A few months ago, my husband and I asked our financial planner if it was time for us to get long-term care insurance.

Her short answer was no -- we are in our early forties and have no family history of major medical problems. I was relieved.

But I realize that at some point I may need long-term care protection. In fact, 1 in 5 Americans age 50 may need this type of insurance in the next 12 months, according to Americans for Long-Term Care Security, an independent advocacy group. Yet long-term care is not confined to seniors. Forty percent of the 13 million people currently receiving long-term care are between the ages of 18 and 64, according to the group.

Long-term care insurance can cover the cost of nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and in-home care. In most cases, the insurance will cover expenses for those who need assistance with such daily activities as eating, dressing and bathing, or who have a severe cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer's disease.

To help you decide if the time is right for buying long-term care insurance, I enlisted the advice of Rick Epple, a fee-only financial planner based in Minnetrista, Minn.

"I think this is a concern that people really need to be thinking about," Epple said. "But they have to figure out how it fits in their overall financial plan."

One of the most important things to do is to determine if you can afford the insurance premiums for the long haul, experts say.

This is pricey insurance. Depending on your age and the options you choose, yearly premiums can range from $1,000 to as much as $8,000.

"If somebody doesn't have their basic retirement savings, then it does not make sense to put money into something for a restricted expenditure like long-term care insurance that [he or she] may or may not ultimately use," said Enid Kassner, senior policy adviser for AARP, the senior citizens' lobbying group.

In general, Epple said he starts talking with clients about long-term care insurance after they reach age 50.

"A person in their thirties or forties could potentially pay for insurance for 40 to 50 years before needing to collect on it," he said. "With all the changes in policies and coverage, I would not purchase it for myself until my fifties."

Here are some of the conditions under which Epple says you may not need long-term care insurance:

* If you have the resources (typically over $2 million) to pay for long-term care. Of course, this also depends on your annual expenses. Even $2 million could be eaten up if you needed years of long-term care.

* If you would quickly qualify for Medicaid because you have limited assets (less than $200,000). Keep in mind, neither employer health insurance nor Medicare usually pays for long-term care expenses in a significant way. Medicare will pay for short-term, skilled care. Medicaid -- the federal and state health insurance program for people with limited income and low assets -- does pay for long-term care, but you have to use most of your savings or other assets before you can receive benefits.

* If you cannot afford the premiums. This may seem obvious, but remember, you could be paying for the insurance for years before you need it. So make sure you can comfortably pay for the premiums while you are working and once you retire.

According to Epple, you should consider getting long-term care insurance if:

* You are satisfied you've done enough independent research, all of which points to taking out a policy. He recommends reading "A Shopper's Guide to Long-Term Care Insurance," produced by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (www.naic.org). You can get one free copy of the guide by calling the NAIC at 816-842-3600. AARP is also an excellent source of information on the topic. For a list of tips and resources, go to www.aarp.org and search for "long-term care."

* You want to protect your assets. Long-term care is expensive. You could wipe out your life savings before you qualify for any public assistance.

* If you want to stay independent and have choices about who cares for you. "A person going on Medicaid may have limited choices as to which facility they can get into," Epple said.

Still not sure what to do? Here's what Epple would recommend for clients in the following situations:

* A single male (or female) in his fifties, with no children, who plans to retire soon with a good pension, $2 million in assets and no desire to leave an estate to anyone. He doesn't mind if he has to spend all his assets until he qualifies for Medicaid. In this case, long-term care insurance isn't recommended.

* A couple in their sixties, both in good health, with an estate of $1 million. They want to leave an inheritance. They can easily afford premium payments now and in retirement. They want the best if the need for long-term care should arise. They don't want to be a financial burden to their adult children. In this case, Epple suggests long-term care insurance.

* A 65-year-old couple with assets of $150,000. They live on Social Security and a small pension. All income goes to pay for needed living expenses. They would quickly qualify for Medicaid if long-term care were needed. Long-term care insurance in this case does not make economic sense.

In my next column I'll address what to look for in a long-term care policy and which options to consider.

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While Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or by e-mail at singletarym@washpost.com.