Clients often ask me where they should look for a competent tax preparer, or a good estate planning attorney. Here’s some recommendations as well as places to search.
Search the American Institute of CPAs at aicpa.org.
The American Bar association at findlegalhelp.org can also be used to find a lawyer.
Questions to ask when hiring a lawyer from “The Wall Street Journal Complete Estate Planning Guidebook” by Rachel Emma Silverman:
Do they charge by the hour or a flat rate?
Are follow-up calls/emails/scanned copies free or not?
Do they specialize in estate planning [if that’s why you’re hiring them]?
Explain your situation and ask what they’d recommend and also for a ballpark price range.
Are they a large firm or boutique?
Do they have other clients similar to you, or not?
Do they have values you seem to agree with?
Do they seem to “get” you and your situation?
Estate planning attorneys
Search American College of Trust and Estate Counsel: actec.org
I use and recommend Suze Orman’s online will and trust creator for your DIY estate planning needs. Buy it once and you can go back and update your docs in the future as circumstances change (as I did when our second child was born!) Use this link for 50% off the $200 (as of writing) price.
If you need help appraising, say, a family business or other property that’s hard to value, try appraisers.org.
Obviously, you should consider hiring me, a fee-only, fiduciary, no-AUM fees independent Registered Investment Advisor. In addition to those criteria, an advisor should be able to use a HP12-C financial calculator or spreadsheet program to do net present value/future value/payment calculations like these.
If you want someone else, napfa.org has a list of fee-only CFPs. (Beware AUM charges though, and note that most advisor search sites are ‘pay to play’, as in, they charge fees to advisors be listed. This is why you won’t find me on them as of writing. That said, they are helpful if you don’t know where else to turn!)
You can double-check an advisor’s registration, disciplinary actions (if any) and other facts at the SEC.
For business-succession planning, try the Family Firm Institute: ffi.org
A Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) is a trust that makes money from income-generating real estate. You can think of it as the real estate version of a mutual fund. There are also index funds of REITs that allow you to own a low-fee, broadly-diversified portfolio of REITs (and therefore of real estate) similar to the way you can own stocks or bonds via index funds. Vanguard’s VNQ is an example of a REIT index fund.
How do REITs work?
You can read more here, but in short, REITs finance, lease, or own real estate, and distribute any profits as dividends to investors. Many REITs trade like stocks or (when bundled together) like mutual funds. They essentially have to pay out the bulk (90%) of their income each year to shareholders, hence why their income generation is high relative to investments like stocks that are not required to distribute income.
How are REITs taxed?
REIT dividends are taxed at regular income rates
One negative aspect of REITs is that instead of their dividends being ‘qualified’ for long-term capital gains rates on shares held for a while (like stock funds), the income is taxed at regular income tax rates (same as for bond funds, or bank interest.)
Per the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, you might get some of that back in the form of the 20% QBI deduction. Say your tax bracket is 24%. 20% off that equals an effective rate on REIT dividends of 21.6%, which is still higher than the 15% long-term capital gains/qualified dividend bracket that you’d be in for stocks you’ve held for over 60 days.
Because of the higher income generation of REITs vs stocks combined with the dividends being taxed at regular rates, you probably want to have REITs in your retirement/tax-advantaged accounts, and have more stocks in your taxable funds to balance out whatever asset allocationyou’re going for.
Other forms of (non-dividend) REIT income
You can also have capital gains (long-term or short-term) from REITs that are taxed the same way as capital gains generally (e.g.: for stocks), as well as ‘return of capital’ distributions which would lower your cost basis at the time of sale. These forms of income seem to be rare for most publicly-traded REITs.
How have REITs performed vs stocks or bonds?
Trying to use past returns to predict the future is often a fool’s errand for financial markets, but the longer back you look at broad asset classes the more helpful it probably is.
For Vanguard’s REIT fund (our proxy for the REIT sector), the results are not very favorable compared to the total US stock market (light blue line below) or even an overall US bond fund (Vanguard’s BND, the yellow line) given that the bond fund was MUCH less volatile compared to the REIT fund, despite price appreciation that was only slightly less over the ~16 year period that I could get data for (when all 3 funds were in existence together.)
I should note that this chart from Yahoo! Finance understates the total returns for both the bond fund and the REIT relative to the stock fund (VTI) since the dividends in those funds were likely higher than those from the stock fund, and reinvested dividends aren’t shown in this chart, just the total (capital gain) return.
Even so, I doubt it would make enough difference to change the conclusions: Y-charts shows 5-year total returns of 35% for VNQ vs 13% shown over the same 5-year period in Yahoo! Finance due just to price movement, so any extra ~4-5% per year isn’t shown. VTI probably had dividends of about 1.5-2% per year during the past 10 years, so REITs’ should have an extra ~30-40% of absolute return tacked on relative to VTI.
Yahoo has 3-year trailing total returns (as of 1/12/2023), and these showed 0.60% per year for VNQ (REITs), 7.40% for VTI, and -2.33% for BND (the negative returns were due to interest rates rising somewhat dramatically– compared to recent history of very low interest rates– in the past year or two.)
Should I have REITs in my portfolio?
I don’t see any reason to. No past data of returns & risk/volatility will ever be ‘conclusive’, but the long-run returns of real estate vs stocks helps cement my belief that individual investors can prudently ignore REITs and just use a mix of stock and bond index funds (with cash for needs in the next year) for their portfolios.
You have real estate exposure already
Most investors already have significant exposure to real estate in the form of a personal residence, which is another reason to skip REITs. (Yes, I know, your single residential property isn’t the same thing as a basket of many commercial properties, but you’ll still be impacted by national real estate trends on top of local market conditions.)
Businesses like those owned via the total US stock market also have commercial real estate in the form of office, retail, and manufacturing space, so you have some exposure to commercial real estate already through stocks.
This is the first post in a series of easy steps I’m writing for the New Year that will dramatically improve your financial security in 15 minutes or less.
Retire way earlier by boosting your retirement contributions in 10 minutes
Option #1 – Up your contribution by 2% now or in the future
Log into your 401k or other workplace retirement plan right now and boost your contribution amount by 2%. (Look for something that says ‘Change contributions’ or ‘contribution amount’.)
Opt in for future 2% increases
After upping your contribution– or even if you feel like you can’t boost your savings rate today– set up annual future increases of 2% if your plan offers an automatic increase function (many plans, including Fidelity & Vanguard, do.) Set up future annual increases of 2% per year until you get to 20% (or the max IRS contribution limit.) You’ll usually find this option in the same place where you edit your current contributions.
Consider setting the annual increase date to be just after your company’s annual raise period so that you don’t see a decrease in your take-home pay when the extra 401k contributions kick in since your pay will likely be higher then.
Option #2 – Save 20%, or max it out
Log into your employer’s retirement plan (e.g.: 401k/403b) and increase your contribution to 20%.
If you make more than ~$110,000 a year, or if you’re just an excellent saver and make less but still want to max out, divide the IRS limit– $22,500 in 2023 for those under 50, $30,000 if you’re 50+– by your salary, round up, and use that percentage. For example, if you make $140,000, $22,500 / $140,000 = 16.1%, and rounding up = 17% for the year to max out.
Get all employer matching no matter what
No matter how much you decide to contribute, definitely put in enough to get all of any employer matching your company offers. That’s free money you can’t afford to pass up.
Why boost your retirement contributions?
If you’re at all hesitant here, the first thing to remember is that this change is completely reversible. You can go in anytime– even minutes after you make the change– to your 401k and change your contribution rate back down. Lean in here and just do it for your future self. It’s not a one way door!
Tax savings and more wealth
In addition to saving thousands a year in taxes, boosting your 401k contribution from 10% to 15% per year over your working career means you will have 50% more money at retirement in your account.
Yes, that’s right, for the price of only a ~3.5% decrease in stuff-you-could-buy-that-you-didn’t-need-anyway, your income in your golden years will go up by 50%! Even a mere 2% boost from 10 to 12% ups your retirement income by 20%, so at least do that much.
I’d take this deal any day; wouldn’t you…?
Imagine future you
If you’re still not convinced that saving for your future is something you must do now, picture yourself in your 60s or 70s: grey hair– or white, if yours is already grey–, (more) wrinkles, a slower step, and someone wiser, quieter, but a little more lonely and less lively than you are now. Don’t you want that person– you— to be financially comfortable, maybe even relatively wealthy, even if it means a small sacrifice on the younger you?
Any reason NOT to do this?
There’s really only one reason to not do this, and that’s if you have high-interest debt like a credit card balance or a personal loan charging greater than 8% or so. Pay that off FIRST before increasing your 401k contributions beyond the minimum required to get all your employer matching. Read this to learn how to free up cash to pay down debt.
Should you choose Roth or regular (pre-tax) 401k contributions?
Many employers offer Roth 401k contributions, although generally employer matching will always go into the pre-tax account. If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement vs now, choose pre-tax. Otherwise, choose Roth. Generally, younger folks just starting out in their careers should do Roth, and older folks (30s-50s) in their peak earning years should do pre-tax 401k contributions.
Roth if you make less money, regular if you make more
Another rule of thumb of mine is if your tax bracket is less than 22% (i.e.: 12% in 2023), i.e.: you make about $55 K or less Single or $110,000 K or less as a Married couple– do 100% Roth contributions. If you make more than that, 100% pre-tax is probably your best bet, but you can always reach out to a financial advisor to discuss more.
There’s no bad way to save though, so just make your best guess and move on. The key thing is to save the money, not agonize other Roth vs pre-tax and what future tax rates will be.
Increase your contributions right now, before you read any further!
Log into your workplace’s retirement account, which for most people is either a 401k or 403b plan. Search your company’s benefits site if you don’t know where to go, or if you know they use Vanguard or Fidelity, head straight there and login (create an online login if you’ve never logged in before.)
Click on your 401k or 403b account if you have multiple accounts, and then look for something that says ‘contributions’ like ‘change my contributions’. Click that, and find your current contribution, usually expressed as a percentage of your base salary. Enter the new number that you decided upon above, and save your work. You should get some kind of confirmation screen.
Great work! Keep reading. You need to do one more thing while you’re logged in.
Optimize your investments with a few more button clicks
Switch both your current investments as well as your future contributions to a low-fee Target Retirement fund like those offered by Vanguard or the Fidelity Freedom funds. Choose the year closest to your 75th birthday (e.g.: if you were born in 1980, choose the 2065 fund.) You should see some option like ‘change investments’ and might have to do this once for future contributions and once for the money already invested in your account.
For bonus points, double-check your ‘beneficiaries’, or set them up if you haven’t before. You want to make sure your assets are sent to the people or charities you want to get them if something untimely happened to you.
Don’t have an employer retirement account? Use an IRA instead
I’m assuming a Roth is best for you since I’m predicting you’re at or under the 22% tax bracket. If your marginal rate is 24% or more and would rather save on taxes now, use the Traditional IRA instead, but ONLY if you or your spouse don’t have a 401k at work, since that generally prevents you from making pre-tax contributions to a Traditional IRA.
You’re now retiring earlier, or more luxuriously, or both!
Boom! You just secured your age 60+ retirement in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee. Pat your self on the back, take a lap and hit the showers.
This is a DRAFT/fragment article that may contain incomplete information or spelling errors. Use it with caution and double-check things! I’m publishing it ‘early’ before I have the time to polish it to get the info available to certain clients.
Key points on ABLE accounts
ABLE accounts allow the disabled to have assets up to $100,000 that don’t count against the $2,000 resource limit test used to determine eligibility for state & federal aid programs like SSI (cash assistance from social security), SNAP (food stamps), and Medicaid (health insurance for the poor.)
The ABLE National Resource Center has a lot of great detailed info to help you through the process of application & selecting the best ABLE plan for you. In general, if you pay state income tax, you’ll be best off picking your state’s plan since you can deduct your contributions from your state (but not federal) taxes.
Who is eligible for and can manage ABLE accounts?
People who developed a disability–including blindness– prior to their 26th birthday that is expected to last indefinitely or has already lasted for a year are eligible for ABLE Savings accounts, and they are also the account owners and beneficiaries. However, “authorized agents” for the disabled person can be the person actually opening, funding, and managing the account on behalf of the disabled beneficiary. This is typically a parent or guardian, but many states allow for multiple authorized agents with varying levels of access.
“In general, individuals are eligible for an ABLE account if they are already receiving benefits under Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and/or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). If not, they may still be eligible if they certify that they are blind or disabled and have a written diagnosis of their condition by a licensed physician. Under all circumstances, the onset of the disability must have begun prior to age 26.”
Until very recently, disabled individuals found themselves in a delicate situation when it came to their long-term financial security. The same often applied to families raising children with disabilities. While they might qualify for state and federal aid programs, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Medicaid, they could only receive the full benefits of each if their assets were less than $2,000. Since these programs often fund access to assisted living technologies and services, healthcare, and transportation, disabled individuals were essentially forced to remain poor or lose their benefits.
Luckily, this antiquated approach is slowly changing, thanks in large part to the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act. The ABLE Act amended parts of the federal tax code beginning in 2015, allowing states to establish tax-advantaged savings programs for individuals with disabilities and their families. Importantly, the assets don’t count against the $2,000 resource limit for SSI until they total $100,000.
Money up to $100,000 ($100,000 is the limit in Washington state, but in some states, it’s higher.) can be shielded from the limits imposed by Social Security for determining SSI payments. Investments in the account grow tax-free and are tax-free upon withdrawal if spent on ‘qualified disability expenses’, similar to how a 529 plan works. In fact, you can transfer assets from a 529 plan into an ABLE account, with some restrictions.
In Washington state and generally (double-check with your state just to make sure), there’s no limit on ABLE funds for eligibility for Medicaid, which is awesome.
What can you spend ABLE money on?
You must spend ABLE money on “qualified disability expenses” (QDE) which broadly include any expense related to the disability or blindness of the beneficiary. In practice this includes:
educational expenses from preschool through college, and includes tuition, books, and supplies.
transportation, like bus passes, moving expenses, or the purchase of a vehicle
job-related training expenses
Almost any medical expense, including insurance costs, long-term support, nutrition management, communication services & devices, and more.
Assistive support expenses like a computer for a child with autism.
Various miscellaneous expenses like legal fees and funeral expenses.
Housing like rent or a home purchase can be considered qualified, but keep in mind they might impact SSI eligibility, so do your homework there.
Many state plans offer debit cards that can be used to spend directly from the account. Washington state charges a small monthly fee per debit card iisued of $1.25/month (no transactions fees when using the card, however.)
Who can contribute to an ABLE account, and how much?
Anyone can contribute to an ABLE account, but the total for all contributions from all people– including any 529 plan rollovers– combined for a single beneficiary can’t exceed $16,000 in 2022, with some exceptions for those below the federal poverty limit for 1-person households. If you pay state income taxes in the same state that the ABLE account was established in, you can deduct your contributions from your state (but NOT federal!) income taxes. Washington state has no income tax, and California’s plan does NOT allow state income tax deductions, but the funds do accumulate tax-free and if spent on qualified expenses, are distributed state (and federal, like all ABLE plans) tax-free.
Also, note that you can only have one ABLE account per disabled beneficiary. In Washington state, only one Authorized Legal Representative is allowed (other states might allow more than one authorized agent.)
The disabled ABLE account beneficiary can also contribute their employment income to their ABLE accounts in excess of the annual contribution limit, up to the prior year’s individual federal poverty level. For 2022, that was a max of $12,880 in 2022.
Designated ABLE account beneficiaries may now be eligible to claim the Saver’s Credit.
What state’s ABLE plan should I choose?
Try this comparison tool to look at 3 state plans together. Include your home state. Some states, including Washington state, only allow residents to open plans there. Oregon & California, for example, each have plans open to all US residents.
What investments should I choose within my ABLE account?
Choose low-fee index funds like those offered by Vanguard if your plan has them (Washington state’s does), preferably in the form of a ‘target date’ option that automatically adjusts– or at least rebalances– between stocks and bonds. I assume here that the beneficiary expects the funds in their ABLE account to last over their lifetime. If instead they planned to use all the ABLE money in just a few years, a more conservative investment option should be used.
For Washington state plan participants, I recommend the ‘ABLE Aggressive’ option which is a mix of 84% stocks and 16% bonds for young-ish beneficiaries, like those under 40 or 50. For those 40 – 50 or older, the 50-50 ‘ABLE Moderate’ portfolio is a good one.
For those 70 or older with very limited risk tolerance, the ‘ABLE Conservative’ 80% bonds – 20% stock plan can be used, or for those that expect to exhaust all the ABLE funds in a few years and aren’t planning on using it for life.
For California ABLE plans, the … are good.
Note that you can only make changes to your ABLE investment choices twice a year, the same as for 529 plans.
Can an ABLE account or 529 plan be rolled over to another ABLE account?
Yes, you can roll one ABLE plan over to another as long as the authorized person stays the same, and the beneficiary either stays the same OR is in the eligible family members list. These are the exact rules for Washington state ABLE rollovers. Other states might vary:
“An eligible Beneficiary can only have one ABLE account open at any time, except for the 60-day grace period for closing an ABLE account following a rollover to a new ABLE account.
If there is an Authorized Legal Representative (ALR) on the old ABLE account, they must be the same on the new account. If you would like to change the ALR, please do so on the old ABLE account before completing this form.
The Beneficiary of the new Washington State ABLE account must remain the same as the beneficiary of the old ABLE account or be an eligible “Member of the Family” (brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister) of the beneficiary of the old ABLE account.
A rollover from one ABLE account to another qualified ABLE account for the same beneficiary can only occur once every 12 months.”
Also, 529 plans started for education purposes of even a different beneficiary– say, you, or a child without a disability– can generally be rolled into an ABLE account per the ‘family member’ rules (unless the 529 plan was funded with a UTMA/UGMA gift to a minor, in which case the beneficiary can’t change.) This is subject to the ABLE plan contribution limits however, so if you have a large balance in your 529 plan, you may have to do the rollover in pieces ($16,000 at a time for the 2022 ABLE contribution limit.)
What happens to any unused ABLE funds when the beneficiary dies?
“Unused funds pay Medicaid. If the account owner dies with funds in an ABLE account, those funds must be used (in this order), to pay any outstanding qualified disability bills including funeral expenses, to provide payback to Medicaid for all Medicaid benefits received, and then to be distributed to the account holders legal beneficiaries.”
This means in practice that if the ABLE beneficiary received a fair amount of Medicaid services, there might not be much if anything left for beneficiaries, so keep that in mind for estate planning purposes.
Other kinds of accounts for disabled people
A Special Needs Trust is often used as well, but that generally requires legal fees to set up, whereas an ABLE account can be funded for as little as $25 with minimal annual fees ($35/year in Washington state.)