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Frequently asked questions about financial planning

Do I need a financial adviser to rescue me? I've failed miserably with my investments over the past few years.
Failed miserably -- that describes almost all of us lately. Did you own respectable stocks, bonds, funds and real estate securities, avoid at least the most egregious Internet and telecom stocks, and lose about what you'd expect in the worst bear market in more than half a century? Then stop beating up on yourself. Maybe it's worth a $500 fee to get a second opinion. But it's not necessarily time to turn your investments over to an adviser, whom you'll pay to manage what you can manage just as well.

Perhaps you really did blow it -- thought yourself a genius stock picker and instead got your pocket picked. Paying an hourly fee for a financial planner to reacquaint you with investing basics is in order. The best thing the planner could do, short of investing your money for you, is to get you away from individual stocks and into mutual funds -- they're far easier to pick.

Even worse than that, eh? You want out of the whole bloody process and are looking for a cool, calm hand to do all the investing on your behalf? Visit the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers to find an adviser near you, and, yes, expect to pay 1% or 2% of your investments annually. But before going that route, consider a simple alternative: ultra-low-cost index funds from the Vanguard Group or even lower-cost exchange-traded funds.

Suze Orman and others are big proponents of living trusts. Do I really need one?
It would probably be a waste of your time and money. With a revocable living trust you transfer legal title of assets to a trustee (usually yourself), who manages them according to your instructions set out in the trust document on behalf of beneficiaries you name.

Why would you do this? The first reason is that these assets will not go through probate when you die, but directly to your heirs. Probate is a legal proceeding for settling an estate, but in most states -- California is one exception -- it is neither drawn-out nor expensive. Most of your assets would likely escape probate anyway. That's the case with jointly held property, pension benefits, life insurance, government bonds, and bank and brokerage accounts with a pay-on-death beneficiary.

Another reason cited for having a living trust is that you'll save on taxes. Not so. Because all living trusts are revocable, income from trust assets is taxable to you.

Finally, it's true that you can name a successor trustee to manage your assets should you become unable to do so yourself. But it's much easier and far less trouble to draft a durable power of attorney for financial affairs.

Now, do you still want a living trust? We didn't think so.