Q: What do landing an aircraft and planning for retirement have in common?

A: If you get the setup wrong, the results could be disastrous.

When a jetliner flies from London Heathrow to New York JFK, the aircraft doesn’t just arrive at an altitude of 35,000 feet and drop directly onto the runway.

An hour in advance, somewhere out over the North Atlantic, the pilot reviews the landing checklist. He or she radios ahead to JFK to determine weather conditions, traffic patterns and the plane’s assigned runway.

After checking in with air traffic control, the pilot calls back to the cabin crew, alerting the attendants to put away meal service, set seats and tray tables upright and stow electronics. The pilot puts the plane into a gradual descent, lowers the air speed, lines the plane up with the designated runway, extends the flaps to provide lift for the craft at low speed and finally lowers and locks the landing gear.

The steps on a pilot’s checklist constitute the “glidepath to landing.” We know the pilots who don’t use checklists because annually in the U.S. roughly 100 aircraft land with their gear up, which is both dangerous and expensive.

The same checklist process applies to retirement planning starting 10 to 15 years before age 65.

At our firm, we don’t expect people to start planning for retirement in their 20s, 30s or even 40s. Life at those ages is riddled with other priorities — getting married, buying a house, running a career, starting a family and getting the kids into college.

Around age 50, our clients get serious about retirement. At that point, we introduce our Pre- Retirement Preparedness Checklist (which you can download from our website: https://heronwealth.com/investment-guides-library).

Retirement Planning Checklist

In broad categories, we help our clients evaluate:

  • Financial planning – is the family on track to meet retirement goals?
  • Review portfolio allocations, dial down risk and prepare to convert a pile of financial assets into a lifetime income stream.
  • Determine “must haves” and “nice to haves” in retirement spending and consider big projects like buying a vacation home.
  • Evaluate legacy goals – how much to family and how much to philanthropy?
  • Determine whether to purchase long-term care insurance or self-insure elder care from a family’s own financial resources.
  • Consider whether revocable and irrevocable trusts can provide asset protection and sidestep certain estate taxes.
  • Fund 529 college savings plans for children and grandchildren.
  • Consider paying off mortgages.
  • Consider the value of retaining insurance policies – can the family save money by discarding unneeded protection?
  • Determine whether staying in the current home, downsizing or moving to a new community is the right decision.
  • Increase time and money spent on medical care to maintain quality of life.
  • Review estate plans, which may often be decades out of date as well as review healthcare proxies, powers of attorney and end-of-life instructions.
  • Ensure that important financial and legal documents are accessible to family members and protected from cyber-thieves.

We show our clients whether they are on the “glidepath to retirement” or whether a potential problem 15 to 25 years from now needs to be addressed.

A certain client family could potentially run out of money in their early 80s and based on family history are likely to live into their 90s.

This scenario would be disastrous if the family learned about the shortfall at age 85. Learning about this concern at age 55 gives the family 30 years to come up with alternatives.

We can show a family in their 50s or even 60s how to easily mitigate the risk by increasing their savings rate now or pushing retirement back a few years. We can also model the effects on the financial plan of receiving an inheritance or selling a business.

A smooth landing or a white-knuckled approach?

Using the Glidepath to Retirement checklist ensures that your family arrives safely and happily at the retirement destination.

David Edwards is president and wealth advisor with Heron Wealth, a $500 million registered investment advisor based in New York City working with 225 client families across the U.S. and around the world. Dustin Lowman contributed additional research for this column.