Call it the triple-whammy: An elderly parent, a new significant other and an aging bull market.
A reader recently shared his frustrations over watching his elderly father gift a large portion of his assets to a new, much-younger girlfriend. He is his father’s designated power of attorney but learned quickly through his attorney that there’s not a lot he can do about the situation because the father hasn’t been declared (often by a physician) to be incapacitated.
The months or years leading up to a determination that would trigger a power of attorney designation are complex and often emotionally painful.
Meanwhile, as interest rates remain at historically low levels and market prognosticators trim their expectations for stock and bond portfolio returns in coming years, families are concerned about a combination of big withdrawals and low returns at the end of life that will ultimately decimate the elders’ savings and leave adult children on the hook to make up the difference.
Many of the worst financial abusers are the very children or other relatives who are supposed to be looking out for these seniors, experts say.
“It’s the old ‘he-said, she-said,’ ” says Martin Shenkman, a New Jersey tax and estate planning attorney. “Is the new girlfriend unduly influencing the senior or taking incredible care of him, and it’s the children who are just trying to save their inheritance? Often, nobody (considered a neutral party) knows.”
Beginning to document examples of financial mismanagement is a common first step but can also be fraught with consequences, experts say.
Shirley Whitenack, an estate planning attorney and president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, said she has seen many families pulled apart as children fight in court to take control of parents’ assets.
“Then if the children lose, the parents by then are so angry they cut the kids off completely,” she said.
Inheritance issues are always tricky, as any parent knows who has contemplated leaving assets to children according to their perceived needs rather than splitting them equally. On that front, many families have learned that children’s circumstances can often change over time and that giving different amounts can permanently damage sibling relationships long after the parents are gone.
Splitting an estate equally puts the onus on the children, not the parents, to be good stewards of the money.
In other words, simpler is sometimes better.
That’s the theory behind financial planner Satoru “San” Asato’s retirement income planning with clients, he said.
One client, a mentally fit and affluent woman in her early 80s, began dating a man with very few financial resources, prompting an adult child, her power of attorney, to voice some concerns.
“What makes the situation manageable for us is our process,” Asato said. When the woman became a client, they agreed that the goal of her financial plan was to spend her assets down completely, with no inheritance goal.
Using software and a withdrawal discipline that can respond to investment return volatility and a planning horizon five years beyond a conservative life expectancy estimate, he’s confident she won’t exhaust the funds. If for some reason it begins to look like she might, she can tap home equity. If not, then the home becomes the asset she passes down to heirs.
“I tell clients, ‘My interest is in you staying financially independent for the rest of your life, and we’re going to (aim to) spend all that money down to zero,’ ” Asato said. “When I say that they are initially shocked, but by the time we discuss it a little bit they all say, yes, I want to stay independent and any money left over and the real estate can go to the kids.”
“When I explain this to (clients’) kids, they are relieved to know they won’t need to fund income security for their parents in retirement,” he said. Resolving some of the kids’ unknowns about their parents’ plan tends to dissipate a lot of concerns, he said.
The upfront income planning also helps clients themselves keep some perspective on their assets as their personal relationships change, he said.
“When I explain what the income is they’ll have off of their assets, women clients in particular are able to stay on budget so they don’t jeopardize that income.”
Asato doesn’t try to tackle getting into detail about what, or who, clients spend their money on. Again, simpler is better, he said.