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By Katie Brewer
February 5, 2015

I’m talking with a client, Sarah, about her work benefits.

“Are you signed up for disability insurance through work?” I ask. Since Sarah, who’s in her 30s, has at least 25 years until retirement, this insurance is a very important component of her financial plan.

Sarah says she thinks she is.

“Great,” I say. “How long is the waiting period on that, and what percentage of your salary is covered?”

Sarah responds with a big “Ummmm, I have no idea.”

This discussion is actually much more common than you might think. Life gets busy. When open enrollment happened, Sarah checked the boxes on her benefits form without really understanding what she was looking at. Then she moved on with her life. What’s the harm in that?

The harm is that if she hasn’t closely reviewed her employee benefits, she may have a false sense of safety. She may not have checked the right boxes. Her coverage may have major gaps or important conditions of which she’s not aware.

As a financial planner who specializes in working with Gen X professionals, I perform a comprehensive review of my client’s employee benefits as part of his or her financial plan. I can quickly identify potential gaps in insurance coverage, or tax-saving accounts that she or he is not taking advantage of.

Not every financial planning firm does this. Some advisers think that the client already has it under control. Some advisers put a majority of their focus on investment management, and maybe they don’t think they have time to review outside information. This is a mistake.

Here’s the problem: What you don’t know can hurt you. A client may think she has disability insurance through work, but what if she never actually signed up? She suddenly gets diagnosed with cancer and can’t work. Then she misses out on the 50%-60% of the monthly paycheck that employer-provided disability plans often provide. So now she’s dealing with both the stress of cancer treatments and the challenge of paying for living expenses no longer covered by her income. And her adviser has failed her.

A review of employee benefits doesn’t have to take long. Here are the steps I take with my clients:

  1. My client sends me either the employer benefits summary or screenshots from his or her employer benefits website.
  2. I look at the retirement plan. Is it pre-tax only, or is there an option to do Roth 401(k) or Roth 403(b) contributions? What is the employer matching formula? If the client is behind on saving for retirement, is there room to increase contributions before hitting the IRS-mandated maximum?
  3. Next, I review the disability insurance information. Is there long-term disability insurance offered? If so, is the client currently signed up for it? Is there an option to increase the coverage for a little more money? What is the waiting period? Does the employer or the employee pay the premiums (affecting whether the benefits are taxable)?
  4. I review the life insurance benefits. What is basic included coverage? If the client doesn’t have enough insurance, is there an option to increase the coverage? Does that option require medical underwriting or can he or she increase coverage without a medical exam?
  5. I make sure that the client is signed up for the health insurance plan that makes the most sense for him or her. Sometimes it’s better for spouses to be on the same health insurance policy instead of separate ones through their respective employers. Would the client benefit from doing a high-deductible plan (an attractive choice if the client is in good health)?
  6. Finally, I review the tax-advantaged savings account (usually a Health Savings Account or a health Flexible Spending Arrangement and a childcare FSA) to see if there are any benefits that we could be using, and I check the other benefits (like tuition reimbursement and pre-paid legal services) to see if there is anything else that could save my client money.

Once I report my recommendations to my clients, I find that they really appreciate that I am looking out for their best interests. And it gives them another reason to stick around.

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Katie Brewer, CFP, is the president of Your Richest Life, where she works virtually with Gen X professionals, helping them create and stick to a financial roadmap to live their richest life. Katie is a fee-only planner, a founding member of the XY Planning Network, and a member of the Financial Planning Association.

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