Wings for Widows
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Home Sweet Home

Doris and Martin* were married for more than 60 years. He was 85 years old when he died unexpectedly. Martin was jovial, kind, and loved by his family, his church, and community. Martin was a character, with a personality bigger than life. He lived well, and Doris would agree, well beyond his means in his later years. He’d been a hard worker all his life. A good provider. But when he died on September 21, 2019, Doris found herself in chaos. The chaos of loss.

Doris, 80, was overwhelmed and exhausted when she reached out to Wings for Widows about a month later. At first her kids tried to help, but no one could make sense of what needed to be done first, as everything seemed to be a priority. Creditors were calling. Collection letters went unopened. There were no pensions, no retirement accounts, and no savings. Martin handled the family’s finances during their marriage, which is often the case, which meant that Doris had little knowledge of when bills were due, who to pay, or even which checkbook to use. She wanted to grieve, but her finances were in crisis. She’d have to grieve later.

Chris Bentley met Doris and several of her family members at their first coaching meeting. And a second, but then Chris began meeting Doris at her home in Brooklyn Park. Every few weeks they would sit at the kitchen table, usually for several hours, and pour through Doris’ finances. Most coaching engagements last a month or so; Chris worked with Doris for more than four months.

Doris’ financial situation was in critical condition, and Chris’ primary concern was keeping Doris in her home. The problem was simple: with the loss of Martin’s social security income there wasn’t enough to cover current expenses. Worse, there was significant debt and no means for paying it down.

The first priority was to determine what were Martin’s debts and what were joint debts or Doris’ debts. Chris contacted all of Martin’s creditors, including the collection agencies, and explained that there was no estate to probate and worked with the Wings for Widow’s attorney to settle these issues. With Doris at his side, they pulled Martin’s credit reports to ensure that all his accounts were reviewed, properly coded as deceased, and closed.

Doris still worked part-time as a school bus monitor, attended church, and continued to run her household, which included caring for her grandson. It was imperative that Doris remain in her home, which was in real question. Doris was two-months behind with her mortgage payment and Chris knew he needed to find a way to bring her current. There was no equity in the home to borrow; in fact, the home wasn’t worth the outstanding mortgage. Worse, it had gone to collections and working with them would be very challenging.

Meanwhile, Doris’ only car was Martin’s old Cadillac Escalade. It was in dire need of servicing. Car payments were past due, as well. Doris needed a replacement, but the first priority was saving the home. Chris’ poured over Doris’ credit reports and worked with her to close inactive accounts, and also to preserve if not enhance her credit score. He would need to take action that helped her credit history in the event Doris would need new housing. This meant declaring bankruptcy wasn’t an option. Chris would have to work with Doris’ creditors.

Martin had one small life insurance policy. Chris had helped Doris file for benefits and the check arrived about this time. Digging through folders at one meeting, Chris discovered an additional small policy, and benefits were applied for. This helped Doris get her mortgage payments current. But for how long? There was still too much debt.

The next priority was to understand Doris’ expenses and, more importantly, which were essential, and which were not. Chris began negotiating with the utility companies, cell phone companies, and other service providers to forgive or reduce past due bills and establish payment plans. One by one, they lowered or eliminated expenses.

Just before Martin died, they had received a home improvement loan to remodel their master bathroom. This loan was severely past due and about to go to collections. Chris tackled this creditor next, working out a payment plan and keeping it from going to collections. At the same time, there was a past-due bill from the IRS, with penalties and interest accruing. They contacted the IRS together and worked out a plan to get that bill paid. In fact, there were so many creditors, Chris kept a notebook to keep track of all the details. No wonder Doris and her family were overwhelmed!

Chris then arranged to bring in a budgeting expert, Maura Albrecht, paid for by Wings for Widows. Maura worked with Doris for the next eight weeks to create a budget and payment schedule so that Doris knew when and to whom to send payments. This was all tied to when various income would hit Doris’ bank. Doris adopted the system and diligently sticks to the schedule Maura created for her.

The pandemic followed, schools shut down, and Doris was out of job. Luckily the school district continued to pay Doris’ small salary. Her grandson, working at Cub and various jobs, also helps with some of Doris’ expenses. Their financial situation is now stable though far from perfect. But most importantly, together, they remain in their home. Home sweet home.

*The names have been changed by request.

The Missing Loot

Linda lost Greg on December 20, 2018. A year earlier he had received an inheritance of $63,000. Linda wasn’t sure what Greg had done with the inheritance, but she sure could use it now. Her meager income put her just above the Federal Poverty level, which meant she didn’t qualify for much-needed assistance. Due to her significant health issues, Linda could not work and even short trips to the store or to church took their toll on her. Since Greg’s death, she had more bad days than good ones.

When she contacted Wings for Widows, she was depressed and desperate for help. Coaches Chris and Maureen first met Linda on July 12, 2019. Their initial meeting with Linda raised serious concerns about her financial situation. She simply did not understand what she had or didn’t have, and there were very few records to help her sort it out. There were stacks of mail. Everywhere. The first thing they attacked was getting her organized. During this process, Linda discovered more than $500 in cash and gift cards from the funeral.

Linda explained that Greg had purchased $15,000 of gold and silver coins just before he died, but her sister and brother-in-law had taken them for safe keeping. In fact, she was certain Greg had given her $15,000, but she couldn’t find any record of it. Was it the coins o something else? She was convinced the money had gone missing shortly after Greg passed away. Linda didn’t have enough income to pay all her monthly bills, so finding the missing loot was important.

Maureen accompanied Linda to her bank and got copies of all her statements. They also found that Greg still had open accounts and moved his $6,000 balance to Linda. The $500 in cash and gifts was deposited too. His accounts and the joint account were closed.

They then began working through Linda’s bank statements to track deposits and cancelled checks to understand what Linda had or hadn’t received. Where was the missing loot? After hours of painstaking work, Maureen was able to determine that Linda had in fact received $15,000 in March 2019. This jived with a calendar entry of a visit to the bank with her sister and brother-in-law. It was a relief that it hadn’t been lost or stolen, but it didn’t help with Linda’s financial situation.

While Maureen was helping to track down the missing loot, Chris was busy contacting various local and state agencies to find Linda assistance. He connected Linda with Ramsey County Human Services and other financial assistance services. Linda received help and additional short-term financial aid. Chris also investigated her UCare Medicare Advantage Plan and spoke with her coordinator to understand the services Linda was receiving and the out-of-pocket costs associated with the plan. Finally, Chris reviewed Linda’s expenses to see what could be reduced or eliminated. He even explored Section 8 housing opportunities. Ultimately, the county helped Linda qualify for Ryan White housing subsidy that reduced her rental costs by 70%. We worked with Linda to establish a budget to ensure she could live within her means, which she is doing. And she still has the $15,000 of coins for a rainy day.

Linda was Greg’s sole caregiver in their apartment for nearly six months before he died from bladder cancer. He died peacefully, at home, and the biggest blessing was that Greg was able to reconcile with his estranged brother before he died.

Since working with Wings for Widows, Linda is having many more good days than bad ones. Her financial situation has stabilized. Linda still struggles with medical issues but is optimistic. She attends mass at Our Lady of Peace regularly and volunteers with the Divine Mercy Program. She regularly attends our events that encourage community and provides education to help widows find purpose and move forward. “I’m doing well,” she says, and knows that Wings for Widows will always be there for her.

2020

2021

Don’t Agonize. Get Organized! Creating the Perfect Filing System

Don’t Agonize. Get Organized! Creating the Perfect Filing System

To get started you’ll need some filing gear: manila (or colored) folders, hanging files, labels, sticky notes, and maybe a magic marker or two.

Start by creating a separate hanging file folder with a label for each of the major categories below.

o   Bank Statements o   Military Documents
o   Credit Card Statements o   Mortgage Documents
o   Credit Score Reports o   Personal Investment Statements
o   Home Improvements o   Product Service Manuals
o   Insurance Statements & Policies o   Property Tax Statements
o   Legal Documents o   Retirement Statements
o   Loan Statements o   Social Security Benefit Statements
o   Medical/Pharmacy Receipts o   Tax Returns
o   Miscellaneous Bills o   Vehicles
o   Miscellaneous Receipts

Once you’ve labeled your hanging file folders with these categories and any others you think are important, it’s time to create subcategories using the manila folders. Each manila folder will contain specific information within each major category.

Bank Statements

  • – Inside this hanging file, you’ll want to create separate folders with labels like the following:
  • – Checking Account(s), or one folder for each checking account
  • – Money Market Account(s)
  • – Savings Account(s)

Credit Card Statements

In this hanging file, you’ll want to file statements in folders with labels like the following:

  • – Credit Card #1, or VISA 1234 if you have more than one VISA account
  • – Credit Card #2, or Mastercard 1234 if you have more than one Mastercard account
  • – And so on

Credit Score Reports

In this hanging file, you’ll want a separate folder for each of the three credit agencies:

  • – Equifax
  • – Experian
  • – TransUnion

Home Improvements

In this hanging file, you’ll want to save all receipts that would be helpful for tax purposes should you ever sell your home. You could save them by year or by project, as follows:

  • – 2015, 2016, 2017, or
  • – Screened porch, master bath, etc.

Insurance Statements & Policies

In this hanging file, you’ll want a folder for each type of policy; if this hanging file gets too large, you may have to create a separate hanging file:

  • – Automobile Insurance
  • – Dental Insurance
  • – Disability Insurance
  • – Employer’s Insurance
  • – Health Insurance
  • – Homeowner Insurance
  • – Liability Insurance (aka Umbrella Insurance)
  • – Life Insurance
  • – Long-term Care Insurance

Legal Documents

In this hanging file, you’ll want to keep COPIES of your legal documents. The originals should be kept in a safe deposit box at your bank. Your attorney also may retain copies of these documents, which is also a good idea.

  • – Will
  • – Trust and Amendments
  • – Health Care Directive
  • – Powers of Attorney

Loan Statements

In this hanging file, you’ll want to have a file for each loan you have except your mortgage, as follows:

  • – Auto Loan
  • – Student Loan
  • – HELOC
  • – Personal Notes

Medical/Pharmacy Receipts

In this hanging file, you’ll want files for your receipts that may be helpful for tax purposes.

Miscellaneous Bills

In this hanging file, you’ll want a file for each bill. You may want to add a second hanging file to separate monthly bills from quarterly and annual bills.

  • – Cable (Internet, Satellite)
  • – Cellphone
  • – City (Garbage, Water)
  • – Daycare
  • – Electric/Utilities
  • – Health Club/Gym
  • – Housekeeping
  • – Phone
  • – Rent
  • – Yard Maintenance
  • – And other bills that you may have

Miscellaneous Receipts

In this hanging file, you might want a folder for each month with which to file every-day receipts, like for gas, clothing, groceries, and so on. If you need to make a return, you can easily find the receipt, which you’ll need in most cases.

Military Documents

In this hanging file, you’ll want a folder for your important military records:

  • – Discharge Papers
  • – DD214
  • – Fitness Reports
  • – Letters of Promotion
  • – Military Medical Records
  • – And so on. 

Mortgage Documents

In this hanging file, you’ll want to include all applications, contracts, financials, and statements associated with your home and mortgage company (that big folder of documents you received when you closed on your home).

Personal Investment Statements

In this hanging file, you’ll want a folder for monthly, quarterly and annual statements. You may want a folder for trade confirmations. If you have investments at different institutions, you may want a separate hanging file(s) labeled by institution:

  • – Investment Account #1, Account #2, etc., or
  • – Bank #1, Credit Union #1, Ameriprise Financial, etc.

Product Service Manuals

In this hanging file, you’ll want a folder for your most important product manuals (you may not need to retain the manual for your computer mouse, for example). Today nearly any manual you need can be found online and can be downloaded as a pdf file. This is more efficient than having the paper copies. Keeping the original manuals may be more convenient but may require more than one hanging file.

  • – Baby Equipment
  • – Computer
  • – Electronics
  • – Exercise Equipment
  • – Furnace and Hot Water Heater
  • – Kitchen Appliances
  • – Lawnmower
  • – Snowblower
  • – Television
  • – Washer/Dryer

Retirement Statements

In this hanging file, you’ll want a folder for each retirement account as follows:

  • – IRA #1, IRA #2
  • – Roth IRA
  • – 401(k)
  • – Pensions
  • – And so on

Social Security Benefit Statements

In this hanging file, you’ll just need one folder for your benefit statements, which you either receive automatically or have to request depending on your age.

Tax Returns

You’ll want a hanging file for each tax year. You need to retain your tax returns for seven years, so you’ll purge the oldest file once you’ve filed the current year tax return. Retain all supporting documents with your returns; you’ll need them should you ever be audited.

Vehicles

In this hanging file, you’ll want a folder for each car or other vehicle you may own. Retain all pertinent documents:

  • – Car #1, Car #2
  • – ATV
  • – Camper
  • – Snowmobile
  • – Boat

Adjusting to Being a Single Parent

Adjusting to Being a Single Parent

Becoming a single parent is a big adjustment. It can be challenging to raise a child as a single mother or father, but also rewarding. You are likely to have many questions as you adjust to becoming a single parent. How can you manage on one income? Where can you find help and support when you need it? How can you create a positive environment for your child while taking care of your own needs?

As you look for answers, remember that you are not alone. More than 1 in 4 households in the U.S. are headed by a single mother or father. Whether you’ve become a single parent by chance or by choice, this article has tips on how to help your child thrive.

How you may feel about being a single parent

Being a single parent is different for everyone. You may have chosen to become a single parent, or you may have had to take on the role because of a separation or divorce or the death of your partner. Your unique circumstances will affect how you feel about your new role.

If you have been trying for a long time to have or adopt a child on your own, you may feel overjoyed that you finally have become a parent. You may have had time to take steps that will help with the transition, such as building a support system, adjusting your budget, or preparing your home for a new family member. But you may still have worries or concerns about how you will cope, especially if raising a child is more challenging than you had expected.

If you have become a single parent unexpectedly, after becoming divorced or widowed, you may be grieving for a lost relationship as you plan for a different type of life for your child than you had expected. You may feel complex emotions that include shock, anger, guilt, loneliness, and fears for you or your family’s future. If you have left a difficult or high-conflict marriage, you may also feel relief that your child is living in a calmer environment that may be much healthier in the long run.

All of these feelings are normal and very common. Any painful emotions are likely to become less intense as you adjust to your new circumstances. In the meantime, try to be patient with yourself. Keep in mind that even in households with two adults, many parents at times feel lonely or overwhelmed or wonder how they will cope with all the stress.

Ways to make the adjustment easier

Adjusting to becoming a single parent, whether single parenthood was planned or unexpected, can be a challenge, especially when it feels as though there’s a lack of support in your community. But you might be pleasantly surprised at the resources that can make the transition to single parenthood easier.

Ask for help. Let friends, relatives, and others know what would make your life easier. Ask them for help with specific tasks, such as picking up or dropping off your child at school or appointments, helping at home, or running errands.

Try to make time for yourself every day. You may need to give your child a lot of extra support, but your needs are important, too. And you’ll be able to provide better care if you take care of yourself. Try to make time each day for activities that leave you feeling refreshed. Spending as little as 15 or 20 minutes reading a magazine or listening to your favorite music can make a big difference.

Join a single-parent support group. Support groups give you a chance to be with people who understand what you are going through and who can offer ideas, support, and advice. You can find groups for single parents through national organizations with local chapters, such as Parents Without Partners, or through community groups or houses of worship.

Consider starting a single-parents group if you can’t find one near you. Spread the word on social media or post a flyer at your child’s school.

Find ways to build your confidence. Remember that children can do well in many kinds of single-parent families, and try to avoid comparing yours to others. Also note, experts agree that children from single-parent homes can grow up to be as happy and well-adjusted as those from two-parent families.

Share what you are feeling with trusted friends, family members, or colleagues. Sometimes all you need is for someone to listen to help make you feel better.

Use resources offered by your employer. Check with your manager or human resources (HR) department if you aren’t sure what programs are available. You might find or start a support group for employees who are also single parents.

Consider counseling if you are going through a difficult time. Adjusting to single parenthood can be hard, and you may find it helpful to speak with a mental health professional. Your health care provider can give you a referral.

Helping your child adjust

How a child reacts to living in a single-parent family depends on his or her age and other factors. Very young children typically have the easiest time adjusting because they have fewer or no memories of living with two parents, research has found. Teenagers often have the greatest difficulty. In most cases, they not only have spent more time with two parents, but they also have more complex questions and concerns about what happened.

Children of almost any age may feel guilt, anger, confusion, embarrassment, or other painful emotions about the change in your family. If a single-parent household has resulted from a divorce or separation, they may also hope that their parents will get back together. If you have concerns about whether your child’s behavior is normal, talk with a professional who can help you evaluate the situation. Even as you notice smaller behavioral changes, seeking help can be beneficial to start conversations about your child’s concerns before behavioral changes have a chance to become more significant. Both your child’s medical doctor and a counselor can be helpful to consult.

Here are some ways to help your child adjust:

Spend special time together. Make a point of just being together, whether playing together or preparing a meal. And don’t forget to give your child extra hugs.

Make time for fun. You and your child may enjoy doing chores or talking about homework together, but make sure you have fun, too. Make popcorn and watch a funny movie. Save time for your child’s favorite family leisure activity, like making a big Sunday breakfast. If you have a tight schedule, ask your child, “What’s something fun that we could do in 10 minutes?”

Tell your child that you are also adjusting to being a single-parent family. Be sure that they know that you understand how hard this may be for them, too, and allow them to share their feelings. Keep in mind, the way they express their feelings may be painful for you to hear. Be patient as you and your child(ren) are all still learning how you feel, so expression of those feelings may be raw, unrefined, and blunt. Let them know that you at times feel sad, too, if your single-parent household has resulted from a change that’s painful for both of you.

Let your child be a child. Children may feel overwhelmed if asked to do too much at home. Your child may be able handle a few more tasks, but don’t ask them to take on adult responsibilities or the role of an absent parent.

Read books about single-parent families. Your child may find it comforting if you read books about children in similar situations. A good picture book is Two Homes, by Claire Masurel and Kady MacDonald Denton (Candlewick). For children with absent fathers, try Do I Have a Daddy? A Story About a Single-Parent Child, by Jeanne Warren Lindsay and Jami Moffett (Morning Glory Press). Why Don’t I Have a Daddy? A Story of Donor Conception, by George Anne Clay and Lisa Krebs (AuthorHouse) and I Wished for You: An Adoption Story, by Marianne Richmond (Sourcebooks) are for children of single mothers by choice. A librarian can recommend books for children whose parents have died, gone to prison, or left under unusual circumstances.

Review your child care arrangements. It’s always important to have a back-up plan for what you’ll do if your usual caregiver isn’t available. This is especially important if you don’t have a partner who can pitch in during some emergencies.

Try to put off making big or sudden changes. Adjusting to a new family constellation takes time. Delay big changes in your child’s life if possible, like enrolling them in a new school or moving to a new community. To help your child adjust to changes, keep discussions about the changes that have happened open. Also discuss changes that will happen soon or perhaps may happen in time—this will not only help them adjust ahead of time to changes, but it can also give you a heads up on what concerns they have about those changes, and therefore help you support them in that change.

Help your child find a mentor. Think about whether your child might benefit from having a role model of the same gender as the absent parent. If so, try to find a trusted adult friend or relative who might like to spend more time with them. Invite the person over to share a meal or play a board game or to attend a school play or soccer game. If you don’t have anyone nearby, get in touch with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

If your child has another parent who wants to stay involved, help the two of them maintain a relationship. A child will benefit from having ties to both parents unless there’s a risk of danger. Avoid involving your child in your conflicts with a former partner. Keep the other parent informed about school events, grades, and other things going on in your child’s life.

Watch for changes that could mean your child is having trouble adjusting. Younger children may return to behaviors they’d outgrown, like thumb sucking, whining, or being clingy. Older children may “act out” at home or school by fighting with friends or getting lower grades. Seek advice from the school counselor or a pediatrician if your child seems to be having difficulty adjusting.

Making Funeral Arrangements

Making Funeral Arrangements

Making funeral arrangements is never easy. In addition to dealing with the death of someone you love, you need to make many practical decisions that take into account your family’s emotional and financial concerns.

Funeral costs can be among the largest expenses you will ever face. It is common for funerals to cost between $7,000 and $10,000—not counting fees for such “extras” as flowers, vaults, or death notices. For financial or other reasons, you may want to consider alternatives to the traditional funeral arrangement, including one of the newer “green,” or “natural,” burials. These alternatives are becoming more common among people seeking simple and lower-cost arrangements. Knowing your options can help you make the right decisions at a difficult time for you and your family.

Understanding your options

Funeral arrangements are usually easier to make when you know the wishes of the person who died. The ideal time to talk about your preferences is when you and someone you love are both healthy and able to view the issues objectively. If you find it hard to bring up your concerns, you might ask an attorney or financial adviser to help by raising questions during a discussion of other matters, such as a will or insurance.

Whether or not you’ve talked about the funeral plans in advance, here are some of your options:

A traditional funeral service. A religious service is led by a member of the clergy and can be held at a house of worship, funeral home, or other location. At the end of the service, there can be an optional procession to the cemetery for a short committal service as the casket is put in place.

A memorial service. The most common kind of memorial service takes place in a house of worship or a funeral home (where a formal viewing may also be held). Some families prefer to hold a simple service without the body, often at a place beloved by the person who died, such as a vacation or retirement home. A friend, relative, or clergy member may preside over this kind of gathering. No matter where it is held, a memorial service often includes a selection of the deceased’s favorite music or readings.

A graveside service. Instead of a formal memorial service, some families choose a simple graveside or committal service with a closed casket. This kind of service is sometimes used when the death occurred elsewhere and the casket is brought to the cemetery. A family may also hold a private graveside service before or after a more formal or public memorial service.

Cremation. Cremation is becoming much more common because of the simplicity of arrangements and lower cost (typically, $1,000 to $2,000), and sometimes because of personal preference. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), an industry group, reports that the rate of cremation surpassed the rate of burial for the first time in 2015 and has continued to rise since then. Cremation does not rule out having a viewing or memorial service. Funeral homes usually offer rental caskets or unfinished wooden boxes to use for viewing before cremation. After cremation, ashes are stored in a modest container and returned to the family. The ashes may be kept in an urn or similar container in a cemetery or memorial garden that the family can visit. Some families choose to scatter the ashes at a favorite spot of the person who died.

A traditional casket burial. Many people choose a casket burial in a cemetery. Cemeteries are run by municipalities, churches, or other religious groups or by private organizations. Veterans can be buried, if space allows, in a government cemetery. If your family does not have a plot or preferred cemetery, you’ll need to research convenient cemeteries. Call the cemetery’s office to ask about prices and available plots. Plots are normally purchased directly from cemeteries, and their costs are not usually included in the fees charged by the funeral home.

A “green,” or “natural,” burial. For this type of burial, the body is prepared in an environmentally friendly way—often without preservatives such as formaldehyde-containing embalming fluid—and may be placed in a biodegradable shroud or coffin. Green burials may take place in some traditional cemeteries or in special nature preserves, often called “green cemeteries,” and they are becoming more popular both for environmental reasons and because they may cost as little as $1,000. In a 2015 survey of green burial cemeteries, 72.4 percent of respondents reported that demand for ecofriendly burials was increasing.

A casket. Burial involves a casket, usually the most expensive item on the bill for the funeral. A casket can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a simple box to thousands of dollars for a fancy coffin. Avoid sealed or “protective” coffins that are very expensive and often fail to preserve the body as promised. If the person who died asked for a simple casket, request a pine box. You can save on a casket by buying one at a casket retail store or online or by renting one if cremation is planned. Some cemeteries require a liner under the coffin to prevent the ground from sinking over time.

Embalming. Embalming is an expensive procedure that preserves the body for an open-casket viewing. No state requires embalming as a matter of course, though some states require it in certain circumstances, such as in the case of a communicable disease, a delay in disposal, or the need to transport the body across state lines. An alternative to embalming is refrigeration or a prompt viewing. If no viewing is planned, embalming is not necessary. Another option is cosmetic restoration, which creates a lifelike look for viewing.

Body donation. Many people want to leave their bodies to hospitals or medical schools for research or teaching purposes. If this is a possibility, check first with the institution about its requirements for age, embalming, transportation, and physical requirements. Your friend or relative will need to make an agreement with the medical institution and file it with his or her papers. The body may not be accepted at the time of death because of age, disease, or lack of need by the institution, so the person will need to make a backup arrangement.

Organ donation. A growing number of people are making arrangements to bequeath parts of their bodies for transplant. They usually fill out an organ donor card and keep it in their wallet, or their preference may be noted on their driver’s license. Organs must be removed promptly after death, and the donor must meet age and health requirements that vary depending on the organ. Be sure other family members know about and agree with a relative’s decisions about organ donation to ensure that the donor’s wishes will be honored.

Your rights and responsibilities

When you pay for funeral services, you have certain rights and responsibilities. It’s a good idea to:

Talk with your family members about their concerns. You and your siblings or children may have very different ideas about the kind of funeral you want. If that’s the case, you may be able to work out a compromise. For example, if you want a very simple service for a parent but your siblings would prefer something more elaborate, you might have a private graveside service just for the family and close friends, followed by a large memorial service open to everybody.

Compare prices. Many people select a funeral home based on location, convenience, or family tradition. This approach often makes sense, especially if you have an unlimited budget. But if you’re worried about costs, it pays to shop around for the best prices and service. Funeral homes (though not cemeteries) must disclose prices over the phone and offer you detailed price lists when you visit. Many funeral homes will also mail you price lists.

When purchasing funeral services, you are protected by the Funeral Rule, or Funeral Law, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Try to visit more than one funeral home. Speak with the staff, get a tour of the facilities, and ask for printed price lists of items such as caskets and liners. You have a right to expect clear, helpful, and courteous answers to your questions. If you have concerns, call your local Better Business Bureau or consumer protection agency to find out if it has received complaints about the funeral homes you visit.

Know your rights. When purchasing funeral services, you are protected by the Funeral Rule, or Funeral Law, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This rule requires funeral homes to publish price lists, to allow you to refuse to buy items that you don’t want (with certain exceptions), and to take other steps that protect people at a vulnerable time. To learn more about your rights, visit the FTC website or call 202-326-2222.

Purchasing services at a funeral home

Funeral arrangements are most frequently made through a funeral home. Funeral directors, also called morticians or undertakers, oversee all aspects of the funeral and burial. A funeral director can be a calming presence during an emotional event, but it’s important to choose carefully. Look for someone who will take the time to explain your options to you without using high-pressure sales tactics.

A funeral home typically can provide you with or arrange for such things as a casket, vault, flowers, music, death notices, embalming, transportation of the body, information about death benefits, rooms for the visitation, and a guest book and thank-you cards. If the deceased or family members belong to a church or other religious institution, the funeral director can contact the clergy there to see what options are available for a service. Even if there is no religious membership or affiliation, the funeral director can recommend and contact area clergy who can provide a religious funeral, memorial, or graveside service.

Some families make arrangements for a luncheon following the funeral service for all in attendance. Often, a religious group, V.F.W., or other organization can provide this at a low price. The funeral director generally does not make these arrangements but can give you contact information. A luncheon after the funeral or service can provide an opportunity for socializing, healing, and sharing memories of the deceased.

The casket is usually the largest single expense for a funeral. Most traditional caskets cost about $2,500 to $4,500, and elaborate coffins can cost much more than that. Here are some things to know before you make a decision:

You can choose from many styles and prices. Although wood is the most traditional material, caskets also come in metal, plastic, and fiberglass.

You can buy caskets at other places besides a funeral home. Caskets are available from many cemeteries and online. By law, a funeral home cannot refuse to handle a casket that you bought elsewhere or charge you an extra fee for the service.

You may not need a casket. You will not have to buy a casket if the person who died has chosen cremation or immediate burial or is donating his or her body to science.

Alternatives to funeral homes

If you want a simple service that avoids many of the usual funeral home costs, you may want to look into a memorial society or a direct-burial firm.

Memorial societies. These are groups that negotiate contracts with local mortuaries for low-cost services. A small fee provides lifetime membership and access to the legal and other information needed to have a no-frills burial or cremation. Society members prefer to avoid embalming, make-up, open-casket viewing, and expensive coffins. Many members have memorial services in a religious setting. To find a society, search the Internet for “Memorial Society” or “Memorial Association.”

Direct burial. Also called “direct disposal,” direct burial is a one-price service for the removal of the body and burial or cremation. Firms that specialize in direct disposal collect the body from the place of death and transport it to the chosen cemetery or crematorium. This way, they eliminate many of the services provided by a funeral home. This low-cost alternative is often used by families that prefer a memorial service without a viewing or casket. If you can’t find a firm that offers direct burial, you can request that your funeral home provide direct burial or minimal service.

If you use one of these alternatives, be sure to plan a memorial service that will meet the emotional needs of your family, including younger members. Seeing a casket or attending a visitation may help children or teenagers accept the finality of death, so if you dispense with these traditions, plan an appropriate way for young mourners to say goodbye to someone they loved. They might light candles, share their reminiscences, or pay special tribute at a memorial service.

Paying for the arrangements

There are many ways to pay for a funeral. You may decide to put money in a special account, pay the costs out of the estate, or buy a prepaid package. Here are some of the pros and cons:

Paying at the time of the funeral. If you choose to do this, costs can be taken out of the estate or paid directly by you or other relatives. You may want to set up a savings or investment account earmarked for the expense. Setting up an irrevocable, or non-revocable, account or trust will protect the money if someone enters a nursing home. In this way, you earn all the interest, you can’t lose the money by cancellation of a plan, and the funds will be available when needed.

Paying through a commercial prepayment plan. Many funeral homes offer prepaid funeral plans that cover the cost of a casket, transportation of the body, the services of a funeral director, and other related expenses. If you are prepaying, be sure your agreement clearly states the cost of each item and a description of each item or service you will receive. The agreement should also list any restrictions, including geographic limitations. Some prepaid funerals are guaranteed, meaning that your family will not have to pay additional money to the provider at the time of death. Avoid plans that are nonrefundable, which can leave you without coverage if unforeseen circumstances occur. It’s also a good idea to have an attorney or accountant read the prepayment contract, which should answer these questions:

  •   – What goods and services are included?
  •   – What kind of account will be used to fund the funeral?
  •   – What happens to the interest income?
  •   – Are my payments guaranteed to cover all desired expenses?
  •   – Can I change my mind about the use of the funds?
  •   – What penalties will I have to pay if I miss an installment payment?
  •   – If I move, can the plan be transferred at no additional cost?
  •   – What happens in the case of a shortfall or excess of money in the account?

 

If you haven’t made advance payment arrangements and the estate cannot pay for the funeral, you may want to consider signing any Social Security or death benefits over to the funeral director.

Helpful resources

Cremation Association of North America
www.cremationassociation.org
This industry group provides information about cremation.

Green Burial Council (GBC)
greenburialcouncil.org
This industry group website provides information about natural burials. The website also has a search tool to help you find a GBC-certified funeral home or cemetery.

Funeral Consumers Alliance
www.funerals.org
The Funeral Consumers Alliance is a nonprofit education and advocacy group. Its website has many free articles about the legal and other rights of consumers and ways to avoid funeral scams.

Monument Builders of North America
www.monumentbuilders.org
Monument Builders of North America is an international association of stone carvers and others who create gravestones and other memorials that honor the deceased. You can find a member by searching by city and state or Zip code.

National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA)
www.nfda.org
The NFDA is an advocacy and resource group for the funeral industry. Click “For Consumers” on the NFDA website to find extensive information on how to plan a funeral.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
www.va.govwww.va.gov
This government agency maintains veterans cemeteries through the VA National Cemetery Administration. Select “Burials and Memorials” on their website to find out about cemetery services provided by the agency.

If you have problems

Careful planning can eliminate misunderstandings with funeral homes or service providers. If unexpected problems still arise, you may want to get in touch with the agency that licenses funeral homes in your state or with a consumer protection agency. You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by using the online complaint form on the agency’s website. Although the FTC does not resolve individual complaints, it can act against a company that has a pattern of violating the law.

Protecting Yourself Against Identity Theft

Protecting Yourself Against Identity Theft

 Identity thieves go after the personal information we and the institutions we deal with unknowingly leave unprotected, such as Social Security numbers, preapproved credit card offers, cancelled checks, credit card information, and health records. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, 17.7 million U.S. residents became victims of identity theft in 2016.

Identity thieves can get your personal information any number of ways—internet, email, telephone scams, or stealing wallets or mail. You may be liable for expenses they incur until you prove your identity has been stolen. Reinstating your good credit can take months or even years.

How identity theft happens

Thieves can easily steal personal information in any number of ways:

  • stealing wallets containing identification, credit cards, or bank cards
  • stealing mail that contains personal information, such as bank statements, credit card offers, or tax information
  • getting personal information from checks or credit cards used at places of business
  • completing a change-of-address form to divert personal mail to a different address
  • fraudulently obtaining your credit report by posing as a landlord, an employer, or someone else who has a legitimate need for the information
  • using personal information found or accessed on the Internet
  • stealing files that contain personal information from places of business, such as a doctor’s office or a retail store

Once an identity thief has your personal information, he or she can apply for and use credit cards in your name to make purchases, open bank accounts, take out loans, and much more.

Protecting your personal information

One of the best ways to guard against identity theft is to monitor your credit report.

All Americans are eligible for a free credit report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Order yours online at Annual Credit Report.com or by calling 877-322-8228.

Check your credit reports carefully for accounts or inquiries that you did not initiate. Some experts advise staggering your requests by ordering your free report from a different credit bureau every four months or so (rather than requesting the report from all three companies at once), which enables you to keep track of any changes or new information that may appear on your credit report. To keep a closer eye on your credit, you can hire a credit monitoring service, which will alert you to changes when they happen.

Here are some more suggestions for protecting yourself against identity theft:

Never leave a purse, wallet, cell phone, tablet, or computer in a car or public place. Stealing such items is one of the most common ways thieves get personal information. Also keep your wallet or purse in a safe place at work, such as a locked drawer.

Don’t carry more credit cards than you absolutely need. Leave rarely used cards at home.

Don’t open credit accounts that you don’t need. If you don’t really need the card, you may just be creating one more opportunity for identity thieves.

Keep a list of account and contact information for all of your credit cards, bank accounts, and investment accounts in a secure place. This will allow you to quickly and easily contact creditors or financial institutions in the case of fraud.

Don’t carry your Social Security number, birth certificate or passport with you. Keep these documents in a safe place until you actually need them. Also, don’t save your Social Security number and birth date on an electronic device that might be lost or stolen.

Guard your incoming and outgoing mail from theft. Shred or otherwise destroy any preapproved credit card offers you get in the mail. These could have enough information for someone to open a new card in your name and have it sent to a different address. Have a neighbor or the post office hold onto your mail when you are away. Avoid mailing private information, including personal checks, from an unlocked mailbox.

Be careful about giving personal information over the phone. Give personal information only to an organization that you know is legitimate or to an organization or person with whom you initiated contact. Phone scammers are getting more and more creative. If a seemingly legitimate company calls you and asks for personal information, ask if you can call back to make sure it is who it claims to be.

Protect your personal information online and on your electronic devices. Shop only on sites that use secure technology, which prevents unauthorized parties from seeing your purchase information. Most sites will notify you that they use secure technology when you reach the checkout page. Also, make sure your electronic devices are protected with passcodes, passwords, and other available technologies such as laptop fingerprint security.

Make sure that your virus protection software is up-to-date and scans for viruses regularly. Never download files sent to you by strangers. Identity thieves can use virus programs to access private data on your computer.

Be sure that you have a firewall on your home computer. A firewall can keep people from accessing your computer and stealing your personal information.

Be wary of email scams that ask you for personal information. These “phishing” emails appear to be from a trusted source, such as your bank or credit card company, and they often have the same look as emails from the companies that you do business with. They may direct you to a website and ask you to log on and enter your personal information.

Make sure that your credit card, bank, email, phone, and other online accounts are protected by passwords that cannot be easily guessed. Avoid using information that is easily available, such as your date of birth, your phone number, or your mother’s birth name, and don’t use the same password for multiple accounts. Consider using a secure password service for creating and keeping track of strong passwords. When possible, sign up for two-step verification, so when you sign on to your account, the company will send you a code via text, e-mail or phone call to verify it is you. You will then have to enter this code as prompted, in order to access your account online.

Reduce the amount of personal data available. Remove your name from the marketing lists of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). This will limit the number of preapproved credit offers you receive. Contact the credit bureaus directly with your requests, visit Opt Out Prescreen, or call 888-567-8688 to be taken off these lists. Also, be sure to read the fine print when you shop online or register to use websites. Many sites offer an “opt-out” feature that allows users to limit the amount of promotional mail or email the site can send.

Be cautious when using ATMs and phone cards. Make sure the ATM doesn’t look like it’s been tampered with and that no one is lurking near you. Also, never write your PIN on the back of your ATM card or store it in your wallet.

Properly store or dispose of canceled checks, bank or credit card statements, and other documents with your personal information. These should be shredded or ripped up if thrown out, and they should be stored in a safe place if kept.

Make sure your personal information is stored in a secure place in your home, especially if you live with roommates or are having services done in your home. Keep credit card statements and anything else with personal information in a locked file.

Keep track of all ATM and credit card receipts. Rip them up before throwing them away or keep them in a safe place at home.

Pay attention to your billing cycles for credit cards and other accounts. A missed bill might indicate that your mail has been diverted.

If a company or organization with your information on file has had a data breach, consider signing up for a service that protects against identify theft. After a theft of corporate data, the victimized company may offer you a protection service for free for a limited time. Sign up for the offer. When it expires, you can pay to continue the service or comparison shop among different services.

Deciding when to share personal information

Requests for personal information have become commonplace. Retail stores may ask for your phone number, websites may require you to register, and many businesses and service providers ask for Social Security numbers. An employer or financial institution may legitimately require your Social Security number or other information, but you don’t normally have to give out your Social Security number to a business. Always ask why the information is needed.

Resources

Here are more resources for learning how to protect yourself from identity theft, as well as contact information for the three major credit bureaus if you need to report fraud.

Government agencies

Federal Trade Commission
877-IDTHEFT (877-438-4338) (identity theft hotline)
The FTC is the federal clearinghouse for complaints by victims of identity theft. The commission doesn’t bring criminal cases, but it does have a wealth of information about resolving financial and other problems connected to identity theft.

Social Security Administration
800-269-0271 (fraud hotline)
You should contact the Social Security Administration when your Social Security number is stolen or misused.

U.S. Department of Justice
The U.S. Department of Justice is one of the federal offices that prosecutes cases of identity theft. The department also has information about identity theft on its website.

 Credit bureaus

Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion are the three national credit bureaus. Contact any one of these companies to report fraud; each company is required to contact the other two.

Equifax
800-525-6285 (to report fraud)

Experian
888-397-3742 (to report fraud)
TTY: 800-972-0322

TransUnion
Fraud Victim Assistance Division
800-680-7289 (to report fraud)

Nonprofit organization

Identity Theft Resource Center
888-400-5530
This nonprofit organization has information and resources to help consumers protect against identity theft and deal with the aftermath of identity theft. On its website you’ll find informational articles, form letters, fraud and scam alerts, data breach reports, and more.

Ten Steps to Take During Difficult Financial Times

Ten Steps to Take During Difficult Financial Times

Difficult financial times can lead to feelings of stress. Here are ten ways to ease your anxiety by focusing on the areas in your life over which you have control.

1) Watch for and manage symptoms of stress. Money worries can trigger stress in people of all ages. Watch for signs of stress in yourself and in the people you love. These may include changes in sleeping or eating patterns, headaches, irritability, anger, difficulty concentrating, and depression.

If you are having difficulty managing stress, take care of yourself by eating right, getting enough sleep, setting aside regular time for activities you enjoy, and learning ways to relax. If you’re unable to manage the stress on your own, seek help from a professional. Your health care provider can help. You’ll also find many helpful resources on this site on managing stress.

2) Pull together with family and friends for emotional support and share ideas about ways to save money. Help one another through this time of financial uncertainty, both by offering emotional support and by pooling your resources. You might share the cost of child care, for example, carpool together, shop at discount stores together to save money, or even share living expenses.

3) Review your budget and cut unnecessary expenses. Track your spending and trim the extras, such as takeout meals, cable television, or entertainment out. Save at the grocery store by using coupons and buying less expensive brands. If you have any money left over, use the savings to pay down debt and to build an emergency fund. Financial experts recommend setting aside enough money to cover three to six months’ worth of daily living expenses. That may feel overwhelming to think about just now, but start with small amounts today and make it a longer-term goal.

4) Work on decreasing your debt as much as possible. This will help you feel less worried overall. You’ll find many helpful resources on this site on ways to reduce debt.

5) Work with creditors if you are in debt. Call each creditor and ask for smaller monthly payments or reduced interest rates and more time to pay off your debt. Most creditors will try to work with you if you explain your situation and demonstrate that you intend to meet your obligations by paying even a small amount each month. Be sure to know exactly what you can afford before you call your creditors. You don’t want to commit to something you won’t be able to follow through with.

6) Review your retirement and savings plans with a professional. Don’t make short-term emotional decisions with long-term investment plans. Meet with a trusted financial adviser before making any decisions to sell assets or move money to different accounts. If you don’t have a financial adviser or planner, make sure you choose one who is certified with the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.

7) Talk with your manager if the situation is affecting your work or productivity. If you are working longer hours, are worried about job uncertainty, are experiencing feelings of stress or overload, or are dealing with other issues at work, talk with your manager about your concerns and about possible solutions. Also, focus at work on ways to reduce your stress. During your break, practice 5 minutes of deep breathing exercises, or get out of your workspace for a brief walk. Both are good ways to reduce stress.

8) Remember how you’ve faced difficult challenges in the past. What worked for you then? How can you use some of those strategies now? Simply reminding yourself of your capabilities can help you feel more in control of the current situation.

9) Don’t be afraid to seek help. Your employee assistance program (EAP) can help with a range of issues related to finances and stress. Contact the program for information and resources.

10) Take advantage of resources to help see you through difficult financial times.  If you are having trouble meeting housing, food, utility, medical, or other bills, contact us for further assistance.

What Happens if You Die Without a Will?

What Happens if You Die Without a Will?

“Every adult should have one.”

That’s the importance Ruth Driscoll, an advanced planning attorney at Northwestern Mutual, places on having a will. And the way she phrases her advice is deliberate: “Rather than warning people about the consequences of dying without a will, I advise them of the value of living with a will,” says Driscoll. “Living with a will provides peace of mind that the people you love will be taken care of according to your wishes.”

More importantly, for people with children, it ensures their kids will be taken care of according to their parents’ wishes. “It’s shocking to me that people will spend more time and money investigating and paying for the right summer camp for a child than putting together a plan that can impact that child’s well-being for the rest of his or her life,” Driscoll explains.

So why don’t people do it? Surprisingly, the list of top explanations for putting it off does not include avoiding thoughts about our own mortality. According to Driscoll, more common reasons are that it costs money, offers no immediate gratification, takes time and requires answering hard questions (for example, what if your child dies before you?).

Others who delay feel that if they’re not millionaires, they don’t have the assets to warrant a will; or they just assume that the transfer of assets will go smoothly (with no family fighting).

Do any of these motives describe you? If so, Driscoll says, it’s time to push past the apprehension and make your will a priority; otherwise …

  1. A JUDGE WILL NAME YOUR CHILDREN’S GUARDIAN

A judge might choose a local relative, so the children can stay in their current community, or someone who shares your religious beliefs — neither of which might be important to you. Some judges favor intact couples versus single parents — but what if your favorite sister is unmarried? Judges focus on what they believe is in the best interests of the child; they can’t guess your wishes and may not have the same perspective as you.

  1. A JUDGE WILL DECIDE WHO MANAGES YOUR CHILDREN’S ASSETS

Ideally, you’ve planned for your children’s financial security through life insurance and you’ve named them as beneficiaries (meaning they will get the money if you die) — but if they’re under 18, a judge will name someone to manage the money for them. And a potentially more concerning scenario is that once they’re 18, they’ll get all the money in a lump sum and will be able to do whatever they want with it. Carefully drafted estate planning documents can protect the money in a trust until the children are more mature and better able to handle this inheritance.

  1. DISTRIBUTION OF YOUR ASSETS MIGHT NOT GO AS YOU PLANNED

Don’t assume the law will allocate your assets the way you would. Driscoll offers an example: “I have a family member who is 62 and married for the first time three years ago. Until that time and without a will, his assets would have gone to his living parents instead of nieces, nephews, siblings, friends or favorite charitable causes. For most people, leaving money to elderly parents is not their preferred choice.”

  1. DISPUTES COULD ARISE AMONG LOVED ONES

Driscoll has seen cases in which children sued each other in the absence of a clear estate plan. “The intervention of a probate court to settle arguments is expensive and emotionally exhausting. When there is a death, money and emotion can be a combustible combination.”

It’s shocking to me that people will spend more time and money investigating and paying for the right summer camp for a child than putting together a plan that can impact that child’s well-being for the rest of his or her life.

Having watched stories like these firsthand is why Driscoll is so passionate when she tells individuals that they need a will. As you begin to draw yours up, Driscoll recommends the following:

  1. AVOID VAGUENESS

An effectively crafted will can provide peace of mind to you and your loved ones. If you’re vague, however, confused and hurt family members may argue over what they believe you intended. That’s one reason Driscoll recommends using an attorney. “It’s not that pre-made forms are inherently problematic,” she says. “It’s just that legal language has specific meanings, and people vary in their understanding of it. It’s best to go with a pro.”  Driscoll mentioned one client who had used an online will. The will left everything to her spouse, then outright to the children of the marriage. However, Driscoll knew that her client had two children from a previous marriage. Those two children would have been disinherited under the form document the client brought in to be reviewed.

  1. DON’T WAIT BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT SURE ABOUT THE RIGHT GUARDIAN

Make the best choice for this point in time and get it on paper. Naming someone is better than naming no one. These documents can always be changed or revised, and making a good choice based on your priorities is better than waiting for the perfect choice.

  1. REMEMBER THAT BENEFICIARY DESIGNATIONS ALWAYS TRUMP A WILL

A will governs only those assets for which there isn’t a clearly named recipient. Bank accounts that say “pay on death” and life insurance policies and retirement accounts that name beneficiaries will be honored over and above what you say in your will. Preparing your will is an important step in this process. Reviewing your beneficiary designations is equally important in creating a thorough and well-coordinated estate plan.

  1. REVIEW YOUR WILL EVERY 5 YEARS

Things change as you live your life, and your will should be periodically reviewed and revised to reflect those life changes. “Your will is a road map,” Driscoll emphasizes. “Even with a valid will, the probate court is involved (as the will needs to be admitted to probate), and then the road map gets followed in distributing your assets according to the will. It’s realistic to expect that even with a will, it will take six months or more to get through the process. But make no mistake: Having this road map will facilitate the process. Dying without a will could prolong matters for months and even years and make an already difficult time even more painful.”