My column today, “10 dog breeds that rile insurers up,” discusses how your pet’s breed could cause some companies to deny coverage or charge you more.
The breeds include various types of terriers commonly called “pit bulls,” as well as Dobermans, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Huskies, Cane Corso and Mastiffs.
These so-called “breed lists” aren’t used by all insurers and tend to change as the types of dogs involved in attacks change (something that’s often related to breed popularity). There’s a reason that “nippy” dogs such as Chihuahuas and dachshunds aren’t on these lists: although they may be more likely to bite, they can’t do the damage that a bigger breed can. The average insurance claim for a dog bite is nearly $30,000, which implies a whole lot of pain.
If you own a dog that’s on an insurer’s breed list, or if you simply want to avoid expensive lawsuits and the possibility of harming others, there are plenty of ways to reduce your liability to dog bite claims. Among them:
Shop around. Every insurer has different criteria, so getting quotes from a number of different companies can help dog owners find coverage. An insurance broker who is knowledgeable about various insurers’ policies can help with the search. Larger insurers may be more accommodating than smaller ones. For example: State Farm, the largest homeowners insurance company, says it does not discriminate by breed but does require dog owners to answer questions about their animals’ history and behavior.
Spay and neuter. Sexually intact dogs are more likely to bite than spayed or neutered animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mind your kids. Don’t leave infants or young children alone with any dog, the CDC advises. Teach children not to approach unfamiliar dogs and to remain still if approached by dogs they don’t know, or to roll up into a ball and stay motionless if knocked down by a dog. (If an unfamiliar dog is leashed and with its owner, make sure your child asks the owner first if the dog is friendly and if it’s okay to approach. Your child should know to let the dog sniff first before petting.) Kids should be taught not to disturb dogs that are eating, sleeping or tending puppies. Most dog bites occur “during everyday activities and while interacting with familiar dogs,” according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, so be vigilant about how your child behaves with dogs. Don’t let a child or anyone else tease or threaten a dog.
Don’t encourage aggression. Wrestling or even tug-of-war can trigger aggressive behavior in your pet. Dogs that have already demonstrated such behavior (lunging, biting) “are inappropriate in households with children,” the CDC notes. Yes, such dogs can be trained, but the risk to your kids is too high.
Socialize and train your dog. The CDC recommends teaching all dogs “submissive behaviors,” such as rolling over to expose their belly and giving up food without growling. Training can help with these behaviors and others that can make dog ownership easier. Shelters and pet stores are two places to look for low-cost training. Use a leash in public so you can control your dog, the AVMA advises.
Dog bites are no joke. They send some 800,000 Americans every year to emergency rooms and other medical providers for treatment, according to the AVMA. Half of those victims are children, since kids are much more likely to be seriously injured if bit. (I was going to include a photo of what a dog bite did to a young girl’s arm, but decided it was just too graphic.) Senior citizens are the next most common victims.
So do the right thing. Your dog–and your neighbors–are counting on you to be a responsible owner.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are in the process of refinancing our mortgage. I just received my credit report in the mail, and my score was 724. The report indicated that a delinquency resulted in my less-than-stellar score. When I went to the credit bureau site to see where the problem was, I saw that I had a $34 charge on a Visa last year. I rarely use that card, so I did not realize that I had a balance. As a result, I had a delinquent balance for five months last year. I am sick about this, as I always pay my bills on time. To think that my credit score was affected by something so insignificant is really bumming me out. Is there anything I can do to fix this?
Answer: You can try, but creditors are often reluctant to delete true negative information from your credit files. That’s why it’s so important to monitor all of your credit accounts, and to consider signing up for automatic payments so that this doesn’t happen again.
You should know that your mortgage lender won’t look at just one credit score when evaluating your application. Typically, mortgage lenders would request FICO credit scores from each of the three bureaus for both you and your husband, then use the lower of the two middle scores to determine your rate. Even if 724 did turn out to be the lowest of the six scores, you should still get a decent rate, since that’s considered a good score.
Dear Liz: I read your response with interest regarding the two sons in their 60s who were pressuring their parents into taking a reverse mortgage, according to a neighbor who wrote to you about the situation. You may be correct that the sons are trying to get an early inheritance, but you may also be very wrong. The sons may feel well off enough that they don’t need an inheritance and that the money would be better spent by the parents to enjoy their remaining years.
As a reverse mortgage loan officer, I’ve had seniors who are not cash-poor and house-rich go on extended vacations, purchase income properties, buy long-term healthcare policies and fund a research and development project for an invention, to name a few uses. I even know someone who bought a Ferrari, which had been a lifelong desire.
Reverse mortgages are no longer considered to be a loan of last resort. They are, in fact, a source of tax-free cash used in a variety of ways such as preserving and prolonging taxable cash assets, and for seniors who don’t need cash to live on, they may be used by their financial planners for arbitrage purposes.
By the way, I did like your reference to elder care attorneys. Many seniors think it’s a waste of time or way too expensive, but I frequently refer my clients to them as well. They are almost always able to justify the expense in the savings they produce for their clients.
Answer: While there can be many reasonable uses of reverse mortgages, remember that the parents in this case are in their 90s. This may not be a time in their lives when they’re longing for adventure travel, hot cars and investment real estate. It’s certainly not a time in life when they could buy affordable long-term care policies.
There could, however, be another explanation, as the following reader outlines:
Dear Liz: I just read your column about the neighbor’s concern that an elderly couple was being pressured by their sons to get a reverse mortgage. I am glad you mentioned the possibility of fraud by the sons. The elderly are vulnerable and need advocates.
The concerned writer needs to consider another option. Maybe the elderly couple is not doing as well financially as they portray. I was once a concerned neighbor to an elderly widow. As a ploy to remain independent, she was not always upfront about how well (or not well) she was doing. In her case it was health issues that she would hide or downplay (money was not an issue). Though all the neighbors cared and looked out for her, we did not have all the facts that the family had and the family was not aware of all we knew. The concerned neighbor should reach out to the sons. Hopefully the sons are looking out for their parents’ best interests and the neighbor can assist the sons in that common goal.
Answer: Your neighborhood is to be commended for trying to help an elderly person in poor health. Intervening in a financial matter, however, could be fraught with peril and lead to an ugly confrontation with the sons. That’s why directing the parents to an elder law attorney — one affiliated with the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org — probably would be a better course. The attorney could better protect the parents against potential financial abuse while assessing whether they might need more help than they’re letting on.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are recovering from a job loss four years ago. We used up all our savings and home equity. My husband is now employed, but we are struggling to keep ahead even with a salary of about $100,000. I was a stay-at-home mom for the first 10 years of our kids’ lives and now I work two part-time jobs to help with our expenses. We are trying to follow the 50/30/20 budget plan you recommend, but can’t seem to get our “must haves” — which are supposed to be no more than 50% of our after-tax income — down from 80% to 90%. Most of the rest goes for “wants,” such as the kids’ dance classes and soccer teams and for cellphones. We’re not saving anything although we’re trying to whittle down our credit card debt. I have tried several times to refinance our first and second mortgages and home equity line of credit but have found we don’t qualify because too much is owed on our modest three-bedroom, one-bath house, which has gone down significantly in value. We also have two car loans that are worth more than the cars, and the insurance is killing us. Amazingly enough, we have never been late on a payment. We just can’t get ahead. Did I mention that both kids need braces?
Answer: You clearly can’t afford your life, and things will only get worse if you don’t get your spending in line with your income.
Your first step should be to consult with a HUD-approved housing counselor, who can advise you of your mortgage options. You can get referrals from http://www.hud.gov. If your first mortgage is held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, you may be able to refinance it through the federal government’s Home Affordable Refinance Program. Recent changes in the program have helped more underwater homeowners refinance. Even if you’ve been turned down by one lender, you can try with another. One way to search for HARP quotes is through Zillow’s online mortgage quote service at http://www.zillow.com/mortgage-rates/.
The Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration also have streamlined refinancing programs for their underwater loans.
Government programs usually define an “affordable” payment as one that’s 31% or less of your gross income, but that may be too high for many families to comfortably handle. Ideally, your housing costs — including mortgage, property taxes and insurance — would consume no more than about 25% of your gross (pre-tax) income.
If you exhaust your options and can’t get your mortgage payments down to an affordable level, you should consider a short sale of your home. Moving is terribly disruptive and expensive but it’s better than letting a house sink your finances.
Then take a look at your cars. The average annual cost of owning a car is $8,946, according to AAA. You can make the argument that one car is a necessity, but having two is typically more of a convenience than a “must have.” Getting rid of one could dramatically lower your insurance and transportation costs.
Since you’re underwater on both, you’ll need to look at which is cheapest to operate and which is closest to being paid off. If they’re the same, then your choice is easier — you can work toward paying that car off faster so you can sell it. Otherwise, you’ll have to weigh which loan to target first.
Another way to get your budget balanced is to make more money. That may mean asking for more hours at your jobs or looking for opportunities that pay better.
Dear Liz: The certificate of deposit I owned in my Roth IRA recently matured. I’ve put the money into a Roth passbook account until I can figure out what to do with it. I’m a public school teacher and have a 457 deferred compensation plan to which I contribute monthly. I am 57 and will need to work until I am at least 65. What should I do with the money in my Roth?
Answer: As a public school teacher, you probably have a defined benefit pension that will give you a guaranteed monthly check for life once you retire. Depending on how long you’ve taught and where, this pension could cover a substantial portion of your living expenses.
The guaranteed nature of this pension means that you may be able to take more risk with your other investments. That would mean your Roth could be invested in stock mutual funds or exchange-traded funds that offer potential for growth. CDs and other “safe” investments can’t offer that — in fact, your money loses purchasing power since you’re not earning enough interest to even offset inflation.
Since you’re so close to retirement, you should invest a few hundred dollars in a session with a fee-only financial planner who can review your situation and offer personalized advice.
Today is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 82.
Except that she died twenty years ago of colon cancer. She loved life and she should have had more of it.
I write about this for two reasons. First, to enlist you in my effort to get everybody screened. Colonoscopies aren’t fun, but they can save your life. Catch it early, and colon cancer is a non-issue. Procrastinate, and it can kill you. The AMA recommends you get your first colonoscopy at 50, or 40 if you have a family history of the disease. You’re not off the hook if you’re younger: start bugging your parents, your aunts and uncles, your older siblings to schedule their screenings. A little nagging can save a life.
The second is to remind you to do the things you love, go the places you want to go, take the chances you’re afraid to take. Don’t put this stuff off indefinitely. Although plenty of people are live-for-today grasshoppers, I suspect more than a few of you are careful ants, focused diligently on the future.
I once heard from a man who wanted to take his 11-year-old on a trip to Europe. But he also felt he should start paying down his mortgage, as he was on track with his retirement savings and that seemed to be the next logical goal. Go, I told him, while she still wants to spend time with you. She’ll be off on her own soon enough, and the mortgage will still be there for you to tackle.
Delayed gratification is good and necessary if you want a sound financial foundation–and if you want to retire someday. But also don’t forget that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Think about what you would regret not doing, not saying, not being if today were your last day. It may not be, probably won’t be, but your life will be richer for living as if it might.
You might think breaking into a corporate database would be hard. Not so. A recent report from the Verizon RISK Team found the vast majority of incidents required minimal skills and took place in a few hours. Unfortunately, those breaches often weren’t discovered for months or even years–and it typically wasn’t the company but rather a third party that discovered a breach.
From a Credit.com post on the study:
While one in 10 were so easy the average Internet user could have caused them, another 68 percent were the result of hacking attacks using the most basic methods, requiring relatively few resources to complete. Only one breach suffered in all of 2012 required “advanced skills, significant customizations, and/or extensive resources” to complete.
That is likewise reflected in the amount of time it took to cause most data breaches, the report said. Altogether, 84 percent took hours or even minutes to perpetrate, while these incidents typically took months or even years to discover. Nearly two-thirds of all breaches took at least that long, up from just 56 percent the year before, proving that it’s actually becoming more difficult to spot breaches, as well as contain them. While most were remediated in hours or days, nearly a quarter took months.
The take-away from this is that companies aren’t doing nearly enough to protect the information they collect about you. And the sad truth is that you have little control over what goes into these databases. You can do your best to protect your identity, and still have your information breached.
You should still take steps to reduce your exposure, steps like not giving your Social Security number to companies that don’t need it and refusing to give businesses permission to share your information. You should use tough-to-hack passwords and stop sharing secrets on social media. You also should monitor your credit reports and financial accounts.
Until companies get serious about protecting your data, though, you’re still a target for identity theft.
Dear Liz: You always mention fee-only financial planners and I’m not sure about the true meaning. My husband and I have a financial planner who charges us $2,200 per year, but we got a summary of transaction fees in the amount of $6,200 for last year. Is this reasonable? We have $625,000 in IRAs and are adding $1,000 a month. In addition we have over $700,000 with current employers, adding the max allowed yearly. The planner gives advice on allocations for these employer funds as well. Are we paying too much for the financial planner? The IRAs seem to be doing well, but the market is doing well (today!).
Answer: It appears you’re paying both fees and commissions, so you’re not dealing with a fee-only planner. Fee-only planners are compensated only by the fees their clients pay, not by commissions or other “transaction fees” for the investments they buy. One big benefit of fee-only planners is that you don’t have to worry that commissions they get are affecting the investment advice they give you.
You’re paying about 1.3% on the portfolio you have invested with this advisor. That’s not shockingly high, but once you add in all the other costs associated with these investments, such as annual expense ratios and any account fees, your relationship with this advisor may be costing you 2% a year or more. That’s getting expensive, unless you’re getting comprehensive financial planning — help with insurance, taxes and estate planning, as well as investment advice — from someone qualified to provide such planning, such as a certified financial planner.
What you pay makes a big difference in what you accumulate. Let’s say your investments return an average of 8% a year over the next 20 years. If your costs average 1% a year, that would leave your IRAs worth about $3 million. If your costs average 2%, you could wind up with $2.5 million, or half a million dollars less.
Keeping your expenses low would mean you stop trying to beat the market with actively traded investments. Instead, you would opt for index funds and exchange-traded funds that seek to match market returns. These funds typically come with low expenses, often a small fraction of 1%. Using a fee-only planner can be another way to reduce what you pay for advice.
At the very least, consider bringing a copy of your portfolio to a fee-only planner for a second opinion. He or she can give you a better idea of whether what you’re paying is worth the results you’re getting.
Dear Liz: My father-in-law’s spouse recently died. He is 89 and not in very good health. He has assets of about $3 million and lives in a state (Pennsylvania) that has an inheritance tax. What can he do to avoid state taxes and make sure his assets go where he wants them to go? He does not like to talk about these things but I’m trying to help. I have no interest in benefits to myself but I would hate to see his assets go to the state.
Answer: It’s one thing to encourage a parent or in-law to set up estate documents that protect them should they become incapacitated. Everyone should have durable powers of attorney drawn up so that someone else can make healthcare and financial decisions for them if they’re unable to do so.
It’s quite another matter to urge a potential benefactor to make sure the maximum amounts possible land in inheritors’ laps, especially if he or she doesn’t want to discuss the matter. You may need to accept that not everyone is interested in minimizing taxes for his heirs. Your father-in-law’s resistance to talk about these things is a good indicator that you should back off.
It’s not as if the majority of his assets will wind up in state coffers anyway. Although Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has an inheritance tax, the rate isn’t exorbitant for most inheritors. (Unlike estate taxes, which are based on the size of the estate, inheritance taxes are based on who inherits. Your father-in-law doesn’t have to worry about estate taxes, since the federal exemption limit is now over $5 million and Pennsylvania doesn’t have a state estate tax.) In Pennsylvania, property left to “lineal descendants” — which includes parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren — faces tax rates of 4.5%. The tax rate is 12% for the dead person’s siblings and 15% for all others. Surviving spouses are exempt.
If he were interested in reducing future inheritance taxes, your father-in-law could move to one of the many states that doesn’t have such a tax. He also could give assets away before he dies, either outright or through an irrevocable trust. He may not be interested in or comfortable with any of those solutions. If he is, it’s up to him to take action. If he needs help or encouragement, let your wife or one of her siblings provide it. In estate planning matters, it’s usually best for in-laws to take a back seat.