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Dear Liz: A lot of financial advice sites say you should have an emergency fund equal to three to six months of living expenses. What would be considered living expenses? Should you use three to six months of your net take-home pay or a smaller number? Is three to six months really enough?
Answer: Let’s tackle your last question first. The answer: No one knows.
It’s impossible to predict what financial setbacks you may face. You may not lose your job — or you may get laid off and be unemployed for many months. You may stay healthy — or you may get sick and your only hope might be experimental treatments your insurance doesn’t cover. Nothing may go wrong in your life, or many things could go wrong all at once, depleting even a fat emergency fund.
Having a prudent reserve of cash can help you survive the more likely (and less catastrophic) setbacks. Financial planners suggest that your first goal be three months’ worth of living expenses, typically defined as the bills that can’t be put off without serious consequences. That would include shelter, utilities, food, transportation, insurance, minimum loan payments and child care. Any expense that you easily could cut or postpone wouldn’t be included.
If you work in a risky industry or simply want a little more security, you can build your fund to equal six months of essential living expenses, or more. (The median duration of unemployment after the recent recession peaked at around five months, although many people were out of work for far longer.)
It can take many months, if not years, to build up even a three-month reserve. In the meantime, it can be prudent to have access to various sources of credit, including space on your credit cards or a home equity line of credit.
No matter how eager you are to have a fat emergency fund, you shouldn’t sacrifice retirement savings. For most people, saving for retirement needs to be the financial priority, with saving for other purposes fit in as you can.
Dear Liz: My homeowners insurance just went up 25%. I’ve made no claims and made no changes. I want to get quotes from other providers, but I’m afraid I’m going to get some type of “teaser” rate. I tried changing companies a few years ago and the rate was good, but when it came time for the renewal, they doubled the price! Again, I made no changes nor had any claims. So, now I want to change, but I’m afraid of falling into the same trap. Any suggestions?
Answer: You can’t assume you’re locking in a low rate for life when you buy homeowners insurance. Companies that want to expand their market share may lower their prices awhile to lure customers away from their competitors, then raise premiums when their claims costs go up or they simply want to cut their risk.
The company’s reputation for customer service should be at least as important a factor as price in your decision-making. Check the complaint surveys that many state insurance departments maintain on their websites to see which companies have the best (and worst) reputations.
One way to reduce your homeowner premium is to increase your deductible. Raising the amount you pay out of pocket from $250 to $1,000 can lower your premiums 25%. You should be paying small damages out of pocket anyway, since filing small claims can cause your rates to rise.
You also should shop around every few years, even if a company doesn’t dramatically raise your rates, to make sure you’re getting a decent deal. But again, chasing the lowest-cost insurance could be only a short-term win — an insurer that charges slightly more could be the more stable, and consumer-friendly, choice.
Dear Liz: It has been almost one year since my domestic partner passed away, and our home of 43 years is fully paid for. I am ready to sell. The house is structurally in good shape but needs upgrades and a backyard redo. I have heard that painting both inside and out is a plus, but I’m concerned that any other improvements, such as flooring, would be my taste and not the buyer’s. Is it a wise idea to indicate that any major improvements be deducted from escrow funds?
Answer: You’re smart not to take on any major remodeling just before you sell, since few home improvements come anywhere close to paying for themselves. The fix-ups that typically do return more than they cost include painting, deep cleaning, trimming and freshening your landscaping, and de-cluttering. Consider storing half or more of your possessions. You’ll have to pack them up anyway to move, and getting them out of the way now will make your house look bigger.
Talk to your real estate agent about the advisability of replacing your floors. If yours are quite worn, the investment may pay for itself. Otherwise, a cleaning may be enough. You don’t have to offer to pay for the next owner’s improvements. Just price the home appropriately to reflect the fact that it needs updates.
Dear Liz: What’s the easiest way to save money? I have the hardest time. I want to save, but I feel that I don’t make enough to start saving.
Answer: The easiest way to save is to do it without thinking about it.
That usually means setting up automatic transfers either from your paycheck or from your checking account. If you have to think about putting aside money, you’ll probably think of other things to do with that cash. If it’s done automatically, you may be surprised at how fast the money piles up.
The second part of this equation is to leave your savings alone. If you’re constantly dipping into savings to cover regular expenses, you won’t get ahead.
People manage to save even on small incomes because they make it a priority. They “pay themselves first,” putting aside money for savings before any other bills are paid. Start with small, regular transfers and increase them as you can.
Dear Liz: I’m about to marry an active-duty military man. We’re in the process of marrying our finances, and I have several questions.
First, what is a good emergency fund for us? We run our household on his salary because I’m recently unemployed. I’ve always had a six-month emergency fund for myself, but because he’ll theoretically always be employed, should we have less savings in emergency funds and more in retirement and investments?
Second, along with my unemployment, I’m bringing about $15,000 in savings and $9,000 in student loan debt (at 4.5%). He has about $5,000 in savings and no debt at all. Neither of us has a retirement account or any other investments. I’m leaning toward paying off my debt so that we start on even ground, but I have a feeling that you’re going to tell me not to do that. What should I be considering at this time?
Answer: The military offers good benefits and generous pensions to people who make the armed services their career. But the pension probably won’t cover all your expenses in retirement. (Remember, if he retires after 20 years of service, he’ll get only 50% of his base pay.) Besides, there’s really no such thing as “guaranteed” employment, even in the armed services, so it’s smart to have a Plan B.
Your husband-to-be should be taking advantage of the federal Thrift Savings Plan, which works like a 401(k) for civilians, although there’s no employer match for service members. He can contribute up to $17,000 a year ($17,500 in 2013), his contributions are excluded from his taxable income, and the money grows tax-deferred until it’s withdrawn in retirement, at which point it’s taxed as regular income.
The Thrift Savings Plan also has a Roth option. Withdrawals from a Roth in retirement are tax-free, although contributions usually are included in taxable income. The exception: If your fiance is deployed, most or all of his income would be tax-free, so he would be able to make contributions to the Roth with tax-exempt income, said Joseph Montanaro, a certified financial planner with USAA. That’s a pretty great deal: no tax on the contributions going in, and no tax on the withdrawals coming out.
If your man isn’t deployed, he still might want to divide his contributions between the regular and Roth plans so that he would have different savings “buckets” to tap in retirement and thus more control over his tax bill.
He probably wouldn’t get a full military pension if he leaves or is forced out of the military before he has served 20 years. But he would be able to take his Thrift Savings Plan balance with him.
When you return to work, you also should start contributing to a retirement fund. If you don’t have access to a 401(k) or 403(b), you might contribute to an IRA or a Roth IRA.
Although you would be smart to pay off any high-rate debt, such as credit card balances, you need not be in a rush to pay off low-rate, tax-deductible debt such as student loans, especially if the rate you’re paying is fixed. Instead, focus on building up that emergency fund. The exact amount you need is more art than science, but a six-month fund would be prudent.
Dear Liz: My husband and I have given our daughters gifts over the years, but we have never exceeded the $26,000 gift tax limit for a married couple. Do we need to file IRS Form 709 to split the gifts? If so, how to do we file for past years?
Answer: The gift tax system exists to help prevent wealthy people from transferring large amounts to their heirs during the donors’ lifetimes in an attempt to avoid estate taxes. Each person, however, is allowed to give a certain amount each year to any number of recipients.
The current gift tax exemption is $13,000. Each of you could give each of your daughters $13,000 annually. That means the two of you could give the two of them a total of $52,000 a year without having to file a gift tax return. Tuition or medical expenses you pay directly on behalf of another person do not count toward the limit.
The $13,000-per-recipient limit has been in place since Jan. 1, 2009. The limit was $12,000 from 2006 to 2008 and $11,000 from 2002 to 2005.
Only if donors give more than the annual exemption amount are they required to file gift tax returns. Even then, the givers typically don’t owe gift taxes. The lifetime gift tax exemption is currently $5.12 million. In other words, you would have to give away more than $5 million above and beyond the $13,000 per recipient limit to incur a tax. The lifetime limit is scheduled to fall back to $1 million in 2013, but it will still affect relatively few givers. If you did inadvertently exceed the annual limits, you can talk to a tax pro about filing the 709 form.
Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about capital gains taxes that stemmed from two siblings selling their parents’ home. The children had been added to the parents’ deed, presumably before the parents’ death. You mentioned that the capital gains tax would have been avoided if the parents had bequeathed the home rather than gifting it during their lifetimes. Presumably bequeathing the home at death would have necessitated probate and incurred inheritance taxes. Are these costs more than offset by the stepped-up tax basis received?
Answer: Your questions illustrate exactly why no parent should add a child (or anyone else) to a home deed without discussing the issue with an estate-planning attorney first. Too often, laypeople misunderstand what’s involved in probate and make expensive mistakes trying to avoid it.
In some states, probate — the court process that typically follows death — is relatively swift and not very expensive. Trying to avoid it isn’t necessarily cost effective. In other states, including California, the process potentially can take many months and eat up a good chunk of an estate. When that’s the case, it can be prudent to take steps during life to sidestep probate at death.
There are often better ways to do so, however, than adding someone to a deed. A living trust, for example, can be a good way to avoid probate and preserve the tax benefits of bequeathing, rather than gifting, assets. Living trusts can vary in cost, but a lawyer can typically set one up for $2,000 or $3,000. If you compare that with the $25,000 or more the siblings will pay in capital gains on a relatively modest home sale, you can see that the living trust probably is a better deal.
Now let’s turn to the issue of estate taxes. If the assets left by the deceased are substantial enough to incur estate taxes, they will do so whether or not the estate goes through probate. Avoiding probate, in other words, does not avoid estate taxes. Currently, only estates worth more than $5.12 million face federal estate taxes. That limit is scheduled to drop next year to $1 million, but will still affect relatively few estates.
Dear Liz: Your column on the tax issues that develop when parents deed their property to their children should help educate a lot of people. But sometimes this is done to reduce the parents’ assets so they will be eligible for Medicaid after the expiration of the look-back period. In this case, paying the capital gains tax is appropriate, because they are asking the state to pay potentially very large senior care bills.
Answer: Some would question whether it’s ever appropriate for seniors to deliberately impoverish themselves by transferring away assets in order to qualify for Medicaid, which pays long-term care expenses for the indigent. The “look back” period, in which states examine asset transfers before a Medicaid application, was established to discourage such maneuvers. Once again, it’s smart to get a legal opinion before transferring big assets. An elder-law attorney could weigh in on the pros and cons of Medicaid planning.
Dear Liz: My wife and I are trying to sell our home, which has been our primary residence for six years. I am very concerned about the $500,000 capital gains exclusion. As I understand it, the exclusion would mean we wouldn’t have to pay taxes on our home sale profit. But we are confused about this exemption being tied to the “Bush tax cuts” that could expire Dec. 31. If we sell our home after that, could we lose the exemption?
Answer: No. The law creating a capital gains exemption for home sales went into effect May 6, 1997. It’s not tied to the tax cuts approved during President George W. Bush’s tenure that are set to expire at the end of the year.
So people who live in a home for at least two of the previous five years will still be able to avoid paying capital gains on their first $250,000 of home sale profit (or $500,000 for a married couple).
Another tax you likely won’t have to pay is a new 3.8% levy on what’s called “net investment income.” Some emails circulating on the Internet falsely claim that the tax, which is scheduled to kick in Jan. 1, is a real estate sales tax. In reality, it’s a potential tax on home sale profits that exceed the capital gains exemption limit, as well as on other so-called unearned income, including investment and rental income.
If your home sale profit doesn’t exceed the capital gains exemption limit, you won’t owe the new tax. If your profit does exceed the limit, the excess amount would be added to your adjusted gross incomes to determine whether you’d have to pay it. The 3.8% tax would be levied only on people whose adjusted gross incomes are more than $200,000 for singles and $250,000 for married couples.