A recent study conducted by Merrill Lynch (in collaboration with Age Wave) sought to determine which areas of life are the top priorities of Americans so that financial planners could offer better advice on retirement planning. While of course people’s priorities shift and evolve over time, this “Finances in Retirement: New Challenges, New Solutions” study examined people’s seven key areas of focus: family, health, home, work, leisure, giving, and finances.
The study used interviews with national thought leaders, information gathered in focus groups and surveys, and individual interviews with around 3,700 adults, half of whom were Baby Boomers, age 52-70 (the other half of the interviewees were people whose ages fell on either side of the Boomers). The multi-year study ultimately confirmed the ever-shifting challenges many Americans face when it comes to successfully financing their retirements.
This Merrill Lynch study got me thinking about how lots of seniors and their financial planners focus so heavily on saving money as the primary means to prepare for retirement. While it is certainly very important to have enough saved up so that you can retire comfortably, there is more to retirement planning than just padding your bank account.
Other crucial retirement planning to-dos
1. Explore your housing options
Where will you live during your retirement? The answer to this has a big impact on your savings strategy. Do you want to retire to a villa in Italy? Would you like to stay in your current home? Are you interested in moving to a senior living community, such as a 55+ community or possibly a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, also called a life plan community)?
Each of these scenarios requires financial planning but also logistical planning. For example, if you hope to stay in your own home, you likely will need to make arrangements for help with home maintenance and household chores as you get older; you may even need to hire a home health worker should your health decline. If you are planning to move to a CCRC, you will want to begin researching communities and possibly get on a waitlist.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to think about these things sooner rather than later so you can begin to make appropriate plans. You should consider not only the near-future but also what you might want if your mobility declines in the future and/or you require daily assistance with activities of daily living.
2. Consider your potential long-term care needs
Long-term care (sometimes referred to as assisted living or personal care) refers to a variety of services and support intended to help someone with their non-medical personal needs like eating, dressing, and bathing–often called activities of daily living or ADLs. It also can include higher level skilled nursing care if medically-necessary. Looking at the stats, somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of seniors will require fairly significant long-term care services at some point in their life.
Although they can be expensive, long-term care insurance (LTCi) policies can help alleviate the impact that long-term care expenses could have on your wallet. For example, if you plan to continue living in your home, an LTCi policy can help cover a portion of the costs of in-home care.
I’m often asked if moving into a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC or “life plan community”) means you can forsake your LTCi policy. The answer is: It depends, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it. In short, the type of contracts offered by the CCRC and the one that a resident selects determines how he or she will pay for long-term care services and the extent to which a long-term care insurance policy may still be necessary. But there are other reasons why keeping coverage is probably wise, even if you reduce the benefits.
3. Designate beneficiaries & complete your will or trust
Regardless of the value of your assets, everyone should have a few main estate planning documents in place. First, be sure that your beneficiaries are up to date on any life insurance policies, 401(k) accounts, and other assets. An annual review of these designations is wise.
A will can be a simple document to create; there are even inexpensive programs like Quiken WillMaker that allow you to write your will without paying a lawyer. But using a qualified attorney will help you make sure you don’t miss any important details. It’s also important to know that a will mandates the distribution of assets through a legal process called probate, which validates the deceased’s will, inventories and appraises property, pays any debts and taxes, and then distributes remaining property as directed by the will. It can be a costly legal process that reduces the amount passed on to heirs. And a will only goes into effect when you die.
A trust, on the other hand, works all the time, including during any periods of incapacity. A trust usually requires a lawyer to set up and is thus more expensive up front, but when structured properly, trusts help avoid legal issues if you become incapacitated. When you die, a trust usually avoids probate, allowing beneficiaries to access assets more quickly, save time, and reduce or eliminate court costs. Depending on how it’s created, a trust can even reduce estate taxes and protect your estate from your heirs’ creditors.
4. Create advance directives & power of attorney
It is understandable that many people don’t want to think about becoming terminally ill or mentally incapacitated. But if you want to be cared for in a particular way should one of those things happen to you, it is wise to create some specific legal documents.
Also called a living will, advance directives are a written document that helps guide the healthcare choices made by doctors and caregivers if you should become terminally ill, seriously injured, in a coma, in the final stages of dementia, or near the end of your life. And it’s really never too soon to create this document.
You should also consider designating power of attorney to an “agent” or “proxy,” which gives that person legal authority to make decisions should you become mentally or physically incapacitated. There are different types of powers of attorney, so you can give your proxy as much or as little “power” as you want.
Are you ready for retirement?
As you approach retirement age, you may think you have done what you need to do to prepare by saving diligently over the years. And that is certainly important. But be sure you have checked off these four other important tasks as well, to ensure your retirement is secure.
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