IRA Beneficiaries: Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita

Did you know that your IRA beneficiary supersedes your will? No matter how carefully you’ve crafted your last intentions in your will, an outdated IRA beneficiary that was never updated after your divorce can unwittingly bestow your former spouse with all of your IRA inheritance, while also disinheriting your new spouse and children. That’s why it’s important to update your beneficiaries after major life changes such as marriage, divorce, births, illness, domestic issues and deaths.

While you’re at it, make sure to check how the beneficiary form reads too.  Most will default to either a “per stirpes” designation or a “per capita” designation. Knowing the difference in these two designations is important, as is making sure you understand what the form you’re signing defaults to, so you can override it if necessary.

Both of these designations refer to what happens if one of your beneficiaries is no longer living.  A per stirpes designation means that if one of your IRA beneficiaries is deceased, the deceased person’s children will receive his or her share.  Imagine you have two children – a son and a daughter – to whom you’ve split your IRA beneficiaries 50/50.  Your daughter has two daughters and your son has two sons.  At your death, if your son has not survived you, your two grandsons would receive his share of the IRA.  Your daughter would receive 50% of the IRA and your grandsons would each receive 25%. Keep in mind that if your son had no heirs, the entire balance would go to your daughter.

A per capita designation does not look along the lineal lines. Instead, if one of your beneficiaries is deceased, the proceeds are distributed to the other beneficiaries as if the deceased beneficiary was not to inherit any, regardless of whether or not he/she had children. Imagine you have three children, and each is to receive a third of your IRA.  If one child predeceases you, the IRA would go equally to the living two children.

What if none of your primary beneficiaries survive you (and either you selected per stirpes but your beneficiaries have no children, or you selected per capita)?  That’s when the contingent beneficiaries become important.  Your IRA money will go to your contingent beneficiaries only if no primary beneficiaries survive you. If you want to ensure that one of your heirs receives a portion of the IRA, you must name him/her as a primary beneficiary.

Why can’t you just avoid this whole beneficiary form and let the will name your beneficiaries?  You can, but your estate is not considered a person under the law, and therefore beneficiaries will have limitations to how long they can stretch out distributions from the IRA.  They will not be allowed to stretch the distributions out over their lifetimes, which will result in losing valuable tax-deferred growth. Review your beneficiaries with your financial advisor to ensure the are aligned with your intentions.

Harli Palme, CFA, CFP®
Chief Operating Officer
Chief Compliance Officer

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Hidden Costs of College

Congratulations!  You have four years of tuition, room and board stashed away in your 529 Plan and Junior hasn’t even graduated from high school yet.  Now you can breathe easily, right?  Well…maybe, maybe not.

The published cost of college attendance can vary substantially from the actual cost for numerous reasons.   The primary contributor to this variance; a surprisingly small number of students graduate in four years.   In fact only 59% of students graduate within six years according to the National Center for Education Statistics.       Now before you blame Junior for taking too long to get that degree (and blowing your budget), understand that getting the classes needed to fulfill degree requirements at a large university can be a daunting, if not impossible, Hunger Games-like experience resulting in an extended stay.   Changing majors, transferring schools and required remedial classes are other common contributors to a longer than expected the graduation time line.

One cost-effective way to manage the timeline is to plan on taking required classes you couldn’t get during the regular school year at your local community college during the summer.   Budget for this (hopefully minimal) additional expense and have the classes pre-approved so your student receives credit for their work.  Also, insist that your student meet with their advisor before scheduling classes to confirm they are on the right path to meeting their degree requirements.  Now that you are on the four-year plan, it’s time to understand some of the other hidden costs of college.

While wandering the park-like grounds and admiring the architecture of the colleges on your tour list, it can be easy to forget a very important question.  Is this a comprehensive fee?  Quite often the answer is yes at a private college and hard to ascertain at a public school.   To help compare apples and oranges, take a checklist of possible extra fees or expenses on your tour so you ask the same questions everywhere.

  • Are there class-specific fees? For example, lab fees for science classes or studio fees for art or music classes.
  • Are there differential fees for specific majors?
  • Does the school charge more for additional credit hours? Some schools have a  50% tuition surcharge for credits in excess of degree requirements.
  • Is tutoring an additional expense? Is the tutoring remedial only?
  • Are there use fees for athletic facilities, the health center, and tech support?
  • Is there a fee for printing?
  • Can you rent textbooks at the campus bookstore?
  • What percentage of the student body lives on-campus vs. off-campus? If your student lives off-campus budget for rent, security deposit, utilities, furniture, and renters insurance.
  • How far is the school from your home? You may need to budget for travel expenses and summer storage fees.
  • What does it cost to have a car on-campus?
  • Do you receive college credit for study abroad programs?
  • What extracurricular activities interest your student? Greek organizations and club sports teams can cost thousands of extra dollars each year.
  • What is the process to get student tickets to football or basketball games and what do they cost?
  • What are some of the other small fees you can expect? Many schools charge an orientation fee, a matriculation fee, and a commencement/graduation fee.
  • And last but not least… expect a 3% fee for paying the other fees with your credit card.

Once you have narrowed down your list of potential colleges, find someone who has a student there and ask about the hidden extras.   You may be surprised to find that the private school, with a high four-year graduation rate, and a comprehensive fee compares more favorably than you expected to a large, public university.

Nancy Blackman
Portfolio Manager

Nancy Blackman - Parsec Financial Corporate Headshots

The Year of The Fiduciary Rule

For about a year now, the industry has witnessed much conjecture and debate about the proposed Department of Labor’s Conflict of Interest rule, also known as the “Fiduciary Rule.”  The rule attempts to broadly categorize anyone offering investment advice to retirement plans or IRAs as a fiduciary.  It is in the final stages of review with the Office of Management and Budget and is expected to pass.

The mechanics of how this works are seemingly straightforward.  An advisor recommending a rollover of retirement assets into an IRA or similar account would be considered a fiduciary.  That matters because a fiduciary cannot make a recommendation that would cause his or her income to increase.  The rule indicates a five-prong test to determine if a person is advising retirement assets.  If any of the following apply, you are now considered a fiduciary:

  1. If you advise on the purchase or sale of securities or property in a retirement account;
  2. advise taking a distribution from a plan or IRA;
  3. manage securities or property including rollovers from a plan or IRA
  4. appraise or offer a fairness opinion of the value of securities or property if connected with a specific transaction by a plan or IRA; or
  5. recommend a person who is going to provide investment advice for a fee or other compensation.

Retirement plan sponsors should take note because if you read the rules correctly, it suggests anyone (including laymen) offering advice to a plan participant or an owner of an IRA would likely be considered a fiduciary and could be held personally liable for their recommendations or advice.

Registered Investment Advisors may not see a significant change in business practice.  We are already considered fiduciaries.  However, broker/dealers (B/D) may not have it as easy.  B/Ds are generally not considered fiduciaries to retirement plans or IRA assets, they are instead held to a less stringent “suitability” standard.  In the light of the proposed rule, one of the chief issues B/Ds face is how to handle variable income and commissions.  Changing their business model to accept level income would likely be an onerous undertaking.  There is an unattractive alternative.  Under the DOL’s Best Interest Contract (BIC) exemption, the broker/dealer may be exempt from the fiduciary rules if certain requirements are met.  These include:

  • obtaining a written contract prior to the offering of any advice,
  • supplying the prospect information and costs for every investment they could own,
  • providing performance information on each investment,
  • fully disclosing compensation arrangements and
  • maintainging this information for a period of six years.

In addition to this, the aforementioned information must be maintained a public website. Consider the amount of work and man-hours it would take to become compliant with the BIC exemption.  Because of this, it is expected that smaller B/D’s will exit the industry or merge with larger providers.

One of the controversial rules surrounds the “seller’s carve out” and its impact on small business retirement plans (plans with either less than $100 million in assets or 100 participants).  Under the rule as proposed, the advisor is not considered a fiduciary to the investments of these small business plans.  I question why every plan, irrespective of size, wouldn’t be required to have a fiduciary.  After all, under this specific rule, if the DOL is trying to protect consumers, why protect some of them and not all of them?

In closing, we at Parsec have been watching this unfold for months and are eager to see the final form of the rule.  Perhaps an unintended consequence is that many customers and retirement plans may have to reconsider their advisory relationship.  Regardless of the new rule, it is important to always put the best interest of your clients first.  Parsec will be prepared for whatever the DOL comes up with.

Neal

Neal Nolan, CFP®, AIF®
Senior Financial Advisor
Director of ERISA Services

Important Changes to your Social Security Benefit

In October, President Obama and the US Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.  Included in that act was a clause that eliminated two popular Social Security claiming strategies: File-and-Suspend and Restricted Application.

File-and-Suspend:  A strategy where a person, who is at least full retirement age, files for social security benefits, but then immediately requests to suspend those benefits. This allows his/her spouse to take a spousal benefit on the filer’s record, while the filer’s benefits are delayed and continue to grow.

Restricted Application:  A strategy where a person, who is at least full retirement age, files for spousal social security benefits and delays his/her own benefit so it continues to grow. This allows the filer to receive some benefit now (the spousal benefit), and a larger benefit later.

Delaying your benefit pays off big. When you delay your benefit you earn delayed retirement credits, which equate to an annual 8% increase in benefits.

Those born before April 30, 1950 were grandfathered in to the old rules and may continue to use File and Suspend and Restricted Application strategies while delaying their credits. Please note, if you were born before April 30, 1950 and you wish to implement the File and Suspend Strategy, you must submit your application before April 29, 2016.

Those born after April 30, 1950 or on or before January 1, 1954 (age 62 in 2015) may only use the Restricted Application strategy.   If your spouse is receiving benefits and you have reached full retirement age, you may apply for a spousal benefit, while allowing your own benefit to accrue Delayed Retirement Credits.

For those born after January 1, 1954, neither strategy is available.  However, you may still choose to delay taking your benefits until age 70.  By doing so, you stand to increase your future benefits by 32%.

Please note that if you are already drawing Social Security, or if you have already set up File and Suspend, the new laws do not affect you.

Summary of Available Strategies

Age Can Participate Cannot Participate
66  by 04/30/2016 File & Suspend /Restricted Application
62 by January 1, 2016 Restricted Application File & Suspend
62 by January 2, 2016 File & Suspend /Restricted Application

There are many factors to consider when determining when to start taking Social Security.  We recommend that you meet with your financial advisor for guidance to help you with that decision.  And if you were born before April 30, 1950, please remember the April 29, 2016 deadline.

Tracy Allen, CFP®
Financial Advisor
Tracy Allen

Tracy Allen

Remain calm and carry on: why stocks and stress don’t mix

The popular press is generating a lot of recession-related articles lately and with stocks starting the New Year on a weak note, it’s no wonder investors feel a little nervous. Year-to-date, U.S. large cap stocks are down about 10% while most international markets are down even more. Commodities continue to slide and global economic growth has been revised lower. This is certainly not a confidence-inspiring picture, but here’s why keeping calm and carrying on is the best course of action.

First, I want to illustrate why stocks and stress don’t mix. Let’s say that stocks are down 10% year-to-date, the global growth outlook is muddy at best, and you’re seeing a lot of articles suggesting that the US is headed for a recession. Assuming the above facts and a meaningfully-sized investment portfolio, most humans are likely to feel anxiety, stress, and maybe some fear. Is the market going to fall further? Are we heading for a recession?

Having read enough about neuroscience to be dangerous, I know that when we’re feeling anxiety, stress, and fear, the more evolved part of our brain – our neocortex – is usually off-line and the more primitive part of our brain – our limbic system or brain stem (a.k.a. lizard brain) – is typically running the show. When our lizard brain is calling the shots we often make poor, fear-based decisions because we can’t see the big picture. Our brain shuts down and we become reactive instead of proactive. In these instances our capacity to think higher-level thoughts is greatly reduced.

Speaking of the big picture, did you know that from 1926 – 2015, stocks have delivered average annualized returns of 10%? Notice that includes the two largest US market declines, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession. Not bad. When we get triggered by stress, facts like these can get overlooked and we could make decisions we’ll come to regret. Here’s a schematic of how that might look:

graph 1

You can see how our thoughts and emotions affect our behavior which then reinforces the above pattern or one like it. Unfortunately, the outcome stinks and so I’d like to propose an alternative – – one that leads to a much happier, healthier outcome.

In the alternative pattern, the same triggering event happens, only this time you’re aware of the stress and anxiety it triggers. The fact that you’re aware of the stress and anxiety is huge! It means you’re not identifying with the emotions and thus your rational-thinking, neocortex brain is still online. You now have choices. Given the old pattern, one strategy would be to call your advisor and get some reassurance that the sky isn’t falling. Another option is to simply turn off the TV or the computer and take some deep breathes. Maybe take a walk around the block or engage in an activity you enjoy. The point is to interrupt the old pattern. The more you can do this, the more your awareness grows, and in turn, the more options you have.

Following through with this example you can see that giving yourself a break from the triggering event and getting some perspective allows you to stay calm, and thus make better decisions. Just like the first illustration, when repeated, this one will also reinforce itself. And the outcome is much better.

graph 3

So now that you’re hopefully in a calm, peaceful state, we can talk about the current environment. Yes, stocks have gotten off to a shaky start but the US economy remains on stable footing. Jobs growth is strong, oil prices are low, consumer debt is in-check, and wage growth is finally starting to rise. It’s true that US manufacturing is contracting but it only accounts for about 12% of GDP. Meanwhile, US services sectors, which account for 88% of GDP, remain in expansion mode.

Stocks have been spooked by falling commodity prices, slowing growth in China, and fears of deflation. But most leading indicators remain strong and every recession since the 1970’s has been preceded by a spike in oil, not a decline. Finally, and speaking of perspective, there will always be some risk of recession simply because contractions are a natural and a healthy part of any business cycle. Without them we can spiral out-of-control into bubble-like environments. I for one intend to stay calm and carry on. Nothing else seems to help anyway.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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2015 IRA Contribution Rules

The deadline to make IRA contributions for tax year 2015 is April, 15 2016. The maximum contribution is $5,500 per individual ($6,500 if age 50 or over) or 100 percent of earned income, whichever is less.

There are income limits which determine whether you can deduct your Traditional IRA contribution or if you qualify to make a Roth contribution. The following table gives the phase-out range for the most common circumstances.

Do you qualify to deduct your Traditional IRA contribution?
If your income is less than the beginning of the phase-out range, you qualify. If your income is over the phase-out range, you do not. If your income falls inside the range, you partially qualify.

Modified Adjusted Gross Income Phase-Out Range

Tax Filing Status For 2015 Contributions For 2016 Contributions
Single, participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan: $61,000 – $71,000 $61,000 – $71,000
Married filing jointly, participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan: $98,000 – $118,000 $98,000 – $118,000
Married filing jointly, your spouse participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, but you do not: $183,000 – $193,000 $184,000 – $194,000

Do you qualify to contribute to a Roth IRA for 2015?

Modified Adjusted Gross Income Phase-Out Range – Roth

Tax Filing Status For 2015 Contributions For 2016 Contributions
Single: $116,000-$131,000 $117,000-$132,000
Married, filing jointly: $183,000-$193,000 $184,000-$194,000

If your filing status differs from those listed above, please contact your advisor and he or she can help you determine whether you qualify.

Harli Palme, CFA, CFP®
Partner

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Holiday Retail Trends & Your Budget

In the midst of this holiday season, is your budget holding together? In this blog, we’ll look at the latest holiday spending stats, the most recent trends in giving, and offer a few tips to help you maintain a financially-stress free holiday season. While money is most definitively not the reason for the season, examining current holiday spending trends gives us some insight into the health of the U.S. consumer and might even inspire reflection on our own holiday spending habits.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), total U.S. holiday spending will rise about 2% in 2015 compared to 2014. NRF estimates that the average American will spend about $1,017 in holiday-related items this year versus $1,000 in 2014. No surprise that the bulk of spending, or 72% of budgets, is expected to go towards gift-giving. Family still comes first in this category as consumers plan to spend four-times as much on relatives than on friends. Spending on food comes in at a distant second, eating up 12% of the average American’s holiday budget, but arguably a very important piece of the pie. Other must-haves like decorations, cards, and flowers account for the remaining 16% of most Amercians’ holiday spending.

While holiday spending isn’t surging by any means, it’s up significantly from the depths of the Great Recession when the average American spent only $682 in November and December. For the last several years wage growth has been relatively lackluster while consumer debt has inched lower and savings rates have grown. This suggests consumers learned a valuable, if not painful lesson during the financial crisis: moderation. Lower debt levels and more savings are both net positives for economic growth and asset appreciation. These trends, coupled with signs that wage growth is finally starting to improve, suggests healthier consumers in the years ahead. Given that household consumption accounts for 70% of U.S. gross domestic product or GDP, we may be in for more holiday cheer for years ahead.

Now that we’ve covered some stats, let’s talk about gifts! What do family members want from Santa this year? A poll by the National Retail Federation found that our female relatives rank gift cards as their top gift item, followed by clothing/accessories, books, CDs, and DVDs. While men also named gift cards as number one choice, more of them wanted consumer electronics or computer-related products than women. Looking to give something a little more personal than a gift card? Check out Amazon’s most gifted list (www.amazon.com/gp/most-gifted) for a bevy of ideas by category. Some of the world’s largest online retailer’s best-selling gifts this year include the LEGO Minecraft Playset, the “Inside Out” movie DVD, Amazon’s tablet “fire”, and Adele’s latest CD, among others.

Have a twenty-something in the family mix? A survey from Eventbrite suggests that Millennials prefer experiences over things. In which case you might consider a gift card to the spa or tickets to a play or ball game for the young professionals in your clan.

All this gift-giving talk, while fun to think about, can really strain a budget if not carefully considered. While we’re more than half-way through the holiday season, it’s not too late to reassess your spending plan and even start strategizing for next year. If you’re feeling some financially-related holiday strain, now is the perfect time to stop and take inventory. What was your original holiday budget? Did you have one? And how much have you spent on holiday-related items so far?

In order to relieve money stress, the best and only place to start is by honestly looking at your current situation. The key is not to use your predicament as an opportunity to criticize yourself, but as a starting point for improvement in the years ahead. By intentionally setting a limit on the amount you’ll spend on decorations, gifts, food, etc… you’re less likely to overspend and more likely to avoid feeling financially overwhelmed during the most wonderful time of the year. If you’re already over-budget and swimming in financial strain, don’t sweat it! What’s done is done. The best thing you can do is use this as a learning experience for next year and beyond.

With that in mind, I find that planning ahead is often the best way to navigate any budget. Once you’ve determined a comfortable amount that won’t strain your finances – and you can do this as early as January – you’ll have an entire year to purchase thoughtful gifts for family and friends, on your terms. You can take advantage of sales throughout the year or simply be open to discovering the perfect gift for that special someone. By planning ahead and giving yourself plenty of time to find just the right gift, you’ll have more time to enjoy being with family when the holidays finally arrive. Instead of rushing around the mall at the last minute or spending a fortune on over-night shipping, you can relish the charm of the season and enjoy time spent with loved ones.

Good luck! Wishing you a happy and financially healthy holiday season!

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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