Monday, July 20, 2015

My Mother's Estate Planning: In Madame X She Trusts!

This past week, I've had to learn a few things about trusts. I'm now officially a trustee!

The whole trust issue first came up after my dad had surgery for brain cancer. We'd managed to get him to a lawyer to quickly draw up a will for the first time on an emergency basis just before his surgery. A couple of months later, he and my mom went back to a lawyer to revise the estate planning, along with my sister, and me on a conference call. The lawyer advised them to put most of their assets in a revocable trust and he drew up some documents to that effect. What I later found out, though, was that they had never actually retitled any of their accounts in the name of the trust, so it was essentially a useless exercise.

For those who don't understand what I mean, here's an version of an explanation I found online somewhere that helped me explain it. Think of a trust as an empty box. Your lawyer draws up documents that create that box. But then you have to put things in the box-- by transferring the deed to your house, or by changing the name on your bank accounts, or opening new bank accounts in the name of the trust and transferring money into those accounts.

After my dad died, my mother went back to the lawyer, and I think they set up another trust, this time just in her name. And again, no assets were ever put in the trust! I was kind of hands-off about my mother's dwindling finances at that point, as I just found it too upsetting.

So the latest trip back to the lawyer was after my mother sold her house. She had proceeds from the sale of a little over $500,000, from which some capital gains would be due, since they'd originally bought it for something like $25,000. (This calculation of capital gains exemptions on real estate would be an interesting thing to delve into in another post someday!)

At this point, that money is all my mother has. She has spent all the other money that my father left. But she had gotten it into her head that my father intended for my sister and me to inherit the house, or at least some of the money from its sale. I personally never heard him say anything of the kind-- he always seemed quite aware that he'd barely be able to stay afloat while living in that house, yet he didn't want to move, and somehow I don't think he ever really thought of us as a family where inheritances would be a very relevant issue! And knowing my mother's financial habits, I certainly didn't expect there would ever be much left to inherit once she was gone.

My sister, however, seemed to think an inheritance would be a rather nice thing to have, and I can't really blame her. She thought our dad would have liked to leave something to his grandchildren. And more pressingly, she and her husband always seem to have a little more debt than they'd like. I know they paid off some credit card debt when they refinanced their house. But somehow they still have two mortgages. And then they bought a boat! They want their kids to have a really fun family life that would be very different from how my sister and I grew up, under a cloud of worry that we couldn't afford to do anything. Unfortunately, she and her husband sometimes seem to be under a cloud of worry about debt! My sister does some occasional part-time work but is has mostly been a stay at home mom for years, so they're living on one income.

So my mom decides she wants to give us about $350,000 out of the house proceeds, to be split evenly. Her lawyer said the best way to do that was to put it in an irrevocable trust so she'd have the income from it while she's alive and the principal would go to us after her death. This idea worried me, because if my mother needed to go into a nursing home, there would be a 5-year lookback period before she could qualify for medicare, and my sister and I would have to come up with whatever her income didn't cover. I personally could afford to do that if I had to, especially if I knew I'd be reimbursed for $175,000 of expenses after my mother died. But my sister would not be able to afford it.

So I thought my mom should just keep her money to pay for her own needs, although I did worry that she would just spend it all on ridiculous things-- she seems to be one of these people who see money as a hot potato to be gotten rid of when you have it! If my mom frittered away all her cash, then I'd be stuck paying for her nursing home anyway. It's not that I don't want to care for my mother, but it makes me incredibly angry that I shouldn't have to-- if my mom and dad had both made wiser financial decisions years ago, they could have lived very comfortably and taken care of all their needs without endangering my own ability to fund my retirement. If I end up being broke when I'm older, it will be my niece and nephew feeling guilty and burdened about taking care of me, and I don't want to lay that on them.

My sister's idea for protecting my mom's money was that she should just give it to us as a gift, with the understanding that it would be there for her if she needed it. I was willing to go with that except that I thought it would look really dodgy, as if we were taking advantage of our mother. And again, I could afford to just invest that money and not use it. My sister was thinking she'd use it to pay off their second mortgage, "to help them get on a more stable footing," and that if my mother needed her money, they'd just take out a home equity loan to give it back to her. I value my relationship with my sister-- I don't want to be judgmental with her, knowing that kids are a big expense I don't have, but I thought that whole plan was a REALLY BAD IDEA!

Here's the plan that we ended up with: the lawyer drafted an irrevocable trust with a provision that the principal could be used in the case of a dire medical emergency. $350,000 went into that trust. For the rest of my mother's cash, he set up a revocable trust, and a will to cover whatever isn't in that trust. She's supposed to keep her non-trust assets below $25,000 so it's covered by simple probate, and avoids some of the usual probate process. (Or something like that, I may not be getting the terminology right here.)

The thing with trusts is that you have to have a trustee. That person or institution his responsible for carrying out the terms of the trust and has the fiduciary duty to manage the assets appropriately. My mother's first lawyer insisted that this duty had to be carried out by a financial institution and brought someone in from a local bank to offer her services. I did not like this idea. I did not see why we should have a bank investing our money when it seemed perfectly reasonable to just do it myself with some low cost mutual funds. I did some research online and became even more convinced that the fees a trust company would charge didn't make sense for the amount of money we'd be investing. I also felt that money should be invested in a relatively conservative way to preserve capital, so we'd be trading potentially lower returns in a good year for lesser losses in a bad year-- this meant losing 1-2% in fees really didn't make sense. My mom's first lawyer retired and another partner took over. Maybe he was less old-fashioned about whether a girl could capably handle such things, but he agreed that I could handle being the trustee myself. So a big packet of legal documents arrived for me to sign: the irrevocable trust with my mom as the grantor, me as the trustee and my sister and me as benfeciaries; the revocable trust with my mom as grantor and me as trustee and my sister and me as beneficiaries; and a power of attorney allowing me to act on my mother's behalf.

This is getting to be a long post so I'll follow up soon with a part 2 detailing what else I've learned about my new duties as a trustee... stay tuned!

Her income monthly from Social Security and my father's pension is about $3000.

Monday, June 15, 2015


When I was waiting to close on my newly-constructed condo, I jokingly called myself "homeless" for a few months because I had to stay with relatives and sublet apartments after moving out of my own rental apartment. My property was mostly in storage and I was living out of a couple of suitcases and garbage bags full of linens. "Home" for me has for many years been defined as my own apartment in NYC, where I live. But sometimes I catch myself referring to "home" in the sense of the home where I grew up. My hometown.
The older I got, the less I'd say that. My parents bought the house I grew up in when I was 9 months old. I had the same bedroom all to myself for my entire childhood. And in the many years since, when I'd come home to visit, I would almost always stay in that room. The few times when I didn't, when for some reason I slept in my parents' room, or my sister's room, always seemed a bit strange. Even when my mother renovated and redecorated and got rid of so much stuff after my dad died, that house was still "home" in some way, though the removal of so many of the books and personal items and furnishings that I'd grown up with made it seem weirdly sterile and anonymous.
But now the house has been sold, and all that is left of it is about $500,000 in my mother's bank account. I last visited about 6 weeks before she closed, and found myself wandering around the house, taking photos of odd things like certain doorknobs and some child-height coat pegs that my father had made for the back hall when we were kids. I felt less sentimental about it than I would have expected, though. The house had become a source of stress, mainly because of my mother's compulsion to overspend on it, resulting in a complete drain of the savings my father had left when he died. (To be fair, that's not the only thing my mother spent money on, as she was also putting a lot towards my grandmother's nursing home care.)
At the end, my mother felt like the house was dragging her down too. She knew she couldn't keep up with the expenses of maintaining it, let alone doing any more improvements. It played out exactly as I had told her it would, that if she spent a lot on renovations, she would have to sell the house within a few years because she'd be broke, and the cost of the renovations would not be recouped in her selling price. She could have done a few minor cosmetic things and a much less elaborate bathroom renovation and still ended up with the exact same selling price.
Anyway, it's good that the house is sold and she got a decent price for it. Now the stressful conversations between my mother and sister and me are all about what do do with the money. My mother has this idea in her head that my father wanted my sister and me to have an inheritance. She also "doesn't want Medicaid to take the money" if she goes into a nursing home. She's not that old, and her health is relatively OK. My sister and I are just worried that cash seems to slip through her fingers like water. I think what we'll end up doing is that my mom will give us some money, and we'll each save it to use on her behalf later if necessary, though my sister is also tempted to use the money to pay off a second mortgage. I think I've also talked my mother into letting me set up an investment account for her so that whatever money she keeps will earn her more than the miniscule interest of a savings account or CD. Psychologically, this may also help in terms of her thinking she can't really spend it-- we'll see! I'm thinking of a Vanguard account with a conservative blend of funds.

I felt bad that my work schedule didn't allow me to go back to the house one more time and help with the last of my mother's packing and moving. Maybe it would have cemented the reality of the situation a bit more-- as it is, I keep wondering if the next time I go up there to visit, I'll automatically drive to my mother's old house without thinking, rather than my sister's. The other thing I'll really miss is being able to walk to a beach about half a mile away. It was always a quiet refuge, a good place to escape from family stress. But as much as I feel sad about not having that family home, I feel worse for my mother, who truly is homeless now, and feels a lot of insecurity about where she'll end up. She'll stay with my sister a bit, and then go to live in my grandmother's house-- another money pit that we are hoping doesn't turn into her next renovation project! After my grandmother dies, she'll have to figure out where to go next. Another topic for another post, another day...

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Mom is Selling Her House!

Fingers crossed that this works out, but as I write this, my mom has accepted an offer for her house. This is exciting and sad and scary. If all goes well, it will keep her from wasting all her income on maintaining a single family house. She spent thousands of dollars this past winter just on snow removal! But it does worry me a little about turning her biggest asset into cash, as cash has a way of slipping through my mother's fingers very quickly. At one point she talked about putting a lot of the proceeds in trust for me and my sister, but I am not sure if she still plans to do that. If she doesn't, I do worry that she'll start blowing a lot of cash on moving expenses, storage expenses, buying new stuff, decorating whatever new place she moves into, etc.
And it's sad to think that my childhood home won't be part of our family life anymore. It's the only home I ever knew, as I was only 9 months old when my parents bought the house. My father once said he had figured it would be a starter home, and that they'd someday move to a bigger house, but the day when he felt he could afford it never arrived.
But in some ways, the house I fondly remember is already gone. Since my father died, my mother has thrown out so many things and changed so much about the house. To me, it has barely a trace of personality or identity to it any more. It smells like floor polish, paint fumes and scented candles now, not like oriental rugs and books. It will be strange not to have a home base in my old town, though. I've always loved going back during the summer, when I could walk a half mile down to a beach where I could take an icy-cold swim, or just walk and sit and think. My mother might move back there someday, but in the near future, she'll move to my grandmother's house so she can help take care of her, and after that, she may end up wanting to live closer to my sister. My sister's house will be where I go when I say I'm going "home" to visit my family. I guess that's how it goes, this shifting over the years as you become less centered on your parents and more centered on the next generation. My niece and nephew are now their own little people, with such distinctive personalities. It hit me the other day that I only have a few more years before they vanish into the black hole of teenagerdom. I have to spend as much time as possible with them now while they are still kids, and then wait a while until they emerge into adulthood-- perhaps that is a bleak view, but I'm trying to prepare myself for a few years where they'll be uncommunicative and think I'm a big nerd rather than their fun, wacky aunt!
Here's the funny thing-- my mother copied both of the kids on her email to my sister and me about her house sale! I asked her why, especially as she was telling us not to tell anyone until the deal was done, and I thought the kids would be the most likely to blab. It turns out they watch some of those real estate TV shows, so they've been quite interested in my mother's whole process, and she trusts them not to tell.
Let's hope there is more news to tell soon!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Juice is My New Financial Kryptonite

What is it about juice that makes it so expensive sometimes?? I've always enjoyed fresh juices and smoothies made with fruits and vegetables, and they seem to be becoming more and more popular and widely available. There are green smoothie books all over the bestseller lists, and people are always talking about how great their Vitamix blenders are. You can buy all these fancy juices on Amazon, as well as various health food shops, Whole Foods, etc. and they are sometimes $10 a bottle! This is exactly the kind of thing where I'd normally dismiss it as a crazy fad designed to part stupid people from their money... but I guess I am one of those stupid people, because I often find myself spending the $10! I can't resist!

I'm not buying these juices every day. But it's gone from being maybe once every couple of months to once a month... to once a week... to sometimes multiple times a week! And as the weather gets warmer, a nice cool refreshing juice will seem more and more attractive.
Sometimes I go to a place where they make them fresh, and as I watch them stuffing a handful of spinach, a big carrot, a couple beets, and whatever else into the blender, I try to do the mental math of what it would cost to buy those vegetables. I don't have a good mental price list for fruits and vegetables, though. Or maybe I don't have a good sense of weight! When I buy apples at the supermarket, I'm often shocked at what it works out to per apple-- I've seen the per pound price, but I never think each apple will be that heavy.
I comfort myself that this particular extravagance is at least a healthy vice-- a $10 juice is still less than the cost of a pack of cigarettes, and less than the average glass of wine in many NYC restaurants.

What's your financial kryptonite?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Bonus Time

So my last post was about how tax time is usually a happy time of year... this goes hand in hand with bonus time, which is also usually a happy time of year. This year was a bit of an exception.
I have mostly had jobs that involve measurable performance in some aspects, so a bonus has often been a significant part of my compensation, sometimes more than I even expected! I always remember my first job in NYC, where my salary started at $25,000. I knew that some sort of bonus would accompany that, but I don't know how much I asked about how big it could be. I was coming from a job where a bonus meant maybe $1500-2000, so I didn't think of it as a make-or-break thing. So it was a fantastic surprise when I ended up making about $15,000 in bonus that first year, and all of it went straight into the bank. I've always tried to make ends meet on my base salary and put bonuses towards saving, it just seems easier to be disciplined that way.
Nowadays, my bonus tends to be about 15-20% of my total compensation, so it's still a good chunk of savings that I rely on to meet my overall goals. And this year, because I had done some things that went above and beyond in terms of my job performance, I was counting on a bigger than usual bonus. In fact, I had sort of been told, or it had been implied, that when I got only a so-so raise this year, it was because that was not the way my work was going to be recognized, but that I would see the payoff in my bonus.
My personal performance isn't the only thing that determines my bonus, so when I have this conversation with my boss, she usually hands me a piece of paper that shows the whole calculation. My eyes usually jump to the total, I smile, I thank my boss profusely, and that's pretty much it. But this time, my eyes went to the total, then dodged around a bit, then back to the total, then back and forth over all the math. While this happened, I was sort of zoning out on what my boss was saying and my face must have slowly dropped from a smile into a blank look into a frown. My total bonus was less than the prior year, and specifically the part that was about my individual performance was less than the prior year. I knew one part of the bonus might be down due to certain sales numbers that it would be based on, but I just could not comprehend how my personal number was less. I managed to gather my thoughts enough to say, I think gracefully, what was already written on my face-- that I was surprised and disappointed, because I had accomplished X, Y and Z, etc., that were a significant jump over what I'd done last year.
This all happened on a Friday and I spent the whole weekend in a funk. It wasn't so much the money itself-- it was that I felt insulted. I also felt demoralized. I had worked harder than I ever had in my life, and been amply praised for it, but if it wasn't going to be recognized with either a raise or an increased bonus, what was the point? Why was I working so hard? And though I am certainly not irreplaceable, why would my company send me this message at a point when it would be quite difficult for them if I were to leave? What were they thinking?
In the end, fortunately, it worked out. They reconsidered the bonus and gave me a couple thousand dollars more, so that in the end, my bonus was slightly larger than last year's. They said lots of nice things and I was able to feel more valued again. But the whole thing did leave a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I probably haven't been a squeaky enough wheel about asking for bigger raises the last few years, so maybe I'm being taken for granted.
That said, I am always thankful that I have a job with a decent income, where I've gotten promoted and have interesting work to do-- life could be far worse! I was talking to a couple of people from another company recently-- one complained that she had found out that she was being paid a lot less than her male counterpart who did the exact same job, despite some pretty significant accomplishments on her part that the male co-worker didn't have. The other, a younger and more junior employee, had asked to be promoted when a spot above her opened up, and was disappointed to be told that no, they weren't going to hire someone for that spot, and no, she could not have a better title, and no, she could not have any more money either!
Ultimately, no matter how much you like your job, it's never all that great to work for someone other than yourself... and being self-employed is no piece of cake either! Retirement is starting to loom large in my imagination... but I still have at least 20 years or so before that will be an option... ugh!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Time to Adjust... Withholding, and Attitude!

Tax time is usually a happy time of year for me. The last few years, I've tended to get refunds. I know it's all a psychological game, because a big refund really means you were overpaying all year, and gave the government a free loan. If you owe money, it's like the government gave you a free loan... though interest rates are so low these days, it's pretty much a wash anyway. What is ultimately important is the net amount of tax you pay... so I try to remember that the refund isn't really like winning the lottery. But this year, although I wasn't expecting to get a big refund, I got none at all. Instead, I owed several thousand dollars!
It's my own fault-- my accountant told me to adjust my withholding last year and I just never got around to doing it. And now that I'm not a homeowner anymore, I don't have the big mortgage interest deduction that I used to have, and some of my other itemized deductions were lower. I also had more income and the net result is that I owed more tax. A lot more than I thought I would. My total taxes paid will be a lot more than last year.
The good news is that I am not paying it a minute before it's due on April 15. And hopefully in the meantime I'll have gotten a decent bonus that will more than replace that outflow. And I already adjusted the allowances on my W-4 in hopes that I won't have this problem again next year!

Next on the to-do list is some serious thinking and planning about what makes sense for Sweetie and me and our tax situation as individuals and as a couple. Sweetie owns real estate but doesn't have a job right now. I have a job, but don't own any real estate, so one option is for me to buy a share of Sweetie's apartment. Another option is getting married! Neither of these is anything to take lightly... We shall see...

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Selling My Apartment, Part 2

I found a very nice broker and we were immediately in agreement about the listing price for my apartment. It was more than what I'd agreed to with my friends, and left me some room to negotiate down a bit and pay a 6% fee and still come out with close to the same net. The broker took lovely photos, did a couple of open houses, and the offers rolled in, fast! I forget the sequence of all the various offers playing out-- we juggled around the various pros and cons of a few for several days-- there were some investors who offered a little low and didn't want to come up to match higher offers. There was an offer above asking price but we were worried we'd have trouble with the bank's appraisal coming in too low later. I ended up accepting an offer at asking price where the sellers said they'd waive the mortgage contingency. This could have been a good thing, as they had plenty of cash, but they did want to finance the purchase, and before the contract was ever signed, they backed out because, guess what, they couldn't get a mortgage! But meanwhile, another offer had come in for asking price, from an all cash buyer. My excellent and slightly sneaky broker told them there was a contract about to be signed, but that I'd back out of the other deal if they upped their offer to $5k over ask-- and they did, with the only contingency being that they wanted to close fast. That was fine with me, so finally, after several failed attempts, the deal was done. A few weeks later, I walked out of my lawyer's office after the closing with several checks totaling over $180k-- my equity after paying off my outstanding mortgage balance plus a nice profit.

The whole experience happened quite quickly, so I never really got to the point of panicking too much about the failed transactions. But it did leave me feeling profoundly relieved after the sale was done-- not only had my apartment become a financial and logistical burden because I wasn't really using it, it had also become a source of stress as I realized there were some maintenance issues in the building that I hadn't really noticed, and if not actual irregularities, the potential for some irregularities in how the building was being managed. The buyer's inspector found a little mold in the basement, but otherwise seemed to think the building was in decent enough shape physically, which I was happy about, as I'd had my issues with leaks at the very beginning and worried there could be other problems. So I was glad to be done with it by the time I moved out.

A couple other observations: I tried to sell most of my furniture, without much success-- people on Craigslist can be really flaky! I ended up giving a lot of stuff away to friends' children, either in or just out of college-- in exchange I got a nice bottle of wine and a lot of goodwill and appreciation, which was fine with me! I also found it very difficult to donate stuff-- only one charity who offered pickups even bothered to return my call, and when they got my voicemail that one time, they never called back again or answered any of my calls or emails. I ended up paying Junkluggers to haul away lots of stuff and donate it (they provided a receipt so I could deduct the value on my tax return).

I was also somewhat surprised that many of my potential buyers were parents buying apartments for their children. I mean, I know this must happen a lot in NYC, but it was still kind of annoying to have  the reality of it in my face. I guess I thought of my apartment as being the kind of place that was accessible to a middle-class first time home buyer, a young couple or a single person like me-- it was small, a bit further out in Brooklyn than a lot of people wanted to live, and just not somewhere I would have pictured a rich kid living. But I guess it's just a sign of how things have been changing in NYC in general that even my not-that-fabulous neighborhood is all that relatively wealthy people can afford-- the super-rich are pushing the merely affluent into neighborhoods that used to be more middle-class, and everyone feels the effects.

But I'm out of that game now-- for the moment, I'm a renter, as I pay Sweetie each month to cover my share of our bills. At some point, we may make some arrangements so that I'll actually have a mortgage in my name again... but that is a story for another post!