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: Follow up on the Windfall Elimination Provision

Dear Liz: You recently addressed the issue of the Windfall Elimination Provision, which reduces Social Security benefits for people who paid into Social Security but who also get a pension from an employer that does not pay into the system. My wife taught for nearly 40 years. Neither she nor her employer contributed to Social Security. As a result she falls under the WEP. This also, however, affects her spousal benefits under my Social Security record. So, because of the WEP, any spousal benefits she would be entitled to are essentially zeroed out since she receives a pension. If she had never worked (thereby not contributing to Social Security), she would be entitled to her entire spousal benefit. That doesn’t seem reasonable to me.

Answer: What you’re referring to is a different provision, the Government Pension Offset. People who receive a pension from a federal, state or local government job that didn’t pay into Social Security can have their Social Security spousal or survivor benefit wiped out by the GPO. By contrast, the Windfall Elimination Provision typically leaves at least half of the worker’s Social Security benefit intact.

The rationale for the GPO goes like this: Spousal and survivor benefits are considered dependent’s benefits. The law has always required that these benefits be offset dollar for dollar by the amount of the person’s own retirement benefit. So if your wife had earned a $1,000 monthly Social Security benefit based on her own work record but a $500 spousal benefit based on yours, she would not receive both. Her own benefit would completely offset the spousal benefit.

Before the GPO, though, your wife could have received a $1,000 monthly pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security plus a spousal or survivor’s benefit from Social Security, leaving her much better off than someone who had paid into the system.

Q&A: The tax implications of downsizing

Dear Liz: My mother just turned 75 and wants to downsize from her four-bedroom house. My father passed away six years ago. She owns her home outright, and at the time of my father’s death the value of the house was estimated at $1.2 million. Right now she has enough income from retirement accounts and investments to live comfortably. She could even buy another smaller property if need be. As the executor of her estate, I’m trying to help her decide what to do with the house. She could let another family member live in it who couldn’t pay rent but could help with upkeep; she could rent it out for market value; or she could sell. We see advantages and disadvantages with all three options. What do you think?

Answer: If she hasn’t already, your mother needs to hire a good estate-planning attorney who can help her evaluate her options. Consulting a fee-only financial planner and a tax pro may be a good idea, as well.

If she sells, your mother could face a sizable capital gains tax depending on where she lives. Federal law allows a certain amount of capital gains on the sale of a primary residence — $250,000 per person — to be excluded from income, but after that, capital gains taxes apply.

The gain would be the difference between the home sale proceeds and your mother’s tax basis in the home. At least half of the home received a “step up” in basis to the then-current market value when your father died. If your mom lives in a community property state, such as California, both halves of the property would have received this step up at his death. Any increase in value since then would be subject to capital gains tax (minus, again, the $250,000 federal exclusion).

There’s another tax issue to consider. If she dies owning this house, her heirs would get a tax basis equal to the property’s value at her death. In other words, regardless of the state where she lives, none of the house’s appreciation during her lifetime would be taxable.

The tax issues alone shouldn’t dictate what your mother does. But she should be aware of them to make an informed decision about what to do next.

Q&A: Social Security survival and spousal benefits

Dear Liz: If my spouse takes spousal benefits from Social Security before his full retirement age, does that ultimately affect the survivor benefits he could receive?

Answer: As covered in previous columns, applying for spousal benefits before his full retirement age of 66 or 67 will lock him into a diminished check and preclude him from switching to his own benefit later. It does not, however, affect what he would receive as a survivor. His survivor benefit would be equal to what you were receiving at your death. To protect him (and yourself, should you be the survivor), you probably should delay starting benefits as long as possible to make sure you’re receiving the maximum benefit.

Q&A: Windfall Elimination Provision followup

Dear Liz: In a recent column, I believe you got one aspect of Social Security’s Windfall Elimination Provision wrong. If you’re affected by WEP, in no case can you get more than 90% of your Social Security benefit. It is a sliding scale. With 20 years of earnings under Social Security, you get 40%. It goes up 5% per year to a maximum of 90% at 30 years. I worked 28 years as a paramedic and firefighter, most of the time for agencies that offered a pension instead of paying into Social Security. I also have 22 years of substantial earnings that were covered by Social Security and plan on working eight to 10 more years to get to 90%.

Answer: It’s easy to get confused about how Social Security figures benefits, but rest assured: If you have 30 years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security, you will get 100% of your Social Security benefit even if you have a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security.

Here’s what you need to know. Social Security is designed to replace more income for lower-wage workers, because higher-wage workers presumably find it easier to save for retirement. People who get pensions from employers who don’t pay into Social Security, but who also had jobs from employers that did, can look to the Social Security system as though they were long-term low-wage workers even when they’re not. Without the Windfall Elimination Provision, they could get a bigger Social Security check than they would have earned had they paid into the system all along.

To compute our benefits, Social Security separates our average earnings into three amounts and multiplies those amounts by different factors. For a typical worker who turns 62 this year, Social Security would multiply the first $816 of average monthly earnings by 90%, the next $4,101 by 32% and the remainder by 15%.

Those affected by WEP have a different formula, but it affects only that first part of their average earnings — the part where everyone else gets credited for 90%. The WEP formula is, as you note, on a sliding scale. Someone with 20 or fewer years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security would see the first $816 multiplied by 40%. Someone with 28 years, by contrast, would have the first $816 multiplied by 80%. Someone with 30 years or more would get the full 90%.

Social Security’s pamphlet on WEP lays this out, and notes that the Windfall Elimination Provision does not apply to anyone with 30 or more years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security. You can read more about it here: http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10045.pdf.

Q&A: Survivor benefits for domestic partners

Dear Liz: Your answer to the reader asking about Social Security survivor benefits for same-sex couples was incomplete. If the person was a registered domestic partner in a state that did not allow them to marry, they still qualify for spousal death benefits. Please tell those affected so they know they should apply ASAP.

Answer: Thanks for pointing that out. Social Security survivor benefits are available to legally married same-sex couples whose marriage is recognized by the state where the couple was living at the time of the spouse’s death (assuming the deceased spouse meets all other qualifications for benefits). If the state where the couple lived doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, a surviving partner may still qualify as a widow or widower for Social Security benefits if the intestacy laws of that state allow the surviving partner of a non-marital legal relationship (such as a civil union or domestic partnership) to inherit as a spouse.

Q&A: Social Security and spousal benefits

Dear Liz: A friend of mine has told me that he thinks that I can apply for spousal benefits at my full retirement age and hold off getting my Social Security under my own work record until I am 70. Here is the scenario: My husband is 77 and has been collecting Social Security since he was 62. He continues to work. I will be 66 in November and I am still working. I plan to take Social Security at age 70. Can I apply for spousal benefits and receive an amount equal to half of what my husband receives from the age of 66 until I turn 70 and then apply under my own account at age 70 and receive my maximum benefit at that age? My friend feels strongly that this can be done, but I called Social Security and explained it clearly (or at least I thought I did) to them and they said that this could not be done. Then I went into the Social Security website and looked under “Spousal Benefits,” but the wording did not clearly say that this couldn’t be done.

Answer: What you’re describing is the “claim now, claim more later” strategy that can boost a couple’s lifetime Social Security by tens of thousands of dollars. It’s one of the approaches outlined in AARP’s excellent primer, “How to Maximize Your Social Security Benefits,” which you’ll find on its site, http://www.aarp.org, along with a calculator to help you understand how different claiming strategies could affect what you get.

These strategies capitalize on the fact that delaying the start of Social Security benefits results in substantially larger checks for life. In the case of two-earner couples, the “claim now, claim more later” strategy allows one spouse the option of getting checks (the spousal benefit) for a few years while allowing her own benefit to grow to its maximum.

As long as you wait until your own full retirement age to apply for spousal benefits, and your spouse is already receiving benefits, then you should be allowed to switch to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70. If your spouse weren’t receiving benefits yet, but had reached his full retirement age, he could file for benefits and immediately suspend his application (“file and suspend”) so that you would be eligible for spousal benefits and his own benefit could continue to grow.

It’s not clear why you would have been told otherwise, since this isn’t exactly a secret strategy. But not all Social Security employees are equally informed. Sometimes calling back and asking your question again of another representative will result in a different or more complete answer.

When you file for benefits, make clear on the form that you are restricting your application to the spousal benefit only and aren’t collecting your own retirement benefit

Q&A: The effects of a property sale on Social Security

Dear Liz: I sold a rental property this year and will have a long-term capital gain of about $100,000. My normal income usually puts me in the 10% tax bracket and my Social Security is not taxed because my total income is under $25,000. I pay $104 per month for Medicare. Will the sale of the rental property count as income and make my Social Security benefits taxable? Will I suddenly be deemed “rich” enough to pay more in Medicare payments? If so, will the Medicare payments go back to normal because I will have total earnings under $25,000 after 2014? I am 66, single and by no means rich.

Answer: This windfall will affect your Social Security taxes and your Medicare premiums, but the changes aren’t permanent.

The capital gain will be included in the calculation that determines whether and how much of your Social Security checks will be taxed, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America. That will likely cause up to 85% of your Social Security benefit in 2014 to be taxable.

Your Medicare premiums are also likely to rise based on your higher modified adjusted gross income, said Jay Nawrocki, senior healthcare law analyst for Wolters Kluwer Law & Business. The income used to determine Medicare premiums is the modified adjusted gross income from two years earlier, so your premiums shouldn’t increase until 2016. If your income reverts to normal in 2015, your premiums should also revert to normal in 2017, Nawrocki said.

The exact amount you’ll pay can’t be predicted, but people with modified adjusted gross incomes under $85,000 paid $104.90 per month in 2014. Those with MAGI of $85,000 to $107,000 paid $146.90, while those with MAGI of $107,000 to $160,000 paid $209.80. If your income for 2014 puts you in that last group, you should count on your premiums roughly doubling in 2016.
There is some good news. You’ll qualify for the 0% capital gains rate on the portion of the gain that makes up the difference between your income and the top of the 15% tax bracket (which is $36,900 in 2014 for a single person). If your income is $24,000, for example, then $12,900 of your capital gain wouldn’t be taxed by the federal government. The remaining $87,100 would be subject to the 15% federal capital gains rate. You may owe state and local taxes as well, so consult a tax pro.

Q&A: Saving vs Relying on pension

Dear Liz: My husband works for the government and will be receiving a pension when he retires. Am I still supposed to save the recommended amount for retirement from my income or can that amount be reduced since we know we have the pension? We are starting a family and could use any extra money we can get right now.

Answer: If your husband is just a few years away from collecting that pension, counting on it to be there is reasonable. Since you’re just starting a family, though, it’s much more likely that retirement is decades away, and a lot can happen in that time.

Your husband could be laid off or fired, or he could quit. Even if he sticks it out, the government could change the way his pension is accrued to make it less generous. (The rising cost of public employee pensions concerns many lawmakers and taxpayers.) Even if he gets what he expects, his pension may not be enough to support the two of you in old age.

So yes, you should be saving for retirement. A cautious person would save as if no pension existed. Someone who’s comfortable with risk might simply aim to fill the gap between the expected pension and future living costs. Others might find a comfortable saving rate between those two points. You can use AARP’s retirement calculator to help you create a plan that allows you to take care of your family today without depriving yourselves in the future.

Q&A: Maximizing retirement benefits

Dear Liz: I don’t know where to turn. My husband is 76. He has a federal government pension and collects Social Security but he has only a $17,000 life insurance policy. We still have a $229,000 mortgage and no savings other than my small 401(k). I am 59 and also a federal worker. Do you have any suggestions or guidance for me? Is there such a thing as an insurance policy that could pay off the mortgage if he passes before me?

Answer: Buying a life insurance policy on your husband that would pay off your mortgage isn’t necessarily impossible, but it would be expensive and might not be the best use of your funds. You can explore that option, of course, but you also should research your own retirement resources and what’s likely to remain after he’s gone.

Will your husband’s pension make payments to his survivor or will it end when he dies? How much will your own federal pension pay you when you retire? How much will Social Security pay you, and how does that compare with your survivor’s benefit (which is essentially equal to what your husband is receiving when he dies)? What are your options for maximizing those benefits?

You also need to know if your Social Security benefits could be reduced because of your public pensions. Some federal employees and employees of state or local governments receive pensions based on earnings that were not subject to Social Security taxes. When that’s the case, their benefits could be reduced by the Windfall Elimination Provision or the Government Pension Offset. Most federal employees hired after 1983 are covered by Social Security, but just in case you should check out the information at http://www.ssa.gov/gpo-wep/.

Once you have an idea of your income as a widow, you can compare that with your expected expenses and see whether continuing to pay your mortgage will pose a burden. If that’s the case, you might consider downsizing now to a place you could afford to buy with cash or a much smaller mortgage. Reducing your expenses also could help you build up that 401(k), which will help provide you with a more comfortable retirement.

Establishing a relationship with a fee-only planner now will help you prepare for the future and give you someone to turn to for financial advice should you be left on your own.