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Managing finances after the death of a spouse - Firstlinks newsletter

Graham Hand  |  24 Feb 2022Text size  Decrease  Increase  |  
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Last year, two of my close friends died, both in their late 60s. One was undergoing cancer treatment, so it was not a major surprise although he had been improving. The other suffered a heart attack while he slept at night, and his death was a massive shock. Putting aside the personal tragedy, in both cases, their estates were left to their wives who had not been heavily involved in managing their investments. Both are strong women capable of handling the stress but not everyone has their fortitude. One wife turned to the financial adviser her husband had worked with, but the other was forced to quickly pull together the financial pieces.

There are additional complexities with SMSFs. Most are managed by a dominant trustee, usually the husband, yet women have longer life expectancies. It's possible the surviving spouse will not want to continue to manage the investments, there are tax and estate implications and some assets may be illiquid.

Regardless of personal circumstances - health or financial - we should all take the time to ensure spouses or partners know in advance what steps to take if someone dies or becomes otherwise incapacitated. Making major decisions at a time of grieving is unwise. In any case, it is a legal requirement for SMSF trustees to have a documented investment strategy and to review it regularly. All 'non-dominant' trustees should know a trusted financial adviser they can turn to.

Some people will think it is too early in their lives to worry about such a morbid subject, but do they understand what life expectancy really means? Former leading asset consultant, Don Ezra, explained in a recent newsletter that while most people probably know the average age at death is in the early 80s, few people know the age distribution of deaths. He wrote:

"If we don’t have a rough, intuitive idea of how large the uncertainty is, we will make decisions that are totally inappropriate ... the distribution is extremely wide. That suggests that longevity is a big risk, and we need to consider it seriously, particularly those of us who are risk averse."

Ezra asked five of his friends to guess what one standard deviation of the longevity data might be. (Stay with me here. Simply put, standard deviation is a measure of variance around a mean, and one SD is about 68% of samples - in this case, ages at death - and two SDs is about 95% of samples). Ezra reports:

"One colleague, an actuary, clearly had the right mind-set. He said: ‘A few will live to 100. Let’s say that’s a two standard deviation event. If the average age at death is 81, then 19 more years will be roughly two standard deviations. So, in round numbers, I’d say 10 years is the standard deviation'."

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Which is about right. Most of Ezra's friends guessed too low. The point is, while life expectancy is a useful measure of how long you might live, there will be outliers like my friends who will live a lot less. We usually worry about outliving our savings but consider also if you drop off the twig earlier than expected.

To top it off, The Economist reported last week that life expectancy in many countries is falling:

"To assess just how much damage the virus has done according to this (life expectancy) measure, a team of researchers based across Britain, Denmark and Germany compared life expectancy in 28 countries and Northern Ireland before and after the start of the pandemic."

The chart below shows a fall in life expectancy in nearly all countries surveyed. This must be the first time in history. For years, we have talked about living longer, and that might not be right in future.

It has been surprising to read this week how dependent much of Europe is on Russia for its energy needs. Germany relies on Russia for 50% of its gas and Austria is 100% dependent. At US$90 a barrel, Russia earns US$1 billion a day in hydrocarbon revenues and that buys a lot of military hardware. In contrast, the US now produces enough petroleum for its own needs. It means the rise in the oil price and supply dependencies impose different economic and geopolitical implications on the US and other countries. Where the US does import oil, half comes from Canada.

In this week's edition, a welcome return to Peter Thornhill who updates his 'mothership' chart to prove again the benefits of holding dividend-producing shares instead of other assets, especially cash. Peter has no time for diversified investing, but it takes a strong risk tolerance over a long time horizon to be a true disciple.

How many people know Stephen Jones, the 'shadow' Labor minister in Jane Hume's portfolio of financial services and superannuation (although Hume has a broader remit)? Given Labor has a decent chance at the May election (current Betfair odds, Coalition $3.15, Labor $1.46), it's worth knowing what he thinks about super, advice and other parts of the portfolio.

There are fascinating changes underway in media which perhaps older generations of investors are not aware of. Video games are bigger than the movie industry. Jody Johnsson and Martin Romo explain how traditional media is being disrupted, including some of the market's favourite companies.

While there is an obvious focus on the implications of inflation and a potential war, Shane Woldendorp says many companies were already falling and vulnerable due to their expensive valuations. They are no place to hide.

The new Design and Distribution Obligations (DDO) may sound arcane to most investors, and indeed, many issuers simply bury the regulations in the paperwork. But not so with bank hybrids. Norman Derham explains how access to this mainstay of many retiree portfolios is changing, as seen already in a new ANZ Bank issue.

Despite the best intentions of a well-considered asset allocation, all portfolios change as asset prices rise and fall. Inna Zorina suggests investors undertake a portfolio rebalance, especially in the context of taking a 'total return' approach during low interest rates.

Michael Batnick is a US financial adviser and author who issues a regular newsletter, and last week, he featured a most-intriguing note from one of his readers. After a lifetime of investing, the reader has come to the conclusion that it's a 'colossal waste of time' listening to all the market pundits. There's at least one good reason, however, why it's worthwhile.

This week's White Paper is Neuberger Berman's Asset Allocation Committee Outlook 1Q22, making the case for holding risky assets through 2022.

There was a super-lively debate on my article about LIC discounts but I need to make two things clear after readers made incorrect comments. First was the claim that ETFs don't pay franking credits, which is wrong, and the second is that NTAs don't matter for ETF prices. Not so ... ETFs are priced off NTA. However, the Comment of the Week goes to John on the article about short-let apartments. John confirmed how some of these properties are a disaster yet many people think they are safe investments:

"Excellent article; spot on with all the details. As a public accountant I have seen first hand and in great detail examples of such 'investments' owned by clients! The latest example showed a 32% loss (contract selling price compared to contract purchase price) over a 12 year holding period."

is the editorial director of Morningstar Australia.

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