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Investing in pay phones could be a bad connection

Q. Do you have any information regarding the purchasing of pay telephones? I received some information about investing with a company out West, but I thought of getting another opinion since a person nowadays has to be ultra-careful when making an investment.

A. If you want to be ultra-careful, stay away from private business "opportunities" such as pay telephones.

Most investors, and especially those who cannot afford to lose their money, should stick with a diversified portfolio of high-quality, plain vanilla investments. Here is what I am talking about:

Bank accounts and money market funds.

Stock in companies that have actual earnings and that are traded on major markets.

U.S. government, AAA municipal and investment-grade corporate bonds.

Mutual funds and annuities that invest most of their money in the above.

Following this restrictive formula is no guarantee that your investments will do well, but it will improve your chances for success.

If that is too dull for you, you can take some additional risk and spice up your investing life by putting a small portion of your money in mutual funds that invest in junk bonds, foreign securities or tiny "microcap" stocks. However, I would not recommend buying any of these outside a mutual fund, which offers the safety of diversification.

Pay telephones and other private deals are only appropriate for sophisticated investors who are familiar with the particular business, capable of evaluating the risks and potential rewards and rich enough not to feel a pinch if they lose the money they invest.

Many people only discover after the fact that the high returns they saw advertised come with high risks attached.

Q. Can a private individual with no financial industry work experience become a Certified Financial Planner? If yes, how?

A. Anyone can become a financial planner, but to become a Certified Financial Planner you must meet the requirements of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, including work experience.

The CFP Board currently requires three years of full-time financial planning experience for pay if you have a bachelor's degree or five years of experience without a degree. You also must complete an approved program of study and pass a two-day certification exam. If you are interested in learning more, visit the CFP Board's Web site (http://www.cfp-board.org) or call the board at (303) 830-7500 to request an information booklet on CFP requirements.

Q. I noticed a lot of different software applications to do federal taxes. Is there an application that would help with The Florida intangible tax?

A. Sure. Both TurboTax and TaxCut, the most popular income tax software programs, have state tax programs. List price is $25 to $28. TaxCut gives its state tax software free to purchasers of its deluxe program for federal income tax.

Q. My husband is 75 and I am 69. We own a mobile home, a car and four bank CDs worth about $70,000. Do we need a will? We had one in New York state. When we moved to Florida, I copied it over, changing the dates and location and had it notarized at the bank.

A. Property titled in joint ownership with right of survivorship goes to the other joint owner whether or not you have a will. Property titled in the name of a trust will pass according to the terms of the trust. Property with a named beneficiary, such as an insurance policy or retirement account, goes to the beneficiary. Other property passes through probate, where it is distributed according to the terms of your will or, if you don't have one, according to state law.

If you want to control where your property ends up, you each should have a will. When you move to a new state, you should have a new will prepared because probate laws vary from state to state.

Online money map

Speaking of financial planning, the World Wide Web offers lots of help. Fidelity Investments (http://www.fidelity.com) has one of the better retirement planning calculators on the Internet. Go to Fidelity's "personal investing" section and click on "retirement." You can find out whether your current savings are on track to meet your retirement goals and, if not, how much more you need to save to get there. You can try out a wide variety of "what ifs" by changing your retirement age, your life expectancy, your expected investment return, the inflation rate, etc.

_ Helen Huntley writes about investing and markets for the Times. If you have a question about investments or personal finance, send it to On Money. We'll try to answer those we think are of greatest reader interest. All questions must be submitted in writing, but readers' names will not be published. Send questions to Helen Huntley, Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or to huntleysptimes.com by electronic mail.

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