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Talking through post-retirement housing options

Account balances get the bulk of attention when people approach retirement and are meeting with their financial planners — will the clients have enough to fund those long-desired vacations or to pay for living expenses over the next 20, 30, or 40 years?

But one area not discussed enough is where and in what type of housing clients hope to live during their later years and how their CPA financial planner can help create a plan to adjust housing needs if health problems or other complications arise.

Too often, if they haven’t thought through options in advance, retirees or their families end up making decisions quickly, after, for example, a serious fall, a difficult medical diagnosis, or the loss of a spouse. They may suddenly need to find an assisted living option or move an ailing parent across the country to be closer to family. Making these decisions quickly can put people at a disadvantage as they must navigate the complex options for senior living without having the time to thoroughly research them.

“Things can change very suddenly,” said Brad Breeding, managing partner and co-founder of myLifeSite.net, an informational source on senior living and age-related topics. “All of a sudden, their whole world is turned upside down.”

This is where CPA financial planners can play a key role to helping seniors maximize their chances of living where they want by incorporating questions about housing into their conversations with clients years ahead of retirement.

“We are an aging population, which, for many people, means an aging client base,” Breeding said. “There’s some really important things to discuss proactively and not just reactively.”

Breeding and others who work closely advising people approaching or in their retirement years offered advice on how to discuss the potentially thorny issue of housing options with clients. Following are some of their top tips.

START THE CONVERSATION EARLY

CPA financial planners should bring up questions about housing options in regular check-ins years before it’s time for the client to retire. That way, planners can work with clients to identify their goals and help figure out how best to make them a reality, said James Sullivan, CPA/PFS (retired), a prolific author, elder-care advocate, and longtime CPA financial planner who now serves as president of the nonprofit Paying for Alzheimer’s.

People aren’t always aware that their CPA can help run detailed scenarios on different housing options, forecast some of the costs that could come with moving elsewhere, and anticipate what a move out of state could mean for annual income taxes as well as estate or inheritance taxes down the line.

Sullivan said that when he was actively practicing as a CPA financial planner, he made sure to ask about recent medical diagnoses and told his clients to inform him of any major changes in their health so he could help them start anticipating future needs.

People, understandably, often don’t initially think of their CPA financial planner as someone they should keep in the loop when, for example, they find out that they, or a family member, have a cancer diagnosis. But having that information lets financial planners provide reassurance and adjust plans so that finances don’t become a source of anxiety.

“The planning shouldn’t wait until there’s a diagnosis,” Sullivan said. “It should have occurred years earlier.”

UNDERSTAND DIFFERENT HOUSING OPTIONS

People have a whole variety of things to think through when it comes to approaching retirement, said Bernard Krooks, a founding partner at the New York law firm Littman Krooks LLP, where he chairs the firm’s elder law and special needs departments.

“In my experience, people are late in the game to analyze what their housing needs may be as they age,” he said.

Seniors can choose from among many housing options to live out their retirement years. It’s important for clients to understand the different types of housing available well before retirement age so they can plan and prepare for different scenarios. Among the housing options to be considered are:

Aging at home: For those clients who want to stay at home, it’s wise to have them assess how well they could adjust if their mobility or cognitive abilities change, especially if it were to happen suddenly, Krooks said. Are the hallways wide enough for wheelchairs? Is there a bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor? Would it make sense to add an elevator or look for a smaller place that could better adapt to changing cognitive and mobility abilities?

If someone decides to make a big move, perhaps to be closer to family or to live in a more temperate location, planners can work out scenarios of buying outright or renting for a bit to make sure they like the area before purchasing property.

Senior communities: Some opt to look at senior communities, where people can live independently in a community of other people in the same stage of life. This can be a chance to downsize to an apartment or condo and be able to connect with others who are similarly entering their retirement years, Krooks said.

Assisted living: For those looking for a combination of individual living space and access to on-premise services such as medicine management and help with daily care activities, including dressing and bathing, assisted living may be a good option. Because this type of facility tends to fill quickly, space might not be immediately available if someone has a medical need arise suddenly or unexpectedly, making prior research and planning all the more important when families are left making decisions quickly about where to move their aging relatives.

Breeding suggests doing research ahead of time on the reputation of facilities and what amenities they offer to residents to get a sense of what’s available and preferable in your area. States typically license assisted living facilities, and the appropriate regulatory agencies may have ways to look up inspections and other related records.

Continuing care retirement communities: Further up in services, and cost, are continued care retirement communities (CCRCs), planned communities where people can access the full continuum of care as they age. Krooks said he has had married clients choose this option when one spouse develops more significant medical needs than the other.

The deciding factors when choosing a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) can be broken down into five main categories: Lifestyle preferences, quality of health-care services, affordability and tax impacts, financial viability of the provider and analysis of which of the four most common types of CCRC contracts would work best for the client.

ASSESS OPTIONS FOR CLIENTS

Changing housing can be a major financial endeavor and is a key opportunity for a CPA financial planner to step in and help clients understand the risks ahead.

CCRCs, for example, can be quite costly, with large upfront payments that could be as high as $1 million for more upscale communities, Krooks said.

In some instances, people have invested in these communities, hoping to have a guarantee of living their later years in a safe and supportive environment, only to see poor financial decisions by a community’s developers and investors unravel their plans. Krooks has seen people put down significant portions of their retirement nest eggs to buy into a community being built, only to have that money swallowed up when the project collapsed.

That’s why it’s important for CPAs to help assess the entity’s financial viability to ensure it’s a smart move, for both financial and well-being reasons.

“There’s a unique opportunity for CPAs to do the due diligence and ensure that the development of the CCRC is on solid financial footing,” Krooks said.

Sullivan recalled looking at one assisted living option for a client, then flagging that they might be in rough shape financially when he saw that the facility was using bake sales and book sales to prop up a charity care fund.

Similarly, CPA financial planners can help show clients how to access public records from regulators about the medical care aspects of these communities, to determine if the care offered at different stages aligns with future needs, Breeding said. It helps demystify the process and gives real insight into a facility’s operations beyond the glossy brochures that facilities produce.

“You should be researching that well before you need any care,” he said.

TALK WITH YOUNGER CLIENTS, TOO

Besides talking with clients on the brink of retirement, financial planners should think about talking through housing considerations with younger clients, many of whom may be called upon to help parents or other older family members navigate changing housing circumstances, Breeding said.

He suggests the financial planners bring up the topic during annual or quarterly client meetings. For clients who expect to provide assistance to older relatives, the planner can offer to help break down the tax implications for both the retired person and relatives or assist with financial research of housing options, Breeding suggests.

“Even if those things aren’t needed now, people need to educate themselves on what they are and the differences between the options,” he said.

BE REALISTIC, BUT KIND

It’s important for CPA financial planners to be cognizant and respectful of the emotional impact that discussions about aging and declining health can have on clients, Sullivan said.

Sullivan will often hear from clients about their desire to stay in the homes they raised families in, and he must weigh that with his knowledge gained from years of working with older clients of how viable that will be. The cost and time required to maintain a large house can be significant, and that person may not be ready to hear a blunt assessment that they will eventually need to move.

“They want to maintain their home, which is understandable,” he said. “But in most cases, that’s not going to be the way it turns out.”

Sullivan takes care to run different financial household forecasts, to give awareness of how things could play out with a person staying in their home or if they move. That way, if a person re-evaluates things, the client will already have an idea of what a smaller home or apartment would mean financially.

This can also come up with younger clients, whose parents may have told them, “Promise me you’ll never sell the home and put me in a nursing home.”

That can be an enormous emotional hurdle for clients to overcome if medical problems manifest, and it simply isn’t safe for them to stay in the home, said Sullivan, who frequently helps those dealing with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive diseases.

He suggests an approach that centers on safety, telling clients and their families, “We’ll keep you in the home as long as it’s safe.”

By understanding the risks as well as the advantages of all the available options, CPA financial planners can play a key role in helping their clients figure out where they’d like to live during their retirement years.

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