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Gilligan's Island star shares a cautionary financial tale

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 9/7/2018 Alessandra Malito
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Actress Dawn Wells is financially stuck. Just like her character on “Gilligan’s Island,” she’s not alone.

Wells, who played Mary Ann Summers on the popular 1960s sitcom about a group of people stranded on a deserted island, is asking her fans for financial assistance after incurring high medical bills and suffering major investment losses.

A friend of the star created a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of raising $180,000 to pay for Wells’ “hospital costs” as well as penalties she owes the Internal Revenue Service (the page did not explain why she owes the penalty fees).

“Dawn is living one of the greatest fears we Americans have, an uncertain future,” her friend Dugg Kirkpatrick wrote on the GoFundMe page. Wells suffered an unexpected accident and had to have “life-threatening” surgery that left her with piles of bills, he wrote.

In the last nine days, the GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $50,000 in donations from more than 1,400 people. “After 2008, like many of us, Dawn suffered through the banking crash and lost everything including her life savings,” Kirkpatrick said.

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The actress, 79, confirmed the authenticity of the GoFundMe campaign on her official Facebook FB page on Wednesday.

“A dear, dear friend of mine with a big heart was trying to help me with some common issues we all understand and some may face,” she wrote. “I don’t know how this happened. I thought I was taking all the proper steps to ensure my golden years. Now, here I am, no family, no husband, no kids and no money. I’m grateful that God has given me so many friends and fans who care, or it would all be too ...overwhelming.”

Famous or not, Americans struggle with health care expenses

Wells is far from alone on this issue. Some 66% of people say problems with medical bills stem from one-time events rather than treatment for chronic illnesses, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, nonprofit, private foundation based in Menlo Park, Calif.

Only 13% of people have problems paying medical bills of $10,000 or more, it found. Some 37% of those with annual household incomes below $50,000 have problems paying off medical bills versus 26% of those with moderate incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, and 14% of those earning more than that. Patients will sometimes avoid doctor visits or buy prescription medications because they simply can’t afford them.

Health care costs continue to grow as Americans get older. A couple retiring in 2017 can expect to spend $275,000 in health care during retirement, a number that is expected to rise indefinitely, according to Fidelity Investments.

What to do if you’re in the same boat as Wells

Some people find a new or second job, said Monica Dwyer, vice president and wealth adviser at Harvest Financial Advisors in West Chester, Ohio. Such an endeavor could involve learning new skills or finding a mentor to brush up your interviewing and networking skills. “Take a hard look at your life and make a decision about the kind of life you can lead,” she said.

Re-evaluate expenses, ask for help and look for government-subsidized programs that could provide relief, such as rental assistance through the Department of Housing and Urban Development or food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “Pride should be left at the door,” said Malik Lee, managing principal at Felton & Peel Wealth Management in Atlanta.

Wells’ problems show anyone can experience financial turmoil — and that appearing on a hit TV show is no guarantee of permanent financial stability. Another actor, Geoffrey Owens, who played Bill Cosby’s son-in-law in the popular 1980s sitcom “The Cosby Show,” was recently photographed bagging groceries at a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey. Fellow celebrities took to social media to support Owens. Some noted that actors rarely have steady paychecks, and said nobody should judge him for working a day job to pay the bills.

She’s famous, but many Americans have shared her troubles

Not everyone believes GoFundMe accounts are a way to pay for bills, even medical bills. Unlike Wells, most Americans do not have a famous name to fall back on. Some people left outraged messages on the campaign’s page. One user, Larry Roberts, said his hospital bill was $178,000 after an accident, and he couldn’t raise more than $50 with his own GoFundMe.

“Yet these people from show business who if they managed their money wisely would not be in so much trouble, just fire up a GoFundMe page and just like that — $28,000 already,” he wrote. “Yeah sorry for your luck, but guess what Dawn, welcome to the real world.”

Others were more supportive. “Good Luck Ms. Wells! You have given me (and most Americans) years of entertainment with Gilligan’s Island,” Cathy Josey wrote. “It is my honor and pleasure to provide this small measure of assistance to you.”

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