Love, Marriage and Finances

Marriage affects your finances in many ways, including your ability to build wealth, plan for retirement, plan your estate, and capitalize on tax and insurance-related benefits. There are, however, two important caveats. First, same-sex marriages are recognized for federal income and estate tax reporting purposes. However, each state determines its own rules for state taxes, inheritance rights, and probate, so the legal standing of same-sex couples in financial planning issues may still vary from state to state. Second, a prenuptial agreement, a legal document, can permit a couple to keep their finances separate, protect each other from debts, and take other actions that could limit the rights of either partner.

Building Wealth

If both you and your spouse are employed, two salaries can be a considerable benefit in building long-term wealth. For example, if both of you have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans and each contributes $18,000 a year, as a couple you are contributing $36,000, twice the maximum annual contribution for an individual ($18,000 for 2015). Similarly, a working couple may be able to pay a mortgage more easily than a single person can, which could make it possible for a couple to apply a portion of their combined paychecks for family savings or investments.

Retirement Benefits

Some (but not all) pensions provide benefits to widows or widowers following a pensioner’s death. When participating in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, married workers are required to name their spouse as beneficiary unless the spouse waives this right in writing. Qualifying widows or widowers may collect Social Security benefits up to a maximum of 50% of the benefit earned by a deceased spouse.

Estate Planning

Married couples may transfer real estate and personal property to a surviving spouse with no federal gift or estate tax consequences until the survivor dies. But surviving spouses do not automatically inherit all assets. Couples who desire to structure their estates in such a way that each spouse is the sole beneficiary of the other need to create wills or other estate planning documents to ensure that their wishes are realized. In the absence of a will, state laws governing disposition of an estate take effect. Also, certain types of trusts, such as QTIP trusts and marital deduction trusts, are restricted to married couples.

Tax Planning

When filing federal income taxes, filing jointly may result in lower tax payments when compared with filing separately.

Debt Management

In certain circumstances, creditors may be able to attach marital or community property to satisfy the debts of one spouse. Couples wishing to guard against this practice may do so with a prenuptial agreement.

Family Matters

Marriage may enhance a partner’s ability to collect financial support, such as alimony, should the relationship dissolve. Although single people do adopt, many adoption agencies show preference for households that include a marital relationship.

The opportunity to go through life with a loving partner may be the greatest benefit of a successful marriage. That said, there are financial and legal benefits that you may want to explore with your beloved before tying the knot.

If you would like to discuss financial planning related to your upcoming or existing marriage or any other investment portfolio management matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

 

2014 Investment Report: Dare to Believe?

Looking back on 2014, people are going to say it was a great year to be an investor. They won’t remember how uncertain the journey felt right up to the last day of a year that saw the S&P 500 close at a record level on 53 different days. Think back over a good year in the market. Was there ever a time when you felt confidently bullish that the markets were taking off and delivering double-digit returns? I know I didn’t.

The Wilshire 5000–the broadest measure of U.S. stocks and bonds—finished the year up 13.14%, on the basis of a strong 5.88% return in the final three months of the year. The comparable Russell 3000 index will go into the history books gaining 12.56% in 2014.

The Wilshire U.S. Large Cap index gained 14.62% in 2014, with 6.06% of that coming in the final quarter. The Russell 1000 large-cap index gained 13.24%, while the widely-quoted S&P 500 index of large company stocks posted a gain of 4.39% in the final quarter of the year, to finish up 11.39%. The index completed its sixth consecutive year in positive territory, although this was the second-weakest yearly gain since the 2008 market meltdown.

The Wilshire U.S. Mid-Cap index gained a flat 10% in 2014, with a 5.77% return in the final quarter of the year. The Russell Midcap Index gained 13.22% in 2014.

Small company stocks, as measured by the Wilshire U.S. Small-Cap, gave investors a 7.66% return, all of it (and more) coming from a strong 8.57% gain in the final three months of the year. The comparable Russell 2000 Small-Cap Index was up 4.89% for the year. Meanwhile, the technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index gained 14.39% for the year.

While the U.S. economy and markets were delivering double-digit returns, the international markets were more subdued. The broad-based EAFE index of companies in developed economies lost 7.35% in dollar terms in 2014, in large part because European stocks declined 9.55%. Emerging markets stocks of less developed countries, as represented by the EAFE EM index, fared better, but still lost 4.63% for the year. Outside the U.S., the countries that saw the largest stock market rises included Argentina (up 57%), China (up 52%), India (up 29.8%) and Japan (up 7.1%).

Looking over the other investment categories, real estate investments, as measured by the Wilshire U.S. REIT index, was up a robust 33.95% for the year, with 17.03% gains in the final quarter alone. Commodities, as measured by the S&P GSCI index, proved to be an enormous drag on investment portfolios, losing 33.06% of their value, largely because of steep recent drops in gold and oil prices.

Part of the reason that U.S. stocks performed so well when investors seemed to be constantly looking over their shoulders is interest rates—specifically, the fact that interest rates remained stubbornly low, aided, in no small part, by a Federal Reserve that seems determined not to let the markets dictate bond yields until the economy is firmly and definitively on its feet. The Bloomberg U.S. Corporate Bond Index now has an effective yield of 3.13%, giving its investors a windfall return of 7.27% for the year due to falling bond rates. 30-year Treasuries are yielding 2.75%, and 10-year Treasuries currently yield 2.17%. At the low end, 3-month T-bills are still yielding a miniscule 0.04%; 6-month bills are only slightly more generous, at 0.12%.

Normally when the U.S. investment markets have posted six consecutive years of gains, five of them in double-digit territory, you would expect to see a kind of euphoria sweep through the ranks of investors. But for most of 2014, investors in aggregate seemed to vacillate between caution and fear, hanging on every economic and jobs report, paying close attention to the Federal Reserve Board’s pronouncements, seemingly trying to find the bad news in the long, steady economic recovery.

One of the most interesting aspects of 2014—and, indeed, the entire U.S. bull market period since 2009—is that so many people think portfolio diversification was a bad thing for their wealth. When global stocks are down compared with the U.S. markets, U.S. investors tend to look at their statements and wonder why they’re lagging the S&P index that they see on the nightly news. This year, commodity-related investments were also down significantly, producing even more drag during what was otherwise a good investment year.

But that’s the point of diversification: when the year began, none of us knew whether the U.S., Europe, both or neither would finish the year in positive territory. Holding some of each is a prudent strategy, yet the eye inevitably turns to the declining investment which, in hindsight, pulled the overall returns down a bit. At the end of next year, we may be looking at U.S. stocks with the same gimlet eye and feeling grateful that we were invested in global stocks as a way to contain the damage; there’s no way to know in advance. Indeed, we increased our allocations to overseas markets in 2014 as a matter of prudent re-balancing.  For 2014, that proved to be a tad early, providing a bit of a headwind.

Is a decline in U.S. stocks likely? One can never predict these things in advance, but the usual recipe for a terrible market year is a period right beforehand when investors finally throw caution to the winds, and those who never joined the bull market run decide it’s time to crash the party. The markets have a habit of punishing overconfidence and latecomers, but we don’t seem to be seeing that quite yet.

What we ARE seeing is kind of boring: a long, slow economic recovery in the U.S., a slow housing recovery, healthy but not spectacular job creation in the U.S., stagnation and fears of another Greek default in Europe, stocks trading at values slightly higher than historical norms and a Fed policy that seems to be waiting for certainty or a sign from above that the recovery will survive a return to normal interest rates.

On the plus side, we also saw a 46% decline in crude oil prices, saving U.S. drivers approximately $14 billion this year. On the minus side, investments in the energy sector during 2014 proved be a downer to portfolios. Oil, like most commodities, tends to be cyclical, and should turn back upward should the rest of the world find its footing and show healthier signs of growth. Should crude continue to slide, we may see collateral damage in the form of lost jobs, shuttered drilling projects and loan defaults by independent, not so well capitalized producers. This would be your classic case of “too much of a good thing.”

The Fed has signaled that it plans to take its foot off of interest rates sometime in the middle of 2015. The questions that nobody can answer are important ones: Will the recovery gain steam and make stocks more valuable in the year ahead? Will Europe stabilize and ultimately recover, raising the value of European stocks? Will oil prices stabilize and remain low, giving a continuing boost to the economy? Or will, contrary to long history, the markets flop without any kind of a euphoric top?

We can’t answer any of these questions, of course. What we do know is that since 1958, the U.S. markets, as measured by the S&P 500 index, have been up 53% of all trading days, 58% of all months, 63% of all quarters and 72% of the years. Over 10-year rolling time periods, the markets have been up 88% of the time. These figures do not include the value of the dividends that investors were paid for hanging onto their stock investments during each of the time periods.

Yet since 1875, the S&P 500 has never risen for seven calendar years in a row. Could 2015 break that streak? Stay tuned.

Sources:

Wilshire index data: http://www.wilshire.com/Indexes/calculator/

Russell index data: http://www.russell.com/indexes/data/daily_total_returns_us.asp

S&P index data: http://www.standardandpoors.com/indices/sp-500/en/us/?indexId=spusa-500-usduf–p-us-l–

http://money.cnn.com/2014/09/30/investing/stocks-market-september-slump/index.html

Nasdaq index data: http://quicktake.morningstar.com/Index/IndexCharts.aspx?Symbol=COMP

International indices: http://www.mscibarra.com/products/indices/international_equity_indices/performance.html

Commodities index data: http://us.spindices.com/index-family/commodities/sp-gsci

Treasury market rates: http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/government-bonds/us/

http://blogs.marketwatch.com/thetell/2014/06/30/one-chart-explains-the-unexpected-first-half-treasury-rally/

Aggregate corporate bond rates: https://indices.barcap.com/show?url=Benchmark_Indices/Aggregate/Bond_Indices

Aggregate corporate bond rates: http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/corporate-bonds/

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/31/us-usa-markets-2015-analysis-idUSKBN0K908820141231

http://moneyover55.about.com/od/howtoinvest/a/bearmarkets.htm?utm_term=historical%20performance%20of%20s&p%20500&utm_content=p1-main-7-title&utm_medium=sem&utm_source=msn&utm_campaign=adid-ac372107-3fb5-4c61-a1f3-6ab4e1340551-0-ab_msb_ocode-28813&ad=semD&an=msn_s&am=broad&q=historical%20performance%20of%20s&p%20500&dqi=S%2526P%2520500%2520yearly%2520performance&o=28813&l=sem&qsrc=999&askid=ac372107-3fb5-4c61-a1f3-6ab4e1340551-0-ab_msb

Providing for Pets

This past summer, the entertainment world lost one of its most prominent and popular figures: Joan Rivers. When her estate planning documents were unveiled, it became clear that she was a careful planner of her legacy–and also a devoted pet owner. One of the most interesting details of her estate plan was the careful provisions Rivers made for her pets.

Rivers left the bulk of her estate to her daughter Melissa and her grandson Cooper–an estimated $150 million in total value. The two rescue dogs who shared her New York residence, and two other dogs who lived at her home in California, were beneficiaries of pet trusts, which included an undisclosed amount of money set aside for their ongoing care, and carefully written provisions that described the standard of living that Rivers expected them to receive for the remainder of their lives.

Traditional pet trusts are honored in most U.S. states, as are statutory pet trusts, which are simpler. In a traditional trust, the owner lists the duties and responsibilities of the designated new owner of the pets, while the statutory trusts incorporate basic default provisions that give caregivers broad discretion to use their judgment to care for the animals. Typical provisions include the type of food the animal enjoys, taking the dog for daily walks, plus regular veterinary visits and care if the pet becomes ill or injured. The most important provision in your pet trust, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is to select a person who loves animals and, ideally, loves your pets.

The trust document will often name a trustee who will oversee the level of care, and a different person will be named as the actual caregiver. In all cases, the trusts terminate upon the death of the last surviving animal beneficiary, and the owner should choose who will receive those residual assets.

Some states have different laws that require different arrangements. Idaho allows for the creation of a purpose trust, and Wisconsin’s statute provides for an “honorary trust” arrangement. There are no pet trust provisions on the legal books in Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota and Mississippi, but pet owners living there can create a living trust for their pets or put a provision in their will which specifies the care for pets. A popular (and relatively simple) alternative is to set aside an amount of money in the will to go to the selected caregiver, with a request that the money be used on behalf of the pet’s ongoing care.

It should be noted that a pet trust is not designed to pass on great amounts of wealth into the total net worth of the animal kingdom. The poster child of an extravagant settlement is Leona Helmsley’s bequest of $12 million to her White Maltese, instantly putting the dog, named “trouble,” into the ranks of America’s one-percenters. Rather than confer a financial legacy on an animal, the goal should be to ease any financial burdens the successor owner might incur when caring properly for your loved animals for the remainder of their lives, including food and veterinary bills.

How long should you plan for the funding to last? Cats and dogs typically live 10-14 years, but some cats have lived to age 30, and some dogs can survive to see their 24th birthday. Interestingly, estate planners are starting to see some pet trusts extend out for rather lengthy periods of time, as owners buy pets that have longer lifespans. For example, if an elderly person has a Macaw parrot as a companion, the animal could easily outlive several successor owners, with a lifespan of 80-100 years. Horse owners should plan for a life expectancy of 25-30 years, and, since horses tend to be expensive to care for, the trust will almost certainly require greater levels of funding. On the extreme end, if you know anyone who happens to have a cuddly Galapagos giant tortoise contentedly roaming their backyard, let them know that their pet trust would need to be set up for an average 190-year lifespan.

If you would like to discuss your estate planning or any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Sources:
http://www.dailyfinance.com/2014/09/11/what-joan-rivers-just-taught-pet-lovers-about-estate-planning/
http://www.dailyfinance.com/2014/08/14/robin-williams-estate-plan-spares-his-heirs-drama/
http://www.1800petmeds.com/education/life-expectancy-dog-cat-40.htm
http://abcnews.go.com/US/leona-helmsleys-dog-trouble-richest-world-dies-12/story?id=13810168
http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/planning-for-your-pets-future/pet-trust-primer

Massive withdrawals from 401(k)s thwart Americans’ retirement planning efforts

As the IRS released the 401(k) contribution limits for 2015, attention turned, as it has in prior years, to the large number of plan participants who come nowhere close to contributing these amounts. In contrast, many individuals use their 401(k) accounts as a means to pay off loans and other current expenses.

The amounts withdrawn are not negligible. According to a recent study by Vanguard, the average withdrawal represents one-third of the participant’s account balance. Additionally, most withdrawals are not for hardship — non-hardship withdrawals outnumber hardship withdrawals 2-to-1, and the rate of new non-hardship withdrawals doubled between 2004 and 20131.

So, why are so many withdrawals occurring? One reason is to pay off debt, including student loans. Another may be to help make ends meet when people are between jobs. Fidelity reported earlier this year that 35% of participants took all or part of their 401(k) savings when leaving a job2.

No matter the reason, the long-term implications of early 401(k) withdrawals can be considerable. In withdrawing from the account, plan participants will miss out on tax-deferred compounding of that money, which can add up over time.

Alternatives to Raiding Your 401(k)

Withdrawing from a tax-deferred retirement plan to meet short-term needs should be a last resort. Before doing so, consider alternatives such as the following:

  • Savings accounts or other liquid investments, including money market accounts. With short-term investment rates at historically low levels, the opportunity cost for using these funds is relatively low.
  • Home equity loans or lines of credit. Not only do they offer comparatively low interest rates, but interest payments are generally tax deductible.
  • Roth IRA contributions. If there is no other choice but to withdraw a portion of retirement savings, consider starting with a Roth IRA. Amounts contributed to a Roth IRA can be withdrawn tax and penalty free if certain qualifications are met. See IRS Publication 590 for more information.

If withdrawing from a 401(k) is absolutely necessary, consider rolling it over to an IRA first and then withdrawing only what is needed. According to the Vanguard study, fewer than 10% of withdrawals were rolled into an IRA; more than 90% were taken in cash1, which typically generates withholding taxes and IRS penalties.

If you would like to discuss your retirement investments or any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Sources:
1Vanguard Investment Group, How America Saves 2014, June 2014.
2The New York Times, “Combating a Flood of Early 401(k) Withdrawals,” October 24, 2014.

Relative Prosperity

You might have read that the U.S. investment markets are jittery on the news that Japan has experienced two consecutive quarters of economic decline—the official definition of a recession.  But if you turn the news around, it offers us a reminder that, however much we complain about slow-growth recovery from 2008, Americans are actually part of one of the most robust economies in the world.

The statistics tell an interesting story.  The U.S. economy is growing at a rate of about 2.95% for the year, which is (as the complainers correctly point out) slightly below its long-term pace.  But this doesn’t look so bad compared to the 2.16% growth average for the G7 nations in aggregate, and our growth numbers are well ahead of the European Union, whose economies are expanding at an anemic 1.28% rate this year.

Look deeper and our story looks even better.  The current recession is Japan’s fourth in six years, despite long-term stimulus efforts that make the Fed’s QE program look like a purchase at the candy store.  Europe is rumored to be teetering on the edge of recession, which would be its second since the 2008 meltdown.  The published GDP figures coming out of China (which are very unreliable due to heavy government editing) could drop to about half the long-term rate this year, and Brazil entered recession territory last summer.

But what about the 5.8% unemployment rate in the U.S.?  That’s better than the 10% rate at the end of 2008, but it’s not good—right?  Compared with the rest of the world, America’s jobs picture looks downright rosy.  The list, below, shows that only 13 countries have lower jobless rates than the American economy, and some of those (Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia) may be giving out numbers that their leaders want to hear.  Yes, it would be nice if the long, sustained GDP growth we’ve enjoyed these last six years were faster, and we all hope that the unemployment rate continues dropping.  But compared with just about everywhere else, life in the U.S.—on the economic front, at least—is pretty good

Global unemployment rates

Malaysia (2.7%)
Switzerland (3.1%)
South Korea (3.5%)
Japan (3.6%)
Norway (3.7%)
Taiwan (3.9%)
Denmark (4.0%)
Brazil (4.9%)
Russia (4.9%)
Germany (5.0%)
Mexico (5.1%)
India (5.2%)
Saudi Arabia (5.5%)
UNITED STATES (5.8%)
Indonesia (5.9%)
Pakistan (6.0%)
United Kingdom (6.0%)
Australia (6.2%)
Israel (6.5%)
Canada (6.5%)
Chile (6.6%)
Philippines (6.7%)
Venezuela (7.0%)
Czech Republic (7.1%)
Argentina (7.5%)
Sweden (7.5%)
Netherlands (8.0%)
Austria (8.1%)
Colombia (8.4%)
Finland (8.5%)
Belgium (8.5%)
Iran (9.5%)
Turkey (10.1%)
France (10.2%)
Ireland (11.0%)
Poland (11.3%)
Egypt (12.3%)
Italy (12.6%)
Portugal (13.1%)
Iraq (15.1%)
Spain (23.7%)
Nigeria (23.9%)
South Africa (25.4%)
Greece (25.9%)

If you would like to discuss your current portfolio/asset allocation or any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Sources:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/japan-recession-europe-stagnation-cast-pall-over-global-economic-outlook/2014/11/17/5cd81612-6e8f-11e4-ad12-3734c461eab6_story.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/japans-economy-tips-back-into-recession-in-another-blow-for-abe/2014/11/16/9a8f2e94-8c9c-44cf-a5e8-b57a470fd61f_story.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/japans-abe-says-tpp-trade-talks-with-us-are-near-the-final-stage/2014/11/07/24ba0b42-63a8-11e4-ab86-46000e1d0035_story.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/british-prime-minister-david-cameron-says-red-warning-lights-flashing-on-global-economy/2014/11/17/acc29d06-c38f-49a1-b478-30d334fd3389_story.html

http://www.tradingeconomics.com/country-list/unemployment-rate

http://www.economywatch.com/economic-statistics/year/2014/

http://vicshowplanet.blogspot.com/2014/08/brazils-economy-falls-into-recession.html

https://uk.news.yahoo.com/ebrd-says-russia-certain-fall-economic-recession-122646029–business.html#PklpsIB

http://online.wsj.com/articles/chinas-slowdown-raises-pressure-on-beijing-to-spur-growth-1413893980

What Is the Difference Between Disability Insurance and Long-Term Care Insurance?

Disability insurance addresses lost wages that stem from an inability to work. Long-term care insurance, in contrast, addresses expenses associated with medical care provided to you in your home, a nursing home, a rehabilitation center, or an assisted living facility.

Disability insurance policies may address either short-term or long-term needs for income. Short-term disability policies provide coverage on a temporary basis, usually up to several months, while you recover from an accident or illness. Long-term disability insurance provides benefits when a disability is of a more permanent nature. Most long-term disability policies will cover you throughout your working years, usually until you reach age 65. Policies vary considerably in terms of the cost of premiums, the percentage of your prior salary paid out as a benefit and the definition of what constitutes a disability.

Long-term care insurance is designed to help cover costs of health care services provided to you in your home, a nursing home, a rehabilitation center, or an assisted living facility. Many long-term care insurance policies provide benefits when you require assistance with activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing, and feeding yourself. Loss of wages typically is not an issue with this type of coverage.

Long-term care insurance can be purchased at any time in your life. However, premiums tend to rise considerably with age and applicants can be turned down due to pre-existing medical conditions. Although individuals of any age may receive benefits from a long-term care insurance policy, these policies typically are intended to help finance the medical costs of the aged.

Why do many financial experts recommend their clients purchase both disability and long-term care insurance?

•    According to the Social Security Administration, a 20-something worker today has a 30% chance of becoming seriously disabled before reaching retirement.1
•    The average daily charge for a semi-private room at a nursing home is $207. The average monthly charge for care in an assisted living facility is $3,450. 2

If you’d like to know more about disability and long-term care insurance, or if you want to discuss other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

Sources:
1 Social Security Administration.
2 Genworth, 2013 Cost of Care Survey, March 2013.

Trading Places: Baby Boomers More Aggressive Than Millennials in Retirement Goals

Popular investing wisdom states that the younger you are, the more time you have to ride out market cycles and therefore the more aggressive and growth-oriented you can be in your investment choices. But that is not how individuals surveyed recently are thinking or behaving with regard to their retirement investments.

In fact, the new study sponsored by MFS Investment Management suggests that Baby Boomers take a more aggressive approach to retirement investing than the much younger Millennials — those who are 18 to 33 years old. Further, each group’s selected asset allocation is inconsistent with what financial professionals would consider to be their target asset allocation, given their age and investment time horizon.

For example, Baby Boomers, on average, reported holding retirement portfolio asset allocations of 40% equities, 14% bonds, and 21% cash, while Millennials allocated less than 30% of their retirement assets to equities, and had larger allocations to bonds and cash than their much older counterparts — 17% and 23% respectively.

Further, when asked about their retirement savings priorities, 32% of Baby Boomers cited “maximizing growth” as the most important objective, while two-thirds of Millennials cited conservative objectives for their retirement assets — specifically, 31% said “generating income” was a top concern and 29% cited “protecting capital” as their main retirement savings goal.

Perception Is Reality

The study’s sponsors infer that the seemingly out-of-synch responses from survey participants reflect each group’s reactions — and perhaps overreactions — to the recent financial crisis. For Baby Boomers, the loss of retirement assets brought on by the Great Recession has made them more aggressive in their attempts to earn back what they lost. Fully half of this group reported being concerned about being able to retire when they originally planned. For Millennials, the Great Recession was a wake-up call that investing presents real risks — and their approach is to take steps to avoid falling foul to that risk even though they have decades of investing ahead of them.

Educating Investors: An Opportunity for Advisors

The study’s findings suggest that there is a considerable opportunity for advisors to dispel fears and misperceptions by educating investors of all ages about the importance of creating and maintaining an asset allocation and retirement planning philosophy that is appropriate for their investor profile.

If you have any questions or concerns about asset allocation, retirement and financial planning or investment management, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

Towards Better Social Security Income Planning

As you approach your social security retirement age, your thoughts turn to deciding when you should begin receiving social security benefits. With over 2,700 rules in the social security manual, you’d be forgiven (and, for that matter, so would most social security case workers) for being bewildered and confused about all of the options available to claim social security. In this article, I attempt to distill the most frequently asked questions and help reduce confusion about claiming social security benefits (SSB).

The crux of this article is to discuss the advantages of planning the payout of your (or your spouse’s) benefits to maximize your ultimate financial payoff. Coordinating your benefits with your spouse’s benefits introduces complexities that must be understood to maximize your overall benefits. Combined with the ability to file for benefits, then suspend them or filing for benefits using your ex-spouse’s earnings records, planning for social security benefits can be quite complex.

I realize that, as a financial planner, it’s somewhat self-serving to say that each person’s situation is unique and requires a personalized and thorough analysis of the facts and circumstances to determine the optimal timeframe to claim SSB. Nonetheless, no article, however detailed, can take into account all individual situations.

Note that this article doesn’t attempt to discuss the viability of the social security system or whether benefits will be available in the future (I believe that they will be, perhaps on a somewhat reduced basis).

Social Security Basics

In general, if you’ve worked and sufficiently paid into the social security system for at least 40 quarters of work in your lifetime, you probably have some SSB coming to you when you retire. Calculation of the level of your benefit is quite complicated, but mostly affected by your lifetime earnings.

Even if you’ve never worked a day in your life, your spouse’s (or ex-spouse’s) earnings and qualifications may be your “ticket” to qualify for benefits. If you’ve earned little money in your lifetime (as is the case for a stay-at-home spouse), you can often qualify for a much higher benefit if you file based on your spouse’s (or ex-spouse’s) earnings.

There are three dates in which to begin drawing social security: early retirement age (ERA), full retirement age (FRA) and deferred retirement age (DRA), each one being a later date in life than the previous. Your ERA and FRA vary depending on your birthday, and are generally higher for younger retirees (for anyone born after 1959, their FRA is 67).  For general discussion purposes, let’s assume that age 62, 67, and 70 are the ERA, FRA, and DRA respectively.

Deferring the date that you begin receiving benefits obviously means that you (and your spouse) may receive higher benefits per month until your date of death. Currently, less than 50% of filers wait until their FRA to claim benefits, and less than 6% wait until their DRA to claim benefits, despite the much higher DRA benefit (about 75% higher). The DRA benefit is generally about 30% higher than the FRA benefit. Reasons people cite for not deferring benefits include financial need, bad health, fear of social security insolvency, dying early, or plain ignorance about the overall benefits of waiting.

Once you begin receiving benefits, you may have options to suspend them within 12 months of starting them to qualify for a higher later benefit. This mostly involves repaying all of the benefits received. As more fully described below, there may be circumstances where you might want to file for SSB and immediately suspend them at FRA (without receiving payments) to allow your spouse to receive a higher (spousal) benefit or to receive a higher benefit at DRA.

Deferring Benefits

In general, deferring SSB as long as possible makes a lot of sense if you can afford to do so. The significant increase in benefits is primarily due to the additional years of compounding that occurs when you defer benefits.

At its very core, social security is exactly like taking the sums that you contributed into the system over your working years and continuing to invest it. Just like any investment, the primary factors that affect the payout are the length of time for compounding and the rate of return applied. The longer you wait for benefits, the larger the invested sum grows.

Making a decision to begin or defer benefits is an exercise in making a best guess on how long you (and your spouse if you’re married) will live. “Gaming” social security is about maximizing the benefits you collect over your lifetime. Deciding to defer social security until age 70 is a losing proposition if you’re in bad health and don’t have much of a chance to make it to or much past that age. Conversely, if you’re healthy and your family has a past history of living well into their nineties, deferring benefits may or may not lead to a higher overall lifetime payout. Obviously, the “game” ends when you die, since your benefits cease then. So just like investing, the outcome of the decision to defer isn’t known until the investing and disbursement period is over.

Essential Rules/Facts

Given the forgoing background, here are some of the essential rules/facts to know about filing for SSB and some potential tax planning points:

1.    At full retirement age (FRA), one may receive the higher of their own retirement benefit or a spousal benefit equal to 50% of their spouse’s retirement benefit.  Many do not realize that in order to claim that spousal benefit, the spouse on whose record the 50% payment is based must be receiving or have filed for (and perhaps suspended) retirement benefits.

2.    If a worker starts benefits prior to his/her FRA, and his/her spouse is receiving retirement benefits, the worker does not get to choose between their retirement benefit and a spousal benefit. They are automatically deemed to have begun their retirement benefit, and if their spouse is receiving retirement benefits, a supplement is added to reach the spousal benefit amount.  All this is reduced for starting early. The total will be less than half the normal retirement benefit.If you start your retirement early and your spouse has not claimed or suspended his/her retirement benefit, you cannot get a spousal supplement until they do file.

3.    A person needs to have been married to an ex-spouse for at least ten years immediately before a divorce is final, in order to be eligible to receive a spousal benefit based on a former spouse’s record. The ex-spouse need not approve this and may never know this is the benefit being claimed.If you marry again, you are no longer eligible for a spousal benefit on your ex’s record and a new 10-year clock starts on the marriage to your new spouse. If you are over 60 when you get married again, you will still be able to claim survivor benefits on your ex.

4.    If you take your retirement early, it not only reduces your retirement benefits, benefits for your survivor (if any) are also based on that permanently reduced amount.

5.    If you have claimed your retirement benefit early, when you reach your FRA, if your spouse then files for his/her retirement and you want to switch to a spousal benefit, you will not get 50 percent. The formula is (A-B) + C where A= ½ the worker’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA, their benefit at their FRA), B= 100 percent of the spouse’s PIA, and C= the spouse’s EARLY retirement benefit. Since starting early means C is less than B, the total is less than 50%.  One only gets half their spouse’s benefit if the spousal benefit is claimed at FRA.

6.    Spousal benefits do not receive delayed credits. In other words, if taking the spousal benefit is good for a couple, delaying the claim for spousal benefits past the recipient’s FRA has no additional benefit.  The same applies for widow/widower benefits. They can be started early but there is no benefit to delaying past FRA as no delayed credits apply. Before a worker dies, delaying does increase the potential survivor’s benefit.

7.    Taxpayers whose income is low can find that some forms of tax planning can result in higher than expected taxation. Many retirees will make distributions from IRAs or qualified retirement plans prior to age 70½ to have a low tax rate applied. Roth conversions are often done for the same reason. A relatively small amount of taxable income can cause up to 85% of Social Security payments to become taxable.

8.    Because the income thresholds that determine how much of one’s Social Security is taxable are not indexed for inflation, over time, more and more of the benefits can become taxable.

9.    New this year, an increase in taxable income as just described can also cause a reduction or elimination of subsidies available to lower income households under the new health insurance law. Social Security payments, even the tax-exempt portions, are included in this evaluation. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is excluded.

10.    With today’s mobile workforce, it is not unusual to find some taxpayers that worked at a job and earned a pension benefit but were not subject to withholding for Social Security taxes and another job that was subject to Social Security taxes. Many such folks are unpleasantly surprised that their Social Security benefits may be reduced due to the Windfall Elimination Provision.

11.    If you “file and suspend” for SSB, Medicare premiums cannot be paid automatically from Social Security income and must be paid directly to the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Affected taxpayers should be sure to get billed properly by CMS. If it is not paid timely, you can lose your Medicare Part B coverage.

12.    When collecting retirement benefits, increases in Medicare Part B premiums are capped to the same rate of increase of the retirement benefits under a “hold harmless” provision.  This is tied to actual receipts so while delaying past your FRA earns delayed credits, there is no cap on the Medicare increases. Worse yet, the uncapped increase is locked into every future premium. This hold harmless quirk is not relevant to high income taxpayers. Hold harmless does not apply to high income taxpayers paying income-related Medicare B premiums.

13.    Because it used to be allowable to pay back all of your retirement benefits and start over, many people think that they can change their minds about starting SSB early. Withdrawing your claim this way basically erased the claim as though it never happened and future benefits would therefore be higher. Today, if you regret your choice, you can only withdraw your claim and pay back benefits within 12 months of your early start. After 12 months, you are stuck with your choice until your FRA, at which point you can suspend and earn delayed credits up to age 70. The credits are applied to your reduced benefit.

Some Strategies and Conclusion

Here are some final considerations to make when deciding to file a claim for SSB (by necessity, these are generalities that must take into account each individual’s/couple’s facts and circumstances):

•    Assess your own life expectancy, and, if married, your joint life expectancy.
•    If married, and either spouse is healthy, delay the higher earner’s benefits as long as possible.
•    If married and one spouse is unhealthy, get the lower payout as soon as possible.
•    Supplement benefits with spousal amounts, if within FRA.

As mentioned above, the decision of when to file for social security benefits can become very complex and requires assessment of many factors. Since the determination can involve differences of thousands of dollars per person, per year, it’s worthwhile to carefully assess and model all of the facts and circumstances before starting benefits.  Even though a total SSB re-do is no longer available, there are some options still available to modify benefit payouts.

It may be tempting or convenient to utilize a simplified web-based social security calculator to help you make an estimate, but be wary of any program that doesn’t model multiple scenarios or doesn’t require entry of many variables that may ultimately affect your optimum benefit. In the end, there’s no perfect answer, but perhaps a “best fit” for your situation is good enough.

If you have any questions about social security planning or any other financial planning matter, please don’t hesitate to contact me or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

Evidence for Time Diversification

One area where many professional advisors disagree with academics is whether stock investments tend to become less risky as you go out in time. Advisors say that the longer you hold stocks, the more the ups and downs tend to cancel each other out, so you end up with a smaller band of outcomes than you get in any one, two or five year period. Academics beg to disagree. They have argued that, just as it is possible to flip a coin and get 20 consecutive “heads” or “tails,” so too can an unlucky investor get a 20-year sequence of returns that crams together a series of difficult years into one unending parade of losses, something like 1917 (-18.62%), 2000 (-9.1%), 1907 (-24.21%), 2008 (-37.22%), 1876 (-14.15%), 1941 (-9.09%), 1974 (-26.95%), 1946 (-12.05%), 2002 (-22.27%), 1931 (-44.20%), 1940 (-8.91%), 1884 (-12.32%), 1920 (-13.95%), 1973 (-15.03%), 1903 (-17.09%), 1966 (-10.36%), 1930 (-22.72%), 2001 (-11.98%), 1893 (-18.79%), and 1957 (-9.30%).

Based purely on U.S. data, the professional advisors seem to be getting the better of the debate, as you can see in the below chart, which shows rolling returns from 1973 through mid-2009.

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The outcomes in any one year have been frighteningly hard to predict, ranging anywhere from a 60% gain to a 40% loss. But if you hold that stock portfolio for three years, the best and worst are less dramatic than the best and worst returns over one year, and the returns are flattening out gradually over 10, 15 and 20 years. No 20-year time period in this study showed a negative annual rate of return.

But this is a fairly limited data set. What happens if you look at other countries and extend this research over longer time periods? This is exactly what David Blanchett at Morningstar, Michael Finke at Texas Tech University and Wade Pfau at the American College did in a new paper, as yet unpublished, which you can find here:
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2320828.

The authors examined real (inflation-adjusted) historical return patterns for stocks, bonds and cash in 20 industrialized countries, each over a 113-year time period. The sample size thus represents 2,260 return years, and the authors parsed the data by individual time periods and a variety of rolling time periods, which certainly expands the sample size beyond 87 years of U.S. market behavior.

What did they find? Looking at investors with different propensities for risk, they found that in general, people experienced less risk holding more stocks over longer time periods. The only exceptions were short periods of time for investors in Italy and Australia. The effect of time-dampened returns was particularly robust in the United Kingdom, Japan, Denmark, Austria, New Zealand, South Africa and the U.S.

Overall, the authors found that a timid investor with a long-term time horizon should increase his/her equity allocation by about 2.7% for each year of that time horizon, from whatever the optimal allocation would have been for one year. The adventurous investor with low risk aversion should raise equity allocation by 1.3% a year. If that sounds backwards, consider that the timid investor started out with a much lower stock allocation than the dare-devil investor–what the authors call the “intercept” of the Y axis where the slope begins.

Does that mean that returns in the future are guaranteed to follow this pattern? Of course not. But there seems to be some mechanism that brings security prices back to some kind of “normal” long-term return. It could be explained by the fact that investors tend to be more risk-averse when valuations (represented by the P/E ratios) are most attractive (when stocks, in other words, are on sale, but investors are smarting from recent market losses), and most tolerant of risk during the later stages of bull markets (when people are sitting on significant gains). In other words, market sentiment seems to view the future opportunity backwards.

Is it possible that stocks are not really fairly priced at all times, but instead are constantly fluctuating above and below some hard-to-discern “true” or “intrinsic” value, which is rising far more steadily below the waves? That underlying growth would represent the long-term geometric investment return, more or less–or, at least, it might have a relationship with it that is not well-explored. The old saw that stocks eventually return to their real values, that the market, long-term, is a weighing machine, might be valid after all.

If you have any questions about financial or investment planning and management, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

Using Options To Enhance Portfolio Returns

When people think or hear about using options in their investment portfolios, they tend to think of them as risky instruments that lose their entire value, or worse, cause them to lose multiples of their value. But when used correctly, options can be a powerful tool to help enhance portfolio income, reduce overall portfolio risk, and make risk-defined bets on a stock, sector or fund.

What’s an Option

An option is a financial instrument, tied to or based on an individual stock or exchange traded fund, which gives the purchaser the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell an underlying stock or fund. Options are unique in that they have a defined price to buy or sell the shares and a limited time to do so.  If you don’t “exercise” your right to buy or sell the shares within the time limit, whatever you pay for the option expires and is lost.

Options are sold as “contracts” for 100 shares each.  Remember, with options, you’re buying the right to buy or sell shares, not the shares themselves

There are two basic kinds of options: calls and puts. Let’s talk about each.

Calls and Puts

Think of calls as options to buy a stock or fund at a certain price. I liken a call to an option to buy a home at a certain price for a defined amount of time.

Let’s say that you’re interested in buying a home for $250,000 but aren’t sure that you can get the financing or whether the house is really worth the asking price. So you might offer the seller a sum of money to hold and sell you the house for $250,000 within 90 days. You might pay him a $2,500 “premium” for that option while you investigate financing or determine the true value of the home. During that time, the seller can’t offer to sell the home to anyone else.

If you can’t secure the financing, or you find out that the house is worth far less than $250,000, then you walk away having spent $2,500 for that right (but not the obligation) for 90 days to buy the home. If the true value of the home turns out to be $200,000, you just saved yourself $50,000 less the cost of the option (or $47,500).  If the value of the home instead turns out to be $300,000, then the seller is still obligated to sell you the house for $250,000. In that case, you would exercise your option and you just made an unrealized profit of $47,500 ($300,000 less $250,000 less the cost of the option or $2,500).

Think of puts as an option to sell a stock or fund at a certain price. In many ways, a put is akin to an insurance policy.

Let’s say that house that you just bought for $250,000 is insured for $250,000 and then burns down for a total loss. In that event, the insurance company would pay you for your loss as you “put” the (burned down) house to them. But in order to do that, you had to pay the insurance company an annual insurance premium of say $2,000. If nothing happens to the home, that premium paid is lost forever.

A Stock Example

Let’s turn the discussion to call options on stocks.

Say that you own 100 shares of Apple common stock currently trading for $500, which you bought for $400 per share and you want to generate additional income on those shares (besides the corporate dividend). To do so, you can sell a call option giving someone the right to “call away” your shares for a per share price of $550 within 45 days. For that sale, someone might pay you $1,000 (you don’t ever know who that someone is, but there’s always a willing buyer at the option exchanges for the right price). Note that there are many prices (called strike prices) that you can choose from to decide where you want to part with your Apple shares.

In this example, if Apple shares move down or never exceed $550 per share by the time the option expires, the buyer of that option will walk away without buying the shares and will be out $1,000, but you’ll be $1,000 richer. In that case, you keep your Apple shares and then repeat the process at a new appropriate sales price. Remember, if the buyer of the option can buy shares on the open market for less than $550, she has no reason to exercise that option.

If, on the other hand, Apple shares are at $575 by expiration, you’ll have to part with your shares for a price of $550 (plus the $1,000 that you pocketed for selling the option). The buyer of the option the exercises her option and then owns the shares and any appreciation over $550. You just made $150 per share profit plus the $1,000 option premium. You can then choose to buy new shares of Apple and repeat the process at a higher option price.  Note that the option buyer can call away the shares any time before they expire, but won’t do so unless the price of the shares is higher than $550.

Of course, with any option, you’re free to be the buyer of the calls to speculate on the price of any stock or fund. In the Apple example above, you could have been the buyer of the call option instead of being the seller and thereby speculate on the price of Apple appreciating.

So what about put options on a stock?

Lets continue the Apple example above. At $500 market value per share, you currently have $100 of unrealized profit per share. Now suppose you’ve become worried about a short-term decline in the overall market or in the price of Apple shares, but you don’t want to sell them yet.  Just in case, you might want a short-term insurance policy in the event that Apple shares tumble. In this case, you might buy a $500 put option for $1,000 to give you the right to “put” those shares to someone else for no less than $500 each.

So if Apple shares drop to $450, you’ll still get $500 for your shares when you exercise your put and the seller of the put will be out $4,000 ($500 minus $450 times 100 shares less $1,000 premium received). However, if the shares of Apple are trading for more than $500 by the expiration of the put option, then the put expires worthless and you’re out $1,000 and the seller pockets $1,000.

Safe Ways To Use Options

By now you may have realized that selling options is a nice way to make some extra income. When you consider that most options expire worthless, it is indeed better to be the “house” selling the options rather than the “bettor” buying the options.

The above examples are greatly simplified to help you with the understanding of options. We’ve left out all the mechanics and nuances of option trading to aid in understanding.

The reason that options get such a bad rap is because most people are buyers of options rather than sellers, and they usually buy far too many of them. Since each option contract is good for 100 shares, you shouldn’t buy or sell more contracts than you would buy or sell an equivalent number of shares of stock. Some people even sell calls on stocks that they don’t own (this is allowed), not realizing that stocks can sometimes go much higher than they can imagine. So if you sell an option “naked”, to a certain extent, you’re taking nearly unlimited risk.

In our client portfolios, we may generate income by selling calls against shares we own, so we only have the risk of the stock being called away. We may also hedge our portfolios with options to take advantage of short-term volatility. We may do so by trading puts, but do so in a risk defined way to minimize our premium outlay or maximize our premium generation. In other words, we don’t take unnecessary unlimited risk bets with options and use them only in the safest ways possible.

Hopefully this post helps you to better understand how we (and you could) use options in your own investment portfolios. Of course, if you want to dabble in options, I highly recommend that you get yourself a good book on options and study it carefully before trying them out. Option investing is where a little bit of knowledge is helpful, but can also be dangerous if you’re not sure what you’re doing.

If you’d like to know more about what we do to enhance and hedge investment portfolios, please don’t hesitate to contact us or just ask any questions.

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