After 14 years together, Mark Frey and Doug Vogel are finally finding out what it means to be a married couple preparing for retirement.
The Rancho Palos Verdes residents were elated when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in June. But the couple, who married in 2008, worried that the ruling raised questions about everything they had done to protect their family's financial future.
"There was no structure for gay and married people to be recognized as married in the eyes of most states and in the eyes of the federal government," Frey said.
Vogel added, "We had to have separate trusts made, so that we were all protected," ensuring that if one partner died, the other would inherit without paying estate taxes.
Now, "our world has turned with the repeal of DOMA and we need advice," Frey said. "There are so many questions we need to have answered."
Same-sex couples across the U.S. have similar concerns, and financial planners and institutions are rushing to make sure their agents have the training they need to offer the right advice.
Some things are known. Assets can be transferred between Frey and Vogel without a tax penalty. Vogel's health benefits, on Frey's policy, will no longer be taxed. Vogel will also qualify for bigger Social Security spousal benefits based on Frey's larger cumulative salary history.
Other important matters are still unclear. Among them: Will same-sex couples receive equal tax and Social Security benefits in all 50 states — or only in California and the 12 other states where such marriages are recognized? The IRS also hasn't ruled on income tax filing requirements. Until then, financial planners and accountants are having to make their best guesses about taxes.
"Mark and Doug have been filing as head of household and single, and I don't think they are going to have that choice anymore," said Carol A. Somoano, a fee-only certified financial planner who reviewed the couple's situation.
"I think they are going to have to file jointly. The IRS has not made this clear yet."
Frey and Vogel are also examples of the kind of family that Somoano finds increasingly common these days. Frey and Vogel are part of the so-called sandwich generation; they are the older parents of young children. Frey is 60, Vogel is 52, and daughters Hannah Ross and Rebecca are 10 and 8, respectively. That means the two dads will be preparing for the college educations for both children at the same time that they may be adding Vogel's parents to their household.
The latter could involve an expensive home remodeling project to make room for Vogel's father and mother.
"Their eldest daughter will be entering college when Mark is 68 and Doug is 60," said Somoano, who works at Asset Planning Inc. in Cypress.
"While they will have some money saved for college," Somoano said, "it won't be enough, and I do not want them invading their retirement assets to pay for college. The big question is, are they going to be able to retire?"
In that respect, Frey and Vogel really aren't very different from other parents their age.
"We're just like everybody else," Frey said. "At the end of the day, when people meet us, they don't think of us as 'the gay couple.' Our families are very important to us and we want the best for them."
The good news is that Frey and Vogel are expected to make about $240,000 this year, with most of it coming from Frey's salary and bonus from his work for a major California health insurer.
Their total net worth approaches $2.2 million. Most of that is in IRA and other kinds of retirement accounts. Another big chunk is the $490,000 they have in the equity in their home. Frey and Vogel also have more than $200,000 in an annuity and savings accounts.
Frey can also expect an increasingly rare perk: a pension. But he switched jobs recently, leaving him only a few years to build up the size of his pension.
Ideally, Frey would like to transition to a lighter work situation when he turns 66.
"I'm going to have to work, with our kids going off to college, but I want to do what I want after age 66," Frey said. "There's a new generation of kids coming along that don't have good mentoring opportunities. I would love to do that."
In the past, Vogel has been a successful actor and model. He was the face of Viagra on the earliest samples distributed by doctors throughout the United States and on billboards in Europe.
"I've put that all on hold to be the stay-at-home dad," Vogel said. "But I would like to pursue that passion of mine in the future."
Frey has been diligent in his retirement account investing, making sure to reach the pre-tax contribution limit every year. The couple's biggest concern is the amount of money they spend every month, which has been supplemented by "found money" they can't depend on in the future.
"We have been spending more than we are making, and we have to cut back," Frey said.
Frey and Vogel are spending $14,343 a month. The biggest chunk of that involves their $4,000 mortgage, but they also shoulder other big expenses, such as fuel costs for their gas-guzzling Range Rover and Ford pickup truck. Frey and Vogel are shelling out more than $1,700 a month on auto-related expenses, most of it on gasoline.
"I commute from Rancho Palos Verdes to Burbank every day, and I'm filling the tank on the Range Rover every other day," Frey said. They have plans to buy a Tesla Model S electric sedan, but that would cost at least $72,000.
Frey and Vogel are hard on themselves about the spending, but Somoano said they have done some important things very well. Their only debt is their $826,000 mortgage. Frey and Vogel also looked carefully at public school districts. The quality of the Palos Verdes district should help them continue to avoid taking on the expense of private schools.
"They are to be commended for having no credit card debt," Somoano said.
One of the biggest changes Somoano recommends is related to the repeal of part of the Defense of Marriage Act.
"They should consolidate the two separate trusts they have now," Somoano said. "There is no longer a need for them to be separate, with Doug named as Mark's executor and Mark named as Doug's. Now they can be co-trustees and the other can take over immediately if he needs to."
Somoano added, "To keep the IRA tax deferred as long as possible, the daughters should be named as beneficiaries when they are 18. The trust should not be named beneficiary. If they do that, it would be taxed."
Although she praised the couple for having put more than $1.4 million into retirement-related and other tax-deferred accounts, she wants to see them monitor their spending closely, reduce spending where they can and build up an emergency fund of about $50,000.
Somoano would also like to see Frey and Vogel find a less expensive way to reduce their huge fuel bills than buying a Tesla car. On her list of alternatives: the Chevy Volt plug-in, the Nissan Leaf electric and the Toyota Prius hybrid.
And even through Frey and Vogel are worth about $2.2 million now, Frey should defer his hope of swapping his job at the health insurer for something less rigorous, at least until the age of 68. Somoano would like to see him keep the job until he is 70 if he can, but stopped short of making that a firm recommendation.
The reason is that Frey took the job only this year.
"The main reason is to increase his pension benefit," she said. "Two more years will add about 20% to the annual income benefit. He will defer Social Security longer, increasing his benefit. Plus the family can stay on his medical plan longer."
Frey was at least partially prepared for that possibility.
"Because we are part of that sandwich generation, I always knew I might have to work until I'm 70," he said. "I'll be that old when my second daughter finishes high school."