Q&A: Follow up on the Windfall Elimination Provision

Dear Liz: You recently addressed the issue of the Windfall Elimination Provision, which reduces Social Security benefits for people who paid into Social Security but who also get a pension from an employer that does not pay into the system. My wife taught for nearly 40 years. Neither she nor her employer contributed to Social Security. As a result she falls under the WEP. This also, however, affects her spousal benefits under my Social Security record. So, because of the WEP, any spousal benefits she would be entitled to are essentially zeroed out since she receives a pension. If she had never worked (thereby not contributing to Social Security), she would be entitled to her entire spousal benefit. That doesn’t seem reasonable to me.

Answer: What you’re referring to is a different provision, the Government Pension Offset. People who receive a pension from a federal, state or local government job that didn’t pay into Social Security can have their Social Security spousal or survivor benefit wiped out by the GPO. By contrast, the Windfall Elimination Provision typically leaves at least half of the worker’s Social Security benefit intact.

The rationale for the GPO goes like this: Spousal and survivor benefits are considered dependent’s benefits. The law has always required that these benefits be offset dollar for dollar by the amount of the person’s own retirement benefit. So if your wife had earned a $1,000 monthly Social Security benefit based on her own work record but a $500 spousal benefit based on yours, she would not receive both. Her own benefit would completely offset the spousal benefit.

Before the GPO, though, your wife could have received a $1,000 monthly pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security plus a spousal or survivor’s benefit from Social Security, leaving her much better off than someone who had paid into the system.

Q&A: The tax implications of downsizing

Dear Liz: My mother just turned 75 and wants to downsize from her four-bedroom house. My father passed away six years ago. She owns her home outright, and at the time of my father’s death the value of the house was estimated at $1.2 million. Right now she has enough income from retirement accounts and investments to live comfortably. She could even buy another smaller property if need be. As the executor of her estate, I’m trying to help her decide what to do with the house. She could let another family member live in it who couldn’t pay rent but could help with upkeep; she could rent it out for market value; or she could sell. We see advantages and disadvantages with all three options. What do you think?

Answer: If she hasn’t already, your mother needs to hire a good estate-planning attorney who can help her evaluate her options. Consulting a fee-only financial planner and a tax pro may be a good idea, as well.

If she sells, your mother could face a sizable capital gains tax depending on where she lives. Federal law allows a certain amount of capital gains on the sale of a primary residence — $250,000 per person — to be excluded from income, but after that, capital gains taxes apply.

The gain would be the difference between the home sale proceeds and your mother’s tax basis in the home. At least half of the home received a “step up” in basis to the then-current market value when your father died. If your mom lives in a community property state, such as California, both halves of the property would have received this step up at his death. Any increase in value since then would be subject to capital gains tax (minus, again, the $250,000 federal exclusion).

There’s another tax issue to consider. If she dies owning this house, her heirs would get a tax basis equal to the property’s value at her death. In other words, regardless of the state where she lives, none of the house’s appreciation during her lifetime would be taxable.

The tax issues alone shouldn’t dictate what your mother does. But she should be aware of them to make an informed decision about what to do next.

Q&A: Social Security survival and spousal benefits

Dear Liz: If my spouse takes spousal benefits from Social Security before his full retirement age, does that ultimately affect the survivor benefits he could receive?

Answer: As covered in previous columns, applying for spousal benefits before his full retirement age of 66 or 67 will lock him into a diminished check and preclude him from switching to his own benefit later. It does not, however, affect what he would receive as a survivor. His survivor benefit would be equal to what you were receiving at your death. To protect him (and yourself, should you be the survivor), you probably should delay starting benefits as long as possible to make sure you’re receiving the maximum benefit.

Q&A: Using a separate credit card for online purchases and automatic payments

Dear Liz: I saw your recent column from the couple upset about the inconvenience of having to reset the automatic payments when their credit card was reissued due to fraud. We had the same problem (our credit card has been reissued six times now!) and got some great advice I’d like to share. We got a separate credit card that is used for nothing but automatic payments and online purchases. It has never been hacked like our other card that we use constantly in the community because we earn airline miles. The last two times our regular card had to be replaced was in the Target and Home Depot hacking, but the other card has been fine so far. We are keeping our fingers crossed. Our issuer has now given us a chip card to replace the constantly hacked one, so I hope we have better luck going forward with both credit cards.

Answer: Several other readers wrote to say they do something similar by using different cards for different purposes, including devoting one to making automatic charges.

It might be wise to have a separate card just for online purchases, however, since the incidence of “card not present” fraud (including online and phone transactions) is higher than that for transactions where the card is physically presented to the merchant.

Q&A: Talking money before marriage

Dear Liz: My daughter is getting married in September. She recently confided that she and her fiance have never discussed their respective debts (if any), credit scores or financial goals. She is hesitant to bring this up with him but realizes it’s a discussion that needs to happen before they marry. I suggested they consider meeting with a financial counselor so they can have an honest talk about money as a practical matter rather than an emotional one. Would a fee-only financial planner be appropriate in this instance?

Answer: Absolutely. If you’d like, you could make a session with such a planner your engagement present to them.

Of course, they don’t need a professional to start talking about their financial situations. Presumably she knows him well enough by now to have some idea about how best to broach the topic. It could be as simple as “Hey, I was just paying some bills and I realized we probably should talk about our financial situations.”

A way to start the decision is to talk about dreams and goals. Would they like to raise a family? Buy a home? Start a business? Travel a lot? Retire early? All financial planning stems from knowing what your goals are, and then you can figure out how to achieve them. Your daughter shouldn’t be too worried if they aren’t on exactly the same financial page, since few couples are. What’s important at this stage is knowing what’s important to each person.

It can be trickier to talk about the present. Most people have made mistakes with money, and many have more debt and less savings than they’d like. Being a sympathetic listener and suspending judgment can go a long way toward putting a partner at ease in these discussions.

After they’ve had a few talks and feel comfortable, they probably should take a look at each other’s credit reports. Those would give them a fairly good idea of how much each person owes. That can help them understand roughly how much of the family budget will need to go toward retiring those debts and how much is available to achieve their goals.

Q&A: Windfall Elimination Provision followup

Dear Liz: In a recent column, I believe you got one aspect of Social Security’s Windfall Elimination Provision wrong. If you’re affected by WEP, in no case can you get more than 90% of your Social Security benefit. It is a sliding scale. With 20 years of earnings under Social Security, you get 40%. It goes up 5% per year to a maximum of 90% at 30 years. I worked 28 years as a paramedic and firefighter, most of the time for agencies that offered a pension instead of paying into Social Security. I also have 22 years of substantial earnings that were covered by Social Security and plan on working eight to 10 more years to get to 90%.

Answer: It’s easy to get confused about how Social Security figures benefits, but rest assured: If you have 30 years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security, you will get 100% of your Social Security benefit even if you have a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security.

Here’s what you need to know. Social Security is designed to replace more income for lower-wage workers, because higher-wage workers presumably find it easier to save for retirement. People who get pensions from employers who don’t pay into Social Security, but who also had jobs from employers that did, can look to the Social Security system as though they were long-term low-wage workers even when they’re not. Without the Windfall Elimination Provision, they could get a bigger Social Security check than they would have earned had they paid into the system all along.

To compute our benefits, Social Security separates our average earnings into three amounts and multiplies those amounts by different factors. For a typical worker who turns 62 this year, Social Security would multiply the first $816 of average monthly earnings by 90%, the next $4,101 by 32% and the remainder by 15%.

Those affected by WEP have a different formula, but it affects only that first part of their average earnings — the part where everyone else gets credited for 90%. The WEP formula is, as you note, on a sliding scale. Someone with 20 or fewer years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security would see the first $816 multiplied by 40%. Someone with 28 years, by contrast, would have the first $816 multiplied by 80%. Someone with 30 years or more would get the full 90%.

Social Security’s pamphlet on WEP lays this out, and notes that the Windfall Elimination Provision does not apply to anyone with 30 or more years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security. You can read more about it here: http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10045.pdf.

Q&A: Can installment loans help repair bad credit?

Dear Liz: I am working on paying my bad debt from the past to rebuild my scores. I have one credit card that I pay in full every month, but no installment loan. I recently was given the opportunity to take a car loan with monthly payments I could easily afford. Here is my confusion: Taking on more debt while trying to eliminate past debt is usually not advisable. But I also know creditors like to see both revolving and installment credit. Am I OK taking the car loan to give the “well-rounded use” credit, or should I just put that extra money to pay off my past debt?

Answer: Paying off old bad debts typically doesn’t help your credit scores. If these accounts are now in collections, the damage has been done and won’t be erased by your payments.

And if the accounts are in collections, the money you’re paying probably isn’t going to the creditors you originally owed. Those creditors probably sold your debts to collection agencies for pennies on the dollar. If that’s the case, those collectors may be willing to settle for 50% or less of what you owed the original creditor. If you have the cash to make lump sum offers and you decide to take this route, get written assurance from the collector — in advance and in writing — that any remaining debt won’t be resold to another collector. Also, reserve some cash for the tax bill, because forgiven debt is usually considered taxable income.

You also can request a “pay for deletion,” which means the collection agency stops reporting the collection account to the credit bureaus in exchange for your lump sum payment. Getting rid of the collection could help your scores, but many collectors resist this step.

Now, back to your question. Adding an installment loan such as an auto loan, mortgage or student loan to your credit mix can indeed help rehabilitate troubled scores. The scoring formulas like to see people responsibly handling a mix of credit accounts.

If you decide to take out a car loan, shop around for a lender before you commit. Those affordable payments you were shown could disguise a bad loan — one with a sky-high interest rate, a long repayment period or both. It’s wise to make at least a 20% down payment on any car purchase and to limit the loan term to four years or less.

Q&A: Student loan co-signer repercussions

Dear Liz: I co-signed a student loan for my son. He was unemployed for a year and has now returned to work. The lender is not being cooperative with accepting a lesser monthly payment or any payment until he gives them a lump sum he does not have. They have been calling me about this debt. I am retired, 74, with a pension and Social Security as my sole income. I have no assets. What can they do to me?

Answer: If this were a federal loan, the government could take a chunk of your Social Security check and withhold your tax refunds. But your son also would have far more options for getting caught up, including a pathway out of default and income-based repayment plans.

Because it’s a private loan, evidenced by the fact it required a co-signer, the lender has fewer powers to collect, but you and your son also have fewer consumer protections. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently released a report detailing people’s complaints about private lenders’ unwillingness to offer affordable payment options or modifications for unmanageable student loans.

That doesn’t mean your son should quit trying. The CFPB has a sample letter on its site that he can use to request a repayment plan he can afford. If he’s still having problems, he can make a complaint to the CFPB.

When you co-signed, you promised to pay if he couldn’t. Private collectors typically can’t take your retirement income, however. You may want to make an appointment with a bankruptcy attorney who can assess your situation. (Student loans, federal or private, typically can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, but the attorney will know the rules for creditors and borrowers in your state.) You and your son also should review the information about negotiating with private student lenders that you’ll find on the Student Loan Borrower Assistance site run by the National Consumer Law Center.

Q&A: When to start Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I am 63 and my husband is almost 64. He lost his job last year. We have been living on his $1,500 monthly pension plus what I could make from small contracts and drawing down our emergency fund. The fund and the contracts are now gone. We would like to get jobs, but we live in an isolated area and must sell our house first so we can move. It’s worth about $350,000 with no mortgage, but selling it could take a while.

My question: Is it better to pull from our retirement investments of $750,000, use our home equity line of credit until we sell our house or have me file for early Social Security benefits? We plan to have my husband wait to apply until his full retirement age and then file a restricted application so he gets only spousal benefits until age 70, when his own benefit maxes out. Meanwhile, we need money to live on. I ran a Social Security calculator, and it seemed to say the difference between my starting early and the maximum we could get for waiting was $35,000. Our financial advisor says to take Social Security, but he also manages our investments. We pay him 1% of our portfolio, so reducing it would reduce his income. Can you offer any guidance?

Answer: The benefit from delaying the start of your Social Security benefits is typically so great that knowledgeable financial planners would suggest tapping other funds, including your retirement account, if that’s the only way you can hold off.

If you followed the 4% rule for sustainable withdrawals, you could take $30,000 from your retirement fund the first year without having to worry too much about running out of money. You could take more, of course, and plan to cut back when the Social Security checks start flowing, but you run the risk of a downturn dramatically increasing the chances that you won’t have enough money to last your lifetimes.

Of course, everybody’s situation is different. If the gap between your strategy and maximum benefits is just $35,000 over your lifetimes, you’ll have to decide if that’s incentive enough to wait. Understand, though, that calculators designed to evaluate Social Security strategies aren’t all equal. The free ones tend to be simpler, while the ones that require a fee (typically $40) are more sophisticated and allow you to take more factors into account.

So here’s a game plan. Run one or more of the more sophisticated calculators such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, SocialSecuritySolutions.com and SocialSecurityChoices.com. Then take the results to a fee-only financial planner who charges by the hour to get another opinion. You want a planner who uses Social Security maximizing software and who has received education in Social Security planning strategies (just ask). If you can’t find someone locally, there are plenty of good planners willing to consult long-distance via phone and email. You can get referrals from Garrett Planning Network, among other sources.

Q&A: Medical debt liability and separation

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about whether one spouse can be held responsible for the other’s credit card debt. My husband and I are separated and he recently was diagnosed with cancer. He is unemployed with no health insurance and high hospital bills and back child support payments. In the event of his death, will I be liable for his debts?

Answer: You need to talk to an attorney to determine your liability for his medical bills, since it depends on state law. Some states don’t hold spouses liable for these bills if they’re legally separated, while others do. In any case, his estate will still owe the unpaid child support, and child support typically has a higher priority for payment than most other creditor’s claims when an estate is settled. In general, creditors have to be paid before the rest of the assets can be distributed to heirs.