How to handle money disputes after a death in the family

Estate planning shouldn't be a do-it-yourself project if your holdings are large enough to trigger taxes. Above, Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, Calif.
(Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)

Dear Liz: My son recently died. His girlfriend, who lived with him, said he told he would take care of her for the rest of her life. There's nothing in writing that says this. She has his debit card and is using it. I am not sure, but I thought if a family member dies, the money in the person's bank accounts belonged to the next of kin. There is a large amount of money missing, but I don't know if my son used it to pay other debts. How do I clear this up?

Answer: If her name is not on the bank account, then most likely she doesn't have the right to help herself to the money. Your son's assets are supposed to be used to pay his final expenses and his creditors. Anything left over would go to the beneficiaries of his will or, if he didn't have a will, to his next of kin according to state law.

It's time to call an attorney familiar with probate in your state to walk you through the next steps. As angry as you might be with the girlfriend, consider staying on good terms if you possibly can, since you probably will need access to his home and his records to settle the estate.

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Maxing out Social Security benefit

Dear Liz: My full retirement age for Social Security is 66 and I know that my benefit amount is based on my lifetime earnings. If I quit my job at age 65 and postpone receiving Social Security, I will be living on a small pension and my personal savings. Will my benefit amount continue to grow at about 8% each year until age 70 even if I no longer have earnings?

Answer: Yes. You earn those delayed retirement credits whether you're working or already retired.

Many people erroneously think that the decision to retire is the same as the decision to apply for Social Security. These two decisions can and often should be made separately. If your savings can tide you over until your benefit maxes out, that can be a very good use of the money.

CPA vs. financial planner

Dear Liz: I read your recent response to the lottery winner. You made some really good comments and suggestions. However, you suggested that the person seek out a trustworthy, fee-only financial planner.

I am a certified public accountant. As you know, CPAs have historically been one of if not the most trusted advisors. I do get defensive when I read articles such as yours because never do people suggest that a CPA be consulted in situations such as these. In my opinion, financial planners do not have the overall breadth of experience and knowledge of the income tax and estate tax ramifications of decisions that need to be made. 

Answer: If you're holding yourself out as an expert in financial planning, you'd better be one.

There's no question that CPAs are tax experts. But how knowledgeable are you about investments? Insurance, including life, health, disability and long-term care? Retirement savings and income planning? Education planning and funding? Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid? Employee benefits, retirement plan selection and business succession planning?

Those are only a few of the dozens of topics that a certified financial planner is required to know. CFPs are expected to look at clients’ entire financial picture and understand how the pieces should best work together. They are supposed to know that taxes may be a factor in many financial planning decisions, but taxes shouldn't be the only or even the driving factor in any of them.

CFPs may not be able to match your breadth or depth of knowledge in your area, but that's why they would refer clients to certified public accountants for detailed help with those issues. They also would know when to get estate-planning attorneys involved, and insurance agents and so on.

Some CPAs do become comprehensive financial planners by earning the personal financial specialist or PFS credential, which is similar to the CFP. The additional training and experience helps them understand how taxes fit into their clients' larger financial picture. It also helps them know what they don't know, so they know when to consult more knowledgeable experts for help.

Liz Weston 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 Distributed by No More Red Inc.


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