Protect Your Identity Following the Equifax Security Breach

Data security has been a hot issue for some time, however, the latest security breach at Equifax has left nearly half of all Americans exposed. In the wake of this troubling incident, many of us are left with questions pondering the safety of our personal information, and even our identity.

How could this security breach have happened?

Unfortunately, the best information we have received from Equifax is that the breach was due to a “website vulnerability”. What exactly this means is anyone’s guess. The important issue now is for all of us to protect ourselves in the safest manner possible.

What can someone do with my personal information?

To name a few of the numerous and frightening possibilities, an identity thief can open a line of credit, take out a prescription, and obtain a driver’s license. The results of the above theft include a ruined credit score, altered medical history, and costly tickets that could lead to a warrant for your arrest. This may sound very doom and gloom, but it’s a good reminder to stay alert and vigilant on all fronts.  

What are the odds my identity would be stolen?

The likelihood of becoming a victim of identity theft may not appear to be very high. However, according to a recent USA Today article, 2016 saw a record rate of identity theft - about 1 in every 16 U.S. adults were victims¹. With the sheer volume of data stolen in the recent breach, one can only expect this number to rise in the coming years. Unfortunately, it has increasingly become a question of not if, but when one may be affected by identity theft. Nevertheless, there are several actions available to keep your identity as safe as possible.

To begin, Equifax has offered one year of free credit monitoring service to all individuals, the details of which you can review here. There has been concern raised regarding your ability to pursue legal action against Equifax if you accept this service. In a 9/11/17 update from Equifax, they state that enrolling does not waive any rights to take legal action, and that language on the contrary has been removed from their Terms of Use. However, if you are uncomfortable enrolling with in Equifax’s credit monitoring, see our three trusted steps below. Then continue reading for our general security tips. For maximum protection and security, complete all steps as often as recommended.

First: Routinely check your credit reports and account activity

  • Free copies of your credit report are available once a year from each of the three main credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. They can be requested online here. Review these reports at intervals throughout the year. If any unusual activity is found, contact the credit agency immediately. As a service to our clients, Bluestem requests these free reports on a rotating schedule each year.
  • Take some time to review bank and credit card statements once a month. Contact the financial institution if you do not recognize any transactions, no matter how small.

Second: Place a Fraud Alert on your credit reports

  • Contact any one of the three credit agencies to inform them you are concerned about becoming a victim of identity theft and ask for a fraud alert. That agency must forward the alert to the other two agencies.
  • The alert will require any third party to take measures to confirm your identity before opening any new accounts in your name. This should include contacting you.
  • The alert will last for 90 days and can be renewed as many times as you would like. It is a free service.
  • If you have already been a victim of identity theft, you can request an extended fraud alert that lasts for 7 years. Alternatively, if you are in active duty with the military, you can request a fraud alert for 1 year to protect you while deployed.

Third: Place a Credit Freeze on your credit reports

  • While once thought of as an extreme measure to protect your identity, a credit freeze may be the best way to protect against identity theft given the likelihood your personal information was stolen in the recent breach.
  • When placing a credit freeze, you must complete with all three credit agencies separately. When needing to apply for a legitimate credit account, you will have to unfreeze your credit report with all three agencies.
  • There is typically a fee for both freezing and unfreezing your credit report, ranging from $3 to $10. The fee differs by credit agency, as well as by state. It is free for victims of identity theft and for individuals 65 years of age or older.
  • The three credit agencies also have credit report products that are intended to help you control your credit. Be wary, however, as these products typically cost a monthly subscription fee which can become quite expensive.

Contact information for the Credit Reporting Agencies

TransUnion
1-800-680-7289

Experian
1-888-397-3742

Equifax
1-888-766-0008

General Safety Tips

  • Fraudulent tax return filings have been on the rise. A good way to prevent this is to file your return early. The best protection is to obtain an IRS Identity Protection (IP) PIN number. Unfortunately, not everyone is eligible for an IP PIN; you must have either been a victim of identity theft or received a CP01A notice from the IRS. If you do apply for an IP PIN, remember that it will be required to file your tax return each year.
  • Update passwords regularly, make them complex, and avoid using the same password for multiple logins. Consider using a password manager such as LastPass to help with password management.
  • When available, use dual factor or multi factor authentication to the greatest degree possible. This ensures that even if your password is hacked you will have an additional layer of security.
  • Do not send sensitive information such as account numbers or social security numbers via email.
  • Be cautious of links included in emails. Do not click on links in emails or enter your credentials in pages linked from an unknown sender. Instead, go directly to the website and manually type the address or search on the site. 
  • Do not use security questions that have easily searchable or generic answers.
  • Do not use public Wi-Fi if at all possible. Hackers can use software that captures every character you type. It is best practice to never access secure websites or email on a public Wi-Fi network.
  • If you store any sensitive information such as social security numbers, credit card numbers, account numbers, etc., in external storage devices, ensure that the data is encrypted and in securely password-protected documents.

If you have been the victim of identity theft visit the Federal Trade Commission’s ID Theft website for thorough tips on how to respond.

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1 USA Today article by author Bob Sullivan and published on February 6, 2017. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2017/02/06/identity-theft-hit-all-time-high-2016/97398548/).

Illinois’ Budget and Changes to SURS (2017)

This month marks passage of the first Illinois state budget in over two years.  The biggest changes resulting from this budget are to the Illinois tax code.  Effective July 6th of this year (and retroactive to July 1st), the individual income tax rate has been increased to 4.95% along with other modifications to corporate tax and lesser used tax credits.  Details of this bill are still coming, but we do know that this bill also requires changes to the State University Retirement System (SURS) Plan.    

Under SB 0042 – Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Implementation Act, SURS is directed to create a new Tier III plan.  All new employees hired who first become participants of SURS after the effective date of this new plan will have the choice of this new Tier III plan, the current Tier II plans (Traditional or Portable), or the Self-Managed Plan (SMP).  SURS needs to work out many of the details for this new Tier III plan and formally adopt the changes before implementation.  Therefore, we do not know the effective date at this point. 

Further, existing employees in Tier II will also have the option to opt into Tier III, but the choice would be irrevocable.  If you are uncertain which Tier plan you are in, Tier I generally applies to participants enrolled in a SURS Portable or Traditional pension plan before January 1, 2011.  Everyone employed after this date is generally Tier II.  The new Tier III pension plan would not affect those in Tier I plans or those who chose the Self-Managed Plan (SMP). 

The overall goal of this Tier III program is the creation of a hybrid plan – a cross between a defined benefit and defined contribution pension system.  In other words, it acts like a mix between the features of the Traditional/Portable Plans and the SMP Plan.  Under Tier I and Tier II, the Traditional & Portable Plans are considered Defined Benefit pension plans. In these plans, the employer assumes all of the investment risk. The retirement income that you will receive is determined by a formula that takes into consideration your earnings and length of service.  The SMP Plan is a Defined Contribution plan. The employer contributes a pre-determined percentage of your earnings to the SMP plan on your behalf.  Those funds are deposited into your account to be invested at your direction (self-directed).  This means you are responsible for selecting and managing the investments now and into the future. Your future retirement income depends on the balance of your SMP account at retirement.

Under this newest hybrid Tier III plan, you would get a combination of the two plan features above, albeit with a lower benefit from each.  As laid out in the budget bill, the main features of the two components of the Tier III plan are:

Tier III Defined-Benefit Portion would include a pension based on:

  • Final Average Salary (FAS) x Years of Credit x 1.25%.  This is less than the 2.2% of FAS used in Tier I and Tier II calculations.  The reduced pension benefit is designed to be supplemented by the additional savings in the required defined benefit contributions account described below.
  • (FAS) equals the average monthly (or annual) salary during the period of service in which earnings were the highest during the last 120 months (or 10 years) of service.  In contrast, Tier I uses the highest four consecutive years for FAS and Tier II uses the highest 8 consecutive years in the past 10 years of service (or equivalent highest consecutive earnings months).
  • Earnings are only considered and included up to the federal Social Security Wage Base ($127,000 in 2017).  This is actually higher than the Tier II plan earnings inclusion which is capped at $111,571.63 (in 2016, adjusted annually).   Tier I pensions have no cap on salary earnings included in the FAS final average salary calculation.
  • Retirement age under Tier III will be based upon normal Social Security retirement age. This means that retirement age of 67 (with 10 years of service credit) will apply to most participants. It is still unclear if there will be provisions for early retirement options for those who have attained more years of service.
  • Employee contributions are equal to the lower of 6.2% of salary or the normal cost of pension benefits.  This seems to imply that if the actuarial cost of a Tier III pension benefit is lower than 6.2% of salary, employee contributions may be less than 6.2%.  More details are needed to evaluate this.

Tier III Defined-Contribution Portion would have the following provisions:

  • Employee contributions of at least 4% of salary to this plan.  Combined with the Defined Benefit Contribution, total employee contributions could be as high as 10.2%.  This is higher than the 8% contribution rate currently required under Tier I and Tier II.  However:
  • Whatever the employee contributes, the Employer will match.  The language states this employer match may be no higher than 6% of salary and no lower than 2% of salary.  This will give each university flexibility to set up a higher match in an effort to attract talent and compete against other public and private employers; albeit coming from the respective university’s (or department’s) budget.
  • The employer contributions do not start until after one year of employment, but at that point are 100% vested for the participant.
  • Employer and employee contributions would be invested in a separate account maintained by SURS.  Likely it would be the same or similar investment choices we currently see under SURS SMP.

Another big change in the budget bill shifts responsibility for funding the SURS employer contributions from the State of Illinois to each university.  While increasing university budget expenses, this change will have a smaller impact directly on employees in the SURS system than the new Tier III hybrid plan. 

While Tier I participants are not affected by the SURS changes, there are more proposed bills in the pipeline that may affect all SURS pension plan participants.  One bill currently under consideration aims to slash the SURS pension Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA).  To avoid the diminishment of benefits rule, it would offer defined benefit pension plan members a choice to keep their current COLA, but lose all rights to future increase in pension benefits as their salary increases; OR take a reduced COLA in exchange for continued accrual of future pension benefits and lower employee contributions.  In other words, you could keep the COLA but lose future accrual of a higher initial pension or take a reduced COLA for continued benefit accrual.  Additionally, the proposed legislation appears to offer lump sum buyouts to entice current members out of the SURS defined benefit plans.  However, this bill has not passed yet and it is too uncertain to make predictions.

In all cases, there are still many details left before decisions can be made.  We know changes are coming for new employees.  Existing employees under Tier II Traditional or Portable plans will likely face an irrevocable choice to stay in Tier II or move to the new Tier III hybrid plan.  However, SURS needs to make final plans before any analysis can be done.  We will continue to monitor and keep our clients informed when changes will affect them.

 

For more information on the legislation discussed in this post click here

To view our previous blog post on SURS plan selection click here

       

Selecting the Right SURS Plan for You

Overview

While starting a new position at an Illinois Public University may be an exciting time, there is a lot to do.  Beyond meeting your colleagues, learning the ropes of your new department and developing your new courses (if instructing), there is one big decision that needs to be made.  You need to select a Retirement Plan through the State Universities Retirement System (SURS).  This decision is complex, so do not put it off!  The following may provide some guidance when making your decision.

As background, there are two Tiers to the SURS Program.  Tier I, which has more generous pension benefits, only applies to participants enrolled before January 1, 2011.  (In some cases, if you were employed by a University system before January 1, 2011 but not a participant in SURS, you may still qualify for Tier I).  Tier II applies to those enrolled on or after January 1, 2011.  Because this post will mostly affect those enrolling in Tier II, what follows describes solely Tier II rules.    

So let’s get started!

Weighing the Options

When you begin employment at the University, you must select among three plan offerings; Traditional, Portable, or Self-Managed Plan (hereafter referred to as SMP). Once made, your plan selection is irrevocable and cannot be changed. Choose diligently, but do not delay. While SURS contributions begin immediately, you will lose employer matching under the SMP plan until you opt in. This could mean missing out on up to 6 months of employer matching by delaying your decision!  If you fail to select a plan by the 6-month deadline, you are automatically enrolled in the Traditional Plan.

Of the three choices, both the Traditional & Portable Plans are considered Defined-Benefit pension plans. In these plans the employer assumes all of the investment risk. The retirement income that you will receive is determined by a formula that takes into consideration your earnings and length of service.  The SMP Plan is a Defined-Contribution plan. The employer contributes a pre-determined percentage of your earnings to the SMP plan on your behalf.  Those funds are deposited into your account to be invested at your direction (self-directed).  This means you are responsible for selecting and managing the investments now and into the future. Your future retirement income depends on the balance of your SMP account at retirement. 

Identifying all possible factors and predicting all future outcomes is impossible.  We advocate making your plan decision based on being well informed and considering what you know today.  Here are some factors we consider when helping clients choose a SURS plan:

Investment Control

If you want to direct investment decisions and are willing to assume the risk of market performance, the SMP may be the choice for you.  Once enrolled, you direct where funds are invested and you have the ability to periodically review and make changes to the funds selected.  You currently have two choices of custodians for these investment accounts; Fidelity and TIAA-CREF.  Each provider has a wide range of investment choices.

If you prefer to have the employer retain the investment risk and receive a retirement benefit similar to a pension, then the Traditional or Portable may be the more suitable option.  These plans are professionally managed by the investment staff with SURS.  No matter the outcome of investment performance, your benefit is guaranteed.

Investment returns vary considerably making the effects of this factor very difficult to determine.  For someone who enters the system earlier in their career and then leaves, the ability for the SMP pension accounts to continue to grow and be combined with other retirement plan savings throughout their working years may be a benefit.  This could potentially favor the SMP.  Someone nearer the end of their career may benefit more from a guaranteed benefit not dependent on investment returns, but based on earnings history and length of service.  This may favor enrolling in the Traditional or Portable plans.

Flexibility

The trend has been toward a more mobile workforce, where multiple job changes throughout one’s career are not uncommon. Academia is not immune to this trend. Therefore, flexibility and portability of benefits may be more important than in the past. The Traditional plan has the least flexibility for departure.  Once vested (after 10 years), your only options after leaving are to wait and draw benefits at full retirement age or to take a refund of only your own contributions (credited a fixed 4.5% interest rate). Your employer matching contributions are forfeited if refunded in the Traditional plan.   A refund of your own contributions is the only option if you leave SURS with less than 10 years of service.

The Portable and SMP plan come with the ability to take the employer matching contributions with you when/if you leave the university SURS system.  Under the Portable plan, your refund is determined based on your contributions and the employer contributions plus an effective rate of interest determined periodically by SURS.  The SMP refund is also based on your and the employer contributions, plus or minus the actual performance of investments you selected. 

In the Portable and SMP plans, 5 years of service are required to vest and entitle you to take employer matching contributions.  Before taking any benefits, make sure you are aware of the tax consequences. These distributions may be paid directly to you or rolled to another qualified retirement plan. Finally, you may also forfeit retiree health insurance benefits in the event of taking or transferring a refund from all three plan types. 

Survivor Benefits

In exchange for reduced flexibility, the Traditional plan offers the most generous survivors benefits. Survivors would receive 2/3rds of your accrued monthly retirement benefit, payable to your eligible survivor.  This benefit comes at no extra cost to you. 

The Portable plan only offers a default survivors benefit if you die before reaching retirement.  In that case, the benefit is 50% of your accrued retirement benefit (as compared to 2/3rds under the Traditional plan).  Upon retirement, you can choose to purchase a survivor benefit greater than 50% at a cost to you of reduced lifetime payments.

The SMP plan does not provide an automatic lifetime survivor’s payment.  You or your survivor are always eligible for a refund of your own contributions and earnings.  After 1.5 years of service, employer matching and related earnings are also refundable to survivors.  Your survivor may choose a lifetime payment with this refund, with the amount of such payment based on your SMP account balance at that time.

Salary Cap

Current salary and future earning potential is another consideration when choosing a plan. Under current rules, the Traditional and Portable plans are only based on salary up to $111,571.63 (2017 limit, adjusted annually for inflation).  If you select one of these plans and exceed the salary limit, your contributions to the plan (8% of salary) and employer matching contributions (7.6% of salary) will only be based on your wages up to the limit.  

Those who have salaries in excess of the salary cap (or the potential to exceed the limit as future salary grows) may favor the SMP.  Under the SMP plan, contributions are based on earnings up to $270,000 (2017, adjusted per IRS rules). For example, a participant with annual earnings of $200,000 would gain an additional $6,720.56 in employer matching contributions per year (7.6% of the difference between $200,000 and $111,571.63) over the Traditional and Portable plan limits, as well as their own additional contributions of $7,074.26 (8% of earnings) above the two lower contribution limit plans.

Eligibility for Retirement Benefits (Annuity)

All three plans are designed to provide you a monthly stream of income throughout retirement called an Annuity.  You are entitled to a benefit in the Traditional and Portable plans when you have reached 10 years of service credit and have attained the age of 67.  You may draw as early as age 62 with reduction of benefits.   

For the SMP you may begin a retirement annuity at the age of 62 with 5 years of service credit, age 55 with 8 years of service credit, or any age with 30 years of service credit.  As benefits are based on your SMP account balance at the time, there is no reduction for early benefits.  However, you are purchasing a private annuity with a monthly benefit amount that will vary based on age and other factors you choose at retirement.

Final Notes

I’ll note that many clients consider the SMP plan a safe refuge from the troubled finances of the State of Illinois.  The idea is that funds are held separately, in-trust, and therefore safe from the creditors of the State.  This is true.  By Federal law, SMP funds must be deposited in a timely manner to your account, including employer matching.  State matching of the other pension plans has not always been made timely, which is a big part of the pension underfunding problem.

However, this advantage of the SMP does not make the Traditional or Portable plans “unsafe”.  The Illinois constitution states that pension benefits cannot be diminished, which guarantees participants their right to future benefits.  Previous attempts at pension reform have tested and found this guarantee to be true.  Unlike municipalities and territories, Detroit and Puerto Rico being recent examples, a State may not go bankrupt and therefore discharge the indebtedness of pension through bankruptcy.  While it is yet to be seen how the state will solve its current financial crisis, it must pay the promised bill of pensions. 

Regardless of whichever plan you choose, I would also encourage you to fund additional savings beyond your mandatory pension contributions.  While the SURS system does provide generous pension benefits, the pension was not designed to cover all your needs beyond working years.  Additionally, depending on your work history, you may not qualify for social security benefits as you do not participate in the social security system with SURS earnings.  Even if you have a past earnings history in social security, your social security benefits may be reduced.  While there are many savings options out there, the 403b and 457 savings plans offered through the University are often a good place to start.  We recommend supplemental savings of at least 7% and ideally 10% of earnings beyond your required SURS contributions. 

Conclusion

Navigating this initial decision on retirement plan choice will have a lasting impact on your future financial security.  Compounding the importance of this decision, it must be made in the flurry of other important activities of moving, starting a new job, selecting other benefits and adapting to your new role.  If you need help interpreting these decisions in your own financial life, or want the peace of mind that you have considered the entire picture, please let us know.  The majority of our clients are members or retirees of SURS.  We have helped hundreds of clients through the complexities of pension decisions.  If you would like our perspective or professional opinion on your own decisions, Contact Us today.

 

Guest Blogger: This post was co-written by Eric Schaefer, a senior studying Financial Planning at the University of Illinois.  Eric is working towards becoming a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and is currently an intern at Bluestem Financial Advisors, LLC.

 

Paying too much in taxes? Find a tax-focused financial planner

The following post is shared content from the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners. 

Tax-focused financial planning is not just for the one percent. On the contrary taxes are the hub of the financial wheel with consequences to virtually all financial decisions. Under-planning and overpaying simply delays financial independence. So, why don’t more Americans engage in tax-focused financial planning?

The disconnect between financial planning and tax planning is costing American taxpayers dearly. Aside from the many who intentionally allow higher withholding throughout the year just to claim a sizeable refund in April, are those who overlook the tax implications of their retirement distributions, investment allocations, estate planning decisions or education savings. All have tax liabilities attached, either in the short or long term.

Accountants and tax preparers might identify those consequences in hindsight, when it’s too late to avoid tax penalties. And, financial advisors,who often simply state, “consult your tax advisor” are just washing their hands of the tax consequences of their advice, leaving it up their client to connect the dots. Indeed, it is this short-sighted, often rear view, of taxes as a once-a-year task, rather than a pervasive feature of financial life, that makes the tax-focused financial planner uniquely positioned to advise clients in all aspects of their financial lives.

“All aspects” is a hefty claim. Yet, tax-focused financial planners are informed not only by their clients’ financial profile, but also by the real context and implications of their advice. Cash flow and financial behaviors, the expectations for children and demands of aging parents, job security and income growth are as important as retirement planning, investment strategy and the tax consequences for the all-of-it. It’s holistic. It’s fiduciary based. And, it’s decidedly uncommon.

Focusing on history, is as bad as ignoring it, and tax preparation is often just that: passive and backward-looking. Tax planning is anticipatory, active and looks forward, sometimes even beyond the current year to future years.

Those knee-deep in regret over the tax return they’re filing in April, might reconsider their approach for 2017. With a tax-focused financial planner, planning for their 2017 tax return would already be underway.

To read more on the subject of tax-focused financial planning check out the Tax Alpha White Paper written by fellow ACP Advisors Jonathan Heller and Robert Walsh (edited by Bluestem’s very own Karen Folk and Jake Kuebler). For more information on the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners visit their website at www.acplanners.org.

In Case of Emergency

Guest Blogger: This post was written by Eric Schaefer, a senior studying Financial Planning at the University of Illinois.  Eric is working towards becoming a Certified Financial Planner. He serves as President of U of I’s Financial Planning Club and is currently an intern at Bluestem Financial Advisors, LLC.

 

 

One of the cornerstones of a financial plan is protecting against the unexpected. We often address this through purchasing adequate life insurance coverage, maintaining proper emergency reserves (“ready cash”) and developing a thoroughly diversified investment portfolio. However, many overlook planning for unexpected financial events, especially those that may be particularly unpleasing.  One such topic is, have you and your family thought about what you would do in the event of an unexpected medical emergency?

Following up on the HIPPA authorization article featured in our Fall Newsletter (Click Here to Subscribe), we would like to elaborate a bit further on the importance of having a medical emergency plan by highlighting a few key actions items to consider:

1.) To ensure family can get updates on you during a medical emergency, make sure that your HIPPA privacy forms are filled out completely and with the necessary signatures. Parents, if you have an adult child or student away at school, make sure they complete and sign the HIPPA form as well.  You may also want to complete clinic specific authorization forms at their campus medical facilities. This will ensure that no matter where they receive emergency treatment you will have the appropriate access to their records and care providers. 

2.) Upon admittance to the hospital, if the patient is unconscious the staff will first look for an EMERGENCY CONTACT card in a purse or wallet and/or check for an “in case of emergency” (ICE) contact in their phone. Modern cell phones often allow ICE contacts that can be accessed while our phone is locked.  Some add on applications can also digitally display a Medical ID card from the lock screen. 

If you aren’t the best with technology that’s OK! This would be a great opportunity for your children to show you by setting up their own digital ID on their phone. It’s also not a bad way to kill two birds with one stone. Additional information on how to set up and where to find these applications is listed below.

In the event that you either do not have a smart phone or would prefer to use a more traditional method for confirming your identification, there are many websites with Medical ID card templates that you can print out. Those with chronic conditions, allergies, or who are fashion oriented may consider Medical Emergency ID jewelry. What better gift to get your significant other, son or daughter than a necklace with their blood type and YOUR name and phone number on it?

3.) The alternative to carrying Medical ID cards or filling out numerous forms at different healthcare facilities would be to have a medical power of attorney, also referred to as an advanced healthcare directive. This is the most effective of all the options mentioned and an essential item in your estate plan. These medical power of attorney documents are state specific, so you will want to be sure to fill out the appropriate version for where your child plans to spend the majority of their time. Not only will this compliment a comprehensive medical emergency plan, but it will also afford your children the opportunity to begin thinking about and discussing with you the importance of life planning and determining what is truly important to them.

Here at Bluestem we would like to encourage all of you to address your physical well-being with the same careful and considerate preparation as you do with your financial well-being. Hopefully you nor your family members will ever be in a situation where you must utilize any of the items mentioned above, but in the event that you are, we hope that this post will have helped you make the necessary arrangements.

 

Additional Resources:

ACP Fall 2016 Newsletter

iPhone Medical ID & ICE Setup

ICE Setup for Any Smartphone Platform

Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule

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The U.S. Department of Labor just released its long-awaited fiduciary rule. The new rule aims to protect consumers saving in retirement accounts by amending the definition of fiduciary. The rule, in the pipeline for several years, applies to IRA, 401k, 403b and other retirement accounts that fall under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Advisers and Brokers giving advice on investments in retirement accounts will now be required to act in the client’s best interest, i.e. when they offer advice on investment products in retirement accounts they must provide impartial advice and avoid conflicts of interest. Prior to this, they were only required to sell “suitable” investments to clients. While the rule does make a gallant effort to protect consumers, it also gives many concessions to commission sales-focused advisers. The rule implementation timeline was extended to January 1, 2018 (causing many to argue this simply gives more time for large companies to fight the rule); the rule also allows brokers to continue to sell certain products as long as they enter into a legal contract with the consumer that, among other things, discloses any conflicts of interest. How many consumers will read and understand such contracts? The rule has received considerable opposition from large investment firms, mainly those in the industry who are heavily sales-focused. Their major complaints revolve around new compliance regulations and the fact that the rule will dramatically alter their former commission based-sales approach. The prior “suitability” rule has no requirement to put the consumer’s best interest above the advisor’s interests.

While many in the financial services industry are upset by the new rule, others, like Bluestem, welcome the new consumer protections and are thrilled that the DOL is making an effort to help protect individuals saving for retirement. As a Fiduciary, Registered Investment Advisor, Bluestem always has and always will put our client’s best interest first. We are proud to be a fee-only financial planning firm and will continue to offer unbiased advice and stellar service to all of our clients. While other firms need regulatory nudging to get on board with fiduciary standards, we live by them every day. In fact, the financial planning organizations we belong to, NAPFA and ACP, believe that the new rule is a step in the right direction to add much needed consumer protections.

So how does this DOL rule affect Bluestem? In a nutshell, it doesn’t. It’s very possible that there may be some new regulatory compliance procedures for us, but in the big picture, Bluestem isn’t making any changes. Bluestem is passionate about fee-only, no product sales, financial planning. It’s this passion for fee-only planning that has kept us on the right side of this issue from the beginning. While others will be clamoring to further water down the new rule or put up a fight to protect their outdated and biased way of offering “financial advice”, Bluestem will continue our efforts to provide trusted, clear-cut advice and spread the word about our professional fee-only alternative to product sales masquerading as financial planning.

Do you have the right records for Charitable Gifts?

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For most ofDonation-Tips 1 us, getting organized to complete our annual Income Tax Return is a chore. We would prefer to expend the minimum amount of effort to get the job done. Luckily, many records such as income figures are provided to us by others (W-2’s, 1099’s etc). In addition, minimizing your taxes due often involves documenting charitable gifts for itemized deductions. Maximizing the benefits from those charitable gifts does require a bit more work on your part. While you may be aware that you need to keep records to deduct charitable gifts you make, you may not realize that it is fairly common not to receive IRS-compliant documentation from nonprofit organizations. Therefore, it is up to you to know the rules yourself and confirm you receive the correct documents. Below is an outline of what to keep when you make Charitable Gifts (by donating Cash, Check, via Credit Card, etc): For Gifts under $250: You need to have a record showing the name of the organization, date and amount of the contribution. One or the other of these will work:

  1. Bank Record such as cancelled check, bank or credit card statement, or
  2. A receipt from the organization

This means gifts such as putting cash in the Salvation Army Red Bucket are not deductible.

For Gifts of $250 or more: In addition to the record showing the name of the organization, date and amount of the contribution described above, you also need a written acknowledgement from the charity that meets all three of the following requirements:

  1. The acknowledgement includes the amount of the contribution. and
  2. It states if any goods or services were received by you in exchange for the gift. (Note: this is required even if no goods or services were received; this is the most commonly missed item we see on charity acknowledgement letters.) and
  3. The written acknowledgement needs to be received before you file your tax return.

There are documented court cases in which the IRS disallowed deductions made for charitable gifts that would have qualified as deductions, but proper documentation was not provided to the taxpayer by the charitable organization. If you are missing any of the information above, you should reach out to the organization. They may not even be aware of the reporting requirements themselves, especially for a small, volunteer run charity.

For non-cash gifts such as donations of personal items or household goods, shares of investment securities, etc, there are additional recordkeeping requirements to follow. Please be sure to consult IRS Publication 526 or contact us to learn more.

Student Loan Forgiveness for University Employees

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Guest Blogger: This post was written by Mary Carroll, a senior studying Financial Planning at the University of Illinois.  Mary is working towards becoming a Certified Financial Planner. She serves as President of U of I’s Financial Planning Club and is currently an intern at Bluestem Financial Advisors, LLC. One of the biggest fears students have is getting a zero on an assignment. There are times however when the goal of the assignment IS to get a zero. That’s right, you may be able to zero out your student loan debt in five steps. This assignment may not be an “Easy A”– but it could save you thousands on your student loan repayment.

Before we jump into the five steps, a quick history lesson: In 2007, President Obama signed into law the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program to ease the overwhelming student loan burden for many entering full-time public service jobs, often at lower pay than in private sector jobs. PSLF is designed to forgive the remaining balance (and accumulated interest) on federal student loans for certain borrowers after they have made 120 qualifying payments while employed full time by certain public service employers.

There are five “Rights” to Student Loan Forgiveness to ensure you don’t get it “Wrong”:

1) The Right Loan: applies to Federal Direct Loans ONLY. Direct Loans include subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans, PLUS loans, and Direct Consolidation Loans. This program does not apply to any private student loans.

2) The Right Repayment Plan: You must be using one of three repayment plans that base payments on income: • Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE) or Revised Pay-As-You-Earn (REPAYE) • Income-Based Repayment (IBR) • Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)

3) The Right Kind of Employment: Full-time employees at Universities (that are not-for-profit) and tax-exempt organizations under section 401(c)(3), such as the University of Illinois, qualify you! “What qualifies as full-time employment?” Is a common question. The answer is an average of 30 hours per week for the year. As a teacher (or other employee) under contract for at least 8 months for the year, you meet the “full-time standard” if you work an average of at least 30 hours per week during your contractual period. Additionally, the PSLF program applies to other jobs besides University Employees. Qualifying public service employment in the government, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, full-time AmeriCorps position, the Peace Corps, or a private “public service organization” qualify you as well.

4) The Right Number of Payments: Rinse, lather, and repeat 120 times (once a month for ten years). The only payments that count are payments that you have made while doing Steps 1-3 any time after October 1, 2007. This means that payments made before electing an income-based payment plan and prior to beginning public service work, won’t count toward the 120 number you need. Payments must also be made on-time (meaning no later than 15 days after their due date).

5) The Right Documentation: Show your work!! How many times do you have to tell your students that one? Show your work and turn in an employment certification form periodically to the Department of Education. They will let you know if you are on the right track to receive loan forgiveness. You don’t want to get to the end of your 120 payments only to learn you messed something up!

An added bonus point to the assignment: Typically, when a debt is forgiven the IRS includes the amount forgiven as taxable income in the tax year the loan is forgiven. However, any amount forgiven at the end of the 10 years due to the PSLF program is forgiven tax-free. This means you avoid paying federal income tax on the amount forgiven, which is an additional savings! Thank you, teacher!!

Don’t be tardy – start on these 5 steps today!

For more information check out the resources provided below.

Unsure of what type of loan you have? Visit: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/?login=true Income Drive Repayment Plans: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/understand/plans/income-driven Employment Certification Form: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/public-service-employment-certification-form.pdf https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/public-service-loan-forgiveness.pdf https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/public-service#qualifying-payment

How to Navigate State Retiree Insurance when turning 65

The Total Retiree Advantage Illinois (TRAIL) Program, a sub-program of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services (CMS) oversees the Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment for State of Illinois retirees and survivors. This open enrollment period occurs each fall.  For 2016 the open enrollment period is October 15- November 16, 2015. During this time all newly eligible retirees and survivors must enroll or opt out of coverage and all currently enrolled TRAIL members must update their coverage. The rules and options can be a bit confusing in the year you turn 65 and also enroll in Medicare, so to help you better understand the process we have highlighted a few important points:

  1. You don’t switch health plans until the fall of the year you turn 65.  If you turn 65 after open enrollment for the upcoming year, you keep your plan for one additional year.  For example, if your birthday was December 1, 2015, you enroll in the state Medicare Advantage Plan during the 2017 open enrollment period in Fall 2016.  When you turn 65, you will enroll in Medicare.  Inform your current health plan that you have done so, so that Medicare becomes your primary provider.
  2. For open enrollment after turning age 65, you will get a letter on yellow paper in the fall (mid-September) informing you that you need to enroll during the Fall Medicare open enrollment period. During that period, you will be required to switch out of your current health plan into one of the state Medicare Advantage Plans.
  3. For those living in Champaign and surrounding counties, you have to choose between United Health Plan PPO Medicare Advantage Plan or the Coventry Advantra HMO Medicare Advantage Plan. It seems that most people choose the United Health Plan because it allows a choice of doctors at Carle and Christie, and provides coverage throughout the US. You will receive information on both plans and can research whether your doctors are included in each plan. Once enrolled in one of those Medicare Advantage plans, you may make changes during subsequent open enrollment periods in following years. You will receive updated information on plan options from the TRAIL system during that time. If you want to stay with your current provider, you do nothing.
  4. The Delta Dental and EyeMed plans continue with the July 1st renewal date, so the benefit choice period for changing those plan remains the month of June.
  5. Both available plans (when both spouses are in Medicare) are Medicare Advantage Plans which include Part D drug coverage. It is important NOT to enroll in a Medicare Part D drug plan through your pharmacy.  Doing so will kick you out of the Medicare Advantage plan through SURS. This has been a problem for some retirees as the pharmacies heavily promote enrolling in their Medicare Part D drug plans.

For more facts and figures you can view an informational slide presentation from TRAIL here, or visit the TRAIL website here.

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Cycle of Market Emotions

You are probably aware of the stock market activity over the past week. Friday saw the largest drop of the week, rounding out weekly losses in the 5-6% range. This, in turn, fueled massive negative media coverage over the weekend. No doubt, the negative news adds to fears and is one of many factors leading to further losses in the market. As usual, we encourage you to hold steady through the current market gyrations. One soundbite repeated over the weekend news cycle is that the market has not seen a single day drop like Friday’s since 2011. Do you remember which day it was? My guess is that, unless the last drop significantly affected your life or financial plans, the answer is no. The uncertainty of the future can be scary. Our natural first reaction is fear and trying to avoid further losses. Our brains are hardwired to react this way. However, acting on this emotion would be a mistake. It would lead to selling when the market is low, when in reality, that is the complete opposite of the approach you should be taking. The chart below illustrates this.

Market

I predict one of two possible outcomes of the market in the next year:

1. The market will continue to decline as the world economy sorts through its current concerns. For our retiree clients, they will ride the downturn relying on the safety of their bond ladders without fear of where their next paycheck is coming from. For our working clients, they will keep working, contributing regularly into the market and buying stocks while they are on fire sale. Over the long term, the market will recover!

2. The market will recover in the next few weeks and we will quickly forget about the conditions of the past week.

Cycles such as the one we are currently experiencing are part of investing. Doing nothing when the market is getting a little haywire may seem counterintuitive or that we are avoiding the problem. The reality is that sticking to a long term plan through market changes takes resolve and commitment to the stated investment goals. Fighting instinct is hard, but doing so leads to better investment performance in the long run and, more importantly, a better chance of realizing your financial goals.

Sorting out Maximization versus Optimization

Financial Planning is often thought of as a quantitative field. Planning is done to answer questions such as how much should I be saving, how should I invest or how can I reduce my tax liability. Numbers are collected, plugged into a formula and out comes a result. When questions are answered individually, solutions can be maximized to seek the best result. For example, maximizing portfolio returns might be done by gathering facts about time horizon (period of time funds will be invested), risk tolerance (how much risk you are willing to take), and investment choices (what choices are available in your investment plan). The problem with maximizing is you are often constrained to looking at a single piece of a larger financial picture. Are your choices about investing impacting your tax situation? Are immediate financial goals competing with longer term goals? Taking a comprehensive approach to planning can help here by taking time to understand the bigger financial picture. Where are the trade offs between decisions? How will one decision affect another? How do you balance a series of choices that all impact each other?

This is how I would define Comprehensive Financial Planning. Working with an advisor knowledgeable in multiple areas of finances; taxes, insurance, investing, retirement, and so on. The advisor working with you to create a plan considering how each area will impact the other. Comprehensive Planning can achieve good results, but can it achieve the Optimal Results?

Sometimes planning hits a wall where the best recommendation conflicts with what you are willing to change. The best answer is not always the most acceptable answer. To reach a goal under current circumstances, perhaps the best answer is to work longer, work more, spend less, delay satisfaction and save more. In reality, finances are really just a tool used to achieve life goals. Sometimes, it is better to adjust the goal than to adjust the financial situation.

The following is an illustration we often use with clients. It shows many values one might hold in their life. In each area, we ask them to rank how satisfied they are, by placing a dot to represent the level. The innermost circle represents low satisfaction and the outermost represents complete satisfaction. The ultimate goal is to balance each area out so that when you connect the dots, they form a truer circle.

Life balance Example

In Example 1, the person is very out of balance. A lot of time and energy might be focused on career, giving a lot of satisfaction in that area plus leading to financial security, but leaving insufficient time for family and social activities. In the planning realm, decisions might need to be made to correct this imbalance. With this illustration, it might become clear that some financial goals can be sacrificed in exchange for other life goals.  To reach Example 2, it would be more acceptable to cut work hours, save less, but have more time to devote in the areas of social and family activities. 

It is not uncommon for our clients to begin to see these trade offs. When you reach financial independence, choices becomes less about accumulating more. Instead, focus shifts to using money to do things like buy time (outsourcing housekeeping or yard work to free up time to be spent with family). Or, maybe the career becomes less important as salary or advancement opportunities are forgone in exchange for time to focus on social endeavors.

To me, this is the process of Optimizing a financial plan. Taking the time to step back and see the big life picture. Not only making the right financial choice, but making the best use of financial resources to achieve all of life’s goals. If you are ready to optimize your life, contact us today.

Supreme Court Rules Illinois Pension Reforms Unconstitutional

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled today that Illinois State Pension Reform signed into law in 2013 is unconstitutional.  This ruling does not come as a surprise.  Previous rulings on healthcare indicated the court would interpret constitutional protection in favor of participants and strike the reform down. What does this mean to me?

Immediately, participants will not notice any major changes.  With court challenges to the original reforms, implementation of reforms had already halted in 2014.  This means none of the changes designed to reduce benefits or change contributions had been implemented.  This applies to both those who are active participants and retirees.

Longer term, it is still unclear what will happen.  Reforms were enacted to plug massive state budget deficits.  The fiscal situation of the state is still dire.  Current Governor, Bruce Rauner, has stated he intends to move forward with new reforms.  It is unclear exactly what these changes look like, but proposals have included:

  • Shifting future pension costs to local governments and universities
  • Changing the way in which future pension benefits accrue
  • Moving from defined benefit type (pension) plans to defined contribution (401k style) plans

Since a majority of Bluestem's clients are current participants or retirees of the State University Retirement System (SURS) or other Illinois Pension Systems, we will continue to monitor this situation.  Planning during this time will continue to be a challenge as proposals will be a moving target until passed into law.  As always, contact us if you would like an individual review of your retirement plan.

Identity Theft Actions

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In a previous Blog post, Protecting Your Financial Life in the Digital Age, we discussed ways to protect yourself against identity theft. While it is important to take all the precautions you can to protect yourself it is also important to know what to do if you should fall victim to identity theft. Below are several actions to take if you find your identity has been compromised. Action 1: At a minimum, you should place a fraud alert with the three Credit Reporting Agencies.  This should limit a potential thief’s ability to establish new credit in your name.  Complete instructions can be found with this link.

For added protection, consider freezing your credit. This will limit any new credit from being established under your name while the freeze is in effect.

To freeze your credit, contact each of the nationwide credit reporting agencies:

  • Equifax — 1‑800‑525‑6285
  • Experian —1‑888‑397‑3742
  • TransUnion — 1‑800‑680‑7289

You'll need to supply your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number and other personal information. Fees vary based on where you live, but commonly range from $5 to $10. This fee may be waived with a verification that you are a victim of identity theft.

After receiving your freeze request, each credit reporting agency will send you a confirmation letter containing a unique PIN (personal identification number) or password. Keep the PIN or password in a safe place. You will need it if you choose to lift the freeze.

american-express-89024_640Action 2: Request credit reports from at least one of the three Credit Reporting Agencies.  Review your report for any lines of credit that you don’t recognize.  The report will have instructions on disputing your account if needed.  Reports may be accessed for free at www.AnnualCreditReport.com.

Action 3: Contact custodians of your bank and investment accounts to inform them of your identity theft.  Banks may assign new account or credit card numbers.  Investment custodians may flag your account to avoid distributions of funds without additional steps to authenticate requests.

Action 4: Consider filing a Police Report and an Identity Theft Complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (link here).  Document all communication with banks and financial institutions.  Keep dated notes of phone calls and copies of all correspondence.  Official disputes should be in writing and sent with tracking (such as certified mail with a return receipt).

Action 5: If you are victim of Tax related fraud, also consider these steps.

Generally you will need to file a paper tax return.  Along with the return, Form 14039 – Identity Theft Affidavit will need to be attached to alert the IRS of the fraudulent activity.  For subsequent years once your identity has been authenticated, the IRS will provide you a PIN Number to file future returns electronically.

Consider requesting a tax transcript to see what return was filed under your social security number.  This can be done at http://www.irs.gov/Individuals/Get-Transcript.

Consider reviewing your Social Security statement to ensure that your earnings history is reported correctly.  This can be done at http://www.ssa.gov/.

Update on State Employee Retiree Health Insurance Premiums

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The following is an update to previous postings regarding State of Illinois Pension Reform and Insurance for retirees. You can read those prior posts here. Following a court ruling that the State of Illinois wrongly withheld premiums for health insurance from retiree pension payments, members of the State’s five pension systems, including the State University Retirement System (SURS), are set to receive a refund. Refunds will be based on health insurance premiums paid from members’ pensions from July 1, 2013 through September 1, 2014. The premium refunds must be sent to members by June 14, 2015.

If you are affected, you should have received this State issued written notice informing you of options regarding the premium refund. The following is a summary of those options:

  1. Do Nothing Members who do nothing will receive their full premium refund (and possibly interest) less their proportionate share of legal fees for the class action lawsuit, Kanerva v. Weems, whose settlement resulted in the premium refund.
  2. Request to Opt-Out Members may notarize and submit an Opt-Out Notice. Members who opt-out would NOT be eligible to receive a refund of premiums as part of the class action settlement, their premium payments would be placed back in the Health Insurance Revolving Fund, and the member would be responsible for the legal expenses of any separate legal action. The Opt-Out Notice must be submitted by March 11, 2015.
  3. Members who do NOT opt-out, may object to the Legal Fees Members may send a written objection to the legal fees that are deducted from their pension refund. Members who object to the legal fees can be heard by the Sangamon County Court on April 1, 2015. Any objection must be submitted by March 11, 2015.

The amount of legal fees to be subtracted from members’ refunds remains undetermined. The State Universities Annuitants’ Association’s (SUAA) attorneys and others are pushing to base the legal fees on the number of attorney hours worked and a reasonable hourly rate, rather than on a flat percentage of the total settlement.

The Sangamon County Court ordered that the SUAA establish a website to provide information about the health insurance premium refund. The website contains a number of court orders and documents related to Kanerva v. Weems. You can access this website here.

Other Pension Updates At this time, implementation of the pension reform bill passed in 2013 is still pending the outcome of legal challenges to its constitutionality. Oral arguments are expected to begin in March 2015. In his recent budget address, Governor Bruce Rauner proposed new reforms as part of his effort to close the State’s budget gap. At this point, proposals are very preliminary. We believe any legislative action on such proposals is unlikely until a ruling by the Illinois’ Supreme Court on the legislation passed in 2013.

Why You Will Never See a Stock Market Ticker on Our Website

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My home to office commute averages around 12 minutes, during which I enjoy listening to the news to catch up on current events.  During my commute the day’s stock market figures are also announced.  As a Financial Planner this information may seem useful, but it is not.  Below are some of the reasons why I believe this information can be counterproductive.

Stock Tickers are Confusing

It is no accident that Las Vegas casinos use chips and tokens instead of actual money when playing their games.  It tricks our brains into separating the value of the chips from the cash value the chip represents.  Stock indices and the underlying stock prices have somewhat of the same effect.  Individuals cannot easily mentally calculate a stock market point change into a tangible effect on their wealth.  To do so, they would need to:

  1. Convert point change to percentage change
  2. Calculate amount of net worth invested in that index, adjust by percentage change
  3. Calculate overall net worth change based on proportional amount of wealth

All of this work only to realize these index quotes relate only to a single day.

Stock Tickers are Framed Too Narrowly

Stock tickers only tell you the change in one particular market segment for a particular segment of time, usually that day.  For most people, that information has little relation to daily life.  Even Charles Dow, founder of the Dow Index, did not watch his own index on a daily basis.

Image: TD Ameritrade Does not reflect current data

When investing in the stock market, you must take an ownership mentality.  A stock is a partial ownership in a company, entitling you to a share of future income.  Any business owner may benchmark her business’ performance on a regular basis.  That process is helpful to evaluate areas of success, weakness and future opportunities.  However, this process would not be repeated daily, weekly or likely even monthly.  It would be too time consuming, confusing and not likely to produce useful information.

Too much time spent on daily monitoring of the stock market takes time away from activities that could be more productive.

Stock Tickers Distract Us from the Real Opportunities

Far too much attention gets placed on the investment component of individual’s personal financial situations.  It is an important component, to be sure.  There are plenty of examples of individuals who struck it rich from the one right pick.  For every case of one lucky decision, there are many more stock picks that only produced average or even below average performance that we don’t hear about.  For most people, long term wealth is built through a series of small decisions.  Spending too much time focusing on investments takes time away from making those good decisions.

Time spent on investing should be focused on selecting an appropriate level of risk for your goals and situation, building a diversified portfolio of low-cost funds, sticking to an investment philosophy and regular review and rebalancing.  Once this foundation is established, annual or biannual investment reviews leave time to focus on other value-added activities such as proactive tax planning, setting and updating goals, and managing behaviors to meet those goals.

For these reasons, you will never see a stock market ticker quote on our website.  I do not look at these figures on a daily basis and for your financial health, I suggest you refrain from checking them daily as well.

#GivingTuesday

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There is no doubt that the holiday season is officially upon us. It is difficult to go out and about and not be inundated with signs for holiday shopping deals. Around every corner is another flashy ad encouraging you to be a good consumer and spend spend spend. That said, there is nothing wrong with holiday shopping and gift giving, but what about giving back in a different way? We have all heard about Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, but how many of us are familiar with Giving Tuesday? Giving Tuesday is a nationwide initiative that encourages individuals and organizations to spend the Tuesday after Thanksgiving practicing generosity. So, after you have filled up with food on Thanksgiving, loaded your shopping cart on Black Friday and clicked your way to consumer bliss on Cyber Monday, why not spend Tuesday, December 2nd celebrating generosity by donating to your favorite charities? There are many reasons why people give: altruism, gratitude, recognition, compassion, generosity, the list goes on and so do the benefits. However, one benefit we can all appreciate is the ever famous tax deduction. Recently, Jake Kuebler appeared on WCIA’s Current to discuss charitable deductions and budgeting for charitable giving. For some of Jake’s tips on giving be sure to check out the full segment below.

Bluestem would like to wish you all a very Happy Holiday season!

Kuebler shares insights with Investor's Business Daily

Recently, our own Jake Kuebler spoke with Investor's Business Daily's (IBD) Aparna Narayanan about ways young Advisors are adapting traditional business models by using new technology and social media. Jake’s experience as a young business owner, as well as his leadership on NAPFA Genesis, has given him ample insights into the changing landscape of financial planning. The article hits on several of these new ideas, which you can click here to read. IBD

Kuebler Appears on WCIA's Current to Discuss Couples and Finances

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This week, Bluestem’s own Jake Kuebler appeared on the WCIA 3 News program Current, where he sat down with Cynthia Bruno to discuss ways couples can successfully manage their finances. Jake provided tips to help couples be more transparent when it comes to money and their long term financial goals. Jake shared advice on several financial issues including: buying a first home, preparing for children, saving for college and cohabitating vs. marriage. Jake’s biggest advice for couples is to be intentional with their finances. He suggests that planning ahead and making solid decisions early on reduces the need for rushed decisions or limited opportunities in the future. Jake also shared his thoughts on savings, saying that couples should automatically save first and use what is left over for “fun money”. This approach helps couples achieve their goals and worry less about budgeting. We all know that financial issues can be a source of stress for couples, hopefully Jake’s optimism and helpful tips can be a positive influence on your own relationship.

You can watch the full segment below or visit the Current webpage at illinoishomepage.net.

Protecting your Financial Life in the Digital Age

The news of cyber vulnerabilities and retailer hacks seems never ending. This  past week, another major fast food chain, Jimmy Johns, announced a data  breach and possible loss of consumer payment information. Other recent big  breaches include Target and Home Depot. Then came news of another security  bug, “Bash” aka “Shellshock”, endangering the security of many websites. To  help you protect your financial information in the digital age, I compiled a list of  financial best practices and some recommendations for keeping yourself safe:

Credit versus Debit:

To protect yourself from fraud, ditch your debit card and stick with credit. Debit cards do not come with the same consumer protections as credit, even if the debit card carries a Visa or MasterCard logo. If your bank issues a debit card for ATM access, request an ATM only card that cannot be used in stores or do not carry the card unless you plan to make a cash withdrawal from an ATM.

Credit Monitoring and ID Theft Insurance? Generally I do not recommend these products. Credit monitoring only alerts you of suspicious activity. You can do this yourself by checking your credit regularly (a service we provide for our clients). As for insurance, you are not generally liable for fraudulent activity. Therefore, ID theft insurance is covering only out-of-pocket costs for fighting fraud. Insurance does not compensate for the aggravation and your time, only actual costs such as postage.

A more effective way to prevent fraudulent accounts from being established in your name is to freeze your credit with each of the three credit reporting agencies. Here is a guide offered by Financial Radio Personality, Clark Howard: Clark Howard Credit Freeze and Thaw Guide

Keep in mind that freezing your credit has its own downsides. Applying for or opening new credit will require work on your part to “thaw” your file. Also, some identify verification services rely on your credit file. Without access, you may not be able to validate yourself online.

19-08-7Paper versus Electronic account statements:

Let’s face it, paper statements are just as vulnerable as electronic. Use whichever format you prefer and the one that you will be more likely to review promptly. Reviewing statements is your best defense against unauthorized activity.

Paper Statements can get lost in the mail and potential thieves can steal from your mailbox. Best practice would be to have a locked Post Office box to receive financial mail and never mail anything sensitive except through a locked mail collection box (Blue USPS Mailbox).

For electronic statements, do not count on your financial institution to retain digital records forever. Download them to a local (secure) computer and back them up regularly. Consider automating your computer backups with a system such as Mozy, Carbonite, or Box.com.

Passwords:

Use a secure, unique password for each financial website. Make your password long (12 or more characters) with combinations of upper and lowercase, numbers and symbols. When possible, enable two-step verification. This will require a separate authentication when a website is accessed from an unrecognized or new device. The two-step verification works because an access code is sent in a text message to your phone or in an email. The code is required to access your account in addition to the usual password, and thieves don’t have access to your phone or email from their device.

Consider a password manager system to generate and store your passwords. I use a system called LastPass. I only need to memorize one password, and LastPass can store all the rest. However, make sure your master password is very secure and change it often.

Shopping and Banking Online:

Only access financial information from your own devices and only if you have up-to-date security software with real time protection. Public computers or those used by others (e.g. in hotels or internet cafes) may have spyware or key loggers trying to capture passwords and other secure data.

Avoiding Scams:

Reputable institutions will not call you to request verification of non-public information (Social Security Numbers, Account Numbers, etc). Calls such as these are most likely scams. If you get a call requesting this type of information, hang up and call back the institution with a number you know to be real such as the phone number on the back of a credit card or website. In addition, the IRS almost never calls taxpayers, especially as first contact. Any notices regarding your returns will be by a letter sent through the US Postal Service.

Have any more tips? Leave a comment with your thoughts or suggestions.

Update on Illinois Pension Reform

For updated information on this subject please read our latest blog post. This year has seen a flurry of lawsuits related to Illinois Pension Reform, including previous changes made to the State Retiree Health Insurance.  Many of the cases are still in process, but here is an update on what we know:

Pension Reform

In late 2013, Illinois General Assembly passed a bill aimed at reforming the pension systems for most Illinois public employees and Governor Pat Quinn signed the bill into law.  This bill reduced future benefit increases for current retirees and decreased expected benefits for those not yet retired.  Lawsuits quickly followed questioning the constitutionality of this law.  The law was slated to go into effect as of June 1, 2014, but was suspended pending resolution of these lawsuits.  This means that SURS and other State Retirement Systems are operating under the rules as they existed before pension reform was passed.

You can see my summary of the pension reform in two prior blog posts from December 6th and December 23rd.  You can also view a SURS press release regarding the halting of pension reform here.

Health Insurance

Before the pension reform discussed above, changes were made in 2012 requiring State Retirees to contribute towards the cost of their health insurance by a  2% deduction from their pension (1% for retirees enrolled in Medicare).  Like pension reform, lawsuits were filed challenging this law.  The opinion of many experts at the time of passage was that Retiree Health insurance was a separate benefit from pension benefits and therefore not constitutionally guaranteed.  This was further backed by an initial court ruling.  Since that time, there has been more action by the courts.

First, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the lower court's decision by ruling that Retiree Health insurance is in fact protected by the same constitutional provisions that protect pensions.  Then, shortly after, another ruling halted the July 2014 planned increase in premium contributions to be made by pensioners.  Finally, a ruling this week determined that the state may no longer deduct health insurance premiums from retirees' pensions.

You can read more about this change here.

Implications

It is still too early to make substantial planning decisions.  Immediately, retirees can expect their pension benefit to increase in the next month or two as health care deductions are halted.  It is also possible that previously deducted premiums will be refunded.  For retirees who previously deducted premiums paid as an Medical Expenses under their Itemized Deductions on their tax returns, they may have to claim refunds as income.

Additionally, some retirees opted out of state insurance in favor of alternative Medicare Supplemental, Medicare Advantage or other policies.  This might sway those retirees to return to the state plan during open enrollment for 2015.

Longer term the State's position on pension reform looks more weak, but this is a complex legal matter.  I expect we are a long way from any final resolution.