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Estate planning Category

Dear Liz: Your tax expert’s answer to a person who wanted to roll over a $30,000 capital gain on a mutual fund missed an important point. Since the couple were solidly in the 15% tax bracket with a taxable income under $72,000, they should qualify for the 0% federal capital gain tax rate. (They may, of course, owe state taxes.)

Answer: They may not have had a capital gain at all, as other tax pros have pointed out. When people own mutual funds, the earnings are often reinvested each year. If the couple paid taxes on those earnings, their basis in the mutual fund would increase each year. To know if the couple had any capital gain, we’d need to know that adjusted tax basis. In any case, the original answer — that you can’t roll over the gain on a mutual fund into another investment to avoid capital gains taxes — still stands.

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Dear Liz: Each year, I track my estimated Social Security benefit on the SSA.gov website. At full retirement age of 67, my estimated benefit is $1,504. Is it true that my actual benefit may be reduced by 50% since I am married?

Answer: Good heavens, no.

If you’re married, your spouse may be entitled to a benefit that equals up to half of your check. But your check is not reduced to provide this spousal benefit. Instead, the Social Security Administration typically would calculate the benefit your spouse earned on his own, compare that to his spousal benefit, and then give him the larger of the two amounts.

If you have ex-spouses from marriages that lasted at least 10 years, they too could be entitled to spousal benefits. But those benefits wouldn’t reduce your check or your husband’s.

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Dear Liz: My wife and I accrued $28,000 of credit card debt over the past eight years. In addition to a sizable student loan bill for law school, our home mortgage and the expenses associated with three young children, we are struggling to get ahead enough to knock our credit card debt down. While we make good income between the two of us, it would seem not enough to pay more than the minimum on our debts. We have curbed a number of our bad habits (we eat out less, take lunch to work, say no to relatives) but the savings are not translating to lowered debt. Our 401(k)s are holding steady and we continue to contribute and I don’t want to touch those (I did when I was younger and regret it.). We’ve been considering taking out a home equity line of credit to pay off the cards and reduce the interest rate. Of course we have to be disciplined enough to not go out and create more debt, but I think my wife got the picture when I said no family vacations for the next few years. What are your thoughts?

Answer: You say, “Of course we have to be disciplined enough to not go out and create more debt,” but that’s exactly what many families do after they’ve used home equity borrowing to pay off their cards. They wind up deeper in the hole, plus they’ve put their home at risk to pay off debt that otherwise might be erased in Bankruptcy Court.

Bankruptcy probably isn’t in the cards for you, of course, given your resources. But before you use home equity to refinance this debt, you need to fix the problems that caused you to live so far beyond your means.

You’ve plugged some of the obvious leaks — eating out and mooching relatives — but you may be able to reduce other expenses, including your grocery and utility bills. If those smaller fixes don’t free up enough cash to start paying down the debt, the next places to look are at your big-ticket expenses: your home, your cars and your student loans. There may not be much you can do about the latter, although you should explore your options for consolidating and refinancing this debt. That leaves your home and your cars. If your payments on these two expenses are eating up more than about 35% of your income, then you should consider downsizing.

What you don’t want to do is to tap your retirement funds or reduce your contributions below the level that gets the full company match. Retirement needs to remain your top financial priority.

Reducing your lifestyle may not be appealing, but it’s better to sacrifice now while you’re younger than to wind up old and broke.

Dear Liz: You’ve often talked about delaying the start of Social Security benefits to maximize your check. But what about in the case of a widow? My husband died in 2006 at the age of 57. I will be 62 this year and could start receiving benefits based on his earnings. (I did not work during our marriage as I was a home-schooling mom.) I’ve been living off my husband’s modest pension benefits. Would waiting until full retirement age increase the monthly payment I would ultimately get? One of the reasons I ask is that I have an adult son who lives with me and who probably will never be able to have a job. Yet he is not officially disabled and, as far as I know, is not eligible for any kind of benefits. I wondered if it might be a good idea to start taking Social Security as soon as I could and either save or invest the monthly checks to add to what I could leave my son (I have an IRA and other assets I hope not to have to touch). My pension will cease when I die.

Answer: You could have started receiving survivor’s benefits at 60. (Those who are disabled can start survivor’s benefits as early as age 50, or at any age if they’re caring for a minor child or a child who is disabled under Social Security rules.) Since your husband died before he started benefits, your check would be based on what your husband would have received at his full retirement age of 66. If you start benefits before your own full retirement age, however, the survivor’s benefit is permanently reduced.

For many people, starting survivor’s benefits isn’t as bad an idea as starting other benefits early. That’s because survivors can switch to their own work-based benefit any time between age 62 and 70 if that benefit is larger. Starting survivors benefits early can give the survivor’s own work-based benefit a chance to grow.

In your case, however, the survivor’s benefit is all you’re going to get from Social Security. While it may be tempting to take it early and invest it, you’re unlikely to match the return you’d get from simply waiting a few years to start.

Your description of your non-working adult son as “not officially disabled” is a bit baffling. If he has a disability that truly prevents him from working, getting him qualified for government benefits would provide him with income and healthcare that would continue despite whatever happens with you. (You may not want to touch your assets, but that might be necessary if you need long-term care.) If he can work, then getting him launched and self-supporting would be of far greater benefit than hoarding your Social Security checks for him.

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Dear Liz: Most of the questions you answer about Social Security come from people who don’t have a lot of money saved. I agree with your advice that those people should delay starting benefits. That way their Social Security checks, which will be the bulk of their income in retirement, will be as large as possible. But what about those of us who won’t need the money? I will receive a good pension and thanks to real estate investments, my retirement income will exceed my current income should I retire at age 62. That means I will never have to touch my capital. I do not have any other debt and am fully insured.

My initial thought is that I should take Social Security as soon as I’m eligible and use it while I’m in good health for travel and other activities. A friend who is in a similar situation says to wait and enjoy the emotional safety that if the need arises, I can turn on the Social Security tap later and let some more money flow. If you don’t need the money now or later, but could have more fun earlier, should you take Social Security sooner?

Answer: The less you’ll need Social Security, the less it matters when you start it.

Starting benefits early locks you into lower payments for life and will result in significantly smaller lifetime benefits for most people. That’s in part because Social Security hasn’t adjusted its payment formulas even as life expectancies have expanded, so most people will live beyond the “break-even” point where delayed benefits exceed the amounts they could have received had they started earlier. Delaying benefits is particularly important for married people, since one partner is likely to outlive the other and will have to get by on a single check. Making sure that check is as large as possible will help make the surviving spouse’s final years more comfortable.

But all that assumes that you, like most people, would receive half or more of your retirement income from Social Security. If your Social Security is truly icing on the cake — you don’t need the money now, you (and your spouse) are unlikely to need it in the future, and you don’t care about maximizing your lifetime benefits — then start it whenever you want.

Categories : Estate planning, Q&A
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Dear Liz: I am 53 and divorced. My ex-husband died at the age of 49 and had contributed significantly to Social Security. I don’t plan to remarry. Would I be able to make any claim on his record as an ex-spouse when I reach age 62, or would he have had to reach retirement age for this to be possible?

Answer: If your marriage lasted at least 10 years, you could get the same benefits as a widow or widower. We’ll assume your ex was “fully insured” under Social Security, which means he paid enough into the system to qualify for benefits.

For the sake of brevity, we’ll also assume that you’re not disabled or caring for his minor or disabled child. (You could still qualify for benefits if any of these were true, but the rules would be somewhat different.)

Your survivors’ checks would be based on what he would have received had he survived until retirement (a sum known as his primary insurance amount). If he had been 62 or older when he died and had started receiving Social Security checks, your benefit would have been based on what he was actually receiving.

You can start survivors’ benefits as early as age 60 if you’re not disabled. If you start benefits before your own full retirement age, however, your benefits will be reduced because of the early start. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t apply until age 62 or later and your own retirement benefits are larger than your widows’ benefit, you’ll get your own benefit instead.

On the other hand, you’re allowed to switch from his benefit to your own at any point between age 62 and age 70. It’s possible that your own benefit, left untouched to grow, eventually could exceed your survivors’ benefit. Obviously, this decision will involve crunching some numbers to see which approach makes the most sense. The Social Security Administration suggests you contact your local office or call (800) 772-1213 to learn how much you could receive on your ex’s work record, since that’s not information you can access online.

One other thing you should know: Since you’d be getting survivors’ rather than spousal benefits, you could remarry after you reach age 60 without endangering your checks. Those whose exes are still alive have to refrain from remarrying if they want their spousal benefits to continue.

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Q&A: Paying off home loan with a windfall

May 18, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I’m 65 and my wife is 62. We recently sold a business for over $900,000 and will net somewhere between $550,000 and $600,000. Should we use the proceeds to pay off our mortgage? Our home is worth about $1.5 million with a mortgage of $390,000 at 3.586%. We contribute an extra $200 per month to reduce the principal. We have no other debt. Our savings, retirement and brokerage accounts total $1.2 million. My wife receives a pension of $483 a month and works part time as a substitute teacher. I plan to continue working until age 70 with a salary of about $170,000 per year. On retirement we should receive about $4,400 per month in Social Security benefits.

Answer: Many people feel more comfortable having their mortgages paid off by the time they reach retirement age — even when the interest rates on the loans are so low they’d almost certainly get better returns elsewhere. (The after-tax cost of your mortgage is likely less than the longtime inflation rate of about 3%.) Not having a mortgage payment can substantially reduce your monthly expenses, which means you have to take less from your retirement accounts. Such withdrawals often trigger taxes, so you essentially save twice.

Other people feel perfectly comfortable carrying a mortgage into retirement. They’re happy to take advantage of extraordinarily cheap interest rates and keep themselves more liquid by deploying their savings elsewhere. And many people have to carry debt because they can’t pay it off before they retire, or paying off the mortgage would eat up too much of their available funds.

Because you do have choices, discuss them with a fee-only financial planner. If you pay off the mortgage and invest what’s left, you could draw about $50,000 from your retirement funds the first year without a huge risk of running out of money. That plus your Social Security and your wife’s pension may give you enough to live on. If not, you may want to invest your windfall and continue paying the mortgage down over time.

Categories : Estate planning, Q&A
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Q&A: Inheritances

May 05, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing about people who expect inheritances they don’t get. Here’s another situation. My elderly dad thought he’d tied up everything in a trust, but his surviving elderly second spouse regularly invaded the principal instead of just receiving the interest. She would simply call her broker and ask for whatever she wanted. The broker, not being a knowledgeable trust officer, would send her the money. Finally, to soothe a fretting sibling, my husband and I paid for an estate lawyer to move the trust from Stepmom’s broker to a good third-party trust institution. It took more than a year plus paying a fee (OK, a bribe) for Stepmom to relinquish her direct access to the trust. She continued to receive the interest and was quite well off. She never did understand why we thought she was doing something wrong.

Answer: People set up trusts for a variety of reasons, but the type you’re describing is usually used to preserve an inheritance for the children while allowing the surviving spouse to live off the income. These trusts typically allow the survivor to tap the principal for certain purposes (“health, education, maintenance and support” is the usual phrase used). A trustee who’s asleep at the switch may allow the spouse to dig too deep, which not only reduces the children’s inheritance but also endangers the whole structure of the trust, which is designed to save future estate taxes. Your investment in hiring a competent trustee could save a lot of expense and hassle in the long run.

Categories : Estate planning, Q&A
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Dear Liz: I am 70 and my wife is 59. My pension covers us for both our lifetimes. We have no debt. My wife and I do not need the required minimum distributions I will soon have to start taking from my 457 deferred compensation plan, which is currently worth $1 million. I planned to invest these distributions in an index fund to leave to our son. My accountant recommends instead that I buy a joint whole life insurance policy for me and my wife because it will be tax free when our son inherits our estate years from now. Does it make sense to buy insurance as an estate planning tool?

Answer: Does your accountant sell insurance on the side, by any chance?

Because a tax pro should know that the money in that index fund would get a so-called step up in tax basis when you die and your son inherits the account. If he promptly sold the investments, he wouldn’t owe any taxes on the growth in the account (the capital gains) that happened while you were alive. Even if he hangs on to the investments for a while, he would owe capital gains tax only on the growth in value since your death. That’s a pretty awesome deal.

If you buy life insurance, by contrast, you’d have to weigh any tax benefit against the not-insubstantial amount you’d pay the insurer for coverage. At your ages, such a policy would be far from cheap.

Any time someone suggests that you buy life insurance when you don’t actually need life insurance, you would be smart to run the proposed policy past a fee-only advisor — one who doesn’t receive commissions or other incentives to sell insurance.

There’s an outside chance that your accountant recommended a permanent life insurance policy for estate tax purposes. These taxes will be an issue only if the combined estate of you and your wife is worth more than $10 million. If that’s the case, you should consult an estate planning attorney about your options.

Categories : Estate planning, Q&A
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Dear Liz: Both of our sons, ages 63 and 59, are currently unemployed. We are 93 and self-supporting with Social Security and my retirement benefits. We live in our own home and are able to handle all our expenses, even though my wife requires a companion for 12 hours each day.

I believe we should financially aid both sons, to the limit of our ability, but my wife disagrees.

They are the two main beneficiaries of our estate. Each one is scheduled to receive about $40,000 upon our deaths. How should we proceed?

Answer: If your estates won’t amount to much more than $80,000 at your deaths, it doesn’t sound as if you have the financial wiggle room to help your sons. Your wife already requires significant care and may need more in the future. Plus, she’s likely to outlive you, which would mean getting by on less (certainly a smaller Social Security benefit, and perhaps a smaller pension amount as well). Any money you give them, in other words, is likely to be to her detriment.

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