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Posts Tagged ‘taxes’

Saturday was a beautiful spring day in New England. Temperatures were moderate.  No humidity.  It was bright and sunny with languid puffy clouds hanging in the noon time breeze.  A beautiful day to be outside especially after the gloomy weather that Mother Nature has thrown at us during the winter and spring so far. A beautiful day for gathering with family and friends and celebrating the milestones of life whether a birth, a marriage, a graduation or connecting with others.

It so happened that I was attending the funeral celebration for a friend and client. Celebration is the right word.  While sadness always is part of these things, it truly was more fitting and proper to highlight and remember the qualities that we all should aspire to.

In this case we were gathered to celebrate a sister, aunt, daughter and friend who lived fully during her short 50 odd years.  A global traveler, talented cook and baker, gifted woodworker and gardener and charitable sort who always thought of others less fortunate.

Regardless of one’s religious persuasion, the celebrant of this service, a Roman Catholic priest, expressed it best when he said that many of us think a long life is synonymous of a good life.  But in reality, he emphasized, the teachings of many religions focus on the quality of life as opposed to its length. And this person, my friend and the sister of my very best friend, truly made her short time in the temporal world full and rich.

Like a light switch, one moment someone’s vivacious smile is there and in the next instant it is gone leaving us only with the warm glow of memory.  Whether it is better to have a sudden death or have time to prepare for the inevitable is a constant debate.  In this case, my friend was there one moment and in the next she was gone.

Inevitably, when confronted with such sudden tragedy, we tend to think of our own mortality.  I recall after the Twin Towers came down in NYC, how families were drawn closer together even if they didn’t have a direct connection to the victims of the terrorist attack.  And the interest in insurance and estate planning was at a high point.  Lawyer friends reported doing more wills and guardianship plans.  Insurance agents were fielding calls for new insurance policies.

It shouldn’t take a tragedy – whether public or personal – to get people motivated to act in their best interests but we are frail humans and tend to look at the present disregarding the future.

But we do that at our own peril.

Someday is Today

A person with friends is truly rich – remember “It’s a Wonderful Life.” While I truly believe that sentiment, it doesn’t mean abdicating one’s responsibility to care for family and friends by skipping the planning.

It is frustrating to be a financial planner and in trying to deal with such issues receive either blank stares or promises to deal with it later. At other times there is the all-encompassing answer to all: I’m All Set.

  • Someday, I’ll draft a will.
  • Someday, I’ll check my insurance coverage.
  • Someday, I’ll talk to my brother (or sister or friend) about guardianship of the kids.
  • Someday, I’ll deal with all these financial planning issues.

Someday is now.

Planning for the inevitable is not for you.  It is to help others.  It is selfish to think that things will just take of themselves.  Sure, plans will together.  But the stress on the family, friends and loved ones left to deal with picking up the pieces is not something you should burden someone with lightly when taking a few steps will help smooth the transition.

  1. At the very least, get a Will.  You don’t need to be rich to have one of these.  Better yet, make sure you have a Durable Power of Attorney in place so that your financial affairs can be coordinated.
  2. Review and update your Will periodically. Even if you do have a Will doesn’t mean that it still works for you.  Times change and so do tax and estate laws.
  3. Include written instructions.  Do you want to be buried or cremated? Who do you want to have certain sentimental, personal effects?
  4. Have a list of online passwords for your banking and social media accounts in a safe but accessible place.  Without them your heirs will have trouble dealing with some of your financial matters or your social media accounts could possibly be shut off.  And since most of our lives and communications are now so much online, your family might not be able to notify your extended network of your passing unless they can get online.
  5. Review your insurance as part of a comprehensive financial needs analysis regularly.  Too often people simply think that what they have in place covers them regardless of the simple fact that personal circumstances change and dictate changes in coverage.
  6. If you own property and have a mortgage or have young kids who would be raised by someone else when you’re gone, make sure you have insurance that at least covers the bills.  This means having a term insurance policy for at least the balance of the mortgage.  And if you have kids, figure out the costs to raise them (and pay for college maybe) and put a policy in place to equal that.  Otherwise, you may be leaving a spouse, friend, family member or business partner with trying to carry the costs without benefit of the resources.
  7. Check and update the beneficiaries on insurance policies, annuities, company-sponsored 401ks and personal IRAs. Maybe you had a divorce and never updated this so your ex-spouse may be the unintended recipient.  Or new kids, nieces or nephews have been born since the last time you did this.

In my banking and financial planning careers, I have seen both personally and professionally the impact on survivors left behind to pick up the pieces.  There was the client who needed to refinance to help pay for an elder parent’s funeral.  There was the friend who battled bravely against cancer but eventually succumbed leaving behind a wife, a three-year old toddler and a mortgage.

The pain caused by the loss of a loved one doesn’t need to be compounded by the stress, frustration and confusion of having to unexpectedly deal with financial challenges.

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Do you want to clear a room or stop a conversation fast?  Talk about life insurance.  Mention life insurance to someone and the reaction is something like hearing nails across a chalk board. Folks will either run for fear that you’re going to try to sell them something or their eyes will glaze over.

Most folks don’t want to talk about it.  The topic is boring.  And it’s kind of weird to talk about death.

Heck, when I speak with folks about planning, the inevitable phrase I hear in the conversation is “If I die …” as if they have found some secret to living forever.

So assuming that you’re not featured in the Vampire Diaries, there is a very high likelihood (about 100% give or take 0%) that you may die someday. So it only makes sense to consider life insurance as part of your overall planning.

Life Insurance Through Work Is Only A First Step

Most folks will get some insurance through their employer.  It’s cheap. It’s fast. There’s no medical exam.  It’s simple.

And as I’ve said time and again, there’s always a simple solution to every problem.  (In this case, employer-sponsored group life insurance). And as I’ve also said before, simple solutions are probably wrong.

Now don’t think that I’m saying that the group policy that you get and pay for through your paycheck is wrong.  It’s a good start.  But there’s more to proper life insurance planning than simply figuring a multiple of your salary.

How Much Life Insurance Is Needed?

The reason for any insurance is to cover the costs of risks that we are either not willing or don’t have the resources to cover ourselves.  That’s true whether you’re insuring a car, a home, your life or your paycheck.  So first you need to know what it is that you’re covering.

In the case of life insurance, it’s usually a good idea to figure out how much money your family needs to maintain their current standard of living if you and your income are no longer part of the picture.  Then add in any large expenses to cover.  Typically, this would include an amount to pay off any mortgages and loans and even college funding or other similar expected obligations. Net out the amount of other insurance and investments available and this will give you an idea of the amount of insurance coverage to get.

The amount of insurance that one needs throughout life changes with circumstances.  This is why it’s critical to include an insurance needs analysis as part of your regular financial planning progress reports.  This is why I use a particular tool from ESPlanner that helps project the amounts of coverage needed over time.

Insurance as An Asset Class to Reduce Risks

Now I’ve said that insurance is an asset class.  Why?  Well consider this.  When you invest, you’re likely to spread your money into different types of asset classes:  stocks and bonds of large, small, US and foreign companies.  This is the basis of diversification: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You do this to help reduce risk.  In this case, you’re trying to reduce the risk of having your investment wiped out by spreading your bets to other sectors of the economy and even parts of the world.

Like asset diversification, insurance is also a risk tool.  In this case insurance is there to replace things that you may not have the cash or investments to cover on your own.  Or maybe you feel you’d be better off investing the cash and earn a return on your money that will hopefully increase the resources you need for your lifestyle whether now or in retirement.

Think of it this way.  You could hit home run after home run picking stocks but what happens if you or your family are hit with an unexpected loss?  You’d have to dip into your savings and investments.  You’d need to sell those winning stocks.  You’d probably incur huge capital gains and have to pay taxes on it.

Life insurance is there to cover living expenses, replace in some small way the loss of income if you or your loved one dies and it does this for the most part tax free to the beneficiary.

And you can carry over the idea of diversification to insurance.  Just like mixing up the kinds of stocks or bonds you own, you can carry insurance from two or more insurers.  You do this by having your employer-sponsored group plan plus something you pay for on your own separate from your employer.  You can further diversify by mixing up the kinds or terms of coverage dividing some between term and permanent type policies.

Kinds of Life Insurance: Term vs Permanent

Insurance comes in two basic varieties: term and permanent.  Term insurance has a fixed premium for a fixed time period.  It’s great for covering specific risks for a defined time period (i.e. a mortgage, college costs).  Permanent life insurance has many flavors but in essence the key is that some of your premium that you pay is used to build up cash value.

Now for those who are unhappy with the stock market, you may want to consider some of the benefits offered by permanent life insurance.

  • The value is guaranteed. You’ll always know how much you have. And the insurer is required to credit a minimum amount to your value each year.
  • You receive dividends and their tax-free. Policyholders will receive dividends that increase the value of their account.
  • You can access the cash value at any time. Unlike going to a bank for a loan, the insurer will give you access to your account’s cash value with very little delay. You pay no penalty when receiving the cash as long as you repay yourself.  And if you set up the account properly, you can build up enough cash value to tap into for anything from buying a car to buying a home to funding retirement without paying a penalty or taxes.  (This is described by some as the Infinite Banking Concept where you become your own banker).

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Given the roller coaster ride that stock market investors have experienced and the negligible rates offered by banks on savings, it’s easy to see why someone might want to use their cash to pay off their mortgage.

Being debt free is not only noble but can provide a buffer in tough times since you’ll have one less cash outflow each month.

For every dollar you pay off in a mortgage, your rate of return is equal to the amount of interest that you’re saving. This is measured by the interest rate (net of the amount that is deductible of course).

So in this example, you could be “earning” 6.125% (less the deductibility of the mortgage interest based on your tax bracket).

Compared to other savings alternatives, that’s a great return. And compared to other equity investments it can seem a lot less volatile.

But before you drain the cash reserve, let’s look at this more closely.

  1. Tying up a lump sum of cash in a property can be risky. You may come up short on emergency reserves by using the bulk of it to pay off the loan.  Will you have enough cash to cover 12 months of your living expenses?  Will you have enough to cover operating expenses for the properties if they were vacant or you lose your job?
    • Considering that in this case you have three other investment properties and your primary residence, there is always the likelihood that you might need cash for an emergency repair or the cost of compliance with any changes in building codes or prepping a vacant unit for a new tenant or even to cover the carrying costs while a unit is vacant.
  2. Real estate is an illiquid investment. Once you send in the check to the bank you no longer have the cash readily available for use either to pay for ongoing expenses, cover emergencies or for other investment alternatives that may come along.
    • What if a really good deal on another investment property came along?  Depending on your market, you could find a very inexpensive property to buy that could more easily cash flow now but without the cash you’re out of luck. Sure, you’ll have more equity but to tap into it will require a bank to agree to give it to you which is more difficult on investment properties and your primary residence may not have enough equity to allow you to get a home equity line of credit (HELOC) or home equity loan to recoup the cash you may need.
  3. Property prices are still in flux.While savings bank rates are abysmal, losing money is even less appealing. By investing more in your property, you could actually see a negative return.  In some markets, real estate prices are still going down so it is conceivable that you could turn each $1 paid in principal into 90 cents.

What Are the Alternatives?

Consider a non-bank financial firm that is offering one of those ultra-high yield money markets for a good portion of this reserve fund.  It’s accessible and won’t cost you anything to hold and they tend to offer higher rates than most brick-and-mortar banks.

You could also split off a portion of the funds and find a ultra-short term bond mutual fund.  Average yields are about 2%.

For a small portion (starting at around $2,500) you could even use a convertible bond fund.  These are hybrid investments combining the fixed income of a bond with the potential capital appreciation of a stock.  These types of investments have held up well when interest rates rise because of Fed action or inflation.

For more information on these, you could check out my article posted on www.ezinearticles.com here.

Likewise, you could also consider other types of short-term bond investments like mutual funds that target floating rate notes.  These types of commercial loans are regularly reset and are a good way to hedge against inflation.  Since there is credit risk, you don’t want to put a whole lot of eggs in this one basket but 5% to 10% of your funds is prudent for you to consider.

As in all things, read the prospectus and speak with your adviser to determine if these are right for you in your situation.

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