Okay then, what is a financial plan?

You may hear some argue that robo-planners will not replace individual, human planners. I call them the “There’s no app for that” group.

We do believe that “There is an app for that.”
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Well, that is not what I had in mind.

But exactly what is “a financial plan”? Finding a good, workable definition is a challenge.

Wikipedia says:

Textbooks used in colleges offering financial planning-related courses also generally do not define the term “financial plan.” For example, Sid Mittra, Anandi P. Sahu, and Robert A Crane, authors of Practicing Financial Planning for Professionals[8] do not define what a financial plan is, but merely defer to the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards’ definition of ‘financial planning’.

Can’t we define “financial plan”?

Yes. Investopedia offers this broad definition:

While there is no specific template for a financial plan, most licensed professionals will include knowledge and considerations of the client’s future life goals, future wealth transfer plans and future expense levels. Extrapolated asset values will determine whether the client has sufficient funds to meet future needs.

And Wikipedia gives more detail:

In general usage, a financial plan is a comprehensive evaluation of an individual’s current pay and future financial state by using current known variables to predict future income, asset values and withdrawal plans. This often includes a budget which organizes an individual’s finances and sometimes includes a series of steps or specific goals for spending and saving in the future.

So you need to project where your assets can take you to be sure you meet your future in good shape. Makes sense

And what is my definition?

A to do list or “action plan” that tells you what you need to change now so you optimize the use of all your resources to achieve your major, long term goals in the future.         

So what does a financial plan look like?

If you paid to have a financial plan prepared, and have a complicated situation, you may get a glossy, bound book filled with projections, charts and graphs, plus text. While much of it may be boilerplate, it will tell you where you are going from now until you die, how your money will follow if you invest according to the plan, and what you need to change on taxes, insurance, and your estate plan.

At the other extreme, you can glean the essential steps and write them all on a PostIt note, which you then place in a spot you see often enough to remind you what to do:

  • Maximize my 401(k) contributions,
  • Set up and contribute to a Roth IRA,
  • Review my investment allocation, use ETFs,
  • Steer clear of any major credit card debt,
  • Review my beneficiary designations,
  • Sign an medical directive, and
  • Save enough for a fun (not too expensive) vacation next summer!

In the end, it doesn’t matter how many pages or what the plan looks like; what matters is that you learn from reviewing your finances and change how you manage your resources so that improve your finances.

So, yes, a simple to do list could be enough, if you follow it!

Estate planning overview update – key issues to consider for your wills & more

Whether you’re updating an existing plan or starting from scratch, this overview presents the key issues to consider when designing and executing the best estate plan. The work does not stop at signing your estate plan documents; you must also complete the follow up work of beneficiary designations, memorandum to fiduciaries, etc. The goal is to avoid the pitfall of having no plan and the disaster when wills and trusts are in place but the asset ownership and beneficiary designations frustrate the plan by having assets pass to the spouse and not the trust.

If you do nothing else after reading this, write and deliver a “Memorandum to Survivors” and review asset ownership, all as described at the end of this post. A comprehensive estate plan can accomplish many goals, such as providing for survivors, ensuring your children are cared for, determining the flow of your assets upon your death, and reducing the amount of taxes your estate will pay while administering your estate. The most important goal is that you have peace of mind knowing that your estate will be administered in accordance with your wishes.

Updating an Existing Plan
If you have a plan already in place, be sure to review it every couple of years. As you grow older, your life circumstances change and these changes may affect your wishes and plans for your estate. Events such as the emancipation of your children, divorce, lapsed relationships with fiduciaries will likely affect your estate plan. Keep these matters in mind when reviewing the remainder of this post. Your change of circumstances could change your pyramid level.

Estate Planning Pyramid
Constructing a pyramid can be helpful for understanding all that goes into an estate plan, much like nutrition and investments. Each level of the pyramid addresses a new level of complexity in your family and financial situation – that is, everyone needs level one, but not all need the later, more complex levels.

Pyramid: Level One
The first level of estate planning provides the most basic protections so it is most suitable to single individuals with no children and few assets. This level of estate plan typically includes the following forms:

  • Health Care Proxy: This document allows you to appoint people to make decisions about your health care and treatment when you are not capable of doing so. You typically select the surviving spouse and then have a first and second alternate if you wish. Some states call such documents “medical directives” or “medical powers of attorney.”
  • Living Will: This makes your wishes clear as to whether or not you want to have heroic means used to prolong your life.
  • Anatomical Gift Instrument: This allows you to have a hospital use organs and other body parts for others in need of a transplant.

Pyramid: Level Two
The second level is most appropriate for individuals in committed relationships. This level includes all the forms listed in the first level, but adds a durable power of attorney. This document grants a power of attorney to the other to manage your financial affairs if you are absent or you become incapacitated.

Pyramid: Level Three
When you have children, you want to ensure that they will be both cared for and provided for in the manner you wish. To achieve this, you need a will to appoint a guardian, for the “care,” and create a trust to manage assets, for the “providing.”

  • A will is a formal document that designates your personal representative or executor, any alternates, plus a guardian and any alternates for children under age 18, then instructs your personal representative to pay off your debts, and distribute your estate per your wishes.
  • A trust is an entity that you create and can be used for many purposes. The trustee acts as the owner of what the trust holds, while the beneficiaries get all the benefits from what the trust holds. For estate planning, trusts are used to reduce estate taxes in various ways. Trust vehicles can also describe how and when assets are distributed. For example, the grantor of a trust could insist that assets not go to children until they are age thirty-five. The trust vehicle could also provide where assets flow if all family members die without issue. For example, assets could flow to a charity or educational institution.

Providing for Survivors: You need to address how your assets and any life insurance flow after your death in order to ensure that your resources allow those who survive you to maintain the same standard of living, during their life expectancies, that you all had during your life. If your investments are not sufficient, even after making liquid certain kinds of personal property (e.g., a second home), then there is a need for life insurance.

Life Insurance: Term insurance, providing only a death benefit, funds the shortfall between assets required to maintain the lifestyle of the survivors and actual assets available. Whole life, variable or other types of insurance should only be used when permanent insurance is required, as in the case of maintaining estate liquidity throughout your lifetime.

Flow of Assets: After you determine the assets required to support the lifestyle of the survivor, you determine to whom the assets flow. For example, at Levels One and Two, you can leave everything directly to survivors, while at Levels Three to Six, you use a trust, and at Level Six you may even separate some portion of the assets by gift now.

Control Over Assets: In Levels One and Two, the survivors have complete control over the assets. At higher Levels, trust vehicles are used for the estate tax savings. However, you also gain a heightened level of attention on the assets: you have engaged a trustee to focus on providing for the surviving spouse, maintaining his or her lifestyle, while still attending to the interests of other beneficiaries, such as children. In this way, the trustee will try to preserve the trust assets in the best way possible for the longest duration. Finally, the trustee must distribute the assets per your instructions; if assets went to a survivor, they are not bound in any way to follow your wishes, so you may not achieve your estate planning goals.

Fiduciaries: In designing the estate plan, many choices revolve around the fiduciary that you select for a particular role.

  • Personal Representative or Executor: This is the person who “marshals” all assets of the estate together, pays death expenses and transfers ownership of property to the surviving spouse or trust. This is approximately a nine-month task.
  • Guardian: This is the person whom you select to love and care for your children in your absence. The spouse selects the surviving spouse and then a second or third choice beyond that. This job lasts until each child has reached majority (age eighteen).
  • Trustee: This person has potentially the longest-term job because he or she must manage the trust assets and make distributions of income and sometimes principal to the surviving spouse, children and even grandchildren. Depending on the terms of the trust, this job could last until the children are young adults.
  • Beneficiary Designations and Ownership: ownership and how life insurance proceeds and retirement plan assets flow is described below.

Pyramid: Level Four
This level of planning addresses state taxes. When the potential combined estate of a husband and wife exceeds $1 million, and they have other beneficiaries for whom they want to maximize the estate after taxes, then trusts are typically used. States such as Massachusetts impose an estate tax over $1 million. Other states have similar amounts, but many are increasing, such as New York which will match the federal credit in 2019. Therefore, additional planning is required if you reside in a state with an estate tax.

Pyramid: Level Five
The fifth level contains trusts that address federal estate taxes, as well as state. Congress has retained the unified gift and estate tax credit, now at approximately $5.34 million (inflation adjusted) with a 40% estate tax rate (up from 35% last year). In addition, the unused portion of the estate tax credit of a deceased spouse is “portable”, allowing it to pass to the estate of surviving spouse.

With the trust structure, sub-trusts can be created so that both the credit and the marital deduction are used. This structure takes advantage of the credit at the first and second deaths. In contrast, wills that pass all assets outright to the surviving spouse would only take advantage of the credit at the second death. The total tax savings for an estate of $10 million or more is excess of $1.75 million for the combined estates.

  • Life Insurance Trust: You can also make an irrevocable trust the owner of any insurance on your life to exclude all proceeds at death from both estates, avoiding estate taxes. That is, the proceeds are completely estate tax free. However, this requires an irrevocable transfer to the trust; you cannot get the insurance back out. You can use this trust to receive insurance proceeds that can pay for estate taxes, thereby preserving more of your estate after taxes without increasing the taxable estate.

Pyramid: Level Six
The final level is for complex estate planning that minimizes federal and state estate taxes through multiple generations. An example of this is a generation-skipping trust. These trusts transfer assets from the grantor’s estate to his or her grandchildren. This is what allows the grantor’s estate to avoid taxes that would apply if the assets were transferred directly to his or her children. The grantor’s children can still enjoy financial benefits of the trust by accessing any income that is generated by the trust while leaving the assets in trust for grantor’s grandchildren.

  • Other entities: Separating assets by gift now would be important if you wanted to ensure some minimum funding for children, such as guaranteeing coverage for their college expenses.
  • 529 Plans: you can use 529 plans or trusts for gifting to cover college costs of a child.

After the Plan has been Executed – Ownership and Beneficiary Designations
Once the documents and insurance are in place, make sure to review and complete the following:

Qualified Plans (IRA’s, 401k plans, etc.):

  • Primary Beneficiary – to the surviving spouse (so he or she can roll over the proceeds to an IRA and thereby defer income taxes); and
  • Secondary Beneficiary – to your children (or your own revocable, depending on whether you want the assets controlled or available to children).

Life Insurance and Annuities:

  • Primary Beneficiary – when not owned by an irrevocable trust, such as group term, to your own revocable trust (for estate tax benefits, e.g., using credit at first death); and
  • Secondary Beneficiary – to the surviving spouse (in case of trust has been terminated for some reason).

Other Assets
Consider changing ownership of any jointly held assets to ownership by one of you. Any assets held as joint tenants with rights of survivorship will go to the survivor by operation of law and never get to your revocable trust. (You want to be sure that you have sufficient assets going to the trust to realize the full tax reduction effect.)

You may even want to fund your trusts, moving investment accounts over to your own revocable trust. This has no impact on your income taxes. You can also choose to fund your revocable trust now. This will save a significant amount of time for the executor, and the attorney he or she hires, as this will need to be done after your death otherwise.

Memorandum to Survivors
Compile a reference book or add to your financial plan book photocopies of important papers, identifying where the originals are, then adding a list of important contacts, instructions to your executor and trustee and other important notes for family and friends. You would update this at least annually with new asset statements (consider this as you gather information for preparing your taxes). To be more specific, the list (and copies) should include:

  • Location of original will, trust, etc.;
  • Location of health care proxy and durable power of attorney;
  • List of professionals with contact information: doctor, attorney, CPA, etc.;
  • List of fiduciaries with contact information: health care proxy, guardians, executors and trustees, attorney-in-fact for durable power of attorney, etc.;
  • Location of insurance policies and valuables such as original titles, etc.;
  • Location of safe deposit box for valuables and items in #5 or 7;
  • List of all bank and investment accounts and location of any stock certificates or other documentation for investments;
  • List of all mortgages, loans and credit card accounts;
  • Any appraisals or other listing of items by value;
  • All automatic debits that need to be addressed (stopped, changed); and
  • List of all password protected accounts (e-mail, on line banking and credit cards, etc.) and where to locate the passwords… and the password to access the password.

Please see planning-for-the-inevitable-end-of-life-services for more ideas on such memoranda. Also, after you review this overview, let us know how we can help you get your estate plan in order.

Young people, don’t let this happen to you. Plan for retirement now!

Young people, a.k.a. “Millennials,” have the time horizon that should allow them to save well, and thus avoid the need to save much more in later years. Otherwise, they will end up like those now nearing retirement that Theresa Ghilarducci describes in her 2012 article on retirement:

Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. The specter of downward mobility in retirement is a looming reality for both middle- and higher-income workers. Almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day. See Our Ridiculous Approach to Retirement.

Acting now is crucial, but what do you do?

Step 1 – As a Millennial, accept that you need to start saving now and commit to acting. For encouragement, remember that:

The 35-year-old would need to boost her contribution rate to 9 percent to achieve the same result as the 25-year-old starter who was saving 6 percent. (from Retirment Saving for Young People) See You can Ignore Most Financial Planning Rules.

Step 2 – Identify how much you need to save by using a retirement calculator. There are many calculators you can use – see what we listed in The results from retirement calculations on different websites vary. Why?

Step 3 – Follow this hierarchy for how to set up accounts for your savings:

Start with your employer plan, 401(k), 403(b) or if you are self-employed, SEP-IRA. The contributions you make to a 401(k) or 403(b) are made from payroll deductions, so you never get a chance to spend this money. The deductions reduce your taxable income now, so the government is effectively helping you to save. Also, the amounts invested grow “tax sheltered,” meaning that you pay no tax on any interest, dividends and capital gains. However, when you retire and withdraw from the plan, you are taxed on that amount as regular income.

If you save more, use a Roth IRA next. Set up an auto debit from your checking to fund your Roth IRA, so contributing works like payroll deductions. The amount contributed to a Roth IRA is not deductible, but amounts withdrawn at retirement are not subject to income tax. The amounts invested grow tax sheltered.

Finally, if you still need to save more, set up a “taxable account,” meaning an account with no tax sheltering benefit. You can use auto-debit to add to this account.

Note: for the Roth IRA, you must qualify and have earned income from which to make contributions to the account. Also note that, for any of these tax sheltered plans, withdrawing funds before age 59½ may subject you to a 10% penalty in addition to income taxes, so do not fund any plan when you expect to need withdraw the money before retirement.

Step 4 – Invest. And when you invest, stick to the plan you set in place (this cannot be over-emphasized). The time to retirement is decades away so you can afford to take risks, some of which will take many years to pay off. If you panic and sell, you only lock in a loss; but if you weather the ups and downs, you will be far ahead. (see Don’t Let This Happen to You, Plan for Retirement Now)

Creating an asset allocation, where you diversify among stocks, bonds, real estate and cash. Include large cap, mid-cap and small-cap stocks, as well as international stocks. You man also include invest in real estate investment trusts (“REITs”) and hard assets. You can use exchange traded funds (“ETFs”). The low fees of ETFs leave more invested to grow, compared to high fee and load funds.

If you on-going advice, you may want to check out alternatives such as LearnVest and the new Future Advisor website.

Don’t just Speak to Your Parents, Do your own Planning

As young people, a.k.a. “Millennials,” graduate, become employed, start businesses and have families, their finances change. With increasing complexity come many options they must evaluate, as well as new responsibilities. Millennials are more educated that prior generations, but they are also saddled with greater student loan debt than any prior generation. And, despite their higher level of education, they get low marks for financial literacy according to a recent U.S. Treasury Department and Department of Education assessment.

What are they doing about their finances? Sources like Pew Research Center tell us that many Millennials seek advice from their parents. Unlike Boomers who did not want to speak to their parents, Millennials often share interests with their parents and correspondingly seek their counsel.

However, taking financial advice from their parents may not a good approach because many of their parents lack sufficient savings to fund their retirement needs. Mark Grimaldi, co-author of “The Money Compass: Where Your Money Went and How to Get It Back” says “never take advice from someone less successful than you are.” He continues: “With almost 30 years investment experience, I can say with complete confidence that many baby boomers, the parents of Gen Yers, are in a financial mess.”

What, then, should Millennials do then? Talking to their parents is not inherently bad, so long as that is not their sole source. “Of course, there’s a difference between receiving [parental] advice and relying solely on the advice given,” says Kristen Robinson, senior vice president of Fidelity Investments’ women and young investors’ products. “Gen Y should listen to what parents have to say. But at the end of the day, financial decisions are personal matters and best made after carefully considering a number of factors and doing research.” From Millennials: Stop Taking Financial Advice From Mom and Dad. She concludes that Millennials really need to do is find ethical professionals for help.

So, how do they do this? They search the internet of things, of course! But, wait, is that how to find truly ethical professionals? Yes, if you search with care.

Look for:
Credentials – check out their bio, are they CFP, JD, or CPA? these help validate the advisor;
Content – are they providing original advice that is sound, helpful?
Website design – professional, kept up-to-date?
Clients – who is using them for advice?;
References – who is willing to put their own reputation at stake for this website?;
Community – who are their partners and advisors?;
 followers, fans, subscribers and user testimonials – more validation;
Website design – professional, kept up-to-date?
Avoid:

Tacky websites that don’t pass the “smell test” – if it “smells bad,” then it probably is;
Old content and closed comments;
Too many ads and pop up ads directing you to buy life insurance, etc.; and
No links to anyone you have ever heard of.

For example, companies like LearnVest and Workable Wealth provide general advice to educate before you pay. Workable Wealth has stated in blog posts the hope that educating will lessen the stress of handling your finances.

Steve Jobs said: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish” – so how does that help your career path?

Michael Simmons recalled the impact of Steve Jobs last January in Top predictor of career success 2015.

Simmons then says: “We think we understand what caused his success. We don’t. We dismiss usable principles of success by labeling them as personality quirks. What’s often missed is the paradoxical interplay of two of his seemingly opposite qualities; maniacal focus and insatiable curiosity. These weren’t just two random strengths. They may have been his most important as they helped lead to everything else … Jobs’ curiosity fueled his passion and provided him with access to unique insights, skills, values, and world-class people who complemented his own skill set. Jobs’ focus brought those to bear in the world of personal electronics.”

In the post, he quotes Steve Jobs form 1995: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”

How does any of this relate to you and your career? Simmons reports from his 2013 interview of an expert on networks that a key indicator is being in “open networks.” He then indicates how that is beneficial:

• More accurate view of the world. It provides them with the ability to pull information from diverse clusters so errors cancel themselves out. Research by Philip Tetlock shows that people with open networks are better forecasters than people with closed networks.

• Ability to control the timing of information sharing. While they may not be the first to hear information, they can be the first to introduce information to another cluster. As a result, they can leverage the first move advantage.

• Ability to serve as a translator / connector between groups. They can create value by serving as an intermediary and connecting two people or organizations who can help each other who wouldn’t normally run into each other.

 • More breakthrough ideas. Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organizational change at the Kellogg School of Management, performed a landmark study where he delved into the tens of millions of academic studies throughout history. He compared their results by the number of citations (links from other research papers) they received and the other papers they referenced. A fascinating pattern emerged. The top performing studies had references that were 90% conventional and 10% atypical (i.e., pulling from other fields). This rule has held constant over time and across fields. People with open networks are more easily able to create atypical combinations.

Here is a quote that I find interesting (and can relate to):

This is challenging in that it can lead to feeling like an outsider as a result of being misunderstood and under-appreciated because few people understand why you think the way you do. It is also challenging, because it requires assimilating different and conflicting perspectives into one worldview.

And this really does ultimately get back to Steve Jobs, who said “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish” If you have not read, or better yet, watched this, find time to do so: The 2005 Stanford commencement address Jobs – “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

Michael Simmons is a bestselling author and the co-founder of Empact, a global entrepreneurship education organization that has held 500+ entrepreneurship events including Summits at the White House, US Chamber of Commerce, and United Nations.