Cost of Living

My friend is retired and on a fixed income. She would like help with her finances but is very secretive about what she has. How do you go about asking the questions that need to be asked? I am more than willing to help her out but I'm not sure how to go about it. She is alone, with no family, and most of her friends have passed on or moved.

Patty in New York, 61

This is a tricky one, Patty. Dealing with a friend or relative’s finances can create emotional trauma. Not only are people often secretive about their finances as you mention, but many times, relatives that no one has heard from in a long time can come out of the woodwork looking for what they consider to be their share. I’ve seen many cases where the person who was trying to help had to hire legal help for themselves when others accused them of wrong doing. You can get caught up in family feuds, turf wars, and legal nightmares. Sometimes this doesn’t happen until the elder person has passed on and wills and probates are put into action.

So I urge you to use caution, be aware of what you are getting into, and think about your own needs as well as your friend’s. It’s vital that you ask the right questions. These include:

* Exactly what type of help is needed?

* How much time and effort is this going to require?

* Are you qualified to address the needs?

* Are there other family members, friends, and/or professionals who are better qualified to handle the situation?

* What are your motives for getting involved?

* Can you get in trouble by helping, even if your motives are pure?

The last thing you want is to be in a situation where you’re accused of elder fraud or some other legal issue now or in the future. So the bottom line is really this: When it comes to financial matters, it’s usually best to hire a professional. I’m specifically talking about an accountant, a financial advisor, and/or an elder care lawyer. It saves time, money, and worry if you have a licensed professional on your side who know the latest laws and tax rulings. If your friend cannot afford to hire someone, many cities have charitable and/or social organizations that will help someone on a limited budget or income. Your greatest contribution may be to locate just such an organization for your friend.

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