All Posts by Chris Chen CFP

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Chris Chen CFP CDFA is the CEO and a Wealth Strategist with Insight Financial Strategists LLC in the Boston area. He specializes in retirement planning and divorce financial planning

May 14

Should Your Spouse Join You in a Divorce Workshop?

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Should Your Spouse Join You in a Divorce Workshop?

Should Your Spouse Join You in a Divorce Workshop? As a Financial Planner, I participate in many different types of workshops, including divorce. Pandemic obliging, these days they are usually webinars.   Divorce is no exception. Should you suggest to your spouse that they should join you in a divorce workshop? Or do you want to keep the information that you got in a divorce workshop to yourself?

As a Certified Financial Planner, I often answer complicated questions with “it depends.” However, for this question, I will just say, “Heck, yes, bring him or her along”! I recently recommended to a divorce workshop attendee that she come back to other workshops and bring her husband along. As it happens,  they are still talking, and my workshops are still Zooming. So, she might be able to get him there. The primary benefit of bringing your spouse to a divorce workshop is that you will start to get him on the same level of understanding about divorce issues.

The first step is understanding that divorce is emotionally difficult to negotiate for both sides. It is even more challenging if the two sides start from different vantage points. Just remember how you felt the last time you dealt with someone with a completely different perspective.  For example, think of the last time you tried to persuade your toddler to eat his or her vegetables. You and your spouse cannot have all your questions answered in one workshop or a dozen. Divorce is way too complex for that. But you will both learn something. And most importantly, you will both hear the same information and may learn the same thing. And that can form the basis for a productive negotiation and path forward.

If you and your spouse do go to the same divorce workshop, take it a step further and ask the questions on the points you disagree about. At the workshop, you will get a neutral expert opinion that may be helpful. Is it about planning for retirement with a lot fewer assets? Or whether you should keep your inheritance as separate property? The challenge of introducing the “D” word to the kids? The difficulties of comparing pensions to other assets? The potential for a creative solution? It doesn’t matter what the areas of disagreement are. You will both hear the same answer and have a starting point to move forward.

In war, you want to keep to yourself all the advantages that you can. Divorce may be war, but it is different in at least one respect: it pays to make sure that your spouse is as informed as you are because that reduces your legal bills and gets you closer to the finish line. Heck, it is also worth it to find out that your position might be wrong. That too can form the basis for moving on. You should note that what you hear in a divorce workshop can be great information, but it is not “advice.” Because every situation is unique, you will have to go back to a professional for objective advice. However, all journeys start with one step forward. Getting on the same page can be that important first step.

Apr 14

How You Can Plan to Pay for Long Term Care

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

How You Can Plan to Pay for Long Term Care

Introduction

You need a plan to pay for Long Term Care (LTC). About 70% of us will end up needing LTC, making it a high probability event with a potentially large and uncertain cost. For many of us, LTC may well end up as the single most significant expense of our retirement.

Aware of the potential impact of the cost of LTC, Jill wanted to know if she should purchase a long-term care insurance policy or put her assets in a Medicaid trust. She reasoned that with the first option, the insurance policy would cover her costs up to the coverage limit. However, Jill balked at the cost of the policy. With the Medicaid trust option, all of her expenses would be potentially paid for by Medicaid, but she would have to put all of her assets into an irrevocable trust. She found that unattractive as well.

Fiduciary Advice

Caught between two unattractive options, Jill decided that she needed clarity so she could make a decision based on facts and not emotions. She thought she would check in with a fiduciary fee-only Certified Financial Planner professional. Jill found a planner easily enough. She was a little shocked at the cost of a consultation. She was not used to paying directly for financial advice. For example, she never paid her insurance sales representative, Jason, any money, at least directly. After taking a big breath, she agreed to the cost, scheduled a Zoom consultation, and asked her daughter Kim to join.

LTC is unpredictable

Oddly, she was comforted when her planner confirmed that it is difficult to predict the cost of LTC. First, it was not certain that she would need it: about 30% of us end up not needing it. Because Long Term Care can range anywhere from a few hours of home care a day to years in an assisted living facility or a nursing home, it was not easy to calculate how much it might eventually cost. 

After thinking a little, Kim suggested that Jill needed to understand what her resources were. Jill owned her own home with about $600,000 in equity using the Zillow valuation as a benchmark. She also had somewhat over $900,000 in retirement assets and other financial assets worth about $150,000. Jill had always thought that if she did not have LTCi, she would have to use her assets to pay for the cost. She was concerned that there would not be enough and that she may not be able to leave anything for Kim and her brother. Kim rolled her eyes slightly.

The planner pointed out that Jill was making a reasonable income. That took her by surprise because somehow, it had escaped her mind that her resources also included her income. Jill received about $35,000 annually in Social Security and $25,000 from the QDRO of her ex-husband’s pension. Also, she had her own pension that paid about $10,000. In total, she had a little over $70,000 in income. Realizing that, Jill smiled.  

What about the house?

It dawned on Jill that if she had to move into assisted living, many of her current expenses would go away. That would liberate cash flow to pay for the assisted living facility costs. She realized suddenly that she might also be able to sell her house, cut the related expenses, and use the proceeds. Kim confirmed that she and her brother would not want to keep the house after Jill passed away. 

Jill thought about how she might feel about selling the house. She remembered that her aunt went to assisted living, thinking that she would need the house to come back to. Jill knew that she might change her mind and, like her aunt, refuse to sell. But for now, it was an assumption she was willing to make.

Jill could afford LTC

Based on her current income, she could afford to move into assisted living at current rates. Not that she wanted to!

The planner also pointed out that Jill’s income and costs would likely diverge because of inflation, with expenses growing faster than income. Although Social Security has an annual Cost of Living Adjustment, Jill’s pensions did not. At the same time, the cost of assisted living regularly increases, sometimes faster than inflation. However, at first blush, it looked like she could pull through when the time came.

Kim asked how to deal with the increasing cost of living and whether it made sense to continue Jill’s very conservative investment allocation. Excellent question! The planner explained that Jill’s money needed to continue working for her. If she kept it too conservative, her nest egg would lose ground against inflation. To address her safety concerns, Jill would need to differentiate between money that she would need in the relatively short term and money that she would not need for a while. Jill could keep the first pot in a conservative allocation to insulate it from market fluctuations. She could reach for more return with the second pot, thus balancing the need for safety and growth.

The planner made a point to insist that this was all preliminary, that he needed to go fire up his spreadsheets to give Jill a more definite answer. However, Jill and Kim were excited because they could see that Jill could probably afford long-term care, leave something for her children, and maybe even spend a little more on herself. Kim was relieved because she could feel the fear of her expected financial burden dissipate.  

Jill and Kim came back a week later to see what their planner had cooked up. He showed them potential cost projections depending on how long Jill might need long-term care. He showed them a range of projections that would capture many of the possibilities. They decided together the range of options that would make Jill feel comfortable.

He also showed them how changing her investment plan would allow her to be secure and potentially increase her assets, thereby aligning better with her Life Plan. Jill felt a little concerned. She asked what if all these projections and assumptions were wrong and all the money went “poof.” However, being one step removed from her Mom’s emotions, Kim saw the logic. 

Finally, the planner suggested that Jill should consider purchasing a hybrid life insurance policy that would convert into a long-term care policy if needed. Should the need arise, the insurance policy could serve as a cushion and cover some long-term care costs. If not required, Kim and her brother would benefit from a death benefit free of income tax. The thought of a “death benefit” made Kim a little uncomfortable. However, Jill felt better about using some insurance in her plan. The planner reminded them that he would not get a commission if Jill purchased the policy as a fee-only fiduciary.

Jill trusted the planner. She was grateful for the clarity that he provided. Most importantly, Jill felt more confident about the future. She decided to take the weekend to think about it. 

On the following Monday, Jill called the planner and asked if he would continue planning for her. She wanted her modified investment plan implemented. Jill knew that it had to be updated regularly and that she would need help with that. She also needed help aligning her taxes and estate plan to her new perspective. Jill was pleased that her new financial plan fitted better with her Life Plan. 

Mar 23

Should you value your pension?

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

Should You Value Your Pension?

Jill came to our office for post-divorce financial planning. At 60 years young with two grown children, she wanted to know whether she would make it through retirement without running out of assets. A former stay-at-home Mom and current yoga instructor, Jill did not have a professional career. Her work-life consisted of a series of part-time jobs scheduled around her children’s. 

Jill traded her interest in her ex-husband Jack’s 401(k) for half of a brokerage account, her IRA, and the marital home. Their lawyers decided that Jack’s 401(k) should be discounted by 25%. That would account for the fact that the 401(k)’s pretax assets would be taxed by Uncle Sam and her State tax authority upon distribution.

Adjustments to the Value of a 401k

That sounds reasonable on the surface. But was a 25% discount appropriate for Jill? After making some retirement income projections, it became clear that Jill would likely always be in a lower federal tax bracket than 25%. Had Jill consulted a Divorce Financial Planner at the time of her divorce, he or she would probably have advised against agreeing to a 25% discount to the value of the 401(k).

Jill and Jack also agreed that she would keep half of her interest in Jack’s defined-benefit pension that he earned as a pediatrician with a large hospital. When they agreed to divide the pension, Jack was unclear about the value of the pension. He thought that it was probably “not worth much anyway.” Neither lawyer disagreed.

This highlights how vital it is to seek advice from the right divorce professional for the right issues: lawyers for legal matters and Divorce Financial Planners for financial questions. When mediators and divorce lawyers team up with divorce financial planners, the additional expense often pays for itself.

What About the Pension? 

After some research, I found that Jill would end up receiving a little over $33,000 a year from the QDRO of Jack’s pension. This is significant for a retiree with a projected spending requirement of less than $5,000 a month!

Since Jack and Jill planned to retire in the same year, she would be able to start receiving her payments at the same time as Jack. Also, Jack had agreed to select a distribution option with a survivor’s benefit for Jill. 

That would allow her to continue receiving payments when Jack passed away. Jill was aware that women tend to outlive men. So, she was relieved that the survivor benefit was there.  

Each defined-benefit pension has its own rules. Each pension division should be evaluated individually.

The Value of Pension Division Analysis

A defined-benefit pension such as Jack’s does not have an easily assessable value in the same way as an IRA or a 401(k). Pension statements don’t come with a dollar value. A pension promises to pay the employee a certain amount of money in retirement based on a specific formula. For the pension to be fairly considered in the overall asset division, a professional must value it.

In her case, Jill’s share of the pension was 50% of the marital portion. Was it the best outcome for Jill? It is hard to re-assess a case after the fact. However, had she and Jack known the value of the pension, they might have decided for a different division that may have better served their respective interests. Jill may have decided that she wanted more of the 401(k), and Jack could have decided that he wanted to keep more of the pension. Or possibly Jill may have considered taking a lump-sum buyout of her claim to Jack’s pension. Whatever the case, Jill and Jack would have had the explicit information to decide consciously rather than taking the default path.

The news that Jack’s QDRO’d defined benefit pension had value was serendipity for Jill. Increasing her projected retirement income with the pension payments meaningfully increased her chances to live through retirement without running out of assets. But it is possible that a better understanding of the pension division and other financial issues at the time of divorce could have resulted in an even more favorable outcome for Jill.

Feb 19

What is Bitcoin, exactly?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Investment Planning

What is Bitcoin, exactly?

BitcoinWhat is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a cryptographic protocol operating on a peer-to-peer network created in 2009. This protocol is utilized in the form of a currency, allowing for direct transactions between individuals. To put it more simply, Bitcoin is an anonymous digital currency, which circumvents financial intermediaries in transactions.

Four key Bitcoin considerations:

1. How are Bitcoins created? 

Bitcoins are created through a process called “mining.” Fundamentally, Bitcoin is founded upon an algorithm, i.e., a mathematical formula, which regulates the speed at which Bitcoin can be “mined” or created and how it can be used or transferred. Practically, a computer program works to solve an equation. Once the computer solves the equation, a certain number of Bitcoins is generated. The time it takes to solve an equation gets progressively longer, requiring more resources and leading to diminishing returns as the cap of 21 million Bitcoins approaches (i.e., there is no additional money supply).

2. How does Bitcoin work?

[inlinetweet prefix="RT @boston_planner" tweeter="" suffix="#financialinsight #bitcoin #crypto"]Bitcoins have two encryption keys: one public and one private. The public key has a similar role to an account number, and the private one has a similar function to a PIN. Anyone can see the public one, and the private one is stored in a “wallet” on the user’s computer or mobile device. These wallets store multiple Bitcoin addresses created at the users’ discretion. To undertake a transaction, the user would simply give (whether directly or through a Bitcoin client) their private key, which can then be matched to the public key to confirm the transaction’s legitimacy. Transactions are recorded in a public ledger in what is called “blockchains.”

Bitcoin price evolution

Bitcoin from September 2020 to February 19, 2021

3. Why do people use Bitcoin? 

Bitcoin is used for its comparative advantages over other forms of currency and transaction methods. One major attraction of Bitcoin is that it is comparatively anonymous. That has drawn criticism from certain sectors (i.e., the US government). Websites, most infamously Silk Road (which was closed by the FBI in October 2013), can use Bitcoin as a safe currency when dealing with illegal transactions (e.g., drugs, arms). There are continuing concerns that as Bitcoin becomes more liquid and, volumes start increasing, it will become a target for money-launderers. Other comparative advantages that stand out are simply the fact that it is digital – giving it greater flexibility of usage – and freedom from conventional political pressure or externalities. This second point derives from Bitcoin’s decentralization, making market influences by a central bank (e.g., printing money) or a government (e.g., the expansion of the money supply) irrelevant. Furthermore, at least from the financial side, the greatest attraction is that Bitcoin is essentially frictionless: there are virtually no transaction fees, making cross-border transactions a principal driver of future growth and monetization.
Today, Bitcoin continues to have limited usage. Many services allow individuals to obtain Bitcoins through an intermediary or directly on the market. While large retailers do not accept Bitcoin, there are several services for the purchase of gift cards, for example, providing an indirect method of accessing the retail market. Other websites and small-scale retailers also offer goods and services that can be paid with bitcoin. Notably, it is possible to buy Bitcoin directly through Robin Hood.

4. Every Bitcoin has two sides. 

Bitcoin suffers from a number of problems, many of which mirror the currency’s positives. The most significant concern people have and the largest hurdle for Bitcoin and digital currencies, in general, is the lack of regulation and consumer protection. Simply put, what people don’t know, they don’t trust. While government and central bank actions can be debated, these institutions provide the authority to back currencies. Similarly, fees for companies such as MasterCard are used to ensure users. The result of the lack of regulation, among other reasons, is a volatile and relatively illiquid currency. Consumer confidence would go a long way to solving many of Bitcoin’s problems, with regulation, a potential platform, market penetration, and less speculation key factors in controlling this.
From a technical perspective, digital currencies and especially Bitcoin have encountered difficulties of scalability and monetization, with deflation a potential concern given the technical limit of 21 million Bitcoins. While perhaps merely growing pains, the currency has not gained any meaningful traction concerning scale and monetization, unlike its price growth as demonstrated in the graph above. Significantly, the pricing of bitcoin in the graph above is in dollars.

(This post is based on research work by Patrick Chen.  Insight Financial Strategists LLC does not provide Bitcoin advice or services).

Dec 21

7 Year-End Tax-Planning Strategies to Implement Now

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

7 Year-End Tax-Planning Strategies

We often review our tax situation at the end of the year because it is important! However, making a tax plan and carrying out this strategy may prove to be more critical than ever to your finances. 2020 is a historic year due to the pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, massive stimulus, and the presidential election settling into an administration change.

Good year-end tax planning has always been important, but never more so than now, when the administration change may cause changes with the Tax Code in the next several months .

Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail

You can potentially increase your tax savings (and minimize the federal income tax) in 2020 with the following six tax tips.

1. Review your IRA and 401(k) contributions

If you are not maxed out, consider contributing more. Many are expecting that taxes may go up in 2021 with the Biden administration. The Biden-Harris campaign took great pain to specify that the increased taxes they were planning were targeted to high earners. They emphasized that they were planning to spare lower earners. However, pundits have largely decided that we should expect increased taxes across the board. Of course, this is very hard to predict. 

However, if you believe that taxes will go up, you may want to consider contributing to a Roth IRA or 401(k) instead of a Traditional IRA or 401(k) to lock in long-term tax savings.

2. Take advantage of coronavirus -related distributions and waived RMDs in 2020

Under the CARES Act, people under 59½ who are “qualified individuals” may take up to $100,000 of coronavirus-related distributions (CRDs) from retirement plans. CRDs are exempt from the 10% early distribution penalty, and there is the option to spread the resulting taxable income over a three-year period.

The CARES Act passed earlier in 2020 waived RMDs for this year. The waiver applies to RMDs from retirement accounts, including IRAs, company plans, inherited IRAs, inherited Roth IRAs, and plan beneficiaries. If you have taken your RMDs already, you can still repay them if they are otherwise eligible for a rollover, which means that repayments must be made within 60 days of the distribution and are subject to the once-per-year rollover rule.  

However, if you happen to be a “qualified individual,” you don’t need to be concerned about the 60-day repayment deadline since you have three years to redeposit the distribution. However, for some people, it may make sense to take distributions anyway to take advantage of lower tax brackets and to maximize the value of the lower tax bracket in light of the expected increases. Any part of these tax savings not used will be lost forever, so you or your Certified Financial Planner professional or tax planner should perform an analysis to decide what makes the most sense for you.

3. Consider a Qualified Charitable Distribution 

Before the end of the year, you may want to consider a Qualified Charitable Distribution or QCD . This technique remains a significant tax break for charitably inclined IRA owners who are at least age 70½. They are eligible to transfer up to $100,000 directly to a charity from their IRA. QCDs can help to offset RMDs by lowering the IRA balance. They can also help to reduce taxable income (even though RMDs are waived for 2020). 

4. Charitable Contributions

Per the CARES Act, people can benefit from the $300 above-the-line charitable deduction for the 2020 tax year . By and large, charitable contributions lost much of their tax appeal in previous tax changes. However, the CARES Act opens up this opportunity for 2020.

5. Perform Roth conversions before December 31

If you have been hesitant to convert traditional IRAs or pre-tax 401(k) to Roth accounts, 2020 may be the year to make it happen finally. Even though people will be paying taxes on the conversion now, we are still in a low tax environment with the expectation that tax rates will increase. Besides, some people may have a lower 2020 taxable income because of income lost from the pandemic or reduced because of the waived RMDs. For them, a Roth conversion could be a silver lining in the pandemic cloud.

Because RMDs cannot be converted in a typical year, 2020 presents a one-time opportunity to optimize lifetime taxes. Perform this conversion before December 31 so that they will count towards the 2020 tax year.

Do you believe instead that your tax rate is likely to decrease? Then a Roth conversion would be increasing your lifetime taxes. So, don’t convert.

Sure or not, have a conversation with your Certified Financial Planner professional to help figure out your long term strategy.

6. Utilize the net unrealized appreciation strategy

For people who happen to have highly appreciated company stock within their 401(k), Net Unrealized Appreciation (NUA) can be a lucrative tax-planning tool. NUA allows an individual to transfer company stock out of the 401(k) and pay ordinary income tax on the value of the shares at the time of purchase (not the total value of the shares). The difference between the stock’s cost basis and the market value —the NUA— isn’t taxable until the shares are eventually sold. Then, they can be taxed at the lower long-term capital gains rates. 

Although the NUA strategy can be enticing, please remember that not counting a few exceptions, the employee’s entire retirement account should basically be emptied within one calendar year. Hence, to use this strategy, make sure that the lump sum distribution happens before December 31.

7. Reduce Estate taxes

If you are subject to a federal estate tax, gifting in your lifetime can be less expensive than distributing at your death because, within certain limits, gifts are tax-exclusive, whereas inheritances are tax-inclusive. The IRS allows a maximum of $15,000 for annual exclusion gifts per recipient and per donor. Therefore, a couple can give up to $30,000 to an individual or $60,000 to another couple (2 gifts of $15,000 per recipient or per donor). You can make these gifts to anyone every year tax-free, even if the exemption is used up. Also, the gifts do not reduce the gift-estate exemption.

Also, gifts for direct payments for tuition and medical expenses for loved ones are unlimited and tax-free. There is no limit for these gifts, and they can be made for anyone. They too do not reduce the lifetime gift/estate exemption. 

Lastly, the IRS has stated that there will be no claw back to the lifetime gift tax exemption ($11,580,000 per individual in 2020) if these exemptions are used this year, even if it is later reduced, as it is expected to be after Joe Biden is inaugurated as President. Therefore, you may want to use the lifetime exemption now or possibly lose it.

Failing to plan is planning to fail!

For many, these tax strategies could be a silver lining in an otherwise dreadful year. It is widely assumed that the new administration will push for higher taxes. So reviewing your tax situation is essential. 

Make a plan and take action that will make a difference.

Oct 22

How Can Divorced Women Claim Social Security?

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Retirement Planning

How Can Divorced Women Claim Social Security?

Photo by Matthew Bennett on UnsplashWhen the Social Security Act passed in 1935, it included benefits for workers, but not for their spouses. At the time, women who did not work outside of the home could not qualify for Social Security retirement benefits. A sweeping series of amendments enacted in 1939 extended Social Security to spouses and minor children. Wives who had not earned a social security retirement benefit or whose retirement benefit was less than 50% of their husbands qualified for the first time.

Catching up with a changing society, another reform extended Social Security retirement benefits to divorced wives in the cases when the divorce happened after a marriage longer than 20 years. The word “spouse” replaced the word “wife” in the 1970s, allowing husbands to collect retirement benefits on their ex-wives record.

Later, the length of marriage required to qualify for benefits after a divorce was reduced to 10 years. When SCOTUS legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, survivor and divorce benefits extended to same-sex couples.

This short history of Social Security shows how it has evolved over time. Ex-wives and ex-husbands can now all receive retirement benefits based on an ex’s work record. However, qualifying conditions must be met.

The rules can be confusing and difficult to keep track of, especially for those who have had more than one marriage and divorce or those whose ex-spouse has died. 

Benefits for Divorced People

When a divorced spouse claims their benefit at full retirement age or later, they will qualify to receive 50% of their ex-spouse’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) , so long as they have not remarried before 60 years of age and do not qualify on their own record.

Let us take the case of Jack and Jill, who are divorced. Jack’s PIA is $2,800. In this example, Jill does not qualify for a retirement benefit on her own record. She files for her divorced-spouse benefit at her full retirement age of 66. She will qualify to receive 50% of Jim’s Primary Insurance Amount, $1,400, as her divorced-spouse benefit.

The earlier you claim your benefits, the less you will get, consistent with other Social Security benefits. Conversely, you will receive more if you claim when you are older. To maximize Social Security benefits, you will need to delay them until 70 years of age.

However, divorced people who claim on their ex-spouse’s record will not get more if they delay their benefits until 70 years of age . They maximize them at full retirement age, 66 to 67, depending on the year of birth.

It’s worth noting that when Jill’s own benefit is more than 50% of Jack’s, she will receive her Social Security retirement. She will not receive her benefit amount as well as 50% of Jack’s!

Sometimes people wonder how their age difference with their ex-spouse can affect their benefits. The good news is that the ex-spouse’s age when they claim is not relevant. As long as Jill claims at full retirement age, she will receive her maximum benefit independently of the timing of Jack’s claim.

Who Qualifies?

A person who claims his or her benefits based on a former spouse’s record must be single at the time. So unfair, you say? If Jill, in our example, has remarried, generally she could get 50% of Jack’s benefits, or her own, if her own is greater than 50% of their Jack’s.

Jack may be married or unmarried. It makes no difference. If Jack happens to be (re)married, Jill and the current wife could both get the 50% benefit from Jack’s record. For that matter, they can both get upgraded to the full benefit at full retirement age.

Suppose Jill, who receives the 50% benefit, remarries. In that case, her 50% benefit from Jack’s record stops, unless Jill’s new spouse also gets a divorced spouse benefit. That’s except if the remarriage occurs after age 60.

A marriage must have lasted for ten years or longer to claim Social Security retirement benefits on an ex-spouse’s record . Because of that requirement, sometimes people who think of divorce will delay until ten years of marriage are achieved. For example, if you’ve been married 9.5 years, it may be worth it to wait another six months.

Sometimes people are not sure when they actually got divorced. People often mark their court appearance date as the divorce date. In most states, however, the real divorce date is later than the court appearance. For example, in Massachusetts, it is 90 or 120 days later, depending on the type of filing.

More Marriages and Divorces

People sometimes ask: what if you had two or more ten-year marriages?

Then, it can become complicated. Those who have divorced more than once from marriages of ten years or longer can choose the higher of the two divorced-spouse benefits, so long as they are currently unmarried.

For example, let’s suppose that Sheryl was married to Patrick for 20 years and John for 12. Sheryl has now divorced for the second time and has remained single for more than two years since her last divorce from John.

Patrick’s PIA is $2,600, and John’s PIA is $2,400. Let’s suppose again that Sheryl doesn’t qualify for a retirement benefit based on her own record. However, she is at full retirement age (66 or 67, depending on the birth year).

When Sheryl files, she can receive half of Patrick’s PIA because it is higher than John’s. And, no, she cannot get both Patrick’s and John’s retirement benefits!

If Sheryl divorced less than two years before, she must wait until her last ex, Patrick, in this case, has filed for his benefit. The worker on whose record the retirement benefit is claimed, Patrick, must have reached 62 years of age.

If they divorced more than two years before, Patrick’s filing status is irrelevant to Sheryl’s claim. Unless Sheryl tells him, Patrick will never know if his ex has claimed.

Let’s go over the case of Mike and Marie. They were married for more than ten years and divorced for more than two. Mike and Marie are both 62 years old. She has not remarried. Because she is single, Marie qualifies for a divorced-spouse retirement benefit based on Mike’s record, whether or not Mike has filed. It’s worth keeping in mind that the earlier someone claims, the less they get!

If Mike has passed away, Marie receives a divorced-spouse survivor benefit based on Mike’s record, if she is currently unmarried or, if remarried, remarried after age 60.

In addition, Marie’s benefit will be 100% of Mike’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), the amount that Mike would have received at full retirement age (66 or 67). In the case of Mike dying, Marie’s retirement benefits are capped to full retirement age.

What if the same two people have married, divorced, remarried, and divorced again? In that case, the length of the two marriages can be added together (including the time in between) to reach the ten years qualifying minimum. That is if the second marriage (the remarriage) happens before the end of the calendar year following the divorce!!

We can make sense of this chaos. Say Mike and Marie were married seven years from May 2002 to August 2009. They remarried in December 2010 and re-divorced in November 2013, for three years. The total for the two marriages is ten years. Mike and Marie meet the 10-year requirement because their second marriage happened before the end of the calendar year after the first divorce. If instead Mike and Marie had remarried in January 2011, the ten-year clock would have been reset to zero. 

Pension Repercussions

What if Jill, the person applying for the divorced-spouse retirement benefit, also worked for an employer not participating in the Social Security system? For example, many state and municipal governments are exempt from the Social Security system. If Jill worked for a local government, she could qualify for a pension from her employer. Then, her divorced-spouse Social Security benefit would be reduced by 2/3 of the amount of her pension because of the Government Pension Offset rule. Depending on the size of her pension, Jill’s Social Security benefit may be zero.

How would that work? Jill currently receives a $3,000 monthly pension from a police department in Texas. She has divorced from Jack after a marriage that was longer than ten years. Jack’s PIA is $2,800. Jill’s divorced-spouse benefit of $1,400 would be reduced by $2,000 (2/3 of $3,000), which reduces the benefit amount to zero.

If Jack dies, Jill becomes eligible for a divorced-spouse survivor benefit. After the GPO reduction she will receive $800 ($2,800 – $2,000 equals $800).

Suppose the spouse with benefit also qualifies for a pension from an entity that doesn’t pay into social security. In that case, the Windfall Elimination Program kicks in. That reduces the spouse with benefit’s payments, and the ex-spouse’s benefit adjusts downward as well.

How To Claim

To claim a divorced spouse retirement benefit, you need the name and Social Security number of your ex-spouse. You should also have the divorce decree. If you don’t have it, you could retrieve the ex’s Social Security number on an old document, such as a tax return.

When you don’t have the ex’s Social Security number, you may need more information, such as his birth date and previous addresses. In this case, the Social Security Administration won’t make the process easy. 

 

Check our other article on Social Security by Phil Bradford

 

Sep 03

Should you cancel your LTC insurance?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Risk Management

Should you cancel your LTC insurance?

Should you cancel your LTC Insurance?

Long Term Care (LTC)

LTC can be a stressful subject to discuss, especially when costs are addressed. The reality is that Long Term Care is expensive. According to Genworth, a prominent provider of Long Term Care insurance, the median national cost of a stay at an assisted living facility is $48,000 annually in 2018. The total long term care costs, over someone’s lifetime, ends up being much larger depending on where and how long a person will be needing it.

For example, the median cost of assisted living in New Jersey in 2018 was $72,780, according to Genworth. If someone were to stay at an assisted living facility for three years, the cost would be in excess of $200,000. Nursing home care could be even more expensive.

Aside from overall unpleasantness, a key issue with planning for LTC is the uncertainty. 70% of Americans will need it. But how much, and for how long? LTC is often the most unpredictable expense of retirement, and the least planned for.

Even insurance companies have difficulty ascertaining the cost. Large long term care insurance companies such as John Hancock have left the field and no longer offer LTC policies to the general public. Others, including Genworth and Mass Mutual, have been struggling with State Insurance Commissions to increase premiums. Recently, Genworth was approved to increase premiums by 58% in 22 States.

According to the Federal Government, Long Term Care is the range of services and support you will need to meet health and personal care needs over a long period of time when you are unable to provide it for yourself. LTC is not medical care, but rather assistance with the basic personal tasks of everyday life.

The fact is that most of us will require some form of long term care usually toward the latter part of our lives . Given the high probability, and the high level of expense, it is something that needs to be addressed in our financial and retirement plans.

We have plenty of statistics on how LTC affects us as a whole, but very few on how it will affect us individually. Are we going to be part of the 70%, or can we avoid it and be part of the 30%. We just don’t have a very good way to predict how much long term care we will need, when we will need it, and how much it will cost. This is precisely why long term care planning is necessary as part of normal financial or retirement planning.

Who Pays for Long Term Care?

People often assume that Medicare or Medigap (the supplemental coverage for Medicare), or even regular health insurance will cover the cost of their Long Term Care facilities.

Unfortunately, that is incorrect. Medicare is set up to cover only direct medical expenses, such as doctor and hospital visits, tests, and medicine. When it comes to issues of old age care, Medicare is not involved.

In general, most people without a plan who need Long Term Care will pay for it out of their own assets. Once there is no money left, Medicaid will usually take over. This approach works best for people who have enough assets to cover the other foreseeable circumstances in their future.

It is good to know that Medicaid is there, should we need it. However, planning for Medicaid to take over is a backup plan at best.

How do I protect my assets from nursing homes?

A close alternative to spending your own money and then letting Medicaid take over is actually to plan for Medicaid to take over. That involves creating a trust in which to put your assets so they can be protected in the event that long term care is needed. When that happens, the assets remain safely in the trust, and Medicaid pays for your long term care. You should keep in mind that Medicaid is taxpayer-funded, and as with other government programs, it is periodically under stress for funding. In other words, it is not easy to predict with certainty that such a plan would work, especially if it is much in the future.

Long Term Care Insurance

For others, purchasing a long term care insurance policy may be a better alternative. In exchange for the premiums, the insurance company commits to pay the amount contracted for. Effectively, the policy covers a significant percentage of the uncertainty generated by long term care. That amount can vary to take into account your own circumstances.

Who needs Long Term Care Insurance?

Long Term Care Insurance can help to preserve assets for other goals, including for legacy . It can also help you determine the level of care that you would like when you have a need for long term care.

From a tax viewpoint, it is worth noting that some of the premiums for most standard LTC policies available today may be deductible from taxable income within the limits specified by the IRS, especially for business owners. Also, up to certain limits, benefits are not taxed as income. Take this favorable tax treatment as a sign that Uncle Sam would like to encourage you to be covered (and not use Medicaid)!

The challenge with LTC insurance is that insurance companies have miscalculated the premiums required to cover their costs. As a result, premium increases, including the one mentioned earlier from Genworth, have shocked pre-retirees and retirees alike, resulting in a considerable debate about whether to drop LTC insurance policies altogether.

The financial impact of premium increases is real. It is a painful hit on a sore subject. And as with any price increase like that, the impulse is just to cancel.

However, canceling would be a mistake for many people. The cost of LTC must be covered somehow, and if not through insurance, it is usually through your own assets. However, it does provide an opportunity to reconsider the issue with your financial planner. Most people affected by price increases bought their policy many years ago. It would be beneficial to re-analyze the LTC need and the benefits of the policy. You may find out that you are over-insured, or underinsured. And then you can figure out a way forward on how to right-size your coverage.

According to Tara Bernard at the New York Times analyzing your LTC coverage can even lead to a renegotiation of the policy, especially if you are reducing the benefits.

Long Term Care insurance helps pay for long term care expenses, helps preserve your assets and your legacy. Also, a portion of the premium is potentially tax-deductible. So why are so many people resistant to traditional Long Term Care insurance?

First, as we mentioned before, it is expensive. Although, it is worth noting that the cumulative cost of LTC insurance premiums is often less than the cost of Long Term Care itself!
Second, the possibility that the insurance policy may not be used, as in the case of death happening suddenly, is enough to stop many people from acquiring Long Term Care insurance. In this paradigm, the thought of paying premiums for years, and not collecting a benefit would make the insurance a waste.

Don’t Waste the Premiums

To counter this objection, the insurance industry has created products that allow you to “not waste the premiums.” These products allow you to purchase an annuity or a life insurance policy with a special “rider” that allows their conversion to an LTC policy should the need arise.

These products allow you to get Long Term Care coverage if needed, and allow repurposing the funds in case the Long Term Care benefit is not used. The details of these products are beyond the scope 0of this post. Suffice it to say, that these alternatives can provide a lot of flexibility, at a cost, in a financial plan. For people who have significant assets that are not needed for their retirement plan, these alternatives may be worth considering.

Should I cancel my LTC insurance?

Because of the increases in premiums that are sweeping the LTC insurance industry, many people are wondering if long term care insurance is worth it and if they should cancel their policies . There is no easy answer to that question. The increased cost can be burdensome. But the other side to this question is if you cancel your insurance because of the premium increase, how are you going to pay for your Long Term Care expenses when they occur?

The answer is different for everyone. Being a financial planner and number geek, I believe that the answer for many resides in comparing the costs and the benefits. For most people that will result in keeping your insurance. If you are not sure, schedule a call with me, and we can review.

LTC can be a significant expense. As such, it needs to be factored into your overall retirement plan. The four approaches discussed (pay out of assets, Medicaid planning, traditional long term care insurance, and “not waste the premium” alternatives) all offer different benefits and should be matched to the right circumstance and individual preference.

In my experience, most people find it liberating to include LTC in a retirement plan formally, and know what is planned and how much is planned for. It then leaves greater flexibility to focus on the fun aspects of life!

If you need to figure out which option works best for you, schedule a conversation with me today!

 

Check our other posts on Long Term Care:

Planning For Long Term Care

Long Term Care Considerations for Retirement Planning

How Jill Can Plan To Pay for Long Term Care

 

Apr 28

8 Strategies For Financial Success

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

8 Strategies For Financial Success

8 Strategies for Financial SuccessIf you fail to plan, you plan to fail. That was the subject of a presentation I made at Sun Life Financial in Wellesley. This may sound like an old cliché, but it illustrates an essential aspect of personal finance: a financial plan is critical.

Regardless of age, marital status, or income, it is essential that you have a personal financial plan. Creating a strategy for financial success is easier than it sounds; you just need to know where to start. The eight financial management strategies below can serve as a roadmap for straightening out your finances and building a better financial future.

1. Develop a Budget

There are many reasons to create a budget. First, a budget builds the foundation for all your other financial actions . Second, it allows you to pinpoint problem areas and correct them. Third, you will learn to differentiate between your needs and your wants. Lastly, having a financial plan to cover expenses planned and laid out will give you peace of mind. Once done, be sure to stick with it!

2. Build an Emergency Fund

As part of your budget, you will also need to plan for an emergency fund. As current events remind us, we cannot anticipate the unexpected. We just know that the need for an emergency fund will come sooner or later . To cover yourself in case of an emergency (i.e., unemployment, injury, car repair, etc.), you need an emergency fund to cover three to six months of living expenses.
An emergency fund does not happen overnight. It needs to be part of your budget and financial plan. It also needs to be in a separate account, maybe a savings account. Or some in savings and some more in a CD. The bottom line is that it needs to be out of sight and out of mind to be there when needed.

3. Stretch Your Dollars

Now that you know what you need and what you want be resourceful and be strategic when you spend on what you want. For instance, re-evaluate your daily Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks habit if you have one. Can it be weekly instead of daily? If you eat out for lunch every day, could you pack lunch some days? Do you need a full cable subscription?

4. Differentiate between Good Debt and Bad Debt

It is important to remember that not all debt is created equal. There is a significant distinction between good debt and bad debt. Good debt, such as a mortgage, typically comes with a low interest rate, tax benefits and supports an investment that grows in value. Bad debt, such as credit card debt, will burden you with high interest rates, no tax benefits, and no hope for appreciation. Bad debt will actually reduce your standard of living. When looking at your financial plan, you want to make sure that you keep bad debts to a minimum. Now that I think of it, don’t keep bad debt to a minimum: make it go away.

5. Repay Your Debts

One of the most important steps to a successful financial plan is paying back your debts, especially the bad ones. Because debt will only increase if you do not actively work to pay it off, you should include a significant amount of money for debt repayment in your budget.
The fact is that paying off debt is a drag, and sometimes it is difficult to see the end of the tunnel. One way to accelerate the process of paying debt down is to pay strategically . When you pay more than your minimum payments, don’t spread it around all your debts. Concentrate your over-payment on a single debt, the one that’s closest to being paid off. It will make that payment go away faster. And when it’s gone, you can direct the liberated cash flow to the next one, and so on.

6. Know Your Credit Score

A high credit score will make it easier to get loans and credit cards with much more attractive interest rates . In turn, this will mean less money spent on interest payments and more money in your pocket. Take advantage of the free credit report that the credit companies must provide you free of charge annually. Make sure that there is no mistake in it.

7. Pay Yourself First

Set aside a portion of your paycheck each month to “pay yourself first” and invest in a savings or retirement account. Take advantage of the tax deferral option that comes with many retirement plans, such as 401(k) or IRAs. If you have just completed your budget, and you don’t know how to do it all, tax-deferred retirement accounts help you reduce taxes now . Also, think of the matching funds that many employers offer to contribute to your 401(k). They are actually part of your compensation. Don’t leave the match. Please take it.
In my line of work, people often tell me that they will never retire. The reality is that everyone will retire someday. It is up to you to make sure that you have financial strategies for a successful retirement.

8. Check Your Insurance Plans

Lastly, review your insurance coverage. Meet with your Certified Financial Planner professional and make sure that your policies match the goals in your financial plan. Insurance is a form of emergency fund planning . At times, you will have events that a regular emergency fund won’t be able to cover. Then you will be happy to have property or health or disability or long term care, or even life insurance. 

If you have any questions or require additional assistance, contact a Certified Financial Planner. He or she can help you identify your goals and create a financial plan to meet them successfully.

Starting your financial plan is an easy step. The hard part is implementing and moving to the next step. Don’t do it alone, and let me know if I can help.

 

 

Mar 26

What’s After The Bear Market?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Portfolio Construction , Retirement Planning , Sustainable Investing

What's After The Bear Market?

For the month ending 3/20/2020, the S&P 500 has been down almost 32%. Maybe it is because it’s happening right in front of us, but, somehow, the drawdown feels worse compared to history’s other bear markets.

According to Franklin Templeton, there have been 18 bear markets since 1960 which is about one every 3.1 years . The average decrease has been 26.3%, taking a little less than a year from top to bottom.  

Financial planners often work with averages. But the reality is that each bear market will be different from the norm. At the time that I write this, the depth of this particular drawdown does not even rank with the worst in history. Sure, it may still get worse, but that’s where we are today. 

We may not want to hear about how things will get better, because the situation with the Covid-19 pandemic and its resulting prescription of social isolation and market downdrafts is scary. But, eventually, things will get better. 

Keep in mind that things may get worse before they get better. The count of people with the virus will almost certainly increase. If you don’t have a source yet, you can keep up with it over here. But eventually, the Coronavirus epidemic will run out of steam. We will get back to our places of work. Kids will go back to school. Financial markets will right themselves out. We will revert to standard toilet paper buying habits. We will start going out to eat again. Life will become normal again. 

Financially, the question is not just how bad will things get, but how long it will take for our nest eggs to rebuild, so we can put our lives back on tr

Historically, since WWII, it has taken an average of 17 months for the S&P 500 to get back to its peak before a bear market .

The longest recovery since we have had reliable stock market records has been the Great Depression. The longest recovery post-WWII was in the wake of the dot-com crash at the beginning of this century. That took four years. The stock market recovery following the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 took only 3.1 years

Hence, it could take us a while before we make it back to the previous market peak. However, we may want to look at the data differently. This graph shows that, historically, we have needed to achieve a return of 46.9% to recover from a bear market .  According to Franklin Templeton calculations, these numbers can look daunting. However, they have been achieved and exceeded after every past downturn. While there is no guarantee, these numbers suggest that there will be strong returns once we have reached the bottom of the market. I like to think of this as an opportunity.  

With the time that it takes for investments to grow and get your money back, there is time to take advantage of higher expected returns. For those who have resources available, this means that there is time to deploy your money at lower prices than has been possible in recent months.

Those of us who have diversified portfolios and are not in a position to make new investments, the opportunity is to rebalance to benefit from a faster upswing. 

We know from history that every US stock market downturn was followed by new peaks at some point following.

Could this time be different? 

Of course, that too is possible.

I like to think that the future will be better. We will still wake up in the morning looking to improve ourselves, make our lives better, and achieve our goals. We are still going to invent new technologies, fight global warming, and struggle for a more equitable society. 

We are living through difficult times right now. Losses in our brokerage and retirement accounts are not helping. But we will get through this. Please reach out to me if you have specific questions or concerns.

Feb 26

Saving Taxes with the Roth and the Traditional IRAs

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

 

Which Account Saves You More Taxes: the Roth IRA or the Traditional IRA?

Retirement by the lake

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), passed in December 2017, reduced individual income tax rates temporarily until 2025 . As a result, most Americans ended up paying less federal income taxes in 2018 and 2019 than in previous years.

However, starting in 2026, the tax rates will revert to those that existed up to 2017. The TCJA also provides for many of its other provisions to sunset in 2015. Effectively, Congress attempted to take away with one hand what it was giving with the other. Unless Congress acts to extend the TCJA past 2025, we need to expect a tax increase then. In fact, in a recent Twitter survey, we found that most people actually expect taxes to go up. 

TCJA and taxes

Some people hope that Congress will extend those lower TCJA tax rates beyond 2026. Congress might just do that. However, planning on Congress to act in the interest of average taxpayers could be a perilous course of action ! Hope is not a plan!

Roth vs. Traditional IRAs

Given the reality of today’s comparatively low taxes, how can we best mitigate the TCJA’s scheduled tax increase? One way could be to switch some retirement contributions from Traditional IRA accounts to Roth IRA accounts from 2018 to 2025, and changing back to Traditional IRA accounts in 2026 when income tax brackets increase again. While we may not be able to do much about the 2026 increase, we can still work to reduce our lifetime taxes through planning.

Roth IRA accounts are well known for providing tax-free growth and retirement income within specific parameters. The catch is that contributions must be made with earned income that has been taxed already. In other words, Roth accounts aren’t exactly tax-free, they are merely taxed differently.

On the other hand, Traditional IRA retirement accounts are funded with pretax dollars, thereby reducing taxable income in the year of contribution. Then, distributions from Traditional IRA retirement accounts are taxed as income.

The Roth IRA is not tax-free, it is merely taxed differently

Thus, it is not always clear whether a Roth IRA contribution will be more tax effective than a Traditional IRA contribution. One of the critical considerations before deciding to contribute to a Roth IRA or a Roth 401(k) or to a Traditional IRA or Traditional 401(k) is the difference in income tax rates between contributing years and retirement years. If your projected tax rate in retirement is higher than your current tax rate, then you may want to consider Roth IRA contributions. If, on the other hand, your current tax rate is higher than your projected tax rate in retirement, contributing to a Traditional account may reduce your lifetime taxes. 

The following flowchart can provide you with a roadmap for deciding between these two types of retirement accounts. Please let us know if we can help clarify the information below!

Other Considerations

There can be considerations other than taxes before deciding to invest through a Roth IRA account instead of a Traditional IRA account . For instance, you may take an early penalty-free distribution for a first time home purchase from a Roth. Or you may consider that Roth accounts are not subject to Required Minimum Distributions in retirement as their Traditional cousins are. Retirees value that latter characteristic in particular as it helps them manage taxes in retirement and for legacy.

However, the tax benefit remains the most prominent factor in the Roth vs. Traditional IRA decision. To make the decision that helps you pay fewer lifetime taxes requires an analysis of current vs. future taxes. That will usually require you to enlist professional help. After all, you would not want to choose to contribute to a Roth to pay fewer taxes and end up paying more taxes instead!

As everyone’s circumstances will be different, it would be beneficial to check with a Certified Financial Planner® or a tax professional to plan a strategy that will minimize lifetime taxes, taking into account future income and projected taxes. 

Check out our other posts on Retirement Accounts issues:

Is the new Tax Law an opportunity for Roth conversions?

Rolling over your 401(k) to an IRA

Doing the Solo 401k or SEP IRA Dance

Tax season dilemma: invest in a Traditional or a Roth IRA

Roth 401(k) or not Roth 401(k)

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