Q&A: How to protect an elderly widower from financial predators

Dear Liz: Our mother recently died after a long illness. Our father is in his 70s and is getting a lot of attention from ladies at his church and the senior center. We’re concerned because of a pattern we’ve seen in other families, where the widower remarries and the new wife convinces him that his kids are only after his money. When he dies, she gets everything. The kids and grandkids are left out in the cold. We love our dad and don’t want him to think we’re gold diggers. We also don’t want someone to take our father from us and take advantage of him. What can we do?

Answer: If your father is willing to consider it, an irrevocable trust could go a long way toward protecting his assets from avaricious future wives and any number of other financial predators, including scam artists and unethical financial advisors. The trust could continue to pay income to him while allowing the underlying assets to be transferred at his death to the heirs he chooses now, when his judgment is presumably not impaired.

This is not a do-it-yourself project. Transferring assets to an irrevocable trust could create a gift tax issue for your dad. An attorney who specializes in trusts will have to carefully craft the language to avoid that, Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell said.

The problem may be convincing your dad that he’s vulnerable to impaired judgment. Although our financial decision-making abilities peak in our 50s and our cognitive abilities decline fairly rapidly after age 70, our confidence in our abilities continues to rise as we get older.

Financial literacy expert Lewis Mandell likens it to driving ability. Other research has shown that older drivers often don’t perceive their driving skills as deteriorating, despite declines in sensory ability that come with aging, said Mandell, author of the book “What to Do When I Get Stupid: A Radically Safe Approach to a Difficult Financial Era.”

But the same research found that when the drivers took an objective test that demonstrated their decrease in skill, they were more willing to alter their driving behavior to reduce the probability of accidents.

It may help to have a third party, such as a fee-only financial planner or an estate planning attorney, talk to your dad about the importance of protecting his assets at this stage in his life.

If that effort fails and he marries the type of woman you fear, try to remain in his life, no matter what. She may try to pick fights with you and then demand he take her side as a way of isolating him. Avoid conflict where possible and maintain contact with regular calls, letters and visits. It will be harder for her to demonize you if you remain a constant, loving presence in his life.

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  1. Dan haueter says

    As to the children who worry their widowed 70 year old father will marry a money grubbing church lady – I say butt out kids. 70 is young today (I am 67 and in great shape). If I were dad, I’d stay away from older church ladies – go online and find a 21 year old fox. Then I would spend every last cent on her and the good life. If anything is left I would leave it to my favorite charity.

    On the serious side, my 70 year old uncle cared for his wife who suffered from cancer for several years until her death. Thereafter he met a wonderful women at church and they were happily married for thirty years more. Both had grown married children and substantial assets. Both sets of children sugggested a pre-nuptial agreement which I prepared for my uncle (I am a lawyer) and it was reviewed by her attorney (very important), and we all signed off on it. This is one way to go go. The children might suggest that dad ask any potential wife if she is willing to sign such a pre-nup, as test of her true love for him. I personally think pre-nups are a bad way to start a marriage because they anticipate the likelihood that the marriage will not be successful. I understand the Catholic Church officially disapproves of them for this reason.

    But I digress. Back to my uncle and new aunt, during their long remarriage they spent most of their money on vacations and other fun experiences, and upon their deaths left all of their separate assets to the church. Their kids received my uncle’s WW2 medals and my aunt’s doll collection.