Social Security strategies for couples

iStock_000010373589SmallThere are countless articles online on strategies for maximizing your Social Security benefits. Married couples have far more options than singles, and the rules are complex. If you are married and eligible (or almost eligible) for Social Security, it is worth talking to a financial or tax professional to ensure you weigh all of your options. In the meantime, this article from Kiplinger provides a nice primer on two of those available strategies: File and Suspend and Restricting an Application. It’s worth a quick read so you can come prepared to speak intelligently with your advisor, and thereby maximize your probability of a successful outcome.

LTCi rate increases coming soon for single women

It’s no surprise that women tend to live longer than men. Therefore, it should be no surprise that women tend to need long-term care more often than men. In fact, Genworth Financial, a leading provider of long-term care insurance (LTCi), estimates that two-thirds of their benefits paid go to women. However, up until recently, insurers were not allowed to charge different rates based on gender. That may all change in April, when Genworth is allowed to restructure new policies to incorporate gender-distinct pricing, which may increase the rate for single women by as much as 40 percent. Genworth was the first carrier to win approval from state insurance commissions to raise rates on new policies for single women, but it is expected that other carriers will soon follow suit. Long-term care insurance will become much more expensive for this segment of the market.

What should you do? If you are a single woman considering LTCi, you should consider making a move soon. If you are unsure whether LTCi makes sense for you, talk to your financial advisor or a licensed insurance agent as soon as you can.

For more information on these upcoming changes to LTCi, see For Women, Reduced Access to Long-Term Care Insurance.

Tax provisions in the American Taxpayer Relief Act

The American Taxpayer Relief Act, passed by Congress on January 1, 2013, contains many far-reaching tax provisions. In addition to extending many tax items that had expired or were due to expire, the act also made permanent many provisions of previous tax acts. The tax features of this act are too numerous to list here, but the most comprehensive description of these changes I have found is this Journal of Accountancy article.

I highly recommend you read this article or consult a qualified tax professional to assess the impact of this act on your personal situation.

Hedging higher tax rates with Roth conversions

With the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire at the end of 2012, many investors are seeking ways to hedge against a potential increase in tax rates for 2013 and beyond. One option that should not be overlooked is the use of Roth conversions.

A Roth conversion allows you to pay tax on the converted IRA assets now, with those assets then growing tax-free for the rest of your life. It is generally preferable to defer taxes for as long as possible, but in a situation where tax rates may increase in the future, it may be worth locking in the taxes at today’s rates. For example, the top tax rate in 2012 is 35%; In 2013, the top tax rate may be as high as 43.4% (39.6% top marginal rate plus the 3.8% “Medicare surtax”). If tax rates don’t increase, you can always undo the conversion by recharacterizing the Roth back to a traditional IRA. As long as a recharacterization is done by the extended due date of the tax return (October 15th), you’ll just be back to where you started.

It is also important to recognize that a Roth conversion may bump you up into a higher tax bracket in the year of the conversion, depending on the amount converted. In that case, you should consider a partial conversion, where you only convert enough to stay within your current tax bracket. This is where the assistance of a tax professional can be invaluable.

Everyone’s situation is different, and whether a Roth conversion makes sense for you will depend on your particular circumstances and desires. Your financial advisor and CPA can help you weigh the costs and benefits of such a strategy to determine if it is right for you.

The 529 Plan Series – Part III: The best 529 plan I know

Part I of this three-part series reviews 529 plan basics. Part II examines Washington State’s 529 prepaid tuition plan, the GET. This final section focuses on the best 529 savings plan I know, the West Virginia Smart529 Select.

Five years ago, my younger sister gave birth to her first child, a beautiful baby girl named Sydney. I was there at the hospital right after Sydney was born, and I instantly fell in love with her. When her 1st birthday came around, I decided the best gift I could give to her was the gift of education (or at least help with it). I set up a 529 account and began making monthly contributions for her benefit. My examination of 529 plans four years ago led me to the West Virginia Smart529 Select, and I believe it’s still one of the best 529 plans available today.

Why the West Virginia Smart529 Select?

I like the WV Smart529 Select plan for three main reasons:

  1. It offers access to a world-class family of funds, Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA).
  2. The costs are low and very reasonable.
  3. Set-up, maintenance and contributions are simple and easy.

Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA)

The WV Smart529 Select is the only 529 plan in the country where 100% of the investment options are DFA funds. Clients who work with Merriman may recognize these as the same funds we use in our investment portfolios. DFA funds are rooted in the science of investing, and we believe they offer superior exposure, diversification and returns when compared to most other mutual funds and Exchange-Traded Funds. Ordinarily, you can’t get access to DFA funds unless you are an institutional client or you work with a DFA-registered advisor. However, through the WV Smart529 Select, all investors have access to this great fund family for college savings purposes!

Costs

The WV Smart529 Select has no sales charges, application fees or set-up charges. There is a $25 annual maintenance fee, but that is waived if you enroll in their Automatic Investment Program and contribute $25 or more each month, if the account value is $25,000 or more, or if you’re a resident of West Virginia. The annual program expense ranges from 0.65% to 0.88% of the account balance each year, depending on the investment options chosen—very reasonable for this type of plan.

Set-up, maintenance and contributions

Setting up a WV Smart529 Select account was a breeze. I was able to establish and fund the account directly online, and also enrolled in the Automatic Investment Program which transfers money from my bank account into the 529 account each month. The minimum initial investment to open an account is very low, only $250.

The plan also makes investing simple by offering Age-Based Portfolios, which are managed by DFA and automatically shift in allocation every 3 years as the beneficiary grows older. For example, when the child is between 0-3 years of age, the portfolio will be invested in 100% stocks. When the child turns 19 or older, the portfolio will be 20% stocks, 80% bonds and cash. This provides for greater growth potential while the child is younger, but increases capital preservation potential as the child approaches college. The plan also offers Static Portfolios that don’t change with age, but for my money the Age-Based Portfolios are a simple and elegant solution.

Satisfaction

Four years into it, I’m still making monthly contributions into my niece’s WV Smart529 Select account. I intend to continue this until she finishes college, wherever she may go. She probably won’t realize all of the thought that went into selecting this plan for her; she may simply know that her uncle loves her and has planned ahead for her future. I, however, will know that I have used the best tool for the job, and that gives me tremendous satisfaction.