How the “earnings test” works

Dear Liz: Hi. I learned the hard way about taking early Social Security benefits. I kept working and wound up losing $1 of Social Security benefits for every $2 I earned over a certain low threshold. Do I get this money back at some point or is it a penalty?

 Answer: It’s considered a penalty, but you also get the money back. This so-called “earnings test” is one of several ways the Social Security system tries to discourage people from taking benefits early. The threshold for exempt earnings in 2012 is $14,640. After that point, your Social Security checks will be reduced $1 for every $2 you earn until you reach full retirement age. Once you reach that age, your checks will be increased to reflect the withheld amounts.

Why some debtors don’t get sued

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from a business owner who defaulted on some credit card accounts and wanted to know how to pay these old debts. How is it that this person has not been subjected to numerous judgments on the cards in question? In fact, how could he or she have proceeded in business without being subjected to garnishment of accounts?

Answer: To get a judgment and a garnishment, the credit card company or a subsequent collector typically must sue the borrower in court. Different collectors have different policies about when to file such lawsuits. Sometimes they decide it’s not worth the hassle given the slim chances of collecting. However, many collectors also regularly check’ credit reports to see if a debtor’s financial circumstances seem to be improving. If they see signs of such improvement, they may renew collection attempts, including lawsuits.

Parents’ estate plan triggers IRA tax bill

Dear Liz: My sister and I are in the middle of distributing our parents’ estate. The beneficiary of the estate is a trust. Part of the estate consists of a traditional IRA, which will be split between my sister and me. The problem is that because the IRA will be distributed from the trust and is considered a non-spouse distribution, I’m told that we’ll have to pay taxes on the entire distribution. It’s a good chunk of change. I’m almost 60. Is there any way that I can roll the IRA into my own and take minimum distributions? I’d rather not pay the tax all upfront.

Answer: That’s understandable, since it’s typically much better to stretch distributions out as long as possible so that the money can continue to grow (and you can replace one big tax bill with smaller ones as you take distributions).

Unfortunately, the way your parents structured their estate ties your hands, although perhaps not to the extent you’ve been told.

It appears from your question that the IRA either failed to name a beneficiary or named the estate as the beneficiary, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for tax research firm CCH.

“Assuming that is the case, since estates do not have life expectancies, the IRA cannot be distributed over a beneficiary life expectancy as it could have been had an individual been named the IRA beneficiary,” Luscombe said. “Instead, it must be distributed under the terms of the IRA document over a period that cannot exceed five years.”

The exception is if the IRA owner before dying had already reached the age of 701/2 and begun distributions, Luscombe said. In that case, distributions can continue to the estate over the IRA owner’s life expectancy. If the IRA owner was quite elderly when he or she died, this might not give you much time to stretch out the distributions, but it probably would be better than paying all the taxes at once.

Another exception, which doesn’t appear to apply in your case, is if the IRA named the trust as the beneficiary. If that were true, “it is possible that the distributions could be based on the life expectancy of the oldest trust beneficiary,” Luscombe noted.

As you can see, this is a complicated area of estate planning and taxation. Getting good advice about how to name beneficiaries for your accounts can save your heirs a lot of money.

Old debts don’t disappear

Dear Liz: I am astonished you would counsel someone to try to negotiate a settlement of credit card debts from 2003 that were written off in 2007. Why? The statute of limitations is no more than six years in California and can be much shorter in many other states. If a reader of your column begins to negotiate over debts that are that old, they risk creating a new debt or resurrecting the old one, thereby becoming liable for repayment of a debt that is not collectible. When there is a stale claim, the response to the collection agency needs to be: “This is a stale claim, the statute of limitations has expired. I do not owe this debt to you or to my original creditor. Please stop contacting me.”

Answer: Statutes of limitations limit how long a creditor is supposed to be able to sue a borrower in court. The statutes vary by state and the type of debt, but range from three to 15 years. The expiration of that limit doesn’t make the debt somehow disappear or prohibit a creditor from continuing collection efforts.

Many people feel a moral obligation to pay their debts when they can. Others want to negotiate to remove collections from their credit reports in return for payment. (Time limits for reporting negative items on credit reports are different from state statutes of limitations; in most cases, the limit is seven years and 180 days from the time the account first went delinquent.) If someone wants to get a mortgage, for example, a lender may require payment of an open collections account regardless of the state statute of limitations.

You’re correct that anyone who wants to negotiate a settlement of an old debt should be aware of the statute of limitations affecting that debt. If the limitation hasn’t passed, the borrower needs to be aware of the danger of getting sued. If the limitation has passed, the borrower needs to avoid restarting it by making a small payment. Instead, the best approach is to settle for a lump sum and to get the collector’s assurance, in advance and in writing, that the remaining debt will be forgiven rather than resold.

Are you paying too much for car insurance?

Shopping for auto insurance is still a pain in the butt.

I’d hoped it would be better by now. I’d hoped that the Internet would make the whole process more transparent. But you still have to check several Web sites and pick up the phone to call a few agents to get a truly comprehensive picture of what various insurers are charging. Some of the big companies don’t participate with online comparison services (which is why you have to visit their sites and, often, talk to an agent to get a quote).

Why would you go through the hassle? Because the differences in premiums can be huge–not just hundreds of dollars a year, but thousands.

That’s because insurers are all different. They have different policies and ideas about what poses a risk and how much of that risk they want to take. If they don’t want teen drivers, for example, they will make it extremely painfully expensive to add one. Other insurers will just make it painfully expensive.

Insurers also adjust their pricing to add or shed customers. If they want to get bigger in a certain market, they’ll chop their prices to attract more drivers. If they decide they’ve gone overboard, they will jack their premiums above their competitors to slow new applications. If you’re a long-time customer who doesn’t know any better, you could find yourself paying a lot more for the same basic coverage than you’d pay with one of those competitors.

If you want some incentive to start getting quotes, check out CarInsurance.com’s Rate Comparison Chart and then read Des Toups’ accompanying post, “The most and least expensive cities for car insurance.” The average premiums cited conceal a lot of variation, Des noted.

For example, the average rate from six major insurance carriers for ZIP code 48101 in Dearborn, Mich., was $2,522 — but that included rates as low as $1,776 and as high as $4,374.

Des ran the numbers for a ZIP Code closer to me–90025, or West Los Angeles. There the average was $1,915, but the range was from $1,106 to $3,136.

Price isn’t the only thing to consider, of course. How fast and how well the company handles claims matters a lot, too. Your state insurance commissioner may have complaint data that will help you figure out which companies to avoid, like this one at California’s Department of Insurance. The number to pay attention to is the “justified complaint ratio” which divides legitimate complaints by the number of policies the insurer has in the state. Just as there are big difference in price, there are also big differences in complaints.

In any case, you shouldn’t assume you’re getting the best deal. Every year or two, check around to make sure.

Short sales, foreclosures have similar effect on credit scores

Dear Liz: I went through a divorce in the last year after being separated for two years. During our separation, we closed credit cards with high balances to make sure neither party would spend more on credit. We also had to short sell our home. So, as a single woman in her mid-30s, I have credit that’s somewhat shot for now. How many months should I expect the short sale to affect my credit scores? And was closing the credit card accounts good or bad for my credit?

Answer: Closing credit accounts can’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. In a divorce, however, it’s usually wise to close all joint accounts. Otherwise, your credit rating is in the hands of your ex-spouse, who could trash your scores by paying accounts late or maxing out credit lines.

In any case, the short sale probably had a much greater effect on your credit than the account closures. Short sales typically damage your credit as much as a foreclosure, according to the company that created the leading FICO credit score. Recovery times are measured in years, not months. If your scores weren’t that high to begin with — say 680 in the 300-to-850 FICO scale — it would take about three years for your numbers to return to their old levels. If your scores were high, say 780, it would take about seven years to restore them to their old peaks.

These recovery times assume you handle credit responsibly from now on. That means having and lightly using a credit card or two, making all payments on time and ensuring no account goes to collections.

Delay collecting Social Security for a bigger benefit

Dear Liz: My spouse started collecting Social Security in 2002 at age 63. I am 59, and not working, so my future benefits are unlikely to increase very much, even if I wait until age 70. If he dies before I do, will I get same amount he would be collecting at that time? If I collect Social Security at 62, would Social Security combine our records to calculate my benefit? In other words, should I try to wait or just start collecting at 62?

Answer: Your presumption that your benefit wouldn’t increase much by waiting is incorrect. Even if you aren’t working now, your benefit amount will grow the longer you can wait to apply. That’s true whether you ultimately get benefits based on your own work record or your husband’s.

When you apply, the Social Security Administration will compare your earned benefit with your spousal benefit and give you the larger of the two. Your spousal benefit starts at half of what your husband’s benefit would have been at full retirement age. That amount is reduced significantly if you apply for benefits before your own full retirement age (which is 66 for you, although it rises to 67 for anyone born after 1959).

Also, if you apply for spousal benefits before your full retirement age, you wouldn’t have the option of switching to your own benefit later, even if your benefit grows to a larger amount than what you’re receiving based on your husband’s record.

When your husband dies, you can switch to survivor’s benefits, which equal what he was receiving. Since he started benefits early, however, his checks have been permanently reduced to reflect that early retirement. In other words, if he had waited longer to retire, you would have been entitled to a larger survivor’s benefit.

The Social Security system is designed to reward people for delaying retirement, which is why it often makes sense to do so.

Get advice before transferring house deed

Dear Liz: My mother will be 88 in August. She owns her own condo, which is worth about $95,000, and has $5,000 in life insurance. She is in good health and lives comfortably on a monthly pension. She wants to put her condo in the names of my brothers and myself. What is your advice?

Answer: This is probably a bad idea for a couple of reasons. You and your siblings wouldn’t get the “step up” in tax basis that would be available if you inherited the property. In other words, you might owe capital gains taxes when you sell that could have been avoided if you had inherited the property rather than received it as a gift.

A potentially bigger issue: Medicaid look-back rules. If your mom needs nursing home care, her eligibility for the government program that pays for such care could be compromised by such a transfer. Many elderly people transfer their homes to children hoping to “hide” the asset from Medicaid, but all such transfers typically do is delay the older person’s eligibility for help.

Before she does anything, take her to an elder-law attorney who can help her — and you — plan sensibly for her future. You can get referrals from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org.

How to settle old debts

Dear Liz: I defaulted on my credit cards starting in 2003 because my business was failing. The last account was charged off in 2007. My business is now back and doing well, and I am expecting a nice little windfall in a couple of months. Should I pay these amounts I owe to the collection agencies that have been calling me, or should I contact and pay the creditors from which I obtained the credit cards?

Answer: You can try contacting the original creditors, but most likely they will refer you to the collection agencies. The original creditors have long since taken a tax deduction for their losses and sold the debts to those collectors, so they typically can’t accept payment for these accounts.

The collectors probably paid pennies on the dollar to buy your debts. The older the debt, the less they probably paid. Keep that in mind as you’re negotiating settlements of these debts, because you don’t have to pay 100 cents on the dollar for the collection agencies to realize a considerable profit.

As part of your negotiations, you’ll want to make sure to get the collector’s promise — in advance of any payment from you, and in writing — that it will not resell any unpaid portion of the debt. You may still face a tax liability on this unpaid debt, however, because debt forgiveness is typically considered taxable income.

You also should try to get the collector’s assurance — again, in advance and in writing — that it will stop reporting the collection accounts to the credit bureaus. This won’t eliminate the damage the unpaid debts are having on your credit scores, because the missed payments and charge-offs will remain on your credit reports for seven years and 180 days from when the accounts first went delinquent. But eliminating the collection accounts could boost your scores a bit.

Be aware that in many states, your debts are too old for creditors to sue you in court over them–unless you do something like make a partial payment that can restart the so-called statute of limitations. You can read up on how statutes of limitations work at sites such as DebtCollectionAnswers.com, and learn how to conduct such negotiations without inadvertently restarting the statute.

Get a second opinion before buying annuity

Dear Liz: Our advisor recommended that we convert our rollover IRA to an annuity. We are having difficulty researching this. Any suggestions?

Answer: Unless your advisor is a complete numskull, he probably didn’t mean you should cash out your IRA to invest in an annuity. That would incur a big, unnecessary tax bill.

The idea he’s trying to promote is to sell the investments within your IRA, which wouldn’t trigger taxes, and invest the proceeds in an annuity.

The devil is in the details — specifically, what type of annuity he’s suggesting. If he wants you to buy a variable deferred annuity, you should probably find another advisor or at least get a second opinion. The primary benefit of a variable annuity is tax deferral, which you’ve already got with your IRA. The insurance companies that provide variable annuities, which are basically mutual fund-type investments inside an insurance wrapper, tout other benefits, including locking in a certain payout. Those benefits come at the cost of higher expenses, which is why you want a neutral party — someone who doesn’t earn a commission on the sale — to review it.

If he’s suggesting you buy a fixed annuity, which typically provides you a payout for life, you still should get that second opinion. A fixed annuity creates a kind of pension for you, with checks that last as long as you do. There are downsides to consider, though. Typically, once you invest the money, you can’t get it back. Also, today’s low interest rates mean you’re not going to get as much money in those monthly checks as you would if rates were higher. Some financial planners suggest their clients put off investing in fixed annuities until that happens, or at least spread out their purchases over time in hopes of locking in more favorable rates.

You can hire a fee-only financial planner who works by the hour to review your options. You can get referrals to such planners from Garrett Planning Network, http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.