Financial strategies to cover an early or unexpected retirement

Despite a bull market in stocks, two new studies show that retirees and those getting close are bearish about retirement.

Forty-eight percent of baby boomers reported being satisfied with their overall economic situation, a new low and down from 76% in 2011, according to a survey of 803 adults for the Insured Retirement Institute, an association of insurers and asset managers.

Part of the reason may be high expectations for travel and leisure in retirement, said Danielle Holland, senior vice president of research and communication at the association.

Another survey, a poll of financial planners by the American Institute of CPAs, found that even affluent clients have substantial fears about outliving retirement money and runaway health expenses.

Asked to compare their clients' situations with those of five years ago, these advisors said more clients are dealing with unexpected health concerns that cropped up for themselves and loved ones.

Kathie Carnahan, 60, can relate. Five years ago, her husband, Burt, retired unexpectedly after major heart surgery. He was 65 at the time, she said, but was a managing partner at a law firm and had planned to continue working past traditional retirement age.

The couple had adequate retirement resources even with the abrupt end to work, but she still worries about what future health problems could do to their lifestyle. The couple has since relocated from New Orleans to Asheville, N.C., to be near healthcare facilities and a lower crime area.

Instead of retiring and selling or closing her college planning and test preparation business, Kathie Carnahan doubled down, made one of her staff members a partner in the business and began courting corporate clients in Asheville.

"I love what I'm doing and can't imagine being totally out of the picture, but part of this is trying to ensure our health needs are covered," she said. "It's a huge component of why I'm working as long as I can."

Many near-retirees panicked in the 2008-09 bear market and never got back into stocks, and others may have stayed in the markets but diversified their holdings in preparation for retirement, while most of the stock gains went to U.S. equities, said Michael Goodman, president of Wealthstream Advisors Inc. in New York.

Apart from market conditions, there is also often a big disconnect between a client's retirement fears and reality, Goodman said.

His advice to people who may have had retirement thrust upon them earlier than planned: Do a cash-flow projection that includes current expenses and portfolio returns, and consider tapping home equity. You might also consider taking advantage of a sudden drop in income to convert some IRA assets to Roth accounts, he said.

Sometimes couples are reluctant to move if they can't get a certain price for their homes, but fail to consider the savings over time of reduced upkeep expenses and property taxes, he said.

Also, if you're younger than 591/2, check out Internal Revenue Code Section 72t, which describes how you can take penalty-free early retirement account withdrawals. A word of caution: It's easy to mess this provision up, so hire a tax pro to help.

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