Q&A: How to help a hoarder parent

Dear Liz: Can you address parents who never throw anything away? It can be a burden to their children when parents leave behind massive amounts of collected, hoarded items, broken cars, old furniture, memorabilia, clothing unworn for decades, etc. This can be troublesome in terms of time off from work to clear an estate and may even necessitate the expense of hiring a professional or paying to have items hauled off.

Answer: Compulsive hoarding is a serious disorder that’s hard to treat unless the person is willing to change—and hoarders rarely are. You can offer to help your parents sort through their possessions, but ultimately it’s their decision what to keep and what to discard. Children of hoarders often have to resign themselves to spending a lot of time and money clearing out the mess when their parents are gone.

If your parents aren’t actually hoarders but simply have too much stuff, the holidays can be a good time to raise the issue of helping them downsize. It’s important to do so with empathy and without judgment. Your parents may not have the energy to organize their stuff, or they may have been traumatized by poverty or other financial setbacks that cause them to cling to things. If the task is too big for them or you, consider hiring a professional to help. The National Assn. of Professional Organizers is a good place to start.

Q&A: Don’t bequeath trouble to your descendants

Dear Liz: I have two grown children, neither of whom owns a home, and three grandchildren. I would very much like to keep my house in the family for all to use, if and when needed. It is not large, and it would be somewhat difficult for two families to live here at the same time. I have a trust that splits everything between the two children. I also have handwritten a note and had it notarized explaining I would like the house kept in the family and not sold or mortgaged. Can you advise me?

Answer: Please think long and hard before you try to restrict what the next generation does with a bequest, particularly when it’s real estate. Is your desire to keep the house in the family worth causing rifts in that family?

It would be hard for two families to share even a large home. You could be setting up epic battles, not only over who gets to live there but how much is spent to maintain, repair and update the home. It’s difficult enough for married couples to own property together; siblings are almost certain to disagree about how much to spend and the differences may be even greater if only one family is actually using the house.

If your house is sold, on the other hand, it could provide nice down payments for each family to buy its own home. Alternatively, one family could get a mortgage to buy out the other and live in the house. Or the home could be mortgaged to provide two down payments and then rented out. Your notarized note wouldn’t prevent your children from doing any of these things, but it may cause them unnecessary guilt and disagreements about honoring those wishes.

Q&A: Claiming an adult child as a dependent

Dear Liz: I am paying rent for my adult son in another state. He gets occasional help from various services, but if I don’t want him to sleep on the street, I have to pay his rent and send some emergency food. I don’t see this changing. Can I claim him as a dependent or would that make me responsible for his health insurance, which I cannot afford?

Answer: Yes, you would be responsible for your son’s health insurance coverage if you claimed him as a dependent, said Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner with Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Fla. That would mean either paying for coverage or paying the fine for not having coverage. The fine for 2016 is $695 per adult or 2.5% of your household adjusted gross income, whichever is greater. The penalty is capped at $2,085, which is likely much more than what you’d save with an additional exemption. If you’re in the 25% tax bracket, a $4,050 personal exemption is worth a little over $1,000.

The IRS has many rules about dependents, and standards for claiming adult children are much higher when they’re over 19 (or over 24 for full-time students). To qualify, your son would have to earn less than the amount of the personal exemption ($4,050 in 2016) and you must have provided more than half of his support, among other rules. The IRS has an interactive tool to help people determine dependents’ eligibility at https://www.irs.gov/uac/who-can-i-claim-as-a-dependent.

Q&A: How much risk is too much in retirement?

Dear Liz: If you have all your required obligations covered during retirement, is having 70% of your portfolio in equities too risky?

Answer: Probably not, but a lot depends on your stomach.

Retirees typically need a hefty dollop of stocks to preserve their purchasing power over a long retirement, with many planners recommending a 40% to 60% allocation in early retirement. A heftier allocation isn’t unreasonable if all of your basic expenses are covered by guaranteed income, such as Social Security, pensions and annuities. Ideally, those pensions and annuities would have cost-of-living adjustments, especially if they’re meant to pay expenses that rise with inflation.

Historically, retirees have been told they need to reduce their equity exposure as they age, but there’s some evidence that the opposite is true. Research by financial planners Wade Pfau and Michael Kitces found that increasing your stock holdings in retirement, where the allocation starts out more conservative and gets more aggressive, may reduce the chances of running short of money. Their paper, “Reducing Retirement Risk with a Rising Equity Glide-Path,” was published in the Journal for Financial Planning and is available online for free.

That said, you don’t want your investments to give you ulcers. If you couldn’t withstand a big downturn — one that cuts your portfolio in half, say — then you may want to cushion your retirement funds with less risky alternatives.

Q&A: Where to find help with managing your finances

Dear Liz: I am a mid-30s single woman who needs accountability in managing my finances and paying down debt. I have about $7,000 in credit card debt and $9,000 in student loans and I earn $55,000 a year. I feel as though I may have the financial means to do this but require a knowledgeable, structured approach. I’d like to work with someone to set up a plan and help me stay on track with it. I’ve considered trying LearnVest as well as smaller privately owned financial planning companies and a financial coach. Do you have any recommendations for finding assistance that could best suit my needs? Does what I’m looking for even exist?

Answer: It’s not always easy to find a fee-only financial planner who will help with budgeting and debt repayment. Many advisors cater to high net worth individuals who typically don’t have the same cash-flow issues as middle Americans.

The Garrett Planning Network offers referrals to fee-only planners who charge by the hour at www.garrettplanningnetwork.com. These advisors have the certified financial planner credential and, unlike many other fee-only planners, don’t have minimum asset requirements for new clients. You can interview a few prospects by phone to get an idea of the cost, but expect to spend at least a few hundred dollars to get started and then hourly fees for ongoing help.

If you’re OK not meeting with your advisor in person, LearnVest offers email access to a dedicated advisor who is either a certified financial planner or a registered investment advisor representative. For a $299 setup fee and a $19 monthly fee, you’ll get a customized financial plan as well as step-by-step instructions for implementing it.

Another option to consider is a nonprofit credit counselor. These agencies offer debt management plans for those who struggle to pay their credit card bills, but many also offer budgeting classes and financial coaching. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. Your initial meeting with a counselor will be free. If you opt for a debt repayment program, the enrollment cost is capped at $75 and the monthly fee at $50, although many agencies charge less.

Q&A: Sheltering home profits

Dear Liz: I understand that the profit realized on the sale of a home is not subject to tax, as long as that money is reinvested in another home. What if the couple divorces before or after the sale? If they split the profit from the sale and one or both put those funds into another house as single buyers, is each exempt from the tax? Does the fact that both are in their 70s have any effect on this matter?

Answer: Your information about home sale profits is about 20 years out of date. In 1997, Congress changed the law that once allowed people 55 and older to roll up to $125,000 of home sale profits into another home tax-free. That was a one-time tax break.

Now you can shelter up to $250,000 per person in home sale profits before owing any tax, and you can use the tax break repeatedly. You have to live in the home for at least two of the previous five years to qualify for the exemption.

Divorce can change your tax situation dramatically, and you don’t want to make decisions based on obsolete information. Please consult a tax professional to make sure you understand all of the implications of your split.

Q&A: Remarrying late in life

Dear Liz: This is regarding the letter from the children worried about their widowed father remarrying. My father remarried a year after my mother died. He was 86. His wife and her family gave him love, care and companionship until his death at 93. I gained a wonderful new family whom I love. Once my dad asked how I would feel if he included his wife in his will. My response was that it was his money and he should do whatever he wanted. He raised me, sent me to college and was a kind and caring person. He owed me nothing else.

Answer: Thank you for sharing your positive experience with your stepmother and her family. Late-in-life companionship can be a real blessing.

Unfortunately, some predators target lonely older people and isolate them from their families as a way to get control of their finances. The predator paints the children’s attempts to intervene as “proof” of their greed. The original letter writers had seen this scenario play out in other families and hoped to avoid it in their own.

Q&A: Proposition 13 considerations

Dear Liz: I read your column with some interest since I just had a client who received a life estate from his long-term partner. They neither married nor formed a registered domestic partnership, either of which might have saved my client some bucks.

The Los Angeles County assessor reassessed the property at its full value even though the remainder will go to my client’s partner’s children on my client’s death. The property was originally purchased in the 1970s. I’d like to think that I or any other estate planning lawyer could fashion a satisfactory work-around for this potential problem faced by folks who wish to give a life estate to someone without Proposition 13 protection and the remainder to someone with that protection.

Of course, one must always bear in mind that the tax tail should not wag the business dog, so a weighing of burdens and benefits is always in order in any plan.

Answer: Here’s another case where stinting on an estate planning attorney’s fee probably cost the heirs vastly more.

For those of you who don’t live in California, Proposition 13 limits property taxes to 1% of the assessed value, and assessments typically can’t increase more than 2% a year until the home changes hands. The lower “Prop. 13” value of a home can be inherited by the children, which means their tax bill would be a fraction of that owed by someone who purchased a similar property more recently.

Instead, the property in question lost its Proposition 13 protection and its tax bill more than tripled.

Q&A: Transferring property after death

Dear Liz: Just a quick comment on the woman who contemplated transferring her house to her partner and daughter as joint tenants. One must always consider the property tax impact on such transfers. In Los Angeles, real property that is transferred to a transferor’s significant other who is not the spouse or domestic partner will ultimately be reassessed by the county assessor. There are a number of property tax reassessment exclusions on transfers, such as from a parent to a child, from a person to his or her revocable trust and between spouses. This is why all factors must be considered before such a transfer is made.

Answer: A revocable transfer on death deed allows real estate to avoid probate in many states, but this option shouldn’t be used before thoroughly researching the consequences and consulting an estate planning attorney. Read on for an actual case where an ill-considered transfer had big financial consequences.

Q&A: Does moving to a new state necessitate a new living trust?

Dear Liz: My husband and I have a revocable trust that was drawn up in Florida. We live in California now. We are renting and don’t own a house. Do we still need a trust if we don’t own property and have just one adult child to leave our financial funds to? One tax planner wants to charge us $1,800 to revise our trust to comply with California laws. That sounds high to me. What do you recommend?

Answer: Any time you move across state lines, you should have your estate documents reviewed and — probably — revised. State laws differ, and in this case you moved from a common law state to a community property state, where the rules differ a lot. Property acquired during marriage in a common law state isn’t automatically owned by both spouses, while in community property states, it typically is.

“Property,” by the way, doesn’t just refer to real estate. It refers to pretty much all your assets, including financial funds.

A relatively simple revocable living trust typically costs $2,000 and up, so the price you were quoted does not seem high, but you can check with one or two other estate planning attorneys if you want to compare costs.