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justin brotton - Thursday, January 01, 2015

By Mike and Steve Cunningham

It happened in an instant. She received the phone call … he was gone. He had flown his small plane for years, with never an incident. But this time was different, and suddenly her life was changed.

Dan and Linda married late in life. In fact, they had married only a few months before Dan’s accident. Dan had two children from his first marriage, which had ended nearly a decade ago. He was a successful instructor at a private college in Texas, and life began to finally move in the right direction after he met Linda. They married and began to build a new life together.

One of the things they had talked about was Dan’s children. He and Linda agreed that, in the unlikely event of his death, his retirement account should go to his children. Dan had turned in a beneficiary designation form to his employer eight years ago (after his divorce and years before he met Linda). And that was that … or so they thought.

Dan’s death brought terrible upheaval for Linda and the children, but they were not prepared for what was to follow. Shortly after Dan’s death, the benefits department at the college where Dan had worked notified Linda that she was the sole primary beneficiary. That didn’t make sense to her. After all, she and Dan had discussed that the money should go to his children. The benefits administrator patiently explained a provision in the 401(k) plan that Linda and Dan had been unaware of. To Linda’s dismay, the plan provided that remarriage invalidates a prior beneficiary designation. Linda didn’t understand, so the administrator continued.

“Linda, when you and Dan married, his prior beneficiary designation was wiped out, and you became his sole primary beneficiary.” It took a few moments to sink in. Dan’s kids were a bit apprehensive, but after all, Linda was going to give the money to them, just as she and Dan had agreed.

Since the retirement account was now in Linda’s name, she could take the money and give it to the children. However, she would have to pay taxes on the money she drew out. One child wanted the money immediately, which would result in a large tax bill for Linda. Sure, she could take out enough to pay her taxes and give the rest to the first child, but he began to question if Linda was giving him the right amount of money. The other child wanted to take money out over several years. Any time she wanted a withdrawal, she had to ask Linda for it. You can imagine how the relationship began to deteriorate.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Dan and Linda had even talked about it. But for all their talking, they failed to take action. And what’s worse, they didn’t even realize they needed to take action. Linda found herself wishing she could turn back time and consult with the benefits administrator. She wondered what else they hadn’t properly prepared for.

This is just one example of a family who wished they had planned better. You know similar stories, each with the same theme: “We talked about it, but we never ….” A wise person learns from their mistakes. But a wiser person learns from the mistakes of others. If you find yourself in Dan and Linda’s place pre-accident, while you can still do something about it, you may wonder what you should do. As you give attention to end-of-life planning (commonly referred to as estate planning), we have a few tips. We’ll categorize them as “do’s” and “don’ts.” Let’s start with the don’ts.

  • DON’T try to tackle everything at once. If you are like most people, you have several end-of-life issues to deal with. Write a will, check retirement account beneficiary designations, determine if you need a trust, etc. Don’t try to solve every issue immediately. Just start moving in the right direction to make some progress. Take baby steps. Before you know it, you will have completed the tasks at hand.

  • DON’T aim for perfection. Naturally, the future is unknown. If you like to know all the details before making a decision, you may have more difficulty preparing for end-of-life issues. Rather than getting caught in the paralysis of analysis, make the best decision you can with the information available at the time. You can always make adjustments later if necessary. In any event, it is better to have an imperfect plan in place, rather than no plan at all.

  • DON’T get fancy. It’s easy to become enamored with excessively complicated strategies. Don’t fall into that trap. Trusts can often become too complicated. If you don’t understand the purpose of the strategy, it’s too complicated. Simplify and know what you need. If you can explain your plan to an 8-year-old child, it’s reasonable to proceed.

On a more positive note, here are some suggestions of what to do as you think about and prepare for end-of-life issues.


  • Make a list of all your financial assets. You may find it hard to believe, but we had a client who did not make a list of all their financial assets. One year after the client died, his wife discovered one of his life insurance policies. Thankfully, the insurance company paid the claim. A financial inventory can be helpful to you, but it is immensely beneficial to those who are tasked with sorting out your assets after your death. You don’t even have to show them the list before you die. Simply tell them where the list is located. Include account numbers and approximate values of retirement accounts, bank accounts, life insurance contracts, etc.

  • Share household financial tasks. We have two clients (we’ll call them Ben and Nancy) who are in their retirement years. Nancy handled all of the household finances. She was good at it (and frankly, Ben wasn’t). So, it was natural that she took care of the financial tasks. When Nancy died, Ben was left not only to grieve, but to also manage the household finances. It was a task he was not suited for in the best of times, and certainly less so during the process of grief, making Nancy’s loss that much more difficult. If you are like this couple, consider talking more about finances with your spouse. You won’t prepare them for everything, but you may make things a bit easier for them.

  • Review your beneficiaries on each account annually. You generally make beneficiary designations on IRAs, 401(k)s, and life insurance contracts. We are often surprised by how frequently updates are necessary. For example, a beneficiary gets married and their last name changes; or, a child is born. It’s a good habit to ask your investment advisor to assist you with this sort of annual review. They can also help you ask the right questions of your employer’s benefits department regarding retirement accounts and employer-based life insurance contracts. If you are divorced and/or remarried, check with your 401(k) plan provider to see if they default to paying your prior spouse or your current spouse. Not all 401(k) plans are written identically. In any event, the best advice is to review your beneficiary designation on a systematic basis.

  • Make sure all property is properly titled. If you have an investment account held only in your name, consider a change. For example, consider adding a trusted individual to the account, creating a lot of ease for your heirs. If you have a trust, you likely have certain types of property titled in the name of the trust. On a systematic basis, review your assets to confirm that everything is properly titled. We find that clients often make purchases during the year, but fail to title them in the name of the trust. Consult a professional to determine what types of property and accounts should be titled in the name of the trust.

  • Consult a professional. Dan and Linda knew what they wanted. They just didn’t know they needed to complete a new beneficiary designation to accomplish their wishes. A professional can help you identify issues that you are unaware of. Also, we often find that individuals consult their friends, neighbors and co-workers when making huge life decisions. Do yourself a favor and add a professional to the list. We often say that it’s better to consult a doctor about your medicine rather than just taking the pills your neighbors use. The same is true for your investments. By consulting a professional, you could eliminate a lot of potential difficulty for yourself and your heirs.

Dan and Linda (and Ben and Nancy) are real people. Those aren’t their real names, but their stories are true. You know others like them. Although end-of-life planning might not be an entirely happy subject, the benefit is worth the effort. You have worked a long time to accumulate assets. Why risk giving them to the government or strangers? Doing a little work up front can reap great rewards for your loved ones. No single article is sufficient to cover all the bases related to end-of-life planning, so consult your financial planner for peace of mind.

Mike Cunningham, ChFC ® Financial Consultant, and

Steve Cunningham, CRPS ® Registered Representative

Mike Cunningham Investments



Mike and Steve Cunningham are registered with LPL Financial.

Securities and Advisory services offered through LPL Financial, a Registered Investment Advisor.


How Is My Financial Consultant Different?

justin brotton - Wednesday, January 01, 2014

By Donna Cunningham, LPC, LADC

“How is my financial consultant different?” I think this may be the most important question you will ever ask regarding your investments. My financial consultant is independent, meaning he is not employed by some of the well-known names, like Edward Jones, Ameriprise, Merrill Lynch, etc. I am certainly not knocking these fine companies – they can offer good products. However, they are often limited to providing their specific products. I observed this type of distinction firsthand with a prior employer.

I worked for many years as director of sales for Hilton Corporation. I had several corporate clients that booked hotels for their meetings across the United States. It was a pleasure to provide them with top-notch service.

However, I discovered a startling problem. Due to my familiarity with the hotel industry, I found that on several occasions my client would have been better served if they could have held their convention in another hotel. However, I could not sell a different hotel to my client. I was contractually bound by my employer to sell only Hilton Inns or their affiliates. What if my client would have been better served at a Marriott Hotel? It was more than a contractual agreement with my employer – it was an ethical issue for me. It interlaced my allegiance to my client and my integrity. I wanted to offer my client the best in the industry, yet my relationship with my employer limited the extent to which I could serve them.

I was so conflicted about providing the best service that I decided to strike out on my own and leave Hilton Corporation to become an independent sales representative. Consequently, I could place my client in the property that best suited their needs. Only then was I completely able to truly put the needs of the clients first. It might be a Hilton, a Marriott or a Super 8. Whatever their needs were, I had the privilege of serving them with no conflict of interest.

The same is true in the financial industry. Eliminating conflicts of interest is the key distinction between an independent financial consultant and one who works for a company that creates financial products and offers their consultants incentives for selling those products.

The incentives to consultants to use products created by their financial company creates a blinder effect. At Hilton, I could only see and sell those properties within the view of my employment blinders. Becoming an independent allowed me to remove the blinders and opened up advantages to my clients. It allowed me to help them to the best of my ability, much like my independent consultant does for me. With no blinders, my consultant opened up a host of financial alternatives for my portfolio. This is the ENORMOUSLY IMPORTANT difference between an independent financial consultant and a consultant working for one of those well-known companies.

I am delighted with my financial consultant because he is independent. He is strategic in his decision-making skills regarding my place in life and my needs related to my investment objectives and my risk tolerance. It is critical to select a financial consultant who exhibits honesty and integrity... one who will put your interests first.

If you’re wondering where to start when looking for a financial consultant, consider the following:

  • Find a financial consultant who is independent.
  • Scrutinize that consultant to the best of your ability. Do you feel comfortable with him or her? Is what they tell you true? Do they ask you what your goals are? Do they ask you what type of risk you are comfortable in taking? Do they explain what they mean fully, until you completely understand? Do they ever ask you to make your check payable to them? Are the statements generated from the investment provider or a third party?
  • If you already have a consultant, ask if that person can “sell you a Marriott vs. a Hilton.” You deserve to know. Ask about the pros and cons to choosing an independent financial consultant, regardless of the economic conditions you face.
  • Are they compensated more for selling their own company’s products? If so, buyer beware!
  • Make sure your financial consultant has access to all of the tools that work best for you, rather than just a few tools that their company can or will offer. More choice equals more diversification.

    Donna is married to Mike Cunningham of Mike Cunningham Investments, 405-548-8888.

    Market Rebounding: Buy a Second Home or Upgrade Your Home Now

    justin brotton - Thursday, August 01, 2013

    The economy is getting stronger, and now is the time to invest in your

    current property or make the leap into buying a vacation home. Here are

    some ideas on how best to invest in high-end home upgrades or buy your first vacation property – both tailor-made for increasing enjoyment with your family.


    By Kathy Tautfest, Bank of Oklahoma Mortgage Lender


    With the economy picking up steam – and the Oklahoma economy really turning up the gas – now is the time to make the high-end upgrades to your home you’ve always wanted. Or, with mortgage rates still historically low and the housing market getting stronger every day, take this time to dive headfirst into owning your own vacation home.


    Whether you want to improve your resale value before putting your home on the market or just upgrade your personal space for you and your family, now is a great time to remodel or add on to your home in all the exciting ways you’ve always dreamed of doing.

    Here are some suggested home remodeling projects that will improve your lifestyle and will also increase resale, whenever the time to move may come.

    Adding outdoor luxury

    Once you get past the common upgrades – renovated kitchens and baths – the next, most obvious place to invest in some quality, top-of-the-line improvement in your home might be the outdoors. You might already have a home office with the latest technologies or a master suite with the finest appointments, but how does your outdoor space suit your needs?

    First, an in-ground pool will dramatically change your backyard, giving you entertainment, exercise and relaxation options. Don’t go for your standard kidney shape, though. Instead, create a tropical oasis with a pool as the centerpiece, having the water snake around foliage or culminate in a waterfall. Or go with a sleek, modern design with an infinity or vanishing edge. If the pool is designed for the younger set, remember to incorporate slides or diving boards so all ages are entertained.

    However, don’t stop with just a pool. Think of your outdoor space as an entirely new space to entertain and enjoy. Today’s outdoor grilling is nothing like your father’s grilling experience. Outdoor grilling stations are full-on kitchens, with sinks, refrigerators and countertops for chopping and preparing full meals. But, an outdoor kitchen is just the beginning of creating the ultimate outdoor living space. Open up your finished kitchen to an outdoor living area, with luxury outdoor couches, tables and chairs. Follow the seating area by adding an HDTV, now easily protected from outdoor elements by various covers and protectors. With a few additional improvements, you can easily entertain large groups or simply relax outdoors with all the amenities found indoors.

    Creating a media room

    Consider adding or converting an existing space into a movie screening room at home. With this upgrade, remember to make sure the space is large enough so everyone viewing the movie doesn’t feel like they are on the front row. You don’t want your guests to leave with a crick in their neck!

    Next, have professionals wire the room for HD surround sound. You want to recreate the movie experience, which includes the booming sound you feel while in your seats.

    And, set your theater apart from the average theater by upgrading the seating options. There are plenty of great options on the market for fantastic seating that will surpass those at your average movie-plex. From cup holders and footrests to plush padding and fabric, you can find just the right seating that meets your desires. And, if not, work with designers to create exactly what fits your specific space.

    Finally, no media room could be complete without the necessary ingredient for any successful movie night – snacks! Incorporate a wet-bar area that will allow you to stockpile favorite movie treats for all the little kids … and big kids. Install a small refrigerator to hold all the pop and ice cream treats, and add plenty of cabinet space for popcorn and candy. With these additions, you’ll never again need to step foot in a movie theater.

    Cutting the gym membership

    Let’s face it: half the battle of working out is actually getting yourself to the gym. Move the gym to your own home, and making time for your exercise routine will be much easier. Think about adding a room or converting an existing room into a full workout facility. To start, create a room that is light and airy – make sure to have lots of windows, light paint colors and mirrors. No one wants to exercise in a dark, dimly lit space. Make sure the room is clear of junk – this room should have one purpose: exercise. Move in your equipment, and hook up a TV on the wall, if desired. Make sure there is space to get ready, move around easily and store items to help you exercise – and that’s it. Resist the urge to have this room serve any purpose other than exercising – don’t use it as storage, and don’t let the little one bring in toys. Having a place just for your health will increase your chances of using it just for that.


    In addition to increasing the value – and enjoyment – of your own home now, you may want to consider jumping in to the vacation real estate market. Mortgage rates are starting to climb up again, but they are still at historic lows. These great rates won’t last forever, and the economy is finally showing significant improvement, so it is the perfect time to buy a second home. Here are some things to keep in mind as you think about investing.

    It’s okay to start small

    It can be intimidating to own secondary property for the first time. It’s okay to start small, with an affordable condo or cabin. Work with a mortgage lender to find a budget you are comfortable with, no matter the economic conditions. Having a place to get away doesn’t have to be beachfront, for now. Look for a small home, possibly located near an Oklahoma park or lake – like Grand Lake or the Beaver Bend area – to get your feet wet in the vacation home market.

    Look for a turnkey investment

    When looking for your first vacation property, you don’t want to also have to worry about a renovation project. Look for a property that is clean, has been well maintained, and is ready for you to enjoy right now. This will not only help with the stress of the purchase, but it will also allow you to enjoy the home sooner. You will have plenty of time to upgrade or renovate areas to please your taste later, but you won’t have to worry about additional costs and issues upfront.

    Vacation property can be an income stream

    Especially initially, a vacation home should be viewed – and purchased – as an investment as well as for recreation, not as a source of income. However, as you get more settled into life as a vacation homeowner, you can always consider renting out the home for a source of income. After all, you can’t live there all the time! Tax laws vary depending on how often, and to whom, you rent your vacation home, but the income easily could pay for many of the costs associated with owning a second home.

    Note: Kathy Tautfest has been in the mortgage industry for more than 25 years. She is a senior vice president with Bank of Oklahoma Mortgage and manages more than 40 mortgage experts serving the Oklahoma City Metro area. 


    justin brotton - Tuesday, January 01, 2013

    By Mike Cunningham

    Even a brief glance at the last few decades reinforces the words of Jonathan Swift: “There is nothing constant in this world but inconsistency.” We have all seen and experienced enormous changes … and the financial world is no different.

    Volatility in the stock market

    YESTERDAY: The stock market was on a seemingly never-ending upward climb. For example, in March 2000, the NASDAQ soared on the dot.com boom. Life was good for investors. Almost anyone could invest in the market and experience a generous return.

    TODAY: Things have changed. The so-called ‘lost decade’ has been difficult for investors. Despite all the ups and downs in the stock market, you had little to show for the stocks you bought in 2000 by the time 2010 rolled around. Uncertainty at home and abroad are enough to give anyone reason to pause before investing in the stock market. Experts suggest that returns in the stock market over the next several years will be rather modest.

    Takinga lot of risk for a little return just doesn’t seem to make as much sense these days.

    Low CD interest rates

    YESTERDAY: When people retired a generation or two ago, they typically invested a substantial portion of their money in CDs. They were able to put their money to work at the local bank and earn a reasonable return. In fact, six-month CD rates in 1981 ranged from 12.65 percent to 17.98 percent.

    TODAY: My, how things have changed! Those rates are a distant memory. At the time of this writing, a quick glance at Bankrate.com reveals that the national average annual percentage yield for a one-year CD pays 0.29 percent.

    With CD rates so low, how is a person supposed to invest the funds they plan to spend in the next five to ten years and get a decent return on their money?

    Volatility in the bond market

    YESTERDAY: Your parents were taught to put more in bonds as they neared retirement. Why? Bonds were understood to provide a slow, steady return befitting investors in a more conservative phase of life. Earning reliable returns, year after year, on funds that were often FDIC-insured created stability for investors that allowed them to retire comfortably and increase their asset base during retirement years.

    TODAY: The Federal Reserve has lowered interest rates to historic lows. In the future, they promise to raise interest rates. When that occurs, Finance 101 teaches us that rising interest rates cause bond prices to fall. Although rates are not currently rising, the eventuality of this outcome is staggering. The environment in which retired investors can substantially invest in bonds to manage and grow their assets is nearing an end.

    If retirees have invested the largest portion of their nest egg in bonds, how will they withstand a notable drop in the prices of those bonds?

    The financial world has indeed changed. We would do well to make adjustments to take advantage of those changes. Following are three keys for navigating the uncertain future.

    • 1.Be diversified

    This much-used saying is still true; don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. In the old days, institutional investors could invest in ways unavailable to smaller investors. That is no longer the case. Today, you have access to far more alternative investments, and it is beneficial for you to consider adding them to your portfolio.

    What are alternative investments? Put simply, they do not derive their value directly from the stock or bond market. In fact, they are substantially insulated from the effects of the market. For example, one common alternative investment is gold. Although commodity investing can be volatile, it can provide strength against a devaluing dollar. Some alternative investments are not traded on any exchange, thus they are even less affected by market volatility. That’s the good news. The downside is that you generally cannot cash out of these investments for a period of years (often three to six years).

    There are many alternative strategies that help investors swim against the stream. The key is to understand the risks/rewards of each type of investment; some are more risky, others are less so. Your advisor can help you determine which alternatives are suitable for you and make suggestions for your portfolio.

    • 2.Think tactically

    From time to time, the old 60/40 buy-and-hold model has been a good strategy. However, it is not always best. To counter that old buy-and-hold mindset, consider a strategy that incorporates tactical management.

    What is tactical management? Simply this – flying around the storm. Imagine you are on a plane flying to Miami and the pilot sees storm clouds ahead on the horizon. If the pilot decides to fly through the storm, he has decided to utilize something similar to the old buy-and-hold investment strategy. However, what if he decides to fly around the storm? He is not changing the ultimate destination, but given the conditions he faces, he decides to get there via another route. In that case, he has made a tactical decision.

    In our current economic environment, storm clouds loom on the horizon ahead. You want at least a portion of your assets to fly around the storm, not through it. Your advisor can help you implement a strategy that makes tactical changes to the way your nest egg is invested.

    • 3.Analyze risk

    In the old days, fellows at the coffee shop would compare their investments. The winner was the one with the largest return. In those days, they didn’t think much about risk since almost everything they touched turned to gold. We can no longer ignore risk. You can’t eliminate risk, so you should manage it. Taking an appropriate amount of risk for an appropriate amount of return is the guiding principle.

    Today, you must give proper attention to the relationship between risk and return because one year of extreme losses can erase years of prior returns. If you are already in retirement, there is even less likelihood that you can recover from a precipitous decline.

    How can you manage risk? Consider a strategy that first emphasizes preservation, then adding growth. If you can keep what you have and grow it systematically, you will find that, like the tortoise and the hare, disciplined stability wins the race. You may lose bragging rights among your buddies about achieving the highest return in a given year, but you earn the right to sleep peacefully at night when the market terrorizes other investors.

    Analyzing risk means that you may have to redefine success (and failure). Once you define success and failure, your advisor can help you implement a proper strategy. In addition to the traditional investment tools, there are several new ones available in the marketplace. For example, did you know that there are some new tools in the marketplace that allow you to contract how much of the upside and the downside of the market you are willing to participate in? This type of approach differs from traditional strategies in that it allows you to customize your risk/return possibilities according to your definition of success. Your advisor can help you quantify success and failure as well as crafting a portfolio that takes these new strategies into account.

    What next?

    Will Rogers quipped that he was more concerned about the return of his money rather than the return on his money. Thankfully, investors can do better than that, even in these days of change. Yesterday’s financial strategies are not sufficient to meet today’s economic challenges. Uncertainty and risk have driven innovation in the financial industry and have generated additional opportunities for investors today. Contact us to review these principles and strategies and consider how to apply them to your nest egg.

    Mike Cunningham, ChFC®

    Financial Consultant


    Steve Cunningham, CRPS®

    Registered Representative

    Mike Cunningham Investments


    Securities and Advisory Services offered through VSR Financial Services, Inc. Registered Investment Adviser and Member FINRA/SPIC. Mike Cunningham Investments is independent of VSR Financial Service, Mike Cunningham – Registered Representative. Diversification does not guarantee a profit or protect against a loss.

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