THE PROBLEM:  Elizabeth Spiegler, 68, a retired office manager in New York City, wrote in to ask who could handle her financial affairs if someday she can’t.  Unmarried, she has no children and isn’t that close to her extended family. Her brother has her power of attorney for finances, but she’d like further backup.  She doesn’t think she can ask her friends, and her financial adviser doesn’t want the job. 

Spiegler is what’s called a solo ager:  an older person without a partner or surviving children.  A recent SeniorCare.com study found that 78 percent of solo agers had no one to help with the bills or finances.  “ I think I may be fine,” says Spiegler, who now manages her own money. “But what if I’m not?”

THE ADVICE:  For answers, I turned to attorneys and financial experts who work with older people and their families.  Each discussed the risk of elder financial abuse and how enlisting the wrong helper—maybe even a relative—can lead to disaster.  Here are the experts’ best solutions.  

1. A trust with successor trustees:   Spiegler would set up a living (or revocable) trust and put all the assets she could into it now.  She’d be her own trustee, naming her brother and a financial institution as successor trustees, to take over if necessary.  Eventually, the institution would handle her bills and investments. “The benefits of an institutional trustee are professionalism, experience and guidance,” says New York City estate planning attorney Martin Shenkman.  “There are tons of checks and balances to protect you. That’s vital for anyone who is vulnerable and isolated.”

     This safe solution can be pricey. Traditional trust companies sometimes serve only clients with several million dollars.  But mainstream financial institutions such as Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard also do this work. Their annual charges start at $4,500 (on top of usual investment costs, like fund fees).  Even these less expensive alternatives, though, cost more than Spiegler—who has a pension and a retirement account in the low six figures—feels she can pay.  

2. Bill Payers and watchdogs:  What Spiegler needs is a team, says Carolyn McClanahan, a Jacksonville, Florida, financial adviser specializing in life-planning issues.  “You need people doing the work. But you also need people watching the people doing the work,” she adds. McClanahan suggests hiring a bill-paying service for day-to-day money management, then having an accountant or attorney lined up to make the bigger financial decisions.  

     You don’t want that bill payer to be just anyone, however, cautions Jennifer VanderVeen, National Association of Elder Law Attorneys president.  “You want to make sure they’re bonded or insured and that you check out their background,” she says. You can find a service through the American Association of Daily Money Manager (aadmm.com).  Another bill-paying option is SilverBills, a company that reviews bills and authorizes payments for a flat monthly fee beginning at $99.

 

THE OUTCOME:  In the end, Spiegler decided to do nothing—yet.   “This information is very valuable,” she says. But she admits she has a psychological block to getting started: “Right now I like being independent and taking care of my own business.”

 

(by Jean Chatsky for AARP Magazine, December 2019/January 2020)

These are all mere teases . . . days in which we must be content with hints and glimpses. Winter has not done with us yet, but the heart has caught a glimpse of the far-away sound on the wind and hope can no longer be denied. Spring will come . . . surely.