Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Should You Accept a Pension Buyout Offer?

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Corporate pension buyout offers have been in the news lately with Hartford Financial Services offering lump-sum payment options to former employees and with Boeing offering a choice of lump-sum or annuity payments to a similar group.

Other major corporations have made similar offers in recent years including General Motors, who actually offered retired employees a “pension do-over.”

The answer to the question of whether you should accept a pension buyout offer is that it depends upon your situation.  Here are a few things to consider.

Are they sweetening the deal? 

I don’t know the details of either the Hartford or the Boeing offers but I have to think they are offering these former employees some sort of incentive to forgo their normal pension and to take the buyout offer.  Perhaps the lump-sum is a bit larger and in the case of the Boeing offer the annuity payments are a bit better.  Or perhaps there normally wouldn’t be a lump-sum option available from the pension plan so this in and of itself is an incentive.

Remember the incentive for the companies offering these deals is to get rid of these future pension liabilities.  The potential cost savings and impact on their future profitability is huge. 

Can you manage the lump-sum? 

The decision to take your pension as a lump-sum vs. a stream of payments is always a tough decision.  A key question to ask yourself is whether you are equipped to manage a lump-sum payment.  Ideally you would be rolling this lump-sum into an IRA account and investing it for your retirement.  Are you comfortable managing this money?  If not are you working with a trusted financial advisor who can help you?

There has been much written about financial advisors who troll large organizations (both governmental and corporate) looking for large numbers of folks with lump-sums to rollover.  In some cases these advisors have moved this rollover money into investments that are wholly inappropriate for these investors.  As always be smart with you money and with your trust.  Be informed and ask lots of questions.

Do you have concerns about the company’s financial health? 

Do you have doubts about the future solvency of the organization offering the pension?  This pertains to both a public entity (can you say Detroit?) and to for-profit organizations like Hartford Financial and Boeing.  In the latter case pension payments are guaranteed up to certain monthly limits set by the PBGC.  If you were a high-earner and your monthly payment exceeds this limit you could see your monthly payment reduced.

While I am not familiar with the financial state of either Hartford Financial or Boeing I’m guessing their financial health is not a major issue.  However if you receive a buyout offer you might consider taking it if you have concerns that your current or former employer may run into financial difficulties down the road.

Who guarantees the annuity payments? 

If the buyout offer includes an option to receive annuity payments make sure that you understand who is guaranteeing these payments.  Typically if a company is making this type of offer they are looking to reduce their future pension liability and they will transfer your pension obligation to an insurance company.  They will be the one’s making the annuity payments and ultimately guaranteeing these payments.

This is not necessarily a bad thing but you need to understand that your current or former employer is not behind these payments nor is the PBCG.  Typically if an insurance company defaults on its obligations your recourse is via the appropriate state insurance department.  The rules as to how much of an annuity payment is covered will vary.

An additional consideration in evaluating a buy-out option that includes annuity payments of this type is the fact that most of these annuities will not include cost of living increases.  This means that the buying power of these payments will decrease over time due to inflation. 

What other retirement resources do you have? 

If you will be eligible for Social Security and/or have other pension plans it quite possibly will make sense to take a buyout offer that includes a lump-sum.  Take a look at all of your retirement accounts and those of your spouse if you are married.  This includes 401(k) plans, 403(b) accounts, IRAs, etc. This is a good time to take stock of your retirement readiness and perhaps even to do a financial plan if don’t have a current one in place.

The Bottom Line

I’m generally a fan of pension buyout offers, especially if there is a lump-sum option.  As with any financial decision it is wise to look at your entire retirement and financial situation and to have a plan in place to manage this money.  Where an annuity is also available you need to understand who will be behind the annuity and to analyze whether this is a good deal for you.  I suspect that pension buyout offers will continue to be offered by more and more organizations seeking to reduce their pension liability.  You need to be prepared to deal with an offer if you receive one.

Pension Payments – Annuity or Lump-Sum?

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I’m often asked by folks approaching retirement whether to take their pension as a lump-sum payment or as an annuity (a stream of monthly payments).  Investment News recently published this excellent piece on this topic which is worth reading.

As with much in the realm of financial planning the answer is that “it depends.”  Everybody’s situation is different.  Here are some factors to consider in deciding whether to take your pension payments as an annuity or as a lump-sum.

Factors to consider 

Among the factors to consider in determining whether to take your pension payments as an annuity or as a lump-sum are: 

  • What other retirement assets do you have?  These might include:
    • IRA accounts
    • 401(k) or 403(b) accounts
    • Taxable investments such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or others
    • Cash and CDs
  • Will you be eligible for Social Security?
  • Will the monthly pension payments be fixed or will they include cost of living increases?
  • Are you comfortable managing a lump-sum yourself and/or do you have a trusted financial advisor to help you?
  • What are your expectations for future inflation? 
  • What is your current tax situation and what are your expectations for the future?

Factors that favor taking payments as an annuity 

An annuity might be the right option for you if:

  • You have sufficient other retirement resources and are seeking to diversify your sources of income during retirement.
  • You are uncomfortable with managing a large lump sum distribution.
  • You are not eligible for Social Security.
  • Your pension payments have potential cost of living increases built-in (typical for public sector plans but not for private pensions).

Factors that favor taking payments as a lump-sum 

A lump-sum distribution might be the right option for you if:

  • You are comfortable managing your own investments and/or work with a financial advisor with whom you are comfortable.
  • You have doubts about the future solvency of the organization offering the pension.  This pertains to both a public entity (can you say Detroit?) and to a for-profit company.  In the latter case pension payments are guaranteed up to certain monthly limits set by the PBGC.  If you were a high-earner and your monthly payment exceeds this limit you could see your monthly payment reduced.
  • You are eligible for Social Security payments. 

The factors listed above favoring either the annuity or lump-sum options are not meant to be complete lists, but rather are intended to stimulate your thinking if you are fortunate enough to have a pension plan and the plan offers both payment options.  A full listing for each option would be much longer and might vary based upon your unique situation.

Moreover the decision as to how to take your pension payments should be made in the overall context of your retirement and financial planning efforts.  How does each payment method fit?

Lastly those evaluating these options should be aware of predatory financial advisors seeking to convince retirees from major corporations and other large organizations to roll their retirement plan distributions over to IRA accounts with their firm.  While this issue has seen a lot of recent press in terms of 401(k) plans it is also an issue for those eligible for a lump-sum pension distribution. If you are working with a trusted financial advisor an IRA rollover can be a viable option, but in some cases rollovers have been directed to questionable investment options putting many retirement investors at risk.

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4 Signs of a Lousy 401(k) Plan

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retirement

Much has been written about the sorry state of retirement readiness in the United States.  In fact the most frequently asked question that I get is Can I Retire? 

For better or worse, the primary responsibility for accumulating sufficient assets for retirement has been placed upon our shoulders in the form of defined contribution retirement plans such as the 401(k), 403(b), etc.  The defined benefit pension plans of our parent’s generation are rapidly fading away.

It is important that you make the most of any workplace retirement plan available to you.  New required disclosures about the costs of the plan and the underlying investments were introduced in 2012 and are a good start.  However, 401(k) plans are still a mystery to many of the workers who participate in them and sadly to many of the employers sponsoring these plans.  Here are 4 signs that your 401(k) plan might be lousy.

Proprietary Funds 

By this I mean your 401(k) plan provider or a brokerage firm affiliated with the plan offering their own mutual funds.  The most extreme recent example of this is Ameriprise Financial who is being sued by a group of current and former employees for allegedly stuffing the plan offered to company employees with poor performing, high cost funds offered by Ameriprise.  To boot they are also accused of taking revenue sharing payments from these funds.

While most examples are not this egregious, it should be a red flag if your plan is stuffed with funds or annuity sub-accounts from the likes of John Hancock or Principal and they also happen to be the provider of your retirement plan.  There are often many incentives to be had by servicing brokers and other service providers to offer this type of line-up.  While they are making money off of this type of plan, such an arrangement might be costing you big-time.

Single Fund Family Line-ups 

For years the broker/registered rep community would offer a line-up filled with funds from the American Funds.  These were often the best funds that they could sell and they rightly had a good name.

Just as bad is a line-up dominated by Vanguard or T. Rowe Price funds, or any other single fund family for that matter.  Even though I highly respect both companies, no single fund family offers the best option in every asset class.

Expensive share classes 

In many cases mutual fund companies offer a variety of share classes for use by various financial advisor channels ranging from fee-only RIAs to brokers and reps seeking compensation from selling the funds.  In many cases the fund families offer several retirement plan share classes as well, again with some offering compensation to the advisor directly or to the retirement plan.

Check out the funds offered in your plan via Morningstar or elsewhere to see if there are less expensive share classes of your fund that are available.  This even extends to low cost index fund providers like Vanguard who offer share classes which carry a lower expense ratio that the basic Investor share class.

A group annuity plan

This was the traditional fare for plans offered by insurance company providers.  They are still around but if your employer’s plan is still in this format it is likely small in size or it has been in a group annuity for awhile.

A group annuity plan generally offers either mutual funds or annuity sub-accounts that are “wrapped” into a group annuity.  These are complicated and generally expensive insurance contracts that often don’t bestow any particular benefit on the plan participants.  In fact some plans carry surrender charges that make it difficult for employers to change providers.

What do I do if my 401(k) plan is lousy? 

  • If there is a company match it often makes sense to contribute enough to receive the full match.  This is free money you shouldn’t leave it on the table.
  • Do your homework and say something to those in charge of administering the company’s plan.  This may or may not result in things changing, but many employers are more sensitive to this type of input in light of the current trends toward more disclosure and transparency.
  • If your plan offers a self-directed brokerage window check this option out.  Understand the costs and any limitations involved.  Also make sure that you are comfortable choosing your own investments or that you have an advisor to assist you.
  • Focus on retirement savings vehicles available outside of your plan including an IRA, maxing out a spouse’s retirement plan (if it’s better than yours), investing in a taxable account, or a low-cost annuity (ideally one with no surrender fees).
  • Make sure not to leave your money in this plan when you leave the company, roll it over to an IRA or to a new employer’s plan.

We are increasingly responsible for our own retirement savings.  It is important that you understand how to best utilize the retirement plan offered by your employer.  A good plan can be an invaluable tool in reaching your retirement savings goals.  A lousy, expensive plan can cost you $1,000s in lost retirement savings and might be the difference between retiring in style or settling for less in your Golden Years.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a free 30 minute retirement planning consultation and to discuss all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.   

Retirement plan sponsors, do you need an independent review of your company’s plan?  Do you need help selecting a new plan provider?  Are you looking for ongoing financial advice to help you meet your fiduciary obligations and to provide a superior retirement savings vehicle for your employees?  Please feel free to contact me to learn about our investment consulting services for retirement plan sponsors.

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Do I Need Life Insurance in Retirement?

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My fellow Baby Boomers and I have been told that life insurance is generally not needed once we retire. The thought was that we would have accumulated sufficient assets and our dependents are grown and self-sufficient.  This is great in theory, but may not hold true in practice.  Here are a few thoughts as to why you might need life insurance as you approach retirement.

Universal Life Insurance Company

An estate-planning tool

Life insurance can be used to help your heirs pay any estate taxes that might be due. At the federal level, the exemption is scheduled to fall to $1 million in 2013 and the estate tax rate is scheduled to increase. In addition there may also be estate taxes at the state level to consider. Life insurance can be used by your heirs to pay the estate taxes and allow the rest of your assets to pass to them as you intended.  There are many considerations in using life insurance as an estate planning tool, including how the policy is owned.

A bridge to “final” retirement

Retirement continues to evolve for Baby Boomers and will be different than the retirement our parents experienced. By this I mean that many of us will continue to work into what were traditionally retirement years, either because we want to stay active and connected or out of financial need (or sometimes both). Perhaps working a few more years will allow you to amass the nest egg that you need to be able to retire “cold turkey.” If you die prior to being able to accumulate enough assets, life insurance can fill the financial gap for your surviving spouse.

Assistance for a child with special needs

If you have a child or grandchild with special needs, life insurance can be a means to provide funds for his or her care after you are gone.

A means to fund charitable intentions  

You can leave a charitable bequest by making the organization the beneficiary of your life insurance policy.

A tool to help pass on a business

Life insurance can be used to fund a buy/sell or similar business succession arrangement. The life insurance proceeds can be used to buy out your heirs and to allow the business to go to the remaining owners.

If you die this business ownership interest will be a part of your estate and could be subject to estate taxes. Life insurance can be used to pay those taxes and allow the business to remain in the family if so desired.

As a supplemental retirement plan

Cash value life insurance is often touted by life insurance agents and commissioned financial representatives as a supplemental retirement savings vehicle.  They tout the ability to borrow against the policy’s cash value in retirement without having to pay the money back.  Besides potentially reducing the policy’s death benefit, you have to manage the amount borrowed.  Additionally you need to ensure that that all premiums are paid as required to ensure that you don’t trigger an unintended taxable event.

Further you really need to understand the underlying growth assumptions in the policy illustrations you will be shown.  Often the rate of growth of the underlying investments is unrealistic and this can lead to a need to fund the policy to a greater extent than you had planned while working in order to build the level of supplemental retirement assets you had intended.  While this can be a viable strategy, make sure that you understand all of the underlying assumptions before heading down this path.

Whether or not to own life insurance during retirement will be dependent upon having a risk to insure against. It can be easy to be sucked in by life insurance agents portraying it as an investment or a tax shelter. While everyone’s situation is different, in my opinion, life insurance should be viewed as a death benefit. This should drive your decision, whether this involves keeping a policy in force or purchasing a new policy.

Questions about your need for life insurance or about retirement planning in general?  Please feel free to contact me with to discuss your unique situation.

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401(k) Options When Leaving Your Job

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Retirement Funds over Time

Perhaps you are retiring or perhaps you are moving on to another opportunity.  Whatever the reason, there are many things to do when leaving a job.  Don’t neglect your 401(k) plan during this process.

With a defined contribution plan such as a 401(k) you typically have several options to consider upon separation.  Here is a discussion of several and the pros and cons of each.  Note this is a different issue from the decision that you may be faced with if you have a defined benefit pension plan.

Leaving your money in the old plan 

I’m generally not a fan of this approach.  Over the years I’ve worked with several clients who have had several 401(k) accounts that have been left with old employers.  All too often these accounts are neglected and add to what I call “financial clutter,” a collection of investments that have no rhyme or reason to them.

In some larger plans, participants might have access to a solid menu of low cost institutional funds.  In addition many of these plans tend to be among the cheapest in terms of administrative costs.  If this is the case with your old employer’s plan, it might make sense to leave your account there.  However, it is vital that you manage your account in terms of staying on top of changes in the investment options offered and that you reallocate and rebalance your account when applicable.

Unfortunately far too many lousy 401(k) plans are filled with high cost, underperforming investment choices and leaving your retirement dollars there may not be your best option.

Rolling your account over to an IRA 

As a financial advisor I generally suggest this route to clients who are leaving their employer and for those with a collection of old 401(k) accounts still with the plans of their former employers.  This not only allows for the consolidation of accounts which makes monitoring your portfolio easier, but as an advisor I often have access to a wider range of low cost investment options than might be available to them via their old employer’s plan.

Even for do it yourselfer investors, rolling over to an IRA is often a good idea for similar reasons.  You will want to take stock of your overall portfolio goals in light of your financial plan and determine if the firm you are using or considering to house your investments offers appropriate choices for your needs.

Rolling your account into your new employer’s plan 

If allowed by your new employer’s plan, this can be a viable option for you if you are moving to a new job.  You will want to ensure that you consult with the administrator of your new employer’s plan and follow all of their rules for moving these dollars over.

This might be a good option for you if your 401(k) balance is small and/or you don’t have significant outside investments.  It might also be a good option if your new employer has an outstanding plan on the order of what was mentioned above.

Before going this route you will want to check out your new employer’s plan.  Is the investment menu filled with solid, low cost investment options?  You want to avoid moving these dollars from a solid plan at your old employer to a sub-par plan at your new company.  Likewise you don’t want to move dollars from one lousy plan to another.

Other considerations

A fourth option is to take a distribution of some or all of the dollars in your old plan.  Given the potential tax consequences I generally don’t recommend this route.  A few additional considerations are listed below (I mention these here to build your awareness but I am not covering them in detail here.  If any of these or other situations apply to you I suggest that you consult with your financial or tax advisor for guidance.):

  • The money coming out of the plan is always taxable, except for any portion in a Roth 401(k) assuming that you have satisfied all requirements to avoid taxes on the Roth portion.
  • You will likely be subject to a penalty if you withdraw funds prior to age 59 ½ with some exceptions such as death and disability.  There is also a pretty complex method for those under age 59 ½ to withdraw funds and avoid the penalty called 72(t).
  • If your old plan offers a match there is likely a vesting schedule for their matching contributions.  Your salary deferrals are always 100% vested (meaning you have full rights to them).  Matching contributions typically become vested on a schedule such as 20% per year over five years.  You will want to know where you stand with regard to vesting anyway, but if you are close to earning another year of vesting you might consider this in the timing of your departure if this is an option and it makes sense in the context of your overall situation.
  • If your company makes annual profit sharing contributions, they might only be payable to employees who are employed as of a certain date.  As with the previous bullet point, it might behoove you to plan your departure date around this if the amount looks to be significant and it works in the context of your overall situation.
  • Another factor that might favor rolling your old 401(k) to your new employer’s plan would be your desire to convert Traditional IRA dollars to a Roth IRA now or in the future.  There could be a tax advantage to be had by doing this, however please consult with your financial advisor here for guidance tailored to your unique situation.
  • If you are 70 ½ or older and still working, you are not required to take annual required minimum distributions from your 401(k) as long as you are not a 5% or greater owner of the company.  This might also be a reason to consider rolling your old 401(k) to your new employer’s plan, again consult with your financial advisor.

There are a number of options for an old 401(k) or similar retirement account when leaving your employer.  The right course of action will vary based upon your individual circumstances.  The wrong answer is to ignore this decision.

Please feel free to contact me at 847-506-9827 with questions about options for your 401(k) account and with your financial planning and investment questions.

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Financial Choices and Presidential Elections

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English: James Earl "Jimmy" Carter

A fellow NAPFA fee-only financial advisor with whom I am a Facebook friend posted about the fact that this is her 9th presidential election.  I am one ahead of her (she missed voting in the 1976 election by a few months), not surprising since I believe we are close in age and coincidently both have daughters who are seniors at Northwestern University.

As I look back on these 9 elections,  notable among the choices that I regret after the fact was my very first vote for Jimmy Carter.  While a model ex-President, he is perhaps the worst President that I remember, and I vividly recall Richard Nixon as President.

This is a financial blog, not a political blog.  The connection with your personal finances is this.  Over your lifetime you will make many financial choices.  Some are thrust upon you and may be the lesser of two evils.  Examples are choices made in the wake of a job loss or a serious medical situation.

Those situations aside, we have the opportunity to make any number of financial choices during our lives.  Let me suggest a few choices that you should consider:

Choose to spend less than you earn.  This is intuitive, but not always followed.  This is the foundation of any serious financial planning. 

Choose to buy to less house than you might be able to afford.  As we have seen stretching financially to purchase real estate is not always a great idea.

Choose to contribute as much as you can to your 401(k) or other company retirement plan.

If you’re self-employed, choose to start a retirement plan as soon as possible.

Choose to invest in a fashion that balances your tolerance for risk but still allows for sufficient growth to achieve your financial goals.

Choose to set realistic financial goals.  To be clear, goals need to be quantified and have a time frame associated with them.

Choose to track your progress toward meeting your financial goals on a regular basis and to make adjustments in your savings, investments, and your goals as needed.

Choose to hire a competent professional financial advisor if you need help.

Whoever you choose to vote for on Tuesday, over time you might remain convinced that you made the right choice or you might come to regret your choice.  Over your lifetime your will have a number of financial choices to make.  Be sure that your choices are informed and that they make sense both now and down the road.  While a vote that you later regret is frustrating, poor choices with your money can haunt you for the rest of your life. 

Please feel free to contact me with your financial planning questions.

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