Planning for the inevitable

April 8, 2019

As a result of the problems I encountered administering the estates of my parents, I learned a few things that might be helpful in planning for the end of your life, especially if you have dependents.

Many people designate trusted relatives or friends as attorneys in fact (through a document called a power of attorney) to act in case they become disabled and cannot handle their own financial and business affairs.  The important thing to remember about such a designation is that it only exists during the lifetime of the grantor — as soon as the person designating another as attorney dies, the attorney’s authority to act on behalf of the grantor stops.

If you have a spouse, and you were the bigger earner, it is true that your surviving spouse will, in many cases, be able to receive your higher monthly social security payments after your death; however, your spouse’s own existing payments will cease, thus resulting in an immediate loss of income.  What’s worse, after Social Security finds out about your death (usually from your funeral provider), if you have received any excess payments via direct deposit, it will claw them back from the account in which they were deposited.

If you were lucky enough to have a pension, you more than likely opted for benefits to your spouse to continue after your death, but at a reduced rate.  The survivor in such situation may likely suffer a large, immediate loss in monthly income (from social security and the pension) that may not be offset by the reduced expenses of living alone.

The issue is not just whether there will be enough money for the survivor to live on long-term.  The issue also is providing for the immediate needs of the survivor when income may be reduced and accounts frozen. Life insurance pays quickly, and can be a lifesaver if the policy beneficiary is the surviving spouse. Don’t make the mistake of using a life insurance policy to provide for those who don’t need the proceeds immediately; provide for them elsewhere in your estate plan.






The business of death

March 18, 2019

My extended absence from this blog has been due primarily to the loss of both my parents last year. I was designated executor of their estates, which were somewhat complicated. It was my first time discharging this type of responsibility, and I had a lot to learn.

Fortunately, I had good professional help, which eased the burden a great deal.

That burden was made far more onerous than it had to be, however, by the abysmal customer service I received from almost every business I dealt with in administering the estates and related matters. I realize that customer service usually is not a revenue producing department for most businesses, and thus is a prime target for bean-counting cost cutters. However, those economies can backfire — I have vowed never to do business with several of the companies at whose hands I received unacceptable service.

It’s hard for me to say which company I dealt with gave me the worst service — was it the insurance agent who, after promising me for weeks that the homeowners policy on my parents’ house would timely be renewed, waited until several days after it expired to tell me he had failed to renew it, and would not be able to get me new coverage for a month?

Or was it the brokerage house, with whom my parents had several fairly large accounts, that lost paperwork I sent in, only finding it after I resubmitted it at their request.

Perhaps the worst service I received was from another firm, at which held a 401(k) account for my father by virtue of a contract with his former employer. I was asked to send three documents to begin the process of transferring the account to his heirs. Two, I had and sent, with an explanation as to why I was not sending the third and a request for further instructions. The third was a paper from the court administering the estate, but how the estate would be administered depended on the value of the account, which the firm would not disclose to me. After the receiving the third letter from the firm requesting the three items requested in the original letter, I called, not believing my two prior submissions of the two documents requested and letter explaining the absence of the third could have been lost in the mail. I was told that the company received my submissions, but could not proceed in the absence of the court paper. When I asked why I wasn’t told that, but was instead repeated sent letters suggesting I had never been heard from, I was told that was the only letter they had.

While not strictly a customer service issue, the worst problem I had was procuring a medallion signature guarantee, a sort of super-notary stamp (that not only vouches for the identity of the signer, but apparently also indicates the guarantor is assuming financial responsibility for the transaction), which some firms require for the transfer of stock, bonds and mutual fund shares. Although the firm holding the shares and requiring the medallion advised that it could be procured for free from many banks and brokerages, none of the four I asked for it (I was a customer of each) would give me one. The scam was exposed when the holding company offered a medallion “waiver” in exchange for a $50 payment, on top of its exorbitant commission and fees for selling the shares.

In my next post, I will offer some advice to spare your heirs some aggravation after your passing.

End of an era

July 11, 2018

USA Today reports that Southwest Airlines will soon stop serving its iconic peanuts, in deference to those with allergies. I only hope this heightened awareness of the needs of its customers with allergies will extend to those sensitive to the fur of so-called “support” animals, as well as those whose migraines can be triggered by screaming babies. I’m not holding my breath.

Auto repair

June 12, 2018

While there have been many advances in automotive technology over the years, and car prices have remained reasonable (especially when one considers the added convenience and safety features, now standard, that used to be optional or not available at all), I think both manufacturers and consumers have paid little attention to costs of ownership, particularly repairs and maintenance.

I recently noticed a small scratch and dent on one of my car’s doors.  The damage was not extensive, but was unsightly enough for me to want to have it repaired.

My collision deductible is $100, and I knew the repair cost would exceed that.  What shocked me was when I received an estimate for over $800.  The repair ended up costing over $1500, plus over $300 for a rental car that my insurance covered for the time it and the body shop dickered over the cost of the repair and the time it took to complete the repair.

I was only out $100, and I had the use of a car while mine was in the shop, so what’s the problem?  Like health care, another area where many have insurance, the problem falls disproportionately upon those who do not.  In addition, the cost of insurance for everyone must reflect the inflated prices of repairs and parts.

Also, as in health care, when one does not pay directly out of pocket, on is not likely to actively seek lower prices.

Decades ago, I recall that the insurance industry, through a lobbying and advertising campaign, sought common-sense changes in auto design that would help contain repair costs, such as standardizing bumper heights, requiring bumpers to meet crash resistance standards, and the like.  These efforts were fruitless, and now we all pay.

Worst coupon ever

October 8, 2016

Recently, I received via e-mail the coupon below from EMS, an outdoors store.  Needing to buy an expensive Thule roof rack component for my new car, I went to EMS rather than a competitor, hoping to use the coupon, though suspecting it might not be accepted.

I was or was not disappointed, depending on one’s point of view.  When I presented the e-mail on my phone, the sales clerk relied on the small-type words, “exclusions apply,” and scrolled down past a lot of other content to the bottom of the e-mail, which contained, in even smaller type that I had not noticed, a long list of items to which the coupon would not apply, including, of course, Thule products.  My usual argument, that “any one item” is directly contrary to “exclusions apply,” and that the statement in larger type should apply, fell on deaf ears.

Though I probably should not have, I bought the item anyway, as I was there, it was in stock and I probably could not have gotten it for less anywhere else.

I concede that the facts that the coupon did not apply to everything in the store, and that the item I wanted to buy  was one of the “exclusions,” were displayed in the e-mail, and that I was aware of the first, which should have led me to look for the second.  Does this mean that I have no reason to be disgruntled?

I contend it does not.  The format of the 20% offer – with a seemingly unqualified offer in large type, followed by increasingly restrictive words in increasingly small type – seem to me calculated to attract customers into the store as well as to limit the number of tendered coupons that actually have to be honored, thus limiting the cost of the promotion.  Of course, the cost of losing customers who feel they weren’t treated fairly is not factored in by the marketing bean counters.

I wrote to the company, pointing out the direct conflict between “any one item,” and “exclusions apply,” suggesting that honesty would require the use of some qualifier such as “any one specified item” or the like.  I will let you know if I receive a response.

EMS is not the only retailer using this type of coupon, though its list of exclusions is the least conspicuous I have seen.  I believe government regulation should prohibit the use of seemingly unqualified offers unless the fact that there are exceptions, and the list of specific exceptions, appear in the same size type as the original statement.  Such regulation would, of course, be decried as intrusive and unnecessary by the weasels whose antics precipitated the need for it.



More consumer frustration

June 20, 2016

I recently bought a plastic bottle of after shave, and experienced frustration in being unable to control the amount of product that came out of the bottle.  Here’s the message I wrote to the company:

I like your product, but the hole in the plastic insert at the opening of the bottle is way too big. Much more of the product than intended comes out every time I use it, causing me to waste a great deal of the product. You should buy the inserts your competitors use, which have much smaller openings that allow the user much more control over how much of the product comes out.

Within a very short time, I received a personalized response to my message:

Thank you for contacting us regarding * * *. We welcome all comments about our products.

We conducted several packaging tests with an automated dispenser to determine the internal shape of the orifice reducer as well as the orifice diameter that would provide the same “dose” as the glass sprinkler finish. It was based on these test results that the current plug was designed. For proper application of the After Shave, please try not to squeeze the bottle while applying the product. We are also filling the bottles with more product (to maintain our shelf size/impression) and the longer use-up rate.

Were I a professor in an MBA program (heaven forbid), I would give this company relatively high marks for the promptness of its reply, and for attempting to address the specific concern I expressed in my communication.  However, although the message attempted to justify the use of the bottle insert that I found problematic, I would take away points because it did so not by stating that the insert used met most of its customers’ needs, or that it would re-evaluate the situation based on my and others’ suggestions, but because it replicated the previously-used glass packaging, whether that packaging met its customers’ needs or not.

I replied that tests of the insert on human customers might be more helpful than automated dispensing tests, and that I did not squeeze the bottle when dispensing the product, but I did not receive a further response.

Bottom line — I will not buy this product again.  Every time I use it, half of what is dispensed goes down the drain, wasted.  I don’t really care about whether the present container has the same dispensing characteristics as a previously-used container, and I don’t care about shelf size/impression and longer use-up rate (whatever they are).  As a professor, I would deduct further points for use of undefined industry jargon in a response to a lay person.

Another pet peeve:  the response to my original inquiry was “signed” by an employee who gave only her first name.  I suppose in an age when many customer service people won’t even give you that information unless you beat it out of them, I guess that’s above-average.

Switching cell phone carriers – again

May 13, 2016

I have written extensively about my experiences with Verizon and, later, Consumer Cellular.  Both companies provided good service (Consumer Cellular, I am told, runs off the AT&T network; Verizon has its own network).  When I switched to Consumer Cellular, I bought myself an unlocked GSM phone, noting at the time it would allow me to switch carriers if things didn’t work out.

After my initial disappointment with Consumer Cellular’s less than transparent disclosure of the optional fees it chose to impose, I was basically a satisfied customer.  Consumer Cellular’s model is to have tiered voice and data/text plans that charge different rates for different levels of use.  Customers can change plans at will, even retroactively, within each billing period.  Thus, if you go over your voice minutes or data use, you can step up to a higher plan after the fact, as long as your billing period hasn’t expired.  Consumer Cellular helps with usage alerts and an app that lets you monitor your usage, though accurate totals often take hours or days to show up, which can cause a problem if your cumulative usage approaches you plan limit near the end of your billing period.

The problem for me was not so much on the voice end (I usually stayed within the 250 minute plan, with minutes being charged on every incoming or outgoing call, regardless of day or time).  Data allowances were very low, however, and if you went over 150 mb per month, you would end up paying over $30 per month with taxes and fees.  While staying within plans that cost under $30 per month usually was possible for me, I found I was worrying about usage more than I should, and not using my phone in situations where using it would be more convenient for me.

I therefore started looking at other carriers.  Not a major data user (as a result of having to monitor my use as a Consumer Cellular customer), and seeing that most plans now offer unlimited talk and text, I considered two carriers — MetroPCS, which offers a $30 plan with one gigabyte of data, and Cricket, which offers a $40 plan (which can be reduced to $35 with auto-pay enrollment) with 2.5 g of data.  The prices for both plans include all taxes and fees, and there are no extra charges if you go over your data limit — instead, you get “throttled” down to dial-up speeds for the rest of the billing period.

In part because I was satisfied with AT&T’s service while I was a Consumer Cellular customer (MetroPCS runs on the T-Mobile network), and in part because of the higher data allowance, I opted to try Cricket.  I saw on the web site a $50 offer for new customers (that would offset the cost of a new SIM card and activation) and stopped in at my local retailer to talk.  That retailer told me it could not honor the $50 offer; and it directed me to one of the stores that could.  There, I was told that my Consumer Cellular number was “owned” by AT&T, which owns Cricket, and as to which the offer did not apply. However, he offered me a $20 rebate available to AARP members, of which I am one.  I decided to take the plunge.

The switch over (“porting” in industry lingo) took a few hours, and everything worked after the process was complete.  I would rate the process as relatively painless.

So far, my experience with Cricket has been good.  I’ve had no operational or coverage issues at all.  I still have my phone set to use wi fi by default, and see no problem staying well within the 2.5 g monthly data allowance.

One nice feature Cricket offers is unlimited talk, data and texting in Canada and Mexico on higher priced plans.  The Cricket sales rep told me it was easy to temporarily switch plans, and I may give it a try when I take a planned trip to Canada later this summer.