Printer Friendly
Text Size: A A A A

How can I re-build my finances?

Starting over comes with more anxiety and fewer wide-open choices. But there are steps you can take to create a solid foundation to build your life on again. Knowing what those steps are makes the whole process manageable.

Perhaps you’re recently divorced or widowed. Maybe you just landed a job after a long period of unemployment or you recently completed bankruptcy proceedings. Each of these life events presents a common challenge: the need to re-establish yourself financially. The following steps can help get you back on sound financial footing.

Prepare a net worth statement. A net worth statement is a basic financial-management tool used to make financial decisions and to measure progress. To determine your family’s financial net worth, add all your assets including: balances in any bank, investment, or retirement savings accounts; the value of your home and its furnishings; any real estate or automobiles you own; and personal property such as jewelry and antiques. Next, identify your liabilities. These might include outstanding balances on your mortgage and home equity loans, credit cards, automobile loans, student loans and other obligations. Subtract your liabilities from your assets to arrive at your family’s net worth. You should calculate your net worth once a year to identify significant changes.

Create a budget. Identify sources of income, including your salary, social security or pension benefits, child support or alimony, and interest and dividends on your savings and investments. Next, list all your fixed and flexible expenses.

Fixed expenses are the same every month. These include rent or mortgage payments, credit card payments, insurance premiums, and utility payments. Flexible expenses, like food, gifts, dining out and recreation can be reduced or eliminated by tightening your belt. If your expenses exceed your income, you need to change one or both. Consider cutting some discretionary spending, taking on a second job, or moving to a less expensive area.

Open bank accounts in your name alone. Open your own savings and checking accounts. This is particularly important if you are heading toward a separation or divorce. Having your own account will eliminate the possibility of your spouse writing bad checks or otherwise misusing the account. It is also a vital first step in achieving financial independence.

Pay all your bills on time. Regardless of what is going on in your personal life, it is important that you pay your bills on time and balance your checkbook carefully. If you excessively bounce checks and pay finance charges, this may be reflected in your credit report.

Review your credit report It’s important that you monitor your credit report regularly for errors. Order a copy of your credit report from all three of the major credit bureaus: Equifax, (800) 685-1111; Experian (formerly TRW), (888) EXPERIAN (397-3742); and Trans Union, (800) 916-8800.

If your report contains information you believe is incorrect, contact the bureau and request they investigate the error. If the dispute cannot be resolved, you have the right to submit a 100-word statement that tells your side of the story.

Get a credit card. The best way to establish good credit is to get a credit card. Depending on your credit history, this may or may not be an easy task. A secured credit card is an excellent way for someone with bad credit to build a good rating. With a secured card, you give the bank or credit-card company a deposit and your card has a credit limit for the same amount. To establish a good credit history, you need to use the card and pay off the debt on a timely basis.

CPAs suggest that you only charge what you can afford to pay back at the end of the month. A good strategy is to use credit for a specific purpose, such as buying gas for your car. After using the secured card and paying your bill regularly for a year, try to negotiate with the company for an unsecured card.

Establish an emergency fund. Setting up an emergency fund is the best way to prepare for any future financial setbacks. Consider the amount of money you need to pay your bills for housing, food, insurance, medical care and other necessities for six months to a year. Then work at setting aside small amounts each month until you have an emergency fund equal to the amount you would need to cover six months to a year’s worth of living expenses. Resist the urge to tap into this money unless you are facing a real financial crisis.

Get good financial advice. Rebuilding your financial life requires planning, hard work and discipline. If you can’t seem to manage on your own, enlist the help of nonprofit credit counseling services to implement your new budget and help you work with creditors to create a realistic repayment plan.

What do I need to know about my credit report?

It’s likely you have a credit history that will affect your purchasing power so you need to know what your plastic has been revealing about your eligibility for future credit and loans.

Your credit report contains information about your past and present credit transactions. It’s used primarily by potential lenders to evaluate your credit worthiness. So, if you are about to apply for credit, especially for something significant like a mortgage, you’ll want to get and review a copy of your credit report.

There are three major credit-reporting agencies or credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union. To make sure your credit record is correct and consistent, you should get a copy of your report from all three. You may do so by writing them, calling them or contacting them through their websites.

If you have to pay for the reports, the cost will typically be $9 or less. In some cases, however, the reports won't cost you anything. You can get a free copy of your credit report once a year from each agency if:

  • You live in Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey or Vermont
  • You're receiving public assistance
  • You're unemployed and planning to apply for a job within 60 days
  • You believe that your file contains errors due to fraud

In addition, you're entitled to a free report if you've been denied credit within the last 60 days based on information in the report. The lender who turned you down must give you the name and address of the credit bureau that issued the report.

Your credit report usually starts off with your personal information: your name, address, Social Security number, telephone number, employer, past address and past employer, and (if applicable) your spouse's name. Check this information for accuracy; if any of it is wrong, correct it with the credit bureau that issued the report.

The bulk of the information in your credit report is account information. For each creditor, you'll find the lender's name, account number, and type of account; the opening date, high balance, present balance, loan terms, and your payment history; and the current status of the account. You'll also see status indicators that provide information about your payment performance over the past 12 to 24 months. They'll show whether the account is or has been past due, and if past due, they'll show how far (e.g., 30 days, 60 days). They'll also indicate charge-offs or repossessions. Because credit bureaus collect information from courthouse and registry records, you may find notations of bankruptcies, tax liens, judgments, or even criminal proceedings in your file.

At the end of your credit report, you'll find notations on who has requested your information in the past 24 months. When you apply for credit, the lender requests your credit report--that will show up as an inquiry. Other inquiries indicate that your name has been included in a creditor's prescreen program. If so, you'll probably get a credit card offer in the mail.

You may be surprised at how many accounts show up on your report. If you find inactive accounts (e.g., a retailer you no longer do business with), you should contact the credit card company, close the account, and ask for a letter confirming that the account was closed at the customer's request.

What all this information means in terms of your creditworthiness depends on the lender's criteria. Generally speaking, a lender feels safer assuming that you can be trusted to make timely monthly payments against your debts in the future if you have always done so in the past. A history of late payments or bad debts will hurt you. Based on your track record, a new lender is likely to turn you down for credit or extend it to you at a higher interest rate if your credit report indicates that you are a risk.

Too many inquiries on your credit report in a short time can also make lenders suspicious. Loan officers may assume that you're being turned down repeatedly for credit or that you're up to something--going on a shopping spree, financing a bad habit, or borrowing to pay off other debts. Either way, the lenders may not want to take a chance on you.

Your credit report may also indicate that you have good credit, but not enough of it. For instance, if you're applying for a car loan, the lender may be reviewing your credit report to determine if you're capable of handling monthly payments over a period of years. The lender sees that you've always paid your charge cards on time, but your total balances due and monthly payments have been small. Because the lender can't predict from this information whether you'll be able to handle a regular car payment, your loan is approved only on the condition that you supply an acceptable cosigner.

Under federal and some state laws, you have a right to dispute incorrect or misleading information on your credit report. Typically, you'll receive with your report either a form to complete or a telephone number to call about the information that you wish to dispute. Once the credit bureau receives your request, it generally has 30 days to complete an investigation, checking any item you dispute with the party that submitted it. One of four things should then happen:

  • The credit bureau investigates, the party submitting the information agrees it's incorrect, and the information is corrected
  • The credit bureau investigates, the party submitting the information maintains it's correct, and your credit report goes unchanged
  • The credit bureau doesn't investigate, and so the disputed information must be removed from your report
  • The credit bureau investigates, but the party submitting the information doesn't respond, and so the disputed information must be removed from your report

You should be provided with a report on the investigation within five days of its conclusion. If the investigation resulted in a change to your credit report, you should also get an updated copy.

You have the right to add to your credit report a statement of 100 words or less that explains your side of the story with respect to any disputed but unchanged information. A summary of your statement will go out with every copy of your credit report in the future, and you can have the statement sent to anyone who has gotten your credit report in the past six months. Unfortunately, though, this may not help you much--creditors often ignore or dismiss these statements.

Who should work with a financial advisor?

In the not-so-distant past, one spouse could support a family, paying for college didn’t require taking out a second mortgage, people could look forward to retiring on Social Security and possibly a company pension and women typically weren’t raising families on their own.

You may already be working with financial professionals—an accountant or estate planner, for example--each of whom advises you in a specific area. But if you would like a comprehensive financial plan to help you secure your future, you may benefit from the expertise of a financial advisor.

Even if you feel competent enough to develop a plan of your own, a financial advisor can act as a sounding board for your ideas and help you focus on your goals, using his or her broad knowledge of areas such as estate planning and investments. Specifically, a financial advisor may help you:

  • Set financial goals
  • Determine the state of your current financial affairs by reviewing your income, assets, and liabilities, evaluating your insurance coverage and your investment portfolio, assessing your tax obligations, and examining your estate plan
  • Develop a plan to help meet your financial goals which addresses your current financial weaknesses and builds on your financial strengths
  • Make recommendations about specific products and services (many advisors are qualified to sell a range of financial products)
  • Monitor your plan and periodically evaluate its progress
  • Adjust your plan to help meet your changing financial goals and to accommodate changing investment markets or tax laws

Maybe you have reservations about consulting a financial advisor because you're uncertain about what to expect. Here are some common misconceptions about financial advisors, and the truth behind them:

  • Most people don't need financial advisors--While it's true that you may have the knowledge and ability to manage your own finances, the financial world grows more intricate every day. A qualified financial advisor has the expertise to help you navigate a steady path toward your financial goals.

  • All financial advisors are the same--Financial advisors are not covered by uniform state or federal regulations, so there can be a considerable disparity in their qualifications and business practices. Some may specialize in one area such as investment planning, while others may sell a specific range of products, such as insurance. A qualified financial advisor generally looks at your finances as an interrelated whole, and can help you with many of your financial needs.

  • Financial advisors serve only the wealthy--Some advisors do only take on clients with a minimum amount of assets to invest. Many, however, only require that their clients have at least some discretionary income.

  • Financial advisors are only interested in comprehensive plans--Financial advisors generally prefer to offer advice within the context of a client's current situation and overall financial goals. But financial advisors frequently help clients with specific matters such as rolling over a retirement account or developing a realistic budget.

  • Financial planners aren't worth the expense--Like other professionals, financial advisors receive compensation for their services, and it's important for you to understand how they're paid. But a good financial advisor may help you save and earn more than you'll pay in fees.

When it comes to compensation, advisors fall into four categories:

  • Salary based—You pay the company for which the advisor works, and the company pays its advisors a salary
  • Fee based—You pay a fee based on an hourly rate (for specific advice or a financial plan), or based on a percentage of your assets and/or income
  • Commission based—The advisor receives a commission from a third party for any products you may purchase
  • Commission and fee based—The advisor receives both commissions and fees

You'll need to decide which type of compensation structure works best for you, based on your own personal circumstances.

In many cases, a specific life event or a perceived need may prompt you to seek professional financial planning guidance. Such events or needs might include:

  • Getting married or divorced
  • Having a baby or adopting a child
  • Paying for your child's college education
  • Buying or selling a family business
  • Changing jobs or careers
  • Planning for your retirement
  • Developing an estate plan
  • Coping with the death of your spouse
  • Receiving an inheritance or a financial windfall

In these situations, a financial professional can help you make objective, rather than emotional, decisions.

However, you don't have to wait until an event occurs before you consult a financial advisor. A financial advisor can help you develop an overall strategy for approaching your financial goals that not only anticipates what you'll need to do to reach them, but that remains flexible enough to accommodate your evolving financial needs.

How can I get an estimate of my social security benefits?

The Social Security Administration mails earnings and benefit estimate statements, known as the Social Security Statement, to all workers age 25 and older who are not already receiving monthly Social Security benefits.

You can expect to receive your statement each year about three months before your birth month. It provides estimates of the Social Security retirement, disability, and survivor's benefits that you and your family could be eligible to receive now and in the future.

You should read the report carefully and confirm the information, especially the years you have worked and paid Social Security taxes. If you don't want to wait until your birthday, you can get an estimate of your Social Security benefits by obtaining a Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement from the Social Security Administration. To obtain this statement, call (800) 772-1213 or visit the Social Security website at www.ssa.gov.

How much money should I keep in a savings account for emergencies?

Many financial professionals suggest you put away three to six months worth of your salary. If you lose your job, or become disabled and don't have adequate disability insurance, you'll need that money to pay your regular monthly expenses, such as mortgage payments, insurance premiums, groceries, and car payments, until you can find another job.

Without such an emergency fund, a period of unemployment could put your assets at risk. Similarly, if your car breaks down or your spouse has a medical emergency, you'll want to have the necessary cash to pay the bills.

You may have already set up an emergency fund. Did you put the cash in a five-year certificate of deposit (CD) or other long-term investment? In an emergency, you will need to get at those funds immediately. You can certainly pull your money out of the CD early, but you'll pay a penalty. It's better to keep some funds more liquid, in a traditional savings account, a money market deposit account, or a six-month CD, for example. That way, the cash will be readily available when you need it.

Finally, keep your emergency fund separate from your everyday accounts. You might even want to use a different bank. Unless you are extremely disciplined, you'll be tempted to spend those extra funds if you keep them in your checking account. Remember, if you can put off an expense until next week, it is probably not an emergency.

What should I do with my 401(k) plan when I change jobs?

Job mobility is the buzzword for the 21st century. Skills and self-confidence are better predictors of continued employment than loyalty to a firm or even a profession. The odds are overwhelming that you will change jobs and even careers not once but several times throughout the course of your working life. Safeguarding your retirement income during job changes should be part of your career planning.

When you change jobs, you need to decide what to do with the money in your 401(k) plan. Should you leave it where it is, or take it with you? Should you roll the money over into an IRA or into your new employer's retirement plan?

As you consider your options, keep in mind that one of the greatest advantages of a 401(k) plan is that it allows you to save for retirement on a tax-deferred basis. When changing jobs, it's essential to preserve the continued tax-deferred growth of these retirement funds, and to avoid current taxes and penalties that can eat into the amount of money you've saved.

When you leave your current employer, you can withdraw your 401(k) funds in a lump sum. To do this, simply instruct your 401(k) plan administrator to cut you a check. Then you're free to do whatever you please with those funds. You can use them to meet expenses (e.g., medical bills, college tuition), put them toward a large purchase (e.g., a home or car), or invest them elsewhere.

While cashing out is certainly tempting, it's almost never a good idea. Taking a lump sum distribution from your 401(k) can significantly reduce your retirement savings, and is generally not advisable unless you urgently need money and have no other alternatives. Not only will you miss out on the continued tax-deferred growth of your 401(k) funds, but you'll also face an immediate tax bite.

First, you'll have to pay federal (and possibly state) income tax on the money you withdraw. If the amount is large enough, you could even be pushed into a higher tax bracket for the year. If you're under age 59½, you'll generally have to pay a 10 percent premature distribution penalty tax in addition to regular income tax, unless you qualify for an exception. (For instance, you're generally exempt from this penalty if you're 55 or older when you leave your job.) And, because your employer is also required to withhold 20 percent of your distribution for federal taxes, the amount of cash you get may be significantly less than you expect.

Note: Because lump-sum distributions from 401(k) plans involve complex tax issues, especially for individuals born before 1936, consult a tax professional for more information.

One option when you change jobs is simply to leave the funds in your old employer's 401(k) plan where they will continue to grow tax deferred.

However, you may not always have this opportunity. If your vested 401(k) balance is $5,000 or less, your employer can require you to take your money out of the plan when you leave the company. (Your vested 401(k) balance consists of anything you've contributed to the plan, as well as any employer contributions you have the right to receive.)

Leaving your money in your old employer's 401(k) plan may be a good idea if you're happy with the investment alternatives offered or you need time to explore other options. You may also want to leave the funds where they are temporarily if your new employer offers a 401(k) plan but requires new employees to work for the company for a certain length of time before allowing them to participate. When the waiting period is up, you can have the plan administrator of your old employer's 401(k) transfer your funds to your new employer's 401(k) (assuming the new plan accepts rollover contributions).

Just as you can always withdraw the funds from your 401(k) when you leave your job, you can always roll over your 401(k) funds to your new employer's retirement plan if the plan allows it. You can also roll over your funds to a traditional IRA. You can either transfer the funds to a traditional IRA that you already have, or open a new IRA to receive the funds. There's no dollar limit on how much 401(k) money you can transfer to an IRA.

Generally, the best way to roll over funds is to have your 401(k) plan directly transfer your funds to your new employer's retirement plan or to an IRA you've established. A direct rollover is simply a transfer of assets from the trustee or custodian of one retirement savings plan to the trustee or custodian of another (a "trustee-to-trustee transfer"). It's a seamless process that allows your retirement savings to grow tax deferred without interruption. Once you fill out the necessary paperwork, your 401(k) funds move directly to your new employer's retirement plan or to your IRA; the money never passes through your hands. And, if you directly roll over your 401(k) funds following federal rollover rules, no federal income tax will be withheld.

Note: In some cases, your old plan may mail you a check made payable to the trustee or custodian of your employer-sponsored retirement plan or IRA. If that happens, don't be concerned. This is still considered to be a direct rollover. Bring or mail the check to the institution acting as trustee or custodian of your retirement plan or IRA.

You can also roll over funds to an IRA or another employer-sponsored retirement plan (if that plan accepts rollover contributions) by having your 401(k) distribution check made out to you and depositing the funds to your new retirement savings vehicle yourself within 60 days. This is sometimes referred to as an indirect rollover.

However, think twice before choosing this option. Because you effectively have use of this money until you redeposit it, your 401(k) plan is required to withhold 20 percent for federal income taxes (you get credit for this withholding when you file your federal income tax return for the year). Unless you make up this 20 percent with out-of-pocket funds when you make your rollover deposit, the 20 percent withheld will be considered a taxable distribution, subject to regular income tax and generally a 10 percent premature distribution penalty (if you're under age 59½).

If you do choose to receive the funds through an indirect rollover, don't put off re-depositing the funds. If you don't make your rollover deposit within 60 days, the entire amount will be considered a taxable distribution.

Assuming your new employer offers a retirement plan that will accept rollover contributions, is it better to roll over your 401(k) funds to the new plan or to a traditional IRA?

Each retirement savings vehicle has advantages and disadvantages. Here are some points to consider:

  • A traditional IRA can offer almost unlimited investment options; a 401(k) plan limits you to the investment options offered by the plan
  • A traditional IRA offers easier access to retirement funds than a 401(k)
  • A traditional IRA can be converted to a Roth IRA if you qualify
  • A 401(k) offers the highest level of protection from creditors (the protection afforded to IRA funds depends on state law)
  • A 401(k) may allow you to borrow against the value of your account, depending on plan rules
  • A 401(k) offers more flexibility if you want to contribute to the plan in the future

Finally, no matter which option you choose, you may want to discuss your particular situation with a tax professional (as well as your plan administrator) before deciding what to do with the funds in your 401(k).

Can I receive unemployment benefits?

Knowing how unemployment benefits work can better prepare you for changes in the economy, downsizing or job loss for any reason. Whatever your situation, you should know whether you are eligible for benefits and how to access them.

Although specific eligibility requirements vary from state to state, most states have the same basic standards for collecting unemployment benefits. They include:

  • You must be unemployed or working less than full time
  • You must meet certain income requirements
  • You must be ready, willing, and able to work
  • You must have involuntarily left your job

In general, you won't be eligible for benefits if:

  • You quit your job simply because you didn't like it
  • You're fired for committing a crime (e.g., stealing)
  • You've never worked before

For more information, contact your state's local employment office. You can also look in the state government section of your phone book under Unemployment Insurance, Unemployment Compensation, Employment Insurance, or Employment Service. Or, you can try searching the Internet using these same key terms.

In most states, unemployment compensation is financed by employer contributions through a payroll tax. In a few states, employees are also required to contribute a minimal amount to the fund.

Most states will allow you to apply for benefits:

  • In person
  • By telephone
  • By mail

When filling out the application, you'll be asked a lot of questions, so have the following information handy:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your last employer's name, address, and phone number
  • Your last day of work and the reason you're no longer working
  • Your salary history
  • Your proof-of-citizenship status

Regardless of which state you live in, you'll receive a weekly unemployment benefit based on how long you were employed and your prior wages. The state will calculate your average weekly wage, and you will receive a percentage of that wage based on your state's formula. You can figure out your average weekly wage by adding up 12 months worth of pay stubs and dividing that number by 52. If you were salaried, just divide your annual salary by 52.

In most states, you can receive benefits for up to 26 weeks. However, federal laws and some state laws provide for additional benefits to be paid to workers who exhaust their regular benefits during periods of high unemployment. These additional benefits may be paid up to 13 weeks (20 weeks in some states) and are funded partly by state governments and partly by the federal government.

The answer to this question comes as a big surprise to many people. Yes, the unemployment compensation you receive is taxable. You must report this money as income. In some states, you can ask that taxes be withheld from your unemployment check. This could save you from a big tax bill at the end of the year. For more information, consult your tax advisor.

What are special unemployment compensation programs?

Workers in post-9/11 New York City and in Florida after the disastrous 2004 hurricane season could have been eligible for unemployment under special guidelines established by the U.S. government, even if they weren’t typically eligible for regular unemployment compensation. Special unemployment compensation requires a separate application and you should be aware of qualifying conditions that may afford you greater protection during loss of employment due to disasters.

If you've lost your job and fall into one of the following categories, you may be covered under a special unemployment compensation program:

  • Federal employees
  • Ex-service members, based on active duty service
  • Individuals who can no longer work as a result of a natural disaster, but who do not qualify for regular state or federal unemployment benefits

How can I take advantage of employer-sponsored retirement plans?

Don’t be one of the one-third of all adult Americans who have no savings for retirement. You can take positive steps to protect yourself and benefit from tax advantages, employer contributions and practically painless automatic payroll deductions.

Employer-sponsored qualified retirement plans such as 401(k)s are some of the most powerful retirement savings tools available. If your employer offers such a plan and you're not participating in it, you should be. Once you're participating in a plan, try to take full advantage of it.

Before you can take advantage of your employer's plan, you need to understand how these plans work. Read everything you can about the plan and talk to your employer's benefits officer. You can also talk to a financial planner, a tax advisor, and other professionals. Recognize the key features that many employer-sponsored plans share:

  • Your employer automatically deducts your contributions from your paycheck. You never even miss the money--out of sight, out of mind.
  • You decide what portion of your salary to contribute, up to the legal limit. And you can usually change your contribution amount on certain dates during the year.
  • You contribute to the plan on a pretax basis. Your contributions come off the top of your salary before your employer withholds income taxes.
  • Your employer may match all or part of your contribution up to a certain level. You typically become vested in these employer dollars through years of service with the company.
  • Your funds grow tax deferred in the plan. You don't pay taxes on investment earnings until you withdraw your money from the plan.
  • You'll pay income taxes and possibly an early withdrawal penalty if you withdraw your money from the plan.
  • You may be able to borrow a portion of your vested balance (up to $50,000) at a reasonable interest rate.
  • Your creditors cannot reach your plan funds to satisfy your debts.

The more you can save for retirement, the better your chances of retiring comfortably. If you can, max out your contribution up to the legal limit. If you need to free up money to do that, try to cut certain expenses.

Why put your retirement dollars in your employer's plan instead of somewhere else? One reason is that your pretax contributions to your employer's plan lower your taxable income for the year. This means you save money in taxes when you contribute to the plan--a big advantage if you're in a high tax bracket. For example, if you earn $100,000 a year and contribute $10,000 to a 401(k) plan, you'll pay income taxes on $90,000 instead of $100,000.

Another reason is the power of tax-deferred growth. Your investment earnings compound year after year and aren't taxable as long as they remain in the plan. Over the long term, this gives you the opportunity to build an impressive sum in your employer's plan. You should end up with a much larger balance than somebody who invests the same amount in taxable investments at the same rate of return.

For example, you participate in your employer's tax-deferred plan (Account A). You also have a taxable investment account (Account B). Each account earns 8 percent per year. You're in the 28 percent tax bracket and contribute $10,000 to each account at the end of every year. You pay the yearly income taxes on Account B's earnings using funds from that same account. At the end of 30 years, Account A is worth $1,132,832, while Account B is worth only $757,970. That's a difference of over $370,000! (Note: This example is for illustrative purposes only and does not represent a specific investment.)

If you can't max out your 401(k) or other plan, you should at least try to contribute up to the limit your employer will match. Employer contributions are basically free money once you're vested in them (check with your employer to find out when vesting happens). By capturing the full benefit of your employer's match, you'll be surprised how much faster your balance grows. If you don't take advantage of your employer's generosity, you could be passing up a significant return on your money.

For example, you earn $30,000 a year and work for an employer that has a matching 401(k) plan. The match is 50 cents on the dollar up to 6 percent of your salary. Each year, you contribute 6 percent of your salary ($1,800) to the plan and receive a matching contribution of $900 from your employer. That's an automatic, risk-free return of 50 percent on your investment!

Most employer-sponsored plans give you a selection of mutual funds or other investments to choose from. Make your choices carefully. The right investment mix for your employer's plan could be one of your keys to a comfortable retirement. That's because over the long term, varying rates of return can make a big difference in the size of your balance.

Research the investments available to you. How have they performed over the long term? Have they held their own during down markets? How much risk will they expose you to? Which ones are best suited for long-term goals like retirement? You may also want to get advice from a financial planner. He or she can help you pick the right investments based on your personal goals, your attitude toward risk, how long you have until retirement, and other factors. Your planner can also help you coordinate your plan investments with your overall investment portfolio.

Finally, you may be able to change your investment allocations or move money between the plan's investments on specific dates during the year (e.g., at the start of every month or every quarter).

When you leave your job, your vested balance in your former employer's retirement plan is yours to keep. You have several options at that point, including:

  • Taking a lump-sum distribution. This is often a bad idea, because you'll pay income taxes and possibly a penalty on the amount you withdraw. Plus, you're giving up continued tax-deferred growth.

  • Leaving your funds in the old plan, growing tax deferred (your old plan may not permit this if your balance is less than $5,000). This may be a good idea if you're happy with the plan's investments or you need time to decide what to do with your money.

  • Rolling your funds over to an IRA or a new employer's plan if the plan accepts rollovers. This is often a smart move because there will be no income taxes or penalties if you do the rollover properly (your old plan will withhold 20 percent for income taxes if you receive the funds before rolling them over). Plus, your funds will keep growing tax deferred in the IRA or new plan.

How can I plan for retirement if my employer doesn't offer retirement benefits?

Sixty million Americans don’t qualify for pension benefits. A PBS report revealed that more than one woman in four lives in poverty because she depends on Social Security for her only retirement income. You can avoid running short in retirement, even if your employer doesn’t offer a pension plan or 401(k).

In many cases, your first step should be to open an IRA and contribute as much as you possibly can each year. Because of tax-deferred, compounded earnings, IRAs offer similar long-term growth opportunities as employer-sponsored plans. In addition, you may qualify for tax-deductible contributions or tax-free withdrawals, depending on whether you invest in a regular IRA or a Roth IRA.

Another tax-advantaged option to consider is annuities. Generally purchased with a life insurance company, a typical annuity features tax-deferred growth and provides either fixed or variable payments beginning at some future time (usually retirement). Depending on the type of annuity, you may have several options in how you ultimately take distributions.

Finally, don't forget about traditional investments (e.g., stocks, bonds, mutual funds). Most of these vehicles are taxable, but they can still help you save a bundle over the long term. The specific types of investments you select will depend on your risk tolerance, time horizons, liquidity needs, and goals for retirement. A financial planner can help you construct a portfolio that makes sense for you.

Can I borrow or withdraw money from my 401(k) plan?

If you have a 401(k) plan at work and need some cash, you might be tempted to borrow or withdraw money from it. But keep in mind that the purpose of a 401(k) is to save for retirement. Take money out of it now, and you'll risk running out of money during retirement. You may also face stiff tax consequences and penalties for withdrawing money before age 59½. Still, if you're facing a financial emergency--for instance, your child's college tuition is almost due and your 401(k) is your only source of available funds--borrowing or withdrawing money from your 401(k) may be your only option.

To find out if you're allowed to borrow from your 401(k) plan and under what circumstances, check with your plan's administrator or read your summary plan description. Many employers allow 401(k) loans only in cases of financial hardship, but you may be able to borrow money to buy a car, to improve your home, or to use for other purposes.

Generally, obtaining a 401(k) loan is easy--there's little paperwork, and there's no credit check. The fees are limited too--you may be charged a small processing fee, but that's generally it.

No matter how much you have in your 401(k) plan, you probably won't be able to borrow the entire sum. Generally, you can't borrow more than $50,000 or one-half of your vested plan benefits, whichever is less. (An exception applies if your account value is less than $20,000; in this case, you may be able to borrow up to $10,000, even if this is your entire balance.)

Typically, you have to repay money you've borrowed from your 401(k) within five years by making regular payments of principal and interest at least quarterly, often through payroll deduction. However, if you use the funds to purchase a primary residence, you may have a much longer period of time to repay the loan.

Make sure you follow to the letter the repayment requirements for your loan. If you don't repay the loan as required, the money you borrowed will be considered a taxable distribution. If you're under age 59½, you'll owe a 10 percent federal penalty tax, as well as regular income tax on the outstanding loan balance.

  • You won't pay taxes and penalties on the amount you borrow, as long as the loan is repaid on time
  • Interest rates on 401(k) plan loans must be consistent with the rates charged by banks and other commercial institutions for similar loans
  • The interest you pay on borrowed funds is generally credited to your own plan account; you pay interest to yourself, not to a bank or other lender

Disadvantages of borrowing money from your 401k include:

  • If you don't repay your plan loan when required, it will generally be treated as a taxable distribution.
  • If you leave your employer's service (whether voluntarily or not) and still have an outstanding balance on a plan loan, you'll usually be required to repay the loan in full within 60 days. Otherwise, the outstanding balance will be treated as a taxable distribution, and you'll owe a 10 percent penalty tax in addition to regular income taxes if you're under age 59½.
  • Loan interest is generally not tax deductible (unless the loan is secured by your principal residence).
  • You'll lose out on any tax-deferred interest that may have accrued on the borrowed funds had they remained in your 401(k).
  • Loan payments are made with after-tax dollars.

Your 401(k) plan may have a provision that allows you to withdraw money from the plan while you're still employed if you can demonstrate "heavy and immediate" financial need and you have no other resources you can use to meet that need (e.g., you can't borrow from a commercial lender or from a retirement account and you have no other available savings). It's up to your employer to determine which financial needs qualify. Many employers allow hardship withdrawals only for the following reasons:

  • To pay the medical expenses of you, your spouse, or your dependents
  • To pay costs related to the purchase of your principal residence
  • To pay a maximum of 12 months worth of tuition and related educational expenses for post-secondary education for you, your spouse, or your dependents
  • To make payments to prevent eviction from or foreclosure on your principal residence

Your employer will generally require that you submit your request for a hardship withdrawal in writing.

Generally, you can't withdraw more than the total amount you've contributed to the plan, minus the amount of any previous hardship withdrawals you've made. In some cases, though, you may be able to withdraw the earnings on contributions you've made. Check with your plan administrator for more information on the rules that apply to withdrawals from your 401(k) plan.

The option to take a hardship withdrawal can come in very handy if you really need money and you have no other assets to draw on, and your plan does not allow loans (or if you can't afford to make loan payments). Disadvantages include:

  • Taking a hardship withdrawal will reduce the size of your retirement nest egg, and the funds you withdraw will no longer grow tax deferred.
  • Hardship withdrawals are generally subject to federal (and possibly state) income tax. A 10 percent federal penalty tax may also apply if you're under age 59½.
  • You may not be able to contribute to your 401(k) plan for six months following a hardship distribution.

What do I need to know about investment terms and concepts?

Self-education is one of the most important investment decisions you can make. When you understand how investing works, you can choose your own level of risk and set goals for return. Women have tended to be intimidated by the jargon of investing and to be unnecessarily cautious in their investment decisions. You can make your investments work harder for you once you become familiar with the terms and concepts.

Below are summaries of some basic principles you should understand when evaluating an investment opportunity or making an investment decision. Rest assured, this is not rocket science. In fact, you'll see that the most important principle on which to base your investment education is simply good common sense. You’ve decided to start investing. If you've had little or no experience, you're probably apprehensive about how to begin. Even after you've found a trusted financial advisor, it's wise to educate yourself, so you can evaluate his or her advice and ask good questions. The better you understand the advice you get, the more comfortable you will be with the course you've chosen.

Don't worry if you can't understand the experts in the financial media right away. Much of what they say is jargon that is actually less complicated than it sounds. You'll learn it. There is no reason to wait to invest until you know everything.

As a preliminary matter, let's address a source of confusion that immediately throws many new investors off: If you have an individual retirement account (IRA), a 401(k), or other retirement plan at work, you should recognize the distinction between that account or plan itself and the actual investments you own within that account or plan. Your IRA or 401(k) is really just a container that holds investments and has special tax advantages. Folks often get confused when that distinction is not pointed out.

Almost every portfolio contains one or both of these kinds of assets.

If you buy stock in a company, you are literally buying a share of it from an existing owner who wants to sell. You become an owner, or shareholder, of the company. As such, you take a stake in the company's future. If the company prospers, there's no limit to how much your share can increase in value. If the company fails, you can lose every dollar of your investment.

If you buy bonds, you're lending money to the company (or governmental body) that issued the bonds. You become a creditor, not an owner, of the bond issuer. The bond is your IOU. As a lender, your return is limited to the interest rate and terms under which the bond was issued. You can still lose the amount of the loan (your investment) if the company or governmental body fails, but the risk of loss to creditors (bondholders) is generally less than the risk for owners (shareholders). This is because, to stay in business, a company must maintain as good a credit rating as possible, so creditors will usually pay on time if there is any way at all to do so. In addition, the law favors bondholders over shareholders in the event of bankruptcy.

As a matter of jargon, stocks (and stock mutual funds) are referred to as equity investments, while bonds (and mutual funds containing bonds) are often called investments in debt.

Consider using several different classes of investments for your portfolio. Examples of investment classes include stocks, bonds, mutual funds, art, and precious metals. These classes are often further broken down according to more precise investment characteristics (e.g., stocks of small companies, stocks of large companies, bonds issued by cities, bonds issued by the U.S. Treasury).

Investment classes often rise and fall at different rates and times. Ideally, in a diversified portfolio of investments, if some are losing value during a particular period, others will be gaining value at the same time. The gainers help offset the losers, and the total risk of loss is minimized. The goal is to find the right balance of different assets for your portfolio. This process is called asset allocation.

Within each class you choose, consider diversifying further among several individual investment options within that class. For example, if you've decided to invest in the drug industry, it might be wise to make smaller investments in Company A, Company B, and Company C, rather than put all your chips on one of them.

Recognize the tradeoff between the risk and return of an investment. For present purposes, we define risk as the possibility of losing your money, or that your investments will produce lower returns than expected. Return, of course, is your reward for making the investment. Return can be measured by an increase in the value of your initial investment principal and/or by cash payments directly to you during the life of the investment. There is a direct relationship between investment risk and return.

When someone proposes an investment and suggests otherwise, we know, "it's too good to be true." Invariably, the lowest-risk investments will be among the lowest-returning at any given time (e.g., a federally guaranteed bank certificate of deposit). The highest-risk investments will offer the chance for the highest returns (e.g., stock in an Internet start-up company that goes from $12 per share to $150, then down to $3).

Between the extremes, every investor searches to find a level of risk--and corresponding expected return--that he or she feels comfortable with.

Understand the difference between investing for growth and investing for income.

As an investor, you face an immediate choice: Do you want growth in the value of your original investment over time, or is your goal to produce predictable, spendable current income--or a little of both?

Consistent with this investor choice, investments are frequently classified or marketed as either growth or income oriented. U.S. Treasury notes, for example, provide regular interest payments, but if you spend that money, of course, your original investment cannot grow.

In contrast, investing in a new software company, for example, will typically produce no immediate income. New companies generally reinvest any income in the business to make it grow. If they are successful, the value of your stake in the company should likewise grow over time.

There is no right or wrong answer to the "growth or income" question. Your decision should depend on your individual circumstances and needs (e.g., your need, if any, for income today, or your need to accumulate a college fund, not to be tapped for 15 years).

Understand the power of compounding on your investment. To help make an educated "growth or income" decision, you should have a feel for the result of either approach. With an investment made primarily for the production of current income, you'll know in advance the size and timing of payments to expect.

To evaluate the "growth" approach, you'll need to appreciate the concept of compounding. Compounding is what happens when you "let your money ride." Unlike the income investor, who usually takes his or her money "off the table" as the checks arrive, the growth investor lets investment returns remain invested, thereby earning a "return on the returns."

A simple example of compounding occurs with a bank certificate of deposit that is allowed to roll over each time it matures. Interest earned in one period becomes part of the investment itself, earning interest in subsequent periods. In the early years of an investment, the benefit of compounding on overall return is not exciting. As the years go by, however, a "rolling snowball" effect seems to operate, and the compounding's long-term boost to investment return becomes dramatic.

What do I need to know about buying a home?

More than 60 percent of married couples under the age of 35 own their own homes. Buying a home can be stressful, especially when you’re buying one for the first time. Fortunately, knowing what to expect can make the whole process a lot easier.

According to a general rule of thumb, you can afford a house that costs two and a half times your annual salary. But determining how much you can afford to spend on a house is not quite so simple. Since most people finance their home purchases, buying a house usually means getting a mortgage. So, the amount you can afford to spend on a house is often tied to figuring out how large a mortgage you can afford. To figure this out, you'll need to take into account your gross monthly income, housing expenses, and any long-term debt. Try using one of the many real estate and personal finance websites to help you with the calculations.

Once you have an idea of how much of a mortgage you can afford, you'll want to shop around and compare the mortgage rates and terms that various lenders offer. When you find the right lender, find out how you can prequalify or get pre-approval for a loan. Prequalifying gives you the lender's estimate of how much you can borrow and in many cases can be done over the phone, usually at no cost. Prequalification does not guarantee that the lender will grant you a loan, but it can give you a rough idea of where you stand.

If you're really serious about buying, however, you'll probably want to get pre-approved for a loan. Pre-approval is when the lender, after verifying your income and performing a credit check, lets you know exactly how much you can borrow. This involves completing an application, revealing your financial information, and paying a fee.

It's important to note that the mortgage you qualify for or are approved for is not always what you can actually afford. Before signing any loan paperwork, take an honest look at your lifestyle, standard of living, and spending habits to make sure that your mortgage payment won't be beyond your means.

A knowledgeable real estate agent or buyer's broker can guide you through the process of buying a home and make the process much easier. This assistance can be especially helpful to a first-time home buyer. In particular, an agent or broker can:

  • Help you determine your housing needs
  • Show you properties and neighborhoods in your price range
  • Suggest sources and techniques for financing
  • Prepare and present an offer to purchase
  • Act as an intermediary in negotiations
  • Recommend professionals whose services you may need (e.g., lawyers, mortgage brokers, title professionals, inspectors)
  • Provide insight into neighborhoods and market activity
  • Disclose positive and negative aspects of properties you're considering

Keep in mind that if you enlist the services of an agent or broker, you'll want to find out how he or she is being compensated (i.e., flat fee or commission based on a percentage of the sale price). Many states require the agent or broker to disclose this information to you up front and in writing.

Before you begin looking at houses, decide in advance the features that you want your home to have. Knowing what you want ahead of time will make the search for your dream home much easier. Here are some things to consider:

  • Price of home and potential for appreciation
  • Location or neighborhood
  • Quality of construction, age, and condition of the property
  • Style of home and lot size
  • Number of bedrooms and bathrooms
  • Quality of local schools
  • Crime level of the area
  • Property taxes
  • Proximity to shopping, schools and work

Once you find a house, you'll want to make an offer. Most home sale offers and counter offers are made through an intermediary, such as a real estate agent. All terms and conditions of the offer, no matter how minute, should be put in writing to avoid future problems.

Typically, your attorney or real estate agent will prepare an Offer to Purchase for you to sign. You'll also include a nominal down payment, such as $500. If the seller accepts the offer to purchase, he or she will sign the contract, which will then become a binding agreement between you and the seller. For this reason, it's a good idea to have your attorney review any offer to purchase before you sign.

Once the seller has accepted your offer, you, your real estate agent, or the mortgage lender will get busy completing procedures and documents necessary to finalize the purchase. These include finalizing the mortgage loan, appraising the house, surveying the property, and getting homeowners insurance. Typically, you would have made your offer contingent upon the satisfactory completion of a home inspection, so now's the time to get this done as well.

The closing meeting, also known as a title closing or settlement, can be a tedious process--but when it's over, the house is yours! To make sure the closing goes smoothly, some or all of the following people should be present: the seller and/or the seller's attorney, your attorney, the closing agent (a real estate attorney or the representative of a title company or mortgage lender), and both your real estate agent and the seller's.

At the closing, you'll be required to sign the following paperwork:

  • Promissory note: This spells out the amount and repayment terms of your mortgage loan.
  • Mortgage: This gives the lender a lien against the property.
  • Truth-in-lending disclosure: This tells you exactly how much you will pay over the life of your mortgage, including the total amount of interest you'll pay.
  • HUD-1 settlement statement: This details the cash flows among the buyer, seller, lender, and other parties to the transaction. It also lists the amounts of all closing costs and who is responsible for paying these.

In addition, you'll need to provide proof that you have insured the property. You'll also be required to pay certain costs and fees associated with obtaining the mortgage and closing the real estate transaction. On average, these total between 3 and 7 percent of your mortgage amount, so be sure to bring along your checkbook.

What are some popular types of mortgages?

Like homes themselves, mortgages come in many sizes and types. The type of mortgage that's right for you depends on many factors, such as your tolerance for risk and how long you expect to stay in your home. Here are some characteristics of various popular types of mortgages.

Conventional Fixed Rate Mortgages

  • Low risk
  • 10- to 40-year terms
  • Interest rate doesn't change
  • Large down payment (compared to government mortgages) may be required
  • Payment remains the same

Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs)

  • Higher risk
  • Initial interest rate often lower than conventional fixed rate mortgage
  • Interest rate may go up or down
  • Interest rate usually adjusted annually
  • Rate adjustments may be limited by cap(s)
  • Payment caps can result in negative amortization in periods of rising interest rates

Government Mortgages

  • FHA, VA, or bond-backed
  • Interest rate sometimes lower than conventional fixed rate mortgage
  • Variety of programs available
  • Low down payment requirements
  • Liberal qualifying ratios
  • Attractive to first-time homebuyers
  • Higher insurance costs may apply for FHA loans
  • Payment remains the same

Hybrid Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs)

  • Higher risk
  • Initial interest rate often lower than conventional fixed rate mortgage
  • Fixed term for 1-10 years, then becomes a 1-year ARM
  • May have option to convert to a fixed rate mortgage before becoming a 1-year ARM
  • Interest rate may go up or down
  • Rate adjustments may be limited by cap(s)
  • Payment caps can result in negative amortization in periods of rising interest rates

Jumbo Loans

  • Any loan over $359,650 (2005 figure, up from $333,700 in 2004) for a single-family home or condo
  • Size of loan increases lender's risk, so interest rates are generally higher than for conventional fixed rate mortgages
  • Jumbo loans are not available with government mortgages

How do I choose an entity for my new business?

Now that you’ve decided to start a new business or buy an existing one, you need to consider the form of business entity that’s right for you.

Basically, three separate categories of entities exist: partnerships, corporations and limited liability companies. Each category has its own advantages, disadvantages, and special rules. It is also possible to operate your business as a sole proprietorship without organizing as a separate business entity.

A sole proprietorship is the most straightforward way to structure your business entity. Sole proprietorships are easy to set up--no separate entity must be formed. A sole proprietor's business is simply an extension of the sole proprietor.

Sole proprietors are liable for all business debts and other obligations the business might incur. This means that your personal assets (e.g., your family's home) can be subject to the claims of your business's creditors.

For federal income tax purposes, all business income, gains, deductions, or losses are reported on Schedule C of your Form 1040. A sole proprietorship is not subject to corporate income tax. However, some expenses that might be deductible by a corporate business may not be deductible by a business structured as a sole proprietorship. For example, health insurance premiums, as of this writing, are not fully deductible for a sole proprietor.

If two or more people are the owners of a business, then a partnership is a viable option to consider. Partnerships are organized in accordance with state statutes. However, certain arrangements, like joint ventures, may be treated as partnerships for federal income tax purposes, even if they do not comply with state law requirements for a partnership.

A partnership may not be the best choice of entity for a business that anticipates an initial public offering (IPO) in the near future. Although there are publicly traded partnerships, most IPO candidates are organized as corporations.

In a partnership, two or more people form a business for mutual profit. In a general partnership, all partners have the capacity to act on behalf of one another in furtherance of business objectives. This also means that each partner is personally liable for any acts of the others, and all partners are personally responsible for the debts and liabilities of the business.

It is not necessary that each partner contribute equally or that all partners share equally. The partnership agreement controls how profits are to be divided. It is not uncommon for one partner to contribute a majority of the capital while another contributes the business acumen or contacts, and the two share the profits equally.

Partnerships are a recognized entity in the sense that the entity can obtain credit, file for bankruptcy, transfer property, and so on. However, the partnership itself is generally not subject to federal income taxes (it does, however, file a federal income tax return). Instead, the income, gains, deductions, and losses of the partnership are generally reported on the partners' individual federal income tax returns. The allocation of these items among the partners is governed by the partnership agreement, subject to certain limitations.

A limited partnership differs from a general partnership in that a limited partnership has more than one class of partners. A limited partnership must have at least one general partner (who is usually the managing partner), but it also has one or more limited partner.

The limited partner(s) does not participate in the day-to-day running of the business and has no personal liability beyond the amount of his or her agreed cash or other capital investment in the partnership.

Some states have enacted statutes that provide for a new type of partnership, the limited liability partnership (LLP). An LLP is a general partnership that provides individual partners protection against personal liability for certain partnership obligations. Exactly what is shielded from personal liability depends on state law. Since state laws on LLPs vary, make sure you consult competent legal counsel to understand the ramifications in your jurisdiction.

Corporations offer some advantages over sole proprietorships and partnerships, along with several important drawbacks. The two greatest advantages of incorporating are that corporations provide the greatest shield from individual liability and are the easiest type of entity to use to raise capital and to transfer (the majority stockholder can usually sell his or her stock without restrictions).

However, corporations are generally subject to federal income tax. So, the distributed earnings of your incorporated business may be subject to corporate income tax as well as individual income tax.

A corporation that has not elected to be treated as an S corporation for federal income tax purposes is typically known as a C corporation. Traditionally, most incorporated businesses have been C corporations. C corporations are not subject to the same qualification rules as S corporations and thus typically offer more flexibility in terms of stock ownership and equity structure. Another advantage that a C corporation has over an S corporation is that a C corporation can fully deduct most reasonable employee benefit costs, while an S corporation may not be able to deduct the full cost of certain benefits provided to 2 percent shareholders. Virtually all large corporations are C corporations.

A corporation must satisfy several requirements to be eligible for treatment as an S corporation for federal income tax purposes. However, qualification as an S corporation offers a potential tax benefit unavailable to a C corporation. If a qualifying corporation elects to be treated as an S corporation for federal income tax purposes, then the income, gains, deductions and losses of the corporation are generally passed through to the shareholders. Thus, shareholders report the S corporation's income, gains, deductions and losses on their individual federal income tax returns, eliminating the potential for double taxation of corporate earnings in most circumstances.

However, many employee benefit deductions are not available for benefits provided to 2 percent shareholders of an S corporation. For example, an S corporation can provide a cafeteria plan to its employees, but the 2 percent shareholders cannot participate and receive the tax advantages that such a plan provides.

It is important to note that S corporation treatment is not available to all corporations. It is available only to qualifying corporations that file an election with the IRS. Qualifying corporations must satisfy several requirements, including limitations on the number and type of shareholders and on who can own stock in the corporation.

A limited liability company (LLC) is a type of entity that provides limitation of liability for owners, like a corporation. However, state law generally provides much more flexibility in the structuring and governance of an LLC as opposed to a corporation. In addition, most LLCs are treated as partnerships for federal income tax purposes, thus providing LLC members with pass-through tax treatment. Moreover, LLCs are not subject to the same qualification requirements that apply to S corporations. However, it should be noted that a corporation may be a better choice of entity than an LLC if an IPO is anticipated.

There is no single best form of ownership for a business. That's partly because the limitations of a particular form of ownership can often be compensated for. For instance, a sole proprietor can often buy insurance coverage to reduce liability exposure, rather than form a limited liability entity.

Even after you have established your business as a particular entity, you may need to re-evaluate your choice of entity as the business evolves. An experienced attorney and tax advisor can help you decide which form of ownership is best for your business.

I am getting a divorce. What are some things I need to consider?

Divorce can be a lengthy process that may strain your finances and leave you feeling out of control. But with the right preparation, you can protect your interests, take charge of your future, and save yourself time and money.

There's no legal requirement that you hire an attorney when divorcing. In fact, going it alone may be a sensible option if you're young and have been married only a short time, are childless, and have few assets. However, most divorcing couples hire attorneys to better protect their interests, even though doing so can be expensive.

Divorce attorneys typically charge hourly rates and require you to submit retainers (lump sums) up front. It's not unusual, for example, for an attorney to charge as much as $150 to $200 per hour and require an initial retainer of up to $2,500 to $5,000. The fee depends on the complexity of the case, the reputation and experience of the divorce attorney, and your geographic location.

You should know that if you're a homemaker or earn less income than your spouse, it's still possible to obtain legal representation. You can submit a motion to the court, asking a judge to order your spouse to pay for your attorney's fees.

If you and your spouse can agree on most issues, you may save time and money by filing an uncontested divorce. If you can't agree on significant issues, you may want to meet with a divorce mediator, who can help you resolve issues the two of you can't resolve alone.

To find a mediator, contact your local domestic relations court, ask friends for a referral, or look in the telephone book. Certain attorneys, members of the clergy, psychologists, social workers, marriage counselors, and financial planners may offer their services as mediators.

To save time and money, compile as much of the following information as you can before meeting with an attorney or other divorce professional:

  • Each spouse's date of birth
  • Names and birthdates of children, if you have any
  • Date and place of marriage and length of time in present state
  • Existence of prenuptial agreement
  • Information about parties' prior marriages, children, etc.
  • Date of separation and grounds for divorce
  • Current occupation and name and address of employer for each spouse
  • Social Security number for each spouse
  • Income of each spouse
  • Education, degrees, and training of each spouse
  • Extent of employee benefits for each spouse
  • Details of retirement plans for each spouse
  • Joint assets of the parties
  • Liabilities and debts of each spouse
  • Life (and other) insurance of each spouse
  • Separate or personal assets of each spouse, including trust funds and inheritances
  • Financial records
  • Family business records
  • Collections, artwork, and antiques

If you're uncertain about some of these areas, you can obtain the necessary information through your spouse's financial affidavit and/or the discovery process, both of which are mandated by the court.

Although your divorce professional will help you work through the big issues, you might want to think about the following questions before meeting with him or her:

  • If you have children, what are your wishes regarding custody, visitation, and child support?
  • Whose health insurance plan should cover the children?
  • Do you earn enough money to adequately support yourself, or should alimony be considered?
  • Which assets do you really want, and which are you willing to let your spouse keep?
  • How do you feel about the family home? Do you feel strongly about living there, or should it be sold or allotted to your spouse?
  • Will you have enough money to pay the outstanding debt on whatever assets you keep?

Keep the following tips in mind:

  • Do prepare a budget and a financial plan to sustain you until your divorce is final. Get help if you don't currently have the skills and energy to do this on your own.
  • Do review monthly bank and financial statements and make copies for your attorney.
  • Do review all tax returns that have been filed jointly or separately by your spouse.
  • Do make sure all taxes have been paid to date.
  • Do review the contents of any safe-deposit boxes.
  • Do get emotional support for yourself—talk to friends, join a support group, or see a therapist.
  • Don't make large purchases or create additional debt that might later cause financial hardship.
  • Don't quit your job.
  • Don't move out of the house before consulting your attorney.
  • Don't transfer or give away assets that are owned jointly.
  • Don't sign a blank financial statement or any other document without reviewing it with your attorney.

How will my spouse’s death affect my finances?

When your spouse dies, your first step should be to contact anyone who is close to you and your spouse, and anyone who may help you with funeral preparations. Next, you should contact your attorney and other financial professionals. You'll also want to contact life insurance companies, government agencies, and your spouse's employer for information on how you can file for benefits.

Getting expert advice when you need it is essential. An attorney can help you go over your spouse's will and start estate settlement procedures. Your funeral director can also be an excellent source of information and may help you obtain copies of the death certificate and applications for Social Security and veterans benefits. Your life insurance agent can assist you with the claims process, or you can contact the company's policyholder service department directly. You may also wish to consult with a financial professional, accountant, or tax advisor to help you organize your finances.

Before you can begin to settle your spouse's estate or apply for insurance proceeds or government benefits, you'll need to locate important documents and financial records (e.g., birth certificates, marriage certificates, life insurance policies). Keep in mind that you may need to obtain certified copies of certain documents. For example, you'll need a certified copy of your spouse's death certificate to apply for life insurance proceeds. And to apply for Social Security benefits, you'll need to provide birth, marriage, and death certificates.

If you've ever felt frustrated because you couldn't find an important document, you already know the importance of setting up a filing system. Start by reviewing all important documents and organizing them by topic area. Next, set up a file for each topic area. For example, you may want to set up separate files for estate records, insurance, government benefits, tax information, and so on. Finally, be sure to store your files in a safe but readily accessible place. That way, you'll be able to locate the information when you need it.

During this stressful time, you probably have a lot on your mind. To help you keep track of certain tasks and details, set up a phone and mail system to record incoming and outgoing calls and mail. For phone calls, keep a sheet of paper or notebook by the phone and write down the date of the call, the caller's name, and a description of what you talked about. For mail, write down whom the mail came from, the date you received it, and, if you sent a response, the date it was sent.

Also, if you don't already have one, make a list of the names and phone numbers of organizations and people you might need to contact, and post it near your phone. For example, the list may include the phone numbers of your attorney, insurance agent, financial professionals, and friends.

When your spouse dies, you may have some immediate expenses to take care of, such as funeral costs and any outstanding debts that your spouse may have incurred (e.g., credit cards, car loan). Even if you are expecting money from an insurance or estate settlement, you may lack the funds to pay for those expenses right away. If that is the case, don't panic--you have several options. If your spouse had a life insurance policy that named you as the beneficiary, you may be able to get the life insurance proceeds within a few days after you file. And you can always ask the insurance company if they'll give you an advance. In the meantime, you can use credit cards for certain expenses. Or, if you need the cash, you can take out a cash advance against a credit card. Also, you can try to negotiate with creditors to allow you to postpone payment of certain debts for 30 days or more, if necessary.

  • Don't think about moving from your current home until you can make a decision based on reason rather than emotion.
  • Don't spend money impulsively. When you're grieving, you may be especially vulnerable to pressure from salespeople.
  • Don't cave in to pressure to sell or give away your spouse's possessions. Wait until you can make clear-headed decisions.

Don't give or loan money to others without reviewing your finances first, taking into account your present and future needs and obligations.

My spouse passed away this year. When I file my taxes, what filing status should I claim?

As the surviving spouse, you have several filing choices that may be appropriate. You may be able to choose married filing jointly, married filing separately, qualifying widow(er), or head of household.

  • Married filing jointly: You can usually file a joint return for the year your spouse died. Generally, you'll have to file in cooperation with the executor or administrator of your spouse's estate. If you remarry before year-end, you cannot file a joint return with your deceased spouse for that year.

  • Married filing separately: To determine the most advantageous approach, you should figure taxes according to both the married filing jointly status and the married filing separately status.

  • Qualifying widow(er): If you meet certain requirements (e.g., you support a dependent child for whom you can claim a tax exemption, and you have not remarried), you can file as a qualifying widow(er) in each of the two years following the year of your spouse's death. This status allows you to use the married filing jointly tax rates.

  • Head of household: If you are ineligible to file jointly or as a qualifying widow(er), the head of household filing status may be possible. To qualify, you must provide support for a relative and meet several conditions.

Regardless of whether you file a joint return or a separate return for your spouse, you must write "DECEASED" across the top of the return, along with your spouse's name and date of death.

If you file a joint return and no personal representative has been appointed, write your (and your spouse's) name, address, and Social Security number in the regular name/address space at the top of the return. To sign the return, write "Filing as Surviving Spouse" in the space for your spouse's signature, then sign in the space for your own signature. If you are not filing a joint return, write your spouse's name at the top of the return and the personal representative's name and address in the remaining space. If a personal representative has been appointed, he or she must sign the return. Again, you must also sign if it is a joint return. For additional details, consult a tax professional.