Dear Liz: I have a question on how to have my affairs managed after I die. I am single, with no children or living relatives, so finding someone to handle my estate is a challenge. Do you have a recommendation for where I can find a person or business, such as a bank’s trust department? I have a living trust but need to have someone sell all my assets (many are collectible and worth the extra effort in their sale). Do I need to go through probate just to ensure none of my assets are “lost” by the executor? Should I make a list of valuable items that would easily be omitted from the sale and distribution? To ensure all items are accounted for, to whom would I now provide the list?
Answer: Your living trust should name a successor trustee who can take over managing your affairs if you should become incapacitated or die. The successor trustee will be the one who will pay your final bills and sell or distribute your stuff after you’re gone. A list of your valuable items, along with the names of experts who can help with their sale, could help with that process. You can store that information with your living trust.
The person you choose doesn’t need to be a collectibles expert or even particularly financially savvy as long as they’ve got common sense and integrity. Successor trustees can hire any help that they need.
But this should be a person you trust completely because you’re putting a lot of power and discretion in their hands. If you’re worried this person will “lose” or mishandle your estate, you probably should choose someone else or reconsider having a living trust. Allowing your estate to go through probate instead would provide at least some court supervision of an estate’s distribution.
You may be able to hire a successor trustee. Bank trust departments can serve as successor trustees, but they tend to charge significant fees and are unlikely to want the job if your estate isn’t substantial. Another option might be a private trust services company or a professional fiduciary. Neither are exactly cheap, but they’re likely to be less expensive than a bank. Any of these options require making arrangements in advance — you can’t just name a company or fiduciary and expect them to take on the work.
Survivor benefits and remarriage
Dear Liz: Regarding your recent advice to the person whose husband had just died. I could be completely wrong, but I think that in order to collect her late husband’s benefits when she turns 60, she can’t remarry.
Answer: You’re right that you’re wrong, but your confusion is understandable.
There are different types of Social Security benefits that people can receive based on the earnings of a spouse or ex-spouse. People whose spouses or ex-spouses have died may collect survivor benefits. Those benefits can continue if the survivor remarries at 60 or later.
The other type of benefit is a spousal benefit, which is based on a living person’s earnings record and which may be available to current spouses as well as ex-spouses. Someone who is divorced and receiving spousal benefits based on an ex’s earning record will lose those benefits if they remarry at any age.
Social Security earning years matter
Dear Liz: In a recent column, you wrote that Social Security’s estimates of the dollar amount one will receive at various ages — 62, full retirement age of 66 to 67, or 70 — assumes one continues working until one applies. Therefore, one won’t receive the amount posted at full retirement age if one had stopped working at, say, age 62. Aren’t people’s benefits based on their top 35 earning years?
Answer: Yes, which is why I wrote that the benefit may be lower. Social Security assumes you’ll keep earning the same amount you are now. Those assumed future earnings could be high enough to replace one or more of your previous 35 highest-earning years. If that’s the case, your estimated benefit could be somewhat larger than the one you actually receive if you stop work early.
Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.