Preparing for the big ‘what-ifs’ in your financial life

Steps you can take to help make sure unexpected events don’t interfere with your long-term plans


COMMON SENSE TELLS US that it’s impossible to eliminate all risk from our lives, financial or otherwise. We can’t control whether markets go up or down. A divorce, serious illness — or even a large, unexpected bill — could create a financial shortfall that throws your careful plans off track. “A number of life events can risk changes to income or savings and threaten an individual’s or family’s financial well-being,” says Lauren Sanfilippo, senior investment strategist in the Chief Investment Office for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank.

While you can’t prevent these scenarios, by taking a holistic view of your financial future, your advisor can suggest options for helping preserve your finances from most of them, says Rachel Scholl, managing director, Wealth Management Banking & Lending Field Integration and Performance, Bank of America. Here’s how you might prepare for some of the most common — and risky — what-ifs.

What if you have a sudden need for cash?

“We never want to be in a situation where we have to take steps such as liquidating assets at an undesirable time in the market or running up credit card debt to pay bills,” says Scholl. A strategy built with your advisor’s help that accounts for unexpected liquidity needs can help preserve your finances against a job loss or an unexpected expense.

Ways to prepare: An emergency fund is a key component of any cash management strategy, notes Scholl. Review several months’ worth of recent expenses with your advisor to determine ways you can have liquidity readily available should you need to fund an emergency need.

If appropriate, your advisor can introduce you to a team of Bank of America lending specialists to help identify potential alternative funding sources. For surprise big-ticket expenses — say, a home renovation that runs well over budget — two alternatives that could potentially be considered are making use of the equity in your home or borrowing against your securities, suggests Scholl.

What if you’re faced with major medical expenses?

Almost half of Americans — 47% — say they find paying for healthcare difficult, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.1 Post-retirement, the costs can be even steeper.

Ways to prepare: Check if your employer offers a tax-advantaged account such as a flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA), which allows you to pay for healthcare expenses with pre-tax funds. The HSA — available only for those with high-deductible health plans — can be particularly valuable because any unused funds can continue to be held in the HSA until your death (and in some cases beyond) and earnings can grow tax-free. “Instead of dipping into your IRAs to pay medical bills in retirement and possibly paying income taxes on those withdrawals, you can tap an HSA tax-free for medical expenses,” says Paul Galliano, senior vice president, Retirement & Benefit Plan Services for Bank of America.

Finally, plan for the worst-case scenario. “Seven out of 10 Americans over the age of 65 will have some health event for which long-term care is necessary,2 and the cost can decimate savings,” says Robert Murray, director, insurance relationship manager, Retirement and Personal Wealth Solutions at Bank of America. “Long-term care insurance could potentially preserve not only your wealth but also that of your children, who often shoulder the costs of caring for aging parents.”

“Seven out of 10 Americans over the age of 65 will have some health event for which long-term care is necessary,2 and the cost can decimate savings.”
— Robert Murray, director, insurance relationship manager, Retirement and Personal Wealth Solutions at Bank of America

What if there’s disability, divorce or a death in the family?

Nobody wants to think about — let alone plan for — a dramatic change in your household’s income resulting from a significant life event like disability, divorce or an untimely death in the family. But given the high stakes, planning for these risks can be crucial to the future well-being of your loved ones.

Ways to prepare: When it comes to disability, insurance can be a crucial consideration. Find out whether your employer offers disability income insurance. Then assess whether this benefit provides enough income protection for your family in case you’re temporarily unable to work because of an accident or health event. If it isn’t available, you may want to consider purchasing your own policy to replace your income or at least a portion of it.

In the event of a marital split, be aware that the laws governing the division of property in a divorce vary from state to state, but keeping an up-to-date inventory of your household assets and debts can help you divide them equitably. In advance of remarrying, you might consider setting up a trust to help protect your family, says Jennifer Galvagna, head of Trust, Estates and Tax Solutions, Bank of America Private Bank. Doing so enables you to help ensure that children from the prior marriage are not overlooked as the eventual beneficiaries of your estate while also providing lifetime support to a surviving spouse.

A trust can also offer other benefits as you plan your estate. Setting one up allows you to distribute an inheritance to a child at set intervals rather than providing an outright distribution, which may not be appropriate because of the child’s age or other factors. And as you age, a trust can help ensure the uninterrupted availability of assets for your care should you become mentally or physically incapacitated, says Galvagna. “A trustee can step in and pay medical and long-term care bills if needed as well as manage all other aspects of your financial life and estate.”

Finally, a death benefit from a life insurance policy can help to keep your family solvent should you or your spouse die prematurely.

“It’s important to take the time to review investments regularly and adjust according to your time horizon.”
— Lauren Sanfilippo, senior investment strategist in the Chief Investment Office for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

What if there’s a bear market?

It’s hard to watch your savings shrink at any age. But bear markets may be the riskiest for investors who need to start withdrawing from their savings soon, perhaps to pay for college tuition or to fund retirement.

Ways to prepare: First, make sure that your portfolio is well diversified. This means increasing diversification across asset classes, within asset classes and across geographies. “A wider breadth of investments may provide an expanded opportunity set for investment opportunities while potentially helping minimize losses to your overall portfolio and preserve wealth,” says Sanfilippo.

It’s important to take the time to review investments regularly and adjust according to your time horizon, says Sanfilippo. For instance, a college-savings portfolio may be invested for maximum growth when college is 18 years away, but it may be better off shifted to all cash when college is imminent to help reduce the risk of a market — and savings — drop. Your advisor can suggest a strategy that’s appropriate for your age, goals, liquidity needs and ability to handle risk.

Work with your advisor to address any number of risks that can potentially threaten your financial security, adds Scholl. Together, you can put plans in place to help prepare for nearly any eventuality.

A private wealth advisor can help you get started.

Our advisors can help you follow your passions, build a legacy and have a positive impact on others.

1 “Americans’ Challenges with Health Care Costs,” Kaiser Family Foundation, July 14, 2022

2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “How Much Care Will You Need?” 2020

Important Disclosures

Opinions are as of the date of this article 8/29/2023 and are subject to change.

This information should not be construed as investment advice and is subject to change. It is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be either a specific offer by Bank of America, Merrill or any affiliate to sell or provide, or a specific invitation for a consumer to apply for, any particular retail financial product or service that may be available.

The Chief Investment Office (CIO) provides thought leadership on wealth management, investment strategy and global markets; portfolio management solutions; due diligence; and solutions oversight and data analytics. CIO viewpoints are developed for Bank of America Private Bank, a division of Bank of America, N.A., (“Bank of America”) and Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated (“MLPF&S” or “Merrill”), a registered broker-dealer, registered investment adviser and a wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of America Corporation (“BofA Corp.").

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