Do you remember the first time you had to make a life or death decision? 15 years ago I was working for the state of Alaska when my telephone rang. It was my wife. She did not usually call me at work, but this particular day was our one year wedding anniversary so I figured she was calling to wish me a happy anniversary. Instead she said, “Jason, I was at my Mom’s house when she fell over and hit her head on a table, and she’s bleeding. I called the ambulance and were on our way to the hospital. Can you meet us there?”

When I arrived at the hospital, I learned my Mother-in-law had a very bad headache. She was only in her mid 50s and had never been sick a day in her life so this was very unusual. The doctors thought the headache was because of her fall. She also had a small cut under her eye where she had been bleeding. My wife and I sat in the waiting room for what seemed like an eternity, but in all reality was probably not very long.

We tried to call my Father-in-law, but he was out of town on a business trip. We couldn’t track him down. I remember walking back to where my Mother-in-law was laying in the hospital bed, and I asked her how she was doing. She just reached up holding her head and said, “My head hurts so bad.” The doctors initially thought she was having a migraine. A short while later the doctors walked into the waiting room and let my wife and I know that they had done a scan of my Mother-in-law’s brain. The doctor said it looked like she had bleeding in her brain. He said she was going to need brain surgery. He went on to explain they don’t do brain surgery in Juneau, Alaska so we would need to decide to have her flown to Anchorage or to Seattle for it.
He went on to say that Seattle would be a little bit of a longer flight. I remember looking into the doctor’s eyes as it were yesterday because this is the first time in my life where I felt like I was having to make a life or death decision on behalf of another person. I looked in the doctor’s eyes, and I asked him, “Who has the best brain surgeon in the world?” With my Father-in-law out I knew if my wife and I were to have to make this decision that we wanted the absolute best.

The doctor looked at me and told me the best brain surgeon in the world is in Seattle. Shortly thereafter my wife and my Mother-in-law were on a high-speed jet flying from Juneau, Alaska to Seattle, Washington. And it turns out that Seattle did indeed have one of the best brain surgeons in the world. I’m very happy to report that 15 years after having brain surgery my Mother-in-law has made a full recovery and lives 45 minutes from us. It is wonderful to have Grandma and Grandpa nearby to love on our kids.

One of the reasons I reflect on the story is because we are approaching the anniversary of that event. But as this relates to retirement planning the important lesson I learned that day was in the power of the question I asked, “Who had the best brain surgeon in the world?” I didn’t ask who had the best cardiologist. I didn’t ask who had the best general practitioner. I didn’t ask my coworkers, family or friends to perform the surgery. I wanted the best brain surgeon in the world. I wanted somebody who all they did, day in and day out, 365 days a year was brain surgery.

One of the mistakes I see many people make when working on their retirement planning is they ask for the advice of a family member, friend, coworker or even a general practitioner financial advice giver. While all of these people may certainly mean well, chances are they don’t know all of the specifics to your circumstances to truly give you expert advice. Really all they are equipped to do is tell you what worked for them and offer an opinion.

Retirement involves many different areas of expertise. You must consider how to maximize your social security, pensions and other income sources as well as create tax efficient income. A financial advisor should be trained in how to preserve a lifetime of hard work and wealth and make sure you don’t run out of money while during your lifetime. A skilled practitioner will be looking at your investments, insurance, estate plan, entitlements, pensions, inflation and taxes to make sure every area of your financial life is coordinated and optimized so you will confidently meet your goals.

The decisions you make as you transition into and through retirement will be some of the most important that you may ever make. Remember you may spend as many years retired as you did working. Twenty five years of unemployment is a long time, and you won’t be adding to your investments any more. What you have is what you have, and you need to make sure it is going to last as long as you do.

The last thing you want to have to worry about is going back to work after 10 years of retirement because you made a financial mistake. It’s not fair to your friends and family members to place the burden of your questions on their shoulders. Instead make sure you find an expert that specializes in retirement planning. Ask your friends and family members the most important question of all, “Who is the best retirement expert in the world.”  Seek them out and pay for their advice. It could be one of the smartest investments you ever make.