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Seniors May Be Leaving Money on the Table as They Retire

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Between defined contribution plans, new and improved options for medical and long-term care insurance and the myriad options for Social Security collection, there are plenty of ways for pre-retirees to ensure ample, stable incomes in retirement. However, the complexities of these options, along with the decline of pensions and other defined benefits plans, are requiring far more planning and forethought from clients and their advisers.

Ultimately, misinformed decisions regarding defined contribution collection, investments and insurance are leading many retirees to spend too much and collect too little over the courses of their 20-plus year retirements. Fortunately, a little extra due diligence and help from experienced advisers can help them to preserve their living standards as they end their careers.

Defined Contributions and the Sequence of Returns

The 401(k) and IRA are the most common defined contribution plans among today’s retirees, and while most clients understand the need to contribute throughout their careers, many fail to realize that their principles may not convert to a given yearly income as reliably as they expect. “Your statement shows the value of your investments, but what it doesn’t do is translate that investment into income,” said John Bucsek, Managing Director at MetLife Solutions Group. “You need to keep clients focused on the income figure. Don’t look at a million dollars, for instance; look at that as $40,000 per year.”

One factor that can make or break a client’s long-term defined contribution income is the sequence of returns. “If you don’t re-balance risks, you can’t take the same income out, and you’ll have to reduce your withdrawal rate,” Buscek said. “Otherwise you’ll be taking a higher percentage out and face a greater likelihood of self-liquidation.” As we saw during the last financial crisis, a failure to respond to market fluctuations can leave retirees high and dry if they enter retirement on a downturn, especially considering today’s long and ever-increasing lifespans.

Conservative Portfolios

While those fluctuations may have lead some seniors to avoid high-yield investments, too great a focus on fixed income investments could actually be more risky than a diverse portfolio, particularly in our current low-interest environment. “If you sell all the stocks in your portfolio and just hold low-interest bonds, it’s kind of a recipe for disaster, especially if you end up living 30 or 35 years,” said Steve Elwell, vice president of Schroder, Braxton and Vogt, Inc.

Given the recent uptick in the stock market and its track record for inflation protection, Elwell now advises clients to dedicate at least 25% of their portfolios to stocks.  “Retirees need to change their mindsets as far as how they think about living off their nest eggs, and advisers need to think in terms of a total return approach,” he said. “Choose a mixture of US-based stocks large and small cap, international stocks large and small cap, real estate investments and a mix of commodities.”

Alternate Insurance Plans

Only about 35% of large companies are currently offering retiree health benefits, according to a CNN report, but retirees often retain the ability to stick with their group-rate plans if they pay the premiums themselves. Clients may also be able to convert their group plans to individual plans, which often feature standardized rates based on generic health markers.

As convenient as these options may seem, however, they rarely feature the best rates or highest qualities of services. “Clients often either haven’t done any thinking about it or haven’t researched the best options from a cost perspective and a servicing perspective,” said Elwell. “People go with it because it’s easy, but that’s like taking the first auto insurance quote someone gives you. You shop around for everything else, so why wouldn’t you shop around for health insurance?” With help from advisers and a little web-based researched on the Affordable Care Act-sponsored plans in their states, many clients can save a bundle by opting for entirely new health insurance.

Lifestyle Planning

Overall, basic lifestyle planning and cost projection is one of the most important steps for pre-retirees to take as they plan their investment and collection strategies – but it’s also one of the most neglected. “Clients just don’t know. They don’t deal with this stuff every single day, and it’s critical that the adviser takes ownership of the relationship to help them understand their options,” said Bucsek. Whether they don’t want to confront the possibilities of illness and invalidity, they don’t understand the growing need for long-term care or they simply haven’t calculated their likely living expenses, most clients need guidance to figure out just how much money they’ll need once they stop working.