March 29, 2013
Most people who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II learned to scrimp and save as a matter of necessity. Many also gained financial security during subsequent decades when pension plans were more common, homeownership became the norm and government programs like Social Security and Medicare expanded. For a time, it seemed their Baby Boomer children stood to inherit amounts unheard of for previous generations.
However, many economic factors have taken their toll on seniors' nest eggs in recent years. Thus, if you were counting on a sizeable inheritance to help finance your own retirement, you may want to rethink that strategy.
Here are several reasons why many seniors are revising their estate distribution plans:
Most people who invested heavily in the stock market during the Great Recession watched helplessly as their accounts lost significant value. Although the market has mostly recovered, many people – especially those in or approaching retirement – stashed their remaining balances in safer investments earning very low interest, worried the market might plunge further. Many likely will have to draw on their account principal to make ends meet, thereby depleting their savings (and estates) much more rapidly than planned.
Many seniors expected their home's equity would help fund retirement. But after the housing market crashed, they instead found its value drastically reduced. Fortunately, the housing market has begun to recover. But many tapped-out seniors have turned to reverse mortgages and home equity loans to draw on their home's equity to cover living expenses, thereby lessening their estate's future value.
As average life spans increase, so does the period we'll need to survive on our retirement savings. A 65-year-old man today will live until 83 on average; for women it jumps to 85. Many people never imagined their savings would have to last that long and didn't plan accordingly.
Even if they buy Medicare prescription drug and Medigap coverage, seniors, like everyone else, spend an ever-increasing percentage of their income on medical care. Such costs usually far outpace benefit cost-of-living increases and interest earned on investments.
Baby Boomers have begun tapping Social Security and Medicare benefits; and far fewer younger workers now fund those programs, so it's possible that benefits will decrease, premiums will rise or taxes will increase – or a combination of all three; all options would strain fixed incomes.
When the market was booming, many people retired early, assuming they could afford to bridge the gap before receiving Social Security and Medicare. But plummeting home equity and reduced 401(k) balances have forced many retirees to aggressively withdraw from savings, trim expenses or even return to work.
Many seniors help their children and grandchildren pay for high-ticket expenses like home down payments and college. Although such gifts reduce the eventual value of their estate, there are certain tax advantages (lower estate taxes, state tax deductions for 529 Plan contributions, etc.). If you're the recipient, don't take such assistance as license to take on additional debt.
Unless they've purchased comprehensive long-term care insurance, your parents will likely burn through most of their savings should they ever require assisted living. And keep in mind that Medicaid will only pay for a nursing home once they've exhausted most of their assets.
Bottom line: With seniors facing increasing financial challenges, don't depend on an inheritance to provide your financial security.
Recent Practical Money Matters