Personal Finance | September 26, 2017

The Smart Way to Manage a Windfall

You’ve probably spent some time imagining a lottery win or some other influx of wealth. What you likely haven’t dwelt upon: the practical steps you’d need to take if you actually had an enormous infusion of cash.

After all, anything from an inheritance, the sale of a business, a company going public, a major bonus—or even the sale of a property—can bring you a life-changing amount of money. But it’s highly unlikely that a windfall would buy you the freedom to completely eliminate all of your financial concerns. In fact, the opposite is true, says Robert Aruldoss, senior financial planning research analyst at the Schwab Center for Financial Research.

“Managing a windfall requires a modern wealth management approach,” he says.

In order to plan with a clear head, first hit pause. You don’t want to compromise your newfound wealth with impulse buys or gifts you might regret. So put the cash someplace stable, such as a money-market account, for at least three months. That gives you time to assemble a team of professionals who can help you work through financial matters.

Financial Windfall Management

Figure out the tax implications

There’s no such thing as a free lunch—or a tax-free lunch, either. Chances are you will need to pay taxes on your newfound cash. The question is, How much?

  • While inheritances and other gifts generally escape federal income taxes, funds from other sources such as the sale of short-term property, lottery winnings or a legal settlement may be taxed as ordinary income at up to a 39.6% federal rate.
  • Other income, such as the sale of a business, real estate or stocks, may be taxed at the lower long-term capital gains rate.
  • Equity compensation, including proceeds from an initial public offering, may be taxed as ordinary income, or receive favorable tax treatment, depending on how it’s structured.
  • You may owe additional state taxes as well; these vary depending on the state and your circumstances.

Whatever the case may be, it’s crucial to figure out the applicable taxes far in advance of tax time. “The amount that you can spend is likely a lot different than whatever your windfall was,” Robert says. Get an estimate of the damage from your CPA, then set aside that money in a relatively safe place such as a bank account or money market account. Depending on the circumstances, you also may be responsible for paying estimated taxes for the year in which you receive the windfall. 

Re-think your asset allocation

If you’re in your 40s or 50s, you’ve likely shaped your portfolio around the need for growth to build wealth. Post-windfall, however, you may want to structure your holdings around wealth preservation to buffer against severe drops in the market. That might mean moving from an all or mostly stock portfolio to one that emphasizes fixed income holdings.

You may also want to explore strategies such as investing in municipal bonds, which can help reduce future tax bills if you find yourself in a higher tax bracket going forward. “It makes sense not to take any more risk than you need or can afford to take,” Robert says. “Once you’ve reached certain financial goals, it makes sense to take some chips off the table.

Update your giving strategy

Want to let others share in your good fortune? This is an opportune time to indulge your spirit of generosity, but you’ll want to revisit (or create) your gift and estate plan to make sure you’re giving smartly.

A donor-advised fund, for example, allows you to gift a large chunk of assets to qualified charities, and reap an immediate tax benefit. You can then decide how you want to allocate the donated money over time.

Alternatively, a private foundation offers more flexibility in how the money is managed and donated, but also requires more paperwork. Speak to your estate planning attorney about the pros and cons of these and other charitable vehicles, as well as the best way to make gifts to family members or other individuals, if you’re so inclined.

Re-assess insurance needs

The purpose of life insurance is to support your family should you pass away during your working years; however, if you’ve got plenty in the bank now, you may no longer need to pay those premiums. Should you buy a nicer car or home thanks to your windfall, you’ll also want to review and update your property and casualty policy.

Finally, consider an extra layer of protection: Your additional wealth could make you a financial target in the event of a lawsuit, notes Robert. An extra liability policy, known as an umbrella policy, covers personal liabilities above the typical limits on home and auto insurance policies.

Be smart about debt

Ditching costly consumer debt (such as credit card debt) is a no-brainer. You may also want to repay student loans that offer little tax benefit. You may even be tempted to wipe out your mortgage. “People tend to associate paying off the mortgage with financial freedom,” says Patricia Seaman, senior director at the nonprofit National Endowment for Financial Education. But that may not be the best financial move, particularly if you’ve refinanced during the recent stretch of ultra-low interest rates.

A primary home loan at a 3.5% rate is equivalent to about 2.3% after taxes if your combined federal and state income tax bracket is 35% and you’re able to deduct all the interest expense. There’s a good chance you could get a higher rate of return by investing the money elsewhere. That said, don’t forget about risk. Paying off a loan is the same as earning a risk-free return equal to the cost of the money, Robert notes.

Once you’ve taken care of the practicalities you can think about how the money might help you fund important life and career goals—a project you want to launch, for example, or the chance to explore a new direction for your retirement. Those may be the true luxuries that a windfall affords.

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