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The Retirement Risks You Can’t Predict

Long-term care and market swings can derail the best plans

By Elizabeth O'Brien and MarketWatch

(This article appeared previously on

Financial planners love rules of thumb when it comes to saving for and spending in retirement, and guidelines can help clients conceptualize a daunting subject. But the best advisers acknowledge that reality is much less predictable than the rules imply, and that financial plans need to accommodate a good deal of uncertainty — including question marks about your own longevity and the amount you might need for long-term care.


“When you’re doing retirement planning, you really have to look at the individual circumstances and you have to realize that the spending and the assets are not that predictable and that they change over time,” said Dirk Cotton, a financial planner in Chapel Hill, N.C. at a recent Retirement Adviser panel discussion in New York City moderated by MarketWatch senior columnist Robert Powell.

(MORE: 3 Retirement Rules of Thumb That Work)



These rules generally rest on assumptions of spending stability — that is, a retiree will spend a fixed amount annually, indexed for inflation over a period that could last 30 years or even longer. And yet, retirement spending is usually much choppier in reality, due to all sorts of risks and uncertainties.


Long-term care is one of the most vexing risks to factor into a financial plan, advisers say. People reaching age 65 have a seven-in-10 likelihood of eventually needing help with basic tasks of daily living, such as bathing and eating. And yet, advisers and their clients too often avoid planning for that likelihood, said Joe Tomlinson, an actuary and financial planner in Greenville, Maine. Even if you assume you’ll need help, it’s impossible to predict how much you’ll need.


Medicare doesn’t cover this type of custodial care, as it’s known, and it can be enormously expensive. The median national cost of a private nursing home room nationally is $87,600 a year, in today’s dollars, according to Genworth, and in some parts of the country it’s already much higher. Provided in the home, custodial care costs around $20 per hour.



Choosing the ‘Best Bad Solution’



So how should planners incorporate this risk into their clients’ portfolios? “Unfortunately, I would say there’s no good solution, so it kind of comes down to, how do I choose the best bad solution for long-term care?” Tomlinson said.


Tomlinson recommends that clients take a serious look at long-term care insurance, even though the industry has had its share of problems. Carriers have exited the business in recent years as the product has proved unprofitable, and the carriers that have remained have trimmed benefits and raised premiums.


And yet, “if you went without insurance, then you’d be facing more expense than you thought,” Tomlinson said. People shouldn’t wait until they’re about to retire to consider a long-term care insurance purchase, since they may not be healthy enough at that point to pass the policy’s medical underwriting.


Given all the unknowns, Cotton advocates reassessing a retiree’s spending needs, account balances and risk tolerance annually, and then tweaking the portfolio’s asset mix accordingly. “I can’t tell anyone, ‘This is what you ought to do over your retirement career, that you should have more stocks when you’re 80,’” he said. “I’m going to have to wait until you’re 80 to let you know.”


In addition to unpredictable expenses, retirees face an uncertain lifespan. An income annuity is a good tool to address this so-called longevity risk, since it provides a guaranteed income stream for life, said Wade Pfau, a professor of retirement income at the American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa.


However, it’s important not to put all of a retiree’s assets into an annuity, Pfau said: “You also need liquid reserves that are just available to deal with unexpected spending.”

Elizabeth O'Brien is a retirement healthcare reporter for MarketWatch. Contact her at Elizabeth.O'[email protected]


Elizabeth O'Brien Elizabeth O'Brien is a retirement healthcare reporter for MarketWatch. Contact her at Elizabeth.O'[email protected] Read More
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