The start of a new year is a good time for anyone to develop and implement a financial plan. For older people, planning can be particularly important because they face some unique financial situations and need to be aware of several age-related deadlines.
Seniors' financial concerns range from the future solvency of Social Security and Medicare to the loss of income upon leaving the work force to the fear of outliving their assets.All of these issues point to the need to create a financial plan that will allow retirement assets to grow. This is becoming more important since in the future, retirees may have to rely more heavily on their own income to offset possible reductions in government-supported medical and retirement benefits.
Seniors also need to be aware of special tax laws that affect them. Ignorance of the law could mean the loss of a major tax break or a stiff tax penalty.
Laws that apply particularly to seniors include provisions such as the one-time-only capital gains exemption from the sale of a home (available to homeowners 55 and older), the loss of some Social Security benefits if beneficiaries between 62 and 69 have earnings over certain limits, and rules requiring people 70 1/2 and older to make minimum withdrawals from Individual Retirement Accounts or Keogh plans.
The period after the holidays and before tax season is a good time to review your financial situation and establish some goals.
Here are some common mistakes that seniors tend to make. If you recognize yourself in any of these examples, resolve to do something about it in 1997.
- Investing too conservatively. Some people believe they must automatically switch to ultraconservative investments once they retire. But times have changed. Longer life spans and medical advances mean you could easily live 20 or 30 years in retirement. Don't stash all your wealth in a low-interest savings account or CD. Even in retirement, a portion of your money should be invested for growth.
- Ignoring inflation. Even though inflation has been low for the last few years, don't be lulled into complacency. Even rising at only 3 percent a year, the cost of living will double in 24 years. Again, the answer is to invest a portion of your portfolio in growth stocks or mutual funds.
- Relying too much on others. Older people often are persuaded by family members or salesmen to purchase investments that are unsuitable or financial products they don't understand. Take the time to learn about these important financial matters. It's your money. Take responsibility for it.
- Failure to plan an estate. Many older people who have assets of $600,000 or more - the level at which federal estate taxes kick in - fail to take advantage of safe, legal strategies to reduce their taxable estates such as planned giving and trusts. And who loses? Their heirs. While $600,000 may sound like an enormous amount, it doesn't take long to breach that limit if you own a house, a car, some investments and a life insurance policy. If you don't have an estate plan, take the time to develop one this year.
- Short-changing yourself to leave an inheritance. While it is a noble idea to want to provide for others when you are gone, don't cheat yourself on day-to-day living for the sake of leaving a legacy. Take care of yourself first.
The best gift to your children is not to be a burden.
- Poor use of the capital gains exemption on your house. When you are 55 and older and you sell your house, you can exempt up to $125,000 of the capital gain from taxes. But you can only use the exemption once. If your gain is less than $125,000, you receive only a portion of the tax benefit - perhaps a very small one. But once you claim the exemption for any amount, it's used up; you can't claim it again. Many older people wait too long and can lose the exemption entirely if they remarry or die before claiming it. The home you sell upon retirement is probably the most expensive one you will ever own with the largest capital gain potential. Consider claiming the exemption at that time.
- Not following IRS rules on retirement plan withdrawals. Several million older taxpayers pay penalties each year because they don't withdraw enough or wait too long before taking money out of their retirement accounts. Learn how the rules affect you and make timely withdrawals. If you don't, you'll pay a stiff penalty of half of what you failed to withdraw.