Inheritance tax may not be worth avoiding

Dear Liz: My father-in-law’s spouse recently died. He is 89 and not in very good health. He has assets of about $3 million and lives in a state (Pennsylvania) that has an inheritance tax. What can he do to avoid state taxes and make sure his assets go where he wants them to go? He does not like to talk about these things but I’m trying to help. I have no interest in benefits to myself but I would hate to see his assets go to the state.

Answer: It’s one thing to encourage a parent or in-law to set up estate documents that protect them should they become incapacitated. Everyone should have durable powers of attorney drawn up so that someone else can make healthcare and financial decisions for them if they’re unable to do so.

It’s quite another matter to urge a potential benefactor to make sure the maximum amounts possible land in inheritors’ laps, especially if he or she doesn’t want to discuss the matter. You may need to accept that not everyone is interested in minimizing taxes for his heirs. Your father-in-law’s resistance to talk about these things is a good indicator that you should back off.

It’s not as if the majority of his assets will wind up in state coffers anyway.  Although Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has an inheritance tax, the rate isn’t exorbitant for most inheritors. (Unlike estate taxes, which are based on the size of the estate, inheritance taxes are based on who inherits. Your father-in-law doesn’t have to worry about estate taxes, since the federal exemption limit is now over $5 million and Pennsylvania doesn’t have a state estate tax.) In Pennsylvania, property left to “lineal descendants” — which includes parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren — faces tax rates of 4.5%. The tax rate is 12% for the dead person’s siblings and 15% for all others. Surviving spouses are exempt.

If he were interested in reducing future inheritance taxes, your father-in-law could move to one of the many states that doesn’t have such a tax. He also could give assets away before he dies, either outright or through an irrevocable trust. He may not be interested in or comfortable with any of those solutions. If he is, it’s up to him to take action. If he needs help or encouragement, let your wife or one of her siblings provide it. In estate planning matters, it’s usually best for in-laws to take a back seat.

Elderly mom isn’t the only one overdue for estate planning

Dear Liz: Could you advise us on how to protect our 93-year-old mother’s assets if she should become ill or die? She does not have a living will or a trust regarding her two properties.

Answer: “If” she should become ill or die? Your mother has been fortunate to have had a long life, presumably without becoming incapacitated, but her luck can’t hold out forever.

Your mother needs several legal documents to protect both herself and her assets. Perhaps the most important are powers of attorney for healthcare and for finances. These documents allow people she designates to make medical decisions and handle her finances for her should she become incapacitated. In addition, she may want to fill out a living will, which would outline the life-prolonging care she would and wouldn’t want if she can’t make her wishes known. (In some states, living wills are combined with powers of attorney for healthcare, and in others they are separate documents.)

These legal papers aren’t important just for the elderly, by the way. You should have these too, since a disabling illness or accident can happen to anyone.

Your mother also should consider a will or a living trust that details how she wants to parcel out her estate to her heirs. Of the two documents, wills tend to be simpler and cheaper to draft, but a living trust means the court process known as probate can be avoided. The probate process is public, and in some states (particularly California) it can be protracted and expensive. A living trust also could make it easier for someone to take over managing her finances in case of incapacity or death.

You can find an attorney experienced in estate planning by contacting your state’s bar association. Expertise and competence are important, so you may want to look for a lawyer who is a member of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, an invitation-only group that includes many of the best in this field.

If she or you are trying to protect her assets from long-term care or other medical costs, you’ll need someone experienced in elder care law to advise you. You can get referrals from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at

Downsizing: Be realistic about the value of your stuff

Dear Liz: We are in our 60s and looking to downsize. We’re living in an apartment now and don’t like it, so we want to buy a small house. Also, our finances took some serious hits in the recent economy and we’re trying to rebuild. But in trying to sell our possessions, we’re learning that people want us to discount the item beyond belief or even expect to get it for free. People talk about using Craigslist and EBay to generate cash but it looks like a waste of time. Do you know of other options?

Answer: Your two goals are somewhat in conflict with each other, so you need to clarify which is more important. Is your primary aim to shed your excess stuff so you can get on with your life? If that’s the case, then your focus should be on getting rid of what you don’t need rather than squeezing top dollar from it. If it’s more important to harvest the maximum value from these unwanted items, you’ll need to invest more time and effort in marketing your goods.

It may help your decision-making to get a reality check on the value of your stuff. If you believe that you have some quality items — antique furniture, rare collectibles or expensive artwork — you could hire an appraiser to give you an idea of their market value as well as some ideas where these items could be sold.

Consignment stores and auctions can sell your stuff, although you typically have to split the proceeds. Another possibility if you have quality items is to hire a company that specializes in estate sales to sell your things. These companies also typically take a hefty percentage of the sale proceeds — often 30% or more.

If what you own is mostly mass-produced, though, you’re unlikely to recoup much of what you spent. Many people erroneously cling to the idea that their possessions are worth what they paid for them, or at least something close to that. In fact, that purchase price is what economists call a “sunk cost,” which can’t be recouped. The best you can do is get fair market value for your items. “Fair market value” doesn’t mean the price you think is fair; it means what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller when neither is under any duress to buy or sell.

Craigslist and EBay are two marketplaces that can give you a pretty good idea of what those values might be.

Should you borrow to pay a tax bill?

Dear Liz: Help! We’ve just received devastating news from our accountant that we owe around $11,000 to the IRS and the state for 2012 taxes. The reason for the huge bill is that we cleaned out my husband’s IRA to pay for our son’s college expenses. My husband is almost 65 and working part time after being laid off, and I’m 61 with a full-time job. What is the best way to pay this bill? Here are the options I can think of: 1) Cash out my three-month emergency certificate of deposit of $12,000 that I’ve saved to cover expenses in case I get laid off. 2) Take money out of my IRA. 3) Use a credit card check that will be at zero percent for the first 12 months and then will slide to 8.9%. 4) Arrange a payment loan with the IRS. 5) Sell our house in which we have 70% equity. Which is best?

Answer: Let’s take No. 2 off the table, shall we? If you learn nothing else from this experience, it should be that tapping retirement funds can trigger a big (and often unnecessary) tax bill.

Selling your house over an $11,000 bill is overkill, so let’s eliminate that option as well. Which leads us to three remaining possibilities: Use cash, borrow from a credit card or borrow from the IRS.

Borrowing incurs costs. That zero percent credit offer almost certainly comes with a fee, which is usually 3% to 5% of the total. If you can’t pay the balance within a year, you start incurring interest charges.

The short-term rate the IRS charges for installment loans is pretty low — lately it’s been around 3% — but you also typically incur late-payment penalties. The penalty typically is one-half of 1% of the tax you owe each month or part of a month until the bill is paid in full. If you file by the return due date, that rate drops to one-quarter of 1% for any month in which an installment agreement is in effect. The maximum penalty is 25% of the tax due.

How much either option will cost you depends on how long you take to pay the bill. The cost for cashing out the CD is, by contrast, almost zero. Whatever tiny amount of interest you’re getting is far less than what borrowing would cost you. If you should get laid off before you rebuild your emergency fund, your access to cheap credit could come in handy.

Going forward, let your son pay for his college expenses and conserve what’s left of your resources for retirement.

Old check may still have value

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from a reader who found an old refund check that couldn’t be cashed. You pointed out that checks typically must be cashed within six months or they’re worthless. But your reader should check the unclaimed-property department of his state. Each state has laws that all companies must follow that typically require them to turn over or “escheat” amounts from uncashed checks, dormant checking accounts, unclaimed utility deposits and other accounts. The consumer should write a letter to the company that issued the check (sent certified mail) with a copy of the front and back of the check to find out whether they escheated the funds. The consumer should also check and talk to the state that the company is based in along with his current state. Please encourage him to keep the check and not give up. Unclaimed-property laws are not well known, and they are there to protect the consumer.

Answer: Thanks for your suggestion. Not all companies follow the laws regarding unclaimed property. If this company had, it presumably would have referred this customer to the appropriate unclaimed-property department when he called asking for a replacement check. Still, checking the state treasury departments on is relatively easy and certainly worth a try.

Emergency funds: How much is enough?

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.

“Cheap” insurance could cost more in the long run

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.

Should you remodel before you sell?

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.

Can’t afford to save for retirement?

Dear Liz: Is it reasonable for a 50-year-old single man helping with support of a teenage child and earning a steady $35,000 a year to save for his retirement? Rent alone takes $800 a month; food, car and health costs leave little discretionary money.

Answer: Can you reasonably expect to live on Social Security alone? If making ends meet now is a strain, imagine trying to get by on about $1,230 a month (which was the average Social Security check in 2012). Your check could be higher or lower; you can get an estimate at

If you can’t scrape by with whatever Social Security offers, then you need to find a way to save. You should be able to increase your savings once your child support ends, but you should get started now.

How to make saving money easier

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.