Q&A: Bonus taxing

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from someone who wondered whether to pay off tax debt or credit cards with a $10,000 bonus. You asked why the person planned to put only about half the bonus toward debt instead of all of it. I think I know the answer. A bonus is considered taxable income, so someone in a high tax bracket likely would net only about half of the gross amount.

Answer: That’s a good point. Many people fail to factor in the tax bite when they get a windfall or cash in a retirement plan. The more money you make, the more painful that bite can be.

Q&A: Mistaken address leads to debt collection

Dear Liz: A debt collector says I owe a small debt from a store credit card I opened about six months ago. The wrong address was on file, so I hadn’t received any documentation at all. After opening the account I had called the store customer service line to arrange a payment, but the representative told me I had to wait for my account number and card in the mail. It never showed up, obviously, because of the wrong address issue. I understand that it was still my responsibility to pay this, but I called the store and then the bank that issued the card and got no response. Do I have any right to dispute the collection or at least catch a break?

Answer: The Fair Credit Billing Act requires that when accounts are opened, lenders send written notice about the account holder’s right to dispute errors, said credit expert Gerri Detweiler. Lenders are also supposed to send you statements when your account has activity (such as a balance due).

You could make the argument that the lender violated federal law by sending the information to the wrong address, Detweiler said, and that your credit scores have suffered as a result.

Yes, you should have contacted the store again after the card failed to arrive, but the lender should have fixed the problem and called off the collector once it was notified.

You can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at http://www.consumerfinance.gov and it will contact the lender to try to resolve the dispute. You’ll be able to log into the CFPB site to track the progress of its investigation.

You also should get copies of your credit reports and dispute any negative information related to this account, including any collections activity, said Detweiler, who writes about credit and debt at Credit.com.

Should the lender balk at removing the derogatory information from your credit reports, you can hire a consumer law attorney (referrals from http://www.naca.net) to press your case.

Q&A: Spousal benefits and Social Security

Dear Liz: I am divorced. If I apply for Social Security spousal benefits at age 62, based on my former spouse’s work record, can I continue to collect it if I get remarried? I understand that I cannot switch from spousal to my own benefit if I start early. But if I remarry, do I continue to collect spousal benefits or do I get nothing?

Answer: Spousal benefits based on an ex’s work record end when you remarry. (Some people think they can continue spousal benefits if they marry after they reach age 60, but that’s not true. Only survivor benefits for widows and widowers continue when a recipient remarries after age 60.)

When you file for spousal benefits before your own full retirement age, you are deemed to be applying for both your own benefit and your spousal benefit, and essentially given the bigger of the two, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, founder of MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com. If the spousal benefit was larger and you remarry, the Social Security Administration looks at your benefit compared to your spousal benefit based on your new spouse and again gives you the larger of the two.

Understand that your benefit will be deemed to have started when you first applied for benefits. So rather than growing almost 7% each year between age 62 and your full retirement age, which it would have had you put off filing, it will effectively grow only at the rate of inflation.

That’s why it’s usually a better course to wait to file until your own full retirement age. Then you have the option of filing a restricted application just for spousal benefits, leaving your own benefit alone to grow (at 8% annually between full retirement age and age 70). You can switch to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70.

Q&A: IRA’s and 401(k)’s

Dear Liz: You answered a reader who asked whether to contribute to her IRA, her Roth IRA or her regular or Roth 401(k) account. I thought that if you have access to a 401(k) at work, you couldn’t make a contribution to an IRA or Roth IRA.

Answer: That’s a common misconception. You can contribute to an IRA even if you have a workplace plan. What you may not be able to do is deduct the contribution. The tax deduction depends on your modified adjusted gross income and phases out in 2015 between $61,000 and $71,000 for singles and $98,000 to $118,000 for married couples filing jointly.

You also may be able contribute to a Roth IRA if you have a workplace plan. Contributions to a Roth are never deductible, but your ability to contribute phases out between $116,000 to $131,000 for singles and $183,000 to $193,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Q&A: Using a bonus to pay off debt

Dear Liz: I’m expecting a bonus this year of about $10,000. Should I pay off $6,000 in back taxes on which I’m currently paying $428 per month on a never-ending installment agreement? Or would it be better to pay off one of our $5,000 credit cards accruing 19% to 22% interest?

Answer: You didn’t mention some important factors: How much you owe on the credit cards, what the interest rate is on that installment agreement, or why you’re planning to use only about half of your bonus to pay off debt instead of at least 90% of it.

What is clear, though, is that you’re having some trouble living within your means. A fee-only planner who charges by the hour could help you figure out a budget. Online resources such as Mint.com or personal finance software such as Quicken or You Need a Budget also might be helpful. Another low-cost source of help would be a credit counselor affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org).

All things being equal, it’s usually best to pay off your highest-rate debts first. If you owe so much on credit cards that you have no hope of paying them off within five years, however, you might be wise to spend some of your bonus consulting a bankruptcy attorney.

Q&A: Maxing out retirement savings

Dear Liz: My husband and I are in our late 40s. We’re in a good financial position and trying to max out our retirement savings. We have small traditional IRAs and are now above the income limit to deduct contributions to it. We have Roth IRAs that we converted from traditional IRAs several years ago (our income is borderline for being able to contribute directly to a Roth). We also recently got a Health Savings Account that we are maxing out and saving for retirement. But the bulk of our retirement savings is in our 401(k)s, which we max out every year. I hear I should have a mix of pre-tax and after-tax sources of income in retirement. Can I wait until the first year we retire and roll some of my 401(k) into a traditional IRA and then convert it to a Roth, at presumably a lower tax rate due to lower income? Or would it be better to contribute now to a Roth 401(k) at work instead of a regular 401(k), even knowing that our tax rate will probably be lower in retirement?

Answer: You already have a mix of pre- and after-tax sources of income in retirement. Withdrawals from your Roth IRAs will be tax free in retirement, as will your HSA withdrawals if they’re used for medical expenses.

Roth conversions and contributions to Roth 401(k)s make the most sense when you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, rather than a lower one. Otherwise, you’re giving up a tax break now (your deductible contributions) for what’s likely to be a lesser tax benefit later. Conversions at retirement are particularly tricky, since you may not have decades of tax-free compounding ahead of you to make up for the fact that you accelerated the tax bill.

Talk to a tax pro, but it’s likely that maxing out your regular 401(k)s is the best move.

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.