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Makin' Money

Mom’s got money troubles

David Lazarus Apr 22, 2011

Tess and I had our usual fun on the program this weekend, and hopefully dispensed some halfway-decent advice. But I’m still troubled by the situation shared by Jinnie and Beth, who related the assorted financial woes facing their mother. She’s 87 and is carrying around $40,000 in credit card debt (ouch). She’s also having a hard time living within her means. Tough stuff.

We batted this one around a bit and finally settled on a three-prong strategy: protect Mom’s house because it’s her only tangible asset of any value, and she may need it in years ahead; deal with all that debt; bring Mom up to speed on living on a budget. None of these are easy, and Tess and I didn’t pretend to have all the answers.

As far as the house in concerned, at least part of the answer may be having one of the sisters (there are four of them) receive power of attorney over Mom’s affairs. This can help wall off the house from creditors. Next, they should perhaps get an estate attorney involved and see if a trust or some other mechanism could help put things in a semi-manageable status.

Most importantly, the debt. We advised that the sisters’ first stop be a licensed credit counselor, who could help them understand the landscape. They might also want to speak with a bankruptcy lawyer, who might offer input on Mom’s various choices. And it’s even possible that Mom is a good candidate for a debt-settlement company. Tess and I agreed that normally these sorts of companies should be avoided — they charge up-front fees and don’t guarantee results. But if a firm could be found that didn’t charge up-front fees, and if it could settle mom’s debts for, say, 40 cents on the dollar, that could be a real plus. You’d have to think that creditors would want to be flexible with someone who’s 87 and carrying $40,000 in IOUs.

Like I say, tough stuff. I’m looking forward to hearing from the sisters again and seeing how it all plays out.

— David Lazarus

David Lazarus is a consumer columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a frequent contributor to Marketplace Morning Report and Marketplace Money.

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