Q&A: These heirs worry their parents aren’t doing enough to minimize estate taxes

Dear Liz: My parents, ages 75 and 76, have established an irrevocable gift trust for my five siblings and me. Wonderful! With the single trust, they have maxed out their lifetime gifting exemption. What else can they do with their other investments to minimize the inevitable estate taxes that will come with their deaths? They have lived a frugal life of caution and reserve, but before their nest egg can be distributed to their heirs, the government will extract millions of dollars.

Answer: If your parents maxed out their lifetime gift exemption, that means they contributed more than $10 million to the trust. It also probably means they employed an estate-planning attorney, since such trusts aren’t typically do-it-yourself projects. If that’s the case, the attorney probably has reviewed with them their other options for minimizing taxes.

They could, for example, give each sibling $28,000 ($14,000 from each parent) each year — and make similar gifts to each sibling’s spouse and children, if they were so inclined. This annual exemption limit is separate from the lifetime gifting exemption they’ve already used. If each of you is married with two kids, that would move $672,000 out of their combined estates each year.

Another way to move money out of their taxable estate, either now or at their deaths, is to donate to charities.

If they opt not to take further steps, you can take comfort in the fact that the top estate tax rate is 40%, which means the bulk of their estate will still reach their heirs. Also keep in mind that you’re in rare company — only about two estates out of 1,000 are large enough to trigger an estate tax return, now that exemption limits have been raised to $5.49 million a person.

Q&A: Social Security benefits for children

Dear Liz: My older brothers-in-law signed up for Social Security benefits at 62 and then suspended their benefits so that their children, who were under 18, could receive 50% of their checks. Is this process still available at age 62 for those with children who are below the age of 18?

Answer: In order for family members to receive spousal or child benefits based on the primary earner’s work record, that primary earner has to be receiving his or her own benefit.

In the past, people who had reached full retirement age — which used to be 65, is now 66 and is rising to 67 — had the option of immediately suspending their applications so their family could receive benefits while their own continued to grow. The “file and suspend” option was not available to people who applied for benefits before their full retirement age. And now it’s no longer available period, thanks to Congress.

If you do apply for your benefit early, keep in mind that your checks — and your children’s checks — will be subject to the earnings test. That reduces Social Security benefits by $1 for every $2 you earn over $16,920 in 2017. (The earnings test goes away at full retirement age.) Your benefit also will be reduced to reflect the early start.

Also, there’s a limit to how much a family can receive based on the worker’s record. The family maximum can be from 150% to 180% of the parent’s full benefit amount.

If you’re still working and your children will be younger than 18 by the time you reach full retirement age, it may make sense to wait until then to apply. To know for sure, though, you should use one of the calculators that takes child benefits into account, such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

Q&A: Advice for an investing newcomer

Dear Liz: I am not versed at all in money matters. I have no clue where to invest or even if I should invest. I have $5,000 squirreled away that I am totally comfortable investing for 12 months because I feel I would have no need for it before then. Can you make a suggestion where I should put it to make a safe return?

Answer: An FDIC-insured bank account.

Investing requires a longer time horizon and a willingness to risk losing some of your principal. If you can’t do either, you need to stick with low-risk, low-reward options.

Q&A: The argument for having different caretakers for healthcare and financial decisions

Dear Liz: My mother is 74 and her health is starting to deteriorate. She had a last will made up about 15 years ago when my stepdad left her. I found out that she named me executor and gave me power of attorney for healthcare decisions. After the last year, when she became very contentious about giving me any information to do this (such as sharing her credit cards numbers), we have decided it would be better to assign these jobs to another sibling. There are also big differences in what each sibling is to receive. This will cause huge problems with two of the siblings.

I do not want to be a part of that as these two cannot even be civil to each other right now. I am afraid that my mother will not get around to changing her will. Am I legally obligated to fulfill this? It is causing me extreme anxiety as I am dealing with her decline in health as well.

Answer: No one is forced to become an executor. If your mother doesn’t name an alternate, the probate court can appoint someone to take the job — and it may not be the person your mother preferred. Let her know that if she wants to have a say in who settles her estate, she needs to change her will.

You’re smart not to want to oversee a situation that’s bound to get ugly. It’s not clear, though, why you thought you needed access to your mother’s credit cards while she was still alive. The job of executor, which would require settling her accounts, wouldn’t start until after she dies. Healthcare decisions typically don’t require access to credit cards — although she should also have named someone to make financial decisions for her if she’s incapacitated.

If you’re worried about your mother’s ability to handle her finances, now or in the future, you can start the discussion by mentioning how important it is to have a power of attorney for finances as well as one for healthcare decisions. It’s not uncommon to name different people for these roles, because the skill sets needed are not the same. Someone who’s “good with money” isn’t necessarily equipped to carry out someone’s end-of-life wishes, which may include fights with medical providers about which treatments will and won’t be pursued.

Once you’ve covered that ground, you can segue into talking about what she would like to happen if she starts having trouble keeping up with daily money management tasks. Many parents add a trusted child to their bank accounts so the child can monitor transactions and make sure bills are paid. Or your mother may prefer to hire a daily money manager (referrals are available from the American Assn. of Daily Money Managers at www.aadmm.com).

Q&A: Your gift won’t get you a medical deduction

Dear Liz: A couple I’ve known for years recently adopted 2-year-old twins. Both will need considerable medical care, as they were born to a drug-addicted mother. In sending out announcements, my friends suggested sending funds for the twins’ medical needs, rather than toys. I took note and sent a check earmarked for their healthcare. My question is: Can I include the gift in my own medical deduction for this year’s income taxes?

Answer: No. Only medical expenses paid for yourself, your spouse and your dependents typically qualify for the medical expense deduction on your income tax returns.

The expense isn’t a charitable deduction either. Contributions have to be made to qualified charities to be deductible, and individuals don’t qualify.

Q&A: How to help a hoarder parent

Dear Liz: Can you address parents who never throw anything away? It can be a burden to their children when parents leave behind massive amounts of collected, hoarded items, broken cars, old furniture, memorabilia, clothing unworn for decades, etc. This can be troublesome in terms of time off from work to clear an estate and may even necessitate the expense of hiring a professional or paying to have items hauled off.

Answer: Compulsive hoarding is a serious disorder that’s hard to treat unless the person is willing to change—and hoarders rarely are. You can offer to help your parents sort through their possessions, but ultimately it’s their decision what to keep and what to discard. Children of hoarders often have to resign themselves to spending a lot of time and money clearing out the mess when their parents are gone.

If your parents aren’t actually hoarders but simply have too much stuff, the holidays can be a good time to raise the issue of helping them downsize. It’s important to do so with empathy and without judgment. Your parents may not have the energy to organize their stuff, or they may have been traumatized by poverty or other financial setbacks that cause them to cling to things. If the task is too big for them or you, consider hiring a professional to help. The National Assn. of Professional Organizers is a good place to start.

Q&A: Don’t bequeath trouble to your descendants

Dear Liz: I have two grown children, neither of whom owns a home, and three grandchildren. I would very much like to keep my house in the family for all to use, if and when needed. It is not large, and it would be somewhat difficult for two families to live here at the same time. I have a trust that splits everything between the two children. I also have handwritten a note and had it notarized explaining I would like the house kept in the family and not sold or mortgaged. Can you advise me?

Answer: Please think long and hard before you try to restrict what the next generation does with a bequest, particularly when it’s real estate. Is your desire to keep the house in the family worth causing rifts in that family?

It would be hard for two families to share even a large home. You could be setting up epic battles, not only over who gets to live there but how much is spent to maintain, repair and update the home. It’s difficult enough for married couples to own property together; siblings are almost certain to disagree about how much to spend and the differences may be even greater if only one family is actually using the house.

If your house is sold, on the other hand, it could provide nice down payments for each family to buy its own home. Alternatively, one family could get a mortgage to buy out the other and live in the house. Or the home could be mortgaged to provide two down payments and then rented out. Your notarized note wouldn’t prevent your children from doing any of these things, but it may cause them unnecessary guilt and disagreements about honoring those wishes.

Q&A: Claiming an adult child as a dependent

Dear Liz: I am paying rent for my adult son in another state. He gets occasional help from various services, but if I don’t want him to sleep on the street, I have to pay his rent and send some emergency food. I don’t see this changing. Can I claim him as a dependent or would that make me responsible for his health insurance, which I cannot afford?

Answer: Yes, you would be responsible for your son’s health insurance coverage if you claimed him as a dependent, said Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner with Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Fla. That would mean either paying for coverage or paying the fine for not having coverage. The fine for 2016 is $695 per adult or 2.5% of your household adjusted gross income, whichever is greater. The penalty is capped at $2,085, which is likely much more than what you’d save with an additional exemption. If you’re in the 25% tax bracket, a $4,050 personal exemption is worth a little over $1,000.

The IRS has many rules about dependents, and standards for claiming adult children are much higher when they’re over 19 (or over 24 for full-time students). To qualify, your son would have to earn less than the amount of the personal exemption ($4,050 in 2016) and you must have provided more than half of his support, among other rules. The IRS has an interactive tool to help people determine dependents’ eligibility at https://www.irs.gov/uac/who-can-i-claim-as-a-dependent.

Q&A: How much risk is too much in retirement?

Dear Liz: If you have all your required obligations covered during retirement, is having 70% of your portfolio in equities too risky?

Answer: Probably not, but a lot depends on your stomach.

Retirees typically need a hefty dollop of stocks to preserve their purchasing power over a long retirement, with many planners recommending a 40% to 60% allocation in early retirement. A heftier allocation isn’t unreasonable if all of your basic expenses are covered by guaranteed income, such as Social Security, pensions and annuities. Ideally, those pensions and annuities would have cost-of-living adjustments, especially if they’re meant to pay expenses that rise with inflation.

Historically, retirees have been told they need to reduce their equity exposure as they age, but there’s some evidence that the opposite is true. Research by financial planners Wade Pfau and Michael Kitces found that increasing your stock holdings in retirement, where the allocation starts out more conservative and gets more aggressive, may reduce the chances of running short of money. Their paper, “Reducing Retirement Risk with a Rising Equity Glide-Path,” was published in the Journal for Financial Planning and is available online for free.

That said, you don’t want your investments to give you ulcers. If you couldn’t withstand a big downturn — one that cuts your portfolio in half, say — then you may want to cushion your retirement funds with less risky alternatives.

Q&A: Where to find help with managing your finances

Dear Liz: I am a mid-30s single woman who needs accountability in managing my finances and paying down debt. I have about $7,000 in credit card debt and $9,000 in student loans and I earn $55,000 a year. I feel as though I may have the financial means to do this but require a knowledgeable, structured approach. I’d like to work with someone to set up a plan and help me stay on track with it. I’ve considered trying LearnVest as well as smaller privately owned financial planning companies and a financial coach. Do you have any recommendations for finding assistance that could best suit my needs? Does what I’m looking for even exist?

Answer: It’s not always easy to find a fee-only financial planner who will help with budgeting and debt repayment. Many advisors cater to high net worth individuals who typically don’t have the same cash-flow issues as middle Americans.

The Garrett Planning Network offers referrals to fee-only planners who charge by the hour at www.garrettplanningnetwork.com. These advisors have the certified financial planner credential and, unlike many other fee-only planners, don’t have minimum asset requirements for new clients. You can interview a few prospects by phone to get an idea of the cost, but expect to spend at least a few hundred dollars to get started and then hourly fees for ongoing help.

If you’re OK not meeting with your advisor in person, LearnVest offers email access to a dedicated advisor who is either a certified financial planner or a registered investment advisor representative. For a $299 setup fee and a $19 monthly fee, you’ll get a customized financial plan as well as step-by-step instructions for implementing it.

Another option to consider is a nonprofit credit counselor. These agencies offer debt management plans for those who struggle to pay their credit card bills, but many also offer budgeting classes and financial coaching. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. Your initial meeting with a counselor will be free. If you opt for a debt repayment program, the enrollment cost is capped at $75 and the monthly fee at $50, although many agencies charge less.