Q&A: How to avoid hiring a Madoff-like financial advisor

Dear Liz: What is the best way to pick a financial advisor to make sure they don’t make off with all your retirement money? I don’t want Bernie Madoff handling my retirement savings.

Answer: Even if you turn over day-to-day investment decisions to an advisor, you should make sure your money is invested at an independent custodian such as a nationally known brokerage or mutual fund company. That won’t immunize you from fraud, but Ponzi schemes are a lot harder to pull off when there’s third-party oversight.

Returns that are too good to be true, investments that you don’t understand or pressure from an advisor to invest are other red flags for fraud.

Protecting yourself from fraud is important, but so is protecting yourself from bad or conflicted advice. You need to check out any advisor thoroughly. Ask about experience, credentials and other qualifications. Find out how they get paid. Fee-only advisors are compensated only by the fees their clients pay and don’t accept any commissions for recommending products. Fee-based advisors, by contrast, may accept fees and commissions.

Your advisor should be willing to sign a fiduciary oath to put your interests first. That’s not currently required. Advisors can put you in expensive or underperforming investments just because those options pay them higher commissions and there’s little legal recourse for investors unless they can prove that the investments were clearly unsuitable for their situation.

Starting next year, advisors will be held to a fiduciary standard when counseling clients about retirement funds. There’s no reason you should wait for that rule to kick in, though. You can download a copy of a fiduciary oath for your advisor to sign at www.thefiduciarystandard.org.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Pile of Credit CardsToday’s top story: What yo look for in a credit card for bad credit. Also in the news: How to decide whether you should save, invest, or pay off student loans, how to spend less money in your 20s, and why next year’s tax refund might be late.

What to Look for in a Credit Card for Bad Credit
Pay close attention to fees.

Should I Save, Invest or Pay off Student Loans?
Using your money wisely.

10 Ways to Spend Less in Your 20s
The more you can save the better.

Adjust Your Withholding Now Because Next Year’s Tax Refund Might Be Late
Be prepared to wait.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

imagesToday’s top story: Simple ways to teach your kids about money. Also in the news: Investing tips for those in their 20s, the best things about buying a house in the fall, and why you should look at frugality as a method instead of a lifestyle.

Simple Ways to Teach Your Children About Money
It’s never too early to start.

5 Investing Tips for Your 20s
Taking the longview.

The 7 Best Things About Buying a House in the Fall
Timely tax deductions.

Think of frugality as a method, not a lifestyle, to avoid wasting your time
It’s not just about saving money.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

homebuyerToday’s top story: How to get the most for your old phone. Also in the news: Why starter homes are becoming a thing of the past, five surprising things that could leave you poor, and how to invest your way to a million dollars.

How to Sell Your Old Phone
Because a newer version is always right around the corner.

Why ‘Starter Homes’ Aren’t What They Used to Be
Starter homes are becoming a relic of the past.

5 Surprising Things That Could Leave You Poor
Start with the company you keep.

How to Invest Your Way to $1 Million
The tiny things add up quickly.

Q&A: Dealing with a big lottery win

Dear Liz: My brother-in-law won a good chunk of money playing the lottery. He is waiting for the check to come any day now. He is willing to give me $2 million. The question for you is how I can maximize that amount of money short term or long term?

Answer: If your brother-in-law has any sense at all, he’ll realize he shouldn’t have promised any gifts before he assembled a team of professional advisors. And they almost certainly will have a dim view of him giving you a seven-figure sum.

Handouts that large have gift tax consequences. Anything over the annual exemption amount, which this year is $14,000 per recipient, has to be reported on a gift tax return. Amounts over $14,000 count against his lifetime exemption limit, which is $5.45 million this year. Once that limit is exceeded, he’ll owe substantial tax on any gifts.

Also, the $5.45-million limit is for gift and estate taxes combined. Any part of the exemption he uses during his lifetime for gifts won’t be available to shield his estate from estate taxes when he dies. Although, given his apparent generosity, he may not have enough left at his death to trigger an estate tax.

It’s not uncommon for those who receive large windfalls to wind up broke, especially if the amount is much larger than they’re used to handling. More than a few professional athletes and lottery winners have wound up in bankruptcy court. They spend or give away money at a clip that simply isn’t sustainable.

Which may be the road down which your brother-in-law has started. You can take advantage of your relative’s ignorance by holding him to his pledge or you can do the right thing, which is to encourage him to hire fee-only advisors — including a CPA, an estate-planning attorney and a comprehensive financial planner who’s willing to sign a fiduciary oath — to help him deal with this windfall.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: When hybrid long-term care insurance makes sense. Also in the news: How to tell whether your credit card authorized user could become a problem, what pro athletes can teach us about retirement planning, and the 7 habits of highly effective investors.

When Hybrid Long-Term Care Insurance Makes Sense
Planning for the future.

7 Ways to Tell Whether Your Credit Card Authorized User Will Be a Problem
Proceed with caution.

What Pro Athletes Can Teach Us About Retirement Planning
Living below your means can protect your future.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Investors
Using your money wisely.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Image9Today’s top story: The best way to invest $5,000. Also in the news: How a credit card helps with building credit, the life-and-death financial decision you don’t want to think about, and apps to help lazy people save money.

The Best Ways to Invest $5,000
Putting your money to work.

Building Credit? How a Credit Card ‘Gets You There Faster’
One way to build credit.

The Life-and-Death Financial Decision You Don’t Want to Think About
Life insurance is essential.

These Apps Are the Perfect Money Saving Tool For Lazy People
No more excuses.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to start investing. Also in the news: Inexpensive online money management classes, social media scams to watch out for, and why your busted March Madness bracket isn’t all bad news.

New to Investing? 4 Steps to Get You Started
Putting your money to work.

Your Guide to Inexpensive Online Money Management Classes
You can’t afford not learning how to manage your money.

3 social media money scams you need to watch out for
If it sounds too good to be true…

Your March Madness Gambling Losses Could Soften the Blow of Tax Season
Your busted bracket isn’t a total disaster.

Q&A: Saving and investing for a child

Dear Liz: I recently got a court judgment for my daughter’s father to pay me child support. She is 1 year old, and it will be about $1,500 a month. I would like this money to be a gift for her when she is older. I’m told not to put it in her name now, as it may hurt her chance for financial aid for college later. How do you recommend I save and invest it for her? I’d like her to have it when she is a young adult.

Answer: This could be quite a gift for a young woman. If the money earned a 5% average annual return over time, you could be presenting her with a check for half a million dollars.

Consider putting at least some of the money in a 529 college savings plan. Withdrawals from these plans are tax-free when used to pay qualified college expenses. College savings plans receive favorable treatment in financial aid formulas because they’re considered an asset of the contributor (typically the parent), rather than the child.

Book giveaway: “Juggling with Knives”

JugglingKnivesI’m giving away two copies of my friend Jim Jubak’s new book, “Juggling with Knives: Smart Investing in the Coming Age  of Volatility.” This book arrives at the perfect time, as you can see from this description on Amazon:

Stunning volatility is the new “fact of life” that defines our age. Financial markets fall off cliffs one day, but then stage a recovery the next, only to do it all over again. The switch back and forth is emotionally draining, making us susceptible to irrational responses that can turn manageable problems into huge personal crises. But while there is danger in volatility, there is also the opportunity to profitably juggle the knives that volatility throws your way—with less risk than you might think.

To enter to win, leave a comment here on my blog (not my Facebook page). Make sure to include your email address, which won’t show up with your comment, but I’ll be able to see it.

All comments are moderated. So it may take a little while for your comment to show up. But rest assured, it will.

The winners will be chosen at random Friday night. Over the weekend, please check your email (including your spam filter). If I don’t hear from a winner by noon Pacific time on Monday, his or her prize will be forfeited and I’ll pick another winner.

Also, check back here often for other giveaways.

The deadline to enter is midnight Pacific time on Friday. So–comment away!