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An Abney Associates Ameriprise Financial Advisor: 529 plans



Section 529 plans can be powerful college savings tools, but you need to understand how your plan works before you can take full advantage of it. Among other things, this means becoming familiar with the finer points of contributions and withdrawals. A little knowledge could save you money and maximize your chances of reaching the educational goals you've set for your children. But keep in mind that all investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there can be no assurance that any investment strategy will be successful.


HOW MUCH CAN YOU CONTRIBUTE?

To qualify as a 529 plan under federal rules, a state program must not accept contributions in excess of the anticipated cost of a beneficiary's qualified education expenses. At one time, this meant five years of tuition, fees, and room and board at the costliest college under the plan, pursuant to the federal government's "safe harbor" guideline. Now, however, states are interpreting this guideline more broadly, revising their limits to reflect the cost of attending the most expensive schools in the country and including the cost of graduate school. As a result, most states have contribution limits of $300,000 and up (and most states will raise their limits each year to keep up with rising college costs).

A state's limit will apply to either kind of 529 plan: prepaid tuition plan or college savings plan. For a prepaid tuition plan, the state's limit is a limit on the total contributions. For example, if the state's limit is $300,000, you can't contribute more than $300,000. On the other hand, a college savings plan limits the value of the account for a beneficiary. When the value of the account (including contributions and investment earnings) reaches the state's limit, no more contributions will be accepted. For example, assume the state's limit is $300,000. If you contribute $250,000 and the account has $50,000 of earnings, you won't be able to contribute anymore--the total value of the account has reached the $300,000 limit.

These limits are per beneficiary, so if you and your mother each set up an account for your child in the same plan, your combined contributions can't exceed the plan limit. If you have accounts in more than one state, ask each plan's administrator if contributions to other plans count against the state's maximum. Some plans may also have a contribution limit, both initially and each year.

Note: Generally, contribution limits don't cross state lines. Contributions made to one state's 529 plan don't count toward the lifetime contribution limit in another state. But check the rules of your state's plan to find out if that plan takes contributions from other states' plans into consideration when determining if the lifetime contribution limit has been reached.


HOW LITTLE CAN YOU START OFF WITH?

Some plans have minimum contribution requirements. This could mean one or more of the following: (1) you have to make a minimum opening deposit when you open your account, (2) each of your contributions has to be at least a certain amount, or (3) you have to contribute at least a certain amount every year. But some plans may waive or lower their minimums (e.g., the opening deposit) if you set up your account for automatic payroll deductions or bank-account debits. Some will also waive fees if you set up such an arrangement. (A growing number of companies are letting their employees contribute to college savings plans via payroll deduction.) Like contribution limits, minimums vary by plan, so be sure to ask your plan administrator.


KNOW YOUR OTHER CONTRIBUTION RULES

Here are a few other basic rules that apply to most 529 plans:

Only cash contributions are accepted (e.g., checks, money orders, credit card payments). You can't contribute stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and the like. If you have money tied up in such assets and would like to invest that money in a 529 plan, you must liquidate the assets first.

Contributions may be made by virtually anyone (e.g., your parents, siblings, friends). Just because you're the account owner doesn't mean you're the only one who's allowed to contribute to the account.

Contributions generally may not be directed toward particular investments of your choice. However, most college savings plans offer several different investment portfolios, and many let you choose one or more portfolios to invest your contributions. You make this choice at the time you make your contribution. Some states have also added two opportunities to change your investment choice. Savings plans in these states let you change your investment choice when you change the beneficiary of the account. These plans let you change the investment portfolio once each calendar year, as well.


MAXIMIZING YOUR CONTRIBUTIONS

Although 529 plans are tax-advantaged vehicles, there's really no way to time your contributions to minimize federal taxes. (If your state offers a generous income tax deduction for contributing to its plan, however, consider contributing as much as possible in your high-income years.) But there may be simple strategies you can use to get the most out of your contributions. For example, investing up to your plan's annual limit every year may help maximize total contributions. Also, a contribution of $14,000 a year or less qualifies for the annual federal gift tax exclusion. And under special rules unique to 529 plans, you can gift a lump sum of up to $70,000 ($140,000 for joint gifts) and avoid federal gift tax, provided you make an election to spread the gift evenly over five years.. This is a valuable strategy if you wish to remove assets from your taxable estate.


LUMP-SUM VS. PERIODIC CONTRIBUTIONS

A common question is whether to fund a 529 plan gradually over time, or with a lump sum. The lump sum would seem to be better because 529 plan earnings grow tax deferred--the sooner you put money in, the sooner you can start to generate earnings. Investing a lump sum may also save you fees over the long run. But the lump sum may have unwanted gift tax consequences, and your opportunities to change an investment portfolio are limited. Gradual investing may let you easily direct future contributions to other portfolios in the plan.


QUALIFIED WITHDRAWALS ARE TAX FREE

Withdrawals from a 529 plan that are used to pay qualified higher education expenses are completely free from federal income tax and may also be exempt from state income tax. Qualified higher education expenses generally include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for enrollment or attendance at an "eligible" educational institution. In addition, the definition includes a limited amount of room-and-board expenses for students attending college on at least a half-time basis. The definition does not currently include the cost of transportation or personal expenses.

Note: A 529 plan must have a way to make sure that a withdrawal is really used for qualified education expenses. Many plans require that the college be paid directly for education expenses; others will prepay or reimburse the beneficiary for such expenses (receipts or other proof may be required).


BEWARE OF NONQUALIFIED WITHDRAWALS

By now, you can probably guess what a nonqualified withdrawal is. Basically, it's any withdrawal that's not used for qualified higher education expenses. For example, if you take money from your account to buy your son a new Porsche, that's a nonqualified withdrawal. Even if you take money out for medical bills or other necessary expenses, you're still making a nonqualified withdrawal.

One reason not to make this type of withdrawal is to avoid depleting your college fund. Another compelling reason is that these withdrawals don't enjoy tax-favored treatment. The earnings part of a nonqualified withdrawal will be subject to federal income tax, and the tax will typically be assessed at the account owner's rate, not at the beneficiary's rate. Plus, the earnings part of a nonqualified withdrawal will be subject to a 10 percent federal penalty, and possibly a state penalty too.


IS TIMING WITHDRAWALS IMPORTANT?

As account owner, you can decide when to withdraw funds from your 529 plan and how much to take out--and there are ways to time your withdrawals for maximum advantage. It's important to coordinate your withdrawals with the education tax credits. That's because the tuition that's used to generate a credit may reduce your available pool of qualified education expenses. A financial aid or tax professional can help you sort this out to ensure that you get the best overall results. It's also a good idea to wait as long as possible to withdraw from the plan. The longer the money stays in the plan, the more time it has to grow tax deferred.

Note: Investors should consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses associated with 529 plans before investing. More information about specific 529 plans is available in each issuer's official statement, which should be read carefully before investing. Also, before investing, consider whether your state offers a 529 plan that provides residents with favorable state tax benefits.

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An Abney Associates Ameriprise Financial Advisor: Other investments


A well-diversified investment portfolio contains a mix of stocks, bonds, short-term cash investments, and savings accounts that is tailored to your investment goals and risk tolerance. If you want to diversify your investment portfolio further, you can look to other investment possibilities. Here are a few of these, with brief explanations of what they are, how they can be used, and what the risks and potential rewards may be.


PRECIOUS METALS
Some investors purchase silver or gold as a hedge against inflation or currency fluctuations.

In general, as inflation rises, the value of the dollar normally goes down. Historically, when a significant drop in the dollar occurred, gold and silver (and platinum to a lesser extent) went up in value. Precious metals such as gold had a tendency to retain their purchasing power no matter how badly the currency declined. Precious metals have intrinsic value, while currency can literally become worth less than the paper it is printed on, as was the case with the German mark after World War I. Keep in mind, though, that past performance is no guarantee of future results, and there can be no assurance that an investment will ever be profitable.

As with any other investment, risks are involved when investing in gold. These include certain risks uncommon to other types of investments, such as monetary policy changes and currency devaluations. Investors should discuss the risks of investing in gold with their financial professional.

Some options for investing in precious metals include actually purchasing the asset (i.e., gold bullion or coins), buying shares of mining companies, investing in a fund that concentrates its portfolio in the securities of issuers principally engaged in gold-related activities, buying futures or options contracts (see below) or investing in an exchange-traded fund that holds bullion.


OPTIONS
Options give the owner the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell an underlying asset at a set price (strike price) before a certain date (expiration date). The underlying asset can be (to name some of the more popular ones) currency, a stock, an index, a bond, or a Treasury bill. A call option is the right to buy the underlying asset, and a put option is the right to sell the underlying asset. The price paid for the option is called the premium.

An investor purchases an option to control a specific number of shares for a limited period of time. An investor might purchase a call option because he or she believes that the price of the stock will go up during that period. Similarly, an investor might purchase a put option because he or she believes that the price will go down during that period. If the investor has guessed wrong, the option expires worthless and he or she could lose the total premium paid for the option.

An investor may sell an option for income on an underlying security that he or she owns. The income is the premium that an option buyer pays to purchase the option. If the underlying security moves in favor of the option buyer, the buyer may exercise the option, and the option seller may be required to sell the underlying security. If the underlying security moves in favor of the seller, the buyer normally will not exercise the option, and the seller keeps both the premium and the underlying asset.

These are just two strategies in which an investor uses options. Although there are many benefits in using them, options are risky and not suitable for all investors. For example, selling an option is done in a margin account, subjecting the seller to interest costs and margin calls. Before attempting to buy or sell options, it is important to discuss the role they can play in your portfolio with a financial professional.


FUTURES
A futures contract is a promise to buy or sell a commodity for a certain price on a future date. Commodities include oil, natural gas, lumber, and base metals, as well as many agricultural products such as farm grains, beef, pork. coffee, and cocoa. In addition to commodities, investors can trade futures on foreign currencies, interest rate products such as Treasury bills, precious metals, and market indexes such as the S&P 500.

Investors purchase futures contracts either as a hedge against price fluctuations or for speculation purposes. Hedging is the primary purpose of futures contracts. The purchaser of the futures contract establishes a price now for a purchase or sale that will take place in the future. Speculators buy and sell futures contracts based on whether they expect prices to move up or down; they hope to profit from the price changes that hedgers try to avoid, and rarely take delivery of the underlying commodity itself.

Futures contracts are extremely high-risk investments. They should be considered only by experienced investors and professionals.


REAL ESTATE INVESTMENT TRUSTS
A real estate investment trust (REIT) is a corporation (or business trust) that invests in real estate or provides financing for real estate. REITs own and, in most instances, manage income-producing real estate such as offices, shopping centers, apartments, and warehouses. REITs derive their income from rents and capital gains realized on the sale of real estate. Some REITs invest in mortgages secured by real estate and get their income from the collection of interest. A REIT may specialize in one type of real estate--for example, office buildings--or have holdings in a variety of types.

REITs offer a convenient way for an investor to participate in commercial real estate. First, an investor's capital commitment is lower, since the investor buys shares of a REIT rather than the actual property. Second, owning a REIT generally offers greater liquidity than owning the property itself. Most REITs trade on the major stock exchanges and can be purchased or sold through stockbrokers. Finally, you get professional property management, which means you don't have to chase after the rents or respond to late-night phone calls about maintenance problems.

REITs offer long-term growth potential and income. Also, investing in REITs helps diversify a portfolio, though diversification alone can't guarantee a profit or protect against potential loss. However, risks are associated with real estate investing. The value of real estate is affected by interest rate changes, economic conditions (both national and local), property tax rates, and other factors. It is important to discuss with a financial professional the role REITs can play in your portfolio.

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An Abney Associates Ameriprise Financial Advisor: Asset Allocation



Asset allocation is a common strategy that you can use to construct an investment portfolio. Asset allocation isn't about picking individual securities. Instead, you focus on broad categories of investments, mixing them together in the right proportion to match your financial goals, the amount of time you have to invest, and your tolerance for risk.


THE BASICS OF ASSET ALLOCATION

The idea behind asset allocation is that because not all investments are alike, you can balance risk and return in your portfolio by spreading your investment dollars among different types of assets, such as stocks, bonds, and cash alternatives. It doesn't guarantee a profit or ensure against a loss, of course, but it can help you manage the level and type of risk you face.

Different types of assets carry different levels of risk and potential for return, and typically don't respond to market forces in the same way at the same time. For instance, when the return of one asset type is declining, the return of another may be growing (though there are no guarantees). If you diversify by owning a variety of assets, a downturn in a single holding won't necessarily spell disaster for your entire portfolio.

Using asset allocation, you identify the asset classes that are appropriate for you and decide the percentage of your investment dollars that should be allocated to each class (e.g., 70 percent to stocks, 20 percent to bonds, 10 percent to cash alternatives).


THE THREE MAJOR CLASSES OF ASSETS

Here's a look at the three major classes of assets you'll generally be considering when you use asset allocation.

Stocks: Although past performance is no guarantee of future results, stocks have historically provided a higher average annual rate of return than other investments, including bonds and cash alternatives. However, stocks are generally more volatile than bonds or cash alternatives. Investing in stocks may be appropriate if your investment goals are long-term.

Bonds: Historically less volatile than stocks, bonds do not provide as much opportunity for growth as stocks do. They are sensitive to interest rate changes; when interest rates rise, bond values tend to fall, and when interest rates fall, bond values tend to rise. Because bonds offer fixed interest payments at regular intervals, they may be appropriate if you want regular income from your investments.

Cash alternatives: Cash alternatives (or short-term instruments) offer a lower potential for growth than other types of assets but are the least volatile. They are subject to inflation risk, the chance that returns won't outpace rising prices. They provide easier access to funds than longer-term investments, and may be appropriate for investment goals that are short-term.

Not only can you diversify across asset classes by purchasing stocks, bonds, and cash alternatives, you can also diversify within a single asset class. For example, when investing in stocks, you can choose to invest in large companies that tend to be less risky than small companies. Or, you could choose to divide your investment dollars according to investment style, investing for growth or for value. Though the investment possibilities are limitless, your objective is always the same: to diversify by choosing complementary investments that balance risk and reward within your portfolio.


DECIDE HOW TO DIVIDE YOUR ASSETS

Your objective in using asset allocation is to construct a portfolio that can provide you with the return on your investment you want without exposing you to more risk than you feel comfortable with. How long you have to invest is important, too, because the longer you have to invest, the more time you have to ride out market ups and downs.

When you're trying to construct a portfolio, you can use worksheets or interactive tools that help identify your investment objectives, your risk tolerance level, and your investment time horizon. These tools may also suggest model or sample allocations that strike a balance between risk and return, based on the information you provide.

For instance, if your investment goal is to save for your retirement over the next 20 years and you can tolerate a relatively high degree of market volatility, a model allocation might suggest that you put a large percentage of your investment dollars in stocks, and allocate a smaller percentage to bonds and cash alternatives. Of course, models are intended to serve only as general guides; determining the right allocation for your individual circumstances may require more sophisticated analysis.


BUILD YOUR PORTFOLIO

The next step is to choose specific investments for your portfolio that match your asset allocation strategy. Investors who are investing through a workplace retirement savings plan typically invest through mutual funds; a diversified portfolio of individual securities is easier to assemble in a separate account.

Mutual funds offer instant diversification within an asset class, and in many cases, the benefits of professional money management. Investments in each fund are chosen according to a specific objective, making it easier to identify a fund or a group of funds that meet your needs. For instance, some of the common terms you'll see used to describe fund objectives are capital preservation, income (or current income), income and growth (or balanced), growth, and aggressive growth. As with any investment in a mutual fund, you should consider your time frame, risk tolerance, and investing objectives.

Note: Before investing in a mutual fund, carefully consider its investment objectives, risks, fees, and expenses, which can be found in the prospectus available from the fund. Read the prospectus carefully before investing.


PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR PORTFOLIO

Once you've chosen your initial allocation, revisit your portfolio at least once a year (or more often if markets are experiencing greater short-term fluctuations). One reason to do this is to rebalance your portfolio. Because of market fluctuations, your portfolio may no longer reflect the initial allocation balance you chose. For instance, if the stock market has been performing well, eventually you'll end up with a higher percentage of your investment dollars in stocks than you initially intended. To rebalance, you may want to shift funds from one asset class to another.

In some cases you may want to rethink your entire allocation strategy. If you're no longer comfortable with the same level of risk, your financial goals have changed, or you're getting close to the time when you'll need the money, you may need to change your asset mix.

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An Abney Associates Ameriprise Financial Advisor on Qualified and Nonqualified Annuities

You may have heard that IRAs and employer-sponsored plans (e.g., 401(k)s) are the best ways to invest for retirement. That's true for many people, but what if you've maxed out your contributions to those accounts and want to save more? An annuity may be a good investment to look into.

GET THE LAY OF THE LAND

An annuity is a tax-deferred investment contract. The details on how it works vary, but here's the general idea. You invest your money (either a lump sum or a series of contributions) with a life insurance company that sells annuities (the annuity issuer). The period when you are funding the annuity is known as the accumulation phase. In exchange for your investment, the annuity issuer promises to make payments to you or a named beneficiary at some point in the future. The period when you are receiving payments from the annuity is known as the distribution phase. Chances are, you'll start receiving payments after you retire.
UNDERSTAND YOUR PAYOUT OPTIONS
Understanding your annuity payout options is very important. Keep in mind that payments are based on the claims-paying ability of the issuer. You want to be sure that the payments you receive will meet your income needs during retirement. Here are some of the most common payout options:

- You surrender the annuity and receive a lump-sum payment of all of the money you have accumulated.

- You receive payments from the annuity over a specific number of years, typically between 5 and 20. If you die before this "period certain" is up, your beneficiary will receive the remaining payments.

- You receive payments from the annuity for your entire lifetime. You can't outlive the payments (no matter how long you live), but there will typically be no survivor payments after you die.

- You combine a lifetime annuity with a period certain annuity. This means that you receive payments for the longer of your lifetime or the time period chosen. Again, if you die before the period certain is up, your beneficiary will receive the remaining payments.

- You elect a joint and survivor annuity so that payments last for the combined life of you and another person, usually your spouse. When one of you dies, the survivor receives payments for the rest of his or her life.

When you surrender the annuity for a lump sum, your tax bill on the investment earnings will be due all in one year. The other options on this list provide you with a guaranteed stream of income (subject to the claims-paying ability of the issuer). They're known as annuitization options because you've elected to spread payments over a period of years. Part of each payment is a return of your principal investment. The other part is taxable investment earnings. You typically receive payments at regular intervals throughout the year (usually monthly, but sometimes quarterly or yearly). The amount of each payment depends on the amount of your principal investment, the particular type of annuity, the length of the payout period, your age if payments for lifetime payments, and other factors.

CONSIDER THE PROS AND CONS

An annuity can often be a great addition to your retirement portfolio. Here are some reasons to consider investing in an annuity:

- Your investment earnings are tax deferred as long as they remain in the annuity. You don't pay income tax on those earnings until they are paid out to you.

- An annuity may be free from the claims of your creditors in some states.

- If you die with an annuity, the annuity's death benefit will pass to your beneficiary without having to go through probate.

- Your annuity can be a reliable source of retirement income, and you have some freedom to decide how you'll receive that income.

- You don't have to meet income tests or other criteria to invest in an annuity.

- You're not subject to an annual contribution limit, unlike IRAs and employer-sponsored plans. You can contribute as much or as little as you like in any given year.

- You're not required to start taking distributions from an annuity at age 70½ (the required minimum distribution age for IRAs and employer-sponsored plans). You can typically postpone payments until you need the income.

But annuities aren't for everyone. Here are some potential drawbacks:

- Contributions to nonqualified annuities are made with after-tax dollars and are not tax deductible.

- Once you've elected to annuitize payments, you usually can't change them, but there are some exceptions.

- You can take your money from an annuity before you start receiving payments, but your annuity issuer may impose a surrender charge if you withdraw your money within a certain number of years (e.g., seven) after your original investment.

- You may have to pay other costs when you invest in an annuity (e.g., annual fees, investment management fees, insurance expenses).

- You may be subject to a 10 percent federal penalty tax (in addition to any regular income tax) if you withdraw your money from an annuity before age 59½, unless you meet one of the exceptions to this rule.

- Investment gains are taxed as ordinary income tax rates, not at the lower capital gains rate.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT TYPE OF ANNUITY

If you think that an annuity is right for you, your next step is to decide which type of annuity. Overwhelmed by all of the annuity products on the market today? Don't be. In fact, most annuities fit into a small handful of categories. Your choices basically revolve around two key questions.

First, how soon would you like annuity payments to begin? That probably depends on how close you are to retiring. If you're near retirement or already retired, an immediate annuity may be your best bet. This type of annuity starts making payments to you shortly after you buy the annuity, typically within a year or less. But what if you're younger, and retirement is still a long-term goal? Then you're probably better off with a deferred annuity. As the name suggests, this type of annuity lets you postpone payments until a later time, even if that's many years down the road.

Second, how would you like your money invested? With a fixed annuity, the annuity issuer determines an interest rate to credit to your investment account. An immediate fixed annuity guarantees a particular rate, and your payment amount never varies. A deferred fixed annuity guarantees your rate for a certain number of years; your rate then fluctuates from year to year as market interest rates change. A variable annuity, whether immediate or deferred, gives you more control and the chance to earn a better rate of return (although with a greater potential for gain comes a greater potential for loss). You select your own investments from the subaccounts that the annuity issuer offers. Your payment amount will vary based on how your investments perform.

Note: Variable annuities are sold by prospectus. You should consider the investment objectives, risk, charges and expenses carefully before investing. The prospectus, which contains this and other information about the variable annuity, can be obtained from the insurance company issuing the variable annuity or from your financial professional. You should read the prospectus carefully before you invest.

SHOP AROUND

It pays to shop around for the right annuity. In fact, doing a little homework could save you hundreds of dollars a year or more. Why? Rates of return and costs can vary widely between different annuities. You'll also want to shop around for a reputable, financially sound annuity issuer. There are firms that make a business of rating insurance companies based on their financial strength, investment performance, and other factors. Consider checking out these ratings.

Read for More Related Articles @ http://ameripriseabneyassoc.blogspot.co.uk/

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An Abney Associates Ameriprise Financial Advisor on How Student Loans Impact your Credit

If you've finished college within the last few years, chances are you're paying off your student loans. What happens with your student loans now that they've entered repayment status will have a significant impact--positive or negative--on your credit history and credit score.

IT'S PAYBACK TIME

When you left school, you enjoyed a grace period of six to nine months before you had to begin repaying your student loans. But they were there all along, sleeping like an 800-pound gorilla in the corner of the room. Once the grace period was over, the gorilla woke up. How is he now affecting your ability to get other credit?

One way to find out is to pull a copy of your credit report. There are three major credit reporting agencies, or credit bureaus--Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union--and you should get a copy of your credit report from each one. Keep in mind, though, that while institutions making student loans are required to report the date of disbursement, balance due, and current status of your loans to a credit bureau, they're not currently required to report the information to all three, although many do.

If you're repaying your student loans on time, then the gorilla is behaving nicely, and is actually helping you establish a good credit history. But if you're seriously delinquent or in default on your loans, the gorilla will turn into King Kong, terrorizing the neighborhood and seriously undermining your efforts to get other credit.

WHAT'S YOUR CREDIT SCORE?
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Your credit report contains information about any credit you have, including credit cards, car loans, and student loans. The credit bureau (or any prospective creditor) may use this information to generate a credit score, which statistically compares information about you to the credit performance of a base sample of consumers with similar profiles. The higher your credit score, the more likely you are to be a good credit risk, and the better your chances of obtaining credit at a favorable interest rate.

Many different factors are used to determine your credit score. Some of these factors carry more weight than others. Significant weight is given to factors describing:

• Your payment history, including whether you've paid your obligations on time, and how long any delinquencies have lasted

• Your outstanding debt, including the amounts you owe on your accounts, the different types of accounts you have (e.g., credit cards, installment loans), and how close your balances are to the account limits

• Your credit history, including how long you've had credit, how long specific accounts have been open, and how long it has been since you've used each account

• New credit, including how many inquires or applications for credit you've made, and how recently you've made them

STUDENT LOANS AND YOUR CREDIT SCORE

Always make your student loan payments on time. Otherwise, your credit score will be negatively affected. To improve your credit score, it's also important to make sure that any positive repayment history is correctly reported by all three credit bureaus, especially if your credit history is sparse. If you find that your student loans aren't being reported correctly to all three major credit bureaus, ask your lender to do so.

But even when it's there for all to see, a large student loan debt may impact a factor prospective creditors scrutinize closely: your debt-to-income ratio. A large student loan debt may especially hurt your chances of getting new credit if you're in a low-paying job, and a prospective creditor feels your budget is stretched too thin to make room for the payments any new credit will require.

Moreover, if your principal balances haven't changed much (and they don't in the early years of loans with long repayment terms) or if they're getting larger (because you've taken a forbearance on your student loans and the accruing interest is adding to your outstanding balance), it may look to a prospective lender like you're not making much progress on paying down the debt you already have.

GETTING THE MONKEY OFF YOUR BACK
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Like many people, you may have put off buying a house or a car because you're overburdened with student loan debt. So what can you do to improve your situation? Here are some suggestions to consider:

• Pay off your student loan debt as fast as possible. Doing so will reduce your debt-to-income ratio, even if your income doesn't increase.

• If you're struggling to repay your student loans and are considering asking for forbearance, ask your lender instead to allow you to make interest-only payments. Your principal balance may not go down, but it won't go up, either.

• Ask your lender about a graduated repayment option. In this arrangement, the term of your student loan remains the same, but your payments are smaller in the beginning years and larger in the later years. Lowering your payments in the early years may improve your debt-to-income ratio, and larger payments later may not adversely affect you if your income increases as well.

• If you're really strapped, explore extended or income-sensitive repayment options. Extended repayment options extend the term you have to repay your loans. Over the longer term, you'll pay a greater amount of interest, but your monthly payments will be smaller, thus improving your debt-to-income ratio. Income-sensitive plans tie your monthly payment to your level of income; the lower your income, the lower your payment. This also may improve your debt-to-income ratio.

• If you have several student loans, consider consolidating them through a student loan consolidation program. This won't reduce your total debt, but a larger loan may offer a longer repayment term or a better interest rate. While you'll pay more total interest over the course of a longer term, you'll also lower your monthly payment, which in turn will lower your debt-to-income ratio.

• If you're in default on your student loans, don't ignore them--they aren't going to go away. Student loans generally cannot be discharged even in bankruptcy. Ask your lender about loan rehabilitation programs; successful completion of such programs can remove default status notations on your credit reports.

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An Abney Associates Ameriprise Financial Advisor on Understanding Long-Term Care Insurance

IT'S A FACT: People today are living longer. Although that's good news, the odds of requiring some sort of long-term care increase as you get older. And as the costs of home care, nursing homes, and assisted living escalate, you probably wonder how you're ever going to be able to afford long-term care. One solution that is gaining in popularity is long-term care insurance (LTCI).

WHAT IS LONG-TERM CARE?
Most people associate long-term care with the elderly. But it applies to the ongoing care of individuals of all ages who can no longer independently perform basic activities of daily living (ADLs)--such as bathing, dressing, or eating--due to an illness, injury, or cognitive disorder. This care can be provided in a number of settings, including private homes, assisted-living facilities, adult day-care centers, hospices, and nursing homes.

WHY YOU NEED LONG-TERM CARE INSURANCE (LTCI)
Even though you may never need long-term care, you'll want to be prepared in case you ever do, because long-term care is often very expensive. Although Medicaid does cover some of the costs of long-term care, it has strict financial eligibility requirements--you would have to exhaust a large portion of your life savings to become eligible for it. And since HMOs, Medicare, and Medigap don't pay for most long-term care expenses, you're going to need to find alternative ways to pay for long-term care. One option you have is to purchase an LTCI policy.
However, LTCI is not for everyone. Whether or not you should buy it depends on a number of factors, such as your age and financial circumstances. Consider purchasing an LTCI policy if some or all of the following apply:

• You are between the ages of 40 and 84
• You have significant assets that you would like to protect
• You can afford to pay the premiums now and in the future
• You are in good health and are insurable

HOW DOES LTCI WORK?
Typically, an LTCI policy works like this: You pay a premium, and when benefits are triggered, the policy pays a selected dollar amount per day (for a set period of time) for the type of long-term care outlined in the policy.

Most policies provide that certain physical and/or mental impairments trigger benefits. The most common method for determining when benefits are payable is based on your inability to perform certain activities of daily living (ADLs), such as eating, bathing, dressing, continence, toileting (moving on and off the toilet), and transferring (moving in and out of bed). Typically, benefits are payable when you're unable to perform a certain number of ADLs (e.g., two or three).

Some policies, however, will begin paying benefits only if your doctor certifies that the care is medically necessary. Others will also offer benefits for cognitive or mental incapacity, demonstrated by your inability to pass certain tests.

COMPARING LTCI POLICIES
Before you buy LTCI, it's important to shop around and compare several policies. Read the Outline of Coverage portion of each policy carefully, and make sure you understand all of the benefits, exclusions, and provisions. Once you find a policy you like, be sure to check insurance company ratings from services such as A. M. Best, Moody's, and Standard & Poor's to make sure that the company is financially stable.

When comparing policies, you'll want to pay close attention to these common features and provisions:

• Elimination period: The period of time before the insurance policy will begin paying benefits (typical options range from 20 to 100 days). Also known as the waiting period.
• Duration of benefits: The limitations placed on the benefits you can receive (e.g., a dollar amount such as $150,000 or a time limit such as two years).
• Daily benefit: The amount of coverage you select as your daily benefit (typical options range from $50 to $350).
• Optional inflation rider: Protection against inflation.
• Range of care: Coverage for different levels of care (skilled, intermediate, and/or custodial) in care settings specified in policy (e.g., nursing home, assisted living facility, at home).
• Pre-existing conditions: The waiting period (e.g., six months) imposed before coverage will go into effect regarding treatment for pre-existing conditions.
• Other exclusions: Whether or not certain conditions are covered (e.g., Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease).
• Premium increases: Whether or not your premiums will increase during the policy period.
• Guaranteed renewability: The opportunity for you to renew the policy and maintain your coverage despite any changes in your health.
• Grace period for late payment: The period during which the policy will remain in effect if you are late paying the premium.
• Return of premium: Return of premium or nonforfeiture benefits if you cancel your policy after paying premiums for a number of years.
• Prior hospitalization: Whether or not a hospital stay is required before you can qualify for LTCI benefits.
• When comparing LTCI policies, you may wish to seek assistance. Consult a financial professional, attorney, or accountant for more information.

WHAT'S IT GOING TO COST?
There's no doubt about it: LTCI is often expensive. Still, the cost of LTCI depends on many factors, including the type of policy that you purchase (e.g., size of benefit, length of benefit period, care options, optional riders). Premium cost is also based in large part on your age at the time you purchase the policy. The younger you are when you purchase a policy, the lower your premiums will be.

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An Abney Associates Ameriprise Financial Advisor: Asset Protection in Estate Planning
http://www.ameripriseadvisors.com/team/abney-associates/articles/45/asset-protection-in-estate-planning/

You're beginning to accumulate substantial wealth, but you worry about protecting it from future potential creditors. Whether your concern is for your personal assets or your business, various tools exist to keep your property safe from tax collectors, accident victims, health-care providers, credit card issuers, business creditors, and creditors of others.

To insulate your property from such claims, you'll have to evaluate each tool in terms of your own situation. You may decide that insurance and a Declaration of Homestead may be sufficient protection for your home because your exposure to a claim is low. For high exposure, you may want to create a business entity or an offshore trust to shield your assets. Remember, no asset protection tool is guaranteed to work, and you may have to adjust your asset protection strategies as your situation or the laws change.

LIABILITY INSURANCE IS YOUR FIRST AND BEST LINE OF DEFENSE

Liability insurance is at the top of any plan for asset protection. You should consider purchasing or increasing umbrella coverage on your homeowner’s policy. For business-related liability, purchase or increase your liability coverage under your business insurance policy. Generally, the cost of the premiums for this type of coverage is minimal compared to what you might be required to pay under a court judgment should you ever be sued.

A DECLARATION OF HOMESTEAD PROTECTS THE FAMILY RESIDENCE

Your primary residence may be your most significant asset. State law determines the creditor and judgment protection afforded a residence by way of a Declaration of Homestead, which varies greatly from state to state. For example, a state may provide a complete exemption for a residence (i.e., its entire value), a limited exemption (e.g., up to $100,000), or an exemption under certain circumstances (e.g., a judgment for medical bills). A Declaration of Homestead is easy to file. You pay a small fee, fill out a simple form, and file it at the registry where your deed is recorded.

DIVIDING ASSETS BETWEEN SPOUSES CAN LIMIT EXPOSURE TO POTENTIAL LIABILITY

Perhaps you work in an occupation or business that exposes you to greater potential liability than your spouse's job does. If so, it may be a good idea to divide assets between you so that you keep only the income and assets from your job, while your spouse takes sole ownership of your investments and other valuable assets. Generally, your creditors can reach only those assets that are in your name.

BUSINESS ENTITIES CAN PROVIDE TWO TYPES OF PROTECTION--SHIELDING YOUR PERSONAL ASSETS FROM YOUR BUSINESS CREDITORS AND SHIELDING BUSINESS ASSETS FROM YOUR PERSONAL CREDITORS

Consider using a corporation, limited partnership, or limited liability company (LLC) to operate the business. Such business entities shield the personal assets of the shareholders, limited partners, or LLC members from liabilities that arise from the business. The liability of these owners will be limited to the assets of the business.

Conversely, corporations, limited partnerships, and LLCs provide some protection from the personal creditors of a shareholder, limited partner, or member. In a corporation, a creditor of an individual owner is able to place a lien on, and eventually acquire, the shares of the debtor/shareholder, but would not have any rights greater than the rights conferred by the shares. In limited partnerships or LLCs, under most state laws, a creditor of a partner or member is entitled to obtain only a charging order with respect to the partner or member's interest. The charging order gives the creditor the right to receive any distributions with respect to the interest. In all respects, the creditor is treated as a mere assignee and is not entitled to exercise any voting rights or other rights that the partner or member possessed.

CERTAIN TRUSTS CAN PRESERVE TRUST ASSETS FROM CLAIMS

People have used trusts to protect their assets for generations. The key to using a trust as an asset protection tool is that the trust must be irrevocable and become the owner of your property. Once given away, these assets are no longer yours and are not available to satisfy claims against you. To properly establish an asset protection trust, you must not keep any interest in the trust assets or control over the trust.

Trusts can also protect trust assets from potential creditors of the beneficiaries of the trust. The extent to which a beneficiary's creditors can reach trust property depends on how much access the beneficiary has to the trust property. The more access the beneficiary has to the trust property, the more access the beneficiary's creditors will have. Thus, the terms of the trust are critical.

There are many types of asset protection trusts, each having its own benefits and drawbacks. These trusts include:

• Spendthrift trusts
• Discretionary trusts
• Support trusts
• Blend trusts
• Personal trusts
• Self-settled trusts

Since certain claims can pierce domestic protective trusts (e.g., claims by a spouse or child for support and state or federal claims), you can bolster your protection by placing the trust in a foreign jurisdiction. Offshore or foreign trusts are established under, or made subject to, the laws of another country (e.g., the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Belize, Jersey, Liechtenstein, and the Cook Islands) that does not generally honor judgments made in the United States.

A WORD ABOUT FRAUDULENT TRANSFERS

The court will ignore transfers to an asset protection trust if:

• A creditor's claim arose before you made the transfer
• You made the transfer with the intent to defraud a creditor
• You incurred debts without a reasonable expectation of paying them
 

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Abney Associates Ameriprise: Saving for Retirement and a Child's Education

Saving for retirement and a child's education at the same time
http://www.ameripriseadvisors.com/team/abney-associates/articles/21/saving-for-retirement-and-a-childs-education-at-the-same-time/

You want to retire comfortably when the time comes. You also want to help your child go to college. So how do you juggle the two? The truth is, saving for your retirement and your child's education at the same time can be a challenge. But take heart--you may be able to reach both goals if you make some smart choices now.

KNOW WHAT YOUR FINANCIAL NEEDS ARE

The first step is to determine what your financial needs are for each goal. Answering the following questions can help you get started:

For retirement:

• How many years until you retire?
• Does your company offer an employer-sponsored retirement plan or a pension plan? Do you participate? If so, what's your balance? Can you estimate what your balance will be when you retire?
• How much do you expect to receive in Social Security benefits? (You can estimate this amount by using your Personal Earnings and Benefit Statement, now mailed every year by the Social Security Administration.)
• What standard of living do you hope to have in retirement? For example, do you want to travel extensively, or will you be happy to stay in one place and live more simply?
• Do you or your spouse expect to work part-time in retirement?

For college:

• How many years until your child start college?
• Will your child attend a public or private college? What's the expected cost?
• Do you have more than one child whom you'll be saving for?
• Does your child have any special academic, athletic, or artistic skills that could lead to a scholarship?
• Do you expect your child to qualify for financial aid?
Many on-line calculators are available to help you predict your retirement income needs and your child's college funding needs.

FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU CAN AFFORD TO PUT ASIDE EACH MONTH

After you know what your financial needs are, the next step is to determine what you can afford to put aside each month. To do so, you'll need to prepare a detailed family budget that lists all of your income and expenses. Keep in mind, though, that the amount you can afford may change from time to time as your circumstances change. Once you've come up with a dollar amount, you'll need to decide how to divvy up your funds.

RETIREMENT TAKES PRIORITY

Though college is certainly an important goal, you should probably focus on your retirement if you have limited funds. With generous corporate pensions mostly a thing of the past, the burden is primarily on you to fund your retirement. But if you wait until your child is in college to start saving, you'll miss out on years of tax-deferred growth and compounding of your money. Remember, your child can always attend college by taking out loans (or maybe even with scholarships), but there's no such thing as a retirement loan!

IF POSSIBLE, SAVE FOR YOUR RETIREMENT AND YOUR CHILD'S COLLEGE AT THE SAME TIME

Ideally, you'll want to try to pursue both goals at the same time. The more money you can squirrel away for college bills now, the less money you or your child will need to borrow later. Even if you can allocate only a small amount to your child's college fund, say $50 or $100 a month, you might be surprised at how much you can accumulate over many years. For example, if you saved $100 every month and earned 8 percent, you'd have $18,415 in your child's college fund after 10 years. (This example is for illustrative purposes only and does not represent a specific investment.)

If you're unsure how to allocate your funds between retirement and college, a professional financial planner may be able to help you. This person can also help you select the best investments for each goal. Remember, just because you're pursuing both goals at the same time doesn't necessarily mean that the same investments will be appropriate. Each goal should be treated independently.

HELP! I CAN'T MEET BOTH GOALS

If the numbers say that you can't afford to educate your child or retire with the lifestyle you expected, you'll have to make some sacrifices. Here are some things you can do:

• Defer retirement: The longer you work the more money you'll earn and the later you'll need to dip into your retirement savings.
• Work part-time during retirement.
• Reduce your standard of living now or in retirement: You might be able to adjust your spending habits now in order to have money later. Or, you may want to consider cutting back in retirement.
• Increase your earnings now: You might consider increasing your hours at your current job, finding another job with better pay, taking a second job, or having a previously stay-at-home spouse return to the workforce.
• Invest more aggressively: If you have several years until retirement or college, you might be able to earn more money by investing more aggressively (but remember that aggressive investments mean a greater risk of loss).
• Expect your child to contribute more money to college: Despite your best efforts, your child may need to take out student loans or work part-time to earn money for college.
• Send your child to a less expensive school: You may have dreamed your child would follow in your footsteps and attend an Ivy League school. However, unless your child is awarded a scholarship, you may need to lower your expectations. Don't feel guilty--a lesser-known liberal arts college or a state university may provide your child with a similar quality education at a far lower cost.
• Think of other creative ways to reduce education costs: Your child could attend a local college and live at home to save on room and board, enroll in an accelerated program to graduate in three years instead for four, take advantage of a cooperative education where paid internships alternate with course work, or defer college for a year or two and work to earn money for college.

CAN RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS BE USED TO SAVE FOR COLLEGE?

Yes. Should they be? Probably not, most financial planners discourage paying for college with funds from a retirement account; they also discourage using retirement funds for a child's college education if doing so will leave you with no funds in your retirement years. However, you can certainly tap your retirement accounts to help pay the college bills if you need to. With IRAs, you can withdraw money penalty free for college expenses, even if you're under age 59½ (though there may be income tax consequences for the money you withdraw). But with an employer-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k) or 403(b), you'll generally pay a 10 percent penalty on any withdrawals made before you reach age 59½ (age 55 in some cases), even if the money is used for college expenses. You may also be subject to a six month suspension if you make a hardship withdrawal. There may be income tax consequences, as well. (Check with your plan administrator to see what withdrawal options are available to you in your employer-sponsored retirement plan.)

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An Abney Associates Ameriprise Financial Advisor for Taking Retirement Plans

Taking advantage of employer-sponsored retirement plans
http://www.ameripriseadvisors.com/team/abney-associates/articles/62/taking-advantage-of-employer-sponsored-retirement-plans/

Employer-sponsored qualified retirement plans such as 401(k)s are some of the most powerful retirement savings tools available. If your employer offers such a plan and you're not participating in it, you should be. Once you're participating in a plan, try to take full advantage of it.

UNDERSTAND YOUR EMPLOYER-SPONSORED PLAN

Before you can take advantage of your employer's plan, you need to understand how these plans work. Read everything you can about the plan and talk to your employer's benefits officer. You can also talk to a financial planner, a tax advisor, and other professionals. Recognize the key features that many employer-sponsored plans share:

• Your employer automatically deducts your contributions from your paycheck. You may never even miss the money--out of sight, out of mind.
• You decide what portion of your salary to contribute, up to the legal limit. And you can usually change your contribution amount on certain dates during the year.
• With 401(k), 403(b), 457(b), SARSEPs, and SIMPLE plans, you contribute to the plan on a pretax basis. Your contributions come off the top of your salary before your employer withholds income taxes.
• Your 401(k), 403(b), or 457(b) plan may let you make after-tax Roth contributions--there's no up-front tax benefit but qualified distributions are entirely tax free.
• Your employer may match all or part of your contribution up to a certain level. You typically become vested in these employer dollars through years of service with the company.
• Your funds grow tax deferred in the plan. You don't pay taxes on investment earnings until you withdraw your money from the plan.
• You'll pay income taxes and possibly an early withdrawal penalty if you withdraw your money from the plan.
• You may be able to borrow a portion of your vested balance (up to $50,000) at a reasonable interest rate.
• Your creditors cannot reach your plan funds to satisfy your debts.

CONTRIBUTE AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

The more you can save for retirement, the better your chances of retiring comfortably. If you can, max out your contribution up to the legal limit. If you need to free up money to do that, try to cut certain expenses.

Why put your retirement dollars in your employer's plan instead of somewhere else? One reason is that your pretax contributions to your employer's plan lower your taxable income for the year. This means you save money in taxes when you contribute to the plan--a big advantage if you're in a high tax bracket. For example, if you earn $100,000 a year and contribute $10,000 to a 401(k) plan, you'll pay income taxes on $90,000 instead of $100,000. (Roth contributions don't lower your current taxable income but qualified distributions of your contributions and earnings--that is, distributions made after you satisfy a five-year holding period and reach age 59½, become disabled, or die--are tax free.)

Another reason is the power of tax-deferred growth. Your investment earnings compound year after year and aren't taxable as long as they remain in the plan. Over the long term, this gives you the opportunity to build an impressive sum in your employer's plan. You should end up with a much larger balance than somebody who invests the same amount in taxable investments at the same rate of return.

For example, you participate in your employer's tax-deferred plan (Account A). You also have a taxable investment account (Account B). Each account earns 8 percent per year. You're in the 28 percent tax bracket and contribute $10,000 to each account at the end of every year. You pay the yearly income taxes on Account B's earnings using funds from that same account. At the end of 30 years, Account A is worth $1,132,832, while Account B is worth only $757,970. That's a difference of over $370,000. (Note: This example is for illustrative purposes only and does not represent a specific investment.)

CAPTURE THE FULL EMPLOYER MATCH

If you can't max out your 401(k) or other plan, you should at least try to contribute up to the limit your employer will match. Employer contributions are basically free money once you're vested in them (check with your employer to find out when vesting happens). By capturing the full benefit of your employer's match, you'll be surprised how much faster your balance grows. If you don't take advantage of your employer's generosity, you could be passing up a significant return on your money.

For example, you earn $30,000 a year and work for an employer that has a matching 401(k) plan. The match is 50 cents on the dollar up to 6 percent of your salary. Each year, you contribute 6 percent of your salary ($1,800) to the plan and receive a matching contribution of $900 from your employer.

EVALUATE YOUR INVESTMENT CHOICES CAREFULLY

Most employer-sponsored plans give you a selection of mutual funds or other investments to choose from. Make your choices carefully. The right investment mix for your employer's plan could be one of your keys to a comfortable retirement. That's because over the long term, varying rates of return can make a big difference in the size of your balance.

Research the investments available to you. How have they performed over the long term? Have they held their own during down markets? How much risk will they expose you to? Which ones are best suited for long-term goals like retirement? You may also want to get advice from a financial professional (either your own, or one provided through your plan). He or she can help you pick the right investments based on your personal goals, your attitude toward risk, how long you have until retirement, and other factors. Your financial professional can also help you coordinate your plan investments with your overall investment portfolio.

Finally, you may be able to change your investment allocations or move money between the plan's investments on specific dates during the year (e.g., at the start of every month or every quarter).

KNOW YOUR OPTIONS WHEN YOU LEAVE YOUR EMPLOYER

When you leave your job, your vested balance in your former employer's retirement plan is yours to keep. You have several options at that point, including:

• Taking a lump-sum distribution. This is often a bad idea, because you'll pay income taxes and possibly a penalty on the amount you withdraw. Plus, you're giving up continued tax-deferred growth.
• Leaving your funds in the old plan, growing tax deferred (your old plan may not permit this if your balance is less than $5,000, or if you've reached the plan's normal retirement age--typically age 65). This may be a good idea if you're happy with the plan's investments or you need time to decide what to do with your money.
• Rolling your funds over to an IRA or a new employer's plan if the plan accepts rollovers. This is often a smart move because there will be no income taxes or penalties if you do the rollover properly (your old plan will withhold 20 percent for income taxes if you receive the funds before rolling them over). Plus, your funds will keep growing tax deferred in the IRA or new plan.

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Abney Associates Ameriprise Financial Advisor: Choosing a beneficiary for your IRA or 401(k)


Selecting beneficiaries for retirement benefits is different from choosing beneficiaries for other assets such as life insurance. With retirement benefits, you need to know the impact of income tax and estate tax laws in order to select the right beneficiaries. Although taxes shouldn't be the sole determining factor in naming your beneficiaries, ignoring the impact of taxes could lead you to make an incorrect choice.

In addition, if you're married, beneficiary designations may affect the size of minimum required distributions to you from your IRAs and retirement plans while you're alive.

PAYING INCOME TAX ON MOST RETIREMENT DISTRIBUTIONS
Most inherited assets such as bank accounts, stocks, and real estate pass to your beneficiaries without income tax being due. However, that's not usually the case with 401(k) plans and IRAs.

Beneficiaries pay ordinary income tax on distributions from 401(k) plans and traditional IRAs. With Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s, however, your beneficiaries can receive the benefits free from income tax if all of the tax requirements are met. That means you need to consider the impact of income taxes when designating beneficiaries for your 401(k) and IRA assets.

For example, if one of your children inherits $100,000 cash from you and another child receives your 401(k) account worth $100,000, they aren't receiving the same amount. The reason is that all distributions from the 401(k) plan will be subject to income tax at ordinary income tax rates, while the cash isn't subject to income tax when it passes to your child upon your death.

Similarly, if one of your children inherits your taxable traditional IRA and another child receives your income-tax-free Roth IRA, the bottom line is different for each of them.

NAMING OR CHANGING BENEFICIARIES
When you open up an IRA or begin participating in a 401(k), you are given a form to complete in order to name your beneficiaries. Changes are made in the same way--you complete a new beneficiary designation form. A will or trust does not override your beneficiary designation form. However, spouses may have special rights under federal or state law.

It's a good idea to review your beneficiary designation form at least every two to three years. Also, be sure to update your form to reflect changes in financial circumstances. Beneficiary designations are important estate planning documents. Seek legal advice as needed.

DESIGNATING PRIMARY AND SECONDARY BENEFICIARIES
When it comes to beneficiary designation forms, you want to avoid gaps. If you don't have a named beneficiary who survives you, your estate may end up as the beneficiary, which is not always the best result.

Your primary beneficiary is your first choice to receive retirement benefits. You can name more than one person or entity as your primary beneficiary. If your primary beneficiary doesn't survive you or decides to decline the benefits (the tax term for this is a disclaimer), then your secondary (or "contingent") beneficiaries receive the benefits.

HAVING MULTIPLE BENEFICIARIES
You can name more than one beneficiary to share in the proceeds. You just need to specify the percentage each beneficiary will receive (the shares do not have to be equal). You should also state who will receive the proceeds should a beneficiary not survive you.

In some cases, you'll want to designate a different beneficiary for each account or have one account divided into subaccounts (with a beneficiary for each subaccount). You'd do this to allow each beneficiary to use his or her own life expectancy in calculating required distributions after your death. This, in turn, can permit greater tax deferral (delay) and flexibility for your beneficiaries in paying income tax on distributions.

AVOIDING GAPS OR NAMING YOUR ESTATE AS A BENEFICIARY
There are two ways your retirement benefits could end up in your probate estate. Probate is the court process by which assets are transferred from someone who has died to the heirs or beneficiaries entitled to those assets.

First, you might name your estate as the beneficiary. Second, if no named beneficiary survives you, your probate estate may end up as the beneficiary by default. If your probate estate is your beneficiary, several problems can arise.

If your estate receives your retirement benefits, the opportunity to maximize tax deferral by spreading out distributions may be lost. In addition, probate can mean paying attorney's and executor's fees and delaying the distribution of benefits.

NAMING YOUR SPOUSE AS A BENEFICIARY
When it comes to taxes, your spouse is usually the best choice for a primary beneficiary.

A spousal beneficiary has the greatest flexibility for delaying distributions that are subject to income tax. In addition to rolling over your 401(k) or IRA to his or her IRA, a surviving spouse can generally decide to treat your IRA as his or her own IRA. This can provide more tax and planning options.

If your spouse is more than 10 years younger than you, then naming your spouse can also reduce the size of any required taxable distributions to you from retirement assets while you're alive. This can allow more assets to stay in the retirement account longer and delay the payment of income tax on distributions.

Although naming a surviving spouse can produce the best income tax result, that isn't necessarily the case with death taxes. One possible downside to naming your spouse as the primary beneficiary is that it will increase the size of your spouse's estate for death tax purposes. That's because at your death, your spouse can inherit an unlimited amount of assets and defer federal death tax until both of you are deceased (note: special tax rules and requirements apply for a surviving spouse who is not a U.S. citizen). However, this may result in death tax or increased death tax when your spouse dies.

If your spouse's taxable estate for federal tax purposes at his or her death exceeds the applicable exclusion amount (formerly known as the unified credit), then federal death tax may be due at his or her death.

NAMING OTHER INDIVIDUALS AS BENEFICIARIES
You may have some limits on choosing beneficiaries other than your spouse. No matter where you live, federal law dictates that your surviving spouse be the primary beneficiary of your 401(k) plan benefit unless your spouse signs a timely, effective written waiver. And if you live in one of the community property states, your spouse may have rights related to your IRA regardless of whether he or she is named as the primary beneficiary.

Keep in mind that a nonspouse beneficiary cannot roll over your 401(k) or IRA to his or her own IRA. However, a nonspouse beneficiary can roll over all or part of your 401(k) benefits to an inherited IRA.

NAMING A TRUST AS A BENEFICIARY
You must follow special tax rules when naming a trust as a beneficiary, and there may be income tax complications. Seek legal advice before designating a trust as a beneficiary.

NAMING A CHARITY AS A BENEFICIARY
In general, naming a charity as the primary beneficiary will not affect required distributions to you during your lifetime. However, after your death, having a charity named with other beneficiaries on the same asset could affect the tax-deferral possibilities of the noncharitable beneficiaries, depending on how soon after your death the charity receives its share of the benefits.
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