Lang Investment Services Life Insurance

Common Tax Traps Involving Life Insurance

Life insurance delivers cash to beneficiaries when it’s needed most. Plus, if the policy is properly structured, the beneficiaries receive the death proceeds income tax free. By understanding potential tax traps related to life insurance, you can avoid costly mistakes. A few of the most common pitfalls are outlined here.

Three people on a policy

If you gift property to another person, the transfer triggers gift taxes based on the taxable value of the gift. When you transfer ownership of an existing policy to someone other than your spouse, the gift is immediate and generally approximates the cash value. There is an important exception, however. When the owner, the insured, and the beneficiary are three different people, the gift occurs when the insured dies, and the death benefit is treated as a taxable gift from the policy owner to the beneficiary. Under what is known as the Goodman Rule, the gift is no longer based on the policy’s cash value but, rather, on its death benefit.

The solution is to eliminate one party. To avoid potential gift taxes, the owner and the beneficiary or the owner and the insured should be the same person. If the goal is to benefit a third party, an irrevocable life insurance trust should be the owner and beneficiary of the policy.

Three people on a policy in a business situation

This scenario is similar to the previous trap except that, rather than triggering gift taxes, the death benefit is treated as taxable compensation of the employee (or as a dividend of a shareholder). For corporate-owned policies with personal beneficiaries, the business is deemed to have received the death proceeds and then paid them to the employee or shareholder’s family. Thus, the beneficiary owes income taxes on the death benefit as a distribution from the business.

One possible solution is an endorsement split-dollar arrangement. With this kind of plan, the business owns the policy but allows the employee to name a personal beneficiary. While the employee is working, the employer is taxed on the policy’s “economic benefit.” If the policy is properly structured, the death proceeds should be income tax free. Keep in mind that a notice and consent requirement must be met before an employer-owned life insurance contract is issued.

Alternatively, an executive bonus plan can eliminate the tax-on-death problem. The business pays the premiums for a life insurance policy personally owned by the employee. While the employee is working, the payments are treated as additional taxable compensation.

Exchange of a policy encumbered with a loan

Under Section 1035 of the Internal Revenue Code, you can exchange one life insurance contract for another without triggering income taxes. But when an existing loan is extinguished in the exchange, it may cause unwanted tax consequences. Generally, if the loan will be cancelled (discharged) in the course of the exchange, then the amount of the loan is treated as ordinary income up to the amount of the policy’s gain. The first-in, first-out rule does not apply when a withdrawal is made from the cash value to pay off a loan during or shortly before a 1035 exchange transaction.

One solution is to arrange for the new life insurance policy to take over the existing loan. Because you’re in the same economic position before and after the exchange, no gain should result. But keep in mind that the loan may affect the new policy’s performance and possibly shorten or eliminate the guaranteed death benefit.

Alternatively, you may wish to pay off the loan with out-of-pocket dollars before the exchange. One word of caution: a normally tax-free withdrawal of basis to pay off the loan shortly before an exchange is treated by the IRS as a step transaction and can trigger taxes.

Gift of a policy encumbered with a loan

Typically, the gift of life insurance creates no income tax recognition for either the donor or the recipient, although gift taxes may be involved. When a policy is subject to a loan, however, the transfer of the policy relieves the original policy owner of the debt. Because the donor is deemed to have received an economic benefit from transferring the loan obligation to the new policy owner, the transfer is treated as if the policy were sold. If the loan exceeds the policy owner’s basis, the donor will recognize taxable income.

Lapsing a policy encumbered with a loan

One key benefit of permanent insurance is the right to take out a policy loan without having to qualify financially. An insurance company makes a policy loan from its general fund using the policy cash value as collateral. Repayment of the loan principal or the annual interest is optional, and unpaid interest is added to the loan principal. If the borrower fails to repay the loan before the death of the insured, the money is simply withdrawn from the insurance death benefit before it is distributed to the policy beneficiaries.

It’s important to note that life insurance contracts may have an automatic premium loan provision that authorizes the insurance company to lend money to pay the premiums if the policyowner fails to do so. Left unmonitored, an automatic loan provision can result in a lapse of the policy and unexpected taxes.

Taking a withdrawal in the first 15 policy years

Normally, a withdrawal from a policy’s cash value is treated as coming first from cost basis and subsequently from the contract’s gain, resulting in a one-to-one reduction of the death benefit. There is an important exception, however. A withdrawal from a universal life or variable universal life policy within the first 15 policy years will be treated as coming from gain first, if there is any.

To deal with this risk, some insurance companies allow for up to a 10-percent withdrawal with no reduction in the death benefit. If you wish to take more than 10 percent of the policy’s cash value, consider structuring the transaction as a loan. Be sure to weigh the long-term cost of the loan against the potential tax associated with a withdrawal.

Incorrectly structured cross-purchase policies

If it’s not properly structured, life insurance purchased to fund buy-sell plans may have unwanted tax consequences. In a cross-purchase buy-sell arrangement, each business partner owns a policy on the other partners. At the death of a partner, the survivors use the insurance proceeds to buy out the estate of the deceased. Thus, each business partner is both the owner and beneficiary of the policy he or she has taken out on the other. Any other arrangement can fall into the transfer-for-value trap.

If a policy is transferred for money or something of value, the death benefit is no longer fully income tax free. For example, the mutual obligation to purchase a co-owner’s business interest at his death would be considered something of value. The transfer-for-value rule also applies when one partner buys a personal policy on his or her own life and makes his or her partner the policy beneficiary.

Exceptions to the rule include:

  • A transfer of the policy to the insured
  • A transfer of the policy to a partner of the insured or to a member of a limited liability company taxed as a partnership
  • A transfer of the policy to a partnership in which the insured is a full partner
  • A transfer of the policy to a corporation in which the insured is a stockholder, an officer, or both
  • A bona fide gift, such as a transfer of the policy to a spouse or trust of the insured

The simplest solution is to purchase new policies to fund the buy-sell arrangement. If that’s not possible, the business owners should try to qualify under one of the exceptions above. If the business owners are not already partners in some business entity, they may consider creating or investing in a partnership.

Using life insurance instead of a trust
To avoid the cost and complexity of a trust, some parents elect to have their adult children jointly own their life insurance policies. In such cases, the parent’s payment of the premiums directly to the insurance company will not qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion. Although the parent is making an indirect gift to his or her children, the gift tax exclusion is only available if each policy owner has an unrestricted right to access the policy’s cash value. With joint ownership with right of survivorship, neither child can access the cash value without consent of the sibling.

Sometimes, a parent may transfer his or her life insurance policy to one child and ask that all siblings remain as beneficiaries, which is a classic example of the Goodman Rule. At the parent’s death, the child who owns the policy will be deemed to give the policy proceeds to his or her siblings, possibly incurring gift taxes.

If optimizing the annual gift tax exclusion is an important goal, consider a trust to hold the life insurance. Alternatively, you can explore ownership as joint tenants in common. With joint tenants in common registration, each owner has an undivided 50-percent interest in the policy’s cash value. Not all insurance companies offer this kind of registration, however.

This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a tax preparer, professional tax advisor, or lawyer.

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Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

© 2019 Commonwealth Financial Network®

Death of a Spouse

Survivor’s Financial Reminders: Death of a Spouse

The death of a spouse or life partner is difficult enough without having to make decisions about a host of financial issues. To help minimize stress when this sad time arrives, the following list provides a framework for organizing your financial affairs and those of your partner.

Death certificates. To file for various benefits, you must provide a death certificate. Obtain at least 10 certified copies from the funeral director or from your state’s department of health or vital records. An excellent resource for finding the appropriate office in your state is the Where to Write for Vital Records page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w.htm.

Insurance policies. Have on hand a list of insurance companies, policy numbers, and social security numbers. Although you don’t need to produce the original copy of the policy to file for a death claim, it will speed up the process.

 For coverage written in the past 15 years, you may be able to locate missing policies through MIB Solutions, Inc., a company that provides services to the insurance industry. You can access the company’s Policy Locator Service, for a $75 fee, at mib.com/lost_life_insurance.html.

  • Contact numbers for old policies may no longer be valid. Get in touch with your state’s department of insurance to obtain new telephone numbers for filing death claims with carriers that do business in your state.
  • Look through your (and your deceased partner’s) checkbook registers for records of insurance premium payments, and contact the carrier(s) to ask about possible benefits.
  • Contact your deceased partner’s most recent employer regarding group benefits.
  • Check with your credit card, bank, and loan companies regarding eligible death benefits.

Military discharge papers. You may be entitled to veteran benefits if your spouse served in the military. Obtain a copy of his or her military records through the Veterans’ Service Records page on the National Archives website at www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records.

Marriage certificate. You may need copies of your marriage certificate to apply for certain dependent benefits. Obtain copies through the county or town in which your marriage license was issued. You can also use the CDC’s Where to Write for Vital Records page, mentioned above, to obtain contact numbers for where to get this information in your state.

Children’s birth certificates. Your dependent children may be eligible for benefits. Refer to the CDC’s Where to Write for Vital Records page to obtain contact information for the state where the child was born.

Last will and testament. Most people keep their will in a safe deposit box, a safe, or an important document file drawer. If you cannot locate your partner’s will, you can most likely obtain one from your attorney. If no will was created or you cannot find one, contact your county’s probate department to determine whether your partner’s estate qualifies for a simplified probate procedure. If necessary, make a formal application to the court to be appointed personal representative of your partner’s estate. Please note: It is not recommended to store a will in a safe deposit box if it is to be sealed upon your death.

Bank and brokerage accounts. Jointly owned accounts are not tied up in the probate process. Contact your bank and broker to change the account to your name. Accounts owned individually by your spouse must be transferred to an estate account.

IRAs and employer retirement plans. It may be beneficial to roll over your spouse’s IRAs into your own IRA. If you are younger than 59½ and intend to use the IRA for living expenses, you may decide to move the account to an inherited IRA to avoid tax penalties for early withdrawal. In addition, your spouse’s plan may offer a survivor annuity or a lump-sum payout. To avoid unnecessary taxes, discuss the options with your financial advisor.

Contact the Social Security Administration (SSA). You and your dependent children may be eligible to receive a small social security death benefit and survivor income benefits. Contact your local social security office, or visit the Survivors Benefits section of the SSA website at www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors.

Tax identification numbers (TINs). You, your spouse’s executor, or your spouse’s trustee will need to obtain TINs for the estate and for any formerly revocable trust. Give these numbers to your bank and brokerage firms.

Taxes. You may incur additional taxes at your spouse’s death. Before transferring accounts or distributing estate assets, talk with your attorney and accountant. You will also have to file a final income tax return for your spouse.

Health insurance. If your spouse had health insurance at work, you may qualify for COBRA benefits for up to 36 months. Although the premiums may increase, they are generally considerably less costly than private insurance. Contact your spouse’s employer for more information. Also contact your own employer to find out whether you are eligible for health insurance benefits following your change in status.

Credit cards. Notify your spouse’s credit card issuers to cancel the account. If it is a joint account, cancel it or list the account in your name only.

Your personal financial affairs. It is advisable to avoid major changes for at least six months after a partner’s death or until you feel that you can make sound financial decisions.

  • Take time to consider any proposals from family, friends, and your professional advisors.
  • Ask as many questions as necessary, and have a trusted advisor look over any financial decision you are considering during this stressful time.
  • Review the beneficiaries of your own insurance policies, IRAs, and other retirement accounts, and make appropriate changes.
  • Beneficiary designations can always be changed later—after you and your attorney have reviewed and updated your estate plan.

 This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a tax preparer, professional tax advisor, or lawyer.

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 Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

© 2019 Commonwealth Financial Network®

Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts

What You Need to Know About TOD Accounts

A relatively new option for clients, transfer on death (TOD) accounts offer a unique beneficiary feature. Unlike similar non-retirement accounts, TOD accounts allow investors’ assets to transfer directly to their designated beneficiaries when they pass away, circumventing the probate court process. The TOD registration, which is available for both individual and joint accounts, not only streamlines the account disbursement process, it also lets account holders rest assured that their beneficiaries will receive the intended amount of assets.

TOD features

Streamlined administration. With a traditional brokerage account, the owner’s assets go to the estate upon his or her death, and distribution is delayed until the probate process is completed. By contrast, funds held in TOD accounts are considered non-probate assets and pass straight to the designated beneficiaries. Once a TOD account has been established, neither a court appointment nor an account holder’s will can supersede the Supplemental Transfer on Death Registration and Beneficiary Designation Form, which designates the account’s beneficiaries. If necessary, powers of attorney may be added to TOD accounts, but they cannot establish the account or update the beneficiary designation.

TOD accounts have no contribution limits and can hold all types of positions. When the owner dies, all trading in the account must cease to prevent taxable events to the estate. The TOD account assets can, however, be transferred to the beneficiaries’ accounts, and the beneficiaries may then sell the positions, if desired. In order for a beneficiary to receive assets from a TOD account, he or she must have a brokerage account open at Commonwealth.

Tip: Before opening a TOD account, consider the location of your beneficiaries. For example, if a beneficiary lives out of the country, you will need to plan accordingly.

Unlimited number of beneficiaries. TOD account holders can designate an unlimited number of beneficiaries, each of whom will be considered a primary beneficiary. Contingent beneficiaries may be added as well. The TOD account owner can choose, among other entities, his or her estate, individuals (including minors), trusts, and churches, as beneficiaries.

You retain control. As the account owner, you continue to manage the account assets as you wish. Your beneficiaries have no rights to the account while you are living. If necessary, you can revise your beneficiary designations.

Keep in mind

TOD accounts are not for everyone. It’s important to consider how establishing this type of account will affect your overall estate plan and the provisions of your revocable trust or will.

This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a tax preparer, professional tax advisor, or lawyer.

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 Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

© 2019 Commonwealth Financial Network®

Stock market ebb and flow

The worries on the market ebb and flow like the tides.

Last autumn, the worries were in full force: are we nearing a recession, is inflation coming, is this the big market correction, will the trade war escalate, will we have a lasting government shutdown, and many more.  Consequently, the market had a big drop in Q4 of last year, bottoming on Dec 24 with a drop of about 20% in 3 months.  Ouch.

Then something remarkable happened.  The worries all seemed to go away.  And just like that, the market has bounced back entirely and is right now butting up against the all-time high levels.

So what happened?  Nothing. The worries which existed in Q4 still exist.  In actuality these worries plus a myriad of other worries are always present.  The worries represent the balance of risk, which is essential in a functioning market.

I remember when I was a 25 year old advisor in 1999 at the peak of the tech bubble (we didn’t know it was a bubble then however) hardly anyone was worried, including myself.  “This is the new, connected world….a new economy,” was what everyone was saying.  And my least favorite expression of all, which I still hear on the financial news is, “we are in a goldilocks economy.”  I know what the talking heads are trying to say; the economy is neither too hot or too cold…just right; but personally I think they should find an example that doesn’t have bears in it.  More to my point, in 1999 the worries were gone, but the underlying risks were as high as ever.  The second chapter of the Goldilocks should have been published in 2000 with the bears chasing down a terrified Goldilocks and getting even.

The current worry list has some of the same entries as Q4 last year, minus a few that are resolved and plus a few new ones.  I’m happy the worries are there.  I’m happy the market risk is balanced.  I’ll be worried when everyone else is not.  I’m not worried about rain while its raining, I’m worried about rain while its sunny.

We’ve enjoyed a 2019 rally (bouncing off the 2018 swoon) and the market is probably due for a breather in the short term.  However, I think this will continue to be a good year in the market overall.  Instead of looking at the worries, I look at the reality.  We have a great economy, everyone who wants a job has one, low inflation, low interest rates, people are spending money, business is expanding, capital expenditures are up, and people are generally happy.

Spring is in the air.  In Colorado we are having our first 70 degree days this week.  Enjoy this time of year…..and leave the worrying about your money to me!

 

Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

Stock Market Panic

Market Panic: December 2018 edition

December has been a bad month for the markets worldwide. This bull market we are in is being shaken and people are worried. I’ve had a few panic calls from clients, but even if you didn’t pick up the phone I can sense you are nervous.

Here are the facts:

  • We have low unemployment
  • We have low inflation
  • We have low interest rates
  • We have a growing economy.

Here are the worries:

  • Trade war with China
  • Looming recession
  • Rising interest rates
  • Government shutdown
  • Mueller Investigation
  • President Trump putting foot in his mouth
  • Border security
  • Terrorist attacks
  • and finally (for my vegetarian clients) … romaine lettuce contamination.

If you concentrate on the worries blasted all over the news, you might be a little freaked out.

But if you turned off the news, you’d realize:

  • You have a job
  • You probably earned more money this year
  • Your company is hiring
  • Your mortgage rate is low
  • Your home has appreciated in value
  • and you’re generally happy.

Why is everyone so worried? Why do people think a recession is looming? I don’t have that answer, but just because we haven’t a recession in ten years doesn’t make it any more likely.

It’s okay to feel nervous and its okay to ask your advisor what’s going on with your accounts, but making a change because of non-quantifiable worries vs. quantifiable facts is likely going to be a mistake.

I feel this market is massively oversold and is now trading at a lower valuation than its 65 year average. International and emerging markets are even more disproportionately undervalued in my opinion.

I have the only store in the world where when my inventory goes on sale no one wants to buy … everyone wants to wait for full price to come back!

Take care, have a great Christmas, turn off the news, enjoy your family.

Elder care

Caring for an Aging Parent

Caring for aging parents can be a difficult planning aspect to balance. If you are among the “Sandwich Generation,” you may be trying to support your aging parents as well as your own children. Today, individuals are living longer than before, so it is better to be prepared.

Having the conversation

The first step—and often the most challenging one—is to find out what your parent needs or expects from you. It’s always best to have this conversation before a crisis occurs. Also, keep in mind that your parent may resist discussing the topic at first. He or she has lived a long time without much assistance from you, and the transition to accepting your new role in his or her life may be bumpy. Understanding and respecting your parent’s wishes will go a long way toward smoothing the process. It is also important to understand the difficult conversations for a number of reasons. How will your parent deal with incapacity, the fear of becoming dependent, or the reluctance to burden you with his or her needs?

Gathering information and documents

Create a list of emergency contact numbers, including your parent’s medical providers; religious leader; neighbors; friends; and financial, tax, and legal advisors. You should also gather copies of legal documents, funeral plans, medical records, and medication information. Keep a list of investment, bank, and insurance accounts, in addition to the locations of safe deposit boxes, real estate deeds, and automobile titles. You may find it helpful to upload all of this information to a USB flash drive so that it’s readily available when you need it.

Evaluating your parent’s situation

It may be difficult for you to evaluate your parent’s mental and physical capabilities or to locate community services to support his or her independence. If that’s the case, a geriatric care manager can be indispensable, particularly if you live some distance from your parent. He or she can perform an in-home assessment, determine your parent’s housing needs, and recommend a plan of action. Your parent’s doctor should be able to refer you to a qualified geriatric care manager.

Can your parent remain at home? Just because your parent can no longer care for his or her home doesn’t mean that he or she has to move. In fact, staying in one’s home may offer better support and social networks than moving in with one’s children. If your parent can stay safely alone, you may want to divide up the household chores among family members or hire someone to provide housekeeping, cooking, and personal care. Here are a few other items to consider:

 Find out if Meals on Wheels is available in your area. The organization’s volunteers deliver meals to seniors who can no longer cook for themselves.

  • Look into modifying your parent’s home to help with any physical limitations.
  • Install a security system to summon emergency personnel if necessary.
  • Call the local police department to find out if it offers a program to check on elderly residents. If not, churches often have a volunteer group dedicated to checking in on older parishioners.
  • Post important telephone numbers for contacting you, emergency services, and your parent’s doctor in a prominent location.

As your parent grows older, an assisted living facility or retirement community may be a better solution than living at home. Such residences provide additional benefits, such as transportation, access to medical personnel, and a richer social life.

Another solution is moving mom or dad into your home. This is a big decision, and it may not be the best choice for every family. Ask yourself:

  • Will living together put stress on your relationship with your parent or on your relationship with your family?
  • Can you afford to remodel your home to provide a comfortable and private environment for your parent?
  • Do you have the flexibility to provide transportation as needed?
  • Will other family members step in to help, both financially and physically?
  • Will other family members share the cost of adult day care?

Can your parent continue to drive? If your parent is over age 75, takes medications, or both, his or her ability to drive a car may be impaired. Of course, it’s difficult to know when parents have become a danger to themselves or others. Give your parent’s friends and neighbors your contact information and ask them to make you aware of any changes in his or her driving skills. Or suggest that your parent accompany you for grocery shopping and other errands rather than driving alone. Many communities offer driver’s education courses that teach best practices for seniors (e.g., limiting drive time to daylight hours and good weather conditions, avoiding highway or high-traffic situations).

Keep in mind that this may be a very sensitive topic for your parent. Many seniors view driving as essential to their independence and will resist giving up the car keys. For help approaching the conversation, see AARP’s family discussion guide on senior driving: www.aarp.org/home-garden/transportation/we_need_to_talk.

Financial and legal issues

As we age, we lose mental alertness. Due dates for bills pass, insurance policies lapse, and poor financial decisions may be made. Your elderly parent will likely need your assistance with his or her financial, legal, and medical matters.

Banking. Most banks offer automatic bill-payment services from checking or savings accounts—a convenient option if your parent is Internet savvy. Or your parent can give you responsibility for his or her finances by having bills and financial statements sent to your address. You might also consider a bill-pay service, which receives a copy of invoices and then requests your parent’s bank or financial institution to send checks directly to payees.

Investments and insurance. If day-to-day management of your parent’s finances is too much for you to handle, talk to your financial advisor. He or she can recommend products that provide income on a regular basis, such as managed retirement income portfolios, annuities, or bonds. Your financial advisor can also propose cash-management solutions, which allow your parent’s monthly social security, retirement plan, and annuity payments to be deposited automatically into an account. You can typically access these funds through a debit card, unlimited checkwriting capabilities, and online bill-pay services—everything that a bank checking account offers.

Also review your parent’s existing life and long-term care insurance coverage and make changes if necessary.

Legal concerns. An elder law attorney can help you prepare documents to manage your parent’s health care and financial affairs. In fact, many states provide free legal services to the elderly. Your parent may wish to seek an attorney’s help in the following areas:

  • Appointing a health care representative. Without legal authorization from your parent, medical privacy laws prevent doctors from discussing his or her medical conditions with you. In addition to appointing a health care power of attorney, your parent may want to consider a living will, which provides instructions on how to manage treatment if he or she has a terminal or irreversible condition and cannot communicate.
  • Understanding the process for qualifying for government programs like Medicaid or veterans benefits. Don’t rely on the experiences of family or friends, as their situations may differ from your parent’s.
  • Reviewing and updating estate planning documents, including his or her will, durable power of attorney, and any revocable trusts. Besides the basic estate planning documents, your parent may wish to draft a letter outlining who will receive personal effects like jewelry and family heirlooms.

What about taking care of you?

Although caring for an elderly parent can feel overwhelming at times, you are not alone. Many local and national groups are available to support you in providing the care and services your parent will need. To get started, visit the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator at www.eldercare.gov, or call 800.677.1116.

At your workplace, talk with a member of the human resources staff to find out if you’re eligible for unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Also ask about the availability of an employee assistance program (EAP). EAPs are intended to help employees deal with personal problems—including concerns about aging parents—that might adversely impact their work performance, health, and well-being.

Finally, seek the help of a financial planner. Besides reviewing whether your parent’s resources are sufficient to pay for care, he or she can help you determine how to balance your own goals with your parent’s needs.

Additional online resources

For further information on caring for an aging parent, you may find these online resources helpful:

 This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a tax preparer, professional tax advisor, or lawyer.

 Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

© 2018 Commonwealth Financial Network®

 

Veteran Benefits

A Guide to Federal Veterans Benefits

There are two separate agencies overseen by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration. The Veterans Health Administration determines eligibility for medical benefits, while the Veterans Benefits Administration determines eligibility for financial benefits. The agencies operate independently and have separate eligibility criteria for their programs. As such, if you qualify for medical benefits, it does not guarantee that you will qualify for financial benefits.

Eligibility for medical and monetary benefits depends on your discharge status. Generally, a veteran will satisfy the discharge requirement if his or her classification is “honorable” or “general under honorable conditions.” A veteran with a discharge classification of “other than honorable conditions,” “bad conduct,” or “dishonorable” may not be eligible for VA benefits.

Medical benefits

The Veterans Health Administration provides health care for former service members. All veterans are eligible for VA hospital and outpatient care, unless they received a dishonorable discharge from active military service. Congressional funding to the Veterans Health Administration, which changes every year, may affect veteran access to care.

You will be enrolled in one of eight priority groups when you apply for medical benefits. Your assignment to a priority group will be based on several factors, including your service-connected disability rating, status as a combat veteran, and income. Priority Group 1 has the highest priority for enrollment.

Special eligibility for combat veterans. Under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, all veterans who served in a combat theater of operations after November 11, 1998, are entitled to five years of VA health care from the date of separation from military service. Combat veterans are automatically enrolled in Priority Group 6.

Agent Orange exposure. The VA presumes that Agent Orange causes certain cancers (e.g., multiple myeloma) and other diseases (e.g., type 2 diabetes mellitus, ischemic heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease). The full list of diseases presumed to be caused by Agent Orange is available here: www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/conditions/index.asp.

This “presumptive policy” for Agent Orange grants eligibility for medical care to veterans who served in either Vietnam or Korea during certain time periods. If you have a presumptive condition, you do not have to prove a causal connection between your military service and your illness.

For Vietnam, the period begins on January 9, 1962, and ends on May 7, 1975. Service in Vietnam includes duty on a ship that operated on inland waterways. Note, however, that exposure to Agent Orange is not presumed for “Blue Water Veterans” who did not serve aboard ships that operated on inland waterways. For Korea, the period includes service in areas around the Korean demilitarized zone between April 1, 1968, and August 31, 1971.

TRICARE. Active service members, retired service members, qualified family members, and certain survivors can receive health care through the TRICARE plan. Care may be offered through either military or civilian providers depending on your status, the TRICARE option you choose, and the availability of care at military facilities.

Compensation and pension benefits

The Veterans Benefits Administration administers financial programs for eligible veterans. Eligibility largely depends on whether you have a service-connected disability or a nonservice-connected disability.

Service-connected compensation. Service-connected compensation is not a pension benefit; rather, it is disability compensation for injuries or diseases that occurred while on active duty or were made worse by active military service. Essentially, it awards you a certain amount of monthly income to compensate for potential loss of income in the private sector due to a disability, injury, or illness incurred in the service. To qualify, your active-duty discharge must be above the dishonorable level.

Service-connected pension. Veterans and their spouses use two types of service-connected pension benefits to pay for long-term care: (1) Aid and Attendance and (2) Housebound. You must be permanently disabled and confined to your home to be eligible for a Housebound pension. The VA assesses your eligibility for Aid and Attendance based on three criteria: (1) wartime service, (2) declining health, and (3) limited financial resources.

The wartime service requirement is specific to the veteran. You must have at least 90 days of active service, including at least 1 day within a defined wartime period. The VA recognizes the following wartime service periods:

  • World War II: December 7, 1941, to December 31, 1946
  • Korean conflict: June 27, 1950, to January 31, 1955
  • Vietnam era: February 28, 1961, to May 7, 1975 (in country) and August 5, 1964, to May 7, 1975 (generally)
  • Gulf War: August 2, 1990, to a date that will be determined by a future law or a presidential proclamation

The need for health care focuses on the condition of the applicant, not the veteran. For example, a healthy veteran may apply for Aid and Attendance to assist his or her spouse. In some cases, a veteran’s surviving spouse may need a personal care assistant. The VA determines the need for health care based on whether the applicant requires help with at least two of the following activities of daily living: (1) bathing, (2) eating, (3) dressing, (4) using the bathroom, and (5) transferring from a chair or bed. The applicant will also meet the health care requirement if he or she needs skilled nursing care or is legally blind.

The VA will assess income and net worth to determine financial eligibility for Aid and Attendance. It considers all sources, including social security benefits, and deducts household and medical expenses to calculate monthly net income. The net worth will include retirement assets. Different sources cite $80,000 as the maximum net worth you can have to qualify for Aid and Attendance. The VA does not list this amount in its regulations; however, it will look at other factors, such as age, when it assesses net worth and financial eligibility.

Other pension benefits. The VA pension programs benefit veterans who have limited income and, in some cases, health problems unrelated to service. Pension benefits are available to you only if you received a discharge other than dishonorable. Currently, veterans receive three types of pensions: Improved, Old Law, and Section 306. Only the Improved Pension is available to new applicants, however.

You are eligible for Improved Pension benefits if you are 65 and older; served at least 90 days of total active service, 1 day of which was during a wartime period; and have limited income and assets that are not excessive. If you are younger than 65, you may be eligible for Improved Pension benefits if you are permanently and totally disabled.

The amount of Improved Pension benefits you receive depends on your marital status, whether you have dependent children, and whether you are able to care for yourself. Pension benefits are designed to supplement your other sources of income, and the VA pays you the difference between your countable family income and your yearly income limit. Pension benefits are generally paid in 12 equal monthly installments, rounded down to the nearest dollar.

Keep in mind: The VA takes into consideration certain expenses paid by you—such as those related to medical care, education, or the last illness or burial of a dependent—when calculating your countable family income. In addition, some sources of income will not reduce your pension benefit. These include Supplemental Security Income, welfare benefits, and some wages earned by dependent children.

Death pension. A fixed monthly pension is available to qualified survivors of low-income veterans. The monthly benefit amount depends on other sources of income and the number of dependents.

Don’t assume: Apply! Many veterans are not getting benefits because they assume they don’t qualify. No matter your circumstances, it is well worth your while to apply for VA assistance. If your claim is denied, you can appeal the decision and may receive benefits on the second try.

Where to apply

You can apply for federal benefits by going to http://vabenefits.vba.va.gov/vonapp, by calling 800.827.1000, or by visiting your regional Veterans Affairs Office. (Please note: Each state offers Veteran Service Officers who assist with determining eligibility for benefits and the application process. They represent their state’s veterans during the federal and state benefits process.)

Third-party assistance with applications

Applying for benefits can be daunting, and you may find individuals or organizations that charge a fee to advise you on the process. Just remember: only the veteran, an accredited Veterans Service Organization, or an accredited VA attorney may apply for benefits on behalf of a veteran. The rules are strict—no one else can file a claim. Also, neither an accredited VA attorney nor an accredited organization may charge a fee to file an application for veteran benefits.

It’s also important to know that firms unrelated to the VA market financial products to veterans. These products are usually annuities and are sold on the basis that they will facilitate eligibility for benefits. You should discuss the financial product offered with your adviser to determine its tax implications and its impact on your overall financial plan.

This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a tax preparer, professional tax advisor, or lawyer.

Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

 

© 2018 Commonwealth Financial Network®

Trade War

Is It Time to Worry About a Trade War?

On March 1, 2018, President Trump announced that the U.S. plans to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Markets around the world were shocked by the news, with major U.S. indices declining more than 1 percent just when it looked like they were recovering from the February downturn. Why did markets react so strongly? Is this a more serious threat going forward? In a word, yes.

First, let’s define what’s going on and why it matters.

A closer look at tariffs

The good. Tariffs are a charge on imports—essentially, a tax. Say a ton of steel costs $100. The 25-percent tariff Trump proposed would require the seller to pay $25 to the U.S. government. That would, in effect, mean the seller has to choose between selling the steel for $75, raising the price to $125 to net the same amount, or doing something in between. Practically, sellers will raise prices. This is the desired outcome, as it will allow producers here in the U.S. to sell their products for higher prices. Therefore, these tariffs are good for the steel and aluminum industries.

The bad. The problem is that they are bad for anyone else that uses steel or aluminum, such as car manufacturers, builders, and the energy industry. Their input costs have just gone up substantially. According to a UBS analyst, Ford’s costs just went up by $300 million, while GM’s went up by $200 million. Other companies will be similarly affected.

Companies like Ford and GM will have two choices here:

  1. They can raise prices, which will start to push up inflation; or
  2. They can eat the higher costs and make less money.

Either way, this is bad for the stock market, as it plays out across the economy. Both higher inflation and lower profits make stocks worth less—hence, the market reactions around the world.

Waiting for the world to react

These are only the first-order effects, of course. The next shoe to drop will be how other countries respond. If we are lucky, they will take legal action through multilateral bodies such as the World Trade Organization, which will result in negotiations. If we are unlucky, they will start imposing retaliatory tariffs of their own, targeted to cause maximum pain to the U.S. economy. We don’t know what those will be. But we can be quite sure they will be designed to hit the U.S. economy as hard as possible, in order to force us to remove the tariffs. This is how trade wars start, so it will be critical to watch those responses.

The next set of effects will be geopolitical. When you look at the actual sources of steel and aluminum imports, Canada tops the list. By angering and damaging our closest neighbor—at the same time as we are trying to renegotiate NAFTA—the possible damage just increases.

The net effect of the tariffs, then, will be economic damage, higher inflation, and greater geopolitical uncertainty. On the corporate side, it will be lower profits for the vast majority of companies. On the consumer side, it will be higher prices for many goods and, likely, lost jobs in export industries. That is why this issue is worth watching closely.

Pay attention, but don’t panic

That said, there is a real possibility that this is either a trial balloon or a negotiating tactic. The U.S. has tried to impose tariffs before, only to pull back as the costs became clear. Trump’s announcement is not the same as actual action. This could all pass away, particularly as the rapid market response shows very clearly the potential costs. It is too early to be overly concerned, but we should definitely pay attention.

Certain sections of this commentary contain forward-looking statements based on our reasonable expectations, estimates, projections, and assumptions. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future performance and involve certain risks and uncertainties, which are difficult to predict.

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 Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

Authored by Brad McMillan, managing principal, chief investment officer, at Commonwealth Financial Network®.

 © 2018 Commonwealth Financial Network®

Division of assets

Dividing Retirement Assets at Divorce

For many couples, retirement assets represent a significant portion of net worth. During a divorce, in order to split assets equitably, most couples divide the benefits available in their employer retirement plans and the money they invested in their individual retirement accounts.

Court-ordered division of assets

The rules for splitting accounts are unique to each type of retirement account, but one rule is uniform: To avoid current taxation, the division of the retirement accounts must be done as a result of a court-ordered property division, divorce, or separation agreement.

  • Qualified domestic relations order (QDRO): Before a traditional pension, 401(k), 403(b), or 457(b) plan can be divided, a document called a QDRO is needed. A QDRO is a court order that tells the retirement plan administrator how to divide the retirement assets. In the QDRO, the employee is referred to as the participant spouse, and the recipient of the assets is called the alternate payee. In lieu of a QDRO, some employers prefer to provide their own standardized form for court approval.
  • Transfer of account incident to a divorce: IRAs, including traditional, Roth, SIMPLE, and SEP accounts, can also be divided by a court order. The term for dividing an IRA or nonqualified annuity between the IRA owner and the former spouse is a transfer of account incident to a divorce. Note that without the specific direction of a court-approved settlement, a transfer of part of an IRA to a spouse or former spouse will trigger taxes. The IRA owner, not the former spouse, is responsible for the taxes and any penalties due.

Separating the benefits

Retirement plans. As noted above, prior to making any changes to a participant spouse’s plan benefits, employers require a QDRO document, signed by a judge. Before the QDRO is written and issued, it is a best practice to talk with your or your former spouse’s retirement plan administrator about plan requirements. Once the QDRO is written, it takes a court order to make corrections or changes.

Depending on individual plan rules, benefits may separate immediately (the separate interest approach) or at the participant spouse’s earliest retirement eligibility (the shared payment approach).

  • With the separate interest approach, the alternate payee’s benefits are assigned immediately but may not be accessible until a later date.
  • With the shared payment approach, benefits for the alternate payee are available only when they become available to the participant spouse.

IRAs. Practices and requirements among IRA custodians differ. The key to a successful transfer is to have a settlement agreement that clearly specifies the accounts to be transferred. Under Internal Revenue Code Section 408(d)(6), this transfer is intended to be tax-free.

There are two basic ways to split up an IRA. The most common method of transfer is to segregate the assets into a new IRA for the former spouse. Alternatively, a check can be cut to the recipient spouse, who has 60 days to open his or her own IRA to avoid taxes.

Additional important details regarding QDROs

Employer plans can be categorized as defined contribution, like the popular 401(k) plans, and defined benefit, commonly called pensions. A defined contribution plan has readily ascertainable account balances. These are usually split shortly after a divorce has been finalized.

A defined benefit is typically paid as a monthly benefit at retirement. With the separate interest model, the former spouse is treated as an employee, and benefits are paid until his or her death. With a shared interest model, benefits usually stop at the participant spouse’s death, even if the former spouse is still alive.

A former spouse qualifies for a survivor annuity only if the QDRO clearly provides it and the retirement plan can accommodate it. If the plan cannot provide survivor benefits to a former spouse, or if the former spouse’s claim ends at the participant spouse’s remarriage, the former spouse may consider life insurance as an alternative means of income.

If the QDRO specifies payout instructions not offered by the retirement plan, it cannot be honored; however, the QDRO can require early retirement benefits for the alternate payee even if the participant spouse chooses to delay retirement.

Unlike an alimony award, retirement plan property settlements are not generally severed when a former spouse remarries.

Tax issues

QDROs. Which party is responsible for taxes? It depends on whether a separate account has been set up for the former spouse or whether monies are paid out of the participant spouse’s benefits. With separate accounts, each party is responsible for his or her own taxes. With shared benefits, all taxes are paid by the participant spouse.

Note that a QDRO-ordered distribution to a child or other dependent is always taxed to the participant spouse.

One of the advantages of a QDRO is that the 10-percent penalty does not apply for early withdrawals from a 401(k), 403(b), or 457(b) plan made to a former spouse who is younger than 59½; however, the mandatory 20-percent withholding tax does. To avoid the tax on monies intended for IRA rollover, elect a direct transfer to the new IRA custodian.

Divided IRAs. Remember that an informal or mediated agreement between spouses to divide individual IRA assets is not recognized by the IRS and will result in taxes. Also, unlike with QDROs, a divorce does not qualify as an exception to the 10-percent early withdrawal penalty for IRA distributions prior to age 59½.

Special situations

The former spouses of military members may receive up to 50 percent of the military member’s retirement pay if the couple was married for at least 10 years. Because the military uses the shared benefit model, benefits to the former spouse begin only after the military member elects retirement. Benefits continue until the retiree’s life expectancy, unless the retiree elects a survivor benefit plan. The survivor benefit can be lost if the former spouse remarries before age 55.

 State, local, and municipal retirement systems offer fewer options for dividing marital assets. The retirement plans of some states do not allow the assignment of benefits, even to a former spouse.

Other types of government retirement benefits are the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) and the Civil Service Retirement System programs for federal retirees. The correct term for the division of assets of federal retirees is not QDRO but Court Order Acceptable for Processing. FERS also uses the shared benefit model, so a rollover to an IRA is unavailable.

Social security is available to former spouses who were married for more than 10 years. The rules for receiving benefits as a former spouse are the same as for current spouses. For example, if a former spouse reaches full retirement age, he or she will receive the higher of his or her own work-related benefit or 50 percent of the worker’s full retirement benefit. At the worker’s death, the former spouse can receive up to 100 percent of the decedent’s social security benefit, reduced for the former spouse’s early retirement. These benefits are available even if the worker remarries or if the former spouse remarries after he or she turns 60. Payments to former spouses do not reduce the worker’s or the current spouse’s benefits.

Nonqualified annuities can be divided between divorcing spouses without triggering taxes, based on the instructions of the court-approved settlement document. Because each insurance company has its unique requirements, it is wise to communicate with the carrier before the final divorce decree. You may find that existing surrender charges will be applied.

Many executives also participate in nonqualified deferred compensation plans. Because a nonqualified plan is not subject to ERISA rules, a QDRO is not used to set aside benefits for the former spouse. A division of the assets of the nonqualified deferred compensation plan will not shift the tax liability to the former spouse.

Stock options also pose challenges in property division. The date chosen for determining asset value is crucial. Value can differ widely, depending upon whether it is based on the date of the initial separation, the date on which the divorce was finalized, or the date of option vesting.

Consult a professional

Because valuing and dividing a couple’s assets is complex, consider bringing in a third-party professional such as your financial planner or a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA). Experienced with valuing retirement plans and employee benefits, a CDFA professional can act as an advisor to your attorney or as a mediator for you and your former spouse to help in pursuing an equitable settlement.

This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a tax preparer, professional tax advisor, or lawyer.

 Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.