how can there be too much money?
quick look at "too much"
- In very general terms, current tax law levies a charge when something of value changes hands. Whether in life or at death, gifts of money or other valuables can incur a "gift" or "transfer" tax, and when the tax comes into play it can be significant. Estate planning professionals and tax experts have various strategies to manage the impact of these taxes, but the transfers must be accounted for in any case. Currently, the tax code at the US federal level has a fairly high exclusion for gift and transfer taxes (over $5M), but each state has their own policies to consider.
- Apart from the potential financial complications, there may also be some lifestyle and psychological impacts associated with holding on to most or all assets until death. One very simple way to see this is that gifts made during life can be witnessed and enjoyed, both by the giver and receiver, where gifts left at death (via a will, for example) happen at a time where the giver cannot really participate in the experience.
- Annuity benefits -- Many people accumulate or hold retirement assets in vehicles that offer the option to "annuitize" at some point in the future. In the pure sense, an annuity is a payment that spends down an amount over a specified time period; in some cases that time period is "for life". A pension benefit or a commercial insurance product are two common examples where the owner of the asset may have the choice to take a "monthly payment for life"; however, there may also be other payout options. In some cases, it may be possible to choose a smaller payment that can pass to a second person after the first dies. Or it may be possible to forgo the annuity election altogether and take a lump sum distribution from the account. The "right" choice among these options should be informed by the actual circumstances unique to the case: does the person need income? Do they have dependents or heirs that could benefit from a different arrangement? Does their tax status recommend a particular strategy?
- Deferred income -- traditional IRA, 401k, and similar retirement plans (excluding ROTH style for the purpose of this point) all represent deferred income, where the deferral means it was not spendable by the earner, and so income taxes where not collected along the way. While these types of retirement savings accounts can be very useful and powerful within a financial plan, it is important to not lose track of the fact that there will eventually be an income tax liability on the money in those accounts. For people who die with money left in an IRA, for example, what passes on to their beneficiary comes with a tax on any eventual distributions.
what's the plan?
A robust financial plan with a qualified financial planner, such as a CFP®, should seek to address both ends of this question, from dying with too little to dying with too much, as well as a number of other important financial considerations.