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The Retirement Issue No One Wants To Discuss


Wealth depletion by retirees reduces the size of their estates. This is seldom an issue for those who retire wealthy, or for those without any heirs they care about. For the larger group of non-affluent retirees who do care, however, the conflict is inescapable.

The retiree, for example, may have to choose between taking a long-planned around-the-world trip, or bequeathing the money for their grandchildren’s education. Three approaches to the issue are discussed in this article.


The default approach of retirees is to avoid estate planning altogether. The wealth they bequeath depends on how long they live, and on the many life decisions they make without regard for their impact on estate value. Whether they leave enough to fund their grandchildren’s education is left to chance, or perhaps to a higher power.

Bequests Using The 4% Rule

The 4% rule has been adopted by many financial advisors as a way retirees can draw funds from a portfolio safely, with low prospect of ever running out. If you don’t run out, what remains goes to the estate.

In applying the rule, a retiree draws 4% of her initial financial assets, and increases it every year by a fixed annual percentage – usually 2-3%. The estate value that results depends on the amount of financial assets to start, and the realized return on the assets.

Consider a female retiree of 62 with a nest egg of $1 million, 25% of it in common stock and 75% in interest-bearing securities. The median return on that type of portfolio during the period 1926-2012 was 6.1%. If the retiree earns a return of 6.1% on her portfolio, her estate will receive about $1.5 million if she dies at 82 or about $1.8 million if she dies at 92.

On the other hand, there is a 2% probability that the rate of return will be 2.8% or lower, in which case her assets would fall to zero at age 90 or earlier. The 4% rule is no guarantee against her risk of running out, leaving nothing for her estate.  

Bequests in the Retirement Plan Approach

Non-affluent retirees who want to leave a bequest while avoiding the risk of running out can do both by employing a retirement plan developed by me and my colleague Allan Redstone. The plan combines a deferred income annuity (with a 10-year deferment period in this example) with a “Set-Aside”, which is a portion of the retiree’s assets that is retained in the retiree’s portfolio but is not used in determining the monthly draw amounts. Given the rate of return on the asset portfolio, a larger Set-Aside reduces the draw amounts and increases the estate value.

But the Set-Aside has another possible purpose. If the rate of return on the asset portfolio turns out to be lower than expected, the Set-Aside could be used to offset the decline in portfolio earnings. To the extent that it is used for that purpose, it is not available to enhance the estate value. To accomplish both objectives, the Set-Aside must be larger than the amount needed to stabilize the monthly draw options.

These points are illustrated by Charts 1 and 2, which show spendable funds and estate values, respectively, for the retiree with $1 million of financial assets which has an expected return of 6.1% with a low-probability worst case of 2.8%.

The 4 spendable funds lines on Chart 1 are dotted for the first 10 years during which the retiree receives draws from her assets, and solid thereafter when the annuity kicks in. The top line assumes that the yield through the 10-year deferment period is 6.1%. The line that drops during that period assumes the low-probability return of 2.8% during that period. The second highest line, which eliminates the 10-years of decline in spendable funds, includes a Set-Aside of $52,782, which is the amount needed to offset the decline.

The minimum Set-Aside, however, does not result in any estate value at the end of the deferment period, as shown in Chart 2. For that purpose, a larger Set-Aside is needed, which I arbitrarily set at $200,000. This reduces the spendable funds schedule but the estate value that will be $200,000 or larger.

Concluding Comment

Non-affluent retirees who want to leave as large an estate as possible, but not at the cost of an impoverished retirement, can find the right balance using a retirement plan that combines a Set-Aside with a deferred annuity. Questions can be addressed to

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