Mariner Mail: Your Financial Questions…Answered (33:57)
We’ve compiled your top financial questions and are dedicating this episode of Your Life, Simplified to provide answers. Discussing topics such as charitable giving, taxes, investments, risk management, retirement planning, education funding, enrolling in Medicare versus staying on your company’s healthcare plan after age 65, to finding an insurance policy when you have a pre-existing condition, our guests – Pat Kummer and George Fernandez – provide their views in an effort to help make finances, and the ensuing topics around it, less complicated.
Brian: Thank you for downloading another episode of Your Life, Simplified. My name is Brian Leitner, and I’ll be the host of this episode. And this episode, it’s a little bit different than some of our previous episodes because today I have two guests who are here to answer questions that we’ve received from some of our listeners. Frankly they are all a little all over the place, and I think it touches a variety of aspects within wealth management. I’m excited for the topics and to hear from our listeners and happy to have our two guests on the show. Our first guest is Pat Kummer, who runs our Highlands Ranch office. So Pat, thanks for being on the show today.
Pat: Thank you, Brian.
Brian: I’m also joined by George Fernandez, who runs our practice management team out of the Kansas City office. George, you’re a recurring guest, so we won’t spend much time on your background. But Pat, if you could spend maybe just a couple of minutes talking about who you are and what you do. I think it would be helpful for our listeners.
Pat: Brian, thanks for having me here. I think it’s really important to offer these educational forums for people and, quite frankly, that’s how I started my business. I wanted to provide an education to people who actually really needed advice. I started a practice for this purpose, and 33 years ago I started working and teaching and writing about financial literacy, mostly through the financial planning association and then through my own practice with my clients. Overall, my goal was really to empower people to have enough information so that they could make the decisions. I think this is a great opportunity to continue that education through these podcasts. So I appreciate the invitation today, and I know we have a lot of great topics to cover.
Brian: Pat, thanks for being on. Very impressive background, and I love what you’ve done over your career as it relates to financial literacy. Because frankly, there’s not enough done, especially at some of the younger ages, in our in our school system. So I appreciate you what you do and how you do it. Having said that, again, no in particular order on the first question that came in, and I’ll paraphrase this a little bit, has to do with taxes. A lot of us know that there was a tax law change a couple of years ago, and I think people are still trying to figure out what that means to them and how they can position to take advantage of some of these changes. So, one of the questions that came in is, “Based on the new tax law, I’m no longer going to itemize.” And I think a lot of us know that, based on the increase in the standard deduction, few people, relative to everyone who is out there, are now itemizing, and they talk about the fact that they no longer have a charitable deduction opportunity but they are still going to support that charity and organization. So, is there a way for them to reap the benefits, from a tax perspective, even though they’re not itemizing and therefore may not qualify for that tax deduction on a go-forward basis?
Pat: You’re exactly right, Brian. I think that has been challenging for charities. There are many ways to do it. In fact, I’ll highlight three simple things that people can keep in mind. And the overarching goal here is that people do their planning early in the year so that they have more opportunities. The first one, of course, is if you’re over 70 ½ (as of 2019 now age 72) and have to take required minimum distributions. Then, of course, you can use the qualified charitable distribution. Up to $100,000 can go directly to a charity from your IRA. That phases off the itemized portion of your tax return, and you don’t have to pay taxes on that amount. The second one has been around forever. And that is to consider giving appreciated assets, whether it’s stocks or mutual funds that have a very low cost basis. You don’t want to pay the capital gains on that.
Pat: You can gift that asset directly to a charity. And that’s something that’s been around for awhile that we might have forgotten about, given the ease of itemizing in the past. And then the third item that has become more popular now with the tax law change is referred to as, “bunching” deductions. What that means is that, every other year you categorize all of your deductions, whether it’s medical or charitable, and you do that and property tax. You do that in January and again in December, and you itemize that year, and then the following year you just take the standard deduction. So those are three simple items that people could take advantage of.
George: Great ideas. When it comes to bunching, what I’ve been hearing a lot of people do is taking those large charitable contributions they would normally make throughout the year and bunching those, as you just said, at the end of the year or sometime in that year and putting that into what’s called a donor-advised fund. What’s really intriguing about using a donor-advised fund is it allows you to get the same level of deduction as if you gifted that cash or appreciated assets directly to the charity. But you don’t have to distribute it out to the charity right away. So that’s been one of the challenges I think a lot of people have had with bunching is that when they think of bunching, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know if I want to give that charity all of that at once.” So, are there other options? And using a donor-advised fund actually allows you to capitalize on that bunching approach, because you can put that $10k, $15k, $20K in there for those two years, and then you can actually distribute it out to your charity the following year at whatever increments or whatever frequency that you want. So it adds a layer of flexibility to that approach of bunching.
Brian: Those are great thoughts. Let me just cover those briefly so everyone really understands it, and we hit this home. The qualified charitable deduction (QCD) is for folks who are over age 70 ½ . And really what they’re able to do is almost an above-the-line deduction. This is funds that come directly from their IRA. You’re not actually taking receipt that is going to the cause itself. It’s going into the church, it’s going to the temple, it’s going to the Red Cross directly, and then they don’t have to recognize that as income, yet it satisfies the requirements of the RMD. So for those folks who are charitably inclined and have to take the RMD, that’s a great option. Obviously appreciated assets. Statistically speaking, most people still donate cash, they give it to church or university, and so forth, and those aren’t generally the best assets.
Brian: If you can qualify for the deduction from that perspective, I think that makes a lot of sense. And then of course bunching. What’s really interesting about that point is a lot of folks are not proactive as it relates to their taxes. So whatever I did last year, I’ll do the following year and the following year. But what you are talking about is really interesting, in that, every year’s a little bit different. And so maybe I can work with my tax professional and my wealth advisor to make sure that every single year I am being methodical and strategic about what option I’m going to take. And so again, we’re talking about bunching deductions, which is simply taking a step back and saying, in this year, I’ll bunch it. I’ll create a deduction that enables me to itemize, because that number is going to be a greater deduction than the standard deduction. Because I did that, maybe in the following year, I’m going to take the standard deduction, or maybe every other year. Again, everyone’s tax situation is very fluid.
Pat: Brian, one more point on that, it’s really common with property taxes, because you get your property tax bill in advance, so you could pay your property tax in January and again in December for the coming year and take two property tax deductions in the same year.
Brian: That’s an excellent point and an excellent transition. I appreciate you going there, because of our next question from someone who emailed us. This person was talking about their house and asking, “I don’t itemize anymore. From a SALT deduction, (state and local taxes) and mortgage interest, and so forth, should I pay off my mortgage at this point?” “What does that look like?” And, just so all of our listeners know this, everyone’s situation is obviously a little bit different, but maybe some general advice on what you see, Pat.
Pat: Well, of course, we’d love to have tax deductions on everything, but sometimes it’s not always about the tax. In this case, Brian, it’s actually more about what are the interest rates that we’re dealing with? What does the interest rate on the mortgage versus what are you earning on the investments where you might have to take money out of a good performing investment to actually raise the capital to pay off the mortgage? We have this question a lot in our office, and we see people coming in who have really nice low mortgage rates, such as 3.5%, maybe even 4%, and they want to take money out of an investment that could be earning 5.5% or 6%. Sometimes it’s just simple math that says, this doesn’t make sense with or without the tax deduction. I think it’s more of a financial planning question about, “How does this fit in with my monthly income, with my expenses, and overall, how does this impact my nest egg if it could be growing at a higher rate of return?”
Brian: I think that’s a great point. And we always talk about, don’t let the tax tail wag the dog either. Right? No one really likes to pay taxes, but at the same time, what is the bigger picture? If the bigger picture is to grow your wealth, it depends on the rate. Just like you said, it may not be the best. It may be interesting from a tax opportunity, but when you look at everything in its entirety, it may not make sense. And having said that, again, I go back to what your goal is. If your goal is to build wealth, that’s one thing, but there’s also a personal preference, right? I mean, are you comfortable at this age having a mortgage, and how do you feel about that? It goes back to, “Are you sleeping well at night?” “What are you worried about?” And I think that the behavioral finance-side of this business is absolutely critical, because it’s not all about the number.
George: I think both of you raise a good point. I want to refer our listeners back to a previous podcast that we had on tax, and we had our tax specialists here talk about this and the importance of looking at tax planning versus just tax preparation. You alluded to a few minutes ago about the power of knowing where you’re headed at the beginning of the year versus the end of the year when you always typically plan for your taxes or planning on an annual basis. But planning on a multi-year basis, and I think both of you hit on the importance of looking at tax planning, just like you do your wealth planning. It’s a multi-year project, and you want to look at all the options that you have over the next several years, not just this calendar year.
Brian: Great points. So, for our next question, it says here, “I’m turning 65 next year, do I need to sign up for Medicare?” “Do I stay on my company’s plan?” What advice do you guys have for this individual?
Pat: We want people to take advantage of any possible help they can get with health care these days, so we encourage people to sign up for Medicare. And actually, if you go onto the Medicare.gov website, there is a lot of good information out there about why you need to sign up within a certain window, or there could be penalties. Some of the penalties actually last for the rest of your life. So people want to be very careful about this. You actually have a seven-month window: three months prior to your birthday month and three months after that when you can register. If you don’t, then you could incur some penalties. I think we have more and more people these days who are working past age 65, so it does become a strategy around, “Gee, I don’t want to give up my medical benefits through my employer,” and maybe they’re better off.
Pat: It’s definitely worth a conversation with your company’s HR department to find out if you can stay on the major medical plan. But at the same time, you do need to enroll at least for a Part A and Part B on the Medicare program. And now there are also penalties on the part D, which is the prescription drug program. So again, probably way too much information to go into in a podcast, but I want all the listeners to be aware that this is something that they need to do. Of course, if they’re signed up for Social Security already, then some of this would happen automatically. But as I said earlier, we have more and more people who are still working, and one of the strategies around financial planning might be to actually delay your Social Security benefits, in which case you actually have to remember to purposely go out there and register yourselves for Medicare in time.
George: Really great points, and I think the key there, and I think you said this, is that it’s important when you turn 65, if you are going to continue to work, talk to your human resources department. I’ll give you an example. I have a client who I work with, and she turned 70 this year. When she turned 65, she told me that her employer still offered her health insurance benefits. She worked for a very large employer here in the Midwest, and I said, “Let’s talk to your HR department, because we need to understand, are they going to let you keep that health insurance or are they going to require you to be on Medicare?” And so in her particular situation, she actually substituted her health plan for Medicare. So she got a waiver at that point in time to sign up for Medicare.
George: So she’s still on Part A, but she did get the waiver for Part B. So she doesn’t have to sign up for Medicare Part B until she actually retires, which is going to be this year at age 70. The important factor there was we had to talk to the HR department first, because some plans actually coordinate with Medicare. As you pointed out, you may have to still sign up for Part A and Part B, depending upon what your plan is. And you don’t want to miss that, because if you do then, you’re right, you will have, those penalties for the rest of your life. So it’s really important to stay in touch with what your HR department is doing.
Brian: I think that, again, these are big decisions, and to Pat’s point, the penalty for this will last the rest of their lives. And so, it’s that whole idea of a measure twice, cut once. Make sure you’re coordinating this with your wealth advisor or your tax advisor as well as at your employer.
George: I would like to add one thing on this. I’m on the podcast, and one of the responsibilities that I have here with you, Brian, is to actually produce podcasts. I would be really interested, as Pat mentioned, this is kind of hard thing to cover in this topic today, but if you’re interested in hearing more about this and maybe would want to hear a podcast on Social Security and Medicare, let us know, and then we can certainly do one dedicated on that particular topic.
Brian: Yes, that’s a great point. Speaking of Medicare and transitioning a little bit to Social Security and Social Security filing strategies. I would tell you that, just a few years ago, and frankly today, there are a lot of people who ask their friends and family about when they should take Social Security. And I think the misnomer is, get your hands on the money as soon as you can. And you know, I think the rules have changed to some degree. And so, the question this individual’s asking is, “Can I still take advantage of Social Security filing strategies or is that over? Do the two of you have thoughts on that?
Pat: Yes, the famous “file and suspend” that by the time people figured out that there was a way to take advantage of it, then loophole had closed. Some strategies are still available. I would encourage people to do some serious retirement planning around this subject. I think people sometimes think that retiring and collecting Social Security are a single event. We do a lot of teaching around this subject that they are not a single event. You can retire, and you can actually collect Social Security at a different time. In fact, maybe that might be a good part of your strategy, especially with the ability to see your Social Security benefits increasing all the way up to age 70. There is still one strategy available called, “Filing a Restricted Application,” that is available for people born before Jan. 2, 1954, in which case, if you’re married, you can actually file a restricted application, restricting your benefits to your spouses or a portion to your spouse. In other words, I’m not filing under my own, I’m going to file under my husband’s, and then I’ll come back later and collect under my own. And so that strategy feels like double-dipping, which again might be one of the reasons that Social Security is not going to be allowing it for people born after 1954, but it is still something that people should be aware of, and it should be included in their overall retirement projections about how best to utilize Social Security benefits.
Brian: Pat, excellent point. Would you walk us through a basic example so people understand what that advantage might look like for those individuals that are born prior to 1954?
Pat: Yes, so we just had a situation just last week. We had a couple who retired at age 63. She collected Social Security under her own benefit, which was relatively small. It was about $800 a month, and he delayed his Social Security benefit. In fact, he’s going to be delaying all the way up to age 70. But because he was born prior to that magic date of January 2, 1954, he is eligible to go and collect a restricted benefit under his wife. So he’s able to get half of his wife’s benefit. All the while his own benefit remains untouched, and he can continue to have his grow over time, and then come back at age 70 and collect it. He’s going to collect about $3,000 a month in benefits by waiting.
Brian: Absolutely terrific. He’s benefiting from her benefit for a period of time. By waiting for his full retirement age to age 70, his annual benefit is increasing by an 8% annual guaranteed rate of return, of which I don’t know another investment that’s going to yield that same 8% guarantee. It’s a great question and one that I don’t think many people pay attention to.
Pat: The spouse’s benefit is unaffected. I think they feel like you know that there’s going to be a deduction somewhere and to understand that, in this case, the spouse who has collected her benefit early is not affected in any way by doing this.
Brian: Yes, it’s great. I hear all too often, “Well, as soon as I qualify, at age 62, I’m going to get my benefit because, the reality is, I don’t know when I’m going to die, and I want to make sure I get the maximum use.” From the studies I’ve seen, and from folks that I have worked with, the reality is, there are health issues out there. There’s no doubt. And if somebody has that situation, it’s completely different ballgame. But, on average, they should be more focused on, “How do I get the most over my entire life.” And generally speaking, for healthier individuals, delaying can make sense. Again, looking at their situation in its entirety.
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Brian: Okay, a few more questions here. We have one on life insurance. There is an individual who needs life insurance but has a pre-existing condition. So obviously that’s going to make the process for shopping for life insurance a little bit more difficult. Does this individual still have options with the pre-existing conditions? Pat, any thoughts on this one?
Pat: First of all, proper insurance coverage is important, so I think that’s part of the financial plan everybody should be reviewing. What would happen to their family in the event of a death or disability? You might need help with other resources to fill in. The wealth advisor can certainly work with the insurance specialists and even speak with underwriters in advance to determine if the pre-existing condition would cause a rate increase or even a denial of coverage. And Brian, it’s really important that they do this in advance of completing the application, because what we don’t want is there to be something on the client’s permanent record that says he or she was rated or denied. You want to know what that information is in advance before you actually go through the formal application process.
Pat: There are many situations, depending on what it is, where the insurance company will consider providing some type of coverage for that person. So I think it’s definitely worth checking out. First and foremost, I think we need to look at the financial plan and understand what the proper amount of coverage is. A lot of folks come in and say, “Oh, I had $1 million worth of life insurance, and it’s going to expire, therefore I must need $1 million worth of life insurance.” And what we find is, through different life stages, that that’s not necessary anymore. So let’s identify the proper amount first, and then let’s go to work and find the right insurance carriers.
George: Yes, all great points. So, for me personally, I was approached to put together a life insurance for my family, and I made a choice not to. And then I was diagnosed with a condition. At that point, I was then getting insurance, so I was rated. To your point, it put it on my permanent record, which affected my premiums. The fact that I had a pre-existing condition, however, didn’t preclude me from getting insurance, but it did change the way in which I had to approach insurance going forward. To your point, Pat, one of the things that I think is so important today, and I just want to reinforce this is, talk to an insurance specialist, because it is simple to take your condition, explain it to the specialist, have them look at the firms or look at the companies that they work with and determine which one is right for that and which ones aren’t, in addition to which ones you qualify for.
George: You can look at which ones you can avoid. They go through the process of a very light underwriting, as you pointed out, and can make all the difference in the world of being able to get insurance or being continually rated. And my situation, I found that I could get insurance, and I was no longer rated, because I was treated for it, and it’s been controlled. And so now there are possibilities for me. Even though I have a pre-existing condition, I can get life insurance without having to be rated. But you have to shop that. If you don’t shop it, then you could find yourself continually paying those higher premiums.
Brian: George, I appreciate you sharing that. Maybe just a couple of quick thoughts. As it relates to how much life insurance you need, working with specialists (obviously I’m a little bit bias), but again, when you look at your situation in its entirety, I think it’s best to sit down with a wealth advisor first. Someone who understands the entire picture rather than just working in a silo, if you will, with an insurance expert, because he or she may not know the entire situation. You really do want to work with a fiduciary, making sure that someone is looking at this within your best interest. So I think that’s important. The other thing I would mention that I don’t think people think about is that we think about assets, like our house, stocks, bonds. Another asset may be your health, and you may be able to leverage that as part of your overall financial situation, depending on what your goals are. And so, this listener is thinking to themselves, “Maybe I was going to get the insurance. Now I have this pre-existing condition.” Whether individuals need life insurance or not, that’s up to them and their personal situation and working with their wealth advisor. But the benefit of getting insurance at a younger age, and even potentially getting more insurance than they need in the beginning, knowing that they could always reduce that down the line, may lead to a variety of advantages and strategies that they may have. So that’s just something else to think about. Everyone’s situation, again, is a little bit different. But I appreciate you two sharing that.
George: I actually work with a client, and we did go a little bit higher on the insurance, because there were things that they knew were going to be planning on for their life, kids and college. It wasn’t where they were then. We don’t know where life’s going to be 10, 15, 20 years down the road.
Brian: The next question that we received was on investments and, at the time of this recording, the market has done well. Measured by the S&P 500, we’re up almost 20% year-to-date here. The question is, “Should I expect a 10% rate of return from the market every year as I look at my own projections on my own financial plan.” What are your thoughts on that?
Pat: Of course it would be lovely to expect that. What I think might be more beneficial is that we actually create a financial plan that’s sustainable at more realistic levels. And then you have a better feeling that you’re going to have your feet on solid ground going into retirement, in particular. I think what people hear about the 10% return is a very long-term statistic. Historically, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen every single year. And of course, anything could change, but going forward you can really expect the market to pretty much mirror whatever’s going on in the economy and in the world. And so, people need to probably pay attention to what the current affairs are before they start tagging some artificial number to their calculations. Obviously, if times are good, and corporate earnings are up, and interest rates are low, among other things that could certainly play a role in pushing markets higher, which is what you’ve talked about happening so far this year, Brian.
Pat: But at the same time, we could have an economy that’s going into a slump, or we could have a lot of unrest worldwide, in which case, markets do pull back and can even go into negative territory. So, I think again, that working with your financial advisor to build the right kind of portfolio for your particular goals, in particular your time frame would be more realistic. People should compare their returns to their own financial plans, not some benchmark or what your neighbors think is important. I think a well-diversified portfolio shouldn’t be 100% in any single market anyway. If you’re going to have a variety of different asset classes in your portfolio, then you can’t just tag it to one benchmark like the S&P 500. We would encourage people to consider a more sustainable return for their basic planning needs. If you get higher returns, and you are ahead of the game, it’s like a bonus.
Brian: I couldn’t agree more. You know, in addition to that, the question itself, he’s presenting or she’s presenting a very linear rate of return. I think we all know the markets don’t work out that way. We’re in the process of recording another podcast as it relates to sequence of returns and the impact certainly on distributions and what that looks like in someone’s portfolio. I know that you and your team and our wealth advisors across the country are very focused on stress testing the portfolio. Linear is great but just truly understanding from a randomized rates of returns, interest rates, given different scenarios, running thousands of assumptions to model something and really stress test, “Hey, am I going to be on track and am I going to be okay?” Taking that next step without truly going through that process, I think it would be nerve wracking for anybody.
Pat: Right. Would you rather have your financial plan say, “Oh yes, I’m going to get 10% the first year I’m retired.” And then if the market’s down 30% that year, then what do you do? Go back to work. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good answer, either. It’s based on these sequence of returns. If the year you retire we happen to be in a recession, then you’re going to have a totally different outlook on how your assets are growing than you would if it was a very positive year, for example. So that stress testing is something that we use in our office every hour of every day because it does a good job of explaining to people that we don’t really expect to be able to predict the markets, number one. And we certainly can’t predict what year certain things are going to happen either.
Brian: Well Pat, as we begin to wrap up the show, we ask every guest that we have the same question, and it’s humbling. And that question is what is the worst financial decision you’ve ever made?
Pat: Oh, I think I’ve had a lot. I don’t know if how any of mine are unique compared to anything else your listeners have heard already or not. My first house was at an interest rate of 11 7/8%. Of course, you don’t have enough money in your early 20s to be putting lump sums of money down against your mortgage. So, I won’t bore you with all the housing things. I have to generally say though that I was remiss in not getting help from a tax standpoint very, very early on. I really resisted working with a CPA for some reason. And now, in hindsight, I have absolutely no idea why I did that except that I was certified in tax and thought I knew everything and could do everything for myself. But I would say, it’s very hard to be your own independent advisor, whether it’s for financial planning or investments or, in my particular case, from a tax standpoint. I think I missed out on opportunities for Roth conversions early on. I’m a big believer in tax planning and tax strategies. We do a lot of that for our clients on a regular basis. But I think I’m guilty of the shoemaker’s kids with no shoes and that I neglected to take my own advice along the way.
Brian: I appreciate you sharing that. And that’s humbling. It’s great for all of us to know and heed that advice. As a side note, I happened to be friends with a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist told me that most psychiatrists that he knows have their own psychiatrists that they go and see. So similar from that perspective, regardless of what you know, working with someone, and someone being that advocate for you and helping figure out what’s important, the best way to get there, I think makes a lot of sense regardless of the industry. So, Pat, thanks again for joining me on the show. We greatly appreciate the advice and hopefully if again, listeners have more questions I want to hear about additional topics, they can go ahead and feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian: So George, Pat, thanks again for being on the show today. We know that your time is incredibly valuable, and we hope you find this podcast a worthwhile investment of your time. Thank you for listening.
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