Dear Liz: What are your thoughts on charitable giving? I hear about tithing (giving 10% of income) but would have real problems trying to maintain that commitment. That said, I’d like to become a regular donor to a reputable charity.
Answer: Most U.S. households give to charity, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, but the average contribution rate for those who give is closer to 3% than 10%.
If you want to step up your charitable giving, take the time to plan and prioritize as you would any other part of your financial life.
Making larger donations to a few charities is typically better than scattershot donations to a bunch of causes, said Ken Berger, the president and chief executive of nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator. Charities spend money to process donations, and those costs tend to eat up more of small donations, he said. A $100 donation to a single charity might incur $2 in processing costs, leaving $98 for good works, Berger noted. The same $100, spread among 10 charities, would require each to spend $2 for processing — leaving just $80.
Because smaller donations don’t benefit charities as much, some are tempted to increase their “yield” by selling your information to other charities or repeatedly hitting you up for additional contributions, Berger said. Giving more allows you more leverage to ask that your information not be sold and that the charity limit its appeals.
You can research charities at websites such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar to make sure you understand their finances and how effective they are in reaching their goals.
Finally, consider setting up automatic donations rather than rushing to make contributions at year’s end. Some companies have payroll deductions for charities, or you can set up a recurring charge on a credit or debit card. Making your contributions automatic helps ensure you can achieve your charitable giving goals. It’s like saving or “paying yourself first” — when you don’t have to constantly remind yourself to do it, it’s more likely to get done.
Dear Liz: All my friends have said I should get a reverse mortgage to be able to live more comfortably and still stay in my house. I would think our greedy banking system would give you only 50% of value and have a high interest rate that would chew up the remaining value. What is your advice on the merits of this option?
Answer: A reverse mortgage program that lets you tap too much of your home equity wouldn’t be in business very long.
Reverse mortgages allow people 62 and older to borrow against the value of their homes without having to make payments on the debt. Instead, the amount they owe typically increases over time because interest is charged on the loan, and that adds up. Lenders get paid back when the owner moves out, sells the house or dies. If the house is worth less than the debt, the lender (or more often the insurer) suffers a loss.
Too-generous lending standards have already caused trouble for previous iterations of the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, the federally insured option most often used by borrowers. Too many borrowers grabbed big lump sums up front, straining the program’s reserves and leaving the borrowers with few options if they ran into hard times later. Defaults rose as borrowers failed to pay their property taxes and insurance premiums as required.
The Federal Housing Administration, which insures HECMs, has tightened the rules so that borrowers can access less of their equity upfront. Fees also have increased.
How much you can borrow using a HECM depends on your age, the home’s value and current interest rates. Interest rates for lump-sum withdrawals are fixed, while those for lines of credit you can tap over time are variable.
You’ll certainly get a better (or at least less expensive) deal if you borrow 60% or less of your home’s value. The mortgage insurance premium for loans below that level is 0.5% of the home’s appraised worth under the new federal government rules that go into effect Monday. Those borrowing more than 60% face a premium equal to 2.5% of the home’s value. That’s in addition to a 1.25% annual mortgage insurance premium.
There’s no getting around the fact that these are expensive and complex loans. They’re usually not a great choice for people who have other assets to tap. They also can prove a land mine for people who drain their home equity too early and wind up with no resources later in life. On the other hand, they can provide a more comfortable retirement for those who would otherwise be strapped for cash, particularly if the borrowers opt for a steady stream of monthly payments rather than the upfront lump sum.
If you are considering a reverse mortgage, you should talk to a fee-only financial planner who is familiar with the program and who can review your other alternatives.
Dear Liz: I have $40,000 in credit card debt due to home healthcare I had to provide for my mom, who lived with me for six years before she passed away in 2011. I filed a Veterans Affairs claim on her behalf but just got a VA check for $344 with no explanation about whether this was all it was going to allow. If it is, I need to file for bankruptcy. I owe $18,000 on my mortgage and $32,000 on a home equity loan I took out in 2001 to help my son get on his feet after he finished graduate school and had his first child. I also had some credit card debt from helping my brother in 2009 when he had cancer and could not work and his wife left him so he had no income. I also have $20,000 in a money market account that I call my retirement fund. Is it protected if I were to file for bankruptcy? The economic downturn caused me to have to take a $700-a-month pay cut the first of this year that will reduce my annual salary to $55,000 if there are no more cuts or layoffs. If they were to close the business completely, my Social Security benefit will be $1,900 per month, compared with $3,400 that I take home now. I have always paid my bills, but Mom’s medical expenses really have taken a toll on my finances.
Answer: Your debt exceeds your income, and few people in that situation manage to pay off what they owe. But bankruptcy isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Your home equity and your savings could be at risk. Had you actually put your money into a qualified retirement account, such as an IRA or a 401(k), it would have been protected from creditors. Just calling an account your retirement fund offers no protection whatsoever. A bankruptcy attorney familiar with the laws of your state can tell you what to expect. You can get a referral from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org.
You also need to call the VA at (877) 222-VETS, or (877) 222-8387, to find out whether you can expect any more help. The VA does offer some long-term care benefits to veterans and their spouses who qualify for the aid. The time to request help, though, was when your mother was still alive.
Which leads us to the problem of your spending money you didn’t have to help people who may well have had other options. If your mother couldn’t get VA help, she may have had assets that could have paid for assistance. If not, she might have qualified for long-term care benefits through Medicaid, the federal healthcare plan for the indigent. Your brother also may have qualified for federal or state benefits. Your son may have had a rough time getting established, but he had a degree and a working lifetime ahead of him.
That doesn’t mean you should have thrown family members to the wolves. But it’s not clear you considered any other options before turning to credit. Sites such as Benefits.gov and the Eldercare Locator at http://www.eldercare.gov could have connected you and your family to resources that might have helped. Other family members may have been able to pitch in, or the people involved may have had assets to tap. If there truly were no other options, your assistance should have come out of your current income. If you have to borrow, then you really can’t afford to help.
As it is, your generosity has left you at the threshold of retirement with little savings and big debts. Let’s hope your family is as willing to help you in your old age as you were to help them.
Dear Liz: My brother passed away, and for one of his bank accounts, he had named me as his beneficiary. Do I have to pay taxes on the $100,000 I received? Is it subject to a gift tax?
Answer: Estate taxes are paid by estates, not by inheritors, said estate attorney Burton A. Mitchell of Los Angeles firm Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell. The vast majority of estates don’t owe taxes anyway, now that the estate tax exemption limit is over $5 million.
Some states have estate taxes with lower exemption limits, and a few have what are called “inheritance” taxes, which are levied based on the relationship of the heir to the deceased, Mitchell said. The more distant the relation, the higher the tax rate. Siblings typically face a higher rate than spouses or children. Ask the executor of your brother’s estate whether any of these taxes apply.
Gift taxes, meanwhile, are the responsibility of the giver and again aren’t an issue for the vast majority of people. Your brother would have had to give away more than $5 million in his lifetime for federal gift taxes to be an issue.
Your inheritance may, however, be subject to creditors’ claims if your brother didn’t leave enough money to satisfy his debts, Mitchell said. Check with the executor of his estate and consult an attorney if necessary.
Dear Liz: I’m 64 and lost my last full-time job a year ago. I have since exhausted my unemployment benefits and been on and off food stamps. (I’m waiting to get back on them right now because my temporary-to-permanent job didn’t become permanent after all.) Fortunately I almost never need to go to a doctor, or if I do, I don’t know that I do and can’t afford to find out. I have about $3,000 in emergency savings, and my IRA is about $15,000. I was fortunate enough to sell a home in Hawaii 20 years ago, but I managed to run through all the money. My income when I was working full time was only $26,000 a year. I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know why I listen to all these financial programs that seem to target twentysomethings or people with retirement savings and comfortable incomes. They do not speak to my situation. My priority isn’t saving for retirement. It’s paying the bills.
Answer: Financial programs are, at least to some extent, concerned about the entertainment value of their programming. They often focus on people who fit their audience demographics and whose problems have satisfying solutions. That’s why the people featured tend to be younger or to have resources, because those are the ones who typically can recover from past mistakes and get their finances on track.
When people have no income, there’s not much financial advice to give. And when they’re in their 60s and have virtually no retirement savings, there’s no way to “catch up.”
That doesn’t mean your situation is hopeless, but it does mean you’ll have to hustle to stay afloat.
Finding a full-time job at this point is a long shot, so part-time work and Social Security probably will provide your income in the coming years. Social Security might replace as much as 40% of your previous low income (the replacement rate is lower for higher earners), but that still leaves you with a substantial gap to fill.
Ideally, you would hold out until age 66 before applying so you can get your full Social Security benefit. You’re eligible for benefits now, but your checks will be permanently reduced if you start early and your earnings could potentially reduce your check further under the earnings test (which you can learn more about at http://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/rtea.html). The benefits that are withheld aren’t lost, because at full retirement age your monthly check would be increased to account for the withholdings. You’ll have to balance whether those disadvantages outweigh the upside of starting a guaranteed income now.
By the way, if you’ve ever been married and the marriage lasted at least 10 years, you may qualify for spousal or survivor benefits (even if the marriage ended in divorce) that could exceed the benefit you’ve earned on your own record. You can discuss your options by calling the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213.
You’ll need to look for ways to reduce your expenses so that you can get by on whatever income you receive. If you qualify, the federal Section 8 program could help pay for housing (start at Benefits.gov to see what programs are available). Some of the other ways to reduce housing costs — the biggest expense for most people — include getting a roommate, becoming a live-in caregiver for an older person or a family with kids, or becoming an apartment manager or the caretaker of a property.
At 65, you’ll qualify for Medicare. Although this government health insurance program for older Americans doesn’t cover everything, you will have access to healthcare again.
Dear Liz: A few years ago when buying my son his college laptop computer, I applied for the store card at a big, well-known electronics store (at the encouragement of the sales associate). I was denied. I have never been denied a credit card before. I have eight cards that are always paid off monthly, own my own home and have a satisfactory retirement income and a top credit score. By receiving the card, I would have had a substantial savings on the computer. The denial has bothered me ever since. Was this a ploy on the company’s part to deny me the savings?
Answer: That kind of bait-and-switch happens sometimes, but there may be other reasons you were denied.
When you were turned down, the company should have provided you with the name, address and phone number of the credit agency it used to evaluate you. You should have immediately requested your report from the agency to see if the information was accurate. Someone may have stolen your identity, and credit denials are often the first sign many victims have that there’s a problem.
A collections account also could have torpedoed your scores. Many people discover that a medical bill, library fine or parking ticket went unpaid only when they find the resulting collections on their credit reports.
Dear Liz: My son is 12 and receives a regular monthly allowance that I’ve been giving to him in cash. I think it might be time for a checking account. I would like to teach him about using a debit card and not overdrawing his account. All the banks that I have called will not open an account for a minor, even a joint account. I’ve heard about prepaid cards being used for allowances, but I’m concerned about the fees.
Answer: You’re right to be concerned. You wouldn’t be teaching financial responsibility — the whole point of an allowance — if you gave him a prepaid card larded with fees to access his own money.
Prepaid cards, also known as prepaid debit or reloadable cards, typically aren’t linked to a checking account as regular debit cards would be. Instead, you can “load” them with cash in a variety of ways and then use the card to spend that money wherever regular debit cards are accepted. Many prepaid cards also can be used to withdraw cash at ATMs.
Unfortunately, many issuers charge fees to open, use and close their cards. Monthly “maintenance” fees and fees to replace cards or talk to customer service are common. Some of the most expensive cards are the ones endorsed by celebrities. Those marketing expenses have to be recouped somehow, and fat endorsement contracts often seem to be paid for with higher-than-average fees.
The Chase Liquid card doesn’t charge most of the usual fees. There’s no fee for activating a card, closing an account, getting paper statements or paying bills. The card can be loaded with money for free at a Chase bank branch or Chase ATM. Withdrawing cash at a Chase branch or Chase ATM is also free. The monthly fee is $4.95, but it’s still one of the cheapest cards available, she said.
The Bluebird doesn’t charge a monthly fee, and activating the card is free if you apply online. The card allows free ATM withdrawals within the MoneyPass network if the cardholder is enrolled in direct deposit; other withdrawals incur a $2 fee. The card can be loaded for free from a bank account or by using cash or a debit card at a Wal-Mart. Loading with a debit card costs $2.
You’ll still face age limits, but there’s a work-around. Most cards have to be opened by someone 18 or older. A child must typically be 15 or older just to have his name on the account as a joint user. (With the Bluebird the age limit is 13.) So you would have to open the card in your own name and then give it to your son to use.
Another option may be to simply wait a year. Some national banks, including Wells Fargo and Chase, offer teen checking accounts for those 13 and older, although the accounts may not be available in all areas.
Dear Liz: I am 43 and divorced. I have a mortgage and an auto payment. I fully fund my 401(k) each year and am funding a Roth IRA. I also have emergency savings of $30,000 and a term life insurance policy for $350,000. What I don’t have is children or a spouse. I am thinking of canceling the policy, but is this a good idea?
Answer: The most important question to answer about life insurance is whether you need it. If no one is financially dependent on you, the answer is probably no.
Then again, canceling your policy is a bet that your life isn’t going to change — that you won’t someday have a partner who may need your income to pay the mortgage or other expenses, for example. If you’ve canceled your policy, you may find it difficult — not to mention more expensive — to get similar coverage later.
Term insurance is typically fairly cheap. Current quotes for a $350,000 30-year level term policy for a woman your age are typically between $40 and $60 a month. You’ll have to weigh whether the savings is worth what you’d be giving up.
Dear Liz: I understand that creditors eventually write off unpaid debts and receive a federal tax deduction for the loss. Then they sell that “debt” to a collection agency. However, isn’t the debt rendered void by the fact the original creditor charged it off and got the deduction? So how can collection agencies attempt to collect an invalid debt?
Answer: Charging off a debt and taking the tax deduction for the loss indicates the original creditor doesn’t believe it can collect the money. That doesn’t render the debt invalid or erase it in a legal sense. Debts typically exist until they are paid, settled or wiped out in Bankruptcy Court.
Dear Liz: How long must I be punished for my ex’s poor payment history? In our divorce he agreed to pay the credit cards and other bills. He defaulted and has filed for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. My credit scores plummeted, and recently one of the cards I obtained on my own to help rebuild my credit has dropped me, stating my credit scores as the reason. Do I have any recourse here?
Answer: Not really. As you’ve discovered, creditors don’t have to pay any attention to divorce decrees that say who’s responsible for paying what. You agreed to pay the bill when you signed up for the card. So if your name is on the account, your credit scores will be hurt if it’s not paid.
That’s why it’s so important for separating couples to separate their credit as well. Jointly held accounts should be closed, and any balances transferred to a card that’s in the responsible party’s name only. Otherwise, missed payments and charge-offs will continue to affect both people’s credit for years.