One of the most important messages we strive to convey to families is that retirement planning is an ongoing journey and not a one-time event. Successful retirement journeys demand a road map, complete with milestone markers for predictable occurrences along life’s road, as well as flexibility to accommodate unexpected events.

You’re probably not a long-distance backpacker, but I expect you can brainstorm a list of the items needed to carry out a backpacking trek. Necessary items include shelter, a sleeping bag, drinking water and food. These “essentials” comprise about 70% of the weight of the backpack. What makes up the rest of the pack’s weight? Generally, these are the items hikers hope they will never need but must bring along as a precaution. Such items include rain gear, replacement batteries, and a medical kit. And finally, there are things for safety, comfort and enjoyment like a compass and a deck of cards.

Of course, this column is not about imparting backpacking fundamentals, but rather to help you understand that there are items vital to success on the retirement journey. Overlooking even one can thwart the course of your retirement. Just as more than one hike has been spoiled due to poor planning, a lack of planning has also compromised many retirement plans. Retirement is a journey and like any Scout worthy of his or her merit badges, investors must be prepared.

Several key areas require special attention as you map out the journey we call “life after work.” Too often, families approach estate planning, saving, giving and other issues as isolated topics. Many affluent individuals work with specialized experts including CPAs, attorneys, insurance agents and financial advisers. But if the various experts don’t approach the journey with an awareness of what the other players on the “team” are doing, dangers can arise along the retirement path. Missing even one small consideration can lead to unnecessary costs.

Many people believe estate planning has nothing to do with retirement planning. Tell that to the spouse they just left behind. The implications of estate planning decisions are enormous and often overlooked. For example, gifts left to charities may seem straightforward, but the process can be inefficient. A family recently came to us with a million dollars saved for retirement. They worked with a competent CPA and engaged a large law firm to develop their estate plan. The family also included its church in the will.

The couple’s college-educated children are doing well and half of the assets are in a 401k plan that will be taxed either by distributions during retirement, or when the kids inherit the funds as beneficiaries. The church should also be a beneficiary for part of the 401k as churches pay no taxes and the after-tax money in the will should go to the kids.

Even when advisers are involved, it’s important to look at the retirement journey from a coordinated perspective, to avoid unnecessary money paid to the IRS. Happy trails.

Joseph “Big Joe” Clark, whose column is published Sundays, is a certified financial planner. He can be reached at or 765-640-1524.