Before you retire, see your doctor first

The big day has finally arrived. Your boss shakes your hand and wishes you well. Your colleagues gather around a cake and make small talk about landing the big fish in your retirement, or joke about what you’ll do now that you don’t have to come to the office.

A cardboard box is filled with the contents of your desk: your family pictures, desktop trinkets, snowball paperweight, and stale candy. Your twentysomething replacement has all but moved in on your accounts. Your name is off the cubicle, and you wonder what you’ll do for the next 30 years.

One more stop: the benefits office.

In a few minutes, you will be asked to make one of the most significant and far-reaching financial decisions of your life: How do you want to receive your pension?

What does this have to do with your health?

Plenty. Because before you can make any decision about your pension distribution, you need to seek the guidance of skilled individuals, such as an accountant, a certified financial planner, a tax adviser, an attorney, and — believe it or not — a doctor.

Let’s suppose you are generally healthy, with normal blood pressure, no diabetes or heart disease, and your mother lived to a ripe old age. For you, the annuity of a fixed amount every month becomes a reasonable option. You could very well “outlive” the lump sum option you are presented along with the gold watch — and laugh all the way to the bank.

On the other hand, you may have a serious medical condition, such as cancer, and let’s suppose that your expected survival is limited to a year or two.

In that situation, a reasonable option would be door number 2, the lump sum. You and your family would work with professionals to set investments in motion to take care of your family, despite the ups and downs of Wall Street.

Retirement decisions are not always as obvious as this example. And who gets a pension these days? Very few of us. But you will be making decisions about when to take social security and when to tap into your 401(k).

From a practical standpoint, however, I suggest you see your doctor around the time your retirement is planned. Some minor blood abnormalities or trivial symptoms might lead to a CT scan or EKG, and then to a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness. In that case, your financial options would be clear. You may not be around long enough to collect your full pension, but you can make provisions for your family.

Life is complicated and not always fair. But before you sign on the dotted line, understand your health — and the rules of trusts and sound financial planning.

Edward T. Creagan is an oncologist and author of How Not to Be My Patient: A Physician’s Secrets for Staying Healthy and Surviving Any Diagnosis.

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