Open those envelopes

It’s that time again. When important envelopes come flying into your mailbox. These envelopes usually have BOLD text on the front that say something like

 IMPORTANT TAX DOCUMENT ENCLOSED.

What do you usually do with those envelopes? Just pile them up?

Aren’t you just the least bit curious about that important  information?

Why not do something different this year?  After all, you are older and wiser now.

Sooooooo

OPEN THE ENVELOPES!

READ THE FORMS!

Then file them in a  careful TAX file, so you can start getting more organized about your money.

In addition, your clever organization will help you get ready for taxes, early. And maybe file early so you get your refund early!


Those are some good reasons to open them and read them. So let’s tell you what to expect and why you should read them.

In January, here are 2 kinds of documents that come in the mail. The first set of envelopes hold statements that tell you how much money you (and/or your partner) made last year. The second set, usually 1099 forms, tell you how much you earned in dividends or interest, and provide other information.

Focus on the first set of envelopes. There are thick ones, and very thin ones.

  • The thin envelopes hold forms called W-2 (forms).  A W-2 tells you  how much money you (or your partner) earned last year.
    • When you see a W-2, look for Box 1. It lists WAGES, TIPS AND OTHER COMPENSATION. What is the dollar amount? That’s your “gross” or total income. The amount that you get paid before all the benefits and taxes are taken out. That is a good number to know. And, it is an important tax document. You will need it to fill out your income tax documents and send it to the IRS. So put it into your new Tax File.
  • The thick envelopes tell you how much money you hold in your retirement accounts, and other accounts at banks and investment houses. These are year-end statements. So grab them, and read them so you know how much money you held in each account on December 31 of last year. Then go one better. Add this information to a list, your List of Assets. (See the Tools menu for the template you can use.) Make this a New Year’s Ritual. Every year, write down how much money you hold in each and every account. Then add up the total. This total  is another important number to know.

Now let’s look at the second set of envelopes. They generally come from Banks or other financial institutions . They tend to hold forms called 1099s.

  • 1099 form tells you how much interest (1099-INT) or dividends (1099-DIV) you earned in each and every account that you hold. There are also 1099-R forms and 5498 forms that list IRA accounts, and contributions made to retirement accounts.

While these forms may seem boring, they actually can help you understand a lot about your money. Let’s say you don’t remember how many accounts you or your partner holds. Well, these forms remind you. Each one lists the name of a bank or financial institution that holds your account your partner’s. And it tells you

    •  the type of account (like savings, or investment or retirement)  held at that Bank
    • the account number
    • and the name of the person, or persons who own the account and control the money in it.

So if you forgot to include 1 or 2 accounts in your List of Assets, these 1099 forms can remind you of their existence. After all, Hot Flash Financial wants you to keep track of every account that holds your hard earned money. So pile all of these 1099 forms into your Tax file, and use these forms to cross-check your holdings.

If you find more accounts, add them to your List of Assets. Then track down the total dollar amounts held in each and write it on your List of Assets.  When you add up your total balance, you will really be happy to see value of your assets grow!

So watch for these envelopes. Open them up and read them. Use them to update your List of Assets.That way you will  know how much money you have. And, you can get organized for tax time.

You will be glad you did.

———————–

If you get all your tax documents organized you can file your income taxes early. THAT MEANS YOU CAN GET YOUR REFUND EARLY!!!!

What will motivate you? the news you will be a Widow?

A great column in the New York Times (by Ron Lieber) raises this very important issue. “A shocking death, a financial lesson…

If you find out you will be facing this  type of change, be kind to yourself. There are only a few things you need to do right away (see Steps 1 and 2, below). Right now, we just want you to “get your ducks in a row.”  At this point in time, you may be able to consult your partner to make sure you are completely clear on the wonderful or thoughtful things s/he did for you. There are many others that do not need your immediate attention (see Step 3).  They tend to be the “big decisions.” You are better off taking time and thinking carefully about a lot about these decisions.

We give you the Hot Flash Financial approach, as you would expect.  Step 1 is  finding out how you will be financially secure. We called this compiling your List of Assets, on the site. It may be time to improve your first list so you are really up-to-date. Or you can just take the time to start your own. Step 2 asks you to speak to your partner and get guidance from him/her on important end of life issues. Step 3 encourages you to ask yourself some of the important Hot Flash Financial  questions, develop your answers, and then, when you have had some time to think, begin to  ACT!

If you complete  Steps 1 and 2 early in the game,  you will give yourself a gift.  You will have the luxury of focusing on the person you love, rather than worrying about yourself, and where your next penny is coming from, in the future. If you complete these first steps, you can take the time to grieve.  Then turn to the big decisions.

 

1. Step #1. Develop a carefully organized file. Find out what you have and where you have it. Also find out your rights. 

Take an afternoon to compile your files. You will need to get a list of your assets AND a list of your sources of income–such as pension payments, retirement income, investment income, social security. If your partner is able, you can cross check your findings and thank her/him for being so kind. Since s/he is human, there are likely to be some things s/he forgot–like changing the beneficiaries on her/his retirement accounts. Or changing the title on the house. If an ex-spouse is sill the beneficiary, or an owner of your home, your partner may  have to sign some paperwork. (That is, if the courts did not require this form of titling, etc.)

You will probably need to set aside an hour or 3  to call or contact institutions during business hours. These include the Human Resource Offices of your partner’s former employer(s). Make sure you keep a well documented list of names of institutions, phone numbers, names of the contact person, date and time of contact, and of course the name of the benefit and the account or policy number associated with each. If you call back later, and you get a slothful person, your earlier record of dates, contact persons etc, will help prompt that sloth to act on your behalf. And, if you can get online access to these accounts, all the better. Just keep a careful record of user names and passwords for your future reference.

Here is a basic list. We will start with immediate sources of  income and move to assets.

Life Insurance:  the policy numbers and company names for Life Insurance (Term and/or Whole Life) policies. Look in your files at home. Try to find the original document with the policy number. Remember, insurance companies may have been merged, etc. So cross check recent files to find the name of the institution that holds it now. Life Insurance is a contract  So the right to the benefits transfer by law (not through probate). If possible, check the name(s) of the  beneficiaries before your partner passes. An ex-wife/partner may be the beneficiary. You may need to ask your partner to sign paperwork to change that.  Talk to an estate attorney if you have one, to see if it makes sense for you to “own” the policy, rather than your partner. And don’t forget that  life insurance may be held through your partner’s place of work. So contact the Human Resources Office for details.

Pension income: Call the Human Resource office of a your husband/partner’s place(s) of work, and past places of work, especially if he/she was a member of a union. S/he may be entitled to pension income. Write this account, the institution that holds it, and the telephone number you will need to reach someone to talk about your rights. Also find out how much you can expect to receive each month and year, now and in the future. And, find out if you have to take the pension in a “lump sum” or not. If you have to take a lump sum, be really careful. That money is supposed to last you 10 or 20 or maybe 30years. Consider using that lump sum to buy an Annuity.

Social Security: Contact Social Security to ask them about your rights. You may be surprised that you have choices. You have a right to Widow’s Benefits. But those are usually less money than your husband’s monthly income.  They may be less than the benefits you could get through your own employment history. So you  may have alternatives that are better. Make careful decisions about the benefits you select: Widows benefits or benefits based on your own employment.

Retirement Accounts: Make sure you know how many retirement accounts your husband/partner has, the institutions that hold them and the account numbers. There is likely to be more than one retirement account. Accounts can be held at every former employer as 401(k)s or 403(b)s, or 457s. There are other types of employer retirement accounts. These include IRAs of all types (Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs, and traditional IRAs to name a few). Ask about each and every one. Retirement accounts are contracts, like life insurance policies. Regardless of what it says in the will or trusts, the person named as the beneficiary gets the money. So check the beneficiaries. Sometimes your partner has to call to find out this information. You may have to call from a hospital or hospice bed, with your partner next to you. Your partner may be asked if he or she will allow you to speak for him/her. That will help you both review the issues. You might want to thank your partner for thinking of you and caring for you, by making you beneficiary.

Investment Accounts: Did you and/or your partner hold investments-stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etfs etc.- outside of retirement accounts? These are likely to be held in accounts with large investment houses (Merrill Lynch, Smith Barney, etc.) or smaller ones (Raymond James) and On-Line brokerages. Find out where they are, and how much money is held there. (You will need to find their market value on the date of death, to make transfers and/or clarify tax responsibilities.)

Real Estate: Your home and/or any other real estate you have.

Wills and Trust Lawyer. If your partner has not drawn up a will, or a health care proxy, it may be time to do so. Many people avoid writing wills or developing trusts. So don’t get upset if this was not done. Review the wills and the trusts, making sure that they comply with the laws of your state, and take advantage of any tax breaks you may be allowed.

Step 2. If you have not done so, but have the time, draft and sign a living will, and a power of attorney. These legal documents function like a will. They give your partner the ability to clarify (in writing) important issues and give guidance about the next steps you should take.  A living will, also called an advanced care directive, allows your partner to give written instructions about her/his treatment and end of life care if/and when s/he can no longer make decisions because of incapacity or illness. Click on the site Five Wishes to get more information about this type of document. A power of attorney or health care proxy allows your partner to appoint a specific individual to make these decisions for her/him.

Step 3. Don’t make any big decisions quickly. Take your time. Mourn and Grieve. As the first year passes, you will have a better understanding of the kinds of decisions you will want (and may need) to make. Make your decisions after thinking things through carefully. What we mean is–take time.

Think about the TRADE-OFFs that Hot Flash Financial talks about so much.

One big decision: where do you want to live? A house is probably the biggest expense you will have in the future. What do you really, really want to do about your home? If you sell your home now and get the money that was previously tied up in equity, that may help you have a higher income. Nevertheless, you will have to decide where you will live? This  decision is best made while considering your key relationships. Will you rupture ties with your friends and family? What about your doctors and other support groups? Can you buy a place that is a lot smaller in the same community, yet costs a lot less? Then you can pay cash for your new place, but have some cash left over (from the equity) to use for income. Downsizing has its positive value, especially if you reduce your monthly costs.

Another big decision: where and how to you want to be a widow? Many women say that being a widow changes your social life. And that is just the time when you need your friends the most! Sometimes parties are limited to couples. You had not noticed that before, but it might become more important as the first year progresses.  You need time to think about this.

Another big decision: what to do about your children, or in some cases, “his” children. Don’t let children rush you into making decisions. Remember you have a right to grieve. And you need time to get your life in order. Find out if your partner’s will and/or trust stipulates that the money goes to the children AFTER PROVIDING SUPPORT FOR YOU THROUGH OUT YOUR LIFE, that is what it says. The children should know, and can be reminded of that legal fact and your partner’s wishes.  You have to retain your dignity and independence. (If you have a sense of humor, tell them that you will have to move in with one of the children or step children and her/his spouse if the money runs out. And they will have to help with your medical expenses and care for about 10 or more years. Would they like that? Because that will happen if you give them all the money.) They will have to wait for their inheritance. After all, you did.

A more complete list of recommendations for widows can be found at  WISER, among other sites.

A new tradition

Let’s start a new “tradition.”  (Humor me. I was trained as an anthropologist. We anthropologists  love rituals.) Let’s call it a Hot Flash Financial Tradition.

What is this tradition? First it, is a ritual that occurs around new years. How do you do it?  Every year, you revise your List of Assets to reflect the December 31, 2012 balances. After you have the year end balances, you add up the total. Then do the really smart, Hot Flash Financial thing– Celebrate what you did right. And use your new List of Assets to make some decisions to improve your financial security next year.

If you have not developed your own personal List of Assets, create your first one today. (Go to the Tools Tab and select List of Assets.)  You take the same steps as someone who has a List of Assets.

Here are the steps you can use to follow the ritual. Go on-line to access every one of your retirement accounts, as well as investment and savings accounts. If you already  created your list of assets, add a column and mark it December 31, 2012. Input the dollar values for the last day of the year for every one of your account balances.  Then add the dollar values all up to get a Total. Now, do what comes naturally. Find out if your retirement account balances are higher than last year.

The next part of the  Hot Flash Financial Tradition is crucial: figure out what you did right! Also figure out what needs to be improved.

What you did right:

  • If you added more money to your retirement accounts, the total should be higher.
  • If you were invested  in stocks (or stock mutual funds) your balances may be as much as 10% -13% higher. (The S & P 500 booked a 13% increase over last year, 2012. If you invested a portion of your portfolio in Bonds, you may not be as high. But you got stability or less crazy fluctuations in your account values. Why? you reduced your risk by investing in bonds. Reducing risk has a cost. But it also has a strong plus–it allows you to sleep better at night.)

This is the most fun of this ritual. Pat yourself on the back and celebrate what you did right!!!!!

If you added money to your retirement account, but the increase did not meet your expectations, figure out why.

What you could improve in the future:

  • Did you add enough money to your retirement account  to make the total budge?
  •  Are there other reasons for the shortfall in your expectations about your retirement account balances, and your overall Hot Flash Stash of Cash?
    • Did you decide to save for the future, but you deposited that money into a savings account instead of your retirement investment account(s)? A savings account probably gave you about 1% return in 2012  By contrast, the stock market gave about 10%-13% in the same year. Did you make the right decision, saving in a savings account rather than a retirement account? What will you do in the next 12 months? Invest in your retirement account or in a savings account?
    • Savings accounts are nice. They reduce the risk that you will lose the money you deposited. But remember there is a “risk-return” trade off. If you take on more risk–investing in the stock market, you are likely to get more return. (In this case, the return in 2012 [and most years] would have been positive, although the market did move up and down a lot during the year. While the dollar amounts fluctuated, over the long term, in this case a year,  you were ahead.) If you take less risk–investing in a savings account–you are likely to get a lower return. Lower risk is often correlated (as we say in the biz) with lower return.

Your handy- dandy List of Assets becomes a really important reference point.  It also enables you, no actually empowers you to make some important decisions and improve your financial security. Your decisions can increase the number of things you do that are right over the next few years. So you can celebrate more. 

After celebrating, take a closer look at your List of Assets to figure out what you can do to increase your own, personal financial security in the coming 12 months.

Since we can’t shut up, we will suggest you do 2 things.

  1. Increase the amount of money you deposit in your retirement account. Increase it by 1%. And, if you can, work toward increasing your contributions, over the next year or 2 or 3, to deposit the maximum legally allowed.
  2. Decide if you are comfortable with a bit more risk. If so, invest a greater portion of your retirement savings  in the stock and bond markets, for the long term. If not, stick with savings accounts.

Make this  Hot Flash Financial tradition, your tradition  every first week in January. That way, you have more control. You have the knowledge of what you have done well. And you can take the steps you need to take to improve your financial security over the long term.