Q&A: Car for a 16-year old

Dear Liz: My son is almost 16 and has his heart set on a used luxury convertible. We have found a few that are priced at about $23,000 with about 50,000 miles. We are debating whether this is the right choice for him. The type he wants is not overpowered (it has a six-cylinder engine), has many safety features and gets decent gas mileage. He has worked hard since he was 8 in our business and has saved about half the money needed. (He invests his money and almost never spends it.) I know that if he had a nice car like this, he wouldn’t be getting the message that he is entitled to it. But is it just too much for a 16-year-old? He goes to a private high school in an affluent area, so he has seen parents buy their kids expensive luxury cars that get wrecked and then replaced only to be destroyed again. He can see that’s not the way to go. He is an excellent driver as well.

Answer: He may be an excellent driver while you’re in the car, but you have no idea yet how he’ll do once he’s turned loose with a license.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the death rate for males ages 16 to 19 is twice that of females the same age. Per mile driven, teenagers are almost three times more likely than other drivers to be involved in a fatal crash. And the presence of male teen passengers increases the likelihood of risky driving behavior. Even the most responsible kid can get goaded into doing stupid things. (In fact, goading each other into doing stupid things is a defining trait of adolescence.)

This is why safety factors are key when considering cars for new drivers. Convertibles overall are safer than they used to be, but many lack some of the protective features that are more common in sedans, such as side curtain or “head protection” air bags that deploy from overhead. Some convertibles have an automatic roll bar that pops up when sensors detect an imminent crash or rollover, but most don’t.

In general, safety advocates recommend bigger, heavier vehicles with lots of safety features for teen drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety maintains a list of good, affordable used cars for new drivers that includes coupes, sedans, wagons, SUVs, minivans and even a few pickups — but not convertibles.

Give your son a few years of practice driving a big, dumb, uncool, underpowered vehicle. You’ll raise the odds that he’ll have many, many years ahead of him to drive the car of his dreams.

Q&A: Social Security claiming strategy

Dear Liz: Your recent article about Social Security claiming strategies may contain some wrong information. You told the woman who is 64 and had a former spouse who died that she could take her own benefit now and then switch to her survivor benefits when reaching 66. I wanted my wife to do something like this (but not the survivor part; I’m still alive), but was told by a few Social Security experts that this scenario is not possible because Social Security deems spouses to be filing for the spousal benefit and their own retirement at the same time. Once they’re deemed to have filed for both benefits, they get the larger of the two and can’t switch later. Please print a clarification.

Answer: Let’s clarify that you are still breathing and the ex-spouse in the original letter is not. The fact that you’re alive makes a world of difference, not just to you and your loved ones but to the Social Security benefit system.

When you’re alive, your spouse (or ex-spouse) may receive spousal benefits. When you’re dead, your spouse or ex-spouse may receive survivor benefits. Survivor benefits would essentially equal your benefit, while spousal benefits are capped at half of your benefit. Both spousal and survivor benefits are reduced if they’re started before the recipient’s full retirement age (currently 66).

There are other differences. Survivors can remarry at age 60 or later without losing their benefits. They also can switch from their own benefit to a survivor benefit, or vice versa, at any time.

Spousal benefits paid to a divorced person, by contrast, end if that person remarries at any age. Also, there’s the deeming issue you mention. When people apply for spousal benefits before their own full retirement age, they’re deemed or considered by Social Security to be applying for both spousal and their own retirement benefits. They’re given an amount equal to the larger of the two, and they lose the option of switching to their own benefits later, even if it would have been larger.

Those who wait until full retirement age had the option of filing a restricted application for spousal benefits only, which would allow them to switch later. Congress recently eliminated that option for those who haven’t turned 62 by the end of this year.

Q&A: Public pension and Social Security

Dear Liz: I am one of the thousands of adjunct faculty who teach in our nation’s colleges. We are paid on an hourly or per-class basis. We therefore earn a fraction of what tenured faculty earn. I am covered by a state teachers pension, but my anticipated benefit, even after 30 years of teaching, will not exceed $1,500 per month. I have qualified for a modest Social Security benefit of perhaps $1,000, accrued through years of part-time work as a student and graduate student. I have been told that my Social Security will be reduced because of my teacher’s pension.

Surely this cannot be correct. I understand that if I were collecting a generous state or military pension, I would not need Social Security. However, without my Social Security, my teacher’s pension will not even lift me above the poverty level. Isn’t there some sort of “means testing” before they slash your Social Security benefit?

Answer: You were informed correctly. When you receive a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security, any Social Security benefit you did earn may be reduced (but not eliminated).
Before the creation of the Windfall Elimination Provision, people who received pensions based on earnings not covered by Social Security often got a proportionately larger benefit than those who paid into the system their entire working lives.

The Social Security site has a chart and a calculator to help you understand how your benefit might be affected. The chart shows that if you reached age 62 this year and you had fewer than 20 years of so-called “substantial earnings” covered by Social Security, your monthly benefit could be reduced by up to $413 or half of your teacher’s pension, whichever is less. Limiting the offset to half protects people who get small pensions from having too much of their Social Security benefit wiped out. Substantial earnings are wages equal to or above a certain amount each year ($22,050 for 2015) from jobs that paid into Social Security.

Based on the information you provided, your pension and Social Security income would total just over $2,000 a month. That’s not a lot, but the average Social Security check in 2015 was about $1,300. The poverty threshold in 2015, meanwhile, was $980 per month for a one-person household and $1,327.50 for a two-person household.

Q&A: Credit reports for the deceased

Dear Liz: How does one get credit reports for someone who is dead? My deceased husband is still on my mortgage and I’d like to review his report to make sure it is correct. The estate went through probate, so I have court documents showing I am the executor. I looked at credit bureau websites and attempted to contact them by phone but have not been able to determine what information they need or where it should be sent.

Answer: The only thing that needs to be correct about your husband’s credit reports is the fact that he’s dead. Any other mistakes are irrelevant at this point, but his identity can still be stolen if the bureaus don’t know he’s deceased.

This is no small issue. About 2 million dead people have their identities stolen every year, either because they’ve been deliberately targeted or because criminals filling out credit applications used made-up Social Security numbers that happen to match those of people who have died, according to a 2012 study by research firm ID Analytics.

Eventually, the credit bureaus should get word of a death. Bureaus periodically check the Social Security death master file, which is a database of all the deaths reported to the agency. Lenders also notify the bureaus when they receive information that someone has died.

Just to make sure, though, you should notify the bureaus directly. Ask that a “deceased alert” be added to his files. Send death certificates — the real thing, not photocopies — by certified mail, return receipt requested. The addresses to use include:

TransUnion LLC, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19022
Experian, P.O. Box 2002, Allen, TX 75013
Equifax, P.O. Box 740260, Atlanta, GA 30374

Q&A: 401(k) followup

Dear Liz: Your reply about what to do with a 401(k) after someone leaves a job was off base, in my opinion.

You advised the questioner to leave the 401(k) with the former employer until it could be rolled over to a new 401(k) with a new employer. Wouldn’t it be better to roll over the old 401(k) to an IRA? An IRA offers more control and better investment options than a 401(k).

Answer: More is not necessarily better. Some people appreciate the chance to diversify their investments by using a rollover IRA. Many others, however, have no need for thousands of investment options and in fact could be paralyzed by so many choices.

The investment options available for IRAs also can be more expensive than what’s typically available in large company plans. These 401(k)s often offer institutional funds with low expense ratios that are unavailable to retail investors.

Finally, 401(k)s have better protection from creditors than IRAs if the worker is sued or files for bankruptcy, although that won’t be an issue for the vast majority of savers.

People can protect an unlimited amount of money in a 401(k), while IRA protection is limited to $1,245,475.

Keeping an account with an old employer, or rolling it over to a new one, won’t be the right solution for everyone. But neither is an IRA rollover—despite what brokerage houses that profit from IRA rollovers may tell you.

Q&A: Brokerage accounts

Dear Liz: I have some questions regarding my brokerage accounts. What happens to my investments there if the brokerage company goes out of business? How much of my investments will I be able to recover and how? Also, does it matter if my accounts are IRAs, Roth IRAs, or conventional brokerage accounts?

Answer: Most brokerages are covered by the Securities Investment Protection Corp., which protects up to $500,000 per eligible account, which includes a $250,000 limit for cash.

Different types of accounts held by the same person can get the full amount of coverage. IRAs, Roth IRAs, individual brokerage accounts, joint brokerage accounts and custodial accounts could each have $500,000 of coverage.

So with an IRA, a Roth and a regular brokerage account, you would have up to $1.5 million in coverage.

If you have a few traditional IRAs at the brokerage, though — say, one to which you contributed and one that’s a rollover from a 401(k) — those two would be combined for insurance purposes and covered as one, with a $500,000 limit.

In addition to SIPC coverage, many brokerages buy additional insurance through insurers such as Lloyds of London to cover larger accounts.

It’s important to understand that SIPC doesn’t cover losses from market downturns. The coverage kicks in when a brokerage goes out of business and client funds are missing.

SIPC is commonly compared to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which protects bank accounts, but there’s an important difference between the two.

The FDIC is backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. SIPC has no such implicit promise that if it’s overwhelmed by claims, the government will come to the rescue.

Q&A: Delayed tax refunds

Dear Liz: How long is too long for an IRS tax refund to be disbursed? I got my state tax refund in a matter of weeks. The IRS refund has been “under review” for almost five months.

Answer: A sizable surge in tax refund theft as well as a database breach that exposed more than 300,000 taxpayers’ returns have kept the IRS pretty busy. At the same time, big budget cuts have left the agency with fewer people to help with these issues.

Five months is a long wait, but people who have been the victims of refund theft report waiting nine months or more to get their money back.

You can try contacting the IRS directly at (800) 829-1040, although you’re likely to be on hold for quite a while. If you can’t get a response, you can contact the IRS’ Taxpayer Advocate at (877) 777-4778, but be advised its resources have been trimmed as well and it may just refer you back to the IRS.

Q&A: Cashing mature savings bonds

Dear Liz: I have savings bonds that have achieved full face value. What should I do? Keep them indefinitely or cash them in to fund my Roth account or what? Am I correct that once they have matured, there’s no more money to be made off them?

Answer: You are correct. Once savings bonds have matured and stopped earning interest, they should be redeemed and the money put to work elsewhere. EE, H and I bonds mature in 30 years, while HH bonds mature in 20 years. You can find more information at TreasuryDirect.gov.

Funding a Roth is a great idea for deploying these funds. Other good uses are paying off high-rate debt or building an emergency fund.

Q&A: Social Security survivor’s benefits

Dear Liz: I am 64 and have been divorced over 22 years. My former husband passed away two years ago at the age of 62. Our marriage lasted more than 10 years and neither of us remarried. I went to the local Social Security office after he passed away, but the official there said I was not entitled to any claim for benefits on my ex’s work record. From what I have been reading, that may not be true. Are you able to clarify this for me? I am not able to get any firm answers, even from my financial advisor. My ex worked for a private employer his whole career, so he would have paid into Social Security. I recently lost my job, so the money would be helpful.

Answer: You qualified for benefits — but what the official may have meant was that you wouldn’t receive anything.

If you were still working at the time you inquired, any Social Security check would have been reduced by $1 for every $2 you earned over a certain amount ($15,120 in 2013). In other words, your benefit could have been wiped out had you earned enough. The earnings test ends at full retirement age (currently 66).

Survivor’s benefits are based on the amount that the deceased worker had been receiving if he’d started benefits or, if he hadn’t, what he would have received at full retirement age. The amount is reduced if survivors start benefits before their own full retirement age.

These benefits are available to both current and divorced spouses starting at age 60, or 50 if they’re disabled, or at any age if they’re caring for a child under 16 who is getting benefits based on the former spouse’s work record. To qualify for divorced survivor’s benefits, the marriage must have lasted 10 years. Your ex’s remarriage would not have affected this benefit. Neither would your own, since you were over 60 when he died.

Survivor’s benefits have more flexibility than spousal benefits or divorced spousal benefits, which are typically about half what the worker receives. You can switch from survivor’s benefits to your own retirement check, or vice versa, even if you start early. With spousal benefits, an early start typically locks you into a permanently reduced check.

You can start survivor’s benefits now or you can start your own benefit and switch to the survivor’s benefit at 66, if that would be larger, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, who runs the claiming strategy site MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

You also need a new financial advisor — one who can be bothered to answer your questions. People who are retirement age should find advisors who are willing to put clients’ needs first and to educate themselves about Social Security claiming strategies.

Q&A: Calculating capital gains and losses

Dear Liz: With my father’s recent passing, I received a substantial inheritance, much of it in the form of stocks and mutual funds. If I sell these assets, do I calculate the capital gains and losses based on the date I took possession of the assets? Or do I use their value on the date of his death?

Answer: Typically you’d use the date of his death. If your father’s estate was very large and owed estate taxes, however, the executor may have chosen an alternative valuation date six months from the date of death. This option is available if the value of the estate would have been lower on the later date.

There is a circumstance in which your basis would be the value on the date the assets were turned over to you, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting U.S. If the executor elected the alternate valuation date, but the assets were actually distributed to you before that date, then the basis is the fair market value on the date of distribution, Luscombe said.

Inherited assets usually get a “step up” in basis when someone dies, so there’s no tax owed on any of the growth in those assets that occurred while the person was alive. Inheritors have to pay taxes only on the growth that occurs between the date of death (or the alternate evaluation or distribution date) and when the assets are sold.

The assets would get long-term capital gains treatment regardless of how long you’d owned them, which is another helpful tax break.