Don’t tap retirement funds to pay kids’ student loans

Dear Liz: I’m in my 50s. My kids have college loan debts that might total more than $200,000. I allowed them to take out loans because I expected to inherit $300,000 to help them pay off the debt. Now that inheritance will not happen.

I have $250,000 saved for retirement. When I’m 58 1/2 years old, I would like to pull that money out and pay some or all of these debts. Or use home equity. I’ve recently been downsized in employment, but I am looking to increase my income so I can help with their debt. Advice?

Answer: If your goal is to impoverish yourself so your kids will have to take care of you in your old age, by all means proceed with your plan. Otherwise, you need to rethink this.

You’ve been laid off in the middle of what should be your peak earning years. Older workers often have a tougher time than younger ones finding replacement jobs, even in a better economy than this one. You may not be able to replace your former income, which means you may not be able to add much to the amount you’ve already saved. You should be conserving your resources, including your home equity, and not squandering it repaying debts that aren’t yours.

And “squandering” is the right word. You may be able to avoid paying federal and state tax penalties on withdrawals under certain conditions; distributions made after age 59 1/2 avoid the penalties, as do those made if you’re “separated from service” if the job termination occurred in or after the year you turn 55. But you’ll still owe income taxes on the withdrawal, and those can be considerable.

Your children are the ones who will benefit from their educations. Those educations should allow them to earn incomes to repay these loans. The amount of debt they’ve accrued might be excessive — you didn’t specify how many kids, or whether this debt is being incurred pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees. Ultimately, though, they will be in a better position to pay the debt than you are.

If you promised them help you can’t deliver, sit down with them now to break the bad news and strategize on how they can finish their educations without incurring substantially more debt.

Your story also should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone counting on an inheritance to pay future bills. Until the money is in your bank account, it’s not yours and shouldn’t be part of your financial planning.

Tax breaks for helping grandchildren

Dear Liz: I am grandmother to two girls ages 10 and 14. I contribute to their Section 529 college funds and pay for expenses such as dental bills, dance lessons and so on. Is there a way I can deduct these contributions from my income tax?

Answer: Most states offer at least a partial tax deduction for 529 college plan contributions, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the financial aid sites FinAid and FastWeb. The exceptions are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee, which have state income taxes but no deduction; and Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming, which don’t have state income taxes.

To get a deduction, you typically have to contribute to the plan offered by your home state rather than ones offered by other states. For more details, visit www.finaid.org/savings/state529deductions.phtml.

In general, you can’t take deductions for other expenses paid on behalf of your grandchildren. (If they’re your dependents — they live with you and you provide more than half their support — you could claim exemptions and possibly tax credits, but that doesn’t sound like the case here.) However, any medical or tuition expenses you pay directly on their behalf don’t count toward your annual gift tax exclusion, as discussed here last week.

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Could son’s unpaid bills harm parents’ credit? Maybe

Dear Liz: Our 24-year-old son lives with us. He failed out of college, has been fired from two restaurant jobs and is working part time at a grocery warehouse. He has neglected to pay his credit card for several months. He also waits until his cellphone carrier threatens to turn off his phone before he pays half of that bill. We are concerned that his poor payment history may start to reflect on our good credit histories. We are retired and may want to build a new house. His bills are sent to our address, and creditors call our home phone number looking for him.

Answer: His debts shouldn’t affect your credit reports and scores unless you cosigned loans or other credit accounts or added him as a joint user to your credit cards.

Note the word “shouldn’t.” It’s possible that an unethical collection agency would try to get you to pay these bills by posting the overdue accounts on your credit reports. That could negatively affect your scores. Check your credit reports at least once a year at http://www.annualcreditreport.com. You also may want to consider ongoing credit monitoring, which can alert you if any collections or other suspicious activity shows up on your reports.

Speaking of unethical actions, you need to consider the possibility that your son could steal your financial identity. He probably has access to the information he would need to open new accounts in your name, including your Social Security numbers. His failure to pay his bills, even though it appears he can, indicates some moral shortcomings. He may not be low enough to rip off his parents, but if you have any suspicions about his trustworthiness, consider putting a credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) on your credit reports. This freeze should prevent anyone from opening credit accounts in your name.

Finally, you can write letters to creditors telling them to stop contacting you. You run the risk that such a letter could lead a creditor to sue your son. But his creditors may sue him anyway if he doesn’t respond to their requests for payment.