Worthy nonprofits rely on the big hearts and generous gifts of their donors. Unfortunately, there are plenty of unscrupulous nonprofits that use donations to line their owners’ pockets.

The Federal Trade Commission outlined one of the biggest shams in history earlier this year, charging four agencies with fleecing donors for $187 million. The Commission alleges that the agencies claimed donations were helping buy pain medicine, hospice care and other services for cancer patients including children and women with breast cancer. In fact, the Commission said the money really went toward execs' cars, vacations, tickets to sporting events and other luxuries. Two of the agencies have closed down and won't re-open.

How do they pull it off? And how can you make sure your hard-earned dollars get to those truly in need?

How to tell the saints from the sinners

One thing the allegedly fraudulent agencies counted on was that donors weren't paying attention to details. They gave their enterprises

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My home town would be an expensive place to retire. With a 5% state income tax, a 3% county income tax, a 6% sales tax, exorbitant property tax rates and costly real estate, a nest egg of $500,000 would last far less time here than it would in, say, Alaska or Ecuador.

The tax question isn’t academic, or some political abstraction; by one calculation I made, I could live for only 15 years on my target retirement savings in my high-tax city, compared to virtually unlimited time in Ecuador.

How does that work? Put simply, if your retirement investments earn an average of say 6% return every year, and you can live on draws equalling 5% of your investments, then your nest egg will continue to grow and you can live indefinitely on it. But if you must spend 10% of your investments to live each year, then you draw down your nest egg and it will run out at a certain point.

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If you think taxes are bad while you’re alive, just wait until you die – your greedy cousin-in-law twice-removed isn’t the only one who will claw for a share. Uncle Sam expects to be well paid when you die, and he will be, unless you actively plan your estate so that your loved ones are taken care of instead.

1. Estate Taxes vs. Probate Expenses vs. Final Income Taxes

When you die, typically you owe several sets of taxes. The first is simple enough: you (or rather your estate) must pay normal income taxes on the money you earned the year you died. This is unavoidable, so don’t sweat it, and the news gets better from here.

Probate expenses are only due if your estate goes into probate. And as we learned in What’s the Difference Between a Will and a Living Trust?, if you use a living trust and pourover will (instead of a normal last will), your children

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