How to find an accountant and a financial planner
Dear Liz: Can you offer advice on finding the right accountant for someone doing taxes for the first time after divorce? My husband always handled this. Also, same question for a financial planner for a newly divorced person? It’s all so overwhelming.
Answer: It is, and you’re smart to reach out for help.
You might consider hiring a personal financial specialist. This is a designation earned by CPAs who handle not just taxes but financial planning as well.
A CPA-PFS is a fiduciary, which means they’re committed to putting your best interests first. Also, many are working virtually now because of the pandemic, so you should be able to find several candidates to interview even if you live in a more remote area. You can start your search at the website of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
Dementia and financial accounts
Dear Liz: You recently discussed the importance of adding spouses to financial accounts before one of them dies to make it easier for the surviving spouse. I wholeheartedly agree. I would add that this needs to be done sooner rather than later. If one of the spouses is diagnosed with dementia, the bank will likely not make changes to accounts. People have to be able to understand what they are signing.
Answer: That’s an excellent point. Another important task is to create powers of attorney for healthcare and finances. These allow someone else to make decisions for you if you are incapacitated. Someone in the early stages of dementia could sign such a document if they understand what it is, but otherwise the family might have to go to court to get a conservatorship, which can be an expensive process.
Millions of Americans, especially low-income tenants, are accumulating debt amid the COVID-19 pandemic, threatening to create a downward financial spiral.
Paying down your mortgage
Dear Liz: You’re not a fan of prepaying student loans in most cases because the extra money sent to lenders is “gone for good” — it’s not like credit cards, where paying down a balance can free up some of the credit line to be used again. But what’s wrong with paying down a primary mortgage? That can create more equity that people could borrow against.
Answer: Perhaps. To tap that equity without selling the home, though, you need a lender’s cooperation, which isn’t always forthcoming when you’re experiencing a financial emergency. If you lose your job, for example, a lender may be reluctant to offer you a cash-out refinance or allow you to establish or expand a home equity line of credit.
Contrast that with paying down a credit card, which typically opens up available credit as soon as the transaction is processed. That’s not guaranteed, of course, because lenders can lower credit limits or even close accounts if your credit scores drop or if bad economic times make lenders more cautious. But for the most part, credit cards are a much more flexible and accessible source of credit than mortgages.
That’s not to say you should never make extra payments on a mortgage. If you’re on track with saving for retirement, you’ve paid off higher rate debt and you have a sufficient emergency fund, then prepaying a mortgage can make sense.
Mortgage interest rates are below 3%, leading to a wave of refinances and home purchases. If you’ve had a bankruptcy or been in a forbearance, you can still take advantage, but restrictions exist.
Age minimum for survivor benefits
Dear Liz: I am 53 and Social Security is giving me a hold time for my widow support. What should I do?
Answer: The only thing you probably can do is wait.
Survivor benefits are normally only available once you turn 60. You can start as early as age 50 if you are disabled or at any age if you are caring for the deceased worker’s minor children.
Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon Blvd., No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.
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