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Older couple not likely to clean up by selling laundry

DEAR BRUCE: We are a 68-year-old couple, both in good health and receiving SSI retirement of $1,800 per month. We have 85- to 90-year-old genetics going for us both.

We are renters with very few other liabilities (approximately $1,500 in living expenses and credit card debt, which is almost paid off). We own a drapery cleaning company free and clear that does approximately $110,000 gross business with 65 percent to 70 percent profit, working six to eight days a month.

We have very small savings and no life insurance. I dropped it before I started this company in 1999 due to financial issues.

In your estimation, what is the resale value of the company? The company is in my wife's name, although I oversee all operations and internal affairs. We would appreciate any advice and/or direction you can offer. — J.W., via email

DEAR J.W.: You ask an interesting question for which I have no way of determining an answer. You mentioned that you have this dry cleaning company that does very well given the amount of effort you put into it, making $65,000 to $70,000 a year.

The problem is, this appears to be all you have. The difficulty in selling a small business such as yours is that most of the potential buyers have no money, which means you will have to finance a good chunk of the sales value. I can't imagine most lenders being interested in this kind of credit environment. Further, selling a small company in a hurry is often impossible.

You might want to consider asking your employees if one of them would like to buy you out over a fixed period of years. They would have time to save a significant amount for a down payment, and you would have to carry the paper for the rest.

In the meantime, you ought to be socking away everything you can for the next few years with this income. For whatever reason, until now you've been unable to save anything. While your Social Security will be helpful and consistent, even if you collect the maximum of $25,000 to $30,000 a year, you will certainly have a difficult time maintaining your lifestyle, given that your rental alone would pretty much cancel out the Social Security income.

You might want to put a little more effort into this enterprise, providing some extra money for investment. Unless there's something you've neglected to tell me, your retirement years will be very lean.

DEAR BRUCE: My parents divorced when my brother and I were in our early teens. My father married a woman who is 15 years younger, and she has a daughter. We had a good relationship with our father, stepmom and stepsister as we grew older. Even our mom spoke with our father regularly after we grew up.

He told our mom that we were going to be taken care of when something happened to him. He owned more than 10 houses and apartments in our city. He had a plane and also a 100-foot sailboat, and they had a crew that would race from Hawaii to the West Coast every other year.

My father became sick in 2006, and our stepsister contacted my brother and me. We both were living in other states. My brother and I went to see him, and after about two weeks he passed away.

My stepmother has given me some of my father's ashes to take home. I tried to get in touch with her and my stepsister when I got home after the services, and it seems they have decided to hide from us, which means we cannot contact them. Is there anything we can do to find out about the will or estate and/or trust? — T.W., via email

DEAR T.W.: The only thing this all comes down to is who is first in line in the absence of a will when your dad passed away. You can contact the surrogate's office in the county where your father died and see if any will has been filed for probate. In the event there was none, you may inquire of the surrogate if anyone has applied to be appointed administrator of your dad's estate.

If no one has, you may make such application as his child. You would not be the closest relative, which would be his wife at the time of his death. That will likely flush out your stepmother and, if not, it will give you legal ability to make inquiries to find out what, if anything, your father left behind.

I can understand why, if there was no will, your stepmother would not want to contact you, since you and your brother would both be in line for a portion of the estate. If none of these things has happened, you will have to hire counsel in the state where your dad passed away.

Whether there are any assets to speak of is another matter. You mentioned he had a lot of property, but that doesn't mean he had it when he passed away.

Send your questions to Smart Money, P.O. Box 2095, Elfers, FL 34680. Send email to bruce@brucewilliams.com. Questions of general interest will be answered in future columns. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.