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My wife was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I fear my father-in-law wants to take over her care, our home — and our finances

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Dear Moneyist,

I have been married for 24 years. My wife and I have two 18-year-old children. We have had our marital ups and downs as many do, but manage to get along. My wife was diagnosed with a terminal degenerative neurological condition.

She grows increasingly frail, both physically and cognitively. Although at times it is not easy, myself and our two children who are home from school due to the pandemic, care for her the best we can. She lives very comfortably in the home we have owned for 20 years.

The Moneyist:I took care of my late mother for 8 years. Am I obliged to tell my sisters she made me co-owner of a substantial bank account?

My wife’s family is largely dysfunctional, and her father abandoned her as a young child, never returning in any meaningful way or providing support aside from cards and perfunctory holiday pleasantries. I do not get along with my father in law and have largely avoided him entirely.

Upon learning of my wife’s condition, my father-in-law now seems obsessed with moving my wife out of our home to some sort of group home/facility. The mere thought of this seems abhorrent and barbaric. My thinking is that he intends to obtain guardianship and access marital assets, mainly our home, which has substantial value and equity.

My greatest wish is to avoid a bitter legal fight in my wife’s last years, and provide her with the best care, medical and otherwise.

Devoted Husband

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Dear Devoted,

Tell your father-in-law that you have heard his opinion, but now you and your children need to take care of your wife at home together as a family, in your own way, and ask him to respect your wishes. If he continues, tell him that you understand that this is an uncertain and concerning time for all of you, but you would like him to trust you and your family to take care of your wife and his daughter. If that doesn’t work, you can say, “I now need time and space now to take care of things here. I hope you can give me that.” You don’t have to answer every call and email.

I also advise you to talk to your wife about officially becoming her health-care proxy, so you will be in control of making any life or death decisions concerning her condition. Alternatively, talk to a lawyer about this. “It’s smart to have a health-care proxy, no matter how old you are or whether or not you’re married,” according to Care.com. “And a health-care proxy also allows you to designate an alternate, so if you and your spouse are in an accident together you still have control over who’s making health-care decisions on your behalf.”

Similarly, Leanna Hamill, a family attorney in Hingham, Mass., says, “If your parents and spouse disagree about your care, this can cause real problems. The best thing to do is execute a health-care proxy appointing the person you choose as your health care agent and then talking to that person and your other family members about your wishes.” (Lawyers want to avoid the kind of legal trauma surrounding the life and death of Terry Shiavo.) Regardless, doctors will turn to your wife’s next of kin for any vital decisions that need to be made regarding her care. That’s you.

The Moneyist: My son inherited money after his father was killed in an accident. A woman came forward with another legal heir. What now?

But there is no reason to assume the same will happen here. You will feel less anxious about your father-in-law’s interference when you speak up. You don’t have to be held hostage to other people’s wishes. Let’s assume he wants what he believes is best for his daughter. You simply have a different opinion and approach. He can’t force you to sell your home or refinance your home to do something you don’t want to do. You are probably under more stress than you realize, and his interference may be a proxy for that stress. It is perhaps an obvious, if not exactly a useful place. to put it.

In the meantime, I recommend seeking out counseling and/or support to help you through this difficult time. The Well Spouse Association is a nonprofit organization that has support groups in communities all over the country. Your wife’s condition and comfort is, of course, your No. 1 priority. Don’t allow other family members, friends or neighbors to distract you from that. You can only do so much. Buy creating a support network and healthy boundaries with others — however well-meaning they may be — I have no doubt that your commitment to your wife’s care will be enough.

The Moneyist: My mother’s husband died. Her savings are dwindling, yet she pays my sister’s bills. Should I intervene?

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com

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‘Greed is rearing its ugly head and killing brotherly love’: My husband and his brother are at war over an inheritance from a beloved neighbor. What can we do?

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Dear Quentin,

When my husband and his only (younger) brother were growing up, a childless neighbor was very kind to them and treated them as if they were her “nephews.” They even called her “Aunt Hilda.” They also treated her like family; my husband has visited her regularly over the years. But greed is rearing its ugly head and killing brotherly love.

When my husband was away in the army 30 years ago, Aunt Hilda gave a house and a piece of property to my husband’s brother when she decided to move to another state to care for her future mother-in-law, with the written legal condition that she had a lifelong ability to return and live in the house as well, should she want to or need to.

The brother decided he didn’t really like those terms, and after living in the house for a couple of years, used the “collateral” of the property to borrow money to buy a plot of land elsewhere and build another house. The “old” house has sat vacant for 20 years, but he does the minimum to keep it from disaster. She does not stay there because it is not maintained. He has stated that he doesn’t want to do anything that will encourage her to move back into the house.


‘At first, she discussed splitting her property 50/50, then she recalled that she had already given the brother the other house and land.’

Recently, the husband of Aunt Hilda died. She is 80, and decided that she wants to write a will to leave her money and property to my husband and his brother. At first, she discussed splitting her property 50/50, then she recalled that she had already given the brother the other house and land (current value is about $400,000, no small sum).

Now Aunt Hilda says since she has already given the younger brother the other house and the land, that should be taken into consideration. The brother is sending lengthy emails to my husband trying to convince him and Aunt Hilda that the previous “early inheritance” should not be taken into consideration “because it cost him so much trouble and work.”

It is of course up to Aunt Hilda how she wants to divide up the property, and whatever that is, everybody should respect her wishes. But if she asks the brothers how to do it fairly, what do you recommend? She is 80, but she might live another 15 years and any value assigned to the brother’s house today would likely change.

There is much more that could be added as to my brother-in law’s attempts to gain more than his brother, none of which reflects well on his character. My poor husband is heartsick over his brother’s greedy behavior, especially when he should be focusing on the welfare of Aunt Hilda — who just lost her husband — and grateful that she considers to leave them anything.

Should we intervene?

The Wife

Dear Wife,

Your brother-in-law is a lot of work and his inherited property is a lot of work. In that sense at least, as God made them, he matched them.

Your brother-in-law could be less self-centered and more compassionate, and it wouldn’t do any harm if he had one charitable bone in his body. But that is not who he is, and trying to wish him to be someone other than himself is an exhausting and ill-advised endeavor. Accept him for who and what he is, and you will both enjoy more peaceful nights as a result.


Remember, if one crazy person wants to have a fight with you, and you finally relent, there are two crazy people in that fight rather than one.

Your husband regards Aunt Hilda as a beloved relative and her estate as a gift, while his brother sees her estate as a lemon that can be squeezed time and again. What would I say to his brother? “The property required a lot of work over the years, and you have benefited from the property over the same amount of time. You chose to accept this inheritance early, and it has worked out very well for you.”

If he continued to make waves? I would feel compelled to tell him that it’s just plain unreasonable to constantly push for more. The love and care he lavished on his own property has been in direct proportion to the lack of care and duty bestowed upon Aunt Hilda’s home, and for all the years he enjoyed this property, she did not. You have to be prepared to stand up for what you believe is fair.

And remember, if one crazy person wants to have a fight with you, and you relent, there will be two crazy people in that fight rather than one. For that reason, advise Aunt Hilda to hire an estate attorney to draw up the papers fairly and squarely. Lawyers are paid well to deal with difficult personalities, and they have a duty to make sure their client’s wishes are upheld.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com

The Moneyist: ‘Warren Buffett and Harry Potter couldn’t get those two retired early’: Our spendthrift neighbors said our adviser was ‘lousy.’ So how come WE retired early?

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Opinion: Higher interest rates could mean more cash for seniors

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Here’s a common complaint I hear from seniors all the time: Interest rates are so low that it’s impossible to earn enough cash to supplement Social Security.

“Certificates of deposit don’t earn anything,” writes MarketWatch reader Camille: “Until the mid-2000s, you could easily earn 4% on a certificate of deposit (CD). Today, your money does not earn anything, which penalizes small savers and seniors.”

She’s right. Based on rates as I write this, if you put $500 into a one-year CD, you’d get back about $502.76 in 12 months. Wow! Two whole dollars and 76 cents! Probably enough for a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas, but not much else.

Low interest rates are a double-edged sword. If you’re borrowing money, it’s obviously good, but if you’re trying to make a few bucks, no. And this isn’t likely to change in any significant way, given the Federal Reserve’s recent announcement that it plans to keep its key “Fed Funds” rate low until the economy and jobs market picks up steam.

Since things like money-market funds and certificates of deposits are tied to the Fed, that’s tough news for anyone hoping to squeeze more out of their savings.

Meantime, those paltry returns stand in contrast to things that keep shooting up, like the cost of healthcare. I recently reported that drug prices, for example, are rising much faster than inflation, and much faster than the cost-of-living adjustment that seniors typically get from Social Security.

This one-two punch—more money going out and less coming in—is punishing seniors, pushing many closer to, if not into, poverty.

The need to earn more has nudged some seniors into the stock market, which in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad; financial advisers typically say that given the possibility of decades in retirement, even seniors should have some exposure to equities. But with stocks at nosebleed levels—the price-to-earnings ratio on the S&P 500
SPX,
+1.14%

 is up 80% from a year ago—caution abounds. As usual, I’ll emphasize that how much a retiree should have in stocks depends on factors like age, risk tolerance and so forth, and is best discussed with a trusted financial adviser.

It’s often tempting when rates are super low like now to put cash into things with fat dividends, but “you have to be very careful,” cautions Andrew Mies, chief investment officer of 6 Meridian, a Wichita, Kansas-based wealth management firm. “Saying I’m going to go buy a high dividend-paying stock or MLP (master limited partnership, an investment vehicle common in capital-intensive businesses, like the energy sector) were disasters in 2020. Buying high-dividend stocks was one of the worst performing strategies you could have had last year, and some MLPs were down 30-40%.”

In other words, what’s the use of buying something that pays a dividend of 8%, 9% or more—only to see the stock itself plunge by a third? One market strategist, the late Barton Biggs of Morgan Stanley, once said “More money has been lost reaching for yield than at the point of a gun,” and he was right. Echoing that is none other than Warren Buffett, who has called reaching for yield “stupid,” but “very human.”

So what to do?

Mies urges something that many people have trouble with: Patience. That’s because rates, all of a sudden, appear to be moving higher, and if you can wait a bit, you just might be able to find safer investments that yield more than you might be able to get now.

He’s right. As of Friday, the yield on the 10-year Treasury bond stood at 1.34%, hardly robust, but up from 1.15% for the week. Two things to remember here: When bond rates go up, bond prices go down; higher bond yields can also make stocks less attractive on a relative basis as well.

Mies thinks rates will continue to climb. “I think you’re going to have a chance in the next 12 months to put money to work at higher interest rates.” Buying or selling are choices, but so is doing nothing, so “I do think that not getting aggressive right now is probably the most prudent action.”

And after rates go high enough, he thinks municipal bonds could become more attractive, corporate bonds could, Treasurys could. “There will be pockets of opportunity that pop up.”

You may want to consider what have long been considered so-called “widow and orphan” stocks: utilities. “Utilities have been trading as if the 10-year (Treasury) is significantly higher than it is. That could be a spot worth dipping your toe in.” Possibilities to consider—preferably in consultation with your financial adviser—include the Standard & Poor’s Utilities Select Sector Fund
XLU,
-1.17%

and iShares’ Global Utilities ETF
JXI,
-0.54%
.
XLU currently yields 3.3%, while JXI yields 2.78%, certainly more than those measly rates found in CDs or money-market funds.



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Opinion: Few 401(k) participants changed portfolio allocation when market tanked

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The rumor has been that 401(k) participants took little action when the stock market declined by more than 30% in February and March 2020. A Morningstar study provides some numbers to back up the lore.

The data come from a major record-keeper for defined-contribution plans. The starting point was snapshots for two dates: Dec. 31, 2019 and March 31, 2020. To be included in the analysis, the participant had to show up in both samples. That is, they had to be enrolled on or before Dec. 31, 2019 and still in the plan March 31, 2020. This construct ensures that observed changes reflect active decisions by participants as opposed to the sponsor replacing one fund with another. The final sample consisted of 635,116 participants across 509 plans.

The important finding is that only 5.6% of participants enrolled as of Dec. 31, 2019 changed their portfolio allocation during the first quarter of 2020. Participants who adjusted their portfolios changed their equity allocations. Most of these changes were relatively small, with an average equity reduction of about 10 percentage points. However, older participants who changed their accounts made larger changes than younger participants, particularly if they were invested more aggressively.

Much of the report goes on to look closely at the 5.6% who did move their money. For this exercise, the report identifies four types of participants: self-directing their accounts, using a target-date fund, defaulted into a managed account, and opted into a managed account. The pattern across participants shows that those with professionally managed solutions — target-date funds or managed accounts — were much less likely to change their allocation.

On balance, this report seems like good news. Buying high and selling low doesn’t end well.



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