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Why on Earth are the instructions on medicine bottles in such small print?  It makes it harder for sick people and old people to read, increasing the chance that they will over or under-dose themselves.  The people who have the hardest time reading tiny text are the exact people who need to read it the most.  Government programs are the same way - you need to be an expert in order to navigate them so your benefits don't become detriments.

If there is one thing governments are good at, it is confusing rules and programs.  When should you take social security payments?  How good is Medicare?  Can anyone even afford to retire any more?  As people age we are faced with landmarks such as qualifying for Medicare that can be quite confusing, and may carry consequences if not done right. 

That's why everybody needs an Ed.  Ed is a local independent insurance guy who specializes in, among other things, helping retirees (or non-retirees) navigate the complexities of Medicare, one of the biggest stumbling blocks for people turning 65.  As you approach that birthday you will find yourself inundated with mailings from insurance companies that claim they will make it easy and affordable to get your Medicare set up.  Some of them are an inch thick.

The Ed I know - I call him that because he is named Ed - sits down with you and untangles the confusing mess in ten minutes, then shows you policies that would best serve your needs at your current age and state of health.  You still have to pay $134 to the government.  But if you are generally healthy you may not end up paying anything additional, or if you do, it may not be much.  My 90 year old relative pays an additional $5 per month.  That is the benefit of having an Ed.

If you are retired this can be a great thing - unless your spouse isn't of Medicare age.  Robbing the cradle may have seemed like a great idea when you got married, but now it is more difficult to retire because of the cost of health insurance for that spring chicken you fell in love with.  Here is a real life example: One couple got his and hers surgeries - minor surgery for pretty much the same issue.  He pays the Medicare price for insurance.  She pays about three times that amount for her monthly premiums.  He ended up paying just under $300 out of pocket.  She paid about twice the amount.  So Medicare is great for couples if both spouses have it.

And all those AARP mailings you start getting when you are in your 50s?  If you believe in the things AARP lobbies for, by all means join up.  But if you're only doing it because they have great supplemental insurance, check with an Ed first -- you may not need it.

If you are taking Social Security payments your monthly medicare cost is deducted, and you get whatever is left.  This actually makes it feel you are getting health insurance for free, because you don't see Medicare bills -- you just get that payment each month.  That free insurance is an illusion, but a wonderful one.

If you are new to Social Security and Medicare, there is a catch.  You can draw social security payments at a younger age, but most people plan to start receiving their cash at age 65.  The catch is that there are bump-up points where if you wait to draw payments you get more money.  One of them is age 66.  Not 65.  So if you wait the extra year you will have to send monthly checks for Medicare.

Then there's property tax.  Property tax is based on what your county assessor thinks your property is worth, not on what you can afford to pay.  Tompkins County has discounts for seniors who have low incomes, but you have to be careful about how that income is calculated.  For example, moving dollars from a traditional IRA into a ROTH IRA could increase your income and decrease your tax benefit.

Not to be outdone by the federal government, New York State also makes life confusing for its newly elder citizens.  At a certain age you get an enhanced STAR reduction to your property taxes, but if you decide to downsize you may not get that benefit any more.  Qualifying homes that already have Enhanced STAR keep it, but newly purchased homes move to another system based on income tax.  Not having an income or having a reduced retirement income could complicate that.

Here in Tompkins County the assessment office staff goes out of its way to make these benefits easy.  You have to provide proof of income to determine the level of illegibility, if any, for the County's tax reduction.  They will take it any way they can get it - by mail, email, fax, showing up in their office with your tax return, or a program that allows them to get it from the government if you want to let them.  So it's worth talking to the staff there if you have reached the age where you qualify.

The fact is that with everything costing so much these days, what may have seemed like a cushy retirement plan when you set it up may not be adequate to keep you in the lifestyle to which you hoped to remain accustomed.  Add all the confusing requirements and even a rocket scientist can be confounded by dealing with the dollar side of getting older.  It irks me that I can program a computer but I can't understand medicare.

Neil Sedaka famously recorded 'Breaking up Is hard To Do' in 1962.  Now that he is 78 I am waiting for the sequel: 'Getting Old Is Hard To Do'.  Although... as long as there are Eds, it doesn't have to be.

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