Post-DOMA Financial Planning

July 23, 2013

In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (also known as DOMA) violates the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. This monumental decision carried with it significant implications for same-sex couples, particularly when it comes to financial planning issues like tax strategies, education planning and retirement accounts.

Generally speaking, planning for same-sex married couples will be very similar to opposite-sex married couples, as same-sex married couples will file either Married Filing Jointly (MFJ) or Separately. For most, but not for all, this should be a benefit from having to file single or head of household due to differences in marginal tax brackets (and corresponding rates) as well the standard deduction, personal exemptions, and Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) phase-out levels. Incomes (and deductions) will be combined, and since each situation is a little different, some taxpayers may be eligible for more benefits, others less.

Read on for a brief overview of how certain areas of financial planning are impacted by this ruling:

Marriage Penalty

  • There are marriage “penalties” for certain items, such as the Net Investment Income surtax that begins in 2013, hitting MFJ taxpayers at $250K in MAGI, versus $200K for single/head of household filers ($250K is a far ways off from the $400K that would be double the single level).
  • Other items subject to a marriage penalty: itemized deduction and personal exemption phase-out levels, ordinary income and long term capital gains rates, child tax credits, IRA deductibility, and Roth IRA contributions.

Education Planning

  • One might find that a single person whose income might have been too high to qualify before for tax credits, such as the American Opportunity/Lifetime Learning Credits, now might be able to via filing jointly.
  • Spouses can now withdraw funds without penalty from their IRA for education expenses for the other spouse. This was not previously available to same-sex couples.

Retirement Accounts

  • Same-sex spouses can now rollover a deceased spouse’s IRAs via spousal rollover, versus treating as a non-spouse beneficiary with an inherited IRA.
  • Same-sex couples can use both spouses’ earned income for purposes of retirement account contributions, in the case that one spouse had earned income and the other did not.
  • Same-sex spouses now receive spousal rights to 401(k)s, pensions, etc.

Overall, same-sex married couples will now enjoy many of the same benefits that were previously only available to opposite-sex married couples. The financial benefits of marriage could be all for naught, though, if you don’t have an effective financial plan in place. If you have questions about how your marital status may affect your plan, meeting with a financial advisor can help clarify what strategies may work best for your specific situation.

The Wealth Effect

March 22, 2013

This is one of those cool academic ideas that resonate with non-academics. If you’re an armchair economist you’ll nod and say, “oh yeah” when you read about it. I’m talking about the wealth effect. The wealth effect is the change in consumers’ attitude and spending behavior caused by the perception of increased wealth.

When a 10% tax hike to pay for the Vietnam War failed to slow consumer spending in 1968, economists attributed the behavior to the wealth effect. Disposable income actually fell, but paper wealth was rising sharply with the stock market, and consumers continued to spend.

We’re living through a good example right now. Most economists expected the January 1, 2013 2% tax hike from elimination of the temporary Social Security tax cut to reduce consumer spending because of reduced disposable income. It hasn’t, and the most likely cause is the current rebound in the housing market and the rise of stock prices; this may be leading consumers to feel more secure with their personal finances and ultimately spend more.

It’s important to note that the concept is that perception of increasing wealth trumps the reality of declining income. Don’t confuse the wealth effect with Alan Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance” which was fueled by a real increase in disposable income based largely on the housing bubble.

Of course, a rising stock market that goes on long enough should eventually lead to increased business confidence, hiring, falling unemployment, and a rise in disposable income. That would be great, because then we won’t be depending on perception, but on real prosperity.


Financial Confidence

December 10, 2012

You know investor confidence. Various measures of it are announced periodically to explain movements in the equity and bond markets and, since the housing bust, even in the housing market.

You know consumer confidence. The University of Michigan and the Conference Board each measure it monthly because consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

Now financial confidence is getting attention. A large insurance company devotes a portion of its website to helping African-Americans develop financial confidence. A large financial advisor company offers a quiz to help potential clients measure their financial confidence. And books, magazines and websites are offering financial confidence advice to women.

There’s definitely something in it. A serious academic study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making recently concluded that people with greater confidence in their financial abilities are more likely to be planning for retirement and more likely to be minimizing investment fees. This was true even if their financial knowledge wasn’t high. It seems that confidence is a necessary ingredient in one’s ability to begin the difficult and complex retirement planning process.

No one is born with financial confidence but, if you’re reading this, you’re capable of growing your own.

Start by writing down your goals. Divide them into less than a year, one to five years, and longer than five years. Put a dollar amount on each. Then, match up your finances with your goals. Even if they’re not matching particularly well, you’ll have gained confidence simply by understanding your situation.

Max out your 401(k) contributions to leverage the tax advantages and the employer matching contributions. There’s no easier or more efficient way to grow your financial assets and therefore your financial confidence.

Many sources recommend managing risk with disability, life and long-term care insurance as a way to gain confidence.

While these may be fine starting points, we think your next step should be learning by working with a professional. Find a fee-based financial planner that you like, and make those product-purchasing decisions jointly with your planner. The surest marker of financial confidence is the willingness to seek a partnership with a professional who knows more than you do. After all, financial confidence isn’t an end in itself. It’s a means to begin planning for a successful retirement, and the best way to do that is with a financial advisor.

Dream a Little Dream: Know where you want to go

July 10, 2012

People often think defining an investment strategy is the first step in creating a solid financial plan. Slow down. Before you even begin to gather all the information you’ll need to form an investment strategy, sit down on the porch or patio or in front of the fireplace (with your spouse or partner if you have one) and let your mind roam.

What do you really want from life? If you could do anything you want, what would you do? Don’t put financial restrictions on yourself now. Dream. Stretch a little. Once you have that dream defined and you know roughly where you want to go, you can begin to determine what role a financial plan can have in helping you live that dream. 

A good investment strategy begins by identifying your specific individual goals and the time you have to achieve them. Those highly personal decisions, very often driven by your love of others, will suggest your strategy. Your strategy may include shorter- and longer-term objectives.

Are you investing to buy a house, pay for college or to retire with sufficient income to support the lifestyle you desire? How much money will you want for each objective? When will you need it? How can you get there? Will you have to make trade-offs to achieve those goals? Which take the highest priority?

The answers to all of those questions will help you determine your individual strategy. Without that strategy it is nearly impossible to know how to invest.

Will it be a “bearish” summer?

June 15, 2012

Lately, the weaker-than-expected economic data globally and the deepening of the European sovereign debt crisis have prompted market observers to sound the warning bells for a bear market. Some are comparing the current downdraft to what happened in 2010 and 2011, implying much further downside. Others—including international policy makers—have compared the current environment to the summer of 2008, likening the fall of Lehman Brothers to a Greek exit from the eurozone and emphasizing the unknowable “unknowns” and the spillover effects that could follow such an exit.

It seems as though a bearish sentiment has become increasingly pervasive. The American Association of Individual Investors’ sentiment survey has shown a significant increase in bearish sentiment in recent weeks. From our perspective, this level of bearishness is in sharp contrast to the year-to-date total return of 2.6% in U.S. equities! So the question is…whether such bearishness is warranted.

We are highly skeptical of the “doom-and-gloomers” or any forecaster with a strong view of how markets will perform in the near future. Markets and the events that shock markets are nearly impossible to predict on a consistent basis. A broader review of the economic data seems to indicate that while the U.S. economy might be in another “soft patch,” there is still meaningfully positive growth and that growth is likely to continue.

The media is focusing on Europe as the potential catalyst to knock the United States off its path of positive growth; we view this as unlikely. While peripheral Europe has serious solvency and liquidity issues, core Europe is growing and is not in recession, which gives Germany and France room to act to stabilize the economy. Political actions are almost as difficult to predict as the markets; however, the cost of a eurozone breakup would be much greater than the cost of a bailout to the core European countries. So if core Europe acts rationally, it’s difficult to imagine that the European Union would break up, even if it means large additional bailouts or, more likely, major structural reform.

Furthermore, Greece is relatively insignificant. A Greek exit could send a troubling message and start the game of “who’s next,” but on its own, it is a non-event. And, we believe that a Greek exit is unlikely. Returning to the Drachma doesn’t solve any of Greece’s problems; in fact, it enhances them by leading to potential hyperinflation and restrictive capital controls, making an exit even more unlikely. 

So while it might feel reminiscent of the summers of 2008, 2010 and 2011, it’s the summer of 2012. The situation today is materially different from those of previous years. The United States is growing, core Europe is creatively (if too slowly) dealing with the problems of the peripheral countries, and central banks around the world are working to coordinate and promote growth. Overall, the data indicates a heightened level of concern, but nothing that should distract us from staying focused on the long term.

Wealth Enhancement Group

Perspective: JPMorgan’s big losses

May 15, 2012

JPMorgan Chase’s surprise $2 Billion loss is exactly what’s not supposed to happen anymore, but we are not surprised. Before 2008, big Wall Street banks had a great deal going with the American people. If the banks bet big and won, their employees were paid handsomely; if they bet big and lost, well then, American taxpayers were on the hook. The Volcker Rule, part of the sweeping Dodd-Frank bank reform measures that were passed in response to the financial crisis, was supposed to change that by taking the ability to make big, short-term bets on risky assets away from banks that are considered “too big to fail” and, therefore, implicitly backed by taxpayer money. However, the Volcker Rule won’t take effect for another two years, and this recent blunder by JPMorgan will be additional ammunition for bank critics who want to impose more regulation.

These big bets, though, tend to be really profitable. The highly skilled traders that banks can attract, coupled with their knowledge of the markets and technological prowess, means that banks’ trading desks can win more often than Main Street investors. Given that greed tends to rule (and greed is not always bad), it’s no surprise to us that JPMorgan found its way back into the business of betting its own money in a big way. These bets have been very profitable and, up until the surprise announcement, had been almost a bragging point for JPMorgan’s revered CEO Jamie Dimon.

But there is no return without risk, and the risk finally caught up with them. Dimon attributes the loss to “many errors, sloppiness and bad judgment.” He makes it sound as though taking risk doesn’t always lead to some unexpected losses, and if they could have had “more control” over the risk they were taking, the losses wouldn’t have occurred. That’s just not true. The lesson here is that when big bets are taken, both big gains and big losses are possible, regardless of how good you are at managing risk.


Wealth Enhancement Group


The opinion voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. The opinions expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of LPL Financial. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult with your financial advisory prior to investing.

Don’t Forget These Five Retirement Challenges

March 13, 2012

People who are approaching retirement tend to ask themselves certain questions, sometimes repeatedly:

Am I investing enough?
Am I investing aggressively enough?
Am I making the most of my tax-saving opportunities?

You can greatly increase your peace of mind concerning your retirement nest egg by following your financial advisor’s guidelines for generating income in retirement. As you plan, there are five major risks to keep in mind.

1. Longevity. Thanks to improvements in diet and medicine, we’re all living longer. Your money will have to last longer, too. While your life expectancy at age 65 is about 20 years, life expectancy is an average. Half of us will spend more than 20 years in retirement and half won’t. It is prudent to plan for more than 20 years of retirement income.

2. Rising prices. Inflation doesn’t disappear from your life after you retire. Assuming you are no longer working but want to keep your lifestyle intact, you will have to give yourself a raise from your retirement savings. Some people plan to spend less money in retirement, but that may not be the best thinking. True, you may spend less on things like housing and transportation. But health care and long-term care—services that you are likely to use quite a bit as you get older—is expensive and costs are rising by approximately 8 percent annually.

3. Medical and long-term care costs. Statistically, people tend to spend a great deal of money on health care in their later years. Total health care spending can easily rise into the six-figure range if you do not have employer-sponsored post-retirement medical insurance. And today’s employers are increasingly unlikely to provide retiree health benefits. Long-term care costs also are high and rising. According to AARP, nursing home care costs approximately $75,000 a year, on average. To help mitigate these risks, your retirement income planning might include life insurance or long-term care insurance products.

4. Taxes. During the past 50 years, tax rates have been at current levels or lower only 10 percent of the time. The current economic and political climate is increasing the odds of tax rates reverting to pre-1980s levels. This means the tax savings that investors enjoyed during their working years could be more than offset by higher taxes in retirement.

5. Investment risk. Finally, we can plan for the impact of the stock and bond markets. It’s essential—but not easy—to find the right balance between bonds that preserve capital and investing aggressively enough to ensure that your portfolio growth keeps up with inflation. Otherwise, your assets and income might not support your standard of living as inflation erodes your purchasing power. In retirement, stocks should continue to be a significant part of your portfolio. The stock market’s rate of return and volatility may help you generate a sustainable income over a long period of time.

The only thing that’s a given about the retirement landscape is that it will keep changing. It’s critical for investors to prepare for certain (and uncertain!) risks. A thoughtful income strategy and comprehensive financial plan can help you address the five key challenges while working toward the retirement lifestyle you desire.

Wealth Enhancement Group