Q&A: Cashing mature savings bonds

Dear Liz: I have savings bonds that have achieved full face value. What should I do? Keep them indefinitely or cash them in to fund my Roth account or what? Am I correct that once they have matured, there’s no more money to be made off them?

Answer: You are correct. Once savings bonds have matured and stopped earning interest, they should be redeemed and the money put to work elsewhere. EE, H and I bonds mature in 30 years, while HH bonds mature in 20 years. You can find more information at TreasureDirect.gov.

Funding a Roth is a great idea for deploying these funds. Other good uses are paying off high-rate debt or building an emergency fund.

Q&A: Calculating capital gains and losses

Dear Liz: With my father’s recent passing, I received a substantial inheritance, much of it in the form of stocks and mutual funds. If I sell these assets, do I calculate the capital gains and losses based on the date I took possession of the assets? Or do I use their value on the date of his death?

Answer: Typically you’d use the date of his death. If your father’s estate was very large and owed estate taxes, however, the executor may have chosen an alternative valuation date six months from the date of death. This option is available if the value of the estate would have been lower on the later date.

There is a circumstance in which your basis would be the value on the date the assets were turned over to you, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting U.S. If the executor elected the alternate valuation date, but the assets were actually distributed to you before that date, then the basis is the fair market value on the date of distribution, Luscombe said.

Inherited assets usually get a “step up” in basis when someone dies, so there’s no tax owed on any of the growth in those assets that occurred while the person was alive. Inheritors have to pay taxes only on the growth that occurs between the date of death (or the alternate evaluation or distribution date) and when the assets are sold.

The assets would get long-term capital gains treatment regardless of how long you’d owned them, which is another helpful tax break.

Q&A: Automatic payments

Dear Liz: Since I lost my second job, we have fallen behind on our bills. Although we get paid on Friday, by Monday our checking account is in the red even without buying anything.

It’s all going to automatic payments for things like insurance and college savings for our child. I think the bank has a way of processing transactions to maximize our bounce fees. Should we take control and pay manually? Is automatic payment a recipe for disaster?

Answer: In your situation, yes, because you’re spending more than you make. The bank’s fee-maximizing policies aren’t helping matters, but the fundamental problem is that you’re living beyond your means.

Your first step should be to use a refund calculator to see whether you can lower your tax withholding and take home more in your paychecks. Turbotax has one on its site called TaxCaster that’s easy to use. If you’re on track to get a fat refund next year, adjust your withholding so you can get the money now, when you need it. The human resources departments at your jobs can help with this.

Once you have a clear idea of your current income, review your spending to see where you can cut. Those college contributions should be among the first to go. Yes, you want to educate your child, but other expenses — including current bills and retirement savings — must take priority until your income is higher. Slashing expenses may be painful, but it’s necessary to avoid going into debt or incurring unnecessary bank fees.

You can call the bank and ask it to turn off bounce protection on your debit card transactions, but you may not be able to do so for automatic payments or checks. If that’s the case, you may want to discontinue automatic payments until you get a better handle on your finances.

Another option, if you want to continue with automatic payments, is to sign up for true overdraft protection. This is less expensive than bounce protection and taps your savings or a line of credit if an automated expense exceeds your balance.

Automatic payments are a great way to make sure your bills are paid and that you don’t incur late fees. Automatic payments also can protect your credit, since skipped payments on credit cards and loans can devastate your scores.

But you have to be able to keep a pad of cash in your checking account or have low-cost overdraft protection. If you can’t, automatic payments can cause more problems than they solve.

Q&A: 401(k) and job changes

Dear Liz: I had to resign from my job as a phlebotomist at a hospital. Did I lose the money that was in my 401(k) or do I still have it? How do I find out?

Answer: Any money you contributed to a 401(k) is yours.

Money contributed by your employer may be subjected to vesting rules that could limit how much you can keep. Company matches may vest over time, giving you access to a portion of what’s contributed each year, or they may vest after a certain number of years, giving you access to all the money.

Say your match vests at 20% each year starting with the second year. You would get nothing if you quit after the first year. After the second year, you would get 20% of the match balance (the company’s contribution thus far plus or minus any gains). After the third year, you would get 40% of the match balance, and so on until you are entitled to 100% of the match balance after the sixth year.

You should contact your company’s human resources department to find out what your options are for your account. You may be able to leave it where it is to grow, which may be your best option until you find another job.

At that point, your next employer may allow you to roll the account into its retirement plan. If you can’t keep the money where it is, open an IRA and have the 401(k) provider send the check directly there.

What you don’t want to do is withdraw the money, since you’ll lose a big chunk to taxes and penalties. Even having the check sent to you to deposit into the IRA is a bad idea, since 20% will be withheld, and you’ll have to come up with that cash from another source to avoid taxes and penalties.

Q&A: Missing 401(k) plan

Dear Liz: I have two 401(k) plans that have vanished into the night. They are both more than 20 years old and the companies I worked for have been bought, sold, merged, spun off, and nobody knows anything anymore. Between them, the accounts are worth six figures. Do you know of any way I can find out what happened to my money (and hopefully retrieve it)?

Answer: There’s no central repository for missing 401(k)s as there is for missing pensions, which typically can be found at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. So tracking down your money can be tough.

If you still have paperwork from the missing accounts, you might check with the plan providers — the financial services companies that provided the investment choices.

If that’s a dead end, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Abandoned Plan Database shows plans that have been or are about to be terminated, typically with contact information for the plan administrator.

It’s possible that your money was turned over or escheated to a state unclaimed property department. You can check at Unclaimed.org, the official site of the National Assn. of Unclaimed Property Administrators. NAUPA also endorses the site MissingMoney.com.

Another place to check is the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, which is run by a private company called PenChecks that says it’s the largest private processor of retirement checks.

If you do find your money, understand that you may still have missed out on a lot of growth. Your investments may have been converted to cash, which has earned next to nothing in the last two decades, particularly after inflation.

Leaving a 401(k) account in an old employer’s plan can be a convenient option, but only if you’re willing to keep track of the money — and let the administrator know each time you change your address. If that’s too much work, you should roll the account into a new employer’s plan or into an IRA. Your retirement may depend on it.

Q&A: Early withdrawal penalties on CDs

Dear Liz: You told a reader to be suspicious of a bank’s offer to waive early withdrawal penalties on a certificate of deposit. But several credit unions allow early withdrawals from five-year CDs after the account holder turns 59 1/2. These credit unions will even allow you to get higher-interest CDs at other credit unions with no penalty after 59 1/2 . My husband and I and sister did this for many years until just a few years ago. I even do Roth conversions every year and take money from five-year CDs with no penalty and go to the place with the highest interest rate. There are many rewards and unexpected privileges at credit unions. When my husband passed and I disclaimed his traditional IRAs, the children were allowed to keep the 6% interest on those CDs until they matured, even after they were changed to inherited IRAs.

Answer: Credit unions, which are owned by their members, often have better rates and terms than banks, although some banks also offer to waive early withdrawal penalties after 591/2 on certain CDs.

But no one should rely on a verbal assurance that a fee will be waived. The offer to waive the fee should be in writing and kept with other financial documentation.

Q&A: IRA interest rate terms

Dear Liz: I went to renew my IRA certificate of deposit and the bank officer suggested that I renew at the greater rate being offered for a five-year term (about 1.5% APR) rather than the lower rate for a one-year term (about 1% APR). She explained that since I am over 59 1/2, I can close the account at any time and roll it over to a new IRA should rates rise (for example to 1.75% in 15 months) with no penalty whatsoever. Is this true?

Answer: You don’t have to close and reopen IRAs when a CD matures or you want to change investments. The IRA is the bucket that holds your investment, not the investment itself. You also should be skeptical about claims that you would pay no penalty for early withdrawal. Not only are such penalties the norm, but a Bankrate survey found 9 out of 10 banks won’t just require you to forfeit the interest but will dip into your principal to pay the fees if necessary. The bank may offer a one-time opportunity to lock in a higher rate; if that’s the case, you should get the details in writing as well as the penalties if you have to withdraw the money prematurely.

In fact, any time someone pitches you an investment for your retirement funds, you should ask a lot of questions and get every detail and promise in writing. If the pitch is coming from someone who will profit from your investment — which is often the case — you should consider running it past a neutral third party such as a fee-only planner.

By the way, the Federal Reserve has signaled that it’s considering raising interest rates this year. That’s no guarantee that it will, but locking up your money now is a gamble.

Q&A: Paying a deceased person’s debts

Dear Liz: When I read the letter from the woman about her mother’s debts, it brought back my situation with my brother and mom. My brother was trustee to my mother’s living will and told her she had no money. At 90, she became worried and wanted to cut back on the care she needed. My brother had the same attitude as the woman who wrote you that her mother’s property was not an asset for her to use but something to be hoarded for the heirs.

Answer: That’s not the situation the daughter described. She was asking whether she and her sister were responsible for her mother’s debts. They are not. The mother’s estate would be responsible, and her estate would include her home. If the estate’s assets aren’t sufficient to pay all the bills, however, the creditors wouldn’t be able to come after the daughters. Still, some collection agencies have been known to contact survivors, telling them they have a “moral obligation” to pay the dead person’s debts.

Q&A: Money owed on a lease after death

Dear Liz: I read your answer to the person who returned a car and wanted to be free of that debt. Our situation is somewhat different. My son’s father had a massive stroke and died two weeks after signing a lease for a Camry on which he made a $2,000 down payment. My grown son, who is left to deal with everything, took the car back to the dealership, and they assured him nothing further would be needed. The dealership then sold the car for $18,000 at an auction and said $8,000 is still owed on this car since my son’s father signed a legal contract.

Answer: The money is still owed. Whether the dealership will ever collect is another matter.

This debt is now part of the dead man’s estate, along with any other loans or credit accounts he owed at the time of his death. If the estate has sufficient available assets, the executor is required to pay those bills. If there aren’t sufficient assets, creditors may have to accept less than they’re owed or nothing at all.

If your son is the executor, he should hire an attorney experienced in settling estates to help him deal with these details. Nolo’s book “The Executor’s Guide” also will help him understand his duties and obligations.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: Can you please explain Social Security spousal benefits? Is there a certain length of time a husband and wife need to have been married that will qualify the spouse to get the spousal benefit after divorce? For example, if a couple has been married for 20 years and then divorces, will the spouse still be entitled to collect the spousal benefit, or is the spousal benefit only for those who stay married?

Answer: Spousal benefits are available to divorced spouses as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. But you have to be unmarried to get benefits based on an ex’s work record. If you remarry, those benefits end.

The amount you get as a spouse or divorced spouse can equal up to half of what the primary earner gets. As with other Social Security benefits, however, your checks typically will be reduced if you start benefits before your own full retirement age. Starting spousal benefits early also precludes you from later switching to your own retirement benefit, even if that benefit would be larger.