Dear Liz: I read with interest the question you received from the widower who thought he should inherit from his father-in-law, despite the death of his wife. Your answer was great, but it got me thinking about the mind-set that makes someone even think to ask the question. It’s obvious that the asker and his late wife clearly lived their life expecting to inherit a large amount of money. Which leaves unasked, how did they live and what did they save on their own? Did they take vacations instead of save? Did they not save at all? The bottom line here is that you need to reinforce that there is no “sure thing” in expected inheritances and encourage people to amass wealth on their own. Someone else’s money is someone else’s money, and even if he intends to leave it to you, an illness, a lawsuit or some other loss could wipe out anything he meant you to have.
Answer: People who expect an inheritance to save them from a life of not saving are courting disappointment.
About half of those who die leave less than $10,000 in assets, according to a 2012 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Many failed to save adequately during their working lives, but even those with substantial assets can find their wealth eroded by longer lives, market setbacks, chronic illness and nursing home or other custodial care.
Hopes of an inheritance also can be dashed by remarriages, poor planning or both. For example: Dad dies without a will and Stepmom inherits the bulk of the estate, which she gives to her own kids. Or Mom thinks she’s tied up everything in a trust, but her surviving spouse figures out a way to invade the principal. Or Grandma gets victimized by a gold-digger or a con artist, leaving nothing but hard feelings.
Most of those who do inherit don’t get fortunes. The median inheritance for today’s baby boomers is $64,000, which means half get less, according to a 2010 study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
So you’re right that the best approach for most people is to prepare as if there will be no inheritance, since if there is one, it probably won’t be much.
Dear Liz: I just received my tax forms from my employer for last year. I was originally a W-2 employee, paid hourly, as a receptionist. But it seems that at some point during the year, my employer changed me to a 1099 employee without telling me or having me fill out paperwork. After researching the characteristics of a 1099 employee, I found I do not qualify at all. I am upset that I will have to pay taxes on this income, since I thought they were being withheld from my pay. Do I have any recourse?
Answer: Your employer has put you in an impossible situation. If you tell the truth, you’ll tip off the IRS to the company’s deception, which could put your job in danger. If you go along with the lie, you’ll have to pay your boss’ share of taxes in addition to your own.
“The good news is the IRS is really busy and probably won’t [audit your employer] for a couple of years,” said Eva Rosenberg, an enrolled agent who runs the TaxMama site. “By then, you should have a better job elsewhere.”
To fix this, first report your income from this job as “other income” on line 21 of your 1040 tax return, Rosenberg said.
If you got both a W-2 and a 1099, you can use IRS Form 8919 to pay only your share of the Social Security and Medicare taxes. You’ll pay 7.65% instead of the 15.3% you normally would pay with 1099s, Rosenberg said. You’ll have to select a “reason code” for why you’re using the form. You can use code H, which says that the amount on the 1099 form should have been included as wages on Form W-2.
If you got only a 1099, you’ll need to fill out Form SS-8 to explain why you’re an employee, not a contractor, Rosenberg said. Then use Form 4852 as a substitute for your missing W-2. Use the data from the last pay stub that shows your year-to-date withholding as a W-2 employee so you can get credit for those taxes paid. This process is complicated but is the approach a tax pro “would and should use” when an employee is misclassified as an independent contractor, Rosenberg said.
The forms you’re filing will alert the IRS to your company’s chicanery. Some employers pretend that their employees are independent contractors as a way to reduce the company tax burden and perhaps dodge new health insurance requirements. It’s a scam that tax authorities are keen to uncover and penalize
Dear Liz: We received $100,000 from the sale of some undeveloped land. We are trying to figure out the best way to pay off our bills. Our primary residence has a balance of $173,000 at 4.25% and is a 30-year loan. We also own a home we rent out in which we cover the mortgage with the rent income. The balance on it is $131,500 at 4.5% for a 20-year loan. This home is often a burden when tenants change on an average of every 1 to 2 years, and we don’t have the income to cover the mortgage without the rental income. My husband took a $20,000 loan out of his retirement fund for closing costs for our primary residence, a debt that is being paid back through paycheck deductions. We also have an auto loan with a balance of $7,800 at 2.74% and credit cards with varying interest rates with total owing of $22,000. What should we do?
Answer: Your first task should be examining your spending habits to see why you have so much credit card debt. If you don’t fix the problem that’s causing you to live beyond your means, you’re likely to find yourself in a deeper hole eventually, regardless of how well you deploy this windfall.
You also should see if you’re on track with retirement savings. Boosting your retirement plan contributions at work and to individual retirement accounts can help you convert this money into long-term economic security.
Next, pay off the credit card debt and consider retiring the retirement plan loan. If your husband lost his job and couldn’t repay the debt, the outstanding balance would become a withdrawal that would incur income taxes and penalties.
Any money that’s left over can go into an emergency fund to protect against job loss and to keep you from going into debt between tenants. Your low-rate car loans and tax-advantaged mortgage debt aren’t top priorities for repayment, but you can start paying them down over time once your other bases are covered.
Dear Liz: We have a son who is a high school junior and who is planning on going to college. We met with a college financial planner who suggest we put money in a whole life insurance policy as a way to help get more financial aid. Is that a good idea?
Answer: Your “college financial planner” is actually an insurance salesperson who hopes to make a big commission by talking you into an expensive policy you probably don’t need.
The salesperson is correct that buying a cash-value life insurance policy is one way to hide assets from college financial planning formulas. Some would question the ethics of trying to look poorer to get more aid, but the bottom line is that for most families, there are better ways to get an affordable education.
First, you should understand that assets owned by parents get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. Some assets, such as retirement accounts and home equity, aren’t counted at all by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. Parents also get to exempt a certain amount of assets based on their age. The closer the parents are to retirement, the greater the amount of non-retirement assets they’re able to shield.
Consider using the “expected family contribution calculator” at FinAid.org and the net cost calculators posted on the Web sites of the colleges your son is considering. Do the calculations with and without the money you’re trying to hide to see what difference the money really makes.
Most families don’t have enough “countable” assets to worry about their effect on financial aid formulas, said college aid expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution.” Those that do have substantial assets have several options to reduce their potential impact, including spending down any custodial accounts, paying off debt and maxing out retirement plan contributions in the years before applying for college.
Another thing to consider is that most financial aid these days comes as loans that need to be repaid, rather than as scholarships or grants that don’t. So boosting your financial aid eligibility could just mean getting into more debt.
Meanwhile, it’s generally not a good idea to buy life insurance if you don’t need life insurance. The policy could wind up costing you a lot more than you’d save on financial aid.
If you’re still considering this policy, run the scheme past a fee-only financial planner—one who doesn’t stand to benefit financially from the investment—for an objective second opinion.
Dear Liz: My husband and I have worked very hard and paid off our mortgage and all other debt. However, we find ourselves with no deductions now and are getting killed on income taxes. What can we do to lower our tax burden without incurring mortgage or student loan debt, child-care expenses and so on? We are in about a 33% tax bracket and it seems like we are being punished for being frugal and responsible.
Answer: There’s an old saying, “Don’t let the tail wag the dog.” Incurring expenses just to get a tax break is usually absurd. When you were paying mortgage interest, for example, your tax break was only a fraction of what you paid out. In essence, you were getting about 33 cents back for every dollar you spent in interest.
Better ways to reduce your tax burden may include maxing out retirement plan contributions, taking advantage of flexible spending accounts if your employer offers them and installing alternative energy equipment in your home. (The credit for installing solar panels and similar systems equals just 30% of the cost, but the long-term energy savings may offset the rest of the bill.) If you own a business, consult with a tax pro about the many ways to cut your tax bill when you’re self-employed.
Just remember that you’re not being punished for your frugality. Your reward is more money in your pocket year-round.
Dear Liz: I retired last year. I am 67, have more than $1 million in my retirement accounts, $80,000 in individual stocks, $50,000 in cash and more than $200,000 in equity in my home. I don’t need to tap my Social Security benefit yet and can afford to wait until I am 70 to get the maximum monthly amount. I recently purchased a new car with a 0% loan for five years. That and my mortgage are the extent of my debt. One thing I would like to do is some home improvement. My fee-only financial planner suggested getting a home equity line of credit to cover the repairs and upgrades. This makes sense to me in that it spreads out the burden over time and is tax-deductible. My credit scores are 736, 801 and 839. But I’m finding it difficult to get a commitment from either my credit union or my bank because they don’t see an income. I have been with both of these institutions for more than 30 years and the credit union holds the first mortgage. How do we get the lenders to factor retirement assets into the qualification calculations?
Answer: Last year, mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac issued guidelines on retirement fund annuitization that would allow mortgage lenders to calculate a borrower’s income based on his or her retirement assets.
Lenders, however, have to be willing to go to a little extra effort to learn the rules and apply them properly.
If yours aren’t willing to do so, then it might be time to take your business elsewhere. A mortgage broker (referrals from http://www.namb.org) may be able to connect you with a lender who’s more up to date.
Dear Liz: We are settling my dad’s estate. My dad found a rock, and it sat in my parents’ frontyard for years. He worked in a gravel pit for decades, and that was the only rock he found interesting enough to bring home. When my mom died, we held an auction of their household goods. My dad told me to take the rock home. I said that to be fair, the rock should be sold at auction. A family member then stole the rock and has been hiding it for more than two years. This person says it’s going to be placed on my dad’s grave site. I’m an executor, and I feel that the decision wasn’t the relative’s to make. It’s the only possession of Dad’s that I really want as a remembrance of him. We were extremely close. Dad knew the rock was taken to spite me, and it really bothered him. What are your thoughts?
Answer: Many of the items that trigger bitter family fights after a death don’t have much fair market value. Family members imbue these objects with sentimental value and then go to war over them. They might insist it’s the only thing they really want, or that they want it for their kids. Some go so far as to destroy their relationships with their loved ones to gain control of the supposed heirloom. (Which, often as not, winds up in the next generation’s yard sale, as appraiser Julie Hall once noted.)
Maybe this relative did swipe the rock to spite you. Maybe this is just the latest chapter in a drama that’s been playing out since childhood: “Dad always liked you better!” Maybe you’re especially chafed that your relative took advantage of your attempt to be fair.
But again, the rock probably has only the value you give it. If you decide it’s not worth fighting for, then it’s just a rock.
Dear Liz: Recently I’ve paid off almost $20,000 in credit card debt and am determined not to go down that path again. Because I haven’t used these cards in a while, though, I’m starting to get notifications from the credit card companies that they’re closing my accounts because of inactivity. I know having long-standing accounts on your credit report is a good thing, but I don’t want to be tempted to use these cards just to keep the account open. Is it a bad thing if almost all of my credit card accounts get closed?
Answer: Your good histories with these cards should remain on your credit reports for years. But if you stop using credit entirely, eventually your credit reports won’t generate credit scores. That could cause you problems if you later want to borrow money (say, to buy a home) and could even affect your insurance premiums, since insurers use credit information as well.
It’s not too hard to keep accounts active without slipping into debt again. Simply set up a bill to be charged automatically to each account, then set up automatic payments with the credit card issuer so the full balance is taken out of your checking account each month.
Dear Liz: My wife of 34 years died five years ago. Her father is 94. He has accumulated a large amount of wealth over the last 40 years. I always made a point of staying out of financial discussions between my father-in-law and his daughters. He told us for years that upon his death all his wealth is to be divided between us (my wife and me) and her sister. Recently, a gold digger reappeared on the scene. My father-in-law and his late wife took her in at a young age when her parents died. I don’t know if she was ever formally adopted or not, or how that affects the situation. My question is, do I have any legal rights, upon my father-in-law’s death, to any distribution of his estate if I am not listed in the actual trust or will?
Answers: Your chances of inheriting from your father-in-law may have died along with your wife.
Sons-in-law don’t really have inheritance rights. If your father-in-law dies without an estate plan, state law would dictate who his heirs would be: typically his surviving spouse (if he has one) and any living children. Even his kids would have no legal right to inherit if he has a will or trust that disinherits them.
Estate plans sometimes make provisions for a child’s spouse, particularly if the money eventually will be inherited by the grandchildren. Such a trust might give you the right to income from assets that on your death would go to your wife’s children, for example. If there aren’t grandchildren, though, the money your wife would have inherited may simply go to her sister (and possibly the “gold digger,” as you describe her, if she’s included in the estate plan).
Of course, if the old man likes you, he could make a bequest to you in his will. But you have no legal right to demand that he do so, and any attempt to pressure him could raise the question of who is the actual gold digger here.
Moving student loan debt
Dear Liz: My daughter has $30,000 in student loans from obtaining her masters degree. The loans have about a 7% interest rate. She will be eligible to have $5,000 forgiven if she works five years in a low-income school. Although she is currently so employed, she does not know whether she will stay there for five years. I have a line of credit available with a 4.8% interest rate. It seems to me that she will pay less overall if she uses my line of credit to pay off her student loans and makes the monthly payment on the line of credit. Does she miss out on developing a good credit score by using my credit? Is it worth paying the higher interest rate to develop that credit history?
Answer: There are several reasons not to use your credit line, and they don’t have to do with her credit scores.
The student loans are helping her scores now and will continue to do so even after they’re paid off, since most lenders continue to report closed accounts for years.
If she uses your line of credit, though, she won’t be able to deduct the interest she pays. Student loans provide a valuable “above the line” income adjustment for most borrowers. They don’t have to itemize to take advantage of this adjustment, which is the smaller of $2,500 or the interest actually paid. The ability to take this tax break is phased out in 2013 when modified adjusted gross income is between $60,000 and $75,000 for singles and $125,000 to $155,000 for married couples filing jointly.
Also, your line of credit carries an adjustable rate that can (and likely will) go higher. The rate would have to rise only two percentage points before it equals the fixed rate on her federal student loans. Federal student loans offer a number of other protections, including income-based repayment options, forgiveness after 10 years in public service jobs (after 25 years otherwise) and forbearance or deferral should she experience an economic setback. She can learn more about these options at studentaid.ed.gov.
Finally, if she failed to make payments on your line of credit, your credit scores would be on the line — as would your home, if the account is secured by your home equity.
It’s commendable that you want to help your daughter, but in this case you both may be better off keeping the debt in her name rather than putting it in yours.