Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Six Steps to a 'phased-in' retirement. Start negotiating now.

"Retirement is not in my vocabulary. They aren't going to get rid of me that way." - Betty White American actress, comedian, singer and author (1922 -   ).

Retirement fact: Six out of 10 older Americans want a phased-in retirement while only 13 percent of employers have a program to allow that to happen.
If I could have had it all my way, I would have gradually moved from full-time employment into that something else place that we call retirement.
Instead, my work mates hosted an office farewell party with cake and lots of well wishes as I went cold-turkey out the door with an “early buyout” in hand. It was a deal that many in my newsroom over the age of 60 had already accepted.
In hindsight, I should have negotiated a gradual glide path to the end of the job I’d held for more than 25 years. But my employer had no plan for that so I took the buyout and left.
It was scary. Giving up a regular paycheck with a 401(k) match took my breath away but I'm  risk taker and it seemed like the right move. Four years later, it still does. The fact is that I didn’t retire. I work from home as a professional journalist with a bunch of clients. I balance time at my desk with family, travel and work on my 20-acre property. Yes, my income is half what it was before I left the job but I'm doing nicely, thank you. Get the idea?
However, it would have been financially better for me if I could have waited at least until my "full retirement age" at 66 (as determined by Social Security) before I started tapping monthly retirement benefits to bolster my income. It would have been better if I’d not had to draw money out of my long-term savings account to help my Rollover IRA get where it needed to be. But that's what I did and I'm OK with it.
(Ironically for many, the five years from age 60 to age 65 when Medicare kicks in or 66 when Social Security says you're at full retirement age can be tricky. I often wished that I were older.)
Now, plenty of older American women are hoping to phase into retirement just as I wished that I had. Something like six out of 10 want that gradual adjustment with fewer work hours, continued health insurance coverage and more time to build up the nest egg before starting Social Security or tapping into savings.
The bad news, according to a Society of Human Resource Management report, is that few employers (only 13 percent) offer workers such a phased-in retirement opportunity.
There’s hope that things are changing as the economy continues to recover and employers gain more flexibility in how they let go of valued (higher-paid) long-time employees. A recent change in federal employment regulations may help.
New rules (starting in November 2014) allow workers to move to a 20- hour work week, receive half their pay but also start receiving half their retirement annuity. In other words, their take-home income doesn't change even though their work hours are cut in half.
It may be a bit more complicated in private industry but it seems to me that there are incentives for employers to set up such programs. This year, the last of the baby boomers are turning 50. A work place brain drain could gain momentum.
With a phased retirement program, employers can gradually allow long-time employees to hand off their knowledge and expertise to younger workers and at the same time reduce their payroll costs.
At bankrate.com, writers analyze five factors that can affect your phased retirement planning: Pensions distributions, health insurance coverage restrictions, scheduling flexibility, profit-sharing incentives and Social Security issues.
A survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that 65 percent of baby boomers plan to work past age 65 (or do not plan to retire) and just 21 percent expect to immediately stop working when they retire.
Negotiating your retirement
If you are an older worker looking ahead to retirement, it likely will be up to you negotiate a plan. Here’ are tips from the retirement studies center:
No. 1 Plan to do your homework. What will a part-time employment plan look like for you? Can you avoid taking Social Security benefits? Are your household expenses in line with a reduction in household income? Can you let your 401(k) nest egg grow a few more years? A one-time visit to a fee-for-service financial planner might help.
No. 2 Network. What’s going on in your industry? What are your employment opportunities beyond your current job? Are you meeting new people who might have a need for your skills?
No. 3 Keep your skills up. This may mean taking a class on social media or staying up to speed in your area of professional expertise or acquiring new skills. Do you know how to use Twitter, Instagram?
No. 4 Preserve your health. As we age, it is important to manage our health by staying fit, seeing your physician and staying on top of any chronic problems.
No. 5 Have a back up plan. Set up an emergency fund in case you are forced into retirement sooner than expected for reasons of ill health, job loss, family obligations. Do not assume your employer will go along with your phased-in plan or that health problems might interfere. Plan for the unplanned.
No. 6 Talk confidentially to your HR department. A phased retirement plan may mean negotiating with your employer. While baby boomers have intentions of transitioning from full- to part-time work, their employer may not have a program to accommodate such a change. Be the first to talk about it. Make sure your job-performance ratings are top notch and that you are in a good position to negotiate a workable plan.
“Baby boomers who are envisioning a transition into retirement that involves working should do a reality check whether their current employer will support them,” says Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. “The best intentions to continue working and fully retire at an older age can be easily derailed with a lack of planning.” Collinson said. Job No. 1 is to be proactive.
As for my own semi-retirement, I now work at my own pace, sometimes in my bathrobe. I have fewer work-related expenses --- gasoline, clothes, lunches out, networking. I have more time for family and for travel. I go to a lot fewer meetings. I write about stuff that is interesting to me. Life is good.
For more online resources:
LifeReimagined.com, click here.
RetirementJobs.com, click here.
Encore.org, click here
RetiredBrains.com, click here.
WhatsNext.com, click here.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Lauren Bacall's 'By Myself," still resonates

"I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that." - Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)
Lauren Bacall wrote her original autobiography, "By Myself," in 1978. I read it soon after at a time in my own life when I was in transition and was much more interested in Hollywood than I am now.
Her recent death at age 89 prompted me to search out the book, which I've hauled around with me since. I remembered liking "By Myself" 30 years ago. In rereading it, I still do because it's a real story, honest, if not brutally honest about her life from the time she met and married Humphrey Bogart in 1945, her life with him, her children and the ultimate crushing loss when he died of cancer in 1957. Her story just gets started. Widowed in her early 30s, Bacall must find her way as a single mother of two young children and keep some kind of a career going (code for earn a living). She turned to her friends for support, some married, some not. Some reached out and included her, others couldn't handle her singlehood. Frank Sinatra had been a close friend of Bogie and became her close friend. But the relationship was on and then off.
Bacall describes what grief did to her early on. The desperate pain of loss, the slow realization that life alone was all about conversations with yourself, by yourself.
She writes, "People always ask what you'd change if you had your life to live over again. I wouldn't change a lot of the unhappy times because then I would miss something wonderful. But I would change like a flash--me during it -- how I behaved with Stephan and Leslie (her kids), either short-tempered or over-affectionate --avoiding everything I could that had to do with Bogie, with my past life -- my insane desire to get out of my house. As if that could erase anything."
This was the 1960s before modern support groups, online counseling and social media. Before ModernWidowsClub.com.
It was Bacall talking to her mother late at night, talking with her friends over dinner. Trying to find her way. It was tough. But this is no tear-jerker.
Bacall writes in a self-critical way that draws you in as a fellow traveler. She looks back on her grief, her transition out of Hollywood back to New York, her recovery. She brings you along on a journey that's interesting for her candor about mistakes, about friends who dropped her and about men.
She marries again in 1961. This time to Jason Robards, among the most talented American stage actors of his time. Robards also was an alcoholic, which eventually destroyed the relationship and resulted in divorce in 1969. From that marriage, Bacall bore another child. She accepted the end of her marriage to Robards as inevitable because of his drinking.
Bacall describes herself as a "risk taker" and went to Broadway first in "Cactus Flower" in 1965, "Applause" in 1970 and "Woman of the Year" in 1981. She won Tonys for Applause and Woman of the Year. In 1976, she co-starred with John Wayne in his last movie, The Shootist."
About personal lessons learned?
"The lesson of Bogie I had finally put into practice: In the face of inevitable, terrible happenings, how much better to hold on to one's character and hurt others as little as possible. The straight road," she said.
On who she was: "I've finally discovered," she said, "that you really don't learn from past mistakes. You do logically, reasonably, but emotionally, not for a second. I didn't mean to waste one more minute. Patience was still not my strong suit."
On losing someone you love: "The knowledge of death being part of life's cycle helps not at all. There is no way to prepare for the darkness of that pit of despair, that gaping hole that remains empty and gnaws constantly like an open nerve."
On working: "Work is essential to me -- really using myself, really functioning, body and mind at their best -- but it only heightens my emotional needs, it doesn't lessen them."
Bacall went on to write again. "Now," in 1994 and "By Myself and Then Some," in 2005. I've not read either but will have to track them down.
On widowhood: "I had to get out from under being "Bogart's widow." That was not a profession, after all -- and there would be no hope of a new beginning unless I fought for one."
On being a single woman: "A woman along can't win with wives. It's a problem I've had all my single life, and there's no way to fight it."
In the flurry of news about Lauren Bacall's death, there was little coverage beyond her Hollywood celebrity days, her marriage to Humphrey Bogart. The comments were about her beauty, her chiseled looks and smoky eyes. Nothing was said about her books, about her Broadway work. One minute summaries don't allow for much. I remembered liking Bacall's "By Myself," for her storytelling, her candor and the rough patches and how she managed them. Still do.
She finished her book this way: "I don't like everything I know about myself, and I'll never be satisfied, but nobody's perfect. I'm not sure where the next years will take me---what they will hold-- but I'm open to suggestions."
Thank you, Lauren Bacall for putting a voice to what many women experience in the circle of life.
For comment on her life by Betsy Sharkey in the LA Times, "Appreciation: Lauren Bacall's Voice resonated with Women," click here.

Other personal writing by talented women:
"Knock Wood," by Candice Bergen about growing up with her vantriloquist father Edgar Bergen.
"The Year of Magical Thinking," by Joan Didion after the death of her husband.
"Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.," by Anne Lamott.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Social Security: What you need to know, now

"I was too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security and too tired for an affair."
         - Erma Bombeck, American humorist (1927-1996)

5 Social Security Tips
1. Set up a secure personal account at www.socialsecurity.gov.
2. Know your numbers. You may want to “wait to take” benefits.
3. Look into spousal and survivor benefits if you are divorced or widowed.
4. Social Security eligibility applies to same-sex couples, if they live in states that recognize the union.
5. Before making a decision about Social Security, consider your health, income and tax issues to maximize lifetime benefits for you and your spouse.

Retirement planning is only one of several reasons why women should create an online account at www.socialsecurity.gov and find out more about what benefits could come their way from the federal Social Security Administration.
My friend Alan Edwards, Social Security public affairs specialist in Portland, Ore. emphasizes that "Social Security is so much more than just a retirement plan. As you pay your FICA taxes on earnings during you working life you are preparing for retirement. But you also are buying life insurance and disability insurance,” he says.
There may be variables related to your age, your marital status, other personal circumstances and your physical health that could affect how and when you may receive benefits. For example:
   - If you are widowed and disabled, you may be eligible for survivor benefits on your deceased husband’s work record as early as age 50.
   - If you are divorced but were married to someone for 10 years or more, you may be eligible for a benefit on your ex-spouse’s work record. That’s if you are 62 or older and have not remarried. If they have died, you may be eligible for survivor benefits.
   - As a married couple, you may be able to maximize your Social Security benefits by having one of you claim on the other’s work record while your spouse files but suspends benefits until age 70.
Avoiding Social Security surprises
“The No. 1 and most important thing for people to know about Social Security is their ‘numbers,’” Edwards said. “It’s essential that people know what benefits they are eligible for and how they are calculated. Women are often surprised that their work record may not qualify them for benefits or that their benefits are lower than expected.
The minimum work requirement for Social Security is 10 years but it’s your lifetime of work -- the highest 35 years of earnings -- that Social Security looks at to determine your benefit
To figure all this out, Social Security offers an online calculator that tells you what your monthly benefit will be depending on when you start taking a payout. Again, this is worth checking out because the longer you wait, the more your benefit will increase up to age 70.
For example: If you monthly full retirement benefit at age at 66 is $1,021, it is reduced by 25 percent to $766 month, if you start benefits at age 62. Benefits jump to $1,669 if you wait to age 70 (or an 8 percent a year increase for each year you wait beyond your full retirement age). It’s important to know your numbers, Edwards said.
Benefits based on marriage
Calculating benefits based on marriage is among the more complex areas of Social Security planning. Depending on whether your ex-spouse is alive and has filed for benefits or is deceased and whether you are single or remarried are factors in what benefits you might claim on an ex-spouse’s work record.
“Depending on your own work record and earnings as well as your age, you may be eligible for up to half of the benefit of an ex-spouse,” Edwards said. “If your ex-spouse is deceased, there’s a survivor’s benefit.”
Edwards agrees that figuring out benefits related to a divorced ex-spouse is confusing but it’s worth sorting out. If you are disabled or if the ex-spouse dies, for instance, you may qualify for certain benefits on his or her work record.
“We encourage people to check back in with us if something in their life changes,” he said. “It’s important to screen for all types of benefits. We look at the situation and then evaluate what’s out there.”
Online tools
The biggest change about Social Security in the past few years is that everything has moved to the Internet. The agency no longer mails out annual benefits estimates but instead asks Americans to create their own secure online account where they can get up-to-date information on their estimated retirement benefits and work record.
Even though retirement may be a long way off, it’s a good idea to check the account to make sure no one is committing fraud by using your Social Security number to collect benefits or to work using your number, Edwards said.
“You can easily see estimates for each benefit category and at the same time you get a lot of good information about programs in a simplified format without hunting all over the place,” he said. “If you’re already receiving benefits but still working part-time, it’s important to make sure those earnings are posted correctly. If it looks like someone is using your Social Security number, contact us immediately.”
Low-income people can use their Social Security account to verify benefits for purposes of applying for subsidized housing, for energy assistance or veteran’s services. Through the online account, you can print out your personal verification of benefits letter to help qualify for these services.
Same sex couples benefits
With the federal U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year on same-sex marriages, there is no federal ban on Social Security paying benefits to same-sex couples, Edwards said.
“We may not be able to process applications in some states because of state law but there’s no ban on benefits,” Edwards said. “It depends on where they were married and where they now reside. We defer to the state on marriage and divorce action so same-sex marriage legality is still state by state.”
Meanwhile, those turning 65 must sign up for Medicare through the Social Security Web site at www.socialsecurity.gov. Even if your full-retirement age for receiving benefits is 66 or 67, Medicare eligibility sign-up is required at 65.
“Your really don’t want to get caught without it since there are penalties,” Edwards said.
Meanwhile, knowing how much your Social Security benefit will be is an important part of the retirement planning puzzle.
And don’t rely on friends or even financial planners and investment advisers to have all the Social Security ins and outs, Edwards said. Each situation is different and what might work for your cousin may not be the correct formula or the right strategy for you. Social Security was never intended to be your only source of income when you retire but it certainly is a key factor in your planning.
With Baby Boomers celebrating their 65th birthdays and attending their 50th high school class reunions, it’s no surprise that the Social Security Administration is processing 10,000 retirement applications a day.
For more:
Helpful Web siteswww.socialsecurity.gov for benefits, planning information.
www.aarp.org  Social Security calculator.
www.wife.org for retirement planning for women.
www.bedrockcapital.com click on SSAnalyze.
www.kiplinger.com Strategies to boost your Social Security.
www.fidelity.com Social Security tips for couples.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Antiques and collectible trends: No one wants my brown furniture

“I call it guerilla TV.”   - Marsha Bemko Producer of Antiques Roadshow
"My mom decorated with lots of antiques. I never liked it when I was a little girl - I wanted to live in a modern house. But now I love it." - Paris Hilton

Lately PBS’s Antiques Roadshow has been doing what it calls “vintage” episodes where appraisals made on the show 10 or 15 years ago are revalued in the current post-Recessionary resale market. Often times the values have declined.
No surprise.
It turns out that our children and certainly our grandchildren are absolutely not interested in grandmother’s mahogany bureau with the cute pull-down writing table, interior slots for envelopes and stationery and storage drawers. For them, a piece of dark brown desk furniture makes no sense in a world of IKEA, laptops and Facebook.
Never mind that Paris Hilton has had a change of heart.
Unfortunately, that mahogany bureau has sentimental value for me. I picture my grandmother sitting next to it in her small living room while doing her latest embroidery project. My house is full of that kind of stuff – furniture, table clothes, cut crystal and a few of my grandmother’s quilts and needle work. There's a lot of emotional baggage tied up in this stuff. I wonder a lot about what I’m going to do with it all. In conversations with friends, we ask each other the same question. Then we laugh and shrug. What ARE we going to do with our stuff when we downsize?
Following the trends
In July, Portland, Ore. hosts one of the biggest, if not the biggest antique and collectible show in the U.S. The event at the city’s EXPO Center attracts 1,400 vendors and 16,000 visitors over two days. Everything is on display from antique woodworking tools to wind-up clocks, vintage jewelry to movie posters and neon lights. Christine Palmer of Portland-based Palmer & Associates has been part of show for the past 30 years and now owns the show promotion and production business. Here’s what she told me.
Collectibles and antiques evoke a childhood memory of something we experienced or something we wish we had owned. For me those memory-triggers include Western art, cowboy lamps, pictures of horses and for some reason that I don’t understand, tin toy motorcycles and cobalt blue glassware. I’ve collected them for years.
But like everything else, the antique-collectible business is changing as the baby boomer generation approaches retirement. The last of us turn 50 this year. With all the downsizing yet to come that prized family heirloom may have turned into (I hate to say it) junk. Sorry, baby boomers.
What's not in demand
According to Palmer and others, glassware -- those crystal goblets your mother or grandmother so lovingly placed on their Thanksgiving dinner tables – is less collectible and less valuable. No one is buying formal glassware because no one is hosting a formal Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. No one even wants the formal dining room table.
Upholstered sofas, china hutches, formal dining sets, wood-finished dressers, even pianos have become almost impossible to sell or even give away.
Talk to people like Palmer or read the Wall Street Journal Lifestyle section, which regularly runs articles with headlines like this: “Why the Market for Heirloom and Secondhand Furniture Has Disappeared.”
No one wants "Brown Furniture" reports Alina Dizik in the Wall Street story. Antique oak tables and bedroom sets, Victorian-style mahogany – if it’s brown, forget it.
Who are they buyers?
Palmer said the antique business is alive, but the buyer profile is changing and what they want to buy is evolving. Buyers are 40-year-olds (and younger) who are furnishing their first or second home. They are looking for what the industry calls “mid- 20th Century Casual.” By that we are talking about 1950s dishes in bright colors, '50s and 60s table clothes and other textiles. Younger buyers like decorative outdoor garden items -- the smallish wrought iron table with glass top and two matching chairs. Again, it’s casual not formal or fussy.
In Portland, (near where I live), vintage clothing is popular. By vintage, we’re talking 1930s to the 1970s. That category includes hats, shoes, dresses, jackets and eyewear.
Vintage toys.... G.I. Joe and Star Wars action figures, lunch boxes from the 1980s -- are selling. A generation or two earlier, it was Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger.
In my early years of marriage, I gladly accepted most hand-me-downs from my parents and grandparents…furniture, dishware, sterling silver. It was a way to get started. There was no IKEA or Target or imports from China.
Families ate around a real dinner table separate from the kitchen. Now it’s one big happy free-for-all bar-style meal. Boy, do I sound old-fashioned.
The Age of Consumption is over
The reality is that the collectible business is changing all the time. The big demographic shift under way now has baby boomers downsizing after 50 years of post-World War II consumption. The bad news is that the resale market is glutted with household goods.
Items in the general antique category have lost 50 percent or more of their value since the late 1990s, say some reports. Young families that once bought second-hand furniture or took hand-me-downs, now want new but cheap and sleek imports.
Palmer is confident that Portland’s EXPO Center will continue to host a big show. The antique business, she said, is not dead but in flux. The Internet has certainly been a part of the change; it’s so easy to sell items like dolls, or paper or other small items online. Did you know that some people collect vintage swim suits and make them into wall displays? Vintage office supplies (ala Mad Men) is a fresh collectible this year, according to CountryLiving magazine.

Knowing what to expect
Selling antiques and collectibles can be a fun part-time business in retirement but you’ve got to be prepared to sell online, to sell at shows and to maintain a niche sales display in an “antique mall.” The three-way combination can pay off in revenue with little expense. Meanwhile, the old line antique store is gone.
If you are a baby boomer getting ready to downsize:
- Find out what your kids really want. Don’t be hurt, if they’re not interested in the “priceless” Spode china.
- Network with those in the business. What’s selling, what’s not?  Ask about trends.
- Look at eBayCraigslist and other online sales Web sites to get real about values and prices.
- Go to a few garage sales, estate sales and antique shows. Look at the prices.
- If you decide to have an estate sale, do your homework. I wrote about how to hire an estate sale business in a previous post, click here. Be sure to interview several estate sale business owners before narrowing it down.
- Get real about values of your priceless items. It won’t hurt so badly later when you try to sell it or give them away. Your stuff, especially your brown furniture, may be worth a lot less than you think. Sorry.
For more:
Consumer Reports, click here.
Estate sales, click here.
How to hold a garage sale, click here.
What antiques to collect, click here.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

What the 2014 Second Quarter tells us. The news is good.

"The American people are among the most productive in the world. We have the best technologies. We have great universities. We have entrepreneurs."
                   -  Ben Bernanke, former Fed chairman.

Among the interesting things about living in retirement is the ongoing challenge of managing your money. To do that well --so you can sleep at night -- requires keeping up on market trends, reading business news publications and taking advantage of (free) expert advice available online and face-to-face. Last winter, the folks at Fidelity Investments hosted a local economic outlook seminar where experts explained to a large group of retirees how shifts under way in the U.S. economy might affect stock market sectors in the coming year. Basically, what they said has proved true.
Using 80 years of prior market history, the experts explained that as a bull market moves into its later phases, share price growth shifts from discretionary retail sectors into industrial, manufacturing, energy and construction sectors. That means some of the retail stock darlings of 2013 have become the dogs of 2014 while industrial sector stocks, energy stocks and manufacturing have begun to show life. For example in my region:
Intel Corp. shares were up nearly 20 percent in the second quarter on a stronger outlook for the company’s computer chips. Greenbrier Cos., which makes rail cars in Portland, Ore. saw a share price increase of 18 percent in the second quarter on demand for new rail cars especially “safer” oil tanker cars. In the past six months, the Greenbrier share price has climbed from below $35 a share in January to $67.29. That’s a 52-week high. The company’s stock price is up 208 percent in the past 12 months.
After large gains last year in stock prices in 2013, many wondered if the rally would continue. The second quarter 2014 proved that the bull market still has strength.
Other second quarter winners:
Nike Corp. -  After seeing its stock price fall sharply in January and February, Nike shares have been moving steadily higher since April and are now near a 52-week high of $80 a share.
Hewlett-Packard Co., which at one point was declared dead, has also seen steady stock price improvement since May. At $34 a share, HP is near its 52-week high. Another steady recovery in the second quarter.
Nautilus Corp., the Vancouver-Wash.-based exercise equipment manufacturer, had a great second quarter, with a big jump in share price from $8.50 to more than $11. Again on a positive sales outlook.
A really big Northwest regional winner: Lithia Motors. Stock in the Oregon-based automotive franchise and retailer has been on a tear...up 74 percent this year. Lithia announced plans in June to pay $43 million for a dealership on the East Coast. That gave the stock a big second quarter boost.
Were there losers?
Most of our second quarter stock price losers were in the retail-consumer spending category, which typically loses momentum in the later stages of a bull market. It would be hard to repeat another year of price growth after a strong 2013.
Among our second quarter 2014  losers were:
 - Whole Foods, down 38 percent on weak sales revenue.
 - Staples, down 30 percent.
 - Bed, Bath & Beyond, down 29 percent.
You get the idea. Others in the loser category included Vancouver-based Papa Murphy's Take & Bake Pizza, which was out with an IPO in the second quarter at $12 a share. The price is now $9.50 or so.  Other retail losers included Urban Outfitters, Kohl's, Ross Stores, PetSmart. None of these declines are a surprise to the experts in terms of classic market trends. None of these declines mean that the companies are in trouble. It's just that they can't repeat year-over-year gains.
The outlook?
Meanwhile, the 2014 outlook remains positive, although markets may be more volatile. The U.S. stock market rally, now in its fifth year, is outlasting most bull markets. But the prior recession and bear market sell-off of 2007-2009 was deeper. So everything seems to be balancing out.  Thank you, Ben Bernanke!
Analysts writing in the Wall Street Journal, at Fidelity.com and elsewhere see a stable outlook for corporate revenues through the rest of the year with stock prices, even now, only "slightly above" long-term averages.
Low interest rates and strong corporate profits mean higher dividends and higher stock prices for investors and savers.
Are there risks: Yes....the economies of Japan and China. They both are a big part of the global economy we now live in.
For a second quarter analysis and a list of winners and losers, click here to read a Barron's report.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Why a bank trust may make sense: Questions to ask.

“I had an inheritance from my father,
It was the moon and the sun.
And though I roam all over the world,
The spending of it’s never done.”
 Ernest Hemingway, "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

Editor's note:
Since first writing this piece a few weeks ago, I ran across this chilling story about elder financial abuse published in the Washington Post. The message from the article --- be careful in choosing the person or entity that will manage your money when you are no longer able. Again, a bank trust, which is required by regulatory law may be a better choice than an single individual who has no reporting obligations.  Click here for the Post story

It's been several months since my mother died at age 98 after a rich and fulfilling life. The settlement of her estate is being negotiated by a bank trust manager in her home town who got the job after my mother decided several years ago to put her assets into trust management. It's worked out pretty well.
For a monthly fee -- figured at about 1- to 1.8-percent of her total assets -- the bank has paid my mother's bills, paid her taxes (state and federal), managed her farm property and kept track of her income and investment holdings. Along with this responsibility came a monthly statement from the bank mailed to my mother as well as to her heirs, my sister and to me, showing the prior month's activities.
Now that my mother is gone, the bank also is in charge of settling her estate, which includes the farm and investments portfolio. The process first required an appraisal of the farm property and then negotiations with my sister over whether she wants all or part of the real estate as her half of the inheritance. So far, so good.
Has bank trust management been worth it? I'd say yes.
For those without direct heirs, for those with dysfunctional and special needs family members or for those who just want an outside disinterested professional third-party to manage and then settle their affairs, a bank trust makes sense. The record-keeping and tax-reporting alone have been a plus.
Bank trust managers are bound by regulation to put the interests of the trustee (my mother) first. Bank trust managers consolidated my mother's assets -- investments, annuities, loan debt owed her, real estate holdings -- under one umbrella. The bank paid my mother's expenses in her last years related to her assisted living care. Running the farm took a big burden off of everyone including the renter-farmer.
Over the several years the bank was in charge of my mom's assets, the bank gingerly reshaped my her investment portfolio so risk was more diversified with an emphasis on income and growth. Management was certainly in line with what my mother would have done at an earlier time in her life when she was physically and mentally more able.
As part of the trust responsibility the bank is now settling the estate. Another plus.
Instead of my sister and me trying to add up assets, find documents, arrange a farm appraisal, the bank is doing it. It is acting as a third-party to find an acceptable agreement for my sister. Better the bank than any attempt I could make. While this is taking time...slow progress is better than no progress.
If you are interested in finding out more about bank trusts and the management fees they charge, contact the institution directly and ask for a fee schedule. Often those can be found online. The first question to ask yourself is whether there's enough money-assets in a trust to make bank management cost-effective.
I get the idea that banks are targeting high-net-worth individuals with assets totaling at least $2 million as their prime customers for these services. But certain special circumstances such as a disabled child, may require bank management, which they should be willing to do.
Are there downsides to a bank trust? Sure. Don't expect bank trust managers to be too keen on getting in the middle of a big family fight. They like it when things go along in an orderly way. Bank trust managers are not in the business of setting the world on fire or acting as an unpaid psychologist. Their job is to manage the assets.
Questions to ask when choosing a bank trust department or manager:
1. What is the experience and training of the trust manager?
2. How long has he or she been doing trust work?
3. How comfortable is the person in managing difficult family issues?
4. What kind of services and reporting does the bank provide...monthly, quarterly?
5. What's the fee schedule? Does the bank charge extra for certain additional services? What are those services and fees related to tax preparation etc.?
6. How will the investment portfolio be managed? Will the trustee have input?
7. How available will the trust manager be to family members?
8. What kind of turnover has there been in the trust department office?
9. What happens to my trust if I become mentally incompetent?
10.What language can I put into the trust document that will prevent legal wrangling among my heirs at my death?
My final advice: Before looking into the benefits of a managed bank trust, meet with your family estate-planning attorney for guidance. Your attorney should be well-versed in both estate-planning legal strategies and how those options may apply to your family situation and your heirs.
Like everything else about getting older, things become more complicated. Having gone through the past 10 years of my mother's life, I'm glad she took the steps she did to provide third-party management of her financial and business affairs. Each of us may have unique situations that require an updated will as well as trust directives. This stuff is easy to push off to the future but you do yourself and your heirs a favor by working on it now.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Our aging brains! What to do about them

"This is devastating...he believes that Rachel was helping him. She created a dream state and kept him there." - Brett Hall, attorney for Ralph Raines Jr. quoted in Willamette Week.

By Julia Anderson
Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon, does a darn good job of supplying its readers with edgy news. The recent article, “A Fortune Felled,” is no exception. Writer Kate Willson tells the story of Ralph Raines Jr. who lost his timber-family fortune to a pack of scammers through what investigators call “sweetheart fraud.”
The fraudsters, a mother and daughter plus other co-conspirators, took between $12 million and $20 million from Raines (and his 80-something father) over several years after “befriending” them. Arrests came thanks to an anonymous tip. But by then most of the money had gone into new cars including a $200,000 Ferrari, lavish trips to Las Vegas, rental property purchases and, as they say, thin air.
The story is all too familiar (see earlier sixtyandsingle posts on elder abuse) and raises these questions: What happens to our brains when we get old and why do we lose reasoning capacity that protects us from scammers when we’re younger?
Financial predators show up in many forms. They can be aggressive investment brokers who make a commission every time they sell an annuity or churn an account or caretakers who begin by paying your bills but are soon tapping  checking accounts and selling your house.
Having watched my mother age over the past 20 years before her death earlier this year, I’d say she began to lose it in her mid-80s when two separate brokers sold her annuities, one at $50,000, the other $40,000. In both cases, when questioned later, she did not understand how they worked or why either annuity would benefit her or her heirs. It turns out they didn’t. Meanwhile, both financial advisers earned hefty up-front commissions on the sales. A couple of years later, a family member coerced my mother into writing a $10,000 check to finance a poorly thought-out wrongful firing lawsuit. Of course, the case went no where. My mother was not senile in any obvious way. She sincerely believed that she could still manage, and with most things such as re-upping a CD investment she did. Only when pressured did things slip.
In her 90s she finally sought the help of a bank trust to manage all her assets -- a producing farm and her investments. That allowed her to live her last years in relative peace at the care center in financial security.
Research shows that older women such as my mother are nearly twice a likely to become victims of financial abuse as men, frankly because men die earlier and women are left to fend for themselves.  Family members, friends or neighbors are often the financial abusers.
My mother’s slip-ups were small compared to the Raines’ story.  But every day, every where, the elderly are putting their trust in people who may see them (the elderly person) only as a meal ticket, if not a free trip to Vegas.
Aging brains
So what happens to our brains?
New neuroscientific and psychological research shows that as people age “they become more focused on maximizing positive emotions and social interactions,” reports Jason Zweig in a recent Wall Street Journal article on the topic. “Older people become more determined to block out negative experiences. This leads older people to pay more attention to those who make them feel content and comfortable.”
In the Raines case, when investigators confronted him with the harsh facts of his financial abuse, he denied at first that there was a problem and refused to believe he’d been duped.
But wanting to feel positive about those around us as we age is not the only challenge, researchers say.
Our cognitive abilities begin to slip as we move into our 70s and 80s. Older investors, for instance, tend to make simple errors that younger investors would avoid, wrote Zweig.
It may be particularly difficult for those who have made sensible financial decisions throughout their lives to in old age come to terms with a decline in their reasoning capacity. These people may continue to feel confident even as they begin to lose it, experts say.
Robert Willis, an economist and professor at the University of Michigan, has made a study of financial decision-making among the elderly. (click here for his research on the impact of retirement)
In a workshop, Willis points out that we face a “growing complexity of decisions” related to old age. Everything from medicines people take to their health care insurance becomes more complex. Never mind investment decisions and asset management that the elderly must grapple with.
“While people accumulate financial knowledge and skills over their lifetime, at older ages they confront the serious risk of losing these capacities if they acquire Alzheimer’s disease or other type dementia that causes progressive declines in cognition and eventual complete loss of functional capacities,” Willis writes. “This may pose an enormous financial risk to all members of a household.”
Financially vulnerable
Forgetting to pay bills is minor compared with being duped in fraudulent schemes or signing contracts that we don’t understand.
“Regardless of cognitive status, older American are more financially vulnerable than the general population,” Willis underscores in “The Implications of Alzheimer’s Risk for Household Financial Decision-making” co-written with Joanne Hsu of the Federal Reserve Board.
So as we age, how can we gracefully manage our decline into happy old age, free of financial abuse?
The trick is putting a plan in place before that time comes. Who or what organization will manage your assets when you get old? And how do you avoid being scammed?
Here are some tips from the U.S. Department of Labor:
 -- Don't let fear, desperation, or the need to catch up financially push you (or family members) into any hasty investment decisions. In all legitimate investments, higher returns are accompanied by higher risks - risks you may well not want to take as you near retirement. Be wary of anyone who claims they can sell you a product that offers great reward without great risk - a sure sign of a scam.
  - Recognize that anyone can claim to be a "financial consultant” or "investment counselor.” That person may not have the special training, expertise, or credentials necessary to back up the claim. Ask about licensing and professional designations and check them out with securities regulators and any trade groups in which they claim membership.
  - Understand your investments and never be afraid to ask questions. Good financial professionals are never pushy, and they never dismiss your concerns.
  - Don't let embarrassment or fear keep you from reporting suspected investment fraud or abuse.
  - Never judge a person's integrity by how they sound or how they appear. The most successful con artists sound extremely professional and have the ability to make even the flimsiest investment seem as safe as putting money in the bank.
- Monitor your investments. Ask tough questions and insist on speedy and satisfactory answers. Make sure you get regular written and oral reports
Here’s where my advice comes in. Turn to a bank trust department to manage your assets, pay your bills and take care of your finances. Banks are bound by law to take a conservative and professional approach to their customer’s money. They must send you a monthly financial report showing income and outgo. For a small fee (1-2 percent of total assets) a bank trust manager is there to be a gatekeeper, to make sure you can live comfortably and happily in your old age. The challenge is figuring out when you should no longer be in charge. While bank trust may be an answer, it requires the same homework that you would do when investing with a broker. Ask a lot of questions, get references and check out the bank's fees and track record. This is your money, this is your life.
If you are the child or other family member of an aging relative, check in on them regularly. Ask them if there’s anyone new in their life and how they go about paying bills. Meanwhile, we baby boomers should set up a simple plan and stick with it, as recommended by Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Click here for her profile and for her TED Talk on aging,
It seems that Ralph Raines Jr. did not have a plan or have anyone close to provide honest financial advice. Instead he turned to scammers who made him happy and comfortable as they stole his fortune.
For more:
To report financial abuse contact stopfraud.gov at  http://www.stopfraud.gov/protect-yourself.html
National Council on Aging, 22 tips for avoiding scams & Swindles, click here.
National Center on Elder Abuse, click here.
Elder Abuse: Financial Scams Against Seniors, click here. Nolo Law for All
National Institute of Justice, Financial Exploitation of the Elderly. click here.
Would Your Adult Children Rip You Off? click here.  Bankrate.com