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When your financial plan heads the wrong way, get off the bus

When your financial plan heads the wrong way, get off the bus

When it comes to planning for your estate or business, never feel like it’s too late or the current situation is too hopeless to make a change.

Growing up in Hollywood in the 80s, most of our substitute teachers were “on-hiatus” actors who were happy to share their unusual life experiences. During our third-period class, one sub, a voice actor with a smokey tone, openly grieved about a bad breakup and his career failures. The way he described his life rivaled the craziness of what we have seen recently in the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard defamation case on TV.

While the lesson was probably too adult for public school, it contained a gem of advice I still use with my clients. He repeatedly asked us, “When you are on the wrong bus, do you stay on the wrong bus, or do you get off?” Each time our class responded with a shout, “Get off the bus!”

Here are two stories of clients who could only achieve what they wanted after altering their “route.”

Nancy and Daniel were a successful, married couple in their 60s with three grown kids and four grandchildren. Their home was paid for; they owned a profitable business and valuable real estate. As with many couples their age, cancer came as a surprise, and Nancy’s terminal diagnosis changed everything.

The couple assured me that all of their estate planning was complete. They had gone to a free seminar where they learned about living trusts, and the attorney prepared the documents in a large bound book at a very reasonable rate.

Nancy expressed concerns over what was going to happen when she was gone. She intended that her “half” would go to her children. She did not want her life savings to go to another woman. Nancy did not think her husband would wait long before starting a new relationship. She clearly stated she did not want any “harlots” moving into their family home.

I am not an attorney, but the trust had no provisions for any of Nancy’s wishes. She said she felt it was too late to do anything about it because she was ill. Since her mind was still clear, it was not too late. It took a few phone calls to find a qualified trust attorney who met with her at her home to discuss her wishes and sign new trust documents.

Nancy named her daughter trustee, and the daughter agreed to serve if I would be co-trustee since she lacked the confidence to manage the trust herself. We worked together so well that her father later asked me to be co-trustee for his trust. He confessed that his primary reason for asking me was that he could tell any girlfriends who asked for money that his “trustee” makes all his financial decisions (even though this was not true).

The end result was that the family home and Nancy’s remaining portion of the assets were held in a trust for her children. No “other woman” ever lived in her house.

Daniel eventually bought a new home with his new partner using his trust’s assets. They lived together happily for many years, and he ultimately gifted the house to her. The sweet and unusual ending was that the children were so happy with how well the partner had cared for their dad that they gave her a sizeable cash gift when he passed.

Lesson learned: It was not too late for Nancy and Daniel to seek a second opinion or amend their trust. Make sure your trust reflects your wishes.

Our clients, Marie and Peter, owned a small manufacturing business they referred to as “crummy.” They paid too much rent for a shop located in a poorly lit, dirty, tilt-up building adjacent to railroad tracks. Their equipment was old and in disrepair. They had high employee turnover and few repeat customers, even though there was nothing wrong with the products and Marie was a natural salesperson.

Unfortunately, they had charged up high-interest credit cards to finance the opening of the business. Most of the profits were eaten up by interest, taxes and spousal support to Peter’s ex-wife.

The couple planned to live frugally and slowly try to replace the equipment piece by piece. They figured they could save by paying as little as possible to their employees and by doing most of the work themselves. They said they just needed one big order to come in, and they could afford to lease a better location.

It was clear that the problem with Marie and Peter’s strategy was that they were trying to do everything themselves with little information. Here is part of the new plan I drafted.

— To better utilize debt, they hired a credit repair agency to increase their credit score and an equipment leasing company to finance new equipment that worked. We found a banker who gave them a small business credit line and later helped them finance the purchase of a new building.

— To increase their cash flow, Peter hired a divorce attorney to decrease the payments to his ex-spouse. We hired a business attorney to incorporate their company to help reduce taxes. We asked insurance brokers to review their policies and obtain better coverage at a lower cost.

— We hired a consultant who trained Marie on making sales over the phone to increase revenue. Marie was able to focus on sales and customer service after they hired a skilled bookkeeper.

A few years later, Marie was happy to tell anyone who listened that she and her husband were multimillionaires. Instead of waiting for a dream order to make everything better, Marie and Peter incorporated a plan that utilized all available resources.

Marie went with me to give an inspiring talk about her success to a class of teenage mothers, where I volunteered. It turns out she was once a teen mom who did not complete high school and could never have dreamed she would own her own business.

The 50 minutes that the substitute teacher spent with us all those years ago was not wasted. I hope he became a successful actor who found his soulmate and is happy. Remember, as long as we are here, it is never too late to change direction.

Michelle C. Herting specializes in tax planning, trust administration, and business valuations. She has three offices in Southern California.


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