Long-term planning amid uncertainty
By MATT CHANDLER
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With the new year looming, the inevitable begins: preparations for 2013.
Among the clutter of resolutions Americans love to make is one that can be unpleasant but necessary: planning for retirement.
For many, it conjures up an image of one's own mortality, with plans being made to divvy up assets, hand off the family business and sock away enough cash to pay for life long after your working days are over. But the reality is that you will get older and plans must be made. Experts say the turning of the calendar often spurs people to take a hard look at financial planning.
Peter Hafner is a certified financial planner and founder of Hafner Financial Group.
"It seems like a lot of people get this idea in their mind that because we are in an uncertain time, they don't want to make any of these decisions until there is more certainty," he said. "I tell people that in my 20 years of doing this, things are always uncertain and there is always something scary coming up."
So what's his advice for those pondering their financial future? Be smart.
"With investments, it really comes down to two things - stay in or get out," he said. "What history shows us is that if you are jumping in and out of the market, you tend to miss the best days."
Before you even get to that point, however, there is a much more basic priority: knowing what you want.
"An investment portfolio has to be tied to your goals in order to be useful, so start by knowing what your goals are for your future," Hafner said.
Sounds simple enough, but for everyone from working families juggling more responsibilities than ever to small-business owners wearing multiple hats, financial planning - and for some, any long-term planning - often gets put off. That's where Hafner the psychologist comes into play.
"My primary goal is to help people manage their emotions when it comes to their financial planning, to help them have confidence that we are on the right track," he said. "I'm not talking so much with them about the investments, I'm keeping them focused on the big picture and creating peace of mind so they don't worry. Because when they do, that's where the big mistakes come in. They sell out because they are worried about the future, and then they miss the upside."
While Hafner is working with clients to maximize the return on their money, CPAs such as Cheryl Jankowski work to ensure that clients are making strategic decisions to minimize tax liability. She is a principal of Amherst-based Chiampou Travis Besaw & Kershner LLP and said her primary client base consists of high net worth individuals.
There seems to be less panic in the air, she said - for now, at least.
"People feel a little bit better that the sky isn't falling in terms of the stock market because it has recovered from the drop in 2008 and 2009," she said. "But there will still probably be some volatility until Congress decides what they are going to do with the tax rates long-term."
Jankowski said she fields numerous calls from clients looking to accelerate income to take advantage of the lower tax rates in anticipation of a rise in 2013. All of it, she said, is part of proactive, long-term planning.
"For the investor who has a little more to invest than the average person, there is a lot of talk about where they should be positioning their investments long-term, given the uncertainty with the tax rates," she said.
For the more typical investor who may be simply an employee with a 401(k), Jankowski said they should be equally vigilant in planning for the future.
"There are a lot of individuals who invest in their 401(k) who just aren't savvy enough to know what makes a good investment, and you really need to be aware of where your money is invested," she said. "It can be hard for the individual investor who has money in the market to know what to do, so you really need to get with your financial adviser, or with the person who administers your 401(k), and make those decisions."
While Hafner works to control his clients' emotions regarding the market, Jankowski said she is trying to make an educated guess about what politicians will do with the various tax rates. She wants to best advise clients about moving assets and making the necessary shifts to minimize the tax burden.
"We can give our opinions, and we work to gather as much information as possible to do that," she said. "But in the end there are no guarantees."
Jankowski points to the turmoil at the end of 2010 as a prime example.
"We never saw that the estate tax would go away," she said. "We never thought they (Congress) would let that happen. And then, in December, 2010, everything changed. Not only was that huge, but it came out of nowhere."
Her advice for investors: Work closely with a financial adviser and CPA to make sure everyone is on the same page to minimize being blindsided by an excessive tax liability.
Greg Urban, CPA, is a partner in the tax advisory group at Dopkins & Co. LLP. He said his phone has been ringing steadily in recent months as clients, both new and old, start to think about long-term strategies.
"A lot of those calls have been focused on estate planning and, more specifically, gifting," Urban said. "We have run more estate tax projections and done more modeling for people than we have ever done in the past."
Many of his clients are business owners and he said when it comes to long-term planning, estate planning is a top priority.
"They are concerned with the changes in the law. The law right now would allow for an estate tax exclusion of approximately $5.1 million per individual," Urban said. "That is scheduled to decrease to $1 million per individual on Jan. 1 and that has people concerned."
Given the uncertainty of tax laws, specifically the estate tax, he has seen numerous clients looking to transfer assets - usually to the next generation - while still under the umbrella of the $5.1 million allowance.
"More and more people don't want to risk holding those assets and having a greater amount of those assets be subject to the estate tax," he said.
Contrary to what one might assume, even business owners with significant assets can procrastinate when it comes to proper long-term planning, according to Urban. He said he regularly gets calls from clients who, despite owning a strong business for a long time, have yet to properly succession plan.
"Those calls will often come in from clients who maybe have been thinking about it but have hesitated because they realize it may involve giving up the ability to control and enjoy the benefits of certain assets," he said. "So it usually isn't that they aren't familiar with what they need to do; they just haven't acted on it yet."
The good news, if you are among those who put off planning for the long term, is this: Whether from the wealth building side or the tax side of the table, experts say it's never too late to start.
"We want people to be able to retire and enjoy the life they want to live," Hafner said. "And the way to do that is to have a goal for retirement and work toward it."