Q&A: Co-signing a grandchild’s student loan

Dear Liz: My granddaughter, who will graduate college in a year, has asked me to co-sign her third private loan, which will bring her total debt to $30,000. She needs three people to co-sign. Her parents and the other grandparents have agreed and she wants me to be the third party. I love my granddaughter and trust her intentions, but I really don’t like co-signing a loan for anyone. If I refuse, I’ll really be in the doghouse. Is there any way I could guarantee that I would only be responsible for this loan if the others don’t pay?

Answer: Co-signers are equally responsible for paying a debt. There isn’t a hierarchy. If your granddaughter fails to pay a loan, it will affect the credit reports and credit scores of anyone who co-signed that loan.

It would be unusual for any student loan to require three co-signers. What she may have meant is that her parents co-signed her first loan, her other grandparents co-signed the second and now she wants you to co-sign the third.

In any case, there’s no way to get the guarantee you want. If you’re not comfortable co-signing, don’t. Your family members should be the ones in the doghouse if they pressure you in any way to go along with this scheme.

Q&A: How to make sure your money-distribution wishes are followed after you die

Dear Liz: My first husband died when my oldest child was 1. I remarried and had another child (they’re 5 and 3 now). My husband and I prepared a trust in which I have him and my sister as beneficiaries of my assets. But my husband regrets that he is not the only beneficiary.

My argument is that if I pass away and he remarries, I want my oldest son (not his biological son, nor has my husband adopted him yet) to get what I saved for him, and that my sister will make sure this happens. What would you recommend? Should I have him as the only beneficiary?

Answer: No. But your sister probably shouldn’t be a beneficiary either, given your aims.

Any parent who wants to get money to a child should do so with a properly drafted trust, rather than trusting someone else — even another parent — to “do the right thing” by the child. All too often, they don’t. A new spouse, a change in financial circumstances, ill will or basic selfishness can tempt people to justify raiding funds intended for others.

A better way to benefit your children is to set up trusts to receive the money. You can name your husband as the trustee for the younger child and name your sister as the trustee for the elder. Trustees have the legal responsibility to act as fiduciaries, which means they have to put the beneficiaries’ interests first.

You can either create these trusts with your will or they can be part of your living trust if you live in a state with high probate costs, such as California. The advantage of probate is that the court can provide some oversight of the trustee, but that typically involves some additional costs. Your estate-planning attorney can offer guidance about which approach may be best for you.

Q&A: Are credit checks a scam?

Dear Liz: In July last year, I accessed the website for my free credit report before applying for a car loan. I have also been in recovery from cancer treatment and haven’t been great about checking my Visa statement until now. For the past year, my credit card has been charged $19.95 each month for some kind of “credit check” service. I never authorized this, nor did I request this service. I contacted the site, and they will refund me only one month of billing. Is this some kind of scam? How do they get away with this, and what can I do?

Answer: It may not technically be a scam, but the site’s business model profits from people’s confusion about how to get free credit reports.

The site you used is not the federally mandated site for free credit reports. It’s likely one that you found by typing “free credit reports” into a search engine and then clicking on one of the first results, which was probably an ad. To find the real site, you need to type www.annualcreditreport.com into your browser. You won’t need to give your credit card number to get your reports.

You may be able to get another month’s fee refunded by contacting your credit-card issuer and disputing the charge. By federal law, you’re supposed to make such disputes within 60 days after the statement containing the disputed charge was sent to you. Write to the issuer at its address for billing inquiries (not the address where you send your payments) and send it certified mail, return receipt requested.

Q&A: Don’t miss out on spousal Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: How far back can Social Security go for someone who did not know to apply for spousal benefits? I’m 69, still working and did not know I was eligible for spousal benefits from my retired wife when I turned 66. Social Security is indicating six months of retroactive benefits is the maximum.

Answer: Unfortunately, that’s correct. You’ve missed out on at least two and a half years’ worth of spousal benefits based on your wife’s work record.

You still can file a restricted application for spousal benefits only and get a lump sum payment for the previous six months. You also still have the option to switch to your own benefits when they max out at age 70. These strategies aren’t available to younger people because Congress changed the rules last year.

Social Security rules can be complex, and the penalty for misunderstanding or missing deadlines can be huge. “Get What’s Yours,” a book about Social Security-claiming strategies that recently was updated, should be required reading for anyone approaching retirement age.

Q&A: How to get out from under high brokerage fees

Dear Liz: I have two accounts at a full-service brokerage. One is an inherited IRA and the other is a Roth IRA that I opened. Both have a mix of stocks and mutual funds that I chose. My accounts have done well, but I am not happy with the commissions that my brokerage charges when I trade, which I don’t do often. What do I have to do to move these accounts somewhere else that doesn’t charge such high commissions? I don’t want to sell the stocks and funds in the accounts, but to transfer them intact. If I had to sell the funds, I’d end up paying some of the fees that I’m trying to avoid.

Answer: As long as you don’t own any proprietary mutual funds in those accounts, you should be able to transfer the actual investments and your IRAs to another brokerage — just pick a discount brokerage this time. Those high commissions erode the amount you’ll have at retirement and aren’t necessary if you’re managing your own investments.

The new brokerage will be eager to help — just call and explain you want to transfer the assets “in kind.” You’ll be provided with the information and forms you need to start the process, and the new brokerage will take it from there.

Be prepared for one bite in the form of “account liquidation” fees. Many (but not all) investment firms charge these when you close IRAs, and they can range from $20 to $95 per account.

Q&A: Dealing with a big lottery win

Dear Liz: My brother-in-law won a good chunk of money playing the lottery. He is waiting for the check to come any day now. He is willing to give me $2 million. The question for you is how I can maximize that amount of money short term or long term?

Answer: If your brother-in-law has any sense at all, he’ll realize he shouldn’t have promised any gifts before he assembled a team of professional advisors. And they almost certainly will have a dim view of him giving you a seven-figure sum.

Handouts that large have gift tax consequences. Anything over the annual exemption amount, which this year is $14,000 per recipient, has to be reported on a gift tax return. Amounts over $14,000 count against his lifetime exemption limit, which is $5.45 million this year. Once that limit is exceeded, he’ll owe substantial tax on any gifts.

Also, the $5.45-million limit is for gift and estate taxes combined. Any part of the exemption he uses during his lifetime for gifts won’t be available to shield his estate from estate taxes when he dies. Although, given his apparent generosity, he may not have enough left at his death to trigger an estate tax.

It’s not uncommon for those who receive large windfalls to wind up broke, especially if the amount is much larger than they’re used to handling. More than a few professional athletes and lottery winners have wound up in bankruptcy court. They spend or give away money at a clip that simply isn’t sustainable.

Which may be the road down which your brother-in-law has started. You can take advantage of your relative’s ignorance by holding him to his pledge or you can do the right thing, which is to encourage him to hire fee-only advisors — including a CPA, an estate-planning attorney and a comprehensive financial planner who’s willing to sign a fiduciary oath — to help him deal with this windfall.

Q&A: Refinancing an education loan

Dear Liz: You were asked a question about whether it would be wise to refinance a parent PLUS loan through a private lender and you said yes because the interest rates are so much lower. Doesn’t this ignore the benefit of the IRS tax credit? I figured out that my interest rate is effectively a couple of percentage points lower because I get a $2,500 tax credit every year.

Answer: As long as you’re refinancing with another education loan, the interest is still tax deductible. The deduction is “above the line” — meaning you don’t have to itemize to get it. The student loan interest deduction can reduce your taxable income by up to $2,500 if your modified adjusted gross income is less than $80,000 for singles and $160,000 for married couples filing jointly. The amount you can deduct is phased out at higher incomes and disappears after $90,000 for singles and $180,000 for marrieds.

If you’re not clear whether you’re refinancing into an education loan (rather than, say, a personal loan), you should ask your lender.

To clarify, it’s not always a good idea to refinance, even if you get a better rate. That’s because federal education loans have consumer protections that private lenders don’t offer. For example, you can pause your payments for up to three years if you lose your job or have another financial setback. Private lenders may offer hardship deferments, but typically those max out at 12 months.

Q&A: Tips for divvying up your retirement investments

Dear Liz: With all the investment options offered in 401(k) plans, how as a contributor do I know where to place my money?

Answer: Too many investment options can confuse contributors and lower participation rates, according to a study by social psychologist Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University in cooperation with the Vanguard Center for Retirement Research. The more options, the more likely participants are to simply divide their money evenly among the choices, according to another study published in the Journal of Marketing Research. That’s a pretty random method of asset allocation and one that may not get people to their retirement goals.

As a participant, you want a low-cost, properly diversified portfolio of investments. For most people, that means a heavy weighting toward stock funds, including at least a dab of international stocks. Your human resources department or the investment company running the plan may be able to help with asset allocation.

Some plans offer free access to sophisticated software from Financial Engines or Morningstar that can help you pick among your available options. Once you have your target asset allocation, you’ll need to rebalance your portfolio, or return it to its original allocation, at least once a year. A good year for stocks could mean your portfolio is too heavily weighted with them, while a bad year means you need to stock up.

If that feels like too much work, you may have simpler options. Many plans provide a balanced fund, typically invested 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds, that provides automatic reallocation. The same is true for target-date funds, which are an increasingly popular choice. Pick the one with the date closest to your expected retirement year. If you’re 35, for example, you might opt for the Retirement 2045 fund.

It’s important, though, that you minimize costs because funds with high fees can leave you with significantly less money at retirement. The average target-date fund charged 0.73% last year. If you’re paying much more than that, and have access in your plan to lower-cost stock and bond funds, choose those instead.

Q&A: No wedding, no Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I’m a female who has been with her male partner for 20 years. We are not married. In the event one of us dies, is the other entitled to the partner’s Social Security benefits? Or do we have to be legally married to qualify for benefits?

Answer: Your genders don’t matter. Your marital status does. To get Social Security benefits based on the other person’s work record, you need to make it legal.

Marriage offers hundreds of legal, financial and estate-planning advantages, and Social Security is certainly one of those. With married couples, lower-earning partners may qualify for bigger benefit spousal benefits than the retirement benefits they would receive on their own work records. After a death, the surviving spouse gets the larger of the couple’s two benefits. Social Security makes up more than half of most elderly people’s income, so this is no small deal.

Q&A: Fiduciaries can help with estate trusts

Dear Liz: I enjoyed your recent column about spendthrift trusts. You’re right that when parents assign the job of trustee to one sibling for the benefit of another sibling, it creates a hazardous situation that often results in a court battle. The appointed professional trustee should be a neutral party. You recommended a bank or trust company to fill the bill.

However, there is a third and often better option: a licensed professional fiduciary. There are about 600 in California. We are independent fiduciaries licensed by the state to manage clients’ assets in trusts and estates.

Professional fiduciaries will take the smaller trusts and estates, since banks and trust companies usually require a minimum of $1 million to $2 million under management before accepting a trust or remainder estate. Banks and trust companies also typically charge fees based on the amount of money under management, whereas California Licensed Professional Fiduciaries normally charge on a time-incurred basis.

Fiduciaries also give the beneficiary an annual accounting. A case I have now came to me when the sibling trustee failed to account for money spent for nine years.

Answer: Thanks for highlighting this option. Licensed professional fiduciaries aren’t available everywhere, but certified public accountants also can serve this function. The attorney who drafts the trust may have recommendations.