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Mid-Year 2016: An Investment Reality Check

Market volatility is alive and well in 2016. Low oil prices, China's slowing growth, the prospect of rising interest rates, the strong U.S. dollar, global conflicts--all of these factors have contributed to turbulent markets this year. Many investors may be tempted to review their portfolios only when the markets hit a rough patch, but careful planning is essential in all economic climates. So whether the markets are up or down, reviewing your portfolio with your financial professional can be an excellent way to keep your investments on track, and midway through the year is a good time for a reality check. Here are three questions to consider.

1. How are my investments doing?

Can I name a charity as beneficiary of my IRA?

Yes, you can name a charity as beneficiary of your IRA, but be sure to understand the advantages and disadvantages.

Generally, a spouse, child, or other individual you designate as beneficiary of a traditional IRA must pay federal income tax on any distribution received from the IRA after your death. By contrast, if you name a charity as beneficiary, the charity will not have to pay any income tax on distributions from the IRA after your death (provided that the charity qualifies as a tax-exempt charitable organization under federal law), a significant tax advantage.

Can I make charitable contributions from my IRA in 2016?

Yes, if you qualify. The law authorizing qualified charitable distributions, or QCDs, has recently been made permanent by the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015.

You simply instruct your IRA trustee to make a distribution directly from your IRA (other than a SEP or SIMPLE) to a qualified charity. You must be 70½ or older, and the distribution must be one that would otherwise be taxable to you. You can exclude up to $100,000 of QCDs from your gross income in 2016. And if you file a joint return, your spouse (if 70½ or older) can exclude an additional $100,000 of QCDs. But you can't also deduct these QCDs as a charitable contribution on your federal income tax return--that would be double dipping.

Common Financial Wisdom: Theory vs. Practice

In the financial world, there are a lot of rules about what you should be doing. In theory, they sound reasonable. But in practice, it may not be easy, or even possible, to follow them. Let's look at some common financial maxims and why it can be hard to implement them.

Build an emergency fund worth three to six months of living expenses

Wisdom: Set aside at least three to six months worth of living expenses in an emergency savings account so your overall financial health doesn't take a hit when an unexpected need arises.

Debt Optimization Strategies

As part of improving your financial situation, you might consider reducing your debt load. A number of strategies can be used to pay off debt. However, before starting any debt payoff strategy (or combination of strategies), be sure you understand the terms of your debts, including interest rates, terms of payment, and any prepayment or other penalties.

Understand minimum payments (a starting point)

You are generally required to make minimum payments on your debts, based on factors set by the lender. Failure to make the minimum payments can result in penalties, increased interest rates, and default. If you make only the minimum payments, it may take a long time to pay off the debt, and you may have to pay large amounts of interest over the life of the loan. This is especially true of credit card debt.

Projecting a Happy Retirement

A 2015 study found that 41% of households headed by someone aged 55 to 64 had no retirement savings, and only about a third of them had a traditional pension. Among households in this age group with savings, the median amount was just $104,000.1

Your own savings may be more substantial, but in general Americans struggle to meet their savings goals. Even a healthy savings account may not provide as much income as you would like over a long retirement.

Despite the challenges, about 56% of current retirees say they are very satisfied with retirement, and 34% say they are moderately satisfied. Only 9% are dissatisfied.2

Understanding Stock Market Indexes

No doubt you've seen headlines reporting that a particular stock index is up or down. But do you know what an index is, and how understanding the nuts and bolts of a specific index may be helpful to you?

An index is simply a way to measure and report the fluctuations of a pool of securities or a representative segment of a market. An index is developed by a company that sets specific criteria to determine which securities are included in the index based on factors such as a company's size or location, or the liquidity of its stock. For example, the S&P 500 is an index made up of mostly large-cap U.S.-based companies that Standard & Poor's considers to be leading representatives of a cross-section of industries.