Month: August 2022

How to divide assets in a blended family

Benjamin Franklin said “the only two certainties in life are death and taxes.” 

As a fiduciary financial advisor, one of the most important topics to address is how to divide assets in a blended family.

If something were to happen to you, how do things play out?  How do you divide an estate with step childrenHow do you protect your assets from stepchildren?   What about the effects of an unequal inheritance?  What about estate planning for a blended family with adult children

Each situation is unique.  Take what applies to you, and make a plan!

How to divide your estate with stepchildren?

The reality is that blended families are almost as common as a traditional family.  A blended family is a marriage that involves children from a previous marriage or relationship. 

It’s important to consider your own family dynamics when dealing with retirement and estate planning issues.

A remarriage when children are young is very different than becoming a blended family when the children are adults

You might think if the children are young, it’s more likely you will handle your estate planning and wealth transfer strategies like your “traditional family.”  And that may be correct in the sense that you want to divide your assets equally to your biological children and stepchildren. 

One potential hurdle to look out for is guardianship issues of your minor children.  If something unexpected happened to you and your spouse, it’s possible that an ex-spouse might have guardianship rights over your child or stepchild.  Additionally, if your children are minors, the guardian will take custody of their assets until they are age of majority

You probably want to avoid your ex spouse taking custody over your children’s inheritance.  Instead, consider setting up a trust and naming a successor trustee (someone other than your ex of course). 

How to protect assets from stepchildren

The most basic form of an estate plan is a will.  A will allows you to name specific beneficiaries that will inherit your assets when you die (among other important decisions).  You could name your spouse, children from your previous marriage, and even perhaps your stepchildren.  You can also exclude anyone you wish within certain limitations.

The issue with having a basic will is that if you do predecease your spouse, all of the assets you leave to your new spouse will be his/her property outright.  This means that after his/her death, the remaining estate will be property of their beneficiaries, likely their children (your stepchildren)

This could be problematic if your ultimate goal was to leave your remaining estate to your children, not your stepchildren.

The way to get around this issue is to set up some sort of marital trust, the most common being a Marital Bypass Trust.  This can allow you to name the trust as beneficiary of your assets.  The trust could be the beneficiary of all, or a portion of your estate. 

First and foremost, this type of trust will ensure your spouse is taken care of for their lifetime.

Once your spouse passes away, the remaining trust proceeds will then be left to your children (or other remaining designated beneficiaries).  This will prevent any other “unwanted beneficiaries” from receiving your estate. 

If you have an existing trust, make sure it’s been reviewed and updated in accordance with the SECURE Act rules.  Otherwise, there could be some unfavorable tax consequences for your beneficiaries.

blended family estate planning

What about adult children in a blended family?

If you are a blended family with adult children, it’s possible one or more of the following might apply:

  • An age gap with your new spouse
  • You or your spouse have accumulated substantial assets before your remarriage
  • You and your new spouse might have children together and separately
  • Your new spouse might be closer in age to your adult children

If there is an age gap in the remarriage, it’s likely that you will have two separate estate planning and wealth transfer strategies.

  1. Take care of your spouse for their lifetime
  2. Leave a financial legacy to your children

As discussed earlier, the likely solution here is to set up a trust that allows for your spouse to benefit, and then ultimately your children.

However, you may consider leaving some or all of your assets to your adult children if:

  • your spouse is financially independent
  • you don’t want your children to wait until your spouse dies to receive their inheritance

If this is appealing, you must be aware of the elective share rules in your state.

Elective Share

For community property states, assets accumulated jointly are assumed to be owned by both parties.  However, in non-community property states you can own assets separately despite being married.  You can leave those assets to another beneficiary other than your spouse, as long as you leave your spouse a certain % of your total estate (this is known as the Elective Share).

Florida, for example, has an Elective Share rule stating 30% of your assets must be left to your spouse, regardless of what your estate plan says.  Additionally, there is no requirement for how long that new marriage lasted! 

Even if you set up a trust, certain trusts might fail the elective share test.  Therefore, be careful if you have goals to leave a larger portion of your estate to your children instead of your spouse.  

If you and your spouse are financially independent, you might consider signing a prenup or a postnup.   This will ensure that you have the legal right to “disinherit” your spouse and overrides the elective share rules.

Consider Life Insurance

Life Insurance is a great tool if you have multiple estate planning and wealth transfer goals.

Here’s an example: 

Let’s say the bulk of your assets are inside of a 401k or IRA and you get remarried. 

Let’s say your adult children are on their own, building their careers and growing their families.  

Because of this, you’d like to leave your kids money when you die, but you also want to make sure your new spouse is taken care of during retirement.

First, you may consider setting up a trust for the benefit of your spouse and naming that trust the beneficiary of your 401k or IRA.  Your children would be the contingent beneficiary of the new trust.   This will protect against any stepchildren or new spouses from inheriting your assets.

If the trust is set up properly, your spouse can maintain favorable life expectancy rules when it comes to required minimum distributions.

Now that your spouse is covered, you buy a new life insurance policy with your children as primary beneficiaries.  This way, they aren’t waiting for stepmom/stepdad to pass away to receive their inheritance.  If you already have life insurance, you could make sure it’s structured properly and simply name your children as primary beneficiaries.

This also gets around the issue of the elective share.  The calculation for the elective share will typically not include death benefits from life insurance.  However, it might count cash value, so make sure you structure the policy properly in accordance with your state’s rules.

If the goal is to own the policy throughout retirement, you will want to make sure it’s a permanent policy, not term.  Term insurance is more likely to expire before it pays the death claim, and you don’t want to be shopping for permanent insurance when you’re 70.

blended family with adult children cooking

Effects of an unequal inheritance

If you have multiple sets of beneficiaries, you might be thinking of the effects of an unequal inheritance

Let’s say you have adult children that are well off financially.  However, you also have children with your new spouse that are still 100% dependents. 

In this scenario, you might consider leaving a larger percentage of your estate to the side of the family that needs it most. 

If you consider this strategy, I highly recommend setting up a trust.  This will reduce the likelihood of issues being contested in court, and the terms of the trust remain private.  Additionally, it’s likely your dependent children are minors and would need someone to oversee their inheritance (a trustee) until they are responsible adults.

Another consideration for an unequal inheritance is the impact of income sources that will be lost for the surviving spouse.  This could include Social Security, pensions, annuities, distributions from IRA’s and investment accounts.

Upon the first spouse passing away, the surviving spouse is entitled to the larger of the two Social Security benefits.  However, this still results in a reduction of Social Security income for the survivor. 

If you have a pension or annuity that stops at your death, you also need to consider the impact of this lost income.

If your IRAs or 401ks are left to your children instead of your spouse, could your surviving spouse maintain their standard of living for years or even decades to come? 

Additionally, would your surviving spouse be able to pay for long-term care if a large portion of your estate was left to your children? 

These are all issues you should think through to help divide your assets within your blended family

One final thought on this topic is that it’s not just about how much you leave, but how you are remembered.

The act of making things easy to manage for your loved ones is a big part of how you will be remembered!  Leaving a big mess to clean up won’t help that cause, regardless of how much money you leave behind.

Tax Considerations

consider taxes for estate planning

The types of assets that are left to children, your spouse or a trust are all important from a tax standpoint.

Qualified Retirement Accounts

Leaving your qualified retirement accounts to your spouse outright will create the optimal tax benefits.   These include IRAs, 401ks, 403bs, 457bs, TSPs etc.

On the other hand, leaving qualified assets to your children will likely trigger the new 10-year rule.  With the SECURE Act coming into effect in 2019, these accounts can no longer be stretched according to the child’s life expectancy.  This will likely result in an acceleration of taxes that could have been minimized had these accounts been left to a spouse.

Naming a trust as beneficiary of a qualified plan also presents some challenges.  Tax brackets are significantly higher for trusts versus an individual. 

In 2022, a Married Filing Joint taxpayer would have to earn over $647,850 in taxable income to cross the highest tax bracket at 37%. 

For trusts, the highest tax bracket threshold is only $13,450! 

If you name a trust as beneficiary of a retirement plan, make sure your attorney has revised or drafted the documents to align with the SECURE Act rules.   This could mitigate unnecessary tax implications.

Taxable Investments

Investments including stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, real estate, tangible property and even crypto assets would fall under this category.   This assumes these investments are held outside of an IRA, 401k or other qualified retirement plan. 

The major tax benefit for these assets is the step up in cost basis after death.

How does the step up in cost basis rule work?

Let’s say you bought $100k of Apple in 2000 and it’s now worth $500k.  If you sold $500k worth of Apple, your capital gain would be $400k (500k – 100k). 

If you die before selling it, your beneficiary gets a “step up in the cost basis.”  Instead of your beneficiary paying taxes on the gain of $400k, their new cost basis is now $500k.  If they sold the stock immediately thereafter, they would have little to no capital gains taxes due!

For married couples, there are some additional rules that are based upon the state you live in.  For community property states, assets are assumed to be owned jointly, and therefore only ½ of the basis is assumed to be stepped up upon the death of the first owner.  Upon the death of the second owner, than the full step up rule is applied. 

In non-community property states, you could in fact own assets separately from your spouse so they can take advantage of the FULL step up at your death.  This could be accomplished with a revocable living trust in your name only, OR perhaps individual ownership with your spouse as beneficiary (via TOD or POD designations). 

Make sure you consider your estate planning and wealth transfer goals before making any changes to your asset titling!

Life Insurance

We’ve already discussed the functionality of leveraging life insurance to take care of one or more of your wealth transfer objectives.

From a tax standpoint, this is one of the most tax efficient assets to leave a beneficiary.  It’s 100% income tax free and probate free!  Additionally, you can structure this strategy to pass outside of your estate by way of an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust (ILIT). 

If you have a beneficiary with special needs, you could also fund their “Special Needs Trust” with life insurance. 

Action Items

Your estate planning and wealth transfer strategies should be personal to you!

Make sure you are taking care of your loved ones the way you intend to. 

Make sure you have the proper documents in place that align with your intentions.

Make sure you update and revise all of your beneficiary designations.

Make sure your financial plan is coordinated with your estate plan and wealth transfer goals.

And finally, do your best to make things simple for your loved ones.  Communication and clarity are critical to avoid unnecessary conflict.  You don’t want your loved ones to question “why” things were set up a certain way.

I hope you found this information valuable!

Make sure to SUBSCRIBE so you don’t miss out on any of our retirement planning insights!

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Episode 12: Should I pay off my mortgage early?

(transcription) Should I pay off my mortgage early?

Kevin Lao 0:17
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the planning for retirement podcast where we help educate people on how retirement works. I’m Kevin Lao your host, I’m also the lead financial planner at Imagine financial security. Imagine financial security is an independent financial planning and investment management firm based in Florida. However, this information is for educational purposes only and should not be used as investment, legal or tax advice. This is episode number 12. Should I pay off my mortgage early? I hope you enjoy the show. And if you like what you hear, leave us five stars, it really helps and make sure to subscribe or follow to stay up to date on all of our latest episodes.

So this is such an important question and one I get all the time for not just folks that are approaching retirement, but younger folks that just took out their first mortgage and they’re trying to figure out, you know, should they pay it off in 30 years?

Should they pay it off early? And this particular question was was fielded because my client was speaking to a work colleague that’s several years of senior to her. And they recommended that she take $500 a month and apply it towards principle every month, and that would essentially pay down the mortgage after 20 years instead of 30. I mean, that sounds great on paper, I mean, after 20 years, you have no mortgage and free cash flow that you can do whatever you want with. You can invest all of that free cash flow at that point in time. But what is the opportunity cost to not investing that $500 a month, let’s say in a side fund? And so that’s really what we’re going to be addressing today. And really, the concept of paying down your mortgage early or not, comes down to three things. Number one is your personal risk tolerance. And number two is your ability to generate a certain rate of return in that side fund. And then number three is liquidity concerns. Okay, so we’re gonna address all three of these. So the first thing to talk about is risk tolerance. The first challenge of investing that into a side fund versus paying down the mortgage early is that the side fund is generally not going to be a guaranteed rate of return. Even if you look at CDs, or Treasury rates,. Yes, certainly interest rates have come up a little bit, but where are you going to get a four and a half percent, or even a 5% guaranteed rate of return? Nowhere, it doesn’t exist at this point in time. And so paying down the mortgage, just for the simple fact that it’s a guaranteed rate of return of four and a half percent. And that might be aligned with your risk tolerance. In this case, maybe you do pay down that mortgage, over 20 years, because four and a half percent is a pretty damn good rate of return on guaranteed money. Okay? Now, let’s say we take that out of the equation, we understand that the money in the side fund is not going to have a guaranteed rate of return of four and a half or 5%. But let’s say you’re okay with that. You say, Hey, I understand diversification, I understand how investing in stocks work or mutual funds or ETFs. And I am confident I can get a five or six or even 7% rate of return in the side fund over time. What happens to that side fund over 20 years or 30 years or 40 years? Okay, and so that’s what I did for her I crunched the numbers, I just pulled up Excel and I literally just took the the mortgage calculator amortization schedule from And I plugged everything into Excel. And we calculated after 20 years that mortgage would be fully paid off if she applied that $500 of additional additional principal every single month for that 20 years. Okay, then I ran the second scenario. So let’s call a client a, let’s call client a the one that pays the mortgage down in 20 years, okay, and let’s call client b be the one who pays the mortgage off over 30 years, which is the scheduled amortization. And they invest that $500 a month into let’s call it a side fund. And I ran three different scenarios, let’s say you earn 5% or 6% or 7%, what is the difference over the duration of your life expectancy. So the first thing we found out is that after 20 years, client a has paid off the mortgage but client B has enough in their side fund to pay off the remaining principal if they wanted to, assuming a 5% return! And so this goes back into what I mentioned earlier about liquidity. Your house is not technically liquid. Sure you can tap into it via a cash out refinance which would then reset a new amortization schedule or you could do a HELOC, but that’s also debt against your property. And so it’s not technically a liquid asset whereas the side fund if you set it up properly, it is 100% liquid, you can tap into it at any point in time. Now, of course, if you’re investing that money into a 401 k or a 403 B plan, there’s penalties if you tap it before 59 and a half, but you might not really care about that. On your balance sheet, you have enough saved and invested assuming a 5% rate of return, that equals the remaining principal on your mortgage. In my opinion, client B is winning here, because they have money on their balance sheet that’s 100% liquid. And if they felt like it, they could pay off the mortgage just like client a did. Now, after 20 years, what happens to client A is they have 100% of that principal and interest payment to invest in the side fund. So now they begin their side fund after 20 years as opposed to on day one. So then I tracked after 20 years, what happens to the side fund of client B versus the new side fund of client A. Assuming a 5% rate of return, assuming we stay disciplined, and we’re investing those payments every single month. For client B, it’s that $500 per month of excess principal that they weren’t applying against the mortgage. And now for client A, it’s roughly $31,000 per year that they’re now applying to the side fund. Well, after another 10 years, once the mortgage is fully paid off for client B, client B still has 10% more (just over $40,000) in their side fund, then client A. So if you look at it mathematically a 5% rate of return for someone that’s reasonably aggressive, maybe a balanced investor, they mathematically have more money in their side fund, then did client A even after client a paid off the mortgage, and then reinvested all of those payments into that side fund. Now, what happens when you do 6%, or even 7%? Well, now the multiples go up even higher, instead of having 40,000 more, client B has over $200,000 more in that side fund than client a assuming a 7% rate of return. And if you look at the s&p 500, historically speaking, just over nine and a half percent annually over the course of the last 30 years. I mean, who knows a lot of people think returns are going to be lower over the next decade or two, no one has a crystal ball on this. But I think 7% is a reasonable return for someone who’s fairly aggressive. And so again, it goes back to the first point of risk tolerance. Are you comfortable with taking on some more risk? And are you comfortable with understanding that comparing this to paying down your mortgage is not apples to apples. Paying off your mortgage is a guaranteed rate of return of whatever the interest rate is. Whereas if you invest in the side fund, you might get six, you might get five, you might get seven, but you might not. Maybe we go through a period of time over the next 10 or 20 years, like the lost decade of 2000 to 2010. No one has a crystal ball on this. But if you understand that, you know what your appetite for risk is, and you apply that principle to paying off the mortgage or not, it’ll help make a decision that is best for you. Now, how you invest that side fund, there’s also many factors there. Are you disciplined with the investments? Are you investing in a very well diversified portfolio? Or are you trying to hit homeruns by investing in let’s say, digital assets, or, one or two concentrated positions or stocks that you really, really think you like. Because if those don’t pan out, that negates the entire purpose, because the likelihood of you earning that 7% over the course of the 20 or 30 years, is lower than if you’re well diversified, well disciplined, and well positioned to capture the market returns, as opposed to swinging for the fences. And the last thing is liquidity. All along the way, as you’re investing into that side fund, that money is liquid on your balance sheet, if you had an emergency pop up, let’s say it’s a major medical expense or you lost your job, you could tap into that side fund, whereas during emergencies, you might not be able to tap into the home equity. Maybe you lost your job. How are you going to take out the HELOC or do a cash out refinance? No bank is going to give you a loan. Or what if you have a major medical bill? It might take 30 to 60 days to underwrite your home equity line of credit or do the cash out refinance. So having that side fund that is liquid right away on day one is a huge benefit to that client B who is investing into the side fund versus paying off their mortgage sooner. Personally if you want to know I am client b. I like to leverage the bank’s money, I like to stretch out the debt as long as possible just given how low interest rates ar. The first home I purchased in 2016 had a three and a half percent rate. This home that we just purchased has a 3% mortgage, so I’m confident I can get a five, six or 7%. And that’s a much higher multiple than comparing it to what my interest rate is on my mortgage. But I understand the risk there on the side fund, I understand it’s not guaranteed. And I also understand that I have much more liquidity in that side fund than I do in my home. Now, as interest rates continue to go up the argument to paying off that mortgage early pendulum is beginning to swing in that favor, especially if rates go up to maybe 6%. Then, your appetite for risk needs to be fairly high to to accommodate that higher return in that side fund.

Now, with all of that being said, I talk to clients all the time that are approaching retirement, and they’ve had this goal of being debt free in retirement for many, many years! 15, 20 or even 30 years! Using math to convince them to invest more on their balance sheet versus paying down the mortgage by the time they retire is completely irrelevant to them. Because the qualitative factor of owing nothing to anybody is that much more important than how much they have on their balance sheet. So if that is you, pay off that mortgage by the time you retire, get aggressive, figure out that amortization schedule that lines up with your anticipated retirement date. And don’t feel badly about losing out on those opportunity costs. Because the psychological benefit and that peace of mind you’re going to have by checking that box off of being debt free in retirement is that much more meaningful for you.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning into this episode of the planning for retirement podcast. I hope you learned something valuable. We really appreciate your support and following our podcast journey. If you have any feedback on the show, or even if you have questions that you want answered on the show, send me an email at [email protected]. Just write in the subject line “podcast” and who knows, maybe your question will be answered on the next episode. Until next time, this is Kevin Lao signing off.

Retirement Readiness Checklist

You are in the final stretch of your career!

Congratulations on a successful career!  You’re in the proverbial 7th inning stretch, ready to finish strong and start the next chapter.   Along with all of the excitement is a bit of uncertainty about the unknown.   Use our updated “Retirement Readiness Checklist” to help you prepare for whatever is next!

Step 1: What is your vision for "retirement?"

The word retirement means different things to different people.   Maybe you want to travel the world for the next 10 years.  Perhaps you want to spend more time with loved ones.  Or, you might have a business venture you’ve always wanted to pursue. 

This is the most exciting part about retirement planning.  You define what success means during this next chapter, not your current or former boss. 

Write down your biggest hopes and dreams you wish to experience.  If you are married, you and your spouse should sit down together to craft your vision.  You will be surprised at how much you learn about one another!  My wife and I do this on an annual basis, and I’m always learning new things about what’s on her heart and mind. 

You should also decide whether you will work in any capacity during retirement.  You might find yourself wanting to work part-time for the same company, or perhaps pursuing opportunities with a different firm. 

This is also known as a phased retirement, where you “try it out” before fully retiring. 

This is perfectly acceptable as it might be tough to quit your job cold turkey.  It also provides some financial incentives including; delaying retirement account withdrawals, deferring Social Security, and continuation of group benefits.

 You might decide not to work at all, and that’s okay too! 

Perhaps you dedicate your time volunteering for a passion project that excites you!

Whatever it is, this is your time to create your ideal schedule, which brings us to step 2.

Step 2: Create an ideal day/week

ideal week during retirement

Many people don’t realize that depression is more common than you think in your retirement years. 

According to Web MD, over 6 million people over 65 are impacted by depression.  However, only 10% receive treatment.  One of the reasons is the feeling of embarrassment.  Why would one feel depressed if they achieved financial independence?

Upon retiring, most people want to check off things on their bucket list.  It might be a dream vacation, or moving into their forever home, buying a boat, etc.  This can cause a spike in excitement in the early years which we call the “Go-Go Years.”  However, as you enter the “Slow-Go” and “No-Go” years in retirement, that excitement fades and depression can begin to set in.

If routines or structure aren’t in place with how you are spending your time, and with whom, the feeling of losing purpose can have a negative impact on mental health.  

Also, it’s more likely you have experienced the loss of a loved one or close friends. 

How do you solve this issue? 

Create an ideal day or week and decide:

  • Who do you want to spend your time with?
  • What are you spending time doing?
  • Where are you living and whom are you living close to?
  • Where are you traveling?
  • What are some new hobbies you wish to start?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • What activities can you eliminate from your schedule?  (preferably ones that are draining your energy)

This will help maximize your fulfillment in retirement and avoid that feeling of loneliness or isolation. 

Step 3: Make a Budget

Stay with me on this one! 

I know, nobody likes to make a budget.  However, I find this exercise creates a ton of excitement around an otherwise mundane topic. 

Make a list of anything that will cost money, but divide them into three separate categories:

    • Needs
    • Wants
    • Wishes

 Examples of NEEDS are:

  • Housing
  • Utilities
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Transportation
  • Insurance
  • Healthcare needs

A Quick "Aside" on The Housing Decision

Once you have decided on where you will be living in retirement, you will need to discuss whether or not you want to pay off your mortgage. 

Having a mortgage in retirement isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s all about personal risk tolerance and liquidity needs.

If you are comfortable with taking on some risk with your investment portfolio, you could earn a higher return relative to the interest rate on your mortgage.  All while keeping your investments liquid.

If you decide to pay off your home with a lump sum, how does that impact your liquidity needs?  Sure, you could take out a home equity line of credit or cash out refinance, but your home is not truly a liquid asset. 

As interest rates have been creeping higher, this debate has begun to lean slightly more in favor with paying off the mortgage.   However, you might be locked into a 3.5% (or even better) interest rate, so keeping your funds liquid and investing in other asset classes could pay off in the long run.

With all that being said, there is a legitimate argument that having no debt in retirement provides a psychological benefit.  I’m all about helping people with peace of mind, and if paying off the mortgage can help with that, let’s do it (forget the math)!

Aside from the mortgage issue, you are likely going to consider whether or not to stay in your current home, downsize, or even move to a new city.  The conventional wisdom has been to downsize in retirement. 

However, I have found that not having enough space in the home might limit your adult children and grandchildren’s ability to visit (if that’s important to you)!  In other circumstances, I’ve had clients downsize and absolutely love the reduced maintenance and upkeep…but usually after the period of de-cluttering, selling, or giving away “stuff.”

Additionally, moving to a new city might sounds appealing given a lower cost of living or more favorable tax advantages, but it’s a big decision that should not be taken lightly. 

If you do decide to either downsize or move to a new market, you will need to factor in how this will impact you financially in this first category of “needs.”

home equity line of credit and reverse mortgage strategy

Examples of WANTS are:

  • Travel
  • Home Improvement
  • Major Purchase (Boat, RV, Pool, Hot Tub etc.)
  • Education funding (children or grandchildren)
  • New Home
  • Wedding

“Wants” could be reduced or even eliminated, if needed, during a period of unfavorable financial circumstances or as you begin to slow down.

Examples of WISHES are:

  • Leaving a financial legacy
  • Major gifting/donations
  • Dream vacation home
“Wishes” are things you would love to accomplish as long as your needs and wants are covered throughout retirement. 
Enjoy this exercise and make it fun and interactive!

Estimate each cost

I find most people know what their “needs” cost on a monthly or annual basis.  However, certain expenditures in the “wants” or “wishes” categories might be more difficult to estimate. 

Do your best.  Remember, you can always revisit these on an annual or semi-annual basis, as we will discuss in Step 10. 

And finally, tally up each category for your projected retirement income goal!

Step 4: How much of your retirement income will come from fixed sources?

The first pillar of your retirement income is your guaranteed or fixed income.  These resources may include:

  • Social Security
  • Pension
  • Annuities
  • Employment Income

These sources are immune to market fluctuations, and you can rely on them for either a fixed period, or for life. 

Social Security represents over 40% of retirement income for those over 65.  Therefore, it’s important to make the right Social Security decisions.  Some of the factors you might consider when choosing when to begin taking Social Security are:

  • Age at retirement
    • The earlier you retire, the longer you will need to wait until your full retirement age (between 65-67)
  • Life expectancy
    • If you have longevity in your family and are in good health, you might decide to delay Social Security past full retirement age. Age 70 is the latest retirement age where your benefit will be the highest.
    • Another consideration if you are married is your spouse’s life expectancy. Even if you are not in great health, delaying benefits could help maximize the survivor benefit to your spouse.
  • Other assets/income sources
    • If you have other assets or income to draw upon early in retirement, you might consider delaying Social Security for the reasons mentioned above.
    • However, if you need the income sooner to avoid draining your investment accounts, you might consider taking the benefit earlier (or working longer)

There is no “one size fits all” answer to taking Social Security.  I wrote another article on Social Security considerations that you can read here, but I also recommend speaking to a qualified fiduciary financial planner to address this important issue.  Of course, we can help with this 😊!

Step 5: Determine your income gap

what is a safe withdrawal rate in retirement?

What is a safe withdrawal rate for retirement? 

Once you have calculated your total expenditures for your needs, wants and wishes, and have tallied up all your fixed income sources, it’s time for some basic math. 

The first part to the equation is how much of your “needs” are covered by guaranteed income?  If the answer is 100%, you are in great shape! 

If it’s less than 100%, you will need to make the decision on how to draw income from your other assets like 401ks, IRAs, brokerage accounts etc., to fill the income gap.

It’s okay if your guaranteed income does not cover 100% of your needs.  Most of my clients will draw income from investments to cover the income gap. 

However, this brings about the question, “what is a safe and reasonable rate of withdrawal in retirement?” 

A reasonable withdrawal rate is relative to your goals and risk tolerance, but anywhere from 3% – 7%/year could be reasonable.  The higher the rate of withdrawal, however, the more risk of your plan failing.  The lower the rate of withdrawal, the lower the risk of your plan failing. 

Step 6: Make the decision on how your investments will be managed

Once you have determined the income gap, you will need to decide on the process of how investments will be managed.  If you are a “do-it-yourselfer,” make sure you have a process in writing!  This includes:

  • What is your optimal asset allocation?
  • Which investments will you use to create your optimal asset allocation?
  • How often will you re-balance and monitor your accounts?
  • How much will you withdrawal each month, quarter, or year?
  • Which accounts will you withdrawal from first?
  • The tax impact of withdrawals
  • A process to determine which investments to liquidate and when

For the “do-it-yourselfers” out there.  If something ever happened to you:

  • Death
  • Disability
  • Incapacity

What is the contingency plan?  Who is stepping in to fill that role?  Is it a spouse?  Adult child?  Sibling?

Do they have the ability, AND the availability to step in as the new “investment manager?” 

One of the primary reasons I find clients hire my firm or another fiduciary financial advisor is because they are the investment guru, but their spouse/son/daughter/sibling is not!  Or, their children don’t have the time to take on this role given they are busy with their own family and career! 

Therefore, my “do-it-yourselfers” want to be involved in the process of hiring a fiduciary financial advisor to help manage the affairs if/when something does happen to the them.

For those of you who have no interest or capacity, make sure you hire a fiduciary!  A fiduciary is someone who looks out for your best interests, always!  And yes, we can help you with this!  Our firm specializes in retirement planning including investment management.

Step 7: What to do with your old 401k and employer benefits?

When you are implementing your investment strategy and income strategy, you will need to decide on how to best consolidate accounts.

Perhaps you have several 401ks or 403b plans.  Maybe you have multiple brokerage accounts with different institutions. 

You might consider consolidating accounts to simplify your balance sheet.  I find most retirees want to avoid complexity!

By doing so, it will make managing your investments easier during retirement, particularly when it comes to making withdrawals. 

It will also help clean things up for your beneficiaries or powers of attorney, and we will discuss this topic more in Step 8.

The argument against doing a 401k rollover might include:

– Plans to work past 72 and defer required minimum distributions

– Certain proprietary investments within an employer plan that are not offered elsewhere (fixed annuities etc.)

Otherwise, rolling over those plans into one consolidated IRA will open the door for more investment options and diversification.  Additionally, you have more control over liquidity and fees within the investments you select.

Other Benefits to Consider

  • Life Insurance
  • 401k Contributions + Catch Up
  • Health Insurance
  • Legal Benefits
  • HSA (Health Savings Account)

Reviewing the checklist of benefits  you will lose is an important exercise when gauging your retirement readiness

You should begin to think about how you will replace these benefits when you retire, and maximize these benefits while you are still employed.

For Life Insurance, consider whether you will want to own some life insurance in retirement.  If so, purchase an individual policy that is portable after you retire.   If you can’t buy an individual policy, see if you can extend coverage with the group for a period of time.

401k’s and 403b plans allow for catch up contributions after you turn 50.  Take advantage of these catch up contributions while you can!

Here are the limits for 2022 on certain qualified plans:

  • 401k/403b/457:  $20,500/year + $6,500/year catch up
  • SIMPLE IRA:  $14,000/year + $3,000/year catch up
  • IRA/Roth IRA:  $6,000/year + $1,000/year catch up
  • HSA:  $3,650/year (single), $7,300/year (family) + $1,000/year catch up (age 55+)

In that final stretch of planning for retirement, your children might be done with school and you finally have some extra cash flow.  Take advantage of this final decade as it can pay huge dividends in your later years when healthcare costs tend to rise!

For legal plans, you might consider having your estate documents reviewed and updated before you officially retire.  These legal plans often have an estate planning benefit that can save you thousands of dollars while you are still employed.

Finally, consider health insurance options.  If you are retiring and are eligible for Medicare, compare the Original Medicare with Medicare Advantage.  Shop for plans, use a broker to help find you the best deal based on your medical needs. 

If you are retiring before you are Medicare eligible, consider your options for health insurance.  Perhaps your spouse will continue to work, or you may work during the early phase of retirement. 

Otherwise, you may need to buy an individual policy on the exchange (  These policy premiums are based on your income, so there could be some planning opportunities to keep your income low until you reach age 65 and qualify for Medicare. 

Step 8: Update your Estate Plan, and keep it up to date!

meeting to review estate plan

How will your assets transfer to your loved ones?  Who will step in to make decisions if you are unable to?  How are your assets titled?  What is the tax impact of the assets transferred to your beneficiaries?  These are all questions that you need to consider for your Retirement Readiness Checklist!

The basic estate planning package that everyone needs includes:

  • A Will
  • Financial Power of Attorney
  • Medical Power of Attorney
  • Living Will/Advanced Medical Directive

Others might need to supplement these documents with a revocable living trust, an irrevocable trust, a special needs trust, or a marital bypass trust.  Speak to a qualified attorney who specializes in estate planning in your state! 

An Estate Plan, however, is not simply what documents you have drafted! 

  • Do you have three IRAs and two 401ks that can be consolidated into one?  Do you have physical stock certificates in a safe that can be moved to electronic custody? 
  • Do your beneficiaries know where all of your life insurance policies are, or which financial institutions you have accounts with?
  • What about passwords? 

An estate plan is also about making things simple for your loved ones!

  • Keep key decision-makers in the loop as to what their roles are (and are not)! 
  • If you name one adult child as Power of Attorney, have that discussion with them. 
  • If you have other children, make them aware also. 
  • It could be difficult, but you need to be the one to speak up on “why” you made certain decisions.  Otherwise, it could impact how you were remembered and/or the relationships between your children.
  • Finally, keep an “important document list” that outlines where your accounts are and at least one point of contact for each institution.  (I have a template you can use, and I’d be happy to share it if you send me a Linkedin connection request asking for it!)

Step 9: Medicare or Healthcare Decisions

Are you 65 or older and eligible for Medicare?  Well, make sure you take advantage of the special enrollment periods!  That way, you can avoid penalties and unnecessary medical underwriting.  

If you are eligible for Medicare, the primary decision is whether or not you will go with “Original Medicare” or Medicare Advantage.

Original Medicare is great because there is no “network” or managed care.  You can pick and choose whatever specialists you want to see without worrying about a referral.  The deductible is also extremely low (less than $300/year)!  You will need to buy supplemental policies to cover prescriptions as well as gaps in Medicare part A and part B.  Either way, it’s a great way to plan for how much your healthcare expenses might be.

Medicare Advantage has been growing in popularity, but sometimes people are misled into thinking it’s the less expensive route.  If you are going to the doctor frequently, or have special medications, you might find yourself paying more for Medicare Advantage despite premiums being lower.  Also, be sure to check out the network of providers as you may find your doctors don’t take certain insurance policies.  If you are a snowbird, make sure the network is robust in both areas that you live.  

There are some great independent Medicare advisors out there that I would recommend speaking with:

I interviewed the lead advisor for Chapter, Ari Parker, on one of my podcast episodes.  Give it a listen for his insight on the topic:

Episode 13:  Planning for Healthcare Costs in Retirement

If you are younger than 65 and not Medicare eligible, you are going to buy private coverage through the exchange.  There are a variety of plans to choose from.  The online marketplace is a great place to go to search for plans and screen for what features are most important to you.

Step 10: Make a Long-term Care Plan

I discussed this topic with Jean Wilke-Ausman, the Director of Long-term Care Solutions at Stewardship Advisory Group; she gave a phenomenal headline to kick this topic off.

“Why a checkbook is not a plan for long-term care.”  

Just because you have the means financially to pay for long-term care expenses, does not mean you have a plan.  Furthermore, just because you have insurance doesn’t mean your plan is complete.

Medicare doesn’t cover custodial care, so you will ether pay out of pocket, buy insurance, or some combination of the two.

Some considerations if you decide to self-insure:

  • If you needed care, how would it impact your surviving spouse?
  • How would it impact your financial legacy goals?

Jean also added these issues to consider when self-insuring:

  • “Who is going to manage the liquidation of assets?”
  • “What about considering market fluctuations while managing withdrawals for care?”
  • “Who is going to manage the caregivers providing the custodial care?”
  • “What about changes in the real estate market”
  • “What about navigating taxes when liquidating certain assets?”

Perhaps your spouse has been managing your care for months or even years, and it’s now time to hire a caregiver.  “Having insurance provides that liquidity need,” added Jean.  “Having insurance can avoid you having untimely withdrawals from investments that have other purposes.”

Partner up with experts like a fiduciary financial advisor who understands long-term care planning, and someone like Jean who can be a quarterback to finding the right coverage. 

There is no one-size-fits all with long-term care planning, but being proactive will help prevent you from becoming a burden on your loved ones later in life. 

Step 11: Communication and Ongoing Review

family get together retirement

Life will change!  Your family will evolve!  You will welcome new family members, and unfortunately say goodbye to others.

Make sure you continue to revise your plan.  Keep your plan flexible.

Communication is important in all aspects of life, but particularly when it comes to dealing with issues in retirement.  Active communication with your spouse, children, grandchildren, friends, work colleagues, neighbors, and other acquaintances, will help you stay connected during your retirement years. 

It’s easy to unplug after retirement but staying involved with relationships can help you enhance your legacy well beyond how much you leave behind financially.

In the event of an unforeseen circumstance, it’s best for your loved ones to know who is in charge of what, and there is no question what your intentions are!

Nobody wants to leave a mess for their family to clean up, so keeping open lines of communication is paramount as we all go through the aging process.

Final word

I hope you found this information helpful. 

Just remember, you are likely feeling a ton of excitement mixed with uncertainty.  This is completely normal.

Our clients that have successfully retired started by planning early!  If you aren’t technically starting to plan early, it’s okay too.  My Mom loves to say, “better late than never!” 

And guess what, planning doesn’t end the day you retire.  Your plans will evolve and become more clear once you have more time and energy to think about the future.  Therefore, continue to adapt and adjust based on what life throws at you.

Control what you can control, and the rest will fall into place.

Make sure to subscribe below so you never miss our retirement insights!

If you would like to schedule a Zoom with me to ask specific questions, you can access my calendar below.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing your feedback along with suggestions for future topics!  You can drop me a line at [email protected]

What is a flat fee financial planner?

Primary service models for financial advisors

There are so many different terms for “financial advisor,” it could make your head spin!  Financial advisor, financial planner, fiduciary financial advisor, wealth management advisor, financial consultant, flat fee financial advisor, financial therapist, and the list goes on. 

To make things simple, professionals providing financial advice can be categorized into one of three ways:

1. Broker/Commission Based Advisor:  These advisors sell products to the consumer for a commission paid by the insurance or investment company they are representing.

2. Fee-Based Advisor:  These advisors can sell products for a commission and provide investment and financial planning advice for a fee.  The fee is typically a percentage of assets under management, and the commissions vary widely depending on the product.

3. Fee-Only Financial Advisor:  These advisors don’t receive any compensation from an insurance or investment company, and work directly for the client within the scope of their financial planning and investment advisory agreements.   There is a sub category within the Fee-Only space known as a Flat Fee Financial Advisor or Flat Fee Financial Planner

I will cover all of these definitions later in the post.

There are also professional designations like Certified Financial Planner (CFP), that consumers might believe is a type of financial advisor.  The reality is, not all CFPs are created equal, and they can work under any of the three primary service models listed previously.  A designation, like a CFP, is meant to describe the education and experience an advisor has within the industry.

While the CFP is the mostly widely recognized and respected from a consumer standpoint, there are other designations that are well respected within the industry. 

Just to name a few:

Retirement Income Certified Professional (RICP) designation is for those who specialize in retirement income planning. 

Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) is for those who have an in-depth knowledge around life insurance. 

Chartered Financial Analysit (CFA) is for those specializing in investment analysis and portfolio management.

These designations are of course helpful when determining if a prospective advisor can serve your needs.

Just remember, the designation doesn’t describe the service model, and ultimately how the advisor is compensated, which are both important factors when choosing who to hire.

Broker, or Commission Based Advisor

If you’ve ever seen movies like Boiler Room or Wolf of Wall Street, brokers portrayed in them give financial professionals a bad reputation.

Stocks can now be traded for zero commissions, and the traditional/old school brokers are becoming less and less sought after by the consumer given the distrust.

Nowadays, the most popular products that are sold for commissions are mutual funds, annuities and insurance.  I would argue that annuities and/or insurance products should be used in the majority of financial plans.  

Commission based mutual funds, however, are being phased out with the rise of no sales load ETFs and no load mutual funds.  These products perform just as well, if not better, for a fraction of the cost.  However, there are still brokers and even fee-based advisors that sell these types of loaded mutual funds. 

One of the most important factors to note is that a broker is not a fiduciary.  The fiduciary standard requires that the advisor always puts the client’s interests ahead of their own.  In the case of a broker, he or she is representing the firm they sell the product for, not the client. 

Some of these brokers will engage in limited financial planning, but most don’t. 

Another issue at hand is that the Broker/Dealer might limit which products they can or cannot sell.   Additionally, certain products might pay a higher commission than others, even if the products are identical.

These are just a few of the reasons why consumers look to other service models if they wish to engage in a long term, mutually beneficial relationship.

Fee-Based Financial Advisors

Fee-based advisors can charge both commissions and advisor fees for investments and/or financial planning.  This language is often misconstrued with the term “fee-only financial advisor,” which I will explain next.  Fee-based advisors oftentimes charge a percentage of the assets their firm is managing, hence the term “fee-based.”  Additionally, they can sell insurance, annuities or other investment products for commissions paid by their broker/dealer. 

The cost will typically range anywhere from 0.75% – 2% for the assets under management fee, and anywhere from 3%-12% for commissions on other products. 

Some of these advisors do comprehensive financial planning extremely well.  However, many do not do financial planning at all, given their fee is technically for managing the investment assets only. 

Here is the confusing part. 

Fee-based advisors act as a fiduciary…sometimes.  When providing advice for assets their firm is managing, they are a fiduciary.  However, other services in which they engage through their broker/dealer are not part of the fiduciary standard. 

Oftentimes, you might hear these advisors claim they are fiduciaries, but really they are a fiduciary “sometimes.” 

This makes it extremely difficult for the client who thinks they have hired someone to look out for their best interests, when in reality they are representing a third party instead.

Fee-Only Financial Advisor

Fee-Only Financial Advisors are fiduciaries throughout the entire relationship, period.  There are three ways these advisors can charge clients:

  • Percentage of Assets Under Management (anywhere from 0.75%-2%/year)
  • Ongoing retainer fee or flat fee (monthly or quarterly) ranging anywhere from $100/month – $2,000/month
  • One-time financial planning arrangement (ranging from $1,000 – $10,000)

These advisors are often much more comprehensive when it comes to the financial planning relationship than a fee-based advisor or broker.  The reason is because the fee they charge is for financial planning and investment management, not for selling a product for a third party.  Here are some examples of services fee-only financial planners provide that fee-based advisors and commission based advisors typically do not:

  • In Depth Retirement Planning Analysis
  • Income Distribution Planning
  • Social Security Optimization
  • Tax Optimization
  • Objective Long-Term Care and Life Insurance Review
  • Roth Conversion Analysis
  • Charitable Giving
  • Medicare Planning
  • Pension Maximization
  • Required Minimum Distribution Planning
  • Major Asset Purchase or Sale
  • Estate Planning Coordination
  • Debt and Cash Flow Analysis
  • Mortgage Review

Clients appreciate this dynamic because if they need a certain product that requires paying a commission, such as life insurance or long-term care insurance, their advisor’s compensation is not tied to the product!  It creates a relationship where they decide what they need together, as opposed to a cliche’ sales pitch.

Many clients who are doing their research are gravitating towards these types of planners, and they can be found on third party association websites like:

These advisors are not affiliated with any broker dealer, wall street company or insurance company, and therefore no compensation is received by anyone other than the client.

They will typically sign a fiduciary oath where if breached, they could be penalized monetarily or lose their license to practice as such. 

flat fee financial planner

Flat Fee Financial Advisor, Flat Fee Financial Planner

A  flat fee financial planner is a type of fee-only financial planner.  The difference is the fee is not based on a percentage of assets the firm is managing. 

Many of these firms charge based on what their hourly rate is, or based on your financial complexity. This method of compensation is gaining a lot of traction.

The reason is simple.  If you have two similar prospective clients.  One has $1 million of assets and the other has $2 million of assets.  The question is, are you doing twice the work for the client who has $2 million? 

The response from flat fee financial planners is a simple “no.”  In fact, the workload is likely the same for both of those clients, so how can the fee be justifiably twice the amount?

Some flat fee financial advisors do not manage investments, and these are known as advice-only planners.  They simply give you a second set of eyes on your situation, or help you create a roadmap on how to get where you want to go.  The client is presumably comfortable with the implementation and maintenance of those recommendations on a go forward basis.

There are other flat fee financial advisors that will manage investment assets, but it’s inclusive of the overall flat annual/quarterly fee that is charged.  Unlike the asset-based advisor’s fee, as your investment account grows, your fee doesn’t go up because of it.  Conversely, if your investment account goes down, your fee doesn’t go down either. 

This keeps the focus on financial planning and doing what is right for the client, regardless of the amount of assets under management. 

Why did we choose to be a flat fee financial planner?

flat fee financial advisor

After starting in the broker world and moving to fee-based, I decided the best way to serve my clients was as a flat fee financial planner/flat fee financial advisor

My firm, Imagine Financial Security, is a flat fee financial planning firm that includes investment management. 

We have two separate offerings:

  1. Ongoing retirement planning, tax optimization, and investment management.  We serve those who are close to retirement, or have recently retired and need help with their retirement income plan, Roth conversion strategy, investment management, and estate planning strategies.  The majority of our clients end up in this engagement as they prefer to live their best lives in retirement instead of spending time in the weeds of personal finance.
  2. One-time engagements.  This offering is best suited for those who prefer to implement their retirement income and investment strategy on their own, but want a professional second set of eyes to reveal any opportunities or blind spots.  Alternatively, this could serve as a great way to experience our value proposition before signing up for ongoing planning.

In addition to serving “traditional families” planning for retirement, we also have a niche that serves blended families planning for retirement.  These families have children from previous marriages, assets accumulated before marriage, wider age gaps, and other challenges that make the financial picture slightly more complex. 

I find the flat fee financial planner model allows our firm to focus on comprehensive financial planning without conflicts of interest that are inherent with other service models.  

Resources to find a flat fee financial advisor or financial planner

I’ve compiled a few links below that include other flat fee financial planners who are doing great work in the financial planning community. 

Tenon Financial has a list of flat fee financial planners who specialize in retirement planning and investment management.

7 Saturdays Financial has a list of flat fee financial planners who specialize in working with younger accumulators.

Wealthtender has an article about flat fee financial advisors.

Sara Grillo interviewed Andy Panko on the flat fee financial advisor movement.

Measure Twice Financial has a list of advice only financial advisors who do not provide ongoing investment management.

In summary

Your situation is unique, so hiring an advisor who specializes in working with others with your profile is extremely important.  Additionally, understanding how advisors are compensated should help you determine how you want to be served.

There are good and bad players in every industry, and financial services is no different. 

There are also good and bad advisors in each fee model, and simply hiring an advisor solely based on their fee structure may not be prudent. 

There are high quality advisors doing great work in each category, even the commission-based world. 

However, we recommend hiring someone who has a deep understanding of how to serve people like you, and who can always look out for your best interests.

 Here are three simple questions (among others) you should ask a potential advisor:

  1. Which service model do you fall under?
  2. What credentials/designations do you currently hold, or are currently pursuing?
  3. What is your firm’s niche?

Here is a link for the CFP Board’s 10 sample questions to ask a prospective financial planner.

I hope you found this information valuable as you look for the right partner to help you achieve financial independence. 

If you have any questions or want to schedule a call with me, click the link below to coordinate our schedules. 

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