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Do I Need a CFP, a CPA, or Both?

A reader writes in, asking:

“I’m looking for a ‘fee only’ professional who can take care of everything including tax returns, tax planning, financial planning, and handling the portfolio. I’m getting to the point where I no longer want the hassle, and my wife won’t want to handle it at all once I’m gone. Does such a person exist? Would I be better off looking among CPAs or CFPs?”

Let’s tackle the question of certifications first, since it’s relevant for anybody seeking an advisor, then we’ll move on to whether it makes sense to use a single person for all of the services desired.

Which Certification is More Relevant?

The sections of the CPA exam are:

  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (dealing with, for example, the statements that publicly traded companies must provide to shareholders),
  • Auditing and Attestation,
  • Regulation (dealing with individual taxation, business taxation, and business law), and
  • Business Environment (a catch-all category for other business topics such as economics, operations, finance, and information systems).

And the topics covered by the CFP exam are:

  • General Principles of Financial Planning,
  • Insurance Planning,
  • Investment Planning,
  • Income Tax Planning,
  • Retirement Planning,
  • Estate Planning,
  • Interpersonal Communication, and
  • Professional Conduct and Fiduciary Responsibility.

As you can see, the CFP exam is definitely tailored more precisely to personal finance than the CPA exam is.

However, there are two important caveats to note here.

First, there’s an additional, lesser-known credential that some CPAs go on to earn: Personal Financial Specialist (PFS). The PFS curriculum is very similar to the CFP curriculum, as are the topics covered on the exam.

Second, it would be rare to find any professional who is truly an expert in each of the topics covered by the exam for their certification. As you might expect, a professional’s expertise is going to depend much more on what field they work in than on what certification(s) they have. To use myself as an example, despite being a CPA, I know next to nothing about auditing, because I have never worked in that field and because my exam on the topic was approximately 4 years ago, meaning I’m well on my way to forgetting what little I once did know.

In summary, if you’re looking for a very comprehensive financial planner/professional, a CFP or somebody with the CPA and PFS certifications is likely to be your best bet. However, a person’s expertise will depend at least as much on their experience as on their certifications.

Is One Professional Really a Good Idea?

It’s easy to find a tax preparer who also does financial planning. Alternatively, it’s easy to find a portfolio manager who also does financial planning. But somebody who does tax preparation, financial planning, and portfolio management would be pretty rare. (And frankly, that makes sense. Trying to become an expert in all three professions would be exceedingly difficult.)

The most common solution would be to use two separate professionals: a tax preparer and a financial planner/portfolio manager. (In some cases, you may find it convenient to find a firm that has both types of professionals.)

Alternatively, you may not even need to pay a professional, per se, for portfolio management. Developments in the last few years — specifically, the rise of all-in-one funds and so-called “robo-advisors” — have made it clear that portfolio management is a commodity service, the cost of which is rapidly declining (and even approaching zero).

Investing Blog Roundup: Jonathan Clements Money Guide 2015

This week, Jonathan Clements released his new book: Jonathan Clements Money Guide 2015. I received a review copy last week, and I must say that I’m impressed. It is, I believe, the broadest personal finance book I’ve ever encountered — discussing everything from saving for retirement, to buying a home, to 529 plans, to Social Security claiming strategies.

The other particularly unique aspect of the book is its super-timely nature. The most recent version has data that Clements uploaded as of 12/31, so it’s not even a week old.

Because the book is intended to be a reference guide (hence the broad range of topics covered and the emphasis on timely information), it isn’t necessarily meant to be read cover-to-cover. Instead, each section is a stand-alone explanation of the topic in question.

Personally, another use I can see for the book (specifically, the paperback version) is as a loaner. When a friend or family member asks you for information about a given topic, just lend them your copy of the book, with post-it notes on the relevant pages. (This is in contrast to handing them an entire book on the topic, which would be more likely to go unread.)

As far as the writing style, if you’re familiar with Clements’s work at The Wall Street Journal, you know exactly what to expect: no-frills, plain-English explanations.

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How Much Can I Give Per Year Without Having to Pay Tax

Administrative note: There will be no articles this upcoming Friday or Monday, due to the holidays. The regular posting schedule will resume the following Friday (1/2). I hope you all enjoy your holidays!

A reader writes in, asking:

“How much can I give per year without having to pay any tax? I read in one place that it’s $14,000 and in another place that it’s over $5 million.”

First, a quick point of clarification for any readers new to the topic: The recipient of a gift does not have to pay tax on it. It is only the person giving the gift who has to worry about the gift tax.

Excluded Gifts

None of the following types of transfers are subject to the gift tax:

  • Gifts to your spouse,
  • Gifts to a qualifying charity,
  • Gifts to a political organization for its use, and
  • Payments made directly to an educational institution or health care provider to pay for somebody else’s tuition or medical expenses.

In other words, you can give away as much money as you want in any of the above ways, without having to worry about gift tax.

Annual Gift Tax Exclusion

For gifts that don’t fall under any of the above exclusions, you can still give (for 2014 and 2015) up to $14,000 per year without the gift being taxable.

A key point here is that this annual exclusion is per donor, per recipient. In other words, you can give up to $14,000 per year to as many different people as you’d like, without ever exceeding the annual exclusion. And if you’re married, your spouse could also give up to $14,000 to each of those same people without ever exceeding the annual exclusion.*

Lifetime Exclusion

So what happens once you exceed the annual exclusion amount? You’ll have to file Form 709 to report the taxable gift, but in most cases you still won’t have to pay any gift tax. That’s because, after exhausting your annual exclusion, you then have to exhaust your lifetime exclusion before you actually have to pay any gift tax.

For example, if you give $40,000 to your brother in 2015, you will have made a taxable gift of $26,000 (that is, $40,000 minus the $14,000 annual exclusion). This $26,000 amount will come out of your lifetime exclusion.

As of 2014, the lifetime exclusion is $5.34 million (and twice that for married couples). For 2015, the amount is $5.43 million (and twice that for married couples). As you might imagine, most people never have to pay any gift tax, because they never even come close to exceeding their lifetime exclusion.

Of note: The lifetime exclusion is a shared exclusion with the estate tax. (The overall purpose of the gift tax, by the way, is to eliminate the possibility of people simply gifting their assets to their heirs before they die, in order to avoid the estate tax. So a shared exclusion makes sense.) In other words, by making a taxable gift, you reduce the amount that can be left to your heirs before the estate tax kicks in.

*Spouses are also allowed to elect (on Form 706) to have gifts treated as if they were given 50/50 by each spouse. This would be helpful, if, for instance, you have a $20,000 piece of property that you want to give to somebody. If only one spouse gives it (and no special election is made), then there’s a $6,000 taxable gift (assuming a $14,000 annual exclusion). But if a gift-splitting election is made, there would be no taxable gift because a total $28,000 annual exclusion would be available.

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Book6FrontCoverTiltedBlue

Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • The difference between deductions, exemptions, and credits,
  • Itemized deductions vs. the standard deduction,
  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:

"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"

Investing Blog Roundup: Tax Extenders and ABLE Act

As of this week, both houses of Congress have passed the Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014, which retroactively extends several different tax breaks that had expired at the end of 2013. (Now, they expire at the end of 2014.) Among the extended tax breaks are the exclusion for “qualified charitable distributions” from IRAs, the tuition and fees deduction, and the deduction for teacher classroom expenses.

In addition, Congress passed the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2014, which permanently creates a new type of 529 account in which people can save/invest for the purpose of supporting individuals with disabilities. The new accounts will function similarly to education 529 accounts, with one big difference being that a whole list of expense categories other than just education expenses will be eligible for tax-free distributions.

Michael Kitces has more information on both pieces of legislation:

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Is It Time to Overweight Energy Stocks?

A reader writes in, asking:

“What do you think of an Energy Mutual Fund such as Vanguard’s Energy Fund for a 3-5% position within one’s stock portfolio at this time?

Some investors such as Buffet have suggested that the time to invest in markets when there is “blood in the streets”, and there is crying from obvious pain.  Do you think the rapid price decline of oil and related energy stocks is a good investment through an energy fund, or should one be satisfied with the percentage of energy and related stocks through an S&P 500 fund or total market index fund?  Is there enough pain and blood in this sector to warrant at least a look at an energy fund for a longer term hold of at least one to three years?”

As of 12/12/14, the Vanguard Energy Fund is down just over 30% from the peak it reached in June of this year.

For an investor considering a temporary overweighting of this industry (relative, that is, to the portion of the overall market that it makes up), the question that must be answered is whether this 30% decline is an overreaction, an appropriate reaction, or an underreaction to the decline in oil prices. It would only make sense to overweight this industry if you were convinced that the recent price decline is an overreaction to the news (i.e., share prices have gone down more than they really should have, making today an opportunity to buy at bargain prices).

So, how would you determine whether the price change is an overreaction?

In short, you’d have to do some math (and a lot of research).

Specifically, you’d have to calculate your expectation for the industry’s future earnings given the new lower oil price (which would necessitate, among other things, an estimate of how long the price of oil will stay where it now is). And then you’d have to calculate what you consider to be a fair value of the industry, given those new earnings expectations.

As for me personally, such calculations and estimates would be well beyond the sort of thing I could do with any significant degree of confidence.

But if you don’t actually take the time to do the research and math, all you’re really doing is guessing.

You could make the case that, yes, it’s a guess, but if you make many guesses of this nature over the course of your investing career, you’ll be right more often than not given that investors tend to overreact to news. But there are, in my view, at least three compelling points against such a strategy:

  • Monitoring the news and moving in and out of various funds is quite a bit of work, relative to a simple buy-hold-and-rebalance strategy,
  • It involves higher costs, due to transaction costs and/or owning funds with higher costs than broad-market index funds, and
  • There’s evidence of a “momentum effect” in most equity markets, which might suggest that investors actually tend to underreact to news at first.

Investing Blog Roundup: Vanguard Personal Advisor Services

I read this week that Vanguard’s new “Personal Advisor Services” program (which provides asset management, a basic financial plan, and the ability to contact a CFP with any questions for a cost of 0.3% per year) has been gathering assets more quickly than the start-up companies in the robo-advisor space. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, given Vanguard’s massive size. But it will be interesting to see how quickly the program grows once Vanguard officially takes it out of the test phase and begins marketing it more broadly.

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