Q&A: Unsolicited financial advice

Dear Liz: Your answer to the financially savvy brother whose advice is lost on his sisters was a bit harsh and shortsighted, so my guess is that you may not know anyone who has siblings who will continue for the next few decades to need help. It is hard to deny a sibling help while enjoying the benefits of prudent saving. It is harder to watch a sibling suffer, even if they should have avoided it. Seems to me completely different from giving advice about child rearing, which I might add is sometimes simply a statement of the obvious and one that should not even have to be mentioned, like don’t let your kids scream in public. This young man is almost certainly going to live with either guilt over not supporting his sisters when the mother dies or the frustration of having to give up hard-earned funds to avoid the guilt. You should have said he needs to write them a letter citing the guidance given and making it clear not to come to him when they get in trouble.

Answer: Thank you for providing a perfect example of why people find unsolicited advice so annoying.

The brother asked what he could say to his sisters to make them more financially responsible and to his mother to make her realize she should stop supporting them. The answer, of course, is nothing. There are no words that can make other people change unless they want to change. Since his family has made clear they’re not interested in his advice, continuing to offer it would be pointless.

The brother didn’t express concern that he would wind up supporting either his mother or his sisters. Even if he has such concerns, writing such a letter would be churlish, at best. If he’s asked for help, he can make his position known then.

Q&A: Giving financial advice to family

Dear Liz: I am 30 and have two sisters, ages 31 and 27. My wife and I both have good jobs that allow us to live comfortably and save for retirement. My sisters, on the other hand, have severe money problems. My older sister works a low-paying retail job. She is unable to save and is currently at risk of having her wages and tax refunds garnished because of unpaid student loans. My mom provides her with support when she asks for it. The other sister still lives at home. While she makes decent money by working two jobs, she spends all of her money on “wants,” and my mom pays all of her living expenses. The only bill my younger sister pays is her car payment. She also currently has close to $100,000 in student loans that she just had to start paying on.

I have tried to provide both my sisters with budgeting advice, and I have recommended books that I have used as the blueprint for our budget. Neither of them takes the advice. I have talked to my mom about both sisters’ situations. While my mom agrees that both are in bad shape, she is unwilling to show either of them the tough love that they need to improve their situations. Do you have any advice on recommendations that I could make to help any of them out?

Answer: The best advice is to stop offering advice.

Your mom and sisters have made it quite clear they’re not interested in what you have to say. Continuing to offer your opinions on their situations would be tiresome and pointless.
Yes, it’s hard to watch people struggle when you think you know what could help them. But keep in mind that: a) you might be wrong about what they need right now, and b) nobody asked you, anyway.

If you’re passionate about teaching people to manage their finances, you might look into becoming a certified financial planner or other planning professional. The CFP Board of Standards has information at http://www.cfp.net. If people are paying you for your advice, they’re somewhat more likely to listen to it.

Otherwise, you’ll have a captive audience for your financial teaching if you and your wife should have children. And as a parent, you’ll get to experience firsthand how it feels to be the target of unsolicited advice.

Q&A: Financial aid and divorce

Dear Liz: My ex-wife and I are about to start the financial aid process for our eldest child, who goes to college in the fall. My ex happens to have a higher income than me, and has asked me if I’d be willing to have different aid scenarios calculated based on our different incomes and assets. From all the research I’ve done, though, it seems she is the one who needs to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, since she’s the custodial parent. It’s not possible to choose who the custodial parent is for the purposes of financial aid, right?

Answer: It may be possible, but you have to make the choice well before you file the FAFSA form.

For federal financial aid purposes, the custodial parent whose information is used to calculate financial need is the parent with whom the child lived the most during the 12 months before the FAFSA is filed. With joint custody, the custodial parent is typically the one who provided the most cash support.

Some divorced parents opt to revise their children’s living arrangements so that the lower earner becomes the custodial parent. That may require a trip to court to revise a custody agreement. Also, the financial situation of any stepparents would have to be part of the equation, since the income and assets of the custodial parent’s spouse (the stepparent) are factored into the federal formula.

Q&A: Brokerage follow-up

Dear Liz: You recently explained the insurance limits for brokerage accounts covered by the Securities Investor Protection Corp. I recently retired from the brokerage industry and wanted to add that many firms have additional insurance coverage beyond the SIPC limits.

Answer: Good point. Brokerages often purchase additional coverage from private insurers on top of what’s provided by the SIPC. To find out how much coverage may be available, ask your brokerage or conduct a search with the brokerage name and “how are my accounts protected” as a search phrase.

Q&A: Keeping investments in one brokerage

Dear Liz: I recently retired at 56 and am receiving a pension. My wife is set to retire next year at 56 and will also receive a pension. I chose to leave my 401(k) in my employer’s plan but am planning to consolidate it with my wife’s 457 and four 403(b) accounts once she retires. We also have a portfolio of stock and bond mutual funds. I’d like to consolidate everything at one brokerage firm to simplify record keeping, but what’s the level of risk of having all our investments with one company? We have about $3 million in assets total.

Answer: You can’t combine your retirement accounts with your wife’s, but you certainly can move everything to a single brokerage firm to reduce fees and make it easier to coordinate your investment strategy.

Whether you should is another matter. The chances of a well-established brokerage firm going bankrupt or suffering massive fraud are slim, but it does happen: Lehman Bros. and Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities are two examples from the 2008 economic meltdown.

Investors have some protection against bankruptcy and fraud when their accounts are covered by the Securities Investor Protection Corp. Protected accounts are insured for up to $500,000 in securities and cash, with a $250,000 limit on the cash.

SIPC uses a concept called “separate capacity” to determine coverage when investors have multiple accounts. You can learn more about coverage limits on its website.
You can expand your total protection by using different types of accounts. Accounts held in your name alone are covered up to $500,000, and you can get another $500,000 in coverage for joint accounts. Your individual retirement accounts and Roth IRAs are also treated separately, and each type of account gets another $500,000 of coverage. (You don’t get $500,000 on each IRA if you have multiple accounts, though. SIPC combines all your traditional IRAs and treats them as one.)
Let’s say you and your wife have individual brokerage accounts as well as a joint account. Then we’ll suppose you each have IRAs as well as Roth IRAs, for a total of seven eligible accounts. That could give you a total of $3.5 million of SIPC coverage.

Of course, the amounts in your accounts may not line up so neatly with the coverage limits. You might not have any Roth IRAs, for example, but have more than $500,000 in that 401(k) you were hoping to roll over to an IRA, or your wife may have more than $500,000 in her retirement accounts (which, if rolled over into one or more IRAs, would be treated as one account). If you leave your 401(k) with your employer, on the other hand, you would be covered under federal employee benefit laws that require defined contribution accounts to be held in trust, separate from the company’s own funds, which would protect your account regardless of its size.

There’s a chance you could be made whole even if your accounts exceed SIPC limits. That was the case with Lehman, where individual retail customers got all their money back. With Madoff, everyone with claims under $925,000 is expected to be made whole, while the remaining claimants have gotten about half their money back in addition to the $500,000 advance SIPC paid out.

But you’ll have to assess your risk tolerance. If you have none, then use more than one brokerage firm.

Q&A: Could reducing your credit limit hurt your credit score?

Dear Liz: I asked one of my credit card issuers to increase my credit line from $2,000 to $5,000 but was turned down. The reason given was that I have too high credit limits from my other cards. Combined, I have about $100,000 in available credit, although I’ve never used more than $15,000 at any time and always paid promptly. If I ask these credit card companies to reduce my available credit, will I damage my FICO credit scores, which are around 785?

Answer: Your credit scores may well take a hit if you reduce your available credit, and there’s no guarantee that doing so will induce the issuer you’re courting to raise your limit. If this card is relatively recent, you may find that simply waiting a few months and asking again will get you the credit line increase.

If not, you have plenty of other options. Credit card companies are falling all over themselves to attract creditworthy customers like yourself. Check out some of the offers you’ll find at credit card comparison sites such as NerdWallet, CreditCards.com, CardRatings, LowCards.com and others.

Q&A: When is the right time to buy?

Dear Liz: My wife and I are young (25 and 22). We owe no one money and have built up an emergency fund with six months of expenses. We both contribute enough to our 401(k)s to get the maximum match, and I contribute the maximum to my company’s stock purchase plan. Currently we are saving $2,500 to $3,000 a month for a future home purchase. My question is will we be able to buy a decent house without getting a mortgage in three to four years at this rate? Is this something we should do? Or should we have a large down payment and pay the mortgage off quickly? We both have below average credit and mostly use cash for everything.

Answer: Since you two are so good at saving, you presumably can do the math required to determine how much you’ll have in three or four years. So what you’re asking is whether home prices will accelerate so fast in your area that what may seem like enough to buy a decent house now won’t actually buy one in the future.
The answer is: Nobody knows for sure.
The best approach is to keep your options open — and that means you’ll need to work on improving those credit scores. A year or two of using credit cards lightly but regularly, and paying off your balances in full each month, should help pull up your numbers. You could speed up the rehabilitation process by getting an installment loan such as a car loan or personal loan. Managing different types of credit responsibly is typically good for your scores.
If you wind up getting a mortgage, you may decide to pay it off quickly, or you may have better things to do with that money such as boosting your retirement accounts or saving for college educations.

Q&A: Taking a mortgage for the tax deduction

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both 66 and in good health. Currently we have about $1.2 million in IRAs. We’re receiving about $80,000 a year from a pension and $110,000 in salary. We have been aggressive about reducing any lingering debt. So we think we are in good shape for me to retire within the next year or so. If we decide to stay in our home rather than move, we will need to make some significant repairs and improvements. We were thinking of taking out a $200,000 mortgage to pay off our last remaining debt ($50,000 on a home equity line of credit) and fund the renovations. This would give us a better tax deduction and not incur the high taxes we would pay by making an IRA withdrawal. Our grown children have expressed no interest in the home after we die, so it probably would be put up for sale at that time. Does this seem like a reasonable approach if we choose to go that route? Anything we haven’t considered?

Answer: Considering the tax implications of financial moves is smart, but you shouldn’t make decisions solely on that basis. You especially shouldn’t take on mortgage debt just for the tax deduction. The tax benefit is limited to your bracket, so for every dollar in mortgage interest you pay you would get at best a federal tax benefit worth 39.6 cents. State income tax deductions might boost that amount, but you’d still be paying out more than you get back in tax benefits. You also would be locking yourself into debt payments at a time in life when most people prefer the flexibility of being debt-free.

If you’re comfortable having a mortgage in retirement, though, you might want to consider a reverse mortgage. Although once considered expensive loans of last resort for people who were running out of money in retirement, changes in the federal reverse mortgage program caused financial planners to reassess the no-payment loans as a potential wealth management tool. The idea is that homeowners could tap the reverse mortgage for funds, especially in bad markets, instead of depleting their retirement accounts.
Reverse mortgages are complex, though. The upfront and ongoing costs can be significant. Because you don’t make payments on the money you borrow, your debt grows over time and reduces the amount your heirs might get once the home is sold. You’d be smart to find a savvy, fee-only financial advisor to assess your situation and walk you through your options.

Q&A: Battling over mother’s estate

Dear Liz: Our mom did a wonderful job of preparing her estate, but she made a mistake in that she started giving away her real estate holdings to her two children a few months before her untimely death. She died before she had the chance to equalize these transactions. As her son and executor, I equalized the real estate after her death. My sister is now protesting this because she said “legally” what was given away before death is not part of the estate, but I say that our mom would have wanted this equalized because she was very firm in her belief that her assets be divided equally. What’s your experience?

Answer: You just provided an excellent example of why it can be problematic to have an executor who has a personal stake in how an estate is settled.

You wouldn’t be the first executor to decide that what Mom really wanted was for you to reap a larger benefit than your sibling, despite the explicit terms of a will or trust. Even if the estate documents gave you some discretion, you should have consulted an estate-planning attorney before deciding to help yourself to a bigger portion of your mother’s assets.

This is more than an ethical issue. Executors have a legal responsibility known as a fiduciary duty to the estate and all its beneficiaries. Basically, that means acting with the utmost integrity and putting the interests of the estate and beneficiaries ahead of your own.

Your sister may be able to file a lawsuit against you or ask a court to remove you as executor. You shouldn’t let it come to that. Talk to an attorney now about the best way to resolve this situation amicably.

Q&A: Social Security disability insurance and survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My first wife died six years ago at age 60. I was 52 and we had been married 27 years. My wife was on Social Security disability for 15 years before her death. My only dealing with Social Security after her death was to cancel her payments. I received no benefits of any kind. I am now remarried. Were there any Social Security benefits that I failed to request? Is there any effect on my future retirement?

Answer: You may have been eligible for a one-time payment of $255, but that’s likely all.

We’ll assume your wife was receiving Social Security Disability Insurance payments, which are disability checks paid to workers who have enough work credits in the Social Security system. SSDI is different from Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, a need-based federal program for low-income individuals who are disabled, blind or over the age of 65. Survivor benefits aren’t available under SSI, but they are under SSDI.

The rules for SSDI survivor benefits are similar to those under regular Social Security. Survivor benefits typically are available starting at age 60. Survivors who are disabled can begin receiving the benefits starting at 50, and survivors at any age can qualify if they’re caring for the deceased person’s child who is under 16. When you remarry before age 60, you can’t claim survivor benefits based on your first wife’s Social Security record unless the subsequent marriage ends in death or divorce.