Helping an indigent parent navigate “the system”

Dear Liz: Our mother just turned 64, and our father is divorcing her. She hasn’t worked in years because of significant physical and mental health issues. My sister and I have been trying to figure out how she’s going to survive on $750 a month, which is the equivalent of half his Social Security. She has always had serious issues with money management, which is why there are no retirement savings or a house. We are now about to embark on the maze of social service benefits that an older woman below the poverty line can receive, partly so we can decide whether she’s better off staying put where she is in Arkansas, moving to my sister’s in Texas, moving to be near me in Maryland, or moving to her childhood home of Chicago, where most of her friends are. For a lot of complicated reasons (mostly related to the mental health issues), we are trying to avoid having her live with either of us full time, and she expresses no desire to do so. So we have to figure out the ins and outs of Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized senior housing and anything else in four different states and then try to explain it to her. If you have any hints about helping an indigent and somewhat incapacitated mother access services, we would love to hear them. We feel a little overwhelmed at the moment and aren’t even sure whom to call in each place.

Answer: It’s understandable that you feel overwhelmed. You have a huge task in front of you.

You can start with the Eldercare Locator, a free service offered by the U.S. Administration on Aging that can connect you to services for older adults and their families. You’ll find it at http://www.eldercare.gov, or you can call (800) 677-1116.

Another resource you might want to consider is a geriatric care manager. These are professionals who help family members care for elderly relatives. The care manager can evaluate your mom, review her options and make recommendations. Their services aren’t cheap, but they can be especially helpful in managing a long-distance situation. You can find referrals at the National Assn. of Geriatric Care Managers’ site, http://www.caregiver.org. And speaking of distance: It might be easier to help your mom if she lives closer to one of you, or to a trustworthy friend who can check in on her and let you know how things are going.

You also should check with an Arkansas family law attorney, since your mother may be eligible for some kind of spousal support and possibly a property division that could help her financially.

Finally, if your father dies before your mother, she still will be eligible for survivor benefits that could bump her Social Security check up to 100% of what your father was receiving. Many people don’t realize that ex-spouses can qualify for survivors’ benefits as long as the marriage lasted 10 years and the person applying for benefits didn’t remarry until after age 60.

Don’t count on plastic to cover big expenses

Dear Liz: I’m 27 and have no consumer debt, a decent salary and a boatload of student loans. I use my credit cards for most of my expenses to earn rewards points and generally pay off my cards each month. I also take advantage of the 0% introductory rate offered by many credit card companies. This grace period gives me a security blanket so that I can spread large expenses such as insurance or car repairs over several months without derailing my saving plans. Can I apply for these offers without wrecking my excellent scores?

Answer: Occasionally applying for a new card won’t affect your scores much. Typically such applications ding your scores by five points or less.

You should be budgeting and saving for large expenses, however, rather than leaning on your cards. (Car repairs, in particular, aren’t really “emergency” costs — if you have a car, you know they’re coming, and calculators like Edmunds.com’s “True Cost to Own” feature can give you a good idea of what they’re likely to be.) Those 0% offers often come with balance transfer fees or other charges that make the deals a lot less attractive than they seem at first glance.

Also, you should be in the habit of always paying your cards in full — always. “Generally” isn’t good enough, since you could easily be enticed into spending beyond your means, especially as you chase rewards points. Rewards cards are a good deal only if you don’t carry a balance. Otherwise, you can pay frighteningly high interest rates that offset any benefit you may earn.

Restoring credit scores after bankruptcy

Dear Liz: I had credit scores over 800 with no late payments ever. Unfortunately, a medical issue required me to charge $24,500 to a credit card. That led to a bankruptcy, which was discharged in July 2011. My scores dropped to 672, and they’re currently around 680. I’m paying two unsecured credit cards in full each month plus an auto loan that was reaffirmed in bankruptcy. I would like to continue rehabilitating my scores by applying for another loan. When a company requests my credit scores, does it also see my bankruptcy, and would that prevent me from getting credit?

Answer: Some lenders look just at credit scores, while others request credit reports along with your scores. Your bankruptcy or your scores could cause lenders to charge a higher interest rate or refuse to give you credit.

It’s not clear that the scores you’re seeing are FICO scores, however. A bankruptcy would have dropped your FICOs into the 500s, and it’s unlikely they would return to the high 600s in less than a year. What you may be seeing are VantageScores, which have a different score range: 500 to 990, compared with FICO’s 300 to 850.

If you want to see your FICO scores, which are the ones most lenders use, you can buy them for about $20 each at MyFico.com. Scores offered at other sites typically aren’t FICO scores but may be VantageScores or “consumer education scores” that aren’t widely used by lenders.

You’re doing the right things by using a mix of credit (credit cards and an installment loan) and paying your bills on time. You should know, though, that there’s no way to quickly restore your scores to their old levels. It typically takes seven to 10 years for FICOs to recover from a bankruptcy.

But let’s back up a minute. You almost certainly made a mistake by charging your medical care to a credit card. You may have been able to qualify for a discount on your care if you hadn’t. Many medical providers offer charity programs that cut or eliminate the bill for people making up to 400% of the federal poverty line. A single person could make up to $44,680 and still qualify for a break under many providers’ programs.

If you make too much to qualify for financial aid, you could still have negotiated a discount by asking the provider to charge you the same rate that its largest insurer pays. The uninsured are often charged a much higher “sticker price” for medical care than what insurers pay, but if asked, many providers are willing to provide the same discounts.

If nothing else, you probably could have qualified for an interest-free payment program. Once you charged the bill to your card, however, you lost all your leverage to get a discount.

Is a 3% withdrawal rate too conservative?

Question: In a recent column you repeat advice I have often read that withdrawing about 3% of my investment capital will reduce the chances of my running out of money in retirement. But that doesn’t make sense to me. I have been retired for over 19 years and I have sufficient data now to extrapolate that I could live for 100 more years with so meager a drawdown because, through good and bad times, my earnings after inflation and taxes always exceed 3%. If I am missing something, I must be extraordinarily lucky because it hasn’t hurt me yet, and at age 77 I think it unlikely to do so in my remaining years. Can you explain this discrepancy between my experience and the consequences of your advice?

Answer: Sure. You got extraordinarily lucky.

You retired during a massive bull market, which is the best possible scenario for someone who hopes to live off investments. You were drawing from an expanding pool of money. Your stocks probably were growing at an astonishing clip of 20% or more a year for several years. Although later market downturns probably affected your portfolio, those initial years of good returns kept you comfortably ahead of the game.

Contrast that with someone who retires into a bear market. She’s drawing from a shrinking pool of money as her investments swoon. The money she takes out can’t participate in the inevitable rebound, so she loses out on those gains as well. All that dramatically increases the risks that she’ll run out of money before she runs out of breath.

It’s the first five years of retirement that are crucial, according to analyses by mutual fund company T. Rowe Price, which has done extensive research on sustainable withdrawal rates. Bad markets and losses in the first five years after withdrawals begin significantly increase the chances that a person will run out of money during a 30-year retirement.

Some advisors contend that a 3% initial withdrawal rate, adjusted each subsequent year for inflation, is too conservative. If you retire into a long-lasting bull market, it may well be. But none of us knows what the future holds, which is why so many advisors stick with the 3%-to-4% rule.

What’s a “safe” withdrawal rate?

Dear Liz: After working all out for 28 years in a small business, I have put away $2.6 million in stocks, bonds and some cash. (I am a reasonably smart investor.) I’m 58 and want to be done at 60. I’m not tired of my business, just tired of working. How much do you think I could draw out and not get myself into trouble? I’m in great health, so I could last 30 more years. Our house is paid off, and my wife gets about $40,000 a year from a nice pension. Any ideas?

Answer: Financial planners typically recommend an initial withdrawal rate of 3% to 4% of your portfolio. With $2.6 million, your first year’s withdrawal would be $78,000 to $104,000. The idea is that you could adjust the withdrawal upward by the inflation rate each year and still be reasonably confident you won’t run out of money after 30 years.

Some studies indicate you can start with a higher withdrawal rate, as long as you’re willing to cut back in bad markets.

There is still some risk of going broke, though, even with a 3% withdrawal rate. Particularly poor stock market returns at the beginning of your retirement, for example, could increase the chances your nest egg will give out before you do.

This is an issue you really should discuss with a fee-only financial planner who can review your investments and your spending to make personalized recommendations. (You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors or the Garrett Planning Network.) If you’ve chosen especially risky stocks or have too much of your portfolio in bonds, for example, your retirement plan could fail even if you choose a conservative initial withdrawal rate.

You’ll also want to talk about how you’re going to get health insurance, and how much it’s likely to cost. If you’ve been arranging coverage through your business, you might face some sticker shock when you have to buy a policy on your own. But it’s essential to have this coverage, since you won’t qualify for Medicare until you’re 65.

If you’re not tired of your business, you might consider phasing in retirement, if that’s possible in your situation. That would mean starting to take some long breaks to travel or pursue the interests you plan to indulge in retirement. Delaying retirement even a few years can dramatically increase the chances your nest egg will last.

Protecting a parent from financial opportunists

Dear Liz: I liked your answer to the elderly couple who were being badgered for money by their daughter and her husband. I agree that involving the other daughter can help.

I managed to combat the tendency of family and caregivers to pester my 90-something mom for money by convincing her to give me electronic access to her bank accounts. We did this so that I could pay her bills if she got sick unexpectedly. The other benefit is that I see the small larcenies as they begin to happen. Then I can quickly step in and stop them before they escalate. It is a lot easier having a conversation with someone who has sleazed $100 from her than to deal with the $5,000 theft that motivated me to set this in motion.

She is deeply grateful that she doesn’t have to be the heavy with the people she loves and depends on. You can’t make greed disappear, but it can be managed. I continue to be amazed by how easy it is for people to think that her money (which gives her a sublime sense of security in the midst of physical frailty) is their money because they need it and she is too kind (and dithery) to say no.

Answer: Installing a trusted gatekeeper can be an effective way to keep elderly people from being financially abused. The elderly person can refer all requests for money to the gatekeeper, which in itself is likely to reduce the begging. If a relative can’t perform this function, sometimes an advisor can. Ideally, the advisor would have a fiduciary relationship with the client, meaning that the advisor is legally obligated to put the client’s needs ahead of his or her own. Attorneys and CPAs are fiduciaries, and some financial planners are willing to be, as well.

Don’t start Social Security too soon

Dear Liz: I am 66-1/2 and eligible to collect my full Social Security benefit now. I am in good health and assume I will live into my 80s. I am still working and don’t need the extra money. Is it better to put off taking my benefit so that it will grow 8% with Uncle Sam, tax free and guaranteed, or should I take the money now, pay taxes on it and invest it? Politically speaking, I think I should take it, but my gut says let it grow. What do you think? Is there a program available to demonstrate the differences?

Answer: Far too many people grab their Social Security checks too early, locking themselves into lower payments for the rest of their lives. Some do so in the mistaken belief that their benefits, or Social Security itself, will go away or be dramatically altered if they don’t “lock in” their checks. It’s true that Congress needs to change the Social Security program if it is to meet all its future obligations. But lawmakers are far more likely to change benefits for young people than they are to mess with promised benefits for people close to retirement age.

As you’ve noted, when left untouched benefits grow about 8% a year, which is a strong incentive to delay filing. You’d be hard-pressed to find an investment with that kind of guaranteed annual return, let alone one that would offer that yield plus enough extra return to offset the taxes you’d pay on those benefits if you took them earlier.

The Social Security site has a benefit estimator that can show you the effects of claiming your benefit at various ages. You’ll find it at http://www.ssa.gov/estimator.

AARP also has an excellent retirement calculator that can help you plan various scenarios using not just Social Security but all of your retirement benefits. It’s at http://www.aarp.org/work/retirement-planning/retirement_calculator.

Finally, you should check out mutual fund company T. Rowe Price’s information about “practice retirement” at troweprice.com/practice, which details the benefits of continuing to work through your 60s while saving less for retirement. The growth in Social Security benefits and retirement accounts is so great during that decade that it often more than offsets a sharp reduction in savings, which would mean you’d have more money to spend on vacations and other fun pursuits even before you retire.

Term or whole life? What you need to know

Dear Liz: My mother and her insurance agent swear by whole-life insurance policies. I am 45 and have heard from everyone else to only have term life, which is what my husband and I both have. We have a 15-year-old daughter. Can you please put in layman’s terms what a whole-life policy is and what the benefits are?

Answer: Term insurance provides a death benefit if you die during the “term” of the policy. Term insurance provides coverage for a limited time, such as 10, 20 or 30 years. It has no cash value otherwise and you can’t borrow money against it.

Whole-life policies combine a death benefit with an investment component. The investment component is designed to accumulate value over time that the insured person can withdraw or borrow against. Whole-life policies are often called a type of “permanent” life insurance, since they’re designed to cover you for life rather than just a designated period.

If you need life insurance — and with a daughter who is still a minor, you certainly do — the most important thing is to make sure you buy a big enough policy to cover the financial needs of your dependents. This is where whole-life policies can be problematic, since the same amount of coverage can cost up to 10 times what a term policy would cost. Many people find they can’t afford sufficient coverage if they buy permanent insurance. Also, many people don’t have a need for lifetime insurance coverage. Once your kids are grown and the mortgage is paid off, your survivors may not need the coverage a permanent policy would provide.

If you are interested in a whole-life policy, make sure to run it by a fee-only financial planner who can objectively evaluate the coverage to make sure it’s a good fit for your circumstances.

Who pays for tax pro’s mistake?

Dear Liz: Last year I bought an electric vehicle, motivated in part by the $7,500 federal tax credit. I consulted with my tax preparer, a CPA, to ensure I would generate enough income to fully use the one-time, use-it-or-lose-it credit. In December 2011, I informed her of the exact type of that year’s income (earned income, capital gains, dividends, interest and so on) and detailed all my deductions. She assured me that based on those numbers my tax burden was $8,600, more than sufficient to use the credit. It was enough, in fact, that I could use more deductions and losses, so I made some charitable contributions and sold a losing investment. The final numbers were very close to the estimates she received from me in December. Now that she has completed my federal tax return, however, my tax burden turns out to be far less than she estimated. In fact, it’s zero. Ordinarily I’d be delighted, but I specifically consulted with her to ensure I had a large-enough tax burden to use up the credit. I could have sold some winning investments to generate a bigger tax burden, but have now lost that credit forever. So far she has not responded fully to questions about what happened, and I now suspect she may simply have guessed at the tax burden and not run the numbers through any tax preparation software. I feel that she has in effect cost me $7,500. Am I right to be aggrieved and do I have any recourse?

Answer: Of course you’re right to be aggrieved. One of the reasons to hire a tax professional is to get good advice about managing your tax bill.

Human beings make errors, of course. No one is perfect. But it’s disturbing that your CPA hasn’t told you clearly why she made the mistake she did or, apparently, offered any kind of recompense.

When tax pro mistakes cost you money, it’s typically because the preparer underestimated your tax burden and the IRS catches the error. In that case, your tax pro shouldn’t be expected to pay the extra tax, since you would have owed the money anyway if she’d done the return correctly. But many tax preparers will offer to pay any penalties or interest the taxpayer owes because of their errors, said Eva Rosenberg, an enrolled agent who runs the TaxMama.com site.

In this case, of course, your pro overestimated your tax burden, ultimately costing you a valuable credit. You could always ask her to compensate you for some or all of that lost credit. At the very least, she should be willing to refund any fee she charged you for her advice, Rosenberg said.

You may want to review your own behavior to make sure you didn’t contribute to this situation. Given the amount at stake, you should have called to set up a formal appointment in which the two of you could go over the numbers and your previous year’s tax return, if she didn’t prepare it. That would ensure she had enough information to make a reasonable prediction. If instead you called her up with a “quick question” — tax questions are rarely quick, by the way, and the answers almost never are — then you helped set yourself up for a disappointing outcome.

In any case, you should find another tax pro, since this incident — and her handling of it — indicates she’s not quite up to the job of being your advisor.

Insurance scores aren’t the same as credit scores

Dear Liz: I have very high credit scores, but recently got a notice from my homeowners insurance company saying that my rates were rising because there had been a number of inquiries on my credit report. The inquiries were as a result of my looking for the best deal on a mortgage refinance, and we applied for a retail card to save the 5% on our purchases. Do many insurers use FICO scores as a rate determiner?

Answer: Insurance companies don’t use FICO scores to set rates, but they do use somewhat similar formulas that incorporate credit report information in a process called “insurance scoring” to set premiums. Insurers, and some independent researchers, have found a strong correlation between negative credit and a person’s likelihood of filing claims. (California and Massachusetts are among the few states that prohibit the practice.)

The formulas insurers use sometimes punish behavior that has only a minor effect on your FICO scores. Since insurers use different insurance scoring formulas, however, you may well find a better deal by shopping around.