Financial planning has extra twists for gay boomers

Posted: Friday, March 05, 2004

NEW YORK (AP) As retirement draws nearer for baby boomer couples, many are scrambling to understand insurance, investments, Social Security and wills. For those who are in same-sex relationships, the difficulties multiply.

''For straight couples, so much of it is automatic, as far as inheritance rights and things like that,'' said Marshall Taylor, a 47-year-old gay New Yorker in a 10-year relationship. ''For gay couples, you have to orchestrate all that.''

The state of Massachusetts and cities including San Francisco and New Paltz, N.Y., have drawn attention recently for recognizing same-sex unions or marriages, but since many of the laws and taxes affecting investments and estates are federal, local recognition can have more symbolic than practical value for gay and lesbian couples.

Many consult lawyers and financial planners.

''What we end up doing is putting together sort of a mosaic of documents and strategies to help put them in the position that would most closely approximate marriage,'' said Erica Bell, a lawyer who specializes in advising gays and lesbians.

Horror stories are passed around about what can happen if the right precautions aren't taken people who are out on the street when their partners die, families who challenge wills to have estates passed to them instead of the partners.

Those precautions includes powers of attorney, wills, joint tenancy agreements and careful beneficiary designations for savings accounts.

Bell finds it useful for them to write up agreements similar to prenups, particularly when a couple invests together.

''A married couple has a whole body of matrimonial law to rely on in determining what their deal was,'' Bell said. ''With domestic partners, they have to decide 'What is our arrangement, what is our expectation of one another?''' and then put it in writing.

This is especially important since same-sex couples can be quite different in the way they deal with money, according to Russell Clarke, an American Express financial planner in Atlanta.

''I have clients who have been partners for 20-plus years, and one doesn't know what the other has and they don't share any financial information between them,'' Clarke said. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who use the same credit card and own everything jointly, which generally makes Clarke's job easier.

Joint ownership of homes can be tricky too. The main options are ''joint tenants in common'' and ''joint tenants with rights of survivorship.'' The latter guarantees that the surviving partner inherits the deceased's share of the home, avoiding a potential battle with a family over a will. However, a survivor may have to pay estate taxes on the entire value of a home, unless he or she has proof of paying into the home as well.

''Good record keeping is, I think, more important for domestic partners maybe than it might be in general,'' said Bell, who usually recommends the ''rights of survivorship'' structure.

Clarke favors the ''joint tenants in common'' method, where the surviving partner is only taxed on the value of the other's share of the home. He makes sure that the partners have a will in place if they use that option.

One of Clarke's biggest pet peeves is that a partner who inherits a traditional IRA is forced to take distributions immediately, which a spouse does not. For that reason, he recommends Roth IRAs, under which the survivor doesn't have to draw the money right away.

Another wrinkle is that unlike spouses, same-sex couples who have joint investments might have to pay gift taxes if they don't contribute equal amounts to the assets.

Because a surviving partner may face estate taxes, unlike a spouse, and also doesn't inherit the right to draw Social Security, life insurance is an important element of state planning for domestic partners, Bell said.

With all these exceptions, many couples find they have to turn to the growing number of lawyers and financial planners who specialize in clients with same-sex relationships.

''It doesn't have to someone who's gay, but it should be someone who's knowledgeable about some of the pitfalls, because you don't have the same rights as a straight married couple,'' said John Simone, who with his partner Marshall Taylor consulted a financial planner.

Planners specializing in the gay and lesbian community have formed the PridePlanners Association, which can provide referrals. And prospective clients need not be deterred by the fact that a planner is located in a particular city; Jennifer Hatch, managing director of New York-based Christopher Street Financial noted that her firm has clients around the country.

For all the legal hoops they have to jump through, gays and lesbians in relationships tend to be more financially well off than homosexuals who are on their own.

Community activist Terry Kaelber said the problem is compounded among older boomers and the pre-boom generation by the fact people who were openly gay in the 1950s and '60s mainly worked at places like bars that didn't have any pension plans.

''So to make ends meet, particularly for people who live in cities, a lot of people in the community work part-time jobs,'' said Kaelber, who is the director at New York-based Senior Action in a Gay Environment.

The AIDS epidemic added another complication in 1980s: HIV-positive men who didn't think they'd live long naturally didn't save for retirement. When effective medicines came along, they were suddenly faced with lifespans they hadn't planned for.

Clarke has several clients in that situation, which means they ''have to play a lot of catchup.''

''We have to do a lot of creative financing, as I call it, looking at other potential sources of revenue to carry you through retirement,'' he said.

Of course, as Kaelber points out, procrastinating about retirement savings is widespread among people of any orientation.



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