retirement

Best ways to deal with a forced retirement

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Highlights
  • Forced retirement most often occurs due to poor health or job loss.
  • Having six months' savings in an emergency fund affords some breathing room.
  • Earning income after applying for Social Security may result in suspended benefits.

Forced retirement is a fact of life for a growing number of baby boomers and can be just as traumatic as divorce or the loss of a family member. When you're suddenly facing retirement because your company has closed, given you a buyout or eliminated your job, myriad financial issues can have an immediate impact on your goals and dreams for the future.

According to a 2011 survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 45 percent of retirees said they stopped working earlier than they expected. The three most common reasons were poor health (cited by 63 percent), corporate downsizing or closures (23 percent), and the need to care for a spouse or other family member (18 percent).

Be ready just in case

Christine Moriarty, CFP and the founder of MoneyPeace, recommends that you be defensive in case you have to retire early by following time-tested advice, especially if you're in your 50s. "Have enough money liquid at a local bank to cover your basic needs for at least six months," she says. "This way, you won't have to react to a circumstance and can adjust in a more structured way after the immediate crisis has passed."

Moriarty also suggests that boomers consider paying off their mortgage as soon as they can. "The lower your home loan, the more manageable it is in times of crisis."

Not only is this sound financial advice during a difficult financial transition, but a Consumer Reports survey published in 2010 found that about three-quarters of retired people who had paid off their large debts, including mortgages, had a high level of satisfaction with their lives.

Consider early Social Security

Whatever the reason for a forced retirement, it stirs up a host of big questions and issues such as: Should I start receiving Social Security immediately? Live off my savings or take distributions from a retirement plan? Do I need to reshuffle my investments to make up for lost savings or shield myself from future losses?

Many forced retirees need to apply for Social Security right away in order to pay everyday bills, according to Andy Landis, author of "Social Security: The Inside Story." But any decision on whether to accept early Social Security benefits at a reduced rate or delay benefits for higher future payments does not have to be permanent. "For those who aspire to return to the workforce, the system and payment calculations don't penalize you; they actually adjust automatically for you," Landis says.

That means if you return to work and earn more income than you're allowed, your Social Security payments will automatically stop. Landis says when you reach your full retirement age, you'll be re-credited for any months in which payment was halted.

Your Social Security payments could increase as a result of inflationary adjustments, and if you resume working and paying into the system, your lifetime Social Security earnings could increase as well.

Tapping retirement plans can be tricky

Knowing how and when to use various retirement savings is important when you're suddenly forced to retire. The options for those with retirement plans such as 401(k)s and 403(b)s can be dizzying and add to an already stressful and anxious time.

Drummond Osborn of Osborn Wealth Management suggests that investors do indeed treat a job loss like losing a loved one or divorce. "Don't rush into anything you'll regret later. Give yourself as much time as possible to deal with the situation before making asset allocation and investment changes," he says.

Keep in mind the government generally imposes a 10 percent penalty on withdrawals from tax-deferred retirement savings before age 59½. For forced retirees who haven't yet reached that milestone, Osborn notes there are options, including substantially equal periodic payments, or SEPP, which allow you to access a qualified retirement plan without triggering the penalty.

Essentially, if distributions come as part of a series of substantially equal payments made periodically over your life expectancy, the early withdrawal penalty does not apply with a SEPP. However, you'll risk triggering the penalty unless you continue such payments until at least age 59½, or for five years, whichever comes later.

"It can be a complex strategy and should only be used when truly necessary and only then with the help of an experienced professional," Osborn says.

Take your time, and get help if you need it

A forced retirement can be a difficult transition filled with more questions than answers. Overcoming the financial ramifications takes patience, know-how, and personal and professional support. If your golden years arrive suddenly, you can make the most of it by being proactive and developing strategies that provide time and flexibility for making the big adjustments.

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