Retirement has changed radically over the last several decades in America. Years ago, you expected to work most of your life for a single, large employer and you then count on a pension. "Retirement planning" meant figuring out how to use your free time. Today, in all likelihood you will be living in retirement on money you, yourself, saved. "Planning" means calculating rates of return and deciphering tax rules.
This change from institution-funded to self-funded retirement constitutes a dramatic shift of responsibility. In recognition of this shift, ElderLawAnswers has significantly expanded its ElderLaw 101 section on Retirement Planning, providing you with information you can use no matter where you are in the continuum of retirement planning.
The section begins with an explanation of the stages along that continuum -- the five phases of retirement planning and the key aspects of good planning to be carried out during each phase. Below is a summary.
PHASE I: Accumulation
This period begins when you enter the workforce and begin setting aside funds for later in your life, and ends when you actually retire. If your employer offers 401(k), 403(b), or 457(b) plans, have you signed up and are you contributing the maximum allowed? Did you know that the "new normal" requires retirement savings rates for most Americans to exceed 10 percent? If self-employed, are you shortchanging yourself on Social Security in order to reap tax deductions?
PHASE II: Pre-Retirement
This phase occurs during the final years of the accumulation phase and should begin when you reach 50 years old or are 15 years away from retiring, whichever happens first. Now is the time to get your plan in place, making sure your finances are lined up correctly for retirement day so nothing will be left to chance. If you work for a company with a benefits specialist, arrange an appointment to become informed about the various ways you can convert your employer retirement savings into a stream of income or an IRA. Consider using a tool known as "scenario planning." Start learning about Social Security and your options for beginning to receive retirement benefits. Familiarize yourself with the basics of Medicare.
PHASE III: Early-Retirement
This phase lasts from the day you retire until you are 70 years old. (For those who do not plan to retire until well into their 70s, some tasks in this phase may occur later.) A key purpose of this phase is to create a clear communication channel with your family so information can be shared, questions asked and answered, and decisions made in a calm, supportive way. It's also the time to assess how well your finances are working now that you are using your retirement savings. Fine-tune your income and expense projections, taking into consideration how you will meet minimum distribution requirements from your tax-deferred accounts.
PHASE IV: Mid-Retirement
This phase begins at age 70 and lasts as long as you are able-bodied and high-functioning. Despite your good health, begin looking at what steps you would like your family to take should your condition decline significantly. In most cases your ability to make all your own decisions, care for yourself, engage with the world on your terms, and manage your affairs does not vanish in a split second. It takes courage to dive into a conversation about giving up and transferring control.
PHASE V: Late-Retirement
This phase begins when your health has taken a turn for the worse and there is little likelihood of it being fully restored. You require significant help to function day to day. The hope is that by this point all the planning done in prior years makes this transition as manageable and life-affirming as possible.