Should a Will Even the Score?

Consider this difficult situation: An elderly woman lends her oldest son $20,000 to help pay for some expensive medical care for his teenage son – her grandson – who’s stricken with cancer.

When the woman writes her will, a different son who is also her executor – and happens to be an accountant – advises her to deduct the $20,000 loan, never repaid, from the oldest son’s modest inheritance.

This happened in my family, and I was of two minds at the time.  Technically, the money was a loan – not a gift – so not paying it back was unfair to the other siblings who didn’t receive $20,000. But it seemed uncompassionate to take the money out of a bequest, given the graveness of the teenager’s illness.

Financial planner Rick Kahler discusses a similar situation in this video and proposes something that may seem radical: evenly dividing up your estate isn’t necessarily fair.

The way Kahler explains his argument in the video, it makes sense – at least in the particular instance he’s discussing.  But does it depend on the situation? …Learn More

Job Quality Matters

The nation’s job market regained some of its momentum in March.  But it’s not just getting a job that’s key to gaining financial security – it’s about getting and keeping a quality job.
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In a recent report, the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University used interviews with workers around the country to identify three aspects of a job – beyond the size of the paycheck – that help people save money and bolster their financial security.  [Excerpts from some of the interviews are shown.]

The report also gave some indications of how common it is for workers to go without them:

Quote about health insuranceBenefits – Employer health care, disability insurance, a 401(k) retirement plan with an employer savings match, tuition credits – these benefits help workers save more, shield them against risk, and protect their paychecks by subsidizing some living costs.  But the service sector, one of the largest segments of the U.S. labor force, is particularly poor in providing such benefits.

Flexibility – Without sick days and similar arrangements, workers risk losing their jobs due to an illness or unanticipated event. …Learn More

Many with Dementia Manage Finances

When dementia enters an elderly couple’s home, it can bring financial mismanagement with it.

But since both spouses don’t usually become cognitively impaired at precisely the same time, couples have the option of turning over the household financial responsibilities to the person who’s not yet impaired.  The question is whether this transfer of control happens quickly enough.

Most couples are waiting until after cognition is very low to make this change, according to a new study.

Economists Joanne Hsu with the Federal Reserve Board and Robert Willis with the University of Michigan found that 80 percent of married older Americans who had been in charge of their household finances continued to manage them after a test revealed they were approaching or already experiencing dementia. …Learn More

Students Take Charge of College Loans

Tatiana Andrade (standing), an ambassador for American Student Assistance, hosts a Jeopardy match to educate classmates about their student debt.

College students usually plan on repaying their loans after graduation, when they’ve landed a full-time job.  Freshman Tatiana Andrade is making payments while she’s still in school.

Andrade is already $14,500 in debt.  She’s on track to owe some $60,000 when she completes her four-year degree at Stonehill College outside Boston, even though her parents are sharing the cost.  To chip away at her debt, she pays off between $100 and $150 per month from her earnings in a part-time job.

Andrade is among a slim but growing minority of students and recent graduates becoming proactive to get control of their student debt – before it controls them. She advises classmates to do the same as Stonehill College’s ambassador for the non-profit American Student Assistance (ASA), which has a program and website – SALT – aimed at educating and counseling students on strategies to minimize how much they borrow and to manage their loan payments.

Making loan payments today minimizes the total amount she’ll pay in the future for three reasons. Loans paid immediately carry a lower interest rate than loans that permit her to defer payment until after graduation.  She’s cutting down the total amount she’ll have to pay back after graduation.  She said she also avoided a loan-origination fee required on deferred loans equal to 4 percent of the loan.

“Every dollar counts,” she said. Waiting until graduation “is the worst thing you can do.” …Learn More

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Retirement Tax Credit for Low Earners

The IRS effectively gives money away to low-income Americans who save for retirement.

Workers meeting the agency’s income requirements can receive a Saver’s Tax Credit equal to as much as half of their total deposits into a 401(k) or IRA. The lower one’s income, the bigger the credit.

The program, which was made permanent in 2006, gives a nice boost to the nation’s lowest-paid workers, who are also most vulnerable in retirement. And not taking advantage of the credit, said Jim Blankenship, a financial planner in New Berlin, Illinois, “is a lot like giving up an employer match for a 401(k).”

Low-income workers do just that, a previous study found: 40 percent decline to participate when their employer offers a 401(k). But the Savers Tax Credit may provide another avenue to this under-covered population.

The annual income requirements for the credits, shown in the following table, apply to calendar year 2013 tax filings due April 15. …

*Note: Credits are equal to 10 percent, 20 percent, or 50 percent of total contribution.

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Investment Focus: Follow 5 Simple Rules

Vanguard Group Inc. founder John Bogle’s views about investing, not surprisingly, promote the indexed mutual funds that Vanguard offers.  But his views have solid support in the academic literature.

Here’s our translation of his five simple rules for investment success – sound advice for readers who want to work on their 401(k) portfolios:

  • Remember reversion to the mean. If a company’s stock or the overall market has had unusually strong performance, it’s unlikely to continue at that pace.
  • Forget the needle and buy the haystack. Invest in broadly diversified funds, such as index funds that track the market – not in individual company stocks or the money managers who try to find the best ones. …Learn More
New Year's Resolution: Save!

Resolve Amid the Financial Adversity

More than 60 percent of Americans who participate in their 401(k) retirement plans at work are adding more dollars to their debts than they’re socking away in those plans, according to HelloWallet’s analysis of recent federal data.

This shocking statistic suggests the need for some serious financial planning. Yet the vast majority of people in a recent survey said making a financial plan would not be among their 2014 resolutions.

Why not? Many said they “don’t make enough money to worry about” a financial plan, according to Allianz Life Insurance Company, which conducts the survey.

Okay. But if you feel unable or unwilling to write up a full-blown plan, perhaps you’ll consider one small step: …Learn More