Q&A: When a new spouse brings surprise debt to the marriage

Dear Liz: I’m 58 and got married for the first time almost two years ago. I discovered my wife has several incredibly large outstanding student loans, including a parent Plus loan for her son’s education that she thought was in deferment and that has nearly doubled to well over $100,000. In addition, my wife has her own student loans, which total over $40,000 and have rates from 3% to nearly 7%. Needless to say, I was shocked and dismayed to discover this debt and wish she had shared it with me earlier.

We have looked into consolidating the loans into the U.S. Department of Education’s student debt relief program, which creates a monthly payment program based on income and forgives the remaining balance after 25 years. I’m uncomfortable with this plan. The long duration of monthly payments would be a big struggle and, after 25 years, we would have paid nearly $40,000 over the current principal even with the outstanding balance being forgiven.

I’m contemplating liquidating all my non-retirement accounts and half of our savings to pay off the larger parent PLUS loan.This would leave us with very little liquid reserve but still some substantial retirement accounts. Our combined income is around $75,000. We would then consolidate my wife’s lower-rate debt and try to take a personal loan out to pay off the higher rate loans if we can secure a lower rate. Do you have any other suggestions as to my options?

Answer: Your situation is a perfect example of why couples should review each other’s credit reports before marriage. At the very least, you could have figured out a plan to deal with the debt at least two years earlier and saved the interest that’s accrued since then.

As you probably know, your wife is stuck with this debt. The government can pursue her to her grave because there’s no statute of limitations on federal student loan debt collections. The government also can take part of her Social Security retirement or disability checks, something collectors of other kinds of debt can’t do. Even bankruptcy isn’t a viable option for most borrowers because student loan debt is extremely hard to get erased.

It’s understandable that you don’t want to be making student loan payments into your 80s, but paying the loans off much faster probably isn’t a reasonable option, given your income. So liquidating other assets to pay off the parent loan may be the best option. The wisdom of this approach, however, depends on how well you’ve saved for retirement, your job security and how much of an emergency fund would remain. If you lost your job after paying off the parent loan, you couldn’t get that money back to pay your expenses. By contrast, you could have your payment lowered under the Department of Education’s plan if you lost a source of income.

Consolidating your wife’s debt inside the federal student loan program would allow her to retain some important consumer protections that aren’t available with other debt, such as the ability to defer payments for up to three years if she faces an economic setback. If you do refinance your wife’s debt with private lenders to lower the rate, consider doing so with a private student loan rather than a personal loan if you want to retain the ability to write off the interest.

This is a complex decision with a lot of moving parts, so you’d be smart to discuss your plan with a fee-only financial planner before deciding what to do.

Q&A: Federal estate tax exemption

Dear Liz: You mentioned that the federal estate tax exemption limit this year is $5.49 million per person. Can I double that if married?

Answer: Essentially, yes. Married couples can double the amount that can be given or bequeathed to heirs tax free. If one spouse doesn’t use up his or her exemption, the surviving spouse can use the remaining amount in addition to the surviving spouse’s own exemption.

You also should know that you can leave an unlimited amount of money to a spouse who is a U.S. citizen. (The rules for non-citizen spouses are different and could fill a whole column on their own.) This is known as the unlimited marital deduction.

Q&A: What to do when a financial planner gives bad advice

Dear Liz: I personally like my fee-only financial advisor, who has been managing my portfolio (gained as inheritance) for the last six years. But she has me invested in bonds and gold only and insists that we wait until stock prices fall to get back in the stock market. We have been waiting for six years! My portfolio was not making much but now is declining with projections of interest rates increasing and the new administration’s potential financial implications. My current balance is only half of what it could’ve been had I stayed in my previous portfolio, set up by my previous advisor, of 60% stocks and 40% bonds. Is it time to change advisors again, or should I continue to trust my advisor’s advice? I’m one to five years away from retirement.

Answer: Your advisor is trying to time the market, despite ample evidence that market timing doesn’t work. You’ve missed out on a lot of growth, and your portfolio could take an outsized hit because bond prices suffer when interest rates rise. Big investments in gold are also problematic, given how volatile the prices of this commodity can be.

Increasing your stock exposure now comes with its own risks, of course, since the long-running bull market could end at any time. Still, you almost certainly will need the inflation-beating growth that only stocks can offer if you want a comfortable retirement. If your advisor isn’t willing to admit that she blew it, then you may want to start interviewing her replacement.

Q&A: Will paying off collections help credit scores?

Dear Liz: I have a question about clearing up collections on my credit reports. I used a credit repair company that did help me with most of the setbacks on my credit reports, but I still had collections that were recent and my scores were going up and down. The credit repair company left me to deal with the collections. Will it hurt my scores if I pay them off, and is there a way to get them off my report for good?

Answer: Paying off the collections shouldn’t hurt your scores, but probably won’t help them either. You can try to negotiate with the collection agency to stop reporting the collection accounts in return for payment, something known as “pay for delete” or “pay for deletion,” but debt experts say few agencies will agree to do that.

Plus paying off collections is more complicated than it may seem. Many agencies pay pennies on the dollar for collection accounts, which means virtually anything you pay them is pure profit. That means you should be able to negotiate a significant discount of 50% or more if you can pay in full.

However, not all collectors are ethical. Some pretend to own debts they actually don’t, so any payment to them is money down the drain. Other agencies will re-sell any debt you don’t pay in full to another collection agency, which means more collection calls.

Before you attempt to settle any collection account, visit DebtCollectionAnswers.com and download the free e-book written by consumer advocates Gerri Detweiler and Mary Reed.

Q&A: These heirs worry their parents aren’t doing enough to minimize estate taxes

Dear Liz: My parents, ages 75 and 76, have established an irrevocable gift trust for my five siblings and me. Wonderful! With the single trust, they have maxed out their lifetime gifting exemption. What else can they do with their other investments to minimize the inevitable estate taxes that will come with their deaths? They have lived a frugal life of caution and reserve, but before their nest egg can be distributed to their heirs, the government will extract millions of dollars.

Answer: If your parents maxed out their lifetime gift exemption, that means they contributed more than $10 million to the trust. It also probably means they employed an estate-planning attorney, since such trusts aren’t typically do-it-yourself projects. If that’s the case, the attorney probably has reviewed with them their other options for minimizing taxes.

They could, for example, give each sibling $28,000 ($14,000 from each parent) each year — and make similar gifts to each sibling’s spouse and children, if they were so inclined. This annual exemption limit is separate from the lifetime gifting exemption they’ve already used. If each of you is married with two kids, that would move $672,000 out of their combined estates each year.

Another way to move money out of their taxable estate, either now or at their deaths, is to donate to charities.

If they opt not to take further steps, you can take comfort in the fact that the top estate tax rate is 40%, which means the bulk of their estate will still reach their heirs. Also keep in mind that you’re in rare company — only about two estates out of 1,000 are large enough to trigger an estate tax return, now that exemption limits have been raised to $5.49 million a person.

Q&A: Social Security benefits for children

Dear Liz: My older brothers-in-law signed up for Social Security benefits at 62 and then suspended their benefits so that their children, who were under 18, could receive 50% of their checks. Is this process still available at age 62 for those with children who are below the age of 18?

Answer: In order for family members to receive spousal or child benefits based on the primary earner’s work record, that primary earner has to be receiving his or her own benefit.

In the past, people who had reached full retirement age — which used to be 65, is now 66 and is rising to 67 — had the option of immediately suspending their applications so their family could receive benefits while their own continued to grow. The “file and suspend” option was not available to people who applied for benefits before their full retirement age. And now it’s no longer available period, thanks to Congress.

If you do apply for your benefit early, keep in mind that your checks — and your children’s checks — will be subject to the earnings test. That reduces Social Security benefits by $1 for every $2 you earn over $16,920 in 2017. (The earnings test goes away at full retirement age.) Your benefit also will be reduced to reflect the early start.

Also, there’s a limit to how much a family can receive based on the worker’s record. The family maximum can be from 150% to 180% of the parent’s full benefit amount.

If you’re still working and your children will be younger than 18 by the time you reach full retirement age, it may make sense to wait until then to apply. To know for sure, though, you should use one of the calculators that takes child benefits into account, such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

Q&A: Advice for an investing newcomer

Dear Liz: I am not versed at all in money matters. I have no clue where to invest or even if I should invest. I have $5,000 squirreled away that I am totally comfortable investing for 12 months because I feel I would have no need for it before then. Can you make a suggestion where I should put it to make a safe return?

Answer: An FDIC-insured bank account.

Investing requires a longer time horizon and a willingness to risk losing some of your principal. If you can’t do either, you need to stick with low-risk, low-reward options.

Q&A: The argument for having different caretakers for healthcare and financial decisions

Dear Liz: My mother is 74 and her health is starting to deteriorate. She had a last will made up about 15 years ago when my stepdad left her. I found out that she named me executor and gave me power of attorney for healthcare decisions. After the last year, when she became very contentious about giving me any information to do this (such as sharing her credit cards numbers), we have decided it would be better to assign these jobs to another sibling. There are also big differences in what each sibling is to receive. This will cause huge problems with two of the siblings.

I do not want to be a part of that as these two cannot even be civil to each other right now. I am afraid that my mother will not get around to changing her will. Am I legally obligated to fulfill this? It is causing me extreme anxiety as I am dealing with her decline in health as well.

Answer: No one is forced to become an executor. If your mother doesn’t name an alternate, the probate court can appoint someone to take the job — and it may not be the person your mother preferred. Let her know that if she wants to have a say in who settles her estate, she needs to change her will.

You’re smart not to want to oversee a situation that’s bound to get ugly. It’s not clear, though, why you thought you needed access to your mother’s credit cards while she was still alive. The job of executor, which would require settling her accounts, wouldn’t start until after she dies. Healthcare decisions typically don’t require access to credit cards — although she should also have named someone to make financial decisions for her if she’s incapacitated.

If you’re worried about your mother’s ability to handle her finances, now or in the future, you can start the discussion by mentioning how important it is to have a power of attorney for finances as well as one for healthcare decisions. It’s not uncommon to name different people for these roles, because the skill sets needed are not the same. Someone who’s “good with money” isn’t necessarily equipped to carry out someone’s end-of-life wishes, which may include fights with medical providers about which treatments will and won’t be pursued.

Once you’ve covered that ground, you can segue into talking about what she would like to happen if she starts having trouble keeping up with daily money management tasks. Many parents add a trusted child to their bank accounts so the child can monitor transactions and make sure bills are paid. Or your mother may prefer to hire a daily money manager (referrals are available from the American Assn. of Daily Money Managers at www.aadmm.com).

Q&A: Your gift won’t get you a medical deduction

Dear Liz: A couple I’ve known for years recently adopted 2-year-old twins. Both will need considerable medical care, as they were born to a drug-addicted mother. In sending out announcements, my friends suggested sending funds for the twins’ medical needs, rather than toys. I took note and sent a check earmarked for their healthcare. My question is: Can I include the gift in my own medical deduction for this year’s income taxes?

Answer: No. Only medical expenses paid for yourself, your spouse and your dependents typically qualify for the medical expense deduction on your income tax returns.

The expense isn’t a charitable deduction either. Contributions have to be made to qualified charities to be deductible, and individuals don’t qualify.

Q&A: How to help a hoarder parent

Dear Liz: Can you address parents who never throw anything away? It can be a burden to their children when parents leave behind massive amounts of collected, hoarded items, broken cars, old furniture, memorabilia, clothing unworn for decades, etc. This can be troublesome in terms of time off from work to clear an estate and may even necessitate the expense of hiring a professional or paying to have items hauled off.

Answer: Compulsive hoarding is a serious disorder that’s hard to treat unless the person is willing to change—and hoarders rarely are. You can offer to help your parents sort through their possessions, but ultimately it’s their decision what to keep and what to discard. Children of hoarders often have to resign themselves to spending a lot of time and money clearing out the mess when their parents are gone.

If your parents aren’t actually hoarders but simply have too much stuff, the holidays can be a good time to raise the issue of helping them downsize. It’s important to do so with empathy and without judgment. Your parents may not have the energy to organize their stuff, or they may have been traumatized by poverty or other financial setbacks that cause them to cling to things. If the task is too big for them or you, consider hiring a professional to help. The National Assn. of Professional Organizers is a good place to start.