Options You Need to Consider Before Making An Irrevocable Pension Decision

So you are getting ready to take the gold watch & call it a day on the last forty years of your working life. On the way out the door, your employer dangles several appealing options regarding your pension benefit. Stop! Don’t make a move until you’ve carefully considered the issues & implications for each option. You may just find that you have options that you hadn’t considered when it comes to your pension benefit.

Should you decide to take the lifetime pension option, you now must choose between one of several payout options. If you are single, the choice is simple. Take the single-life payout option in order to secure the highest monthly lifetime income. But if you are married, it gets more complicated. Should you take the highest payout that ends at your death with no residual pension benefit for your spouse? Choose this option, and your wife could be left out in the cold with nothing after you’re gone, and struggle to pay the bills the rest of her life. If, on the other hand, you choose the option that provides 100% survivor benefit, you sacrifice a large chunk of your monthly pension check. But here’s another potential problem that you may not have considered. Statistically speaking, most husbands die before their wives. But what if your wife dies first, and you have chosen the lowest payout with 100% survivorship under the assumption that you would be the first to go? You have now sacrificed the added pension benefit that you could have received for the remainder of your life. Sadly, there are no “do-overs” when you make your decision. Bet you hadn’t thought of that, had you?

Just when things were getting complicated, your employer throws another curve ball at you. Rather than taking a lifetime pension benefit, he offers you a lump sum of money instead. This has become increasingly popular with companies for reasons we’ll discuss later. Should you take the money & run? Or should you take the easy way out, and go with the monthly paycheck for life? After all, this is the closest thing to the security of a paycheck while you were working.

And you thought retirement was going to be easy, didn’t you? Heck, this is too much like work. Rather than get all wrapped around the axle, let’s break down the issues & bring a little clarity to your options.

SURVIVORSHIP OPTIONS – First, let’s consider the survivorship options, and see if there are some alternatives available to you. Quite often, there are more survivorship options given by your employer than the ones mentioned here, but we’ll confine ourselves to these basic options for simplicity’s sake. First, your employer has offered the single-life with zero survivorship option. Taking the single-life option ensures the highest payout while you are living, but nothing for your spouse at your death. On the other hand, choosing either a limited (25-75%) or full (100%) survivorship option means potentially sacrificing a significant amount of monthly income for you. To add insult to injury, you may penalize yourself if your spouse dies before you. Perhaps there is a third way. As a matter of fact, there is. It is called pension maximization, or pension-max, for short.

Under pension-max, you opt for either no survivorship or limited survivorship options, then take the added amount over what you would have received for the 100% survivorship option, and purchase life insurance on yourself so that your spouse can then receive either a lump sum or annual death benefit to make up for the lost residual income at your death. As an example, let’s assume that your full benefit with no survivorship option is $1500 per month. On the other hand, the payout for the 100% survivorship option is $750 per month. Under pension-max, you opt for the first option, then take the added $750, or some lesser amount, depending on your age & health to purchase a death benefit that will replace the lost pension income at your death.

Before choosing the pension-max option, it is vitally important that you talk with a financial advisor who can help you crunch the numbers in order to determine if this will benefit you & your spouse. There are several important variables to consider that may determine if this strategy makes financial sense for you, including your age, health & insurability, the age & health of your spouse, along with the life expectancy of both you & your spouse. Do you have good genes? Did your extended family members live long lives, or did they die prematurely from some inherited condition that is likely to affect how long either you or your spouse are likely to live? In addition, you need to consider the cost of insurance, your tax bracket in retirement years, and whether any health care benefits from your employer are tied to your pension. These are things that an experienced financial professional can help you sort out.

LUMP SUM VERSUS LIFETIME ANNUITY OPTIONS – Recently, more & more companies are offering the lump sum payout option to their retirees in lieu of income for life. Why is that? A little context might be helpful. Pensions were at one time the de facto retirement benefit offered by companies as a way to entice loyalty on the part of their employees. During the past twenty years, however, that trend has reversed. Rather than offer lifetime pension benefits (also known as defined benefit plans), companies began closing these plans to new members & replacing them with either newer & leaner “cash balance plans”; or alternatively, with defined contribution plans, also known as 401(K)s or 403(B)s (for employees in non-profit organizations). These plans were first introduced by an act of Congress in 1978, but have become increasingly popular, while defined benefit plans have become the modern equivalent of the corporate dinosaur. Why is that? According to Moshe Milevsky, finance professor at York University in Toronto, Canada, and a noted expert in North American retirement planning, 82% of defined benefit (pension) plans in 337 of the S&P 500 companies were under-funded as of 2006. When you combine the fact that lower interest rates since then have only made it more difficult for them to meet their liabilities, along with the fact that people are living longer these days, it’s easy to understand why companies might want to shift this risk off of their balance sheets and onto the balance sheets of their employees. In addition, the cost of insurance for companies participating in the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation insurance program is scheduled to increase by between 30-50% in 2015, with even more increases proposed for 2018, making it more expensive to maintain these plans, and further exacerbating their unfunded liabilities.

It’s important to understand that your company assumes all the investment risk for benefits provided through defined benefit plans, whereas the employee assumes all investment risk with defined contribution plans. In addition to closing plans to new members, many companies have also attempted to further avoid the risk to current plan members by offering lump sum payouts. After all, we are living in a time when interest rates (both defined by interest rates we pay for things like mortgages & cars, as well as interest rates that the Feds pay on Treasury Notes to investors) are at near historic lows because of the Federal Reserve Bank’s monetary policies. This offers both an incentive for companies & an opportunity for you as the soon-to-be retiree. Back in 2006 with the passage of the Pension Protection Act, funding mechanisms were scheduled to change over a number of years, from calculating funding requirements based on long term Treasuries over to the higher paying (and higher risk) corporate bond rates in an effort to lessen the burden to these companies for plan benefits. Even so, since 2006 we’ve seen interest rates on both US Treasuries & corporate bonds fall to historic lows. For this reason, companies must now set aside more money at today’s low interest rates to cover their pension liabilities. This presents a unique opportunity for you. Your company may be willing to offer a higher payout today than it will offer in a few years to get you to accept their offer. If future interest rates return to more normal levels, your employer may then be able to offer a lower lump sum settlement to you in lieu of taking the lifetime pension benefit.

In addition to this carrot, there is also a possible stick to consider that might push you toward choosing the lump sum payout option. In the latest Omnibus bill, Congress just passed legislation to take the heat off of some 1400 financially distressed multiple-employer benefit plans that are in danger of defaulting on their pension obligations. How? Rather than throwing the burden on the grossly underfunded Pension Benefit Guarantee Fund, they may allow these plans to reduce income benefits to their employees. Indeed, many local governments like Detroit have cut benefits to their retirees in an effort to restructure their shaky financial house, but allowing corporations the same escape option would be a watershed moment for defined benefit plans in the private sector. While the current legislation only affects these multi-employer plans (typically negotiated by unions), the barn door has been opened. What is now to prevent companies with single-employer plans to seek shelter under similar legislation?

So the question you need to ask yourself is this. Can you take their offer & create more income for yourself than you could with their pension? Well, that depends on several factors. First, how important is the monthly payout to meeting your required monthly expenses, after subtracting income from Social Security & other sources? If it is very important to you, then the next question is how confident you feel that you could take this lump sum and produce the same, or hopefully more income than you could by taking the monthly payout. This is more complicated, but let’s break down your options by first determining how much money you could produce on your own. Let’s say that your monthly payout for both you & your spouse is $2500 a month, or $30,000 annually. In lieu of this, your company is offering a lump sum of $600,000. In order to produce this much income on your own, you would need to earn 5% on your principal. (To calculate this, divide $30,000 by $600,000). Can you produce a better result on your own? Again, that depends. You may not feel qualified or even interested in making investment decisions on your own. If you did, you might be able to achieve results similar to those obtained in the Market over the recent history. As an indicator of Market performance, the S&P 500 index-which tracks the performance of the 500 largest corporations in the US-enjoyed an average return of 7.3% over the past 10 years, and 9.2% over the past 20 years. If you achieved those results, you would definitely come out ahead. Over the other hand, you would not need to look back far to remember that it’s also possible to lose 40% or more of your portfolio value due to Market downturns like we experienced in 2008-2009. If you are more averse to this kind of risk, you might want to consider some type of income annuity or deferred annuity that could produce the same or better income payouts without Market risk. Annuities are offered through insurance companies as, you guessed it, a form of insurance. While you buy life insurance to protect your loved-ones against the likelihood of dying too soon, annuities are designed to provide longevity insurance. Many of these products offer the same guarantees, along with greater flexibility than that offered through your company’s group annuity (e.g., monthly income). It definitely pays to talk with a qualified financial professional familiar with these products before making your decision on taking a lump sum payout.

Retirement Planning With Mutual Funds

Several Indians lost their savings in the Harshad Mehta scam of 1992. Since then, many have completely avoided investing their money in any kind of scheme. Recently however, mutual funds have become fairly popular in the country. They are fairly safe investments, and the investors are continuously informed about how their money is doing, and where it is being invested. This has led to several mutual fund companies being set up in India that employ professionals to look after the money their investors hand them. A mutual fund pools together money from a large number of small investors, and invests in the big market. This gives investors better returns on smaller amounts of money.

Pension plans are a new trend in mutual fund plans. While companies like UTI MF and Franklin Templeton MF have had pension plans in place for around 15 years, the giant company Reliance MF recently jumped on the bandwagon. The aim of all these pension plans is to give the investor aggressive equity opportunities. The Reliance Pension Plan in particular will invest more than 65% in equities, and 35% or less in money market and debt securities. The aim is to create wealth in the long-run. On the other hand, the pension plans offered by UTI MF and Franklin Temple ton invest only 40% in equities, and the rest of the money is invested in fixed income instruments. However, if you do invest with Reliance MF, and choose to leave the fund before the age of 60, you will be required to pay a 1% exit fee.

The scheme also has a five-year lock in period, but this shouldn’t be an issue as it is a long-term financial plan, with the aim of being financially secure at retirement. The youth are being encouraged to start investing at an early age, so that they can enjoy a happy and secure retired life. People are also being made more aware of the flaws of the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and the Public Provident Fund (PPF), as the funds received may not be enough for retirement. The key to a good investment is to put the retirement money in high-yielding asset classes to ensure better returns. There are certain tax benefits that investors can avail of while putting their money into retirement funds. While all the mutual fund plans have their own merits and demerits, late starters who are already in their 50’s would find it easier to invest in the Reliance MF plan, as they would receive higher returns. On the other hand, those who would prefer to invest in debt-oriented plans can put their money in the UTI MF or Franklin Templeton MF plans. At the end of the day, it is important to be aware of all the terms and conditions of an investment plan before you put your money down.

Buy Term, Invest the Difference

Buy Term, Invest the Difference

… Or To Put It Differently, Buy Term and Blow the Difference On Consumer Goods

Back in the day when I was just getting started with Northwestern Mutual as an insurance agent intern, I remember one of the older, more respected General Agents complaining about the fact that most people today, today being the middle 1980’s, did not understand that in order to invest you needed to save first.

“Oh, that’s not right!” opined every buy term and invest the difference shyster and short order chef in the country. That these two, the buy term and invest the difference proponent and the short order chef, were often the same person never seemed to make a significant impression on the American people. He had a business card and all these pretty charts and oh, I am going to be so rich!

Many of them made statements to the idea that whole life policies were a terrible investment and that protection should be split up. Buy term, invest the difference in mutual funds, and use your investments as a twofer, which is to say your mutual funds should be both your retirement and your savings.

I am sitting here for a few minutes considering the gullibility of the American people. The effort to plumb its depths is done, there is no bottom. Still, from time to time you have to sit and marvel at it.

Black Monday, 1987

Another notable memory I have is of Black Monday 1987. My General Agent was marveling over how in a conversation with a gas station clerk she could not get her mind around why everyone was so concerned with whether the banks would open the next day.

The state of financial education is not improved even a little bit, if anything it has gotten worse and the more developed one’s ignorance the more proud the person seems to be of their position.

An Opinion That Looks Like a Recommendation

To Do Lists

First, let’s get to do list #1 out of the way.

Figure out how much you have coming into the household and what your outgo is. You may have to do without some things, get another job, or start a part time business on the side.
Work your budget until you are living on 70% of what you make. Oh, I know. Wailing and guh-nashing of teeth. Stick with me, though. We will return to that in a minute.
A better option to cutting your budget is to try to generate another 42.85% income every month. That would give you the option of having 30% with which to work your savings plan.
Embrace the idea that you don’t know anything about money, for now.
Stop borrowing until you know the difference between good and bad debt.

Next, look at the 30% that is not going out every month. That is seed money for a better future.

It will become a cash cushion that will protect you against predatory loans during emergencies.
It will provide the home a feeling of secureness because whatever happens, next week to whomever the grocery shopping falls will be able to load up.
It will provide you with cash with which to take advantage of opportunities without having to choose between either the opportunity or groceries.
If a breadwinner dies, the kids can still eat, go to school, and sleep in their own beds secure in the knowledge that even though you are gone, their lives continue on.

Here is how you divide it up, to do list #2.

10% goes to cash savings
10% goes to whole life with perhaps a term rider that is convertible to whole life as your finances settle down
10% can go to tithe as your faith directs you. Or not, as you choose.

You can also choose to simply save the 30% for 4 months at which point you will have more than a months income saved in the bank.

After that, you should definitely begin a whole life program, continuing on with saving the rest. This is, in my opinion, what you should continue on with until you become educated on money.

Why Whole Life?

For a long time, the bankers were forbidden from getting into the life insurance business. Honestly, I do not know all the reasons for that barrier, but knowing banks as we all do, I feel safe in saying that allowing bankers into the life indemnity business was a net loss for the citizen.

There are some general protections which your money in your whole life affords you which your local fry cook and financial planner probably did not tell you:

If you die, your money becomes due at once, payable to your family.
Once the cash value builds up, you can use it to secure loans at 100% of the cash value, either with the insurance company itself or with a bank. Try doing that with your stocks. (Spoiler! You can’t. Nor can you use a bond because you cannot secure a debt with another debt, unless they have changed the law. As always, see your professional advisors.)
Your cash value is protected from lawsuits and creditors. That umbrella policy not enough to protect you? Your cash value is safe from suits and collections by creditors, no matter how clear your liability.

I love whole life because if you get in, stick with it, and hold to the iron rod of discipline you will have an asset later on that is darn near bulletproof in its protections of you and your family.

Financial Education

Now, before I forget about it, remember my comment about wailing and gnashing of teeth over living on 70%? I can guarantee you that someone within 500 feet of you is living on 70% of what you make and believes that your paycheck would be like winning the lottery. Look at it as an exercise against future calamity, an exercise that you can ease off the pressure a bit when it gets too tough. Better to do it when you are in control than when events are out of your control.

Now, let’s address the issue of financial education. First, throw out all the copies on those slick, glossy financial magazines who are constantly hawking the latest mutual funds.

Many of those magazines have folks from the very funds they are talking about advising them on the articles they run. Do you get me? In my opinion many of those magazines are simply unregulated prospectuses. Perhaps LESS regulated would be a better word and then you have the issue of regulated by whom.

I just know it struck me as extremely funny that the articles some of the magazines to whom I looked were giving editorial control to the product managers they were writing about.

… kind of like a nasty green funk you simply cannot get out of your carpet. No matter how many times you clean it, it still stinks.

To do list #3: Start reading. Here is a list:

The Richest Man In Babylon
‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’
Rich Dad’s ‘Prophecy’
Rich Dad’s ‘Who Took My Money?’

This reading list will not only teach you some of the basics about money, it will teach you the importance of being careful to whom you give control of your money.

Those who manage the major Western economies don’t necessarily see your successful retirement as a good thing. I am going to go out on a limb and claim that to be a fact, not an opinion.

Unless you pull back the curtain and

Take control of your money
Understand the difference between saving and investing
Master what the velocity of money means

… you can never get head of the devastating effects of inflation and move from the deceptive relative poverty of the United States to becoming wealthy.