Facebook Rss Twitter Youtube MSN

Q&A Category

Charitable giving can help keep tax deductions steady

Mar 17, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: Regarding the reader who was worried about not having sufficient tax deductions: I recommend charitable giving. As our mortgage interest per payment fell, I augmented it with charitable giving to maintain the same annual total for income tax deductions (interest plus charity). As the years go by, our interest decreases and charity increases. Payments to charity accomplish a social benefit, while interest payments just line the pockets of bankers. We give to a broad variety of charities: national, local and international organizations, religious and secular, health and social care, care for children at risk, veterans, Red Cross, etc. The great thing about charitable giving is that we get to choose whom we wish to help. When asked, most organizations will keep your demographic information private so that you are not inundated with requests via the sale of donor lists.

Answer: Thanks for sharing your approach, but people should understand that it requires paying out more money over time to maintain the same level of itemized deductions.

Mortgage payments typically remain the same over the life of the loan, with the amount of potentially deductible interest shrinking and the amount applied to the principal increasing with each payment. So as the amount of deductible interest declines, you would have to increase your contributions to charity in addition to making your mortgage payment each month if you wanted to keep your itemized deductions unchanged.

Categories : Q&A, Saving Money
Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I am 55 and my wife is 65. She only worked a few part-time jobs as she spent most of her working years raising our nine beautiful children. My question is, since she does not have enough credits to collect Social Security on her own work record, can she claim spousal benefits on my work history? If so, at what age and how will it affect my benefits?

Answer: Your wife can receive spousal benefits based on your work record, but those checks can’t start until you’re old enough to qualify for benefits at age 62 (when she’s 72).

If you apply at 62, however, you’re typically locked into a check that would be about 30% smaller than what you’d get if you waited until your “full retirement age” to start. Full retirement age used to be 65, but it’s now 66 and will gradually increase to 67 for people born in 1960 or later.

At your full retirement age, you have the option to “file and suspend,” in which you file for retirement benefits and then immediately suspend your application. Your wife can start receiving spousal benefits, but because you aren’t actually receiving checks, your benefit can continue to grow until it maxes out at age 70.

For many couples, it makes sense for the higher earner to delay starting benefits as long as possible. Given your big age gap, however, you may be better off with a hybrid approach: starting your own benefits (and your wife’s spousal benefit) at age 62 and then suspending your benefit when you reach full retirement age, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor who created the site MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com to help people analyze their claiming options. Your benefit would grow 8% a year from the time you suspend to the time you restart at age 70. Your wife would continue to receive her spousal benefit in the interim.

Because your wife will be older than her own full retirement age of 66 when she starts receiving checks, she will be entitled to half of the benefit you’re scheduled to get at your full retirement age. What she gets doesn’t diminish what you get. Spouses who haven’t reached their full retirement age when they apply for spousal benefits have to settle for a discounted check.

Clearly, claiming decisions can be complicated, especially for married people and even more so when there’s a big gap in their ages. AARP has a free calculator that can help most people understand their options. T. Rowe Price also has an easy-to-use calculator, but it doesn’t work for married couples with more than a six-year age gap.

For a more detailed and customizable calculator, you may want to pay $40 to use the software at sites such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com or SocialSecurityChoices.com, co-developed by economist (and Social Security recipient) Russell F. Settle.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
Comments (2)

When inheritances don’t come

Mar 10, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I read with interest the question you received from the widower who thought he should inherit from his father-in-law, despite the death of his wife. Your answer was great, but it got me thinking about the mind-set that makes someone even think to ask the question. It’s obvious that the asker and his late wife clearly lived their life expecting to inherit a large amount of money. Which leaves unasked, how did they live and what did they save on their own? Did they take vacations instead of save? Did they not save at all? The bottom line here is that you need to reinforce that there is no “sure thing” in expected inheritances and encourage people to amass wealth on their own. Someone else’s money is someone else’s money, and even if he intends to leave it to you, an illness, a lawsuit or some other loss could wipe out anything he meant you to have.

Answer: People who expect an inheritance to save them from a life of not saving are courting disappointment.

About half of those who die leave less than $10,000 in assets, according to a 2012 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Many failed to save adequately during their working lives, but even those with substantial assets can find their wealth eroded by longer lives, market setbacks, chronic illness and nursing home or other custodial care.

Hopes of an inheritance also can be dashed by remarriages, poor planning or both. For example: Dad dies without a will and Stepmom inherits the bulk of the estate, which she gives to her own kids. Or Mom thinks she’s tied up everything in a trust, but her surviving spouse figures out a way to invade the principal. Or Grandma gets victimized by a gold-digger or a con artist, leaving nothing but hard feelings.

Most of those who do inherit don’t get fortunes. The median inheritance for today’s baby boomers is $64,000, which means half get less, according to a 2010 study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

So you’re right that the best approach for most people is to prepare as if there will be no inheritance, since if there is one, it probably won’t be much.

Categories : Q&A
Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I just received my tax forms from my employer for last year. I was originally a W-2 employee, paid hourly, as a receptionist. But it seems that at some point during the year, my employer changed me to a 1099 employee without telling me or having me fill out paperwork. After researching the characteristics of a 1099 employee, I found I do not qualify at all. I am upset that I will have to pay taxes on this income, since I thought they were being withheld from my pay. Do I have any recourse?

Answer: Your employer has put you in an impossible situation. If you tell the truth, you’ll tip off the IRS to the company’s deception, which could put your job in danger. If you go along with the lie, you’ll have to pay your boss’ share of taxes in addition to your own.

“The good news is the IRS is really busy and probably won’t [audit your employer] for a couple of years,” said Eva Rosenberg, an enrolled agent who runs the TaxMama site. “By then, you should have a better job elsewhere.”

To fix this, first report your income from this job as “other income” on line 21 of your 1040 tax return, Rosenberg said.

If you got both a W-2 and a 1099, you can use IRS Form 8919 to pay only your share of the Social Security and Medicare taxes. You’ll pay 7.65% instead of the 15.3% you normally would pay with 1099s, Rosenberg said. You’ll have to select a “reason code” for why you’re using the form. You can use code H, which says that the amount on the 1099 form should have been included as wages on Form W-2.

If you got only a 1099, you’ll need to fill out Form SS-8 to explain why you’re an employee, not a contractor, Rosenberg said. Then use Form 4852 as a substitute for your missing W-2. Use the data from the last pay stub that shows your year-to-date withholding as a W-2 employee so you can get credit for those taxes paid. This process is complicated but is the approach a tax pro “would and should use” when an employee is misclassified as an independent contractor, Rosenberg said.

The forms you’re filing will alert the IRS to your company’s chicanery. Some employers pretend that their employees are independent contractors as a way to reduce the company tax burden and perhaps dodge new health insurance requirements. It’s a scam that tax authorities are keen to uncover and penalize

Categories : Q&A, Taxes
Comments (7)

Strategic bill paying

Mar 03, 2014 | | Comments (1)

Dear Liz: We received $100,000 from the sale of some undeveloped land. We are trying to figure out the best way to pay off our bills. Our primary residence has a balance of $173,000 at 4.25% and is a 30-year loan. We also own a home we rent out in which we cover the mortgage with the rent income. The balance on it is $131,500 at 4.5% for a 20-year loan. This home is often a burden when tenants change on an average of every 1 to 2 years, and we don’t have the income to cover the mortgage without the rental income. My husband took a $20,000 loan out of his retirement fund for closing costs for our primary residence, a debt that is being paid back through paycheck deductions. We also have an auto loan with a balance of $7,800 at 2.74% and credit cards with varying interest rates with total owing of $22,000. What should we do?

Answer: Your first task should be examining your spending habits to see why you have so much credit card debt. If you don’t fix the problem that’s causing you to live beyond your means, you’re likely to find yourself in a deeper hole eventually, regardless of how well you deploy this windfall.

You also should see if you’re on track with retirement savings. Boosting your retirement plan contributions at work and to individual retirement accounts can help you convert this money into long-term economic security.

Next, pay off the credit card debt and consider retiring the retirement plan loan. If your husband lost his job and couldn’t repay the debt, the outstanding balance would become a withdrawal that would incur income taxes and penalties.

Any money that’s left over can go into an emergency fund to protect against job loss and to keep you from going into debt between tenants. Your low-rate car loans and tax-advantaged mortgage debt aren’t top priorities for repayment, but you can start paying them down over time once your other bases are covered.

Comments (1)

Dear Liz: We have a son who is a high school junior and who is planning on going to college. We met with a college financial planner who suggest we put money in a whole life insurance policy as a way to help get more financial aid. Is that a good idea?

Answer: Your “college financial planner” is actually an insurance salesperson who hopes to make a big commission by talking you into an expensive policy you probably don’t need.

The salesperson is correct that buying a cash-value life insurance policy is one way to hide assets from college financial planning formulas. Some would question the ethics of trying to look poorer to get more aid, but the bottom line is that for most families, there are better ways to get an affordable education.

First, you should understand that assets owned by parents get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. Some assets, such as retirement accounts and home equity, aren’t counted at all by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. Parents also get to exempt a certain amount of assets based on their age. The closer the parents are to retirement, the greater the amount of non-retirement assets they’re able to shield.

Consider using the “expected family contribution calculator” at FinAid.org and the net cost calculators posted on the Web sites of the colleges your son is considering. Do the calculations with and without the money you’re trying to hide to see what difference the money really makes.

Most families don’t have enough “countable” assets to worry about their effect on financial aid formulas, said college aid expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution.” Those that do have substantial assets have several options to reduce their potential impact, including spending down any custodial accounts, paying off debt and maxing out retirement plan contributions in the years before applying for college.

Another thing to consider is that most financial aid these days comes as loans that need to be repaid, rather than as scholarships or grants that don’t. So boosting your financial aid eligibility could just mean getting into more debt.

Meanwhile, it’s generally not a good idea to buy life insurance if you don’t need life insurance. The policy could wind up costing you a lot more than you’d save on financial aid.

If you’re still considering this policy, run the scheme past a fee-only financial planner—one who doesn’t stand to benefit financially from the investment—for an objective second opinion.

Comments (1)

Ways to reduce tax burden

Feb 24, 2014 | | Comments (4)

Dear Liz: My husband and I have worked very hard and paid off our mortgage and all other debt. However, we find ourselves with no deductions now and are getting killed on income taxes. What can we do to lower our tax burden without incurring mortgage or student loan debt, child-care expenses and so on? We are in about a 33% tax bracket and it seems like we are being punished for being frugal and responsible.

Answer: There’s an old saying, “Don’t let the tail wag the dog.” Incurring expenses just to get a tax break is usually absurd. When you were paying mortgage interest, for example, your tax break was only a fraction of what you paid out. In essence, you were getting about 33 cents back for every dollar you spent in interest.

Better ways to reduce your tax burden may include maxing out retirement plan contributions, taking advantage of flexible spending accounts if your employer offers them and installing alternative energy equipment in your home. (The credit for installing solar panels and similar systems equals just 30% of the cost, but the long-term energy savings may offset the rest of the bill.) If you own a business, consult with a tax pro about the many ways to cut your tax bill when you’re self-employed.

Just remember that you’re not being punished for your frugality. Your reward is more money in your pocket year-round.

Categories : Q&A, Taxes
Comments (4)

Dear Liz: I retired last year. I am 67, have more than $1 million in my retirement accounts, $80,000 in individual stocks, $50,000 in cash and more than $200,000 in equity in my home. I don’t need to tap my Social Security benefit yet and can afford to wait until I am 70 to get the maximum monthly amount. I recently purchased a new car with a 0% loan for five years. That and my mortgage are the extent of my debt. One thing I would like to do is some home improvement. My fee-only financial planner suggested getting a home equity line of credit to cover the repairs and upgrades. This makes sense to me in that it spreads out the burden over time and is tax-deductible. My credit scores are 736, 801 and 839. But I’m finding it difficult to get a commitment from either my credit union or my bank because they don’t see an income. I have been with both of these institutions for more than 30 years and the credit union holds the first mortgage. How do we get the lenders to factor retirement assets into the qualification calculations?

Answer: Last year, mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac issued guidelines on retirement fund annuitization that would allow mortgage lenders to calculate a borrower’s income based on his or her retirement assets.

Lenders, however, have to be willing to go to a little extra effort to learn the rules and apply them properly.

If yours aren’t willing to do so, then it might be time to take your business elsewhere. A mortgage broker (referrals from http://www.namb.org) may be able to connect you with a lender who’s more up to date.

Comments (3)

Deceased dad’s rock triggers bitter family fight

Feb 24, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: We are settling my dad’s estate. My dad found a rock, and it sat in my parents’ frontyard for years. He worked in a gravel pit for decades, and that was the only rock he found interesting enough to bring home. When my mom died, we held an auction of their household goods. My dad told me to take the rock home. I said that to be fair, the rock should be sold at auction. A family member then stole the rock and has been hiding it for more than two years. This person says it’s going to be placed on my dad’s grave site. I’m an executor, and I feel that the decision wasn’t the relative’s to make. It’s the only possession of Dad’s that I really want as a remembrance of him. We were extremely close. Dad knew the rock was taken to spite me, and it really bothered him. What are your thoughts?

Answer: Many of the items that trigger bitter family fights after a death don’t have much fair market value. Family members imbue these objects with sentimental value and then go to war over them. They might insist it’s the only thing they really want, or that they want it for their kids. Some go so far as to destroy their relationships with their loved ones to gain control of the supposed heirloom. (Which, often as not, winds up in the next generation’s yard sale, as appraiser Julie Hall once noted.)

Maybe this relative did swipe the rock to spite you. Maybe this is just the latest chapter in a drama that’s been playing out since childhood: “Dad always liked you better!” Maybe you’re especially chafed that your relative took advantage of your attempt to be fair.

But again, the rock probably has only the value you give it. If you decide it’s not worth fighting for, then it’s just a rock.

Categories : Q&A
Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I read your recent article in which you advised waiting before starting Social Security benefits. Is this good advice for everyone? You probably know that there is a break-even age around 85, so that if you die before 85, starting benefits early is better, but if you die after 85, starting late is better. “Better” means you receive more money. So, right off the bat the advice to delay is wrong for half the people in their 60s, since about half will die before the crossover, and if they had delayed, they lost money.

Answer: The problem with do-it-yourself financial planning is that people often focus their attention too narrowly and ignore the bigger picture. That’s what leads them to do things like pay down relatively low-rate student loan debt while failing to save for retirement. They may focus only on the expected returns of each option, while ignoring the tax implications, company retirement matches and the extraordinary value of future compounding of returns.

Obsessing about the break-even point — the date when the income from larger, delayed retirement benefits outweighs what you’d get from starting early — is often a mistake, financial planners will tell you. There are a number of other considerations, including the value of Social Security benefits as longevity insurance. If you live longer than you expect, a bigger Social Security check can be enormously helpful later in life when your other assets may be spent. Also, if you have a spouse who may be dependent on your benefit as a survivor, delaying retirement benefits to increase your checks will reduce the blow when she has to live on just one check (yours) instead of two (yours and her spousal benefit).

In his book “Social Security for Dummies,” author Jonathan Peterson offers a guide to figuring out your break-even point based just on the dollars you can expect to receive (rather than on assumed inflation or investment returns). In general, the break-even point is about age 78. That means those who live longer would be better off waiting until full retirement age, currently 66, than if they started early at age 62.

Currently, U.S. men at age 65 can expect to live to nearly 83, and the life expectancy for U.S. women at age 65 is over 85.

You can change that break-even by making assumptions about inflation and your future prowess as an investor, but remember that the increase in benefits you get each year by delaying retirement between age 62 and 66 is about 7%. It’s 8% for delaying between age 66 and age 70, when your benefit maxes out. Those are guaranteed returns, and there’s no “safe return” anywhere close to that in today’s environment.

Don’t forget that those benefits will be further compounded by cost-of-living increases. One researcher published in the Journal of Financial Planning found that an investor would have to achieve a rate of return that exceeds inflation by 5% to justify taking benefits at 62 rather than at full retirement age.

“At higher inflation rates and/or higher marginal tax rates, the rate of return may need to be even higher, perhaps in excess of 7% or 8% above inflation to justify taking benefits at age 62,” wrote Doug Lemons, a certified financial planner who retired from the Social Security Administration after 36 years.

You can read Lemons’ paper, as well as other research that planners have done on maximizing Social Security benefits, at http://www.fpanet.org/journal.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
Comments (3)