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'Solo Ager' Needs Help Handling Her Financial Affairs

With no spouse and no children, she's looking elsewhere for backup

Elizabeth Spiegler out in her neighborhood in Queens on a rainy day

Matthew Salcuse (Hair and Make up Stylist: Lauren Bridges)

Elizabeth Spiegler out in her neighborhood in Queens on a rainy day.

The Problem

En español | Elizabeth Spiegler, 68, a retired office manager in New York City, was thinking ahead. She wrote me wondering who could handle her financial affairs if someday she can't. Spiegler isn't married, doesn't have children and isn't that close to her extended family. Right now her brother has her power of attorney for finances, but she'd like further backup. Some friends will oversee her health care. But she feels having those friends manage her money is asking too much. And her financial adviser doesn't want her power of attorney.

Spiegler is what's called a solo ager: an older person with neither a partner nor surviving children. It's a growing group. In 2000, 16 percent of Americans 85 and older had no living offspring; by 2040 that number is expected to hit 21 percent. A recent SeniorCare.com study found that 78 percent of solo agers had no one to help with the bills or finances. “I think I may be fine,” says Spiegler, who now manages her own money. “But what if I'm not? I don't know what to do.”


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The Advice

For answers, I turned to attorneys and financial experts who work with older people and their families. Each discussed the risk of elder financial abuse, and how enlisting the wrong helper — maybe even a relative — can lead to disaster. Here are the experts’ best solutions.

1. A trust with successor trustees

Spiegler would establish a living (or revocable) trust and put all the assets she could into it now. She'd serve as her own trustee, naming her brother and a financial institution as successor trustees who could take over if necessary. Eventually, the institution would handle her bills and manage her investments. “The benefits of an institutional trustee are professionalism, experience and guidance,” says New York City estate planning attorney Martin Shenkman. “There are tons of checks and balances to protect you. That's vital for anyone who is vulnerable and isolated.”

This safe solution can be a pricey one. Traditional trust companies sometimes serve only clients with several million dollars. But mainstream financial institutions like Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard also do this work. Their annual charges start at $4,500 a year (on top of usual investment costs, like fund fees). Even these less expensive alternatives, however, cost more than Spiegler — who has a pension and a retirement account in the low six figures — wants to pay.

2. A financial team

What Spiegler needs is a team, says Carolyn McClanahan, a Jacksonville, Florida-based financial adviser who specializes in life-planning issues. “You need people doing the work,” she says. “But you also need people watching the people doing the work.” McClanahan suggests hiring a bill-paying service for the day-to-day money management, then having an accountant or attorney (someone who is also a fiduciary) lined up to make the bigger financial decisions. Because a bill-paying service typically charges less per hour than an accountant or lawyer, this works out financially as well. But, cautions Nancy Sween, National Association of Elder Law Attorneys spokesperson, you don't want that bill payer to be a random person you find online. “You want to make sure they're insured, bonded, and that you check out their website and their background,” she says. One such option is SilverBills, a household bill management service that operates nationwide; it reviews bills and authorizes payment for a flat monthly fee starting at $99. Another option is to find a service through the American Association of Daily Money Managers (aadmm.com), a group of individuals and small companies nationwide.

3. A private fiduciary

California attorney Stuart Furman, author of The ElderCare Ready Book, suggests Spiegler keep her brother in place as power of attorney as long as possible, while simultaneously setting up a “springing” power of attorney who would take his place if he were unable. Who would do this job? A private fiduciary. These are independent, licensed, bonded individuals. You can interview, check references and hire one in advance, much as you would a lawyer or accountant. A fiduciary acts for the benefit of the client — in other words, putting your interests first. They can serve as powers of attorney for health care as well as finance, executors for an estate, bill payers and even guardians. They typically charge $100 to $150 an hour for their services. This arrangement might work for Spiegler if she lived elsewhere. Unfortunately, licensed private fiduciaries exist only in California and Arizona.

The Outcome

In the end, Spiegler decided to do nothing — yet. “This information is very valuable,” she says. But she acknowledges a psychological block to getting started: “Right now I like being independent and taking care of my own business.”

Want Jean Chatzky’s help in sorting out a financial problem? Send an email to rescue@aarp.org

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