Dealing With Finances After a Tragedy

The tragic events of Sept. 11 may have happened almost three months ago, but many people affected by the attacks are still having to deal with the unfortunate task of managing their finances.

Financial planners say those who have lost loved ones in the attacks are just starting to look at what to do about their financial situation. Though relatives of the victims are starting to receive government and insurance benefits, how to use these funds, as well as what to do with existing investments and retirement accounts, is yet another looming responsibility that many have to face.

"People are having a hard time focusing on the issues," says Gary Schatsky, Chairman Emeritus of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, known as NAPFA. "You're kind of scattered in your approach even if two months have gone by."

Indeed, the maze of paperwork and bureaucracy one has to deal with after a loved one has died is tough enough on its own, let alone dealing with emotional trauma and your financial future. While the potential issues are too numerous to mention in one story, here are a few of the many steps people can take to get a grip on their finances during tough times.

Take It Slow

Ironically, many planners say the best course of action is no action at all when it comes to investments or retirement funds.

"Many people try to move very quickly into dealing with financial issues, because they're afraid and because it distracts them from the emotional issues," says Diahann Lassus, financial planner at Lassus Wherley & Associates, a financial planning firm in New Providence, NJ. "In most cases it's the worst possible thing for them to do."

Lassus says the first thing to do is to make sure you have enough cash to get through the next four to six months, or at least enough time to work through emotional issues and stress. This process can even take up to a year, she adds. The important thing is not to make financial decisions while under duress, which can compound financial problems later.

In the initial stages, relatives who've lost spouses should file for all of the benefits they're eligible for and reassess their finances from there. Compensation can include social security, insurance, medical and disability, employers or veterans and military survivor benefits.

In the case of a retirement fund, it is usually best to leave the money in the account until you've figured out your long-term financial plan, especially since you must pay taxes on any withdrawals from 401(k) or Roth IRA funds.

As for insurance payments, the Financial Planning Association recommends receiving a lump sum payment, unless you have creditors waiting in the wings or a large tax obligation. You can also leave the benefits with the insurer and receive interest payments and take the lump sum payment later, provided that the financial health of the insurer is good and you can't get a higher interest rate elsewhere. You can also park the funds in a money market account of short-term certificates of deposit.

It is also crucial to take care of your debts at this time. Continue paying your bills, and contact creditors if you're having a hard time paying them off. It is also important to inform all financial institutions of your loved one's death. This will decrease the risk of somebody trying to use his or her name or account in a financial scam.

Free Advice

Whatever the situation, there are some free services to help people get through these tough times. NAPFA, the Financial Planning Association and the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards are all offering free financial advice from their members to people who have been affected by the attacks. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants is also offering free financial counsel to victims and their families.

"It certainly has heightened the sensitivity to uncertainty," says FPA President Guy Cumbie. "People don't have the same sense anymore of what's going to happen to me anymore."

NAPFA's Schatsky also says people who've lost a loved one and are looking for advice should be on the lookout for advisers who are offering solutions through selling products. If you're not comfortable with the advice you're getting or feel like a planner is trying to drum up new business, get a second opinion, he says.

"You should act as quickly as you can after you have been provided the best advice that you can get, and are comfortable with that advice," he says.

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