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Although Ruth P. Brown knows she will probably need long-term medical care one day, the 72-year-old has not developed a plan for protecting her assets if she has to enter a convalescent center.

"You hopeand pray that it doesn't happen," said Brown, president of the American Association of Retired Persons Carroll County chapter. "I guess I'm trusting on my health to hold up."

One in four people will require nursing home care for at least three months and one in 10 for at least three years, said a pamphlet bythe International Association for Financial Planning, a trade/professional organization of financial planning professionals.

About 5 percent of Carroll residents 60 and older reside in long-term care facilities, said a 1990 report by the county Bureau of Aging.

Planning for retirement can be difficult.

"The toughest part is setting aside funds," said Edward Overton, a 57-year-old salesman from Eldersburg. "I don't want to be standing in the cold with threadbare clothing."

Many seniors think the strategies their parents used will workfor them, said Michael K. Billingslea, a certified financial plannerwith Legg Mason Financial Services Inc. in Westminster.

"Those tried-and-true rules were great of yesteryear," Billingslea said. "Today, things have changed so the old rules often don't work.

"There are a ton of people that haven't even scratched the surface in this area until one of them dies or goes into a nursing home," he said. "Most people don't think they need it."

In reality, though, most people do need guidance, said Jeffrey D. Scott, a Westminster attorney whospecializes in estates and trusts.

"There's no way to get around the fact that you just can't use generalizations," Scott said. "Everybody's situation needs to be examined by someone who knows what they're talking about.

"It's a matter of weighing the pros and cons," Scott said. "There's really an awfully large number of options involved."

Billingslea gets a few calls each month from county residents concerned about retirement funds.

They often ask, "How do I keep (money) all in my family and not send it to Uncle Sam or a nursing home?" he said.

They want to protect their assets from government taxes and health-care costs, Billingslea said. Nursing home costs average about $3,000 a month.

Couples should begin putting aside money for retirement early, Brown said.

"As soon as they're married you have to start saving," Brown said. "You just can't spend and spend in your younger days if you want to have something for your older years.

"I wouldn't have what I have today if I didn't save in my 33 years of work," said the former clerk for Black & Decker Corp. "I saved every cent I could get my hands on."

It's not always that easy, said Overton's wife, Ann, who works at the Register of Wills.

"We hadalways thought about it, but we never had any extra money," said Ann, 56. But some couples don't think that far ahead, she said.

"The mentality of the American people is to wait," she said. "You don't even think about (retirement). Then, all of a sudden, it's around the corner."

The Overtons, who said they have "modest" resources, are working on their retirement finances without the help of a professional financial planner. Ann has taken control of the couple's retirementplans.

"We never made a financial goal," she said. "Not getting there would probably frustrate me. We just put as much money as we canaside for long-term investment."

"If there hadn't been that self-interest from the start there might be a need for a planner," her husband said.

The key to successful financial planning is to considerthe whole picture before making any decisions, Billingslea said. That requires a clear understanding of tax rules and an accurate estimate of an estate's value.

"People don't know what their assets are worth," Billingslea said. "Most people are underestimating by 25 percent."

As people age, they should be sure their legal papers are in order, Billingslea said.

An AARP financial primer suggests that such files be stored in a safe deposit box, a fireproof box at home, and/or with an attorney, relative or friend.

Among today's older generation, men usually handle financial and legal affairs, and women tend to live longer, Billingslea said. Even when that is not the case, he said, the survivor often has a lot to sort through.

"It's oftenvery, very difficult for the surviving spouse to cope with it all," he said. "Get it organized beforehand. That will save the spouse a real tough time and save the kids a mess."

Although Social Security benefits are modest, they also must be factored into the planning. This year the average monthly check of a recipient is $602, said Dana V. Edwards, a Social Security Administration spokesman.

"What we'rehoping is that people will think of Social Security as a base to build on for their retirement needs," he said.

Social Security benefits are based on a person's average earnings during most of their working lifetime, he said.

The earliest a person can retire and receive Social Security benefits is at 62, Edwards said. However, the monthly benefits are reduced by 20 percent.

For that reason, many people wait to retire until they are 65 so they will receive full benefits. Even then, a person at the top of the scale gets a check for no more than $1,022 each month, he said.

Keeping mentally and physicallyactive is one of the Overtons' main retirement concerns. The couple started to eat healthier and exercise more as they aged.

"I just wanted to be able to feel better, rather than feeling worse as I got older," Ann said. "I'm not gonna just sit around."

"It's a second life," her husband said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that we'restill on our feet."

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