Q&A: Authorized credit card users

Dear Liz: I have read that only the primary cardholder is responsible for the balance on a credit card, not the authorized user (such as a spouse). When that primary cardholder dies, there is no obligation for an authorized user to pay off the balance. Is this accurate? What would prevent someone whose primary cardholder is near death from racking up purchases and then, after the primary cardholder dies, refusing to pay it?

Answer: In a community property state such as California, spouses typically are both responsible for debts incurred during the marriage. In all states, the deceased spouse’s estate would have to pay all creditors before any leftover money was doled out to survivors. So a spouse who went on such a spending binge wouldn’t come out ahead, unless the primary cardholder was broke and left no estate.

Other authorized users might have no such restraints, however. Anyone who thinks an authorized user might pull such a stunt would be smart to take that person off the card before it becomes an issue.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefit

Dear Liz: I am 57 and my husband is 60. I will have a bigger Social Security benefit than he will. He plans to retire at 65 when he will take his own retirement benefit. I will file and suspend at my full retirement age (66 and 6 months), at which time he can file for spousal benefits. Then at 70, I can take my benefits. Is this correct? Or is the spousal benefit half of what I will get, which would be less than his reduced benefit anyway?

Answer: The spousal benefit is never more than half the primary earner’s benefit. If that would be less than his own benefit, then it wouldn’t make much sense for your husband to switch from his own check.

In any case, Congress is eliminating the option to file and suspend in order to trigger a spousal benefit. Since you must have reached your own full retirement age to file and suspend, and you won’t have done so by the April 29 deadline, filing and suspending is off the table for you.

It still makes sense for you to delay starting Social Security as long as possible, because you’re the higher earner. When one of you dies, the other will have to get by on a single check, so it makes sense to ensure that the survivor’s benefit is as large as possible.

Q&A: IRA maintenance fees

Dear Liz: My son has an IRA at his credit union. He puts in small amounts when he can. Recently they lowered the interest rate and started charging a $25 yearly maintenance fee, which now is taking all the interest back. Is this legal?

Answer: Yes. It’s also a good reason to move the account elsewhere.

Your son’s retirement account was shrinking in real terms even before the fee ate up all his interest. Even though rates are now on the rise, they’re still lower than inflation, which means the money’s buying power is being eroded every day.

Your son needs to invest in stocks if he wants his savings to grow faster than inflation. A few discount brokerages, including ETrade, Fidelity and TD Ameritrade, have no account minimums or annual fees.

Your son also should consider making automatic contributions to his retirement account. This is known as “paying yourself first,” and it ensures that those contributions actually get made. Waiting until he sees what’s left over is paying himself last, and the result will be a much smaller retirement fund than he’s likely to need.

Q&A: College savings strategy

Dear Liz: I will be 66 in May 2016. My wife is 68 and retired. She began receiving Social Security when she turned 66. I am still working, making a high six-figure income, and will continue to do so until I reach 70, when my Social Security benefit reaches its maximum. I plan to use my Social Security earnings to save for my grandchildren’s college educations (unless an emergency occurs and we need the income). I want to maximize the amount that I can give them. What is the best strategy, taking into consideration the recent change in Social Security rules relating to “claim now, claim more later”?

Answer: You just missed the April 29 cutoff for being able to “file and suspend.” Before the rules changed, you could have filed your application at full retirement age (66) and immediately suspended it. That would allow your benefit to continue growing while giving you the option to change your mind and get a lump-sum payout dating back to your application date.

Since Congress did away with file-and-suspend for people who turn 66 after April 30, that option is off the table for you. There are other ways to maximize your household benefit, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, author of “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” They include:

•Your wife suspends her benefit and lets it grow for another two years, then restarts getting checks when she turns 70.

•At 66, you file for a spousal benefit. People who are 62 or older by the end of this year retain the ability to file a “restricted application” for spousal benefits only once they turn 66. That option is not available to younger people, who will be given the larger of their spousal benefits or their own benefits when they apply.

•At 70, you switch to your own, maxed-out benefit. Again, the ability to switch from spousal to one’s own benefit is going away, but you still have the option to do this.

Consider saving in a 529 college savings plan, which offers tax advantages while allowing you to retain control of the money. You can even withdraw the money for your own use if necessary, although you would pay income taxes and a 10% federal penalty on any earnings.

You should know, however, that college-savings plans owned by grandparents can mess with financial aid. Plans owned by grandparents aren’t factored into initial financial aid calculations, but any disbursements are counted as income that can negatively affect future awards. One workaround is to wait until Jan. 1 of the child’s junior year, when financial aid forms will no longer be a consideration, and pay for all qualified education expenses from that point on.

Obviously, you won’t have to worry about this if your grandchildren wouldn’t qualify for financial aid anyway. If your children also make six-figure incomes, that’s likely to be the case.

Q&A: More on teens and cars

Dear Liz: Your answer to the parent wanting to purchase a convertible for his son reminded me of something that happened long ago. When I graduated from high school in 1966, a friend’s wealthy parents bought him a brand-new Lamborghini Miura as a graduation present. Two days after he got the car, he missed a curve in the mountains and rolled the vehicle. By a miracle he was not badly hurt, but the car was scrap. You gave good advice. Giving your teenage son the keys to a high-performance car is like handing him a live grenade. Kids often want things that they should not have.

Answer: These stories are legion at affluent schools where parents are so focused on indulging their children, or flaunting their wealth, that they don’t fully consider the risks involved. Sometimes the children aren’t as lucky as your friend was.

Parents can still make an ostentatious display by buying their children new four-cylinder luxury sedans, replete with air bags and other safety features, and replacing them when they’re inevitably totaled. But everyone involved would be better off if parents avoided high-horsepower vehicles, new or used, that tempt their kids to test their driving limits.

Q&A: Student loans and mortgages

Dear Liz: I recently completed a master’s degree in counseling and am now paying student loans. I am punctual and consistent in my payments. How does having a $30,000 outstanding student loan look to home lenders? We recently sold our home and moved. We are planning to buy another home and have a large down payment. Does this student loan affect my home purchase potential? My husband and I are retired, and we pay our bills on time.

Answer: Student loans can have a positive effect on your credit scores if they’re paid on time. On the other hand, your payments are factored into the equation of how much mortgage you can afford and will reduce the amount you can borrow.

You should be rethinking the notion of borrowing more in any case. It’s not clear why you spent so much on a degree if you’re not using it. Perhaps a health setback made working impossible or an inheritance made it unnecessary. Generally, though, you should borrow for an education only if you expect it to increase your earning power enough to easily replay the loan. If you’re pursuing an education just for the pleasure of it or for a feeling of accomplishment, you should pay for it out of pocket or with savings.

A mortgage in retirement is tricky as well. Although some wealthy people keep their mortgages so they can invest the money elsewhere, most people are better off without loans once they stop working. Having to pay a mortgage often means having to take more out of your retirement funds and increasing the odds of running short of money. Also, remember that your income will drop when one of you dies because one Social Security check goes away. That could make it harder to pay the bills.

Consider meeting with a fee-only financial planner who can assess your financial situation and offer advice about the best course. It could be that you can well afford student loans and a mortgage. Or you could be headed for disaster. It’s better to find out while there may still be time to put that degree to work to boost your income or take steps to conserve your funds.

Q&A: Divorce and mortgages

Dear Liz: Our daughter was divorced in 2012 from her husband of 20 years. He still lives in the house they shared and she lives elsewhere. He pays the mortgage. When she asks him to remove her name from the mortgage, he says she is harassing him. What are her legal options and steps to accomplish this?

Answer: The couple’s divorce agreement should have addressed this issue. If he agreed to take sole responsibility for the mortgage, she should consult an attorney about holding him to that agreement.

It’s not as simple as requesting that the lender remove her name from the loan, said Emily Doskow, author of “Nolo’s Essential Guide to Divorce.”

“Every once in a while you’ll come across a mortgage lender that is willing to release one of the parties,” Doskow said. “But that’s very, very rare.”

Typically, getting her off the loan would require him to refinance or sell the home. If for some reason the divorce agreement doesn’t address the debt, your daughter still has considerable leverage if her name is on the deed. If she’s still an owner of the home, she can force a sale, Doskow said.

If she’s not on the deed, her options are limited. She may need to ask a court to intervene, Doskow said.

As long as she’s on the mortgage, her credit and ability to buy another home are tied up with her ex. If he stops making the mortgage payments — because he can’t afford them or out of spite — her credit would be trashed, since they are jointly responsible for the debt.

This is why it’s so important to separate all credit accounts and refinance any loans before a divorce is final. Otherwise, the two exes can be tied together financially, if not for life then at least for the life of a loan.

Q&A: Car for a 16-year old

Dear Liz: My son is almost 16 and has his heart set on a used luxury convertible. We have found a few that are priced at about $23,000 with about 50,000 miles. We are debating whether this is the right choice for him. The type he wants is not overpowered (it has a six-cylinder engine), has many safety features and gets decent gas mileage. He has worked hard since he was 8 in our business and has saved about half the money needed. (He invests his money and almost never spends it.) I know that if he had a nice car like this, he wouldn’t be getting the message that he is entitled to it. But is it just too much for a 16-year-old? He goes to a private high school in an affluent area, so he has seen parents buy their kids expensive luxury cars that get wrecked and then replaced only to be destroyed again. He can see that’s not the way to go. He is an excellent driver as well.

Answer: He may be an excellent driver while you’re in the car, but you have no idea yet how he’ll do once he’s turned loose with a license.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the death rate for males ages 16 to 19 is twice that of females the same age. Per mile driven, teenagers are almost three times more likely than other drivers to be involved in a fatal crash. And the presence of male teen passengers increases the likelihood of risky driving behavior. Even the most responsible kid can get goaded into doing stupid things. (In fact, goading each other into doing stupid things is a defining trait of adolescence.)

This is why safety factors are key when considering cars for new drivers. Convertibles overall are safer than they used to be, but many lack some of the protective features that are more common in sedans, such as side curtain or “head protection” air bags that deploy from overhead. Some convertibles have an automatic roll bar that pops up when sensors detect an imminent crash or rollover, but most don’t.

In general, safety advocates recommend bigger, heavier vehicles with lots of safety features for teen drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety maintains a list of good, affordable used cars for new drivers that includes coupes, sedans, wagons, SUVs, minivans and even a few pickups — but not convertibles.

Give your son a few years of practice driving a big, dumb, uncool, underpowered vehicle. You’ll raise the odds that he’ll have many, many years ahead of him to drive the car of his dreams.

Q&A: Social Security claiming strategy

Dear Liz: Your recent article about Social Security claiming strategies may contain some wrong information. You told the woman who is 64 and had a former spouse who died that she could take her own benefit now and then switch to her survivor benefits when reaching 66. I wanted my wife to do something like this (but not the survivor part; I’m still alive), but was told by a few Social Security experts that this scenario is not possible because Social Security deems spouses to be filing for the spousal benefit and their own retirement at the same time. Once they’re deemed to have filed for both benefits, they get the larger of the two and can’t switch later. Please print a clarification.

Answer: Let’s clarify that you are still breathing and the ex-spouse in the original letter is not. The fact that you’re alive makes a world of difference, not just to you and your loved ones but to the Social Security benefit system.

When you’re alive, your spouse (or ex-spouse) may receive spousal benefits. When you’re dead, your spouse or ex-spouse may receive survivor benefits. Survivor benefits would essentially equal your benefit, while spousal benefits are capped at half of your benefit. Both spousal and survivor benefits are reduced if they’re started before the recipient’s full retirement age (currently 66).

There are other differences. Survivors can remarry at age 60 or later without losing their benefits. They also can switch from their own benefit to a survivor benefit, or vice versa, at any time.

Spousal benefits paid to a divorced person, by contrast, end if that person remarries at any age. Also, there’s the deeming issue you mention. When people apply for spousal benefits before their own full retirement age, they’re deemed or considered by Social Security to be applying for both spousal and their own retirement benefits. They’re given an amount equal to the larger of the two, and they lose the option of switching to their own benefits later, even if it would have been larger.

Those who wait until full retirement age had the option of filing a restricted application for spousal benefits only, which would allow them to switch later. Congress recently eliminated that option for those who haven’t turned 62 by the end of this year.

Q&A: Public pension and Social Security

Dear Liz: I am one of the thousands of adjunct faculty who teach in our nation’s colleges. We are paid on an hourly or per-class basis. We therefore earn a fraction of what tenured faculty earn. I am covered by a state teachers pension, but my anticipated benefit, even after 30 years of teaching, will not exceed $1,500 per month. I have qualified for a modest Social Security benefit of perhaps $1,000, accrued through years of part-time work as a student and graduate student. I have been told that my Social Security will be reduced because of my teacher’s pension.

Surely this cannot be correct. I understand that if I were collecting a generous state or military pension, I would not need Social Security. However, without my Social Security, my teacher’s pension will not even lift me above the poverty level. Isn’t there some sort of “means testing” before they slash your Social Security benefit?

Answer: You were informed correctly. When you receive a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security, any Social Security benefit you did earn may be reduced (but not eliminated).
Before the creation of the Windfall Elimination Provision, people who received pensions based on earnings not covered by Social Security often got a proportionately larger benefit than those who paid into the system their entire working lives.

The Social Security site has a chart and a calculator to help you understand how your benefit might be affected. The chart shows that if you reached age 62 this year and you had fewer than 20 years of so-called “substantial earnings” covered by Social Security, your monthly benefit could be reduced by up to $413 or half of your teacher’s pension, whichever is less. Limiting the offset to half protects people who get small pensions from having too much of their Social Security benefit wiped out. Substantial earnings are wages equal to or above a certain amount each year ($22,050 for 2015) from jobs that paid into Social Security.

Based on the information you provided, your pension and Social Security income would total just over $2,000 a month. That’s not a lot, but the average Social Security check in 2015 was about $1,300. The poverty threshold in 2015, meanwhile, was $980 per month for a one-person household and $1,327.50 for a two-person household.