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Strategies for overcoming a spouse’s bad investment decisions

A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 2009, during the Great Recession.
A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 2009, during the Great Recession.
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: I tell people we lost a huge chunk of money in the Great Recession, but it wasn’t the downturn that did us in. My husband made some incredibly poor choices. I’m embarrassed to admit that he absolutely refused to listen to me and stop the financial self-destruction until I grew a backbone. I told him I’d divorce him unless he stopped. He has mended his ways and we’re still together (which is really for the best; we’ve been married almost 47 years).

He’s now being very transparent and prudent about investing, but we’re still looking at an underfunded retirement and I’d like to maximize what we have. We’re both 71 and still working (we’re self employed). Our home is worth about $800,000 and we owe $160,000. We have a rental nearby with about $100,000 in equity that pays for itself, but there’s no extra income from it. We have $210,000 in investments and $25,000 in savings with no debt.

I think more real estate would be a good investment vehicle for us, but we’d have to cash out some of our limited portfolio in order to purchase more. So instead, I make an extra principal payment equal to half the regular mortgage payment on each of the properties each month. I’m not sure if that’s the wisest thing to do, but I figure it’s still investing in real estate and will help us when we finally retire, sell and downsize.

Answer: Right now, the vast majority of your wealth is tied up in two properties in the same geographic area. A financial planner would want you to diversify, not double down by putting even more money into real estate.

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And a fee-only financial planner is what you need to help you map out your future while easing the investment reins out of your husband’s hands. As we get older, we’re more vulnerable to fraud, exploitation and just plain bad choices. Your husband may have been scared straight for now, but he easily could make future decisions that could again imperil your finances. That’s especially true if his prior behavior was related to a gambling addiction. Not all problem gamblers choose casinos or horse tracks; some are day traders.

Given all that, you may want to consider purchasing a single premium immediate annuity when you retire. These annuities offer a guaranteed stream of income for life, in exchange for a lump sum. This would be income that can’t be lost to stock market downturns, real estate recessions, bad investments or fraud.

That’s something to discuss with your planner, along with ways you can use your businesses to maximize your retirement savings. (The self employed have many options, including a basic Simplified Employee Pension or SEP, solo 401(k) plans and traditional defined benefit pension plans.)

You can get referrals to fee-only planners at the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the XY Planning Network, the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners and the Garrett Planning Network.

Unloading a timeshare

Dear Liz: How can a timeshare owner get rid of the timeshare and claim the loss on taxes?

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Answer: Timeshares typically are considered a personal asset, like a boat or a car, so the losses aren’t deductible. The best way out of a timeshare is often to give it back to the developer, if the developer will take it. You also could try to sell it on sites such as RedWeek and Timeshare Users Group. Unless your timeshare is at a high-end property, you are unlikely to recoup much and may have to pay the buyer’s maintenance fees for a year or two as an incentive.

Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I’m confused by Social Security benefits for divorced spouses, which you’ve written about recently. I was told that because I remarried (after age 60), I have to wait until my ex-husband died before receiving a part of his benefits. Is this still true for remarried ex-spouses? My ex does collect Social Security and I collect my small benefit (both of us started at full retirement age).

Answer: Yes. Divorced spousal benefits would be available only if you are currently unmarried. Survivor benefits, on the other hand, could still be available if you remarried at 60 or older.

Spousal and divorced spousal benefits can be up to 50% of the worker’s benefit, while survivor and divorced survivor benefits can be up to 100%.

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.


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