IRA Beneficiaries: Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita

Did you know that your IRA beneficiary supersedes your will? No matter how carefully you’ve crafted your last intentions in your will, an outdated IRA beneficiary that was never updated after your divorce can unwittingly bestow your former spouse with all of your IRA inheritance, while also disinheriting your new spouse and children. That’s why it’s important to update your beneficiaries after major life changes such as marriage, divorce, births, illness, domestic issues and deaths.

While you’re at it, make sure to check how the beneficiary form reads too.  Most will default to either a “per stirpes” designation or a “per capita” designation. Knowing the difference in these two designations is important, as is making sure you understand what the form you’re signing defaults to, so you can override it if necessary.

Both of these designations refer to what happens if one of your beneficiaries is no longer living.  A per stirpes designation means that if one of your IRA beneficiaries is deceased, the deceased person’s children will receive his or her share.  Imagine you have two children – a son and a daughter – to whom you’ve split your IRA beneficiaries 50/50.  Your daughter has two daughters and your son has two sons.  At your death, if your son has not survived you, your two grandsons would receive his share of the IRA.  Your daughter would receive 50% of the IRA and your grandsons would each receive 25%. Keep in mind that if your son had no heirs, the entire balance would go to your daughter.

A per capita designation does not look along the lineal lines. Instead, if one of your beneficiaries is deceased, the proceeds are distributed to the other beneficiaries as if the deceased beneficiary was not to inherit any, regardless of whether or not he/she had children. Imagine you have three children, and each is to receive a third of your IRA.  If one child predeceases you, the IRA would go equally to the living two children.

What if none of your primary beneficiaries survive you (and either you selected per stirpes but your beneficiaries have no children, or you selected per capita)?  That’s when the contingent beneficiaries become important.  Your IRA money will go to your contingent beneficiaries only if no primary beneficiaries survive you. If you want to ensure that one of your heirs receives a portion of the IRA, you must name him/her as a primary beneficiary.

Why can’t you just avoid this whole beneficiary form and let the will name your beneficiaries?  You can, but your estate is not considered a person under the law, and therefore beneficiaries will have limitations to how long they can stretch out distributions from the IRA.  They will not be allowed to stretch the distributions out over their lifetimes, which will result in losing valuable tax-deferred growth. Review your beneficiaries with your financial advisor to ensure the are aligned with your intentions.

Harli Palme, CFA, CFP®
Chief Operating Officer
Chief Compliance Officer

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The Year of The Fiduciary Rule

For about a year now, the industry has witnessed much conjecture and debate about the proposed Department of Labor’s Conflict of Interest rule, also known as the “Fiduciary Rule.”  The rule attempts to broadly categorize anyone offering investment advice to retirement plans or IRAs as a fiduciary.  It is in the final stages of review with the Office of Management and Budget and is expected to pass.

The mechanics of how this works are seemingly straightforward.  An advisor recommending a rollover of retirement assets into an IRA or similar account would be considered a fiduciary.  That matters because a fiduciary cannot make a recommendation that would cause his or her income to increase.  The rule indicates a five-prong test to determine if a person is advising retirement assets.  If any of the following apply, you are now considered a fiduciary:

  1. If you advise on the purchase or sale of securities or property in a retirement account;
  2. advise taking a distribution from a plan or IRA;
  3. manage securities or property including rollovers from a plan or IRA
  4. appraise or offer a fairness opinion of the value of securities or property if connected with a specific transaction by a plan or IRA; or
  5. recommend a person who is going to provide investment advice for a fee or other compensation.

Retirement plan sponsors should take note because if you read the rules correctly, it suggests anyone (including laymen) offering advice to a plan participant or an owner of an IRA would likely be considered a fiduciary and could be held personally liable for their recommendations or advice.

Registered Investment Advisors may not see a significant change in business practice.  We are already considered fiduciaries.  However, broker/dealers (B/D) may not have it as easy.  B/Ds are generally not considered fiduciaries to retirement plans or IRA assets, they are instead held to a less stringent “suitability” standard.  In the light of the proposed rule, one of the chief issues B/Ds face is how to handle variable income and commissions.  Changing their business model to accept level income would likely be an onerous undertaking.  There is an unattractive alternative.  Under the DOL’s Best Interest Contract (BIC) exemption, the broker/dealer may be exempt from the fiduciary rules if certain requirements are met.  These include:

  • obtaining a written contract prior to the offering of any advice,
  • supplying the prospect information and costs for every investment they could own,
  • providing performance information on each investment,
  • fully disclosing compensation arrangements and
  • maintainging this information for a period of six years.

In addition to this, the aforementioned information must be maintained a public website. Consider the amount of work and man-hours it would take to become compliant with the BIC exemption.  Because of this, it is expected that smaller B/D’s will exit the industry or merge with larger providers.

One of the controversial rules surrounds the “seller’s carve out” and its impact on small business retirement plans (plans with either less than $100 million in assets or 100 participants).  Under the rule as proposed, the advisor is not considered a fiduciary to the investments of these small business plans.  I question why every plan, irrespective of size, wouldn’t be required to have a fiduciary.  After all, under this specific rule, if the DOL is trying to protect consumers, why protect some of them and not all of them?

In closing, we at Parsec have been watching this unfold for months and are eager to see the final form of the rule.  Perhaps an unintended consequence is that many customers and retirement plans may have to reconsider their advisory relationship.  Regardless of the new rule, it is important to always put the best interest of your clients first.  Parsec will be prepared for whatever the DOL comes up with.

Neal

Neal Nolan, CFP®, AIF®
Senior Financial Advisor
Director of ERISA Services

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NPR Report on Excessive Fees

Investors have a strong desire to be good stewards of their retirement funds. This often includes seeking out professionals for financial advice.  For the retirement plan sponsor, the Department of Labor (DOL) is helping by creating fee disclosure rules and requirements.  A few years ago, the DOL mandated fee disclosure rule (404(a)5) in an effort to ensure plan sponsors are able to determine if the fees for services rendered are “reasonable.”

NPR ran a story this morning about excessive 401k fees.  See link here.  If I could add to this article, I would suggest plan sponsors review their plan fees and services at least every couple of years, if not more often through a fee benchmarking process.  The generated report should give plan sponsors a general idea of how their plan compares to others of similar size.  Benchmarking has other benefits as well.  Not only will this help to uncover fees and what services are being provided, but also some service providers are willing to re-price their services to lower fees.

While many thought the disclosure rules were a bright spot in a dark corner, we feel that further disclosure and transparency is warranted in this industry.  Since not all advisors are the same, we are thankful that the DOL has re-proposed a Fiduciary Rule which seeks to make anyone giving investment advice to 401k/retirement plans (and also IRAs) to act in the account holder’s best interest.  For RIAs like Parsec, it is business as usual.  However, broker-dealers may have a bit more difficulty with this rule, as they operate under something called a suitability standard.  While not to debate the virtues of the fiduciary standard versus the suitability standard, we do feel that greater disclosure is a good thing and will ultimately drive costs down even further.

Neal Nolan, CFP®
Director of ERISA, Financial Advisor

Neal

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The “What” of Retirement Planning

Most working-age Americans focus on the “how” of retiring: how to maintain a decent standard of living today while saving enough money for retirement tomorrow, or how to play catch-up and cover their retirement savings shortfall. Sadly, another group of Americans wonder “if” they’ll be able to retire at all. The sobering statistics tell a bleak tale. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the average 50-year old has just $42,797 in retirement savings while 38% of Americans have no savings at all. This is scary stuff considering that average medical costs alone for an individual over 65 years old are north of $100,000. Clearly we’re not as prepared for retirement as we could be. Despite lots of media doom-and-gloom about the pending retirement crisis, it hasn’t improved retirement savings trends. Thus, I’d like to propose a new approach, one that focuses on the “what” of retirement planning instead of the “how.”

The “what” of retirement planning involves an intentional mental shift, one that approaches the retirement conundrum from a new angle. Instead of focusing on how much more you need to save or how far behind you are versus your peers, try imaging what you want your years in retirement to look like. What new hobbies would you like to explore in retirement? Or what countries do you want to visit? Etc… This approach, coupled with an honest assessment of your current situation, is more likely to help you reach your goals than beating yourself over the head.

Focusing on the problem or what’s missing can increase stress levels and sap your energy – because you need more energy to help manage those higher stress levels. It can also lead to financial paralysis, which only exacerbates the problem and reinforces our old, unhelpful patterns – ensuring we get what we fear the most: not enough retirement savings. In contrast, anchoring your goal to the positive end result – your vision of a relaxing, meaningful retirement – can increase the odds of realizing that reality. Either way, you’ll feel a whole lot better on your journey there.

The point is to look carefully at the way in which you approach your retirement goals, because the methods you use will help determine your success rate. It all starts with taking an honest and sometimes difficult look at your current situation and determining what your goals are. Once you know where you are and where you’d like to be in the future, crafting a plan of action that will reinforce helpful, constructive habits is key. This brings me to one of my favorite quotes from St. Teresa of Avila, “The whole way to heaven is heaven itself.” A lifetime of berating ourselves is unlikely to lead to financial bliss in our twilight years. It will probably just lead to more stress and anxiety. Instead, it seems we’re better off focusing on “heaven” in the here and now. We can do that with a proactive, realistic plan that’s anchored on the positive feelings we’d like to experience in our retirement years. And who knows, we might even start to feel better today.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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Shouldering the Burden of Financial Responsibility

“Atlas through hard constraint upholds the wide heaven with unwearying head and arms.” –Hesiod

My Wednesday morning started with five 400-meter runs, uphill, carrying a 35# sandbag. OK, maybe “run” is a bit of an exaggeration – it was more of a trudge, and there might have been some walking in there toward the top. I hated every second of it, but I kept going because, well, that’s just what you do. When I thought about it later, it struck me as an apt metaphor for the way life feels sometimes – an endless uphill struggle with the weight of responsibility resting heavily on your shoulders. This is particularly true for anyone who is the primary provider for their family. As my colleague Carrie pointed out in her recent blog post, more and more women (including me) are finding themselves in this position, whether by choice or necessity. Most of the time I am able to face each day as it comes and maintain an upbeat outlook on life, but sometimes the enormity of this responsibility is paralyzing and my mind races with worries – what if something happens to me? Have I prepared for the worst possible outcome? What more can I do to ensure that the people who depend on me to keep going will be OK if I can’t?

Since everyone loves a list, let’s break this down into 5 areas that you definitely want to address if you are the primary provider for your family:

  1. Life Insurance – This one is pretty obvious, and I hope most people have some amount of life insurance in order to provide for their dependents should the worst come to pass. But do you have enough? Many companies provide life insurance as an employee benefit, but the standard amount will probably not be enough to replace your salary for an extended time. As a starting point, consider your current salary and how old your children are, so you can estimate how much financial support they will need and for how long. Beyond that, you may want to provide your spouse with your lost income until retirement age. Take these factors into consideration when determining the length of the term and amount of coverage you need.
  2. Long Term Disability Insurance – This one is a little less common, but no less important than life insurance. Think of it this way – if you become disabled and cannot perform the job that supports your family, how will you replace your income? What if your disability adds to the household expenses in the form of ongoing medical care? Now you’ve not only lost your earning power, but you’ve also become a liability to the family you once supported. Don’t let that happen.
  3. Estate Planning/Will – Many times younger people who are still in the asset accumulation phase tend to put off drafting a will, despite its importance. It is especially imperative if you have young children, since it allows you to determine who will become their guardian if both you and your spouse are gone. Make sure your beneficiary designations are up-to-date for any IRAs, 401(k) plans, pension plans or life insurance policies. For more complex estate planning strategies you might want a trust – your financial advisor can help you figure out what you need to do to make sure your estate plan is sufficient.
  4. Retirement Savings – If the worst doesn’t happen and you live to a ripe, old age, you need to be sure that you are saving money to provide for your golden years. As the primary earner, the bulk of this responsibility falls to you to contribute to your company’s 401(k) or another retirement plan, but it is equally important to include your spouse in your retirement projections and contribute to a plan for him or her if you can. Again, your advisor can help you figure out how much you need to be putting aside and how to navigate the ever-complicated IRS rules and requirements for retirement savings.
  5. Education Savings – Though not as imperative as the first four points, saving for your children’s education expenses will relieve them of significant financial pressure when they are in school and will help them avoid taking on massive amounts of student loan debt. You can rest easier knowing that if you predecease your spouse and children, you won’t be leaving them with an insurmountable tuition bill. As with retirement plans, there are several investment vehicles available to you for education savings. Work with your advisor to determine the best plan for you and your family.

Shouldering the burden of financial responsibility can make you feel like Atlas, but it needn’t crush you. With a little planning and preparation, you can weather the uphills, savor the downhills, put down the sandbag every once in a while and live fully in the present.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA Financial Advisor

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Social Security: The Spousal Benefit

If you are nearing the age of Social Security benefits, you are probably thinking about how you can maximize your benefit. If you are married, it becomes more complicated because one person’s benefit may affect his or her spouse’s benefit. File and suspend is an optional method that may help you maximize your spousal benefit.

File and suspend is a benefit allowed to those who qualify for Social Security who are full retirement age (FRA). FRA is a technical term determined by the year you were born. For example, if you were born between 1943 and 1954, your FRA is age 66.

Taking Social Security Based on Your Spouse’s Record

If you are married you have the option to take your Social Security benefit, or half of your spouse’s benefit, whichever is higher (there are some technicalities here that we won’t get into for the sake of brevity). If your Social Security benefit is less than what your spousal benefit would be, it would be more advantageous to apply for a spousal benefit. In order to take your spousal benefit, your spouse has to have filed for Social Security. If your spouse is not ready to take Social Security, the file and suspend strategy is the only way to accomplish this. Only one member of a couple can file and suspend so that the spouse can collect spousal benefits.

Why Your Spouse May Not Want to Take Social Security Right Away

If a person chooses not to take Social Security once he or she reaches FRA, those benefits will continue to increase by 8% per year until age 70 (for those born after 1943). This is called delaying retirement credits. Many people choose to delay retirement credits so they will have a larger Social Security payment later, or because they are still working and don’t have a need for the current cash flow.

Your Spouse Must File and Suspend in Order for You to Take a Spousal Benefit

The file and suspend benefit allows your spouse to delay his or her retirement credits, so that his/her Social Security benefit can continue to grow, but at the same time allows you to collect a spousal benefit on your spouse’s record. You cannot take a spousal benefit until your spouse has filed for Social Security (or filed and suspended).

Alternative Options

There are several ways to maximize your spousal benefit. If your spouse is not FRA but you would like to begin receiving benefits, you can take Social Security on your own record. Later when your spouse files for Social Security at his/her FRA, you can switch to take a spousal benefit if it is higher.

Another option is to delay your own credits while you take a spousal benefit. If you have reached FRA, you may take a spousal benefit while you allow your own retirement credits to be delayed so that they continue to grow. At age 70 you may then switch to take benefits based on your own record if they are higher.

A note regarding Medicare: Medicare is not subject to these various timing schemes. Medicare benefits begin at age 65, regardless of your FRA. You should apply three months before reaching age 65.

Consult a Professional

We recommend that you discuss your personal situation with your financial advisor to determine the best option for you. Also, the Social Security Administration is available to help you determine how you may maximize your family’s benefit. There are many details to consider when planning for Social Security benefits and they are certainly not all presented here – so be sure to consult a professional when making decisions.

Harli L. Palme, CFA, CFP®

Partner

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2014 IRA Contribution Rules

The deadline to make IRA contributions for tax year 2014 is April, 15 2015.  The maximum contribution is $5,500 of earned income or $6,500 for those 50 and over.   These amounts will stay the same in 2015.

There are income limits which determine whether you can deduct your Traditional IRA contribution or if you qualify to make a Roth contribution.  The following table gives the phase-out range for the most common circumstances.

Do you qualify to deduct your   Traditional IRA contribution?

If   your income is less than the beginning of the phase-out range, you qualify.  If your income is over the phase-out range, you do not.  If your income falls inside the range, you partially qualify.

Modified   Adjusted Gross   Income  Phase-Out   Range
Single,   participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan: $61,000-$71,000
Married (filing jointly), participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan: $98,000-$118,000
Married (filing jointly), your spouse participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, but you do not: $183,000-$193,000

Do you qualify to contribute   to a Roth IRA?

Single: $116,000-$131,000
Married, filing jointly: $183,000-$193,000

If your filing status differs from those listed above, please contact your advisor and he or she can help you determine whether you qualify.

Harli Palme, CFA, CFP®
Partner

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A Real World Retirement Story

My father was ready for retirement. We had several discussions about picking the right time. Choosing when to retire is always a big decision. Conventional wisdom suggests the longer you wait, the better. You have more time to save and eliminate debt. Your Social Security benefit could be higher. On the other hand, how many people do you know who died before they could retire? There is something to be said for “getting out of the game” and enjoying your life.

We discussed a myriad of items. In the interest of brevity, let’s talk about two of them: finding the right insurance coverage and managing your time.

Health care is a big ticket item. No matter how well we take care of ourselves, our bodies will need more attention as we get older. Finding the right coverage is vital. Individuals over age 65 have Medicare Part A. Most people obtain supplemental insurance coverage since Part A does not pay for everything. Some plans are very expensive. Some plans provide minimal coverage at a reduced cost. Penalties can be incurred if one does not sign up for Medicare when required. And, if someone retires before age 65, coverage must be found to bridge the gap between the retirement date and Medicare eligibility.

I was overwhelmed. I arranged for my parents to meet with an insurance agent who specializes in Medicare plans.

Thanks to the draft, my dad spent a few years in the Army. His service gave him a permanent distaste for peeling potatoes. More importantly, it provided him with access to health care benefits. His previous employer’s insurance plan was awful, so he used the VA coverage as a supplement for years. He said the prescription drug discounts are good.

The agent found appropriate policies for both of my parents. My father’s supplemental policy needs were reduced by the VA coverage, whereas my mother needed increased coverage. It helped to have someone with Medicare knowledge guide them through the process. I highly recommend seeking help instead of trying to research it on your own.

She could not help us with the other problem: occupying my dad’s time. He is not a “lounge around the house” kind of guy. He must stay busy. He made a plan for the first year of retirement. He wanted to remodel the kitchen – build cabinets, replace the countertop himself, install new flooring, et cetera. He planned to tackle some home improvement projects at my house (yeah!). He wanted to get a dog which would give him a buddy and an excuse to get outdoors. Then, in about a year, he hoped to get a part-time job at a nearby home improvement store. He would be perfect for the job, and the store employs a lot of older workers.

He knew he could not be happy unless he was busy doing something. When considering retirement, it is very important to think about how one will occupy time previously spent working. We all have fantasies about what we would do. When faced with the reality of filling those hours, though, it can be a daunting task.

In the end, my father did retire. I saw an immediate “lightness.” He smiles and laughs easily. Plagued with ulcers and wicked reflux most of his life, his gastro issues have greatly improved. Retirement definitely agrees with him.

Someday, you may have the same conversations with your parents. My advice is to get help from people who know more than you – financial advisors, insurance experts, estate planning attorneys – whenever you encounter unfamiliar issues.

The same advice applies if you are considering retirement. There is more to the issue than whether or not you will have enough money. My parents and I spent almost a year talking about it. Just as you took time to find the right career or the right house, care should be taken with retirement planning too.

Of course, Parsec is here to guide you. Retirement matters are too complex to tackle alone.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS®
Senior Operations Associate

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Interest Rates and How They Impact You

This is the fifth post in a series of six blog entries focused on topics that might be of interest to the Millennial generation.

Today I’m going to touch on the exciting topic of interest rates. Okay, let’s be honest, most of us consider the subject boring and highly technical at best, and pure financial torture at worst. But hear me out. I’d like to explain why interest rates are in fact pretty fascinating, surprisingly straightforward, and worth learning about. The truth is that interest rates can have a massive impact on your current and future financial situation.

So what are interest rates? And how do they affect your financial well-being? If you think about it, everything in our modern society has a cost. You pay for a good meal at a nice restaurant, there’s a charge for staying at a hotel, and an education certainly isn’t free. The same holds true for money. It has a cost and that cost is interest rates. In order to get your hands on some money, say for a car loan, a mortgage, even groceries, you pay for that money in the form of an interest rate. When you have a good credit history, i.e. you consistently pay back other people’s money in a timely manner, you’re considered a good credit risk and it becomes cheaper for you to borrow money in the future. In other words, the interest rate you’ll get charged on loans will be lower than the average person. This is a good thing for your financial well-being. On the flip side, if you are even occasionally late on a credit card, car loan, or any other debt payment, you become a less desirable credit risk and the rate at which you’re charged to borrow money in the future goes up. In other words, the interest rate on the next loan you take out will be higher and you’ll pay out more money over the course of the loan, all else being equal.

You may have heard about the compounding power of interest and how it can help you significantly grow your wealth. This is a very true financial tenant when it comes to investing your money. However, this same principle also works against you when you step into the role of a borrower. As an example, consider that the median price of a home in 2013 was about $200,000. Now assume you take out a 30-year fixed mortgage to purchase a home. You’ve worked hard and have 10% in cash to put down. This leaves you with a $180,000 mortgage. Going interest rates for borrowers with good credit are around 4.25%. Even though these are still historically low rates, at 4.25% you can expect to pay approximately $138,960 in interest alone over the life of the loan! That’s in addition to the $200,000 cost of the house. Now let’s pretend that your credit is a little below average, making you a slightly higher-risk in the eyes of a bank. You’re still able to secure a loan, but the bank wants to charge you a 5.00% interest rate in order to compensate for the risk they take on by lending to you. At a 5.00% rate, you can expect to pay $167,760 in interest over the course of the loan, or almost $30,000 more than you would pay with a better credit score. That is some serious money.

On top of the impact interest rates have on our personal investments and debt payments they also affect our spending and saving behavior. Imagine that your bank was offering a savings account with a 10% interest rate. All else being equal, would you be more or less inclined to save? That’s right. Most people would choose to direct more of their personal income towards savings when interest rates are higher. If millions of people were forgoing spending in favor of savings, this would have a significant effect on the overall economy. Interest rates matter. What about high interest rates when you’re the borrower? As we saw above, even a small increase in an interest rate can lead to much larger debt payments. Generally speaking then, higher interest rates tend to depress credit growth and in the end can muddle economic activity as consumers take out fewer loans.

As you can see, interest rates can have a very direct and often significant effect on our personal financial situation, not to mention our saving and spending patterns, and the broader economy. Although we’ve only skimmed the surface, suffice it to say that interest rates are worth understanding, if for no other reason than to help you make smarter decisions with your money.

Carrie Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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