Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender investors are upbeat about the political and economic future, but many same-sex couples still have a lack of understanding when it comes to their financial rights, according to a survey from Wells Fargo Advisors.

The survey found that LGBT clients were optimistic about the U.S. economy, with 75% expecting the economy to strengthen in the next two years, compared with just 47% of all U.S. adults. Nearly two-thirds expect their local economy to bounce back in the next two years, well above the 45% of the broader population.

LGBT investors’ positive attitude extends to their portfolios, with 66% reporting that they feel confident in their financial future, as compared with 52% of the overall population. Two-thirds are confident in their job security, compared with 55% of the public.

However, according to the Wells Fargo survey, many LGBT investors have a false sense of security about the issue of gay marriage and do not appreciate its effect on their own finances, according to Kyle Young, a financial advisor with Wells Fargo who specializes in LGBT clients.

“There’s still a tremendous lack of understanding of the financial process,” said Young, who helped design the survey, which was conducted in November and December.

That’s especially true when it comes to inheritance laws. Young said nearly half of the respondents assumed that if they lived in a state where their marriage or civil union was recognized, they would inherit their partner’s Social Security benefits when their partner died, but this is incorrect.

“State level recognition for gay and lesbian couples does not translate to federal benefits and federal protections associated with marriage,” Young said.

The federal government’s refusal to recognize gay marriages and civil unions trumps state law, which means when one partner dies, the survivor cannot inherit their partner’s Social Security benefits, or other benefits allotted to federal employees, including military personnel. What’s more, the survivor often does not automatically inherit their partner’s pension from a private employer. (This depends on individual company policy.) Further, the survivors have to pay taxes on inheritances of real estate and financial assets that heterosexual survivors do not.

This means LGBT clients need more financial planning than straight clients. Young and other LGBT specialist advisors recommend playing defense, and basing retirement planning on the assumption that the surviving partner will not have the Social Security benefits of the other to draw upon.

“The planning should be done to allow each of them to self-sustain their retirement income,” he said.

Whether they can inherit each other’s pensions is a key question. One of the first things Young suggests to advisors working with a gay couple is to contact the pension providers and 401(k) providers working with the couple and get a written explanation of how that company treats same-sex couples when one partner dies. He said although corporate America has made strides toward gay equality, there are still many Fortune 500 companies that do not allow non-spouse beneficiaries to inherit pension plans.

To make up the difference, Young suggest that LGBT couples buy a life insurance policy equal in size to the Social Security plan and pension plan.

Another key responsibility for advisors working with LGBT couples is planning for death taxes. Heterosexual married couples have an unlimited marital deduction; LGBT couples do not. As of the beginning of this year, any estate under $5.125 million is exempt from federal estate tax, and anything over that is taxed at 45%. Young said if an advisors is working with high-net-worth LGBT couples whose estate will likely be above the limit, he should plan for them to have enough money to pay the 45% taxes on the entire estate.

Young adds that each state also has the ability to impose its own estate taxes and inheritance taxes. Not all do. Some impose one and not the other, but advisors must know which states impose which taxes.          

The good news is even with the awareness gap, LGBT investors report taking a more active role in planning for retirement. On average, they report higher median net savings than the general population. Fifty-five percent tell surveyors they have a detailed retirement savings plan, compared with 42% of U.S. adults, according to the Wells Fargo survey.

Young said advisors who are working with an LGBT couple can educate themselves on the unique issues affecting these clients either by reaching out to a team at their firm specializing in LGBT issues, or by enrolling in a training program like Accredited Domestic Partnership Advisor (ADPA), which was created by Wells Fargo in conjunction with the College for Financial Planning.

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