The absolute end-of-year retirement advisor checklistNews added by Benefits Pro on December 16, 2013

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Joined: September 07, 2011

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By Dan Berman

There are so many to-do lists as the year comes to a close that it might be easy to overlook the steps you need to take to make sure your client’s retirement plans are on track. Making mistakes could cost them thousands of dollars and you, their future business.

From deciding when it’s best for them to start drawing Social Security benefits to making sure all their retirement accounts are tagged with the right beneficiaries to checking they’re communicating with their spouses about the future, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with work demands.

In the short-term and the long-term, there are several tasks to take care of, according to David Littell, retirement director of the American College of Financial Services, which educates financial professionals, and David Shucavage, president of Carolina Estate Planners, a Wilmington. N.C., firm that specializes in retirement planning.

“Everyone’s situation is so completely different,” Littell said.

First, the short-term tasks to help get client retirement plans in order.

1. Make sure beneficiaries are current

It’s easy to overlook this, according to both Littell and Shucavage, but it’s important to makes sure all client beneficiaries named on retirement accounts and insurance policies are up to date.

“Almost all wealth passes through the contract with a 401(k) account,” Littell said.

Amplifying that, Shucavage emphasized that a will does not override beneficiary designations on retirement accounts. No one, he said, wants an ex-spouse to walk away with a nest egg that was meant for a new family.

2. Suggest they update their will

As with beneficiaries on retirement accounts, it’s easy to execute a will and then forget all about it.

“The end of the year is a good time to bite the bullet and look at a will,” Shucavage said. “An inheritor’s trust and a living trust are worth considering.”

An inheritor’s trust protects beneficiaries from estate taxes. A living trust can make it easier for descendants because, unlike distributions set forth in a will, assets will be kept out of probate court. Make certain you remind your clients of this.

3. Emphasize communication

Even if they’re constantly fighting with their spouses, tell them to put aside the rancor and talk frankly about their common financial future. “It’s important to communicate with your spouse about what you both think retirement will look like,” Littell said, and “talking with the rest of the family can avoid trouble.”

Encourage your client to speak with their grown children so that they’re aware of finances and retirement plans. It can save misunderstandings later, he said.
4. Get them to consolidate

With the average worker staying in a job less than five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s easy for clients to wind up with small retirement savings accounts scattered here and there. The end of the year, Shucavage said, is a great time to consolidate them, or if you are retired, cash them in. You also can suggest combining them to make it easier to keep track of retirement savings while reducing the amount of paper statements that need to be checked and stored.

5. Push a Roth conversion, if appropriate

Every year, Littell said, the possibility of converting money in a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA should be looked at. The prevailing tax rates and whether they are likely to rise is a key factor in deciding whether to take this step.

One reason to do it, Shucavage explained, is that it has the potential to keep a retiree client in a lower tax bracket. That’s because the funds placed in a Roth have already been taxed. In addition, lowering the amount in a traditional IRA decreases the minimum distribution that must be taken starting at age 70 ½, thereby reducing taxable income.

6. Don’t let them get penalized

“It’s important to check on whether [they] have to take money out of your 401(k) accounts,” Littell said.

That’s because, he explained, at age 70 ½, anyone with IRAs and other retirement accounts, must withdraw a certain portion each year or be penalized 50 percent. That means if $10,000 needs to be withdrawn and isn’t by the deadline $5,000 will be forfeited.

In the longer term, Littell and Shucavage sounded similar themes:

7. Social Security, let them know it’s complicated

“When and how [clients] take benefits can mean a difference of $100,000 to $300,000 in lifetime benefits,” said Shucavage.

It can be especially confusing for couples. Some might find a financial advantage to the higher wage earner delaying Social Security until age 70 ½ while taking benefits from the other spouse until that time. Figuring all that out is where the computer comes in handy.

8. Think long-term for them

The expense and confusion about planning for long-term care leave many unprepared when illness or disability strikes.

“People throw up their hands and say, ‘what can I do,’ ” Littell said.

What you need to do, is to get clients to start thinking about long-term care insurance in their 50s. The longer they wait the more expensive it gets.

And if illness or disability strike before a plan is put in place, it might be impossible for them to buy coverage.

On alternative is to encourage them to buy a hybrid policy that allows the insured to recover their money years down the road if no claim is made.

The bottom line, Littel said, is that “70 percent of people over 65 [will] need some kind of assistance.”

9. Suggest they turn a gift into savings

Perhaps it’s never too early to start planning for retirement. Shucavage offered advice on getting teenagers started.

“Buy a Roth IRA for teen grandchildren who work,” he said.

A gift of up to $5,000 could be used to start a Roth as long as the amount does not exceed the teen’s earning for the year.

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