inflation protected pension plan
– Couples must have a Social Security strategy –

Edi Alvarez, CFP

According to a recent survey (1) married couples nearing retirement do not maximize their social security benefits.  The vast majority of people are unaware of strategies that could increase their lifetime Social Security benefit by $40,000 or more. Only those with high net-worth or higher income appear aware that couples should have a social security implementation strategy.

Seventy-four percent of people with household income exceeding $200,000 expect to receive advice on Social Security benefit options from a financial planner, compared to only 48 percent of those with household incomes less than $50,000.

Most (77 percent) felt that the best advice to maximize their Social Security retirement benefits would be the Social Security Administration. Unfortunately, SSA personnel are not trained to provide more information than monthly benefit amounts at different election ages, and the SSA prohibits its representatives from dispensing advice.

If you are approaching your full retirement age or are planning on enrolling to receive social security make the investment to evaluate your social security implementation strategy with a qualified financial planner.

(1) survey source form socialsecuritytiming.com

Don’t Forget State Estate Taxes

Don’t Forget State Estate Taxes

Don’t forget your state of residence and state estate tax changes when planning your Estate. Many differences between states require that you carefully review your estate and include state rules into your financial plan!  Even when you determine that you are exempt from federal taxes you may still have unexpected significant estate taxes at the state level.  Larger estates are more likely to have both but you’d be surprised that in some states how smaller estates may also qualified.

Nearly half of U.S. states impose an estate or inheritance tax regardless of whether the resident’s estate also owes federal estate taxes. Two states, New Jersey and Maryland, levy both estate and inheritance taxes!

Florida, Nevada, and Alaska are among states generally thought to be attractive place to retire, not only when you are living — because there is no income tax — but also when you die. Neither estate nor inheritance taxes are charged in these states.

Many estates owe taxes to multiple states because the deceased person owned a vacation home or other tangible property such as a boat outside of the state they lived in when they died. Intangible property, such as stocks and money in bank accounts, is taxed in the state the individual legally resided in at death, regardless of where the investments are physically located.

In California, we’ve phased out Estate taxes after 2005 and there is no inheritance tax. Executors of estates of persons who died on or after Jan. 1, 2005, are no longer required to file a California estate tax return.

Imposing just an estate tax, with exemption amounts ranging from $338,333 to $5 million, are Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Ohio, North Carolina, Hawaii, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Illinois and the District of Columbia. Rates vary from 7% in Ohio to 19% in D.C.

Six states collect just an inheritance tax, which is paid by the heirs and not the estate, and generally increases for beneficiaries the more removed they are from being close family members. Rates range from 9.5% to 20% in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska.

New Jersey begins taxing estates at $675,000 and has a maximum rate of 16%, in addition to a maximum 16% inheritance tax on beneficiaries who are not spouses or parents, or children or other lineal descendants. New York has a $1 million exemption for its estate tax, which also tops out at 16%.

Of course, states are always changing tax rules. So be mindful and consult a tax attorney before filing.