Q&A: Dementia and financial accounts

Dear Liz: You recently discussed the importance of adding spouses to financial accounts before one of them dies to make it easier for the surviving spouse. I wholeheartedly agree. I would add that this needs to be done sooner rather than later. If one of the spouses is diagnosed with dementia, the bank will likely not make changes to accounts. People have to be able to understand what they are signing.

Answer: That’s an excellent point. Another important task is to create powers of attorney for healthcare and finances. These allow someone else to make decisions for you if you are incapacitated. Someone in the early stages of dementia could sign such a document if they understand what it is, but otherwise the family might have to go to court to get a conservatorship, which can be an expensive process.

Q&A: How to find an accountant and a financial planner

Dear Liz: Can you offer advice on finding the right accountant for someone doing taxes for the first time after divorce? My husband always handled this. Also, same question for a financial planner for a newly divorced person? It’s all so overwhelming.

Answer: It is, and you’re smart to reach out for help.

You might consider hiring a personal financial specialist. This is a designation earned by CPAs who handle not just taxes but financial planning as well.

A CPA-PFS is a fiduciary, which means they’re committed to putting your best interests first. Also, many are working virtually now because of the pandemic, so you should be able to find several candidates to interview even if you live in a more remote area. You can start your search at the website of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

Q&A: When your spouse dies, there are immediate financial steps to take. Here’s a checklist

Dear Liz: What financial steps need to be taken right after your spouse dies?

Answer: Your attorney or accountant may have detailed checklists to guide you through the many tasks involved. In general, though, you’ll be settling the estate, notifying appropriate parties, signing up for any benefits and shutting down potential identity theft.

To start:

Get 10 to 12 certified copies of the death certificate (ask the funeral home for these).
Find any estate planning documents, such as a will or a living trust, to start the process of settling the estate. That may require opening a probate case at the county courthouse.
If you don’t already have an estate planning or probate attorney, consider hiring one for help.
Contact your spouse’s employer about any life insurance or retirement benefits, such as a 401(k) or pension.
File a claim if your spouse had life insurance.
Call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 to ask about survivor benefits. If you and your spouse were already receiving Social Security benefits, one payment ends at your spouse’s death, and you’ll get the larger of the two checks from now on.
If your spouse served in the military, contact the Veterans Administration to inquire about additional benefits.
Cancel your spouse’s health insurance.
Contact banks, brokerages, lenders and credit card companies to inform them of the death and close accounts or transfer them to your name alone.
Notify the three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
Delete or memorialize social media accounts.
There are a few things to avoid as well. A big one: Don’t give away money or assets prematurely. These may be needed to settle the estate or you may want more time to make good decisions. If you’re getting pressure from family members or anyone else, refer them to your attorney.

Be careful about making big changes, such as moving or selling a home, in the next year or so because grief can impair your decision-making abilities.

Don’t try to do all this yourself. Let the attorney assist with estate-settling tasks and hire a tax pro to file your spouse’s final tax return. Also, consider talking to a fee-only financial planner. You may have options for payouts from retirement accounts, life insurance and Social Security, for example, and your choices could dramatically affect your future standard of living.

Q&A: Now is a good time to get a financial tuneup. Here’s how

Dear Liz: I’m hoping you could provide recommendations, referrals or tips on how to help me manage my money. I’m seeking a financial planner who can help me pay my bills on time, learn to budget and pay off credit card debt.

Answer: When you’re struggling with the basics, a financial fitness coach or an accredited financial counselor may be a better fit than a financial planner.

Financial coaches and counselors specialize in budgeting, debt management, retirement planning and creating better money habits in general. Coaches and counselors in private practice typically charge $100 to $150 an hour, although many work on a sliding scale, said Rebecca Wiggins, executive director of the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education, which grants both credentials.

These accredited financial professionals also are employed by the military, credit unions and other organizations to provide services for free or low cost. You can start your search at https://www.afcpe.org/.

Q&A: How deposit insurance limits work

Dear Liz: My parents, who are in their 80s, just moved and are about to sell their former home. Their net gain from the sale will be approximately $400,000. I am advocating they put this money in a high-yield savings account as capital preservation is key. I know an individual account is insured by the FDIC for up to $250,000. But if we set it up so they are joint account holders, would the FDIC insurance limit on that one account rise to $500,000?

Answer: Yes. The FDIC insures up to $250,000 per depositor, per institution and per ownership category. Ownership categories include single accounts, joint accounts, certain retirement accounts such as IRAs, revocable trust accounts and irrevocable trust accounts, among others. Each depositor in a joint savings account is covered up to $250,000, so a couple would have $500,000 of coverage.

Q&A: Setting up nieces and nephews for success

Dear Liz: This is a little unorthodox, but I’m hoping you can help. I have six nieces and nephews from my various brothers and sisters. They range in age from babies to teenagers. When they get older, I want to be able to assist them with therapy sessions — not because I think their parents will mess them up, but because I believe mental health is important to success. I imagine telling them about this fund when they are about 18 or so, so I’d need money I can access in five to 10 years. How should I start saving for this? What accounts should I use? Should I open one account for each of them, and how can I manage this the best way for my taxes?

Answer: Custodial accounts could save money on taxes, but the money would become entirely theirs at a certain point (typically age 18 or 21) and you would lose control over what they did with it. You could hire an attorney to draft trusts that would have more restrictions, but that will cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to set up and administer.

The simplest solution would be to set up one or more accounts in your own name that you’ve earmarked for this purpose. You would pay taxes on any interest, dividends and capital gains accrued, but you would maintain control of the money and it wouldn’t affect the children’s ability to get financial aid in college.

Keeping control also gives you the flexibility to use the money for another purpose, in case your young relatives don’t need or want therapy. Mental health challenges — although widespread — aren’t universal. A survey funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found 46% of adults had a psychiatric disorder at some time in the past, and one-quarter had experienced a problem in the previous year. The most common disorders were major depression (17%), alcohol abuse (13%) and social anxiety disorder (12%).

If you’re concerned about their success and want to help with money they’re even more likely to need, consider funding 529 college savings plans. The money can grow tax-deferred and be used tax-free at virtually any post-secondary school in the U.S., as well as some abroad. You can maintain control and have the flexibility to move money to other beneficiaries, or to withdraw it at any time (although you’d pay penalties and taxes on any earnings).

Q&A: Mysterious bank charge needs investigating

Dear Liz: The other day I went to my credit union to withdraw $1,000 to pay for my sister’s burial. The bank teller kept $90 and gave me only $910. Is that done when a person withdraws cash from a bank account? I got very angry and complained to the manager of the bank, but to no avail. He did not do anything to try and get my money for me. I am a low-income senior citizen and appreciate any kind of advice you could give me.

Answer: It’s hard to imagine any legitimate bank fee that would take almost 10% of a cash withdrawal. In any case, the manager should have been able to explain why the money was taken. If the teller stole the money from you and the manager simply didn’t believe you, calling the police may have been an option. A count of the teller’s till might have revealed the discrepancy.

Consider returning to the credit union with a friend as a witness and asking the manager to explain why the teller kept $90 from your withdrawal. If the explanation doesn’t satisfy you, you can lodge a complaint with the credit union’s regulator. The National Credit Union Assn. regulates federal credit unions and can be found at NCUA.gov. For a state-chartered credit union, contact your state’s financial services regulator.

Q&A: A gift annuity needs more thought

Dear Liz: I am 93 and caretaker of my developmentally disabled daughter, who is 64. She’s in poor health and lives with me but is still able to be fairly independent. I am in good health and still able to drive and so forth. Being newly widowed, I would like to increase my monthly income. I have a reverse mortgage on my home but need money for upkeep. Besides Social Security, I have a small savings account and an annuity payment of less than $500 a month. Do you think a gift annuity that pays 9.5% is a good option?

Answer: A charitable gift annuity typically requires that you give a charity a sizable sum of cash, securities or other assets in exchange for a partial tax deduction and a lifetime stream of income. The amount that’s paid out depends in large part on your age — the older you are, the bigger the payout since your life expectancy is shorter.

Gift annuities may be a good fit for affluent people with charitable intent who can use the tax deduction. From what you’ve written, that doesn’t seem to describe you. If you do have a sizable sum you can tap, it may be better to do so directly rather than involving a charity.

You could benefit from some objective guidance, not just for improving your own financial situation but to provide for your daughter. She may be in poor health, but she still could outlive you and almost certainly will need ongoing support. That probably will include a new place to live, because the reverse mortgage will have to be repaid at your death, and that typically means the sale of the home.

A fee-only financial planner can help review your situation and connect you with other experts, such as an estate planning attorney. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors at www.napfa.org and the Garrett Planning Network at www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Q&A: What to do when your bank gets picky about accepting a power of attorney

Dear Liz: My husband’s brother had a stroke and is now incapacitated. My husband needs to take over his finances. The bank will not accept the durable power of attorney that they set up 14 years ago because it is “too old.” Another bank asked me if it was set up less than six months ago, because that would avoid problems. How can you do the right thing if there are so many obstacles?

Answer: Banks and other financial institutions have gotten so persnickety about accepting powers of attorney that some states have passed laws forcing them to do so — and yet people still report having problems, even in those states!

Many institutions want you to use their own forms, which may not be possible once someone is incapacitated. Even if the person is willing to fill out the form before the fact, using a financial institution’s power of attorney can create problems if the language in those forms contradicts the person’s other estate planning documents. Then there’s the sheer hassle factor, especially if the person has accounts at multiple banks and brokerages.

You may be able to break through this logjam by hiring an attorney to contact the bank. You can get referrals to lawyers experienced in this issue from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.