Category Archives for "Divorce Planning"

Mar 18

Ways to Divide Parent Loans in Divorce

By Saki Kurose | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning , Student Loan Planning

Introduction

Divorce is stressful and complicated and hurts on so many emotional and financial levels. It becomes even more complex when you throw in the additional financial stress of student loans. It can be hard to deal with even after you have decided that a student loan is a marital or separate debt.

Student loans are a complex liability because there are so many different and complex methods for repayment. They come with many acronyms such as PAYE, REPAYE, IDR, and PSLF.

The borrower’s circumstances can also play a huge factor in deciding how to deal with student loans properly. For example, you might not have to repay your student loans in total if you get student loan forgiveness for various reasons. The most common are taxable long-term forgiveness or Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

How student loans are handled in a divorce is not altogether easy to understand. Depending on the laws of the State in which the divorce occurs, if one of the parties incurred student debt before the marriage, it could be considered separate property. It is especially common if the borrower’s partner received no economic benefit from the student loans or if the parties come from certain states that have community property laws (1).

But what happens if you have Parent PLUS loans that you took out for your children? Let’s imagine a case in which a couple has been married for years, and one spouse has taken out $250,000 of Parent PLUS loans under her name to pay for their two children’s college education.

Unfortunately, this is a common situation. Arguably, because the Parent PLUS loans were taken out during the marriage for the benefit of their children, they ought to be considered marital debt (1).

$250,000 of Parent PLUS loans

Let’s take a closer look at the case of Jack and Jill. They are both 55. Jack makes $180,000 a year working for an accounting firm, and Jill makes $45,000 working for a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Jill has $250,000 of federal Parent PLUS loans that charge a 6% interest rate. As a result, Jack and Jill expect to pay $2,776 a month or $33,312 a year. Even with a joint income approaching $200,000, it is a significant financial burden that impairs their ability to plan for retirement and other long-term goals.

Refinancing the Parent PLUS loans

If Jack and Jill refinance at 3%, it will reduce the monthly payments to $2,414 a month. Although the $362 monthly savings are welcome, they are not a significant improvement in their situation.

Divorce has a way of making money scarce and future projections challenging. In many divorces, the division of assets and debts approaches 50%, meaning that the burden of paying for her half of the loans would be significantly greater on Jill, who only makes $45,000 a year. Even with an asymmetric division to reduce Jill’s share, it will likely not be easy to sustain (2).

Other Factors to Consider in Divorce

Jack and Jill have agreed to sell the family home as part of the divorce. They expected to net about $250,000 after expenses and mortgage repayment to be divided equally. Jack wants to use the proceeds from the sale to pay off the entire parent loan balance. Jack had heard horror stories about other parents not being able to retire because of parent loan payments, so he wanted to get rid of the balance and not worry about monthly payments that could continue into his retirement.

So, he and Jill decide to split the loans down the middle. It means that Jack will pay Jill $125,000 from the sale of their shared home since the Parent PLUS loans are in Jill’s name. With that, Jack’s share of the parent loan debt is addressed, and he believes that Jill should use her share of the sale to pay her half of the debt.

Summary of Jill’s Parent Loan Repayment Options

Here’s the thing. With the $125,000 that she would receive from Jack and her $125,000 share from the home sale, she could pay off the debt and move on to other issues. Jill was all in on the idea of each side paying half of the loans until she spoke to a Student Loan Strategist and decided to take a different route with the $250,000 of Parent PLUS loans still in her name.

Jill has always been passionate about providing support for vulnerable children worldwide. She works full-time at a local charity, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, making $45,000 a year. She loves her work and has no plans to retire for at least ten years. In this case, Jill could qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). It means that she could get her loans forgiven tax-free after she makes 120 monthly payments in an Income-Driven Repayment plan (2).

Here is a summary of Jill’s parent loan repayment options:

  1. Make a lump-sum payment of $250,000 from the sale of their marital home ($125,000 from Jack + $125,000 of Jill’s share) to pay off the entire loan balance.
  2. Keep the $250,000 proceeds and pay off the loans with the federal Standard 10-year repayment plan or private refinancing.
  3. Enroll in an Income-Driven Repayment plan and pursue PSLF.

Let’s take a look at each option in detail.

  1. Make a lump-sum payment of $250,000 from the sale of their marital home ($125,000 from Jack + $125,000 of Jill’s share) to pay off the entire loan balance.

In this case, the total cost of the parent loan is $250,000. This way, Jill can get rid of the parent loans in her name. However, Jill still needs to figure out her post-divorce life, including how to pay for her new housing and how to invest the other assets she may receive from Jack from the asset division from their divorce.

  1. Keep the $250,000 proceeds and pay off the loans with the standard federal 10-year repayment plan or private refinancing

The cost of paying off $250,000 of federal loans with 6% under the default 10-year Standard repayment plan is $2,776/mon and $333,061 total over the ten years. However, if Jill could find a private refinancing deal at 3% interest for the same 10-year term, the cost is $2,414/mon and $289,682 total, which is $362/mon and $43,379 savings in total. It may make sense for Jill to do that if she needed to use the $250,000 home sale proceeds to buy a new house to live in, and she could afford the $2,000+ per month of payments for the student loans. However, this is not an attractive option for Jill since her monthly income is $3,750, and the loan payments would absorb so much of it. Even if her divorce agreement provided for alimony, it would still be difficult.

  1. Enroll in an Income-Driven Repayment plan and pursue PSLF

Typically, federal Parent PLUS loans are only eligible for one of the Income-Driven Repayment plans called the Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) plan even after being consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan.

Still, in some cases, they can be “double consolidated” (read more about this loophole strategy here) and qualify for cheaper Income-Driven Repayment plans. For example, let’s say that Jill double consolidated her parent loans, enrolled in Pay As You Earn (PAYE), and pursued Public Service Loan Forgiveness for ten years. Then, filing taxes as Single every one of those years, working for the 501(c)(3) employer and making the same level of annual income ($45,000 adjusted annually for inflation), she pays $205 to $283 monthly and a total of $29,059 over ten years.

The remaining loan balance (which happens to be $430,633 under this scenario) is forgiven tax-free under current tax rules. In this case, assuming that Jill makes the $205~$283 monthly payments out of her cash flow, she gets to keep all $250,000 from the home sale proceeds and pay off the parent loans for just under $30,000. She can use the $250,000 to buy a new home for herself or invest it in retirement, whatever she and her wealth strategist thought would work best (3).

The burden is still on the Borrower spouse

Did we mention that student loan repayment options can be complicated? Jill should ensure that she has her ducks perfectly aligned before engaging in the double consolidation/PSLF strategy. In the worst case, she could have missed something and may remain liable for the entire loan and the full payment or end up with a very large tax bill. Hence Jill should get an experienced student loan strategist to counsel her on her strategy.

If she felt inclined, she could discuss this PSLF option prior to the divorce with Jack and divide the benefit between them. However, Jill should remember that the burden is still on her because under this strategy, she has to stay in the PSLF program for ten years. That obligation is not quantified but should be considered in the asset division.

Summary

Sometimes we can find a silver lining in the worst situations. In their divorce, Jack and Jill could take advantage of a quirk of student loans and could save up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a result, Jill could have an additional $220,234 to support her lifestyle.

Student loan repayment strategies can be very different depending on the situation. For example, it would be an entirely different situation if Jill’s income was higher, her employment did not qualify her for PSLF, or she retired earlier than expected. There are still pitfalls ahead for her.

Solutions to student loan problems tend to be very unique and difficult to generalize. If you have federal student loans, the short and long-term costs can significantly differ depending on your income situation and the repayment plan you choose. However, as a federal student loan borrower, remember that you do not always have to pay back the entire loan balance.

Everyone’s situation is different, especially in divorce, especially with student loans. If you are unsure what to do, reach out for help. It might pay off!

Notes:

  • Consult an attorney to figure out what applies to you
  • Consult a financial professional with a specialization in student loans
  • Consult a financial planner
  • Note: The projection in the PSLF option assumes that, among other factors such as Jill’s PSLF-qualifying employment status and family size staying the same, Jill’s income grows 3% annually, which increases her monthly payment amount each year. Individual circumstances can significantly change results.
Jan 20

What Financial Specialists Do You Need?

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning

Should you get a financial specialist to help with your divorce? Most people start their divorces looking for a mediator or a lawyer, not a financial planner so that can be a startling question.

Yet divorce is likely to be the largest financial transaction in a person’s life. Larger than buying a house. Larger than paying for graduate school. Larger than raising a child. While marriage may have been about love, now that the flame has been extinguished, divorce is about securing the future and rebuilding a financially successful life. That is why it is crucial to make sure that the division of assets and income is fair, meets your needs and that of your children, and allows you to thrive after the divorce.  

Divorce can be complicated to navigate, and for that, you most likely need a lawyer. They are trained to help you through this complicated legal process. However, divorce contains many intricate details that can have long-term consequences on your finances and are beyond the education and horizon of lawyers.

Lawyers are important, but…

There is no question that you need a lawyer’s professional experience and skills in navigating the choppy waters of what is essentially a legal process. There are many intricacies in the way that divorce gets handled across issues such as child support, asset division, alimony, inheritances, and trusts that need the steady hand of a skilled lawyer.

Lawyers bring you to the finish line; that’s what you pay them to do. However, people divorcing have other needs to help them move on afterward. They need to make sure that the division of assets and income allows them to pursue their goals and lead fulfilling lives. And because modern life has made professional work so intricate and specialized, you have to ensure that you get the right professional for the right job.

Divorce lawyers do try to protect their client’s interests. Nevertheless, few lawyers are financial experts. It’s not part of the curriculum in law school, and financial planning is not part of the practice of the average divorce lawyer.

Three Questions You Need to Answer

Dealing with the immediate, potential, and future financial consequences of a divorce is where a qualified financial analyst can best help. A financial expert can help your divorce by helping you answer three critical questions:

The first question is, where are you today financially? What are your assets and your liabilities? What is the joint marital income, and what are the ongoing expenses?

Surprisingly, many people can’t answer those questions precisely. As long as the bills are paid, and the checking account balance is over the minimum, many are too busy dealing with the other issues of life to pay attention.

Diane Pappas, a veteran Certified Divorce Financial Analyst in Gloucester, MA, observes: “A lot of times when I’m working with a couple…they won’t know what they have in retirement accounts, what kind of assets they have. Sometimes they don’t even know what kind of money they’re making. So they literally have to go look at their paycheck to know what they’re getting paid.”

It’s difficult enough to go through the planning process that is required in a divorce without knowing that basic information. If you don’t even know where you are today, how will you be able to cope with all the financial changes that will occur during the upcoming split? If you don’t know where you are today, how will you figure out where you are going and how to get there?

The second question is, where will you be the day after the divorce? After answering the first question, it’s essential to navigate your negotiations to a settlement that can help you move forward. A quick example is a decision about the marital home. Should you keep it? Should you sell it? Should you sell it LATER after the children graduate? Can you afford it? Similar questions can be asked about most other financial issues. Of course, that also applies to liabilities or the debt owed on credit cards, student loans, or the remaining mortgage balance. Then there is the potential challenge of making ends meet on less income.

The third question is, where will you be 5, 10, or even 15 years down the road after the divorce? That is the measure of a successful divorce negotiation and successful post-divorce financial planning. Ignoring this question is easy because of the immediacy and stress of more immediate issues. It’s easier just to let the process move forward, however slowly, and hope for the best outcome. But without a solid answer to this question, you will not be able to provide informed consent for this largest transaction in your lifetime.

In fact, the inability to answer this question may prevent you from closing an agreement because you may not have the confidence to move forward.

Deferral or procrastination during emotional stress is human nature, especially when you are unsure what questions to ask and how to analyze the data. That is where borrowing the expertise of a knowledgeable professional can pay off. Getting the best divorce-related financial advice early in the process will pay dividends down that long road beyond the day that the divorce becomes final.

Common Financial Specialists Used In a Divorce

Bringing a financial expert into the divorce process can make the difference between making an informed decision that gives you a path forward or having to pick up the pieces later. Financial experts and advisors can play a useful role in divorce financial planning. However, it can be challenging to determine which financial specialist to pick, as they come with many different stripes and colors. Some of the major categories include:

Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) often focus on taxes. Because one of the significant challenges of a divorce is to figure out the tax consequences, it is essential to have that expertise on board. In addition, CPAs will sometimes also work on forensic accounting to help find hidden assets.

Business valuators get involved when the divorce case includes the ownership of a business. Regardless of the involvement of each spouse, the business is likely to be one of the most valuable assets of the marriage, one that is exceedingly difficult to divide. Using a business valuator will allow the parties to put a number to the business and facilitate the negotiation.

Certified Financial Planners: CFPs focus on bringing the client from the present to the future, beyond the effective date of your divorce. In a divorce situation, they do so by helping to optimize a settlement offer to take care of the now and position for the future. Some of the focus areas can include retirement planning, risk management, and investments. CFPs can bridge the gap between the attorneys’ focus on getting you to the divorce finish line, and your need for solid post-divorce planning that will lead you to financial independence. It is a skill set that is frequently overlooked or missing during divorce negotiations.

Certified Value Builders (CVBs) are a less common specialty. They help business owners increase the value of their business, often a top priority for business owners fresh out of a divorce. When the business owner and the Certified Value Builder are successful, the business owner can shore up the rest of their finances.

Certified Divorce Financial Analysts: CDFAs are financial professionals who help couples, and their lawyers arrive at a fair divorce settlement. CDFAs straddle the expertise of the tax professional with that of the Certified Financial Planner. They use their knowledge of tax law, short- and long-term financial planning, and distribution of assets to help clients reach an optimal settlement.

CDFAs often have other qualifications. Actually, CPAs and lawyers sometimes have the CDFA. But most often, it is paired with the CFP designation. This combination of CFP and CDFA can help clients ensure that their future is well analyzed.

Let’s Recap

You most likely could use a financial specialist for your divorce. The stakes are too high not to. Disentangling and splitting assets requires far more expertise than what a lawyer is trained in. Anyone involved in a divorce really should be able to answer the three basic questions of divorce: where are you financially now? Where will you be the day after the divorce? And where will you be 15 years after the divorce?

Being able to answer these questions, especially the last one, is often beyond the scope of what lawyers do. Yet the answers are critical to making sure that you know what you are getting to and how you will be financially successful after the divorce.

There are many kinds of financial experts running the gamut from tax accountants to business valuators. Many may be needed for some aspects of your divorce. But the most valuable divorce financial professionals may be the CFP/CDFA combination. They have the training and orientation to bring you to the next level: financial success after divorce.

 

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.

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.

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

 

Oct 28

Is A Health Savings Account Right For You?

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

Is A Health Savings Account Right For You?

It is health insurance plan signup season . Whether you subscribe to your employer’s health care insurance plan or you buy your own directly, it is the time of the year when you have to sign up all over again. Unless you have specific circumstances such as a change of employer, a divorce, or new baby, this is the one time in the year when you get to change your health care insurance plan.

If you have been keeping abreast of the popular financial media, you may have come across the Health Savings Account (HSA).  According to AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans), 22 million people had HSA accounts in 2018.  Financial Planners love HSA. It is potentially the most tax advantageous vehicle that exists.  Contributions to HSAs are pre-tax, the money is invested tax-free, and distributions are tax-free if used for health purposes. Triple tax-free. HSAs are even better than Roth retirement accounts !

The reality is that we all have health care expenses, and they can be substantial . Having the ability to pay with tax-free money is a critical advantage. If you have to pay a $100 hospital invoice, you might have to earn $150 or more first, pay Federal income taxes, Social security taxes, state income taxes, before you can have $100 to pay your bill. With an HSA, there is no income tax, you pay with $100 of your earnings. 

A Health Savings Account is effectively an alternative to the Flexible Spending Account (FSA) , the more traditional way to pay for health care expenses that are not covered by insurance. The FSA allows employees to save pre-tax from earnings, and then to spend it on health care expenses without paying taxes on the earnings.  Money in FSAs, however, is not invested, and it must be spent by year-end or be forfeited. It has to be spent, or it will be lost. HSA funds, on the other hand, can be invested, and funds from HSA accounts can be carried over into the future. Thus, HSAs can be spent in a way that is similar to other retirement savings accounts such as the IRA or the Roth IRA.

IRA Roth IRA 529 FSA HSA
Contributions are pre-tax Yes No No Yes Yes
Funds are invested tax-free Yes Yes Yes N/A Yes
Distributions are tax-free (1) No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Distributions can be taken in the future Yes Yes Yes No Yes
  1. If used as intended for retirement, education or health expenses respectively

What’s in it for the employer?

In order to contribute to an HSA, you must have chosen a High Deductible Health Plan with your employer. 

According to the IRS, for 2019, a high deductible is defined as $1,350  ($1,400 in 2020) for an individual or $2,700 for a family ($2,800 in 2020.) On top of this high deductible, annual out of pocket expenses (including deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance) cannot exceed $6,750 for an individual or $13,500 for a family. Those numbers increase in 2020 to $6,900 for an individual and $13,800 for a family. 

For employers, offering high deductible health insurance plans is more cost effective than other plans. Therefore, they will prefer that their employees sign up for high deductible plans. Many employers will contribute directly to HSA accounts to encourage their workforce to choose a high deductible health insurance plan.

Theoretically, if employees have to pay out of pocket or out of their HSA for their health care expenses, they will be more careful about their choices.  While the funds in the HSA remain available to be used for health care expenses immediately if needed, the designers of the HSA believe that the ability to carry over HSA balances to future years will motivate employees to be better health care shoppers when choosing treatments or, indeed, when choosing to be treated in the first place. The net result is that high deductible health plans help employers contain health care expenses, and shift the burden on their employees. 

From an employee’s point of view, high deductible plans can make a lot of sense . If you don’t believe that you will need (much) health care in the coming year, you can benefit from a lower cost plan, and from the savings and investment opportunity.  

Financial Benefit 

And how do you maximize the value of the HSA? By contributing to the maximum, and investing it. A dollar contributed may be worth many times its value in the future when invested.

The Internal Revenue Service allows individuals in 2020 to contribute up to $3,550 to their HSAs. Families may contribute up to $7,100.  Both individuals and families can benefit from a catch-up provision of $1,100 if they are over 55.

According to Debbie Taylor, a CPA and tax expert, many people make the mistake of not investing their HSA contributions and keeping them in money market. Because one of the key benefits of HSAs is that the contributions can grow tax-free , not investing them is a grievous and expensive mistake. 

However, it’s worth noting that an HSA may need to be invested differently from your retirement accounts , especially if you plan to use your HSA at different times than you might use your retirement accounts. Consult your wealth manager for more insight.

If you are choosing the high deductible plan to save money, but you are not able to contribute to your HSA, you are putting yourself at risk if you have an unforeseen health event. Not having enough saved to cover the cost of the health care you need means that you may have to go into debt until you have met your plan’s deductible. 

So, if you have a tight budget, please think twice before trying to save money with a high deductible plan. It may just backfire on you.

Unintended Consequences

A question that is often minimized at enrollment time is what happens to the HSA if you have miscalculated, and you happen to have a significant health care expense in the year that you are contributing? 

First, if it is a major event, you may consider using funds in your HSA account. However the health care insurance will eventually kick in and cover most of the cost. So as a subscriber to a high deductible plan, you are still protected from the catastrophic consequences of an unexpected health issue. While you may not harvest all the benefits of the HSA, and you will likely lose the cost savings of choosing a high deductible plan, you are protected from financial disaster.

What if it is not a really major event, just a somewhat major event like, say, a trip to the emergency room for a temporary issue that you will easily recover from?

In that case, you also have the option to use your funds in the HSA to pay for those expenses. Your contributions will have been pre-tax as with an FSA. You will not have enjoyed much investment growth. Your distribution will still be tax-free. You are giving up the future benefits of the HSA, but you are dealing with your more immediate issues. Basically, your HSA will have functioned like an FSA. You will also lose the savings benefits of choosing a lower cost high deductible plan over a higher cost low deductible plan.

What if instead, you decide to pay for your trip to the emergency room out of pocket with post-tax savings and save your HSA for the future, as your wealth manager told you that you should? The real cost of your $5,000 trip depends on your income and tax bracket. If you happen to be in the 32% Federal tax bracket and you live in Massachusetts, the cost of the $5,000 emergency room trip will be around 58% higher.  

HSAs provide some tremendous benefits that should be considered by everyone who is looking to enhance their health care and their retirement situation. However, the decision to choose a Health Savings Account should be based on more than just taxes and the cost of your health care insurance. It is important to consider the very real costs of unforeseen events and to be realistic about your health insurance needs. 

Apr 15

McKenzie Bezos: 4 Wealth Strategy Concerns

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

McKenzie Bezos: 4 Wealth Strategy Concerns

source: pexels

On April 4th, it was announced that McKenzie Bezos would be receiving 36 billion dollars worth of assets from her divorce from Jeff.  

First of all, congratulations to Jeff and McKenzie for keeping this divorce process short, out of the media as much as possible, and out of the courts. We are not going to know the details of the Bezos’ agreement. However, some information has been disclosed in the press.

As reported by CNN, McKenzie is keeping 4% of their Amazon stock, worth approximately 36 billion dollars. Jeff retains voting power for her shares as well as ownership of the Washington Post and Blue Origin, their space exploration venture. According to The Economist, this makes the Bezos divorce the most expensive in history by a long shot.

As a post-divorce financial planner, I feel a little silly thinking of what I would tell McKenzie to do with her money now. The magnitude of her portfolio is well beyond run of the mill high net worth divorces with assets only in the millions or tens of millions of dollars. McKenzie can buy $100M or $200M houses and condos wherever she wants. She can have her own jets and her own yachts. She could buy an island or two.

Unsurprisingly, McKenzie’s wealth is concentrated in AMZN stock. That has worked out well for the Bezos’ for the past several years. It is likely to continue to be a great source of wealth for both of them in the future. As it stands, McKenzie is now the third richest woman in the world. Who knows, if she holds onto AMZN stock, she could become the richest woman in the world one day! McKenzie’s concerns with budgeting, taxes, and wealth strategy will soon be in a class of their own.

There are, however, some lingering considerations for McKenzie, particularly when it comes to capital gains taxes, portfolio management, philanthropy and wealth transfer.

Capital Gains Taxes

McKenzie probably has an enormous tax liability built into her AMZN holdings. While I am not privy to her cost basis, it is not unreasonable to assume that it is close to zero since the Bezos’ have owned Amazon stock since the company’s inception. Should McKenzie sell her AMZN stock, the entire amount would likely be subject to capital gains taxes. As such McKenzie may not be worth quite $36 Billion after taxes are accounted for .

A benefit of keeping the stock until her death is that her estate will benefit from a step up in cost basis. This would mean that the IRS would consider the cost of the stock to be equal to the value at her death. This favorable tax treatment would wipe out her capital gains tax liability.

Portfolio Management

Nevertheless, the standard advice that wealth strategists give clients with ordinary wealth applies to Ms. Bezos as well: it would be in McKenzie’s best financial interest to diversify her holdings. Diversifying would help her reduce the risk of having her wealth concentrated into a single stock. It is a problem that McKenzie (and Jeff) share with many employees of technology and biotech startups.

McKenzie might not want to sell all of her AMZN stock or even most of it. Although we have not read their separation agreement, she has probably agreed with Jeff that she would retain the bulk of her holding. She may also believe enough in AMZN and Jeff’s leadership to sincerely want to keep it. Regardless, McKenzie should still diversify her portfolio to protect herself against AMZN specific risks.

Philanthropy

An advantage of having more money than you need is that you have the option to use the excess to have a measurable impact on the world through philanthropy. In 2018, Jeff and McKenzie created a $2B fund, the Bezos Day One Fund, to help fight homelessness. Given that the home page of the fund now only features Jeff’s signature, this may mean that Jeff is keeping this also. McKenzie will likely organize her own charity. What will her cause be?

Philanthropy can be an effective tax and estate management tool , primarily because, within limits, the IRS allows you to deduct your donations against your income thus helping you manage current and future taxes. For McKenzie, it is about deciding what to do with the money, instead of letting Congress decide.

Wealth Transfer

McKenzie’s net worth is far in excess of the current limits of federal and state estate taxes. Unless she previously planned for it during her marriage, she will have to revise her estate plan.  Even though she would benefit from a step up in basis on her AMZN stock if she chooses not to diversify, she would still be subject to estate taxes, potentially in the billions of dollars.

Of course, no matter how much estate tax McKenzie ends up paying, it is likely that she will have plenty to leave to her heirs.

Financially, McKenzie Bezos has what wealth strategists would consider as ‘good financial problems’ . She has the financial freedom to focus on the important aspects of life: family, relationships and making a difference.

 

A version of this post appeared in Kiplinger on April 12, 2019

Jul 19

Post-Divorce Investments – What do I need to plan for now?

By Eric Weigel | Divorce Planning , Investment Planning , Portfolio Construction , Risk Management

Making Your Post-Divorce Portfolio Reflect the New You

Divorce is the final step of a long process. Whether the marriage was long or short, the end of marriage brings about the conclusion of an important phase of your life.

Divorce is an emotional event sometimes anticipated years in advance and at other times coming totally out the blue.

In all cases whether anticipated or not, divorce is a stressful event. According to the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory Scale divorce ranks as the second most stressful event that a person can experience in a lifetime.

Typically when you divorce you end up with an investment portfolio that is ½ of your old couple’s portfolios. Invariably, your new portfolio will not be suitable anymore.  If you haven’t been the “financial” person in your marriage you may not even know what you own.

Most likely you will need to make changes to your portfolio to suit your new situation. You are now also solely responsible for your financial health.

Your post-divorce portfolio should reflect your updated needs, objectives and comfort level with investment risk.  This may not be what you bargained for or you may feel ill-prepared to handle this on your own.  You may feel that your life is out of your sync, but aligning your financial assets to your new situation is entirely under your control.

Why do you need a new portfolio once you divorce?

For one, the dollar amounts are less than before and your current investment strategy reflects your goals as a couple rather than your own objectives going forward.

Moreover, most likely your confidence is a bit shot and your desire to take much investment risk is lower than before.

Ok, are you with me? You can control this aspect of your new life. What steps should you take to get the ball rolling?

We suggest an approach rooted in our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E methodology.

The first step involves thoroughly examining your new situation from a non-financial standpoint.  Where do you want to live? What type of lifestyle are you looking for? If you have children what type of issues do you need to account for?

The second step is to re-evaluate your comfort with taking investment risk.  Now that you are solely in charge of your financial life how do you feel about taking on risk? Are you comfortable with the inevitable stock market swoons that occur periodically? Are you able to think as a long-term investor given your recent divorce?

The next step is really important. Your post-divorce portfolio needs to work for you. Establishing a hierarchy of financial objectives will drive the type of strategy that is most appropriate for you.

Is your primary objective to save for retirement? Do you have any major objectives besides retirement? Maybe you need to fund college tuition for your two kids.  Maybe you plan on buying a new home in 2 years once your life has settled down?

Next you need to deal with the nitty gritty of figuring out exactly what you own and cash flow budgeting.  What you own should not be difficult to figure out as you have just gone through the divorce process.

The second part of cash flow budgeting is often highly sensitive for people not used to budgeting during their marriage.  If you have never had a budget or stuck to one this step seems like a major imposition. But unless money is so plentiful you have no choice.

At least for a period of time you will have to keep track of your expenses and gain an understanding of where the money is going. The reason this is important is that you may need to tap into portfolio gains to fund your living expenses. If that is the case, your portfolio should be structured to write you a monthly check with a minimal amount of risk and tax consequences.

The next step in the P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E process is to evaluate your tax situation. If you are in a high tax bracket you might want to favor tax-advantaged investments such as municipal bonds. If your income is going to be taking a hit post-divorce you probably will end up in a lower tax bracket increasing the attractiveness of a Roth conversion to your traditional individual retirement account.

The last three steps all involve figuring out how best to construct your investment portfolio.  Going from your pre-divorce portfolio to something that fits your needs and goals will usually require some major re-adjustments in your strategy.

Going through our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E process or a similar approach is probably the last thing you want to do on your own.  Most likely you will need the help of an advisor to work through this.

Keep in mind that the reason you are doing this is to regain control over your financial life. You sought the help of a lawyer during your divorce. Now is the time to move forward and seek the help of financial professionals with an understanding of your situation and new set of needs.

What is the best way to implement a portfolio strategy for newly divorced people?

The most important aspect of post-divorce portfolio is that it fits you and your new circumstances and desires.  Using our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E methodology as a framework for evaluating your needs and desires we suggest implementing a portfolio structure that encompasses three “buckets”.

A “bucket” is simply a separate portfolio and strategy that has a very specific risk and return objective. Each bucket in our approach is designed to give you comfort and clarity about its role in your overall portfolio.

What is the role of these “buckets”?

Each “bucket” has a very specific role in the overall portfolio as well as very explicit risk and reward limits.

We label our three “buckets” as the Safe, the Purchasing Power and the Growth portfolios.

The role of the Safe Bucket is to provide liquidity and cash flow to you to meet your short-term lifestyle needs. How much you have invested in your Safe portfolio is a function of how much money you need to fund your lifestyle over the next few years.

The second bucket – the Purchasing Power portfolio – is designed to allow you to enhance your lifestyle in terms of real purchasing power.  What this means is that every year your portfolio should have a return exceeding inflation.

Finally, the third bucket – the Growth portfolio – is designed to grow your portfolio in real terms. This portfolio is designed to maximize your returns from capital markets and will be almost exclusively invested in higher risk/higher reward equity securities.

Conclusion:

Going through divorce is one of the most stressful situations anyone can face. Transitioning to a new beginning may take a short term for some but for most people the period of adjustment is fraught with uncertainty and doubt.

People often worry about their finances and whether they can maintain their lifestyle.  A life event such as divorce also tends to shorten people’s horizon as their outlook in life often lacks clarity.

The implications from an investment standpoint are primarily a temporarily diminished desire to take on portfolio risk and a shortening of time horizons.  In English this translates to searching for greater certainty and not looking too far out.

As wealth managers our first goal is to first understand the client’s circumstances and needs once the divorce is finalized. Our P.R.O.AC.T.I.V.E process serves as the framework for initiating and exploring client concerns and issues.

Our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E approach is designed to make your money work for what you deem important.  Divorce is difficult and transitioning to a new beginning takes time.  As you adjust to your post-divorce life your financial assets will also need to be managed consistent with the new you.

At Insight Financial we are experts at guiding you through this difficult adjustment period and transition into a new beginning. To read our full report on our approach for managing your post-divorce investments please click here.

Our wealth management team at Insight Financial Strategists is ready to help you in your transition.  To set up an initial consultation please book an appointment here.

 

Other posts you may find interesting

Pension Division in Divorce

4 Risks of Pension Plans in Divorce

Post-Divorce Investments 

 

 

Jun 15

4 Risks of Pension Plans in Divorce

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

4 Risks of Pension Plans in Divorce

Although the number of pension plans has significantly declined over the years there are still many of them out there, and many divorcing couples have to figure out how to deal with them. The prime benefit that a pension plan provides is a fixed lifetime income.  A stream of income in retirement could well be a pension synonym. It used to be that fixed income was considered a negative. However, nowadays it is the lucky retiree who benefits from a pension plan!

In case of divorce, issues surrounding who is entitled to the pension present a challenge especially in the case of grey divorces (usually defined as people over 50).  Divorce and pension plans can sometimes generate conflict as the owner of the asset will often feel more proprietary about it than with other assets. Employees are often emotionally vested in their pension. They feel, more than with other assets, that they have really earned it. And that their spouse has not.  They often will have stayed in a job that they may not have liked for the privilege of qualifying for a higher paying pension. Couples look forward to getting that income when they retire. And so spouses will want to make sure that they get their share of it as part of the divorce.

Pension rights after divorce are determined as part of the overall divorce process. In a negotiated divorce, the parties can decide, within limits, how to divide their assets. In the worst case, the courts will make the decision.

What is a pension plan and how does it work?

The value of a pension benefit can be difficult to determine. Unlike other accounts, pensions don’t come with a statement that makes them easily comparable to other assets; they come with the promise of a benefit (the monthly payment that someone might get at retirement). So the number one priority when a pension is involved in a divorce is to get a valuation. The financial consequences of divorce are serious, and not getting a valuation may lead to struggling financially after divorce

Risk of Valuation

Even when valued, the number provided on a report may lead to a false sense of security. Unlike other retirement statements, the value of a pension is estimated using the parameters of the beneficiary and of the pension. In most cases the divorce pension payout is calculated with a predetermined formula based on the employee’s length of employment and income.  In some cases, the benefit may vary depending on a few other factors.

The next step is to estimate how long the benefit might be paid. That is done using actuarial tables. Based on periodic demographic studies, actuarial tables predict our life expectancy. Some actuarial tables include those produced by the Society of Actuaries, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). A pension valuation will normally use the estimates from the actuarial tables representing  an average life expectancy of a cohort of people born in the same year. The estimates are usually accurate within their parameters, as individual variability is smoothed out  for large populations. However, individual longevity is harder to predict as it may fall within a wider range.

With the amount of the payment and the length of time that the payments will be made, how much is all of that worth?   Pension valuators use a “discount rate” to approximate the value of a future payment. The principle is that the value of a dollar paid next year will be less than the value of a dollar paid today. Hence you should be willing to accept less than a dollar for the promise of a payment next year, and even less for the promise of payment the year after.  

Financial analysts will use the concept of the prudent rate of return, the rate that a prudent person would invest at in order to receive that dollar next year or beyond. That of course could be subject to interpretation. Often the standard that is used is the government bond rate for the duration of the payment.  US government bonds are often considered to be risk free by economists and the public, although that too is subject to debate (Currently US government debt is rated at AA+ (below AAA) by Standard & Poor’s, the leading debt rating agency). Nonetheless that rate is often used for individual pension valuations.

The PBGC, on the other hand, has developed its own rates. The PBGC uses different rates before retirement, and rates during retirement. The former are significantly higher than the latter and assumes a rate of return that is in excess of the risk free rate.  That may be a better model for actual human behavior, as people will normally be tempted to take more risk for a better return, rationalizing, of course, that the incremental risk is not significant. On the other hand, for rates during retirement the PBGC uses rates that are well below the norm, reflecting the reality that retirees are even more risk averse than the average population.

Financial analysts will determine the value of the pension by taking a present value of the pension payments over the expected longevity of the individual at the determined discount rate(s). The number that comes out is usually a single number assuming a date of retirement.  

Understanding that we are working with an estimate, people usually ignore the fact that the magic number does not take into account the likely variability of  the inputs, in particular longevity.

If you will be the alternate payee (ie, if you are the spouse aiming to get a share of the other’s pension), it is important to pay attention to the fact that the real value of your share of the pension will fall within a range. It will not be a single number Hence when you trade that pension for another asset that has a fixed value, you want to make sure that you are not short changing yourself.

On the other hand if you are the beneficiary of the pension, it is painful enough to give up a share of it.  You don’t want to give up part of that asset if it will not be fully used. If it is the alternate payee that passes away early, his or her stream of payments stops, and, in most cases, does not revert back to you, the initial beneficiary.  If that were to happen you will have wasted a potentially substantial asset.

In summary it is important for divorcing couples to fully understand the value of their pensions for themselves and for their spouse.  Divorce already destroys enough wealth. There is no need to destroy more.

Risk of Default

Pensions have a risk of default or reduced benefits in the future. According to the Society for Human Resources Management  114 pension funds are expected to fail in the next 20 years. That is true even for pensions that do not look like they are in trouble currently. Some people may think that this is farfetched. Yet you only have to look at the Pensions Right website to convince yourself that benefit reductions do happen. When you consider that retirement can last 20, 30 or 40 years, you will want to evaluate if your pension plan is robust enough to last that long, and continue making payments for that long.

The risk of benefit reductions or outright default may apply mostly to the private sector. Yet public sector plans may be at risk also. For instance, Social Security has a trust fund that, together with payroll deductions, funds its retirement benefits (social security retirement benefits are effectively a pension). According to the 2009 Social Security Trustees Report, the Social Security trust fund will run out in 2037. When that happens, the Trustees project that retirement benefits will be cut by 24%.  

It should be noted that Social Security benefits are not divisible in divorce  The beneficiary keeps his or her benefits. The ex-spouse can get 50% of the beneficiary’s benefits (if married 10 years or longer) or 100% of his or her own, whichever is higher, but not both. That happens without prejudice to the prime beneficiary.

However, in 2037, both parties can expect a Social Security retirement benefit cut of 24%, unless Congress remedies the situation beforehand.

Personal Risk

People also underestimate personal risk. If you receive a pension as an alternate payee (ie the spouse who is getting a share of the pension from the former employee), you will want to consider the risks that your payments may be interrupted due to issues with your ex-spouse. Many pensions stop spousal payments when the beneficiary passes. When that happens, the alternate payee will have to find an alternate source of income to compensate.

It is worth remembering that our life expectancies are random within a range. The expected longevity of women reaching 65 years of age is to 85 years of age.  We often anchor on this or other numbers forgetting that few women pass away at 85. Most will pass away either before 85 or after 85. According to a paper by Dr. Ryan Edwards for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the standard deviation for longevity is 15 years. That means that most women will live to 85, +/- 15 years. From 70 to 100 with an average of 85. That is a wide range! What if the beneficiary of the pension passes away 10 years before his her life expectancy, and the alternate payee lives 10 years longer than life expectancy? That means that the alternate payee may have to do without his or her share of the pension for 20 years or longer (if the two ex spouses have the same expected longevity).

And what about inflation risk?

Most pensions do not have a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). That does not apply to all of them. For instance, the Federal Employee Retirement Systems (FERS) has a limited COLA. Effectively, when there is no inflation adjustment, the value of a pension payment is reduced every year by the amount of inflation. How bad can that be, you ask? Assuming a 3% inflation rate the value of a fixed payment will decrease by almost 50% over 20 years.  . What is the likelihood that expenses will have reduced by 50%?

A Last word

Pensions are a very emotional subjects in divorce. Perhaps because we are naturally risk averse, and perhaps because our risk aversion is exasperated by divorce related anxiety, we like to cling to what we perceive as solid. People will often want to keep the marital home, even if they cannot afford it, or take a chunk of a pension even when it may make better sense to trade it for another asset. Worse yet they will want to know whether to keep the house or pension in divorce.

What other asset you may ask? You could trade the pension for a tax- deferred retirement asset, such as an IRA or a 401k.  Or any other asset that you and your spouse own. The right decision will end up being different for everyone.

As a Divorce Financial Planner, it is my task to make sure that each side understands exactly what is at stake, and to help prepare them for rebuilding financially after divorce. In many cases it makes sense for both parties to get a share of the pension. In others it does not.  How to keep your pension in a divorce is a vital question. Even more important is to understand the true value of the pension, and its ambiguities.  It is a difficult task in a process that is already filled with anxieties and uncertainties to focus effectively on yet one more ambiguity. Yet for successfully managing finances after divorce it must be done.

 

Other posts that you may find interesting:

Pension Division in Divorce

Post-Divorce Investments 

In Divorce, Can We Share a CDFA?

 

 

Nov 10

Killing Alimony

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

Killing Alimony?

Eliminating the deductibility of alimony payments from taxable income is one of the features of the Republican House Tax Reform bill. It is very significant to both payors and recipients of alimony.

The Goddess Nemesis

Written into the fabric of the GOP tax proposal is a change in how alimony is taxed. People paying alimony could lose “the greatest tax deduction ever.” And that could ultimately affect those receiving alimony, too.

Since details of the new tax overhaul bill were released on Nov. 2, people of all income levels and ages have been trying to figure out how they could be affected going forward. One group of folks not likely to be happy: those paying alimony.

Section 1309 of the House bill would eliminate the deductibility of alimony. Killing the alimony deduction is one of the smaller revenue targets for the House Republican tax bill, yet it is exceedingly significant to the people affected.

Under current rules, alimony payors may deduct their payments from their taxable incomes, thus lowering their income taxes. In return, recipients pay income taxes on their alimony income. Because payors are usually in higher tax brackets and recipients in lower tax brackets, families can save money on taxes by shifting the tax burden to the lower earner. The saving can help increase cash flow for divorcing couples. They can then decide how to allocate the savings: to the payor or the recipient … or the court can do it for them.

Killing the alimony tax deduction raises only about $8 billion over 10 years

According to the House, abolishing the alimony deduction would not be a large revenue generator. By killing the alimony tax deduction, the alimony tax bill raises only about $8 billion over 10 years. That is because the tax increase on payors is offset by a tax decrease for recipients. For them, alimony income would no longer be taxable.

This wrinkle could have a significant impact on divorce settlements. For many payors, saving taxes on alimony payments is the one pain relief that comes with making the payments. According to John Fiske, a prominent mediator and family law attorney, “Alimony is the greatest tax deduction ever.” Without the deduction, payors will find it much more expensive and more difficult to agree to pay.

For example, in Massachusetts alimony payors usually pay 30% to 35% of the difference in the parties’ incomes. For a payor in the 33% federal tax bracket, the House tax bill increases the cost of alimony by nearly 50%.

The entire set of laws, guidelines and practices around alimony are based on its deductibility. Passage of the House Republican tax bill is likely to lead to a mad scramble in the states to change the laws and guidelines to adjust alimony payments downward to make up for the tax status change.

The likely net result: although recipients would no longer pay tax on alimony income, abolishing the tax deductibility of alimony is likely to reduce their incomes even further as divorce negotiations take the new, higher tax burden on payors into account.

A previous version appeared in Kiplinger

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