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Dear Liz: I am 64 and happily, gratefully receiving early Social Security benefits. My wife is 59, and when she turns 62 she will get half of my $1,650 monthly benefit. My question, though, is this: If she starts getting half of my benefit at 62, can she later switch to her own benefit? If she can get spousal benefits at 62 and switch to her own benefit when it maxes out at age 70, then starting early would be a no-brainer.

Answer: Yes it would, but that’s not how Social Security works.

First, your wife will not receive an amount equal to half of your check if she applies for spousal benefits before her own full retirement age, which is 66. Instead, she would be locked into a significantly discounted amount — closer to 35% of your benefit than 50% if she applies at 62. She also would lose the option of switching to her own benefit later. The “claim now, claim more later” strategy of starting with spousal benefits and then switching to one’s own benefit isn’t available to those who start early.

You’ve already left a lot of money on the table by starting benefits before you reached your own full retirement age. Having her begin benefits prematurely would just compound the problem. Remember too that when one of you dies, the other will have to live perhaps for many years on a single check. It makes sense to make sure that check is as large as it can possibly be.

AARP has excellent information on its site about Social Security claiming strategies, as well as a calculator that can help you see how much it pays to wait. Please educate yourselves before making a decision that you, or she, could live to regret.

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Dear Liz: I recently retired and started my own consulting business, which is doing very well. My question is on taxes. I have been told that I must pay quarterly taxes, but I have no idea if I will make $10 this month or $10,000. How do I estimate my income if I have no idea? Can I just wait till the end of the year and figure it out then?

Answer: You don’t want to do that. If you owe a significant amount at the end of the year, you’ll owe a substantial penalty on top of your tax bill.

The good news: The IRS requires you to figure your estimated quarterly taxes, not your “guesstimated” taxes. You’ll make the calculations based on what you actually earned that quarter, not what you expect to earn in the upcoming quarter.

Tax software programs such as TurboTax and TaxAct can help you make the calculations, but you’d be smart to hire a tax pro with experience advising small-business owners. The pro will have ideas about how to minimize and manage your tax bill. He or she also will be available to answer the many questions you’ll have about taxes, incorporation and other matters as your business grows. If you should be audited, a tax professional such as an enrolled agent or a certified public accountant would be able to represent you. (Even the most avid do-it-yourselfer should understand that representing yourself in an audit is not a good idea.)

You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Enrolled Agents at http://www.naea.org and the American Institute of CPAs at http://www.aicpa.org.

Categories : Q&A, Taxes
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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

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Q&A: Transferring property from a deceased relative

Aug 25, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: My mother passed away unexpectedly in late 2008. She had a mortgage, and the house was under her name only. She didn’t leave a will. My family is still paying the loan, and the company does not know my mother passed away. We don’t have a lot of money and we need advice on how to get the house under my sister’s name (she has good credit). We need to get the loan modified since the monthly payment is almost $1,000 and only about $70 goes toward the principal.

Answer: Your mother may not have created a will, but your state has laws that determine what was supposed to happen after her death. Lying to the mortgage lender is not one of the legal options.

Federal law allows mortgages to be transferred to heirs. (Without a will, those heirs usually would include a surviving spouse and the dead person’s children.) Transfers because of death typically are exempt from the due-on-sale or acceleration clauses that otherwise would allow the lender to demand full payment.

To get the mortgage transferred, however, you usually need to have started the probate process.

At this point, you should consult a mortgage broker about the likelihood of getting a refinance or a loan modification. If the home is deeply underwater, it may not be possible or worth the effort. If foreclosure is likely, it would be better not to transfer the mortgage as the heirs’ credit would suffer significant damage.
If your plan is feasible, however, then you’ll need to consult a probate attorney. You may not have a lot of money, but you need to pool what you have to hire someone who can dig you out of this mess.

Categories : Q&A, Real Estate
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Q&A: Converting currency abroad

Aug 25, 2014 | | Comments (2)

Dear Liz: After reading your column about the best ways to pay while traveling in Europe, I want to share my experience. I was unhappy with the foreign transaction fee charged on my Citibank credit card, so on my next trip to Europe I primarily used my Capital One card. Imagine my disappointment to find that Capital One’s currency conversion formula was much less favorable to me than Citibank’s.

Answer: Credit card expert Odysseas Papadimitriou suspects you were comparing purchases made on different days, or even on different trips. Although one of your cards charges a foreign transaction fee and the other doesn’t, both cards get the most favorable rate from their card network’s exchange rate. Visa cards would get the Visa card network exchange rate, while MasterCard would get the MasterCard network exchange rate. If both your cards were Visas, for example, they would get the same exchange rate, but the one that charged the foreign transaction fee would increase your cost by that amount (typically 1% to 3%).

There may be “tiny” differences between those Visa and MasterCard exchange rates on a given day, but one wouldn’t be “much less favorable” than the other, Papadimitriou said.

And the exchange rates are certainly better than what you’d get by exchanging dollars for euros at a bank in advance of your trip, or by using currency exchange services once you got there.

So the fact remains that the cheapest way to convert currency is to do so automatically by making purchases with a credit or debit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Here’s another suggestion for reducing fees abroad:

Dear Liz: One option for folks traveling to Europe to save money on ATM withdrawals is to check with their bank and find out if there is a checking or savings account that carries the benefit of the bank canceling foreign ATM fees as well as their own fees. Before I traveled to Scotland to visit my daughter, I switched accounts at my bank to one where there are no fees for using other banks’ ATMs. Worked brilliantly!

Answer: If your own bank doesn’t offer this option, it may be worth setting up a checking account with a bank that does. As mentioned in the previous column, Charles Schwab’s high-yield checking account offers unlimited ATM fee rebates worldwide with no foreign transaction fees, and Capital One 360, the online bank, waives ATM fees and absorbs MasterCard’s 1% foreign transaction fee. USAA Bank charges a 1% foreign transaction fee but doesn’t charge a fee for the first 10 ATM withdrawals.

Categories : Banking, Q&A, The Basics
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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.

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Dear Liz: My in-laws just informed us that they have gone through their retirement fund and soon won’t be able to pay their mortgage. They borrowed against the house they’ve lived in for 30 years and currently owe $325,000. They are devastated, so I am trying to figure out the best way for them to stay in their house in their final years, as they are both 73. They have about $300,000 in equity but do not want to sell. They are willing to sell the house to my wife and me at their current balance. We would make the payments and they remain in the house. When they pass, the house would be ours. They looked into a reverse mortgage but this would cover only the payments, not taxes, insurance or maintenance. What is the best way to do this? Do I get a loan and purchase outright? Do I contact their bank and see if I can assume their loan? Do they quit-claim the home to my wife and me? My wife and I can afford to do this, but we want to make the right financial decision.

Answer: Before you do anything, please consult a tax professional and an attorney with experience in estate and elder law.

It’s unlikely the lender will allow you to assume the loan, so you probably would need to set this up as a sale of the home with you and your wife obtaining a new mortgage.
But their plan to sell the house to you at a below-market value could create gift tax issues and could delay their eligibility for Medicaid, should they need help paying for nursing home care.

There are other risks to your in-laws. Your creditors could come after the home if you lose a lawsuit, for example. You could sell the home without their consent, and you would have a claim on the property if you and your wife split up.

Then there are the risks to you. You say you can afford to make the payments (and presumably pay the taxes, insurance and maintenance as well), but what happens if you lose a job or suffer another financial setback?

All of you need to understand the risks involved, and your alternatives, before proceeding.

A sale of the home or a reverse mortgage may well prove to be a better choice. A reverse mortgage wouldn’t completely eliminate their home costs, but would substantially lower them — whoever winds up paying the bill.

Categories : Q&A, Real Estate, Retirement
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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.

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Q&A: Twelve-year old charge-off

Aug 11, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: Late last year, I applied for a credit card to buy a new computer on the computer maker’s website. I was declined. I was given the chance to talk to the credit card company’s agent and was belittled for having not-so-perfect credit, not enough credit and using too much credit, all in the same phone call. Needless to say, I got the message. I was also reminded that I’d had a charge-off on a competitor’s card in 1992! I always thought bad credit dropped off after seven years, certainly 10. Maybe you can clarify?

Answer: You need to take a look at your credit reports to see what lenders are seeing.

A charge-off from 1992 should have been removed in 1999, said credit expert John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at CreditSesame.com. Charge-offs aren’t public records, so there would be no way for a credit card company to know that a competitor wrote your account off as a loss unless it’s still showing on your credit reports.

“This is why it’s a great idea to pull your credit reports from time to time to make sure ancient debts aren’t still on [them],” Ulzheimer said.
If the charge-off is still showing, you should dispute it with the credit bureaus to have it removed.

What might still be a public record is a judgment, if your old creditor filed a lawsuit against you and then took the trouble to renew the judgment to extend how long it could appear on your credit reports.

“That’s a little trick some lawyers play to keep judgments from expiring,” Ulzheimer said. “They’ll re-file them, sometimes in different jurisdictions, and the byproduct is new credit reporting.”

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, civil judgments have to be dropped after seven years unless your state has a longer statute of limitations. If it does, the judgment can be reported until the statute expires. The statute for judgments ranges from three years to 20 years. California’s statute of limitations for judgments is 10 years. Bills.com has a list of state statutes of limitation athttp://www.bills.com/statute-of-limitations-on-debt/. If you find a judgment on your credit report that should have expired, dispute it with the credit bureaus.

You also should remedy the other problems the representative brought up. You need to pay down the balances on the credit accounts you’re using (preferably paying them off in full). Once you’ve done that, consider adding another credit card to your mix — but use it only if you can commit to paying the balance in full each month. Paying your bills on time and responsibly using credit will help you put your “not-so-perfect credit” behind you.

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Dear Liz: My daughter graduated from college seven years ago and moved to London. She has not paid her student loans. Do they drop off her credit reports like other unpaid debt? What about the government’s ability to collect? Does that expire as well?

Answer: The government can pursue people who owe federal student loan debt to their graves. There is no statute of limitations for collections activity, as there is on most other debt. Furthermore, the government has powers any private collection agency would envy. The feds can seize tax refunds, garnish wages without a court order and even take a portion of a debtor’s Social Security checks.

Your daughter shouldn’t expect the unpaid debt to vanish from her credit reports either. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act limits the length of time other negative marks can remain, but that doesn’t apply to federal student loans.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act “is silent as it pertains to government-guaranteed student loans,” said credit expert John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at CreditSesame.com. “The Higher Education Act allows them to remain on credit reports as long as they’re unpaid.”

There are so many affordable repayment options these days for federal student loans that it makes little sense to default. In cases of extreme hardship or low income, payments can be reduced to zero and the loans would still be considered current.

Your daughter needs to make arrangements to pay what she owes, especially if she ever plans to come home. The good news is that the Department of Education will work with her to get her loans out of default status, and clear up her credit, with an affordable payment program. She can start by visiting the department’s site at studentaid.ed.gov.

Categories : Q&A, Student Loans
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