Dear Liz: Both of our sons, ages 63 and 59, are currently unemployed. We are 93 and self-supporting with Social Security and my retirement benefits. We live in our own home and are able to handle all our expenses, even though my wife requires a companion for 12 hours each day.
I believe we should financially aid both sons, to the limit of our ability, but my wife disagrees.
They are the two main beneficiaries of our estate. Each one is scheduled to receive about $40,000 upon our deaths. How should we proceed?
Answer: If your estates won’t amount to much more than $80,000 at your deaths, it doesn’t sound as if you have the financial wiggle room to help your sons. Your wife already requires significant care and may need more in the future. Plus, she’s likely to outlive you, which would mean getting by on less (certainly a smaller Social Security benefit, and perhaps a smaller pension amount as well). Any money you give them, in other words, is likely to be to her detriment.
Dear Liz: My husband and I, both 44, own and live in one side of a duplex. The owners of the other side are moving next year and have offered to sell it to us. We don’t have enough in savings to cover a 20% down payment for a traditional mortgage, but our neighbors offered to do owner financing. Rentals are hot commodities in our area, and we’ve been told by real estate agents that they could get the place rented within a week for more than we’d make in mortgage payments. This would be an amazing opportunity for us, but if for some reason the property went vacant we couldn’t cover the payment unless we make some major changes to our budget, such as selling our RV ($325 a month) or temporarily suspending contributions to our 457 deferred compensation plans (we contribute $300 a month and both our jobs come with pensions that will replace 60% of our salaries). We currently also make a truck payment ($350 a month) and have $2,300 in credit card debt, but we only have $1,000 in accessible savings.
Answer: You’re not in a great position to be landlords. You have too little savings to cover the inevitable repairs and vacancies you’ll face. Plus, your credit card and vehicle debts indicate you’ve been living beyond your means.
Still, this may be a promising opportunity. A rental that is cash-flow positive — in which the rent collected exceeds the cost of the mortgage, property taxes and insurance — can be a decent long-term investment. If you’re willing to commit to improving your finances and taking this risk, it could work out.
Talk to some other landlords first to see what challenges they face and what typical vacancy rates they experience. You’ll want to locate a lawyer who understands your state’s landlord-tenant laws to draw up any paperwork you’ll need.
If you decide to proceed, sell the RV and use whatever’s left after paying off the loan to pay down your credit card debt. Then redirect the RV payment to paying off the rest of the cards and building up your savings. (A note for the future: RVs are fun, but they’re luxuries, and luxuries should be paid for in cash.)
Don’t compromise your retirement savings. Your generous pension could get whittled down in the future, or you might lose those jobs. Having a decent retirement kitty of your own is simply prudent.
Dear Liz: I would like to start a Roth account for each of my kids. (They’re in their 30s.) Is it better to start an account in my name with them as beneficiaries or to start the accounts in their names?
Answer: Roth IRAs can be a wonderful way to save, but they’re not custodial accounts. You won’t be able to control the accounts or prevent your adult children from spending any money you deposit.
If you still want to help, though, let your kids know you’ll contribute to any Roths they set up. They can open a Roth if they have earned income at least equal to the annual contribution and their incomes are below the Roth limits. The ability to contribute to a Roth phases out between $178,000 to $188,000 for married couples in 2013 and from $112,000 to $127,000 for singles.
Ideally, you’ll contribute to your own Roth first. The limit on contributions is $5,500 this year.
Dear Liz: I will be inheriting around $300,000 over the next year. My instincts are to pay down debt with this money. I have two homes and for practical reasons need to keep them. One home has a $260,000 mortgage balance at 5%. The other has a $130,000 mortgage at 4%. We have $35,000 in credit card balances. Some are telling us to invest. I think we should pay off all the credit cards and then pay down the larger mortgage by $100,000 or more. Am I on the right track?
Answer: Paying off your whopping credit card debt is a great idea. You need to figure out, though, what caused you to rack up so much debt and fix that problem. Otherwise, you’re likely to find yourself back in the hole.
Paying down a mortgage is a trickier proposition. Most people have better things to do with their money than prepay a low-rate, tax-deductible debt. Before they consider doing so, they should make sure they’re saving adequately for retirement, that all their other debt is paid off, that they have a substantial emergency fund of at least six months’ worth of expenses, and that they’re adequately insured with appropriate health, property, life and disability coverage. Those with children should think about funding a college savings plan.
If you’ve covered all these bases, then paying down and perhaps refinancing the larger mortgage makes sense.
Dear Liz: My 401(k) plan has grown exceptionally well this year. I think we all know that it can’t last. I just recently heard about self-directed IRAs. I was intrigued at the possibility of opening one by rolling over a portion of my 401(k) money directly. The problem is, my company’s 401(k) provider will not allow the direct rollover of funds. Is there an alternative means of withdrawing 401(k) funds without penalty and still get them into a self-directed IRA?
Answer: You can quit your job. Otherwise, withdrawals while you’re still employed with your company will trigger taxes and probably penalties.
Your premise for wanting to open a self-directed IRA is a bit misguided, in any case. Your 401(k) balance may occasionally drop because of fluctuations in your stock and bond markets, but over the long term you should see growth.
You may have been sold on the idea that self-directed IRAs would somehow be less risky. Some companies promote self-directed IRAs as a way to invest in real estate, precious metals or other investments not commonly available in 401(k) plans. The fees these companies charge as custodians for such accounts are usually much higher than what they could charge as traditional IRA custodians, so they have a pretty powerful incentive for talking you into transferring your money to them.
The problem is that you could wind up less diversified, and therefore in a riskier position, if you dump a lot of your retirement money into any alternative investment. It’s one thing for a wealthy investor to have a self-directed IRA that invests in mortgages or gold, assuming that he or she has plenty of money in more traditional investments. It’s quite another if all you have is your 401(k) and you’re putting much more than 10% into a single investment.
Also, there’s a lot less regulation and scrutiny with self-directed IRAs than with 401(k)s, which increases the possibility of fraud. (Southern California investors may remember First Pension Corp. of Irvine, a self-directed IRA administrator that turned out to be a Ponzi scheme.) So you’d need to pick your custodian, and your investments, carefully. You also would need to understand the IRS rules for such accounts, because certain investments — such as buying real estate or other property for your own use — aren’t allowed.
If you’re determined to diversify your investments in ways your current 401(k) doesn’t allow, you can open a regular IRA at any brokerage and select from a wider variety of investment options. Or you can look for a self-directed IRA option with low minimum investment requirements to start.
Dear Liz: We took a home equity loan against our house to open a business in 2006. We also ran up credit card debt for the business. The business went under, and we’re struggling to pay off the loan, which is $150,000 (a $1,150 payment every month), and the credit card debt, which we got down to about $20,000 from $37,000. Is there any way to get relief from the loan since it was a legitimate business (a franchise we bought from another franchisee)? We don’t know what to do and have been taking money out of our savings to pay the debt.
Answer: Your home equity lender doesn’t care whether you spent the money on a “legitimate business” or an around-the-world cruise. The lender expects to get paid, and chances are it will, since you secured the loan with your house. Failing to pay a home equity loan can trigger a foreclosure.
If you have equity in your home, you may be able to do a cash-out refinance of your current mortgage to pay off the loan. You’d wind up with a bigger primary mortgage, but a longer payback period and a lower interest rate should reduce your total debt payments. Another option is to sell your home to pay off the debt so you can start over.
What you shouldn’t do is dip into your savings without a real strategy for resolving this debt. A session with a fee-only financial planner could help you understand your options. The planner also may suggest a consultation with a bankruptcy attorney.
Dear Liz: I’m a single mom with three kids. My mortgage is $1,700. My other monthly bills include $355 for a car loan, $755 for school tuition, $350 for utilities, $790 for credit cards, $200 for gas, $208 for braces and $235 for a 401(k) contribution. This leaves no money for food. I get no child support. How can I pay down my credit card debt? I don’t have any money for a baby sitter or I could get a second job.
Answer: The way you pay down credit card debt is by reducing expenses and increasing income to free up extra cash. If that’s not possible, you may need to consider bankruptcy, given the amount of debt you’re carrying.
If you’re paying only the minimums on your credit cards, that monthly bill indicates you have close to $40,000 in credit card debt. Since you can’t cover your basic expenses, you’re probably adding to that debt pile every month. That needs to stop.
You don’t say why you aren’t receiving child support, but if the father isn’t dead or disabled he should be helping to support his kids. Your state has an enforcement agency that can help you. Child support enforcement is often part of a state’s social services department, although it may also be offered by the state attorney general or its revenue (tax) department.
One obvious, if painful, place to trim is private school tuition. If the school can’t offer you financial aid, you should consider placing your kids in the best public school you can manage.
What you don’t want to do is trim your retirement plan contribution. You’re probably getting a company match, which is free money you’ll need to sustain yourself in retirement.
In general, your “must have” expenses — shelter, transportation, food, utilities, insurance and minimum loan payments — should equal no more than 50% of your after-tax income. If your must-haves exceed that level, it will be tough to make ends meet, particularly if you’re trying to pay off debt and save for the future.
Dear Liz: You had an interesting column recently about the filial responsibility laws that most states have on their books requiring adult children to support indigent parents. I have friends that transferred their parents’ funds to the grandchildren so the parents will qualify for Medicaid. Doesn’t the government see through this scam? Besides being unethical, it should be illegal.
Answer: The government does indeed see through transparent attempts to artificially impoverish older people to qualify for Medicaid, which offers nursing home care for the indigent.
Medicaid has “look back” rules that examine asset transfers made within the previous five years. Transfers made during that period can delay the older person’s eligibility for the program. In other words, your friends’ maneuvers may well backfire. You should advise them to consult an elder law attorney. Referrals are available from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org.
Dear Liz: In your answer about filial responsibility, your statement that the letter writer’s financial situation is the result of her own choices and that she needs to stop blaming her parents is completely misjudged and inappropriate. Clearly, the writer is not blaming the parents and seems amazingly strong and clear thinking for one with her early background.
Answer: Here’s what the writer wrote about her situation:
“I am an only child in my late 30s and received no financial help from [my mother] from the age of 18. In addition, my father died when I was very young, leaving us fairly destitute with no life insurance. I feel that both of these legacies have contributed to my less-than-optimal financial situation.”
The writer goes on to say that she’s trying to catch up financially but she feels it would be futile because she may have to support her mother in the future.
The writer started her adult life at a financial disadvantage compared with people whose parents helped them pay for college. She may now regret the choices she made — perhaps she took on too much student loan debt or spent more than she earned to make up for early deprivation. Those were her choices, however, and at some point she needs to take responsibility for them. Twenty years later, it’s time to let go of the idea that her financial situation is her parents’ fault.