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When is it time to take the money and run to a new investment advisor?

** FILE ** In a file photo traders move between stations on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange
Stockbrokers don’t always have a fiduciary duty to the investor and are allowed to recommend a course of action that is more profitable for them, even if there are better-performing and less-expensive options available.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: My wife and I are in our early 30s. She has a stock portfolio that has positions in 20 blue chip stocks purchased primarily in the last 20 years. It was set up by her family and managed by a family friend at a large brokerage. Recently, the family friend retired and transitioned the portfolio to a new team at this brokerage. They basically told us that our portfolio underperformed and only saw an average of 3% growth per year over the last 20 years.

The new brokerage team is recommending we gradually transition our 20 positions into a portfolio of 300 stocks that will mirror an index. They would harvest any tax losses to offset the capital gains tax that would otherwise be due. They will charge a 1% fee, and after several years, we will probably have a portfolio that is entirely small positions in a huge number of companies.

My gut reaction was that if they want to mirror an index, why not just buy an index fund with cash freed up from tax-loss harvesting? My wife really feels most comfortable doing whatever her parents recommend and is overwhelmed by what I call advanced investing but wants us to make this decision together.

Answer: If your wife is being charged a 1% annual fee, she should be getting a heck of a lot more than investment management. One percent is the typical fee charged by comprehensive financial planners who offer a wide array of services including retirement, tax, investment, insurance and estate planning. If her portfolio is more than $1 million, the fee probably would be even lower.

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Another, larger problem is that the new team of stockbrokers probably does not have a fiduciary duty to your wife. In other words, they’re allowed to recommend a course of action that is more profitable for them, even if there are better-performing and less-expensive options available. That, more than anything else, should be motivating her to find a new advisor who is willing to be a fiduciary.

You can help in a number of ways, starting with the advisor search. The National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the XY Planning Network and the Garrett Planning Network all represent fee-only planners and can offer referrals.

You also can encourage your wife to educate herself about investing, since (as you know) it’s not rocket science and she needs to know the basics to responsibly handle her money. Relying on her family’s influence has left her with an undiversified, underperforming portfolio — and delivered her into the hands of people who probably don’t have her best interests at heart. It’s time to grow up and take charge.

Finally, you can stop referring to it as “our” portfolio. It’s lovely that she wants to share it with you, but the money is hers and she needs to take ownership.

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Separated spouse is entitled to survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I am a 57-year-old disabled woman whose only income is $500 a month in Supplemental Security Income. I was legally separated from my husband when he died at age 59. Can I collect Social Security from his account?

Answer: Most likely, yes.

To generate a survivor’s benefit, your husband would have had to pay into the Social Security system for a certain number of years. Younger people need to have worked fewer years than older ones to provide benefits for survivors, but no one needs to have paid in for more than 10 years.

Because your husband died before reaching retirement age, your survivor benefit would be based on what his retirement check would have been at his full retirement age (which would be 67, if he was born in 1960).

You could get 100% of that benefit if you wait until your own full retirement age to collect. Reduced benefits are typically available when a widow or widower turns 60. Survivors who are disabled can start benefits as early as age 50, if the disability started before the death or within seven years.

If your marriage had ended in divorce, you could still have qualified for survivor’s benefits as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. (If a marriage lasted that long and the ex is still alive, a divorced spouse can qualify for spousal benefits, which are up to half the ex’s benefit.)

With survivor benefits, you have the option of switching to your own retirement benefit later, if it’s larger, or of switching from your own benefit to a survivor’s benefit, should that be the better deal.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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