Q&A: How much does a fee-only financial planner cost?

Dear Liz: You frequently suggest consulting a fee-only financial planner, such as those who are members of the Garrett Planning Network, which seems like great advice. Can you provide any guidance on how much one should expect to pay for the services of this type of planner? We are a couple living in Los Angeles looking for a pre-retirement evaluation. That would probably include evaluation of existing investments, insurance needs, Social Security, long-term care, etc. How should we evaluate a quote of $3,000 for a full review estimated at 10 hours or $300 an hour?

Answer: The cost for a comprehensive financial plan varies depending on where you live and the planner’s experience level, among other factors. Nationally, the range is typically from $150 to $300 an hour, so $3,000 for 10 hours in Los Angeles is at the high (but not unreasonable) end of the scale, assuming the planner has several years’ experience.

Another way to get a feel for going rates is by interviewing a couple of other fee-only planners in your area. If the cost you’re quoted is dramatically lower, though, make sure the planner isn’t accepting commissions as well. Some planners are “fee based,” which means they accept both fees from clients and commissions on the products they recommend. You can ask for the planner’s Form ADV, a form filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Part II of this form contains information about how the planner is compensated.

Q&A: Letting car be repossessed will make debt problem worse

Dear Liz: I own a car that I can no longer afford. Unfortunately, buying it was a poor decision and came with terrible interest rates and terms. I’ve been 30 to 60 days late on the payments for close to a year and have other debts that I haven’t been able to pay. Because of this, my credit is already in the basement. I’m underwater on the car (by about $7,000) and am feeling like the only option is to have it “voluntarily” repossessed. I really feel that if I didn’t have this $400 payment and another $200 a month in car-related costs, I could get my other debts squashed, build some savings and get in a much better place financially. I should mention that I have another (free!) car available to me when I need it and live in an area with reliable public transit, plus I have carpooling options that can get me to and from work at little to no cost. I have no major plans for anything that would require amazing credit scores. I have a stable job and rent an apartment with my boyfriend, who has strong credit but not a huge capacity to help financially. Am I insane? How would I even begin to recover from a repossession?

Answer: Having your car repossessed won’t relieve you of the debt. In fact, your debt is likely to increase.

Repossession costs such as storage, preparation for sale and attorney fees can be added to your loan balance. You’ll owe the difference between that amount and the price the creditor gets for the vehicle when it’s resold, often at auction.

If you don’t pay what you owe, your creditor can sue you — and probably will, given that nice steady job with reliable wages that can be garnished.

So yes, you probably would be insane to think repossession is the answer to your situation.

Usually the best solution when you owe more than a car is worth is to “drive out of the loan” — in other words, to own the car at least until the loan is paid off. In your case, the best solution may be to park the car while you pay it off. A parked car doesn’t need much gas or maintenance (as long as you start it occasionally). You may be able to get discounts on insurance and registration if you don’t operate it.

If you still can’t make ends meet, then get a second job that will bring in some extra cash. Pay off the loan as quickly as possible and then start saving to pay cash for your next car. Also work on repairing your credit so that if you want loans in the future you’ll be able to get decent rates and terms.

Q&A: Understating financial situation

Dear Liz: When applying for credit or at other times when one must state gross income, how should virtual income be computed and treated? My wife and I have annual tax-free income of about $96,000, not subject to offset of any kind, plus our $8,000 annual property taxes are waived in their entirety, as are our vehicle license fees and many other smaller fees. We have free health insurance through the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs that far exceeds the best plan out there. To state our household income as the money that goes into our bank accounts annually is a serious understatement of our financial position. We do not want to lie on a credit application, but we feel we are not being totally honest no matter how we answer questions asking for gross income.

Answer: Creditors are far more worried about people inflating their incomes than they are about people who understate their financial situations. In short: Don’t worry about it.

Q&A: Social Security vs. state pension

Dear Liz: I worked enough in private industry to qualify for Social Security benefits, but then worked for the state and did not contribute to Social Security for another 20 years. So, I will have a state pension at my current salary as well as Social Security representing my former salary, which was about one-third of what I’m making now. My question is, would it be of value to retire early and return to private industry for a few years?

Answer: Your Social Security benefit is likely to be reduced because you’re getting a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. This is known as the windfall elimination provision, and you can learn more about it on the Social Security website.

You can avoid the provision if you had 30 years or more of “substantial earnings” (which varies by year but was at least $22,050 in 2015) from jobs that paid into Social Security.
It probably wouldn’t make much sense to quit a well-paying job with a presumably generous pension to try to boost a much smaller Social Security payout. But a fee-only financial planner could run the numbers for you and explain your various options.

Q&A: The pros and cons of converting life insurance to an annuity

Dear Liz: I have a life insurance policy that is worth $16,000 if I cash out. Our agent says if we convert this to an annuity, we would eliminate our monthly fee of $25. The policy is worth $35,000 if I should die with it still in effect. We purchased this only for the purpose to have me buried. Is converting this to an annuity a better option?

Answer: Possibly, but you’ll want to shop around to find the best one rather than just accepting whatever rate your current insurer offers. You can compare offers at www.immediateannuities.com.

Converting to an annuity through what’s known as a 1035 exchange means you’re giving up the death benefit offered by your current policy for a stream of payments that typically last the rest of your life. You don’t pay taxes on this conversion, but taxes will be due on a portion of each withdrawal to reflect your gains.

If you cash out, you’ll get money faster — in a lump sum — but will owe taxes on any gains above what you’ve paid in premiums.

The face value of your policy is far beyond the median cost of a funeral and burial, which the National Funeral Directors Assn. said was $7,181. Before you dispose of the policy, though, you should make sure your survivors will have other resources to pay that cost and that they won’t otherwise need the money.

Q&A: How much liability coverage is enough?

Dear Liz: We are looking to get umbrella insurance coverage to increase the personal liability limits on our homeowners and auto policies. Is there a rule of thumb on how much umbrella coverage is appropriate? Enough to cover one’s entire net worth? Or a portion thereof? Granted, no amount of coverage would prevent a lawsuit exceeding that coverage. We have never had a liability claim but are looking for an extra degree of safety and peace of mind. The house (no mortgage) is worth about $2.5 million and we have financial assets of an additional $3 million. The maximum our carrier offers in umbrella coverage is $5 million, with a premium under $1,000 a year.

Answer: Walking the line between prudence and paranoia isn’t easy when you’re trying to predict the risk of being sued.

A report by ACE Private Risk Services noted that most auto and homeowners liability coverage maxes out at $500,000, but 13% of personal injury liability awards and settlements are for $1 million or more.

That means the vast majority of lawsuits result in six-figure payouts or less, but a spectacular few can cost more.

Insurance experts say trial attorneys typically settle for a liability policy’s limits. There are exceptions, though, particularly if the person being sued has substantial assets and income but not a lot of coverage.

One rule of thumb is to get liability coverage at least equal to your net worth, with a minimum of $1 million. A $5-million policy in your case would not be overkill, but you should discuss your situation with an experienced insurance agent to get a better assessment of your risk and options.

Q&A: How to deal with robocalls

Dear Liz: As to the woman who receives robocalls, this is what I do. Almost all such calls come on my land line, which is now exclusively reserved for telephone solicitors and robocalls. I have it on two rings and never answer it. I will pick it up if I hear someone I know leaving a message. About weekly I go through the messages, and most turn out to be junk calls or automatic calls from doctors’ offices reminding me of an appointment. All my friends and people I want to talk with have my cellphone number. If I receive a call on my cellphone that does not have caller ID or is from a number I do not recognize, I push the button to stop the ring and let it go to voicemail. The majority of such callers do not leave a message, so I assume they are junk callers and I go into history and block all calls from those numbers. Problem solved. With modern technology there is no reason to ever speak to any person you don’t want to speak with.

Answer: The technology exists to prevent many junk calls from even reaching that land line you’re paying for but essentially can’t use.

Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, is calling for phone companies to provide free tools to block these calls. You can sign its petition at consumersunion.org/end-robocalls/.

In the meantime, you can use the free NoMoRobo service on a digital phone line or use anti-robocall tools such as Digitone Call Blocker Plus ($110), HQTelecom.com ($59) or Sentry Dual Mode Call Blocker ($52).

Q&A: Bad boyfriend plagues grandparents’ finances

Dear Liz: We have raised our granddaughter since birth. She is the apple of our eyes. Then she fell in love. The boyfriend had no job, no car. My husband co-signed a loan for this boy! He didn’t even know the boy’s last name. I was devastated, as we are on Social Security so our income is limited. Our granddaughter couldn’t afford the payments and the boy was useless. They got so far behind that we ended up having to mortgage our home to pay off the truck. We hoped to sell it but of course the kids have broken up and the boy disappeared. When I asked the Department of Motor Vehicles what I could do to get him off the title, they said I couldn’t do anything.

Answer: Your husband is showing signs of cognitive impairment. Co-signing a loan can be (and often is) a lapse in judgment; co-signing for a virtual stranger indicates a more serious problem.

A study for the Center for Retirement Research found that people’s financial decision-making abilities peak in their 50s. By our 70s, our problem-solving abilities typically have declined enough to make us more vulnerable to bad decisions and fraud.

That’s why it’s important to simplify our financial lives in retirement and to consider safeguards that can keep us from being victimized.

Freezing your credit reports at the three major credit bureaus is one good option. That can keep criminals from opening accounts in your names. You would have to thaw your reports to apply for a loan or credit card, and adding that extra “speed bump” to the process could give you time to rethink a bad decision.

If you had children you could trust, you might have your financial institutions send them duplicate statements and discuss any large purchases or investments with them. If you don’t have someone you trust, a licensed fiduciary could serve a similar function. California has a Professional Fiduciaries Bureau within its Department of Consumer Affairs where you can learn more.

At this point, you should check the vehicle title to see if the names are listed with an “and” between them or an “or.” If it’s an “or,” your husband should be able to transfer title to the new owner. Otherwise, you may need to get an attorney to help you get a legal order to remove the boy’s name from the title. Check with your local bar association to see if there are any pro bono or legal aid services that can help you.

Q&A: Social Security divorced spousal benefits

Dear Liz: A friend was told by Social Security that she could not collect spousal benefits on her ex-husband’s work record because she did not have his Social Security number. How can I help her find it?

Answer: Your friend may have run into a new Social Security employee, or at least one who is not well-informed. Social Security says on its website that people who qualify for divorced spousal benefits do not need their exes’ Social Security number as long as they can provide enough identifying information for the agency to locate his record. She does need to have a marriage certificate and divorce decree along with her own birth certificate.

To qualify for divorced spousal benefits, the marriage must have lasted 10 years and your friend must currently be unmarried

Q&A: Income tax vs. capital gains tax

Dear Liz: I was wondering about the disabled vet who wanted to sell his home, which had increased in value by about $1 million. You mentioned that “[S]ingle people with incomes over $415,050 in 2016 are subject to the 39.6% marginal tax rate. Most people pay capital gains tax at a 15% rate, but those in the top bracket face a 20% rate.” Would he have to pay federal income tax on the non-exempt portion of the equity as well as paying 20% capital gains on the non-exempt portion?

Answer:
You may pay income tax or capital gains tax on a source of income, not both. If an investment has been held less than a year, the gain is considered short term and subject to income tax. Investments held more than a year are considered long-term and qualify for capital gains treatment.

When you’re selling your primary residence, the first $250,000 in profit is typically exempt from tax. The rest of the gain would be taxed as a capital gain.