Category Archives for "Financial Planning"

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)

Jan 23

How does the SECURE Act affect you?

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

After several months of uncertainty, Congress finally passed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act in December 2019, with President Trump signing the new Act into law on December 20, 2019. The SECURE Act introduces some of the most significant changes in retirement planning in more than a decade.

The SECURE Act makes several changes to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) as well as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) that are intended to expand retirement plan coverage for workers and increase savings opportunities. The SECURE Act also radically changes several techniques used for retirement and tax planning. 

Some of the key provisions affecting employer retirement plans, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and Section 529 Plans included in the SECURE Act are as follows.

IRA Contributions

Starting in 2020, eligible taxpayers can now make Traditional IRA contributions at any age. They are no longer bound by the previous limit of age 70 ½ for contributing to a Traditional IRA.  As a result, individuals 70 ½ and older are now eligible for the back-door Roth IRA .

As an aside, anyone who satisfies the income threshold and has compensation can fund a Roth IRA.

In addition, graduate students are now able to treat taxable stipends and non-tuition fellowship payments as earned income for IRA contribution purposes . I have a graduate student, so I understand that their stipend income may not allow them to contribute to retirement. However, that is something that forward-thinking parents and grandparents can consider as part of their own estate planning.

Required Minimum Distributions

As our retirement age seems to push into the future steadily, so are Required Minimum Distributions under the SECURE Act. This provision, which applies to IRAs and other qualified retirement plans (401(k), 403(b), and 457(b)) allows retirees turning 70 ½ in 2020 or later to delay RMDs from 70 ½ years of age to April 1 of the year after a retiree reaches age 72 . In addition, the law allows people who own certain plans to delay it even further in the case that they are still working after 72. Unfortunately, the provision does not apply to those who have turned 70 ½ in 2019. Natalie Choate, an estate planning lawyer in Boston, says in Morningstar, “no IRA owner will have a beginning RMD date in 2021”.

This RMD provision is part of the good news in the SECURE Act. It will allow retirees more time to reach their retirement income goals. For many, it will enable better lifetime tax planning as well.

End of the “Stretch” IRA

Prior to the SECURE Act, the distributions on an inherited IRA could be “stretched” over the expected lifetime of the inheritor. That was a staple tool of estate and tax planning. 

No more. With a few exceptions, such as for the spouse, the “stretch” is now effectively crunched into ten years. Accounts inherited as of 12/31/2019 are now expected to be distributed over ten years, without a specific annual requirement.

The consequence of this provision of the Act is likely to result in larger tax bills for people inheriting . This makes planning for people who expect to leave IRAs, as well for inheriting them, more important than ever. 

Qualified Birth or Adoption Distribution

The new law allows a penalty-free distribution of up to $5,000 from an IRA or employer plan for a  “Qualified Birth or Adoption Distribution.” For a qualified distribution, the owner of the account must take the distribution for a one-year period starting on (1) the date of birth of the child or (2) the date when the adoption becomes final (individual must be under age 18). The law permits the IRA owner who took the distribution to pay it back to the plan or IRA at a later date. However, these distributions remain subject to income taxes.

Generally speaking, we at Insight Financial Strategists think that people in this situation should avoid availing themselves of this new wrinkle in the law. In our experience, a distribution from retirement accounts before retirement can have profound impacts on retirement income security. 

529 Plans

It may sound off-topic, but it is not. The SECURE Act also addresses 529 plans. For students and their parents, the SECURE ACT allows tax-free 529 plans to pay for apprenticeship programs if they are registered and certified by the Department of Labor.

This provision will be helpful for those people who have children headed to vocational track programs.

In a very partial solution to the student loan crisis, savings in 529 plans can now be used to pay down a qualified education loan, up to $10,000 for a lifetime . Technically, the law makes this provision effective as of the beginning of 2019. 

Given how students and parents scramble to meet the challenge of the cost of higher education, I do not forecast that most 529 plans have much left over to pay off loans!

Business Retirement Plans

(Part-Time) Employee Eligibility for 401(k) Plans – In most 401(k) plans, participation by part-time employees is limited. The SECURE Act enables long-time part-time workers to participate in 401(k) plans if they have worked for at least 500 hours in each of three consecutive 12-month periods. Long-term part-time employees who become eligible under this provision may still be excluded from eligibility for contributions by employers.

Delayed Adoption of Employer Funded Qualified Retirement Plan Beginning in 2020, a new plan would be treated as effective for the prior tax year if it is established later than the due date of the previous year’s tax return. Notably, this provision would only apply to plans that are entirely employer-funded (i.e., profit-sharing, pension, and stock bonus plans).

403(b) Custodial Accounts under Terminated Plans are allowed to be Distributed in Kind – Subject to US Treasury Department guidance, the SECURE Act allows an individual 403(b) custodial account in a terminating plan to be distributed “in-kind” to the participant. The account distributed in this way would retain its tax-deferred status as a 403(b). 

Establish Open Multiple Employer Plans (MEPs) – Employers may now join together to create an “open” MEPs, referred to in the legislation as “Pooled Plans.” This will allow small employers to join together and share the costs of retirement planning for their employees, such as through a local Chamber of Commerce or other organization, to start a retirement plan for their employees. 

Increased Tax Credits – The tax credit for small employers who start a new retirement plan will increase from $500 to $5,000. In addition, small employers that add automatic enrollment to their plans also may qualify for an additional $500 annual tax credit for up to three years.

There are many more provisions in the SECURE Act. While some of them are useful for taxpayers, it is worth noting the observation by Ed Slott, a tax expert and sometimes wag: “whatever Congress names a tax law, it does the opposite .”  This is worth keeping in mind as you mull the implications of this law. With the SECURE Act now the law, it may be time to check in with your fiduciary financial planner and revise your retirement income and estate plans.

Dec 09

Year End Tax Planning Opportunities

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

Year End Tax Planning Opportunities

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) was the most consequential tax reform package in this generation. It changed many of the ways that we think about reducing taxes.

According to the Tax Policy Center, we know that about 80% of taxpayers pay less income tax in 2018 than before the TCJA , about 5% pay more, and the balance of taxpayers pay about the same amount. On balance, the TCJA seems to have delivered on its promises.

A key item of the TCJA is that it increased the standard deduction, reducing the impact of the elimination of State and Local Taxes (SALT) under $10,000 and the elimination of personal deductions. As a result, about 84% of taxpayers claim the standard deduction and do not itemize. By comparison, about 56% of taxpayers itemized before the enactment of the TCJA. The vast majority of taxpayers are no longer subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), since two of its key drivers, the deductibility of state and local taxes and personal deductions, are no longer a practical issue for most people. And in 2018, only 1,700 estates were subject to the federal estate and gift tax. So for most people, the TCJA has made taxes simpler to deal with. What’s there not to like about a simpler tax return ?

Federal deficit due to tax cuts

Source: Congressional Budget Office

Impact of the TCJA on the Federal Deficit

As predicted, the TCJA worsened the federal deficit bringing it to nearly a trillion dollars in fiscal year 2019. That was in spite of an increase in tax revenue due to the continuing improvement in the economic climate. Of course, the federal deficit continues to be driven by federal spending on the sacred cows of modern US politics: Defense, Social Security, and Medicare. Interest on the federal debt is also a major budget item that needs to be paid. While our continuing regime of low interest rates is helping control the interest on the debt, it is clear that the future may change that.

What will happen to tax rates?

Tax rates are lower now than they have been since the 1970s and 80s. Hence, industry insiders tend to think that tax rates have nowhere to go but up.  That is also what’s is predicted by the TCJA, which is largely designed to sunset in 2025. Should the American people turn on Republicans at the 2020 election, it’s possible that the TCJA will see a premature end. However, it seems that the possibility that the American people might elect a progressive in 2020 is largely discounted when it comes to tax rate forecasting: most people assume that tax rates will increase.

Year-End Planning

Political forecasting aside, there are still things that we can do to lower our taxes . It should be noted that many of the techniques in this article are not limited to the year-end. Furthermore, we all have different situations that may or may not be appropriate for these techniques. 

Tax Loss Harvesting

Even though we have had a pretty good year overall, many of us may still have positions in which we have paper losses. Tax-loss harvesting consists of selling these positions to realize the losses. This becomes valuable when you sell the equivalent amount of shares in which you have gains. So if you sell some shares with $10,000 in losses, and some with $10,000 in gains, you have effectively canceled out the taxes on the gains.

You then have to reinvest the shares sold into another investment. Be careful not to buy back the exact same shares that you sold. That would disallow the tax loss harvesting!

At the same time, it makes sense to review your portfolio and see if there are other changes that you would like to make. We are not fans of frequent changes for its own sake. However, periodically our needs change, the markets change, and we need to adapt.

Income Tax Planning

While tax loss harvesting is mostly about managing Capital Gains taxes, it is also important to keep an eye on income tax planning . This is a good time of year to estimate your income and your taxes for the year. When comparing your estimated Adjusted Gross Income with the tax tables, you will see if you might be creeping up into the next tax bracket. For instance, if you are single and your estimated AGI is $169,501 (and you have no other complexity), you are right at the 32% tax bracket (after you remove the $12,000 standard deduction).  In this example, that means that for every dollar above that amount you would owe 32 cents in federal income tax, and a little bit more for state income tax, if that applies to you.

If your income is from a business, you may possibly defer some of that income to next year. If your income comes from wages, another way to manage this is to plan an additional contribution to a retirement account. In the best of cases your $1,000 contribution would reduce your taxes by $320, and a little bit more for state taxes.

In some cases, you might have a significant dip in income. Perhaps if you have a business, you reported some large purchases, or you booked a loss or just had a bad year for income. It may make sense at this point to take advantage of your temporarily low tax rate to do a Roth conversion. Check with your wealth manager or tax preparer.

If your income does not straddle two tax brackets, the decision to invest in a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA is still worth considering.

Charitable Contributions

By increasing standard deductions, the TCJA has made it more difficult for people to deduct charitable contributions . As a result, charitable contributions bring few if any tax benefits for most people.

One way around that situation is to bundle or lump charitable gifts. Instead of giving every year, you can give 2, 3 or more years worth of donations at one time. That would allow your charity to receive the contribution, and, potentially, for you to take a tax deduction. 

Pushing the bundling concept further, you could give even more to a Donor Advised Fund (DAF). With that option, you could take a tax deduction, and give every year from the DAF. That allows you to control your donations, reduce your income in the year that you donate, and potentially reduce income taxes and Medicare premiums. Consult your wealth strategist to ensure that taxes, income, and donations are optimized.

Retirement Accounts

First, it is important to review Required Minimum Distribution (RMDs). Anyone who is 70 ½ years of age or older is subject to RMDs. Please make sure to connect with your financial advisor to make sure that the RMD is properly withdrawn before the year-end.

The RMD is a perennial subject of irritation for people . Obviously, if your retirement income plan includes the use of RMDs, it’s not so much of an issue. However, if it is not required, it can be irritating. That is because RMD distributions are subject to income taxes that may even push you into the next tax bracket or increase your Medicare premium. There are, however, some ways that you can deal with that.  

For instance, if you take a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) from your IRA and have the distribution given directly to a charity, the distribution will not be income to you. Hence you won’t pay income taxes on that distribution, and it will not be counted toward the income used to calculate your Medicare premium. However, it will fulfill your RMD, thus taking care of that pesky issue.

Generally, we advocate planning for lifetime taxes rather than for any one given year. Lifetime financial planning has the potential to result in even more benefits. It should be noted that many of the possibilities outlined in this article can be used throughout the year, not just at year-end. We encourage you to have that conversation with your wealth management team to plan for the long term!

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

Nov 18

Seven Year End Wealth Strategies

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

Seven Year End Wealth Strategies

As we approach the end of the year, there is still time to improve your financial position with a few well-placed year-end moves.
Maybe because we are working against a deadline, many year-end planning opportunities seem to be tax-related. Tax moves, however, should be made with your overall long-term financial and investment planning context in mind. So make sure to check in with your financial and tax advisors.
Here are seven important moves to focus your efforts on that will help you make the best of the rest of your financial year.

1) Harvest your Tax Losses in Your Taxable Accounts

As of October 22, the Dow Jones is up 16.57%, and the S&P500 is up just 21% for the year. Unfortunately, there are still stocks and mutual funds that are down for the year. Therefore you are likely to have some items in your portfolio that show up in red when you check the “unrealized gains and losses” column on your brokerage statement.
You can still make lemonade out of these lemons by harvesting your losses for tax purposes. However, the IRS individual deduction for capital losses is limited to a maximum of $3,000 for 2018. So, if you only dispose of your losers, you could end up with a tax loss carryforward, i.e., tax losses you would have to use in future years. This is not an ideal scenario!
However, you can also offset your losses against gains. For example, suppose you were to sell some losers and hypothetically accumulate $10,000 in losses. In that case, you could then also sell some winners. Then, if the gains in your winners sold add to $10,000, you have offset your gains with losses, and you will not owe capital gain taxes on that joint trade!
This could be a great tool to help you rebalance your portfolio with a low tax impact. Beware though, you have to wait 30 days before buying back the positions you have sold to stay clear of the wash sale rule.

Gozha net on Unsplash

2) Reassess your Investment Planning

Tax-loss harvesting is a great tactic to use for short-term advantage. However, as an important side benefit, it allows you to focus on more fundamental issues. So why did you buy these securities that you just sold? Presumably, they played an important role in your investing strategy. And now that you have accumulated cash, it’s important to re-invest mindfully.
You may be tempted to stay on the sideline for a while and see how the market shakes out. Although we may have been spoiled into complacency after the Great Recession, the last month has reminded us that volatility happens.
No one knows when the next bear market will happen if it has not started already. Therefore, it is high time to ask yourself whether you and your portfolio are ready for a significant potential downturn.
Take the opportunity to review your goals, ensure that your portfolio risk matches your goals, and your asset allocation matches your risk target. Then, reach out to your Wealth Strategist about that.

3) Check on your Retirement Planning

It is not too late to top out your retirement account! In 2021, you may contribute a maximum of $19,500 from your salary, including employer match to a 401(k), TSP, 403(b), or 457 retirement plan, subject to the terms of your plan. In addition, those who are age 50 or over may contribute an additional $6,500 for the year.

If you have contributed less than the limit to your plan, there may still be time! You have until December 31 to maximize contributions for 2021, reduce your 2021 taxable income (if you contribute to a Traditional plan), and give a boost to your retirement planning.

Alternatively to deferring a portion of your salary to your employer’s Traditional plan on a pretax basis, you may be able to contribute to a Roth account if that is a plan option for your employer. As with a Roth IRA, contributions to the Roth 401(k) are made after-tax, while distributions in retirement are tax-free.

Many employers have added the Roth feature to their employee retirement plans. If yours has not, have a chat with your HR department!

Although the media has popularized the Roth account as tax-free, bear in mind that it is not. Roth accounts are merely taxed differently. Check-in with your Certified Financial Planner practitioner to determine whether electing to defer a portion of your salary on a pretax basis or to a Roth account on a post-tax basis would suit your situation better.

4) Roth Conversions

The current tax environment is especially favorable to Roth conversions. Under the current law, income tax rates are scheduled to go back up in 2026; hence Roth conversions could be suitable for more people until then. And, of course, it is possible that Congress will vote for tax rates to go up before the end of the year.
With a Roth conversion, you withdraw money from a Traditional retirement account where assets grow tax-deferred, pay income taxes on the withdrawal, and roll the assets into a Roth account. Once in a Roth account, the assets can grow and be withdrawn tax-free, provided certain requirements are met. If you believe that your tax bracket will be higher in the future than it is now, you could be a good candidate for a Roth conversion.

Read more about the new tax law and Roth conversions

5) Pick your Health Plan Carefully

It is health insurance re-enrollment season! The annual ritual of picking a health insurance plan is on to us. This could be one of your more significant financial decisions for the short term. Not only is health insurance expensive, it is only getting more so.
First, you need to decide whether to subscribe to a traditional plan with a “low” deductible or a high deductible option. The tradeoff is that the high deductible option has a less expensive premium. However, should you have a lot of health issues, you might end up spending more. High deductible plans are paired with Health Savings Accounts (HSA).
The HSA is a unique instrument. It allows you to save money pretax and to pay for qualified healthcare expenses tax-free. In addition, unlike Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), balances in HSAs may be carried over to future years and invested to allow for potential earnings growth. This last feature is really exciting to wealth managers: in the right situation, clients could end up saving a lot of money.
If you pick a high deductible plan, make sure to fund your HSA to the maximum. Employers will often contribute also to encourage you to choose that option. If you select a low deductible plan, make sure to put the appropriate amount in your Flexible Spending Account. FSAs are used to pay for medical expenses on a pretax basis. Unlike with an HSA, you cannot roll over unspent amounts to future years.

6) If you are past 70, plan your RMDs

If you are past 70, make sure to take your Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) each year. The 50% penalty for not taking the RMD is steep. You must withdraw your first minimum distribution by April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn 70 ½, and then by December 31 for each year after.
Perhaps you don’t need the RMD? Instead, you may want to redirect the money to another cause. For instance, you may want to fund a grandchild’s 529 educational account. 529 accounts are tax-advantaged accounts for education. Although contributions are post-tax, growth and distributions are tax-free if they are used for educational purposes.
Or, you may want to plan for a Qualified Charitable Distribution from the IRA. The distribution must be directly from the IRA to the charity. It is excluded from taxable income and can count towards your RMD under certain conditions.

7) Plan your charitable donations

Speaking of charitable donations, they can also reduce taxable income and provide financial planning benefits. However, due to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA), it may be more complicated than in previous years. One significant difference of the TCJA is that standard deductions are $12,550 for individuals and $25,100 for joint filers. So, practically, what that means is that you need to accumulate $12,550 or $25,100 of deductible items before you can feel the tax savings benefit.
In other words, if a married couple filing jointly has $8,000 in real estate taxes and $5,000 of state income taxes for a total of $13,000 of deductions, they are better off taking the standard $24,000 deduction. They would have to donate $7,000 before they could start to feel the tax benefit of their donation. One way to deal with that is to bundle your gifts in a given year instead of spreading them over many years. Or, within certain limits, to give directly from your IRA.
For instance, if you plan to give in 2021 and also in 2022, consider bundling your donations and giving just in 2021. In this way, you are more likely to be able to exceed the standard deduction limit.
If your thinking wheels are running after reading this article, you may want to check in with your Wealth Strategist or financial planner: there may be other things that you could or should do before the end of the year!

 

Check these other wealth management posts:

Is the TCJA an opportunity for Roth conversions?

New Year Resolution

How to Implement a New Year Resolution

Tax Season Dilemna: Invest ina Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA 

Note: The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be construed as legal, tax, or investment advice. We make no representation as to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented.  To determine investments that may be appropriate for you, consult with your financial planner before investing. Tax laws and regulations are complex and subject to change, which can materially impact investment results. Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market and other conditions.We make no representation as to the completeness or accuracy of information provided at the websites linked in this newsletter. When you access one of these websites, you assume total responsibility and risk for your use of the websites to which you are linking. We are not liable for any direct or indirect technical or system issues or any consequences arising out of your access to or your use of third-party technologies, websites, information, and programs made available through this website.  

Oct 15

Financial Planner or Estate Planner: Which Do You Need?

By Anna Byrne | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

Financial Planner or Estate Planner: Which Do You Need?

Financial Planners and Estate Planners are two different professions that are often confused. There is some overlap between professionals in these fields, but their roles are rather distinct. When you are striving to make a long-term plan for a strong financial future, both financial planners and estate planners play a crucial role.

In fact, when you consider some of the most recent personal finance statistics, it becomes very clear that many Americans could really benefit from retaining the services of both a financial planner AND an estate planner. For instance, 33% of Americans have no money saved for retirement, 60% lack any form of an estate plan, and only 46% have money saved for emergencies. Better planning starts with understanding what both types of planners do.

What is a Financial Planner?

A financial planner is a professional who offers a wide range of services that can assist both individuals and businesses to accomplish their long-term financial goals and accumulate wealth. They fall into two categories:

  • Registered Investment Advisor
  • Certified Financial Planner

Certified Financial Planners (CFP) are required to comply with the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, which means they have a basic level of expertise backed by a larger organization. Ethically they have to work in your best interest.

Services provided by both financial advisors and CFPs include:

What is an Estate Planner?

The goal of a financial planner is to assist with wealth accumulation. On the other hand, an estate planner can help you to make financial plans associated with your passing, which includes protecting the wealth that you have accumulated .

While you might believe only wealthy individuals need to work with an estate planner, you should consider the fact that everything you have accumulated in your life comprises your estate. Accumulated assets such as vehicles, furniture, bank accounts, life insurance, your home, and other personal possessions are all included in your estate.

Your assets become the property of the state if you die without a will or an estate plan in place , and your family members will not be able to claim them without paying legal fees and taxes. They will also have to face the stress of potential disagreements with other family members over how your property should be divided.

Besides planning for your passing, estate planning also involves creating a clear plan for your care if you become disabled , and it also covers naming guardians for underage children. Estate planning is a way to protect your family and your assets while reducing taxes and legal fees .

Which Do You Need?

The roles of financial planners and estate planners are unique, and for this reason, you will benefit from working with both . While your financial planner helps you accumulate wealth, he or she can also prepare you for a meeting with an estate planner as part of your long-term strategy. This includes providing the estate planner with lists of beneficiaries, tax return documentation, lists of investments and a breakdown of income and expenses.

When you work with both a financial planner and an estate planner, they will keep you accountable by periodically reviewing your documentation and beneficiaries and making sure everything is updated and reviewed as necessary. By taking the time to work with both these professionals, no important decisions will be overlooked, and you will take control of your financial future.

 

Note: This article was authored by Kristin Dzialo, a partner at Eckert Byrne LLC, a Cambridge, MA law firm that provides tailored estate planning. Eckert Byrne LLC and Insight Financial Strategists LLC are separate and unaffiliated companies. This article is provided for educational and informational purposes only. While Insight Financial Strategists LLC believes the sources to be reliable, it makes no representations or warranties as to this or other third party content it makes available on its website and/or newsletter,  nor does it explicitly or implicitly endorse or approve the information provided.  

Aug 13

Is Your Caution Today Hurting Your Tomorrow?

By Eric Weigel | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Retirement Planning , Sustainable Investing

A Hypothetical Case of Fear vs Greed Tradeoffs

How our brain works:

We all think that we are fully rational all the time but in reality the way our brains operate that is not always the case.

One of the key functions of the brain is self-defense. When the brain perceives danger it makes automatic adjustments to protect itself.  When it perceives discomfort it seeks to engage in an action that removes the stress.

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman explains how we all have a two way system of thinking that we use to make decisions.  He labels the two components as System 1 (Thinking Fast) and System 2 (Thinking Slow).

System 1 is automatic, fast responding and emotional. System 2 is slower, reflective and analytical.

Think of your System 1 as your gut reaction and your System 2 as your conscious, logical thought.

While we all like to think that our key life decisions are governed by our logical thought (System 2) research has shown that even major decisions are often driven by our gut feel.

Which System do we use to make a decision? That depends on the problem. If we have seen the problem many times before such as what to do when see a red light we default to our automatic System 1 thinking.

When we face a challenge or issue that we have not seen before or maybe infrequently we tend to use System 2, our more reflective and analytical capabilities.

Kahneman’s research shows that we spend most of our time in System 1. While most people think of themselves as being rational and deliberate in their decision making, the reality is that we often employ “short-cuts” or heuristics to make decisions.

Most of the time, these “short-cuts” work just fine but occasionally for more difficult or complex problems the impressions arrived from System 1 thinking can lead us astray.

Why? Above all else, System 1 thinking seeks to create quick and coherent stories based on first impressions.  These impressions are a function of what our brain is sensing at that moment in time.

According to Kahneman, conclusions are easily reached despite often contradictory information as System 1 has little knowledge of logic and statistics. He calls this phenomenon – WYSIATIfor “what you see is all there is”.

The main implication from WYSIATI is that people often over-emphasize evidence that they are familiar with and ignore evidence that may be much more relevant to the problem at hand but that they are not fully aware of.

System 1 conclusions therefore may be biased and lead to decision “short-cuts” or heuristics that seriously impair the quality of a decision.

What makes making “money” decisions so hard?

When it comes to investing people often rely too much on System 1 or automatic thinking. The research shows that we are not infallible and we in fact often make behavioral mistakes. Sometimes we over-rely on our gut feel without properly evaluating the consequences of our actions.

Often our brain perceives of the dangers first and sends us a warning signal to be careful.  Losing money puts us on red alert.

Behavioral finance research (for example in the book Nudge) has shown that losing money makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same amount makes you happy. People are loss averse.

Loss aversion makes people overvalue what they have due to a reluctance to incur any losses should they make a change. What they give up, sometimes unknowingly, is potential upside.

Loss aversion creates inertia. Inertia often works against investors that overvalue the attractiveness of their current holdings.

There are different degrees of loss aversion.  According to Prospect Theory, all investors value gains less than losses but some exhibit an extreme dislike for potential losses that significantly hinders their long-term wealth creation potential.

Nobody likes to lose money, but taking on risk in order to compound your hard earned savings is an integral feature of how capital markets work.  You don’t get a higher reward unless you take additional risk.

Most investors know that stocks do better than bonds over the long-term but that the price of these higher returns is more risk.  Investors also understand that bonds do better most of the time than simply purchasing a CD at the local bank or investing in a money market mutual fund.

But knowledge stored in your logical and analytical System 2 thinking does not always make it through in the face of stress or uncertainty.

People can become too risk averse for a couple of reasons:

  • Case A: They let their fears and emotions guide their investment decision making and give disproportionate importance to avoiding any losses
  • Case B: They fail to calibrate their expectations to the likely frequency of outcomes.

In Case A, investors seek the perceived safety of bonds often not realizing that as interest rates go up bonds can lose money.  Or they simply pile into CD’s not realizing that their returns most often fail to keep up with inflation. Stocks are frowned upon because you can lose money.

Investors in Case A let their decisions be driven by emotion and fear and will over-value the importance of safety and under-value the importance of future portfolio growth.  Their account balances will not go down much when capital markets experience distress, but neither will they go up much during equity bull markets.

In Case B investors mis-calibrate their expectations for various investment outcomes and the consequences can be as dire as in the first situation.  Behavioral finance research has shown that investors frequently over-estimate the likelihood and magnitude of extreme events such as stock market corrections.

Investors often become fixated on what could happen should an equity market correction occur, but they fail to properly evaluate the likelihood and magnitude of such a correction in relation to historical precedents.  They also importantly fail to properly calibrate the probability of observing a recovery after going through such a correction.

What are the implications for investors playing it too safe?

Let’s consider the case of investors currently working and saving a portion of their income to fund a long-term goal such as retirement. These individuals are in the accumulation phase of their financial lives.

Somebody in the accumulation phase will naturally worry more about how fast they can grow their portfolio over time and whether they will reach their “number”.  People in the accumulation phase care primarily about their balances going up year after year. They are in “growth” mode.

The Hypothetical Setting:

To better illustrate this situation let’s look through the eyes of a recent college grad called Pablo earning $40,000 a year. Pablo is aware of the need to save part of his salary and invest for the long-term.  He just turned 22 and expects to work for 40 years.

Pablo will also be receiving annual 2.5% merit salary increases which will allow him to save a greater amount each year in the future.

The Problem:

Pablo faces two key decisions – what percentage of his salary to save each year and the aggressiveness of his portfolio which in turn will determine its most likely return.

He is conflicted. He has never made this much money before and worries about losing money. He also understands that he alone is responsible for his long-term financial success.

Pablo knows that there is a trade off between risk and return but he wants to make a smart decision. His System 1 thinking is saying play it safe and don’t expose yourself to potential loses.

At the same time his rational and informed System 2 thinking is influenced by a couple of finance and economics classes he recently took while in college.

Pablo can succumb to automatic System 1 thinking and invest in a very conservative portfolio. Or he can rely on his System 2 thinking and invest in a higher risk and commensurately higher return portfolio.

One Alternative – Save 10% of his Income and play it safe investing

For simplicity sake assume that Pablo decides to put 10% of his salary into an investment fund. The fund consists primarily of high grade bonds such as those contained in the AGG exchange traded fund.

From the knowledge gained in his econ and finance classes Pablo estimates that this portfolio should return about 4% per year – a bit below the historical norm for bonds but consistent with market interest rates as of August 2018.

Pablo also understands that such a portfolio will have a bit of variability from year to year. He estimates that the volatility of this portfolio is likely to be about 6% per year. Again, this estimate is in line with current bond market behavior as of August of 2018.

He knows that this is a low risk, low return portfolio but the chances of this portfolio suffering a catastrophic loss are negligible. He is petrified of losing money so this portfolio might fit the bill.

How large could his portfolio be expected grow to over 40 years of saving and investing in this conservative manner?  We built a spreadsheet to figure this out. We assumed a 4% portfolio return on principal, 2.5% annual salary increases and a half year of investment returns on annual contributions also at 4%.  Remember that this is a hypothetical example with no guarantee of returns.

At the end of 40 years Pablo’s salary is assumed to have grown to $107,403 and his portfolio, invested in this conservative manner, would have a balance of $575,540.  The growth of this portfolio (identified as 10_4) is shown in Figure 1. The naming convention for the portfolios corresponds to the savings rate followed by the assumed hypothetical rate of return on the strategy.

Figure 1

Source: Insight Financial Strategists, Hypothetical Example

Pablo knows that his portfolio will not exactly return 4% every year. Some years will be better, other years much worse but over the next 40 years the returns are likely to average close to 4%.

But Pablo does not feel comfortable just dealing in averages.  If things go bad, how bad could it be?

Given the volatility of this conservative portfolio there is a 10% chance of losing 3.6% in any given year. These numbers are calculated by Insight Financial Strategists based on an approximation of a log-normal simulation and are available upon request. Not catastrophic but nobody likes losing money.

Figure 2 shows the 90th and 10th probability bands for this conservative portfolio. These bands are estimated based on the expected average return of the portfolio and its volatility.

The actual portfolio return would be expected to lie about 2/3 of the time within these bands. In the short-term, say 1 to 2 years out, the portfolio returns are more unpredictable.  Over longer horizons, the average return to this conservative portfolio should fall within much tighter bands given the assumed risk and return numbers in the log-normal simulation.

Based on the calculations, the average returns over ten years should range between 6.3% and 1.4% per annum. Clearly, even this conservative portfolio has some risk especially in the short-term, but over longer holding periods returns should smooth out.

Figure 2

 log-normal simulation using 4% assumed return and 6% volatility

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

Another Alternative – Save 20% of his Income and continue investing in a conservative portfolio

Assuming the same 2.5% annual salary increases, the final salary would have been the same but his nest egg would have grown to $1,151,080. Pablo keeps looking at Figure 1 (the 20_4 line representing a 20% savings rate invested at an assumed 4%) and starts thinking that maybe a bit of extra saving would be a very good thing.

He still has a 10% probability of being down 3.6% in any given year, but if his budget allows, he feels that he can forego some frills until later.

Now, Pablo is starting to get excited and wonders what would happen if he invested more aggressively, say in a variety of equity funds?

Yet Another Alternative – Keep saving the same amount but invest more aggressively

The likely returns would go up but so would his risk. He estimates that based on current market conditions and the history of stock market returns (obtained from Professor Damodaran of NYU) that this more aggressive portfolio should have about an 8% annual rate of return with a volatility of around 14% per year. These estimates are both a bit lower than the 1926-2017 average reflecting higher current (as of August 2018) valuations and lower levels of overall market volatility.

He is thinking that maybe by taking more risk in his portfolio during his working years he will be able to build a nest egg that may even allow him for some luxuries down the road.

He also knows that things do not always work out every year as expected. Pablo is pretty confident that 8% is a reasonable expectation averaged over many years, but how bad could it be in any given year?

A log-normal simulation was conducted using the assumed risk and return numbers – same approach as before.

Figure 3 shows the 90th and 10th percentile bands for this portfolio.

Figure 3

log-normal simulation using an assumed 8% return and 14% volatility

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

Given the volatility of this equity-oriented portfolio, there is a 10% chance of losing 9.2% in any given year (based on the simulations). Ouch, the reality of equity investing is starting to sink in for Pablo.

But Pablo is also encouraged to see that his returns in any given year are equally likely to be about 26% or higher. That would be nice!

Especially when it comes to equities there is a wide range of potential returns but over time these year by year fluctuations should average out to a much narrower range of outcomes. While our best estimate is that this portfolio will return on average 8% per year over a ten-year window the range of expected outcomes should be between a high of 12.9% and a low of 1.6%.

Pablo decides to research the history of stock, bond, and cash returns by reading our April Blog on Understanding Asset Class Risk and Return and looking at a chart of long-term returns from Morningstar (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Source: Morningstar

He is surprised to find that over the long-term equities do not seem as risky as he previously thought. He is also quite surprised by the wide gap in wealth created by stocks versus bonds and cash.

The research makes Pablo re-calibrate his expectations and he starts wondering whether the short-term discomfort of owning equities is worth it in the long run.

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The “Aha!” Moment:

Pablo’s System 1 thinking is on high alert and his first thought after seeing how much he could lose investing in equities is to run back to the safety of the bond portfolio.

But something tells him to slow down a bit and think harder. This is a big decision for him and his System 2 thinking is kicking in. Before he throws the towel in on the equity-oriented portfolio he glances again at Figure 1 to see what might happen if he invests more aggressively.

What he sees astounds him. It is one thing to see compounding in capital market charts and yet another to see it in action on your behalf. Small differences over the short term amount to very large numbers over long periods of time.

If Pablo were to invest in the more aggressive portfolio there would be more hiccups over the years but his ending account balance should be $1,440,075 if he consistently put aside 10% of his salary every year.

If he saved 20% the ending portfolio balance would double in size.

Decision Time – Picking among the alternatives

Pablo is now faced with a tough decision.  Does he play it safe and go with the conservative portfolio? Or, does he go for more risk hoping to end up with a much larger nest egg but knowing that the ride may be rough at times?

Beyond the numbers, he realizes that he needs to look within to make the best possible decision.  His System 1 thinking is telling him to flee, but his System 2 thinking is asking him to think more logically about his choices.  He also needs to deal with how much he is planning to save from his salary.

Fear versus Greed:

He needs to come to terms with how much risk he is willing to take and whether he can stomach the dips in account balance when investing in riskier assets.  As Mike Tyson used to say, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the face”.

In structuring his investment portfolio Pablo needs to balance fear with greed.  Paying attention to risk is absolutely necessary but always in moderation and in the context of historical precedents.  If Pablo lets his fears run amuck he may have to accept much lower returns.

With the benefit of hindsight, he may come to regret his caution. On the other hand, the blind pursuit of greed and a disregard for risk may also in hindsight come back to bite him.  Pablo needs to find that happy medium but only he can decide what is right for him. Risk questionnaires can help in this regard. Try ours if you like!

Consumption Today versus Tomorrow:

Pablo also needs to come to grips with how much current consumption he is willing to forego in order to save and invest.  We live in an impulse oriented society. Spending is easy, saving is hard.

Saving is hard especially when you are starting out.  On the other hand, over time the saving habit becomes an ingrained behavior.  The saving habit goes a long way toward ensuring financial health and the sooner people start the better.

Will Pablo be able to save 10% of his salary? Or, even better will he be able to squeeze out some additional expenditures and raise his saving to 20%?

If possible Pablo should consider putting as much money in tax-deferred investment vehicles such as a 401(k). He should also have these contributions and any other savings automatically deducted from his paycheck. That way he won’t get used to spending that money. Pablo may come to see these deductions from his paycheck as a “bonus” funding future consumption.

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to continually be afraid you will make one”

— ELBERT HUBBARD

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Lessons Learned:

This has been an eye-opening experience for our hypothetical friend Pablo.  He was not expecting such a difference in potential performance.  He now realizes the importance of maximizing saving for tomorrow as well as not succumbing to fear when investing for the long-term.

He has learned several invaluable lessons that also apply to individuals in the accumulation phase of their financial lives

Lesson 1: The Importance of Saving

  • Delaying consumption today allows you fund your lifestyle in the future
  • Saving even small amounts makes a big difference over the long-term

Lesson 2: The value of patience and a long-term perspective

  • In the early years you may not notice much of a difference in portfolio values
  • Keep saving and investing – disregard short-term market noise and stick to a plan

Lesson 3: Small differences in returns can amount to huge differences in portfolio values

  • Seemingly tiny differences in returns can result in large differences in portfolio values
  • Compounding is magic – take advantage of it when you can

Lesson 4: The importance of dealing with your fear of losing money

  • Letting your first instinct to avoid risky investments dictate what you own will work against you
  • Investing involves risk – best to manage rather than avoid risk
  • The pain and agony of losing money in any given year is alleviated over the long term by the higher returns typically accruing to higher risk investments

Lesson 5: Investing in your financial education pays off

  • Gaining a proper understanding of capital market relationships is an invaluable skill to possess
  • Leaning on financial experts to expedite your learning is no different than when athletes hire a coach

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Now what should you do?

Avoid all risks, save a lot and watch your investment account grow slowly but smoothly? Or, take some risk and grow your portfolio more rapidly but with some hiccups?

Are a couple of restless night’s worth the higher potential returns in your portfolio? On

Also, are you willing to delay some current consumption in order to invest for the future?

The answer depends on you – your needs, goals and especially your attitude toward risk and your capacity to absorb losses.

Interested in having the professionals at IFS identify your risk tolerance, time horizon, and financial needs? Please schedule a complimentary consultation here.

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Disclaimer:

Much of the data used in these illustrations comes courtesy of Professor Aswath Domodaran from NYU and covers US annual asset returns from 1928 to 2017. Information presented herein is for discussion and illustrative purposes only and is not a recommendation or an offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities. Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market and other conditions. References to specific investment themes are for illustrative purposes only and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s own goals, time horizon, and tolerance for risk.

This piece may contain assumptions that are “forward-looking statements,” which are based on certain assumptions of future events. Actual events are difficult to predict and may differ from those assumed. There can be no assurance that forward-looking statements will materialize or that actual returns or results will not be materially different from those described here.

Stock and bond markets are volatile and can decline significantly in response to adverse issuer, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. Investing involves risk, including risk of loss.

Aug 09

Top 5 Financial Mistakes Made by Foreign Nationals Living In the US

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Top 5 Financial Mistakes

Made by Foreign Nationals Living in  America

Approximately 1.5 million foreign nationals move to the US every year to study, work and live. Many come on green card visas, and others on working and other temporary visas.  They come from all walks of life. They are engineers, scientists, physicians, academics.

Anyone who has moved to another country can testify that it is a daunting task. Everything is new. A lot of what was known must be relearned. What number to call for emergencies? How much to tip at restaurants if at all? And how to deal with investment and other financial matters?  

Engineers, scientists, physicians, academics, and business people moving to the US often continue to hold assets in checking,  investment accounts and in real estate in other countries. Some may even inherit assets in other countries while living in the US.  Eventually many move back to their home country or a third country.

All newly arrived people in the US  face the common dilemma of how to efficiently reinvent their financial lives.  In many ways the US financial system may seem odd. Many of the differences relative to their former home base can be found relatively easily.

However, there are financial pitfalls specific to foreign nationals living in the US to be aware of. Here are five of them.  

  1. Failure to understand US reporting requirements

Unless they have been in a monastic retreat, US citizens will know that their government cares about their foreign income and assets. Ugly acronyms such as FATCA and FBAR have been designed to ensure tax compliance from all Americans.  What is often overlooked is that the reporting requirements of foreign income and assets also apply to all residents of the US, including foreigners living in the US.

Foreign nationals in the US routinely underestimate the impact of necessary reporting requirements.  They do so at their own peril. Whether they are citizens or not, residents of the US are subject to taxation on their worldwide income. In many cases, taxes paid overseas can be offset by credits to US taxes, thus limiting the monetary impact. The real challenge is the obligation to report. Laws, including the aforementioned FATCA and FBAR, obligates all US residents to report foreign income and assets.  

In a routine instance, a foreign national may own a checking account, a brokerage account, or even real estate in their home country. When moving to the US and focusing on the excitement and challenge of a new life, it is easy to forget about these assets or believe that they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the IRS.Such an assumption would be wrong.

All these assets are subject to reporting to US government authorities. Under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act of 2010 (FATCA) the US government set up a global reporting infrastructure to mandate foreign banks and governments to report foreign-held assets owned by US residents to the US government. To ensure compliance, foreign institutions are subject to stiff penalties when they fail to report assets owned by US residents.  In other words, if you own a foreign asset, it is unlikely to be a secret to the US government.

Reporting requirements don’t stop with banks and governments. Taxpayers are also responsible for reporting their own information through FBAR and IRS form 8938 filings. Information in those forms is then compared with the bank and government reports. Discrepancies and failures to report can be considered tax evasion and fraud. They are subject to penalties that can be punitive. Ignoring this issue is not a sustainable strategy, because eventually, the government will catch up. If in doubt check with a professional.

  1. Get overwhelmed by US tax complexity

Foreign nationals who come to America are often overwhelmed by the complexity of the U.S. tax system.  As a result, they often become paralyzed by the complexity and end up missing out on taking care of their financial needs. On average, foreign nationals in the US have the advantage of being stronger savers than Americans. However, to gain a sustainable advantage you need to invest your savings to allow the laws of compound growth work for you and fructify your savings. For every problem, there is a solution.

Although it looks daunting, US tax complexity can also be overcome. Because software solutions are not typically designed to handle the complexities of foreign assets and income, it is advisable to hire professionals who have experience with international matters.

  1. Not being aware of tax treaties

The US maintains tax treaties with some 68 foreign countries that determine rules and exceptions for the treatment of various taxable events. The treaties provide a framework to avoid or minimize double taxation on a variety of active and passive income. Failure to be aware of the tax treaties, their provisions, and their implementation can result in unnecessary withholdings and taxes.

Tax treaties can also provide benefits. If you have worked in the US for a while, you will have accumulated social security credits, potentially qualifying you for social security retirement benefits. Through “totalization” agreements with 26 countries, those credits can be transferred to a number of social security peer systems in those countries, thus improving retirement benefits in those countries.  The reverse is also true. If you have social security equivalent credits in those 26 countries and retire in the US, they could be counted towards your US social security benefits. In the case where there is no totalization agreement and the foreign national has contributed to US social security for 10 years or longer (technically 40 quarters), the foreign national is usually eligible for a US social security retirement benefit.

  1. Cashing out retirement accounts upon leaving the U.S.

Foreign nationals often accumulate substantial U.S. retirement account balances during their American career. Most companies offer a 401(k) retirement plan; foreign national employees are also eligible to participate.  It is often an easy decision: 401(k) plans provide an easy saving mechanism and an immediate tax reduction. It allows a maximum annual saving for people under 50 of $18,500 a year including the company match, if applicable.

When they look to return to their home country, people are often conflicted about how to handle those accounts. Broadly speaking the choices are to leave the accounts unperturbed or to cash out and go home. Often the decision is to cash out.

Cashing out of a deferred tax retirement account such as a 401k or an IRA before age 59 ½ results in punitive taxation.  The distribution is taxed as income. Usually, it propels the account owner to a higher tax rate resulting in additional costs. For instance, a taxpayer that was in the 24% tax bracket could find himself or herself in the 32% bracket as a result of a retirement account distribution.  

To add insult to injury, the distribution is also subject to a 10% penalty for those who take when they are younger than 59 1/2.  It is easy to see that cashing out is an expensive proposition that robs you of the benefits of saving and tax-deferred growth.

The other possibility is to leave the account in the US or roll it over to an IRA if it is in a 401k or other company sponsored plan.  The immediate advantage is that there is no immediate income tax or penalty. In addition, the investment options are usually much stronger and less expensive than in other countries. The downside is that the assets may be subject to estate taxes if the foreign national dies owning the asset.  And, as with Americans, distributions in retirement are subject to income taxes. For those who choose to leave the retirement accounts in the US, a plan can be built to optimize income and estate taxes to ensure that you can benefit from the fruits of your savings.

  1. Not recognizing the advantages of keeping U.S. investment accounts when leaving.

The US investment environment is more favorable to individual investors than most others.  Mutual fund and ETF expense ratios are lower, transaction costs are lower, and management fees are lower.  Market liquidity is usually higher even for many investments that are focused on specific foreign markets. And the range of investment options available to individuals is wider. For instance, there are 80 ETFs listed in Singapore and 134 listed in Hong Kong, compared with 1,707 in the US (August 2018).

It should be noted that although financial assets held by foreigners are not `subject to US capital gains taxes, dividends and interest are subject to withholding taxes of 10% to 30%, depending on whether there is a tax treaty.  Often tax treaties can help mitigate the impact of income and estate taxes, including the withholding tax. Again this is an area where financial professional familiar with the intricacies of cross-border families can really help.

On balance, when they leave the US, foreign nationals can continue to enjoy the generally stronger US investment climate.

Last Word

Moving to the US to continue a thriving career is often a dream of many foreign nationals. A new lifestyle, upward progress and a taste of American culture. What is there not to like about such an adventure? But that dream may not turn out to be that great in real life if you don’t properly address the complexities and uniqueness of the US tax system. However, the five mistakes outlined in this note can be easily addressed with the help of the right professional. Do so, and you will reap the rewards

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?