Pension Maximization


You may hear, or have been told, to take advantage of something called “pension maximization” – especially if you’re a Federal employee. So what does this mean?

Traditionally those receiving pensions have the option to take a reduced benefit to provide a continuing benefit for a surviving spouse and/or family member. Pension maximization involves purchasing a life insurance policy to provide the same income benefits, and allowing the retiree to receive the full pension benefit – secure in the knowledge their spouse or loved one would be provided for after they’re gone.

If this was the only consideration I would have nothing to write about – because in many cases this will make the most fiscal sense. However, the retiree needs to be sure they understand if and how this could affect their spouse and/or loved ones’ continued healthcare benefit. In many cases, Federal employees being an example, in order to continue receiving health care benefits there is a minimum transfer requirement – meaning the retiree must take a reduced benefit of some type. How much will depend on the plan, and warrants a discussion with your advisor/planner.

This doesn’t rule out pension maximization; it should, however, spark a discussion around alternatives. Perhaps insurance is still a more cost effective option, adding additional death benefit to bridge the gap created by the loss of the health insurance coverage. Maybe it’s a better idea to do a hybrid solution – reduce the pension by the minimum amount required to keep the health insurance, purchasing life insurance to make up the difference. Or you may decide it doesn’t make sense to get the insurance – based upon a cost/benefit analysis. There is no cookie cutter solution, everybody’s situation is different – the common denominator is taking the time to understand what fits your situation best.

It’s up to you to understand what your benefits are. There are many advisors/planners who can/will help you, and your HR department is another resource. Beware those who attempt to sell you on this idea without explaining the pros/cons; and working with you to determine which solution best fits your solution.

Survivor Benefit Plan – Should I Take It?

Retirement PhotoOne of the biggest choices retiring service members face is whether to take the Survivor Benefit Annuity or not. Unfortunately, it’s also a topic that many of us don’t even think about until it comes time for us to make the decision. There is no easy, cookie cutter answer for who should, or should not, sign up for the Survivor Benefit Plan; but there are several items to weigh when making the decision – and I will touch on many of them in the below paragraphs.

What is Survivor Benefit Plan?  

First – what is the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), what does it do? SBP is an annuity – it will provide a surviving beneficiary with a fixed income stream. Beneficiaries can be a spouse (same-sex marriages are recognized); former spouse; children; or a natural interest person (individual like a brother, sister or child beyond eligibility for child coverage). If you do not have any beneficiaries you can choose not to take coverage at retirement, but let your personnel office know you do not have any beneficiaries. Each beneficiary has its own guidelines, and if you choose not to elect your spouse his/her notarized signature will be required. Children with a disability which existed before their 18th birthday, or which was incurred before age 22 while child was pursuing a full-time course of study are eligible for their entire lives.

Annuities cost money – you are paying into an account with an insurance company, who will pay a defined benefit to your family when you die. In most cases the cost is capped at 6.5% of the elected level of coverage (natural interest person cost can be up to 10% of gross pay). The benefit received can be up to 55% of a retiree’s pension. Please note  – Active Duty service members are covered as well, but they don’t have to pay into it. Should an Active Duty member die while on active duty, their beneficiary may be eligible for up to 55% of their base pay (does not include allowances for housing or food, or any additional pays).

Let’s review an example: a retiree’s pension is $3,000 (pre-tax) each month. They want to provide their spouse with the maximum benefit, 55% ($1,650/mth). In order to provide their spouse with $1,650/mth until the spouse passes $195/mth will be deducted from their pension (pre-tax) until the retiree turns 70. So one consideration if you want your spouse to receive income after your gone is: “how much insurance do I need to provide the same benefit for x number of years, and how much will that cost?”

Insurance vs. SBP

For some people, SBP may not make sense – if they live to be 80 and their spouse passes away at 84, they lose out. On the other hand, if they pass away at 40, and their spouse lives to be 84, that income could be a significant help – especially with young children. In my opinion it’s a no-brainer if, and only if, a family has a child with Special Needs. The child in most cases will outlive both parents, the benefit received will not be affected by Social Security; and now that you can make a Special Needs Trust the beneficiary SBP will not affect SSI. The decision to own any additional life insurance can then be made.

There are a couple advantages of insurance vs SBP. It can cost a lot less for the same benefit. If you cancel an insurance policy, as long as you are still insurable you can get another one later in life. You can control how to receive the benefit – lump sum, annuity, etc…

On the flip side of the coin, there are benefits of SBP over insurance. You do not have to be underwritten (you cannot be denied coverage) and its cost is not age based. SBP premiums come out pre-tax, lowering your taxable income. It can come out of your pension – so you never “feel” it. There’s no risk of missing a payment and having it cancelled. There is a cost of living adjustment, it keeps up with inflation.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day what matters is what do YOU and your spouse want to do? Is it important to leave an income stream behind when you die? Very few of us know what our expiration date is, and this is another hedge in our favor. This is a conversation I think families should have throughout their military careers; not put on a shelf until retirement. Do your due diligence, what will it provide – and at what cost? What has more impact – the loss of $200 – $300/mth in retirement; or the loss of $1,500 – $2,500/mth for your spouse and children when you die?

Why Everyone Needs Life Insurance


I don’t sell life insurance, and I’m not making a case for people to own it as an asset class. My reasons are much simpler than that – we will all leave this earth at some point, and when we do there is a cost associated with the disposition of our final remains. Some of us may have a prolonged illness, racking up medical bills. Others may meet their end in an accident or foul play. And many of us will simply not wake up one morning. This is not a fun fact, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

So we can either ignore it – which is in effect saying “it’s not my problem, why should I care – I won’t be here.” Perhaps this isn’t what you mean, but at the end of the day it’s what’s being said. Because if you pass away without any planning all the associated costs shift to your next of kin; adding to the weight of your loss. Or we can set aside resources to cover the basic expenses, and make it clear in your will what you want (cremation, wake, etc…).

Maybe you’re asking yourself – “how expensive can it be?”. The costs surprised me – it can be an expensive undertaking. Let’s explore just the basics for direct cremation, direct burial and complete funeral service. How you fund either is ultimately up to you, my suggestion would be to own a small whole life policy with enough coverage to meet what you want, adding a buffer for inflation. A Google search found a breakdown of final expenses (Final Expenses).

Cremation – no longer as simple as just cremating the remains, there are now an assortment of options including “green” cremation (source But in the interest of space, let’s explore your “cheapest” option, Direct Cremation. Prices ranging from $500 – $3,000 – and consumers are urged to ensure the cost of a cremation package includes the cremation itself.

Direct Burial – just what it sounds like, there is no wake or visitation and often the body is not embalmed. Prices range from $1,000 – $3,600; but these do not include a headstone, plot, and grave expenses (vault for casket, digging grave, etc…). You can expect to tack on a few thousand more when it is all said and done. 

Traditional Burial – visitation/viewing, embalming and transportation to the cemetery. Prices range from $2,620  – $6,000. Again, these prices do not include headstone, plot and grave expenses.

You may be thinking to yourself, “okay – it’s not as bad as I thought.” We need to factor in the funeral home’s basic services fees, which range from $480 – $3,000; the possibility the price of a casket is not included, which range from $50 (cardboard) – $12,000 (wood finish or metal); burial vaults, which range from $795 – $14,000 (preserves cemetery’s grounds) and a host of other a la carte services from an obituary to grave plot costs.

All things considered I think it’s a safe bet to plan on spending at a minimum $5k – $8k for a cremation and between $10k – $25k for a traditional burial. Obviously these are ballpark estimates, my intention is only to raise awareness. Do you really want your family running a “go fund me” campaign to cover your final expenses?! Taking out a small permanent policy, which could be paid for in as short as 10 years, will provide peace of mind and one less thing for your family and loved ones to come to terms with upon your passing.

Transitioning Youth Planning

There are a multitude of resources out there for families who have a child with a disability; but as the child ages those resources dry up and become harder to find. Speaking from personal experience it can be daunting trying to figure out what to do next; especially when it’s time to think about your child leaving school – either with a diploma or a certificate at 21. Pathfinders for Autism‘s website has some great checklists sorted by age, and many of the items on the checklist are not Autism specific – meaning they can be used for just about any disability.

I’ve seen a lot of information about why families with Special Needs need to do financial plans, establish trusts and think about guardianship; but I haven’t seen as much about really preparing the child to be an adult (within their capability). The school is going to ask what does your child want to do for a living when they leave school – from personal experience this is a hard question to answer. It was an even harder question for me to let my son answer.

Work with your child to determine their likes and strengths, and be prepared to help them reconcile that the two may not always be synonymous. The school system can be a resource, don’t hesitate to reach out to your IEP team and share your ideas; but don’t stop there. Nothing says you and your child can’t network with professionals and organizations in the realm of your child’s interests. A great way to get your foot in the door is to see what volunteer opportunities there are; or if there’s an internship available; etc… Please, please don’t get caught in the mindset of “my child will never be able to do “x” because of his/her disability.”

To the maximum extent possible, start having your child do things on their own. I’m not suggesting jumping right into cooking a 3-course meal, but why not work with them when you’re making your grocery list; get their input. The same goes with laundry – maybe they can’t carry a basket or move laundry from the washer to the dryer; but could they help you sort by color? Talk to the school, what skills are they working on in class, and what is your child already doing? Build on the successes, no matter how small – and celebrate them. We won’t be around forever, so the less they rely on us the better.

Explore your community, what support organizations are out there and who funds them? Does the money come from the DDA, or is it private pay? If it’s private pay – are there opportunities for scholarships – either from the organization itself or Foundations? Get out to the community resource fairs, and don’t limit yourself to your County or school. I’m a single dad, I understand how difficult it can be to juggle everything – but I can also tell you it’s more than worth it to make the investment of time when your child is young so you don’t feel rushed later.

My son is on the Autism Spectrum, he was non-verbal – we used PECs and ASL to communicate. Before my wife passed away in 2012 I didn’t do any of the things I’m suggesting – never had time, didn’t think he was capable, fill in the excuse I’ve said it. Over the last 4 years he has become fairly independent and much more communicative. I never would’ve believed it if I’d been told he would eventually be making his own dinner and putting his clothes away; but he is. These things took time, and there are things he’ll likely never be completely independent for; but it’s a start and I’ll take it.





How To Join a Non-Profit Board

As the Vice President of the The Arc Montgomery’s Board of Directors, and Chair of the Governance Committee, I’m always looking for new recruits. Many of my contacts have joining a non-profit board as an opportunity their looking for on LinkedIn, but not many seem to know where to start. I count myself as having been one of those, and below is a primer.

Start with some soul-searching – what are you truly passionate about and what are your strengths. The passion is what will carry you through the times of self-doubt when the bureaucracy may seem impossible to surmount; and your strengths are how you will sell yourself to the organization. When you’ve identified your passion start exploring organizations who share it. The first thing to do after identifying an organization is research it. Who is currently on the board. What is the organization’s mission and vision? How do the financials look (the GuideStar website is a great resource for this – Form 990s).

Volunteer, join a committee – many organizations will list the committees on their website, or you can connect through the organization’s volunteer coordinator. Make sure you understand what, if any, the expected commitments will be in time and money. Take your time, and when you feel you’ve found a good fit submit an application (the application can be found on the organization’s website). Through volunteering and serving on a committee you’ve doubtlessly formed a few relationships, don’t be afraid to ask an existing Board or Staff member to sponsor you.

The Value of Time

How many of us have either heard somebody say, or said themselves, there’s just not enough time in a day? I’m sure most of us would agree it can be difficult to meet deadlines, fulfill obligations and still have time for yourself, but what can you do? First – acknowledge that a perfect work/life balance may never occur; life happens. Your children will get sick and deadlines will be moved up. But there are tools you can put in place to simplify your life and “buy” back your time.

Make a list of what you would like to accomplish each day. Making the list should be the last thing you do the day before, so you’re not feeling rushed and you can reflect on what you’ve accomplished. To get yourself started do the first one on a Saturday or Sunday. Be realistic – use your work day as the guide and give yourself reasonable timelines for each task. If you list 5 items, and each takes 3 hours to complete, it’s not likely you’re going to get them all done. Be okay with knowing things are going to slide, but identify which items are “must do’s”. Some examples are standing meetings, revenue producers, and employer’s expectations. Use a tracking system – I like to line out what I’ve accomplished and highlight what will be moved to the next day. At the end of the day review your list – what did you learn? Did you find yourself doing “busy” work because it was easier? Were there many “oh by the ways”? This identifies opportunities for improvement and ways to win back your time.

Teach What You Tolerate

We’re business people, communication is at the core of our livelihoods – we all recognize this yet so many of us let things slide because we’re afraid of offending someone or are concerned how it will impact our business and/or professional relationship(s). Now, I’m not suggesting you make a major production of every little thing; but speak up when something bothers you. Otherwise you have nobody to blame but yourself when the behavior continues. The individual is most likely not doing it to be malicious, and if you ask them to stop more than likely they won’t even realize they’d been doing it. They will appreciate your honesty and you may be helping them avoid issues down the line.

For example – somebody is “always” 5 – 10 minutes late, it’s just “who they are”. The message they could be sending is “you’re not important to me”; not the brand professionals want to have. If you take this person to the side after the meeting and suggest a solution – set your watch ahead by 15 minutes, give yourself more time between appointments, etc… Always have solutions, it shows you have their best interest in mind.