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Dear Liz: My partner of 30 years recently died. Am I eligible for Social Security survivor benefits? I don’t want anything I don’t deserve, but if I’m entitled to something, every penny would be appreciated. I am 54 and make minimum wage.

Answer: Your eligibility for Social Security benefits as a spouse depends on three factors: whether your state recognizes same-sex marriages, whether it did so on the date your partner died and whether you were legally married. (You wrote “partner” rather than “spouse,” which suggests you may not have been.)

The Supreme Court paved the way for Social Security to offer same-sex benefits when it ruled parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional last summer. Social Security has taken the position that it must follow state law in recognizing same-sex marriages and that what matters is where the couple live, not where they married. Even in states where same-sex marriage is currently legal, Social Security denies survivor benefits if it wasn’t legal when the spouse died.

If you are eligible, you can start receiving benefits as early as age 60. (Survivor benefits are available at any age if the widow or widower takes care of a child receiving Social Security benefits who is younger than 16 or disabled.)

Starting early reduces your survivor benefit significantly compared with what you would get if you wait until your full retirement age of 67. As a survivor, though, you’re allowed to switch to your own benefit later, if that benefit is larger. (That’s different from spousal benefits, where spouses are precluded from switching to their own benefits if they start getting Social Security checks before their own full retirement age.) If your survivor benefit is likely to be larger than any benefit you’ve earned on your own, though, it typically makes sense to delay starting Social Security as long as possible to maximize what you’ll get.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: You recently wrote about student loan forgiveness. After 15 years as a public defender, my wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and could no longer pursue her career as a lawyer. She applied for forgiveness of the federal student loans she used to attend law school. About three years later, the loans were forgiven. The caveat is that she was required to pay income taxes based on the balance that was erased. The taxes amounted to $63,000. Getting the loan forgiven was easy compared with coughing up the money for the IRS. I thought this should be mentioned.

Answer: The IRS generally considers forgiven or canceled debt as income to the borrower. There are several exceptions, however.

Borrowers don’t have to pay income taxes on student loans forgiven through programs that require them to work for a specific number of years in a certain profession. So public service loan forgiveness, law school repayment assistance, teacher loan forgiveness and the National Health Service Corps’ loan repayment program won’t trigger taxes. Forgiven debt also may be excluded from income if the borrower was insolvent at the time.

Student loan discharges for death, disability, closed schools, false certification and unpaid refunds typically are considered taxable income, however. Forgiveness of remaining balances under income-based repayment programs after 20 or 25 years of payment is also considered taxable.

The taxes owed will be a percentage of the amount forgiven, based on your tax bracket. If you’re in the 25% federal bracket, for example, you’d pay $25,000 for $100,000 of forgiven debt, plus any state and local income taxes. It’s less than the tab you owed, of course, but as you note it can still be a tough bill to pay.

Categories : Q&A, Student Loans, Taxes
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Q&A: The stigma of bankruptcy

Nov 24, 2014 | | Comments (0)

Dear Liz: Someone recently asked you about whether they were responsible for their mother’s credit card debt, and at the end of your answer you suggested she talk to a bankruptcy attorney. How can you promote that kind of irresponsibility?

Answer: Some people are quite firm in their belief that bankruptcy should never be an option — even for elderly widows on fixed incomes with no hope of ever paying off their debts. But if enough things go wrong in their lives, these anti-bankruptcy folks might find themselves grateful that there’s a legal way out of the debtors’ prison that their lives would become.

Categories : Bankruptcy, Q&A
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Friday’s need-to-know money news

Nov 21, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailToday’s top story: A little known tax credit could save future retirees money. Also in the news: How to avoid overspending during the holidays, making the right upgrades when selling your home, and how to maximize your Social Security benefits.

The Crucial Tax Credit Retirement Savers Don’t Know About
Your 401(k) contributions could save you money come tax time.

Watch out! 11 ways retailers get you to overspend
Retailers have their eyes on your wallet for the holidays.

Know Your Market When Doing Home Upgrades To Increase Value
Investing in the right improvements.

How to Maximize Social Security for Your Retirement
When you decide to start taking benefits can make a huge difference.

5 Ways to Whip Your Budget Into Shape for the Holidays
The holidays don’t have to leave you broke.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Nov 20, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

retirement-savings3Today’s top story: How to prepare your finances for the end of the year. Also in the news: Strategies to prevent holiday shopping binges, why your employer wants you to save for retirement, and what to do as you approach retirement.

5 Year-End Personal Finance Tips
Preparing for the new year.

3 Strategies to Prevent a Holiday Shopping Binge
Keeping the festivities in check.

The Surprising Reason Employers Want You to Save for Retirement
It’s all about productivity.

5 things to do now if you’re near retirement
Start preparing for one of life’s biggest changes.

7 Money Myths About Millennials
Millennial mythbusting.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Nov 19, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

bank_fee1Today’s top story: Beware the dirty tricks of student loan collectors. Also in the news: Tax tips, the best strategy for holiday shopping, and busting some digital banking myths.

Watch Out for These Student Loan Debt Collectors’ Dirty Tricks
Stay on your toes.

Beat the Crowd With This Smart Year-End Tax Move
Understanding capital losses.

Top 5 Digital Banking Myths
Time for some mythbusting.

The Best Strategies for Your Final Holiday Shopping Countdown
The war plan for holiday shopping.

3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Taking Out Student Loans
Hindsight is your best friend/worst enemy.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailI recently used the College Board’s “estimated family contribution” calculator to see how much we’ll be expected to pay when our (currently pre-teen) daughter heads off to college.

The answer? Roughly half our annual incomes. Each year.

No colleges actually charge the amount we’d theoretically be expected to pay. So our out-of-pocket costs would be somewhat less. But the exercise drives home how important it is to run these numbers, early and often, if you want a college education for your kids that doesn’t bankrupt you, and them.

Because I know how the formulas work, I was able to tweak some numbers to lower our EFC. Moving more money into retirement accounts and using savings to pay down the mortgage helped a lot with the federal formula, and helped some with the institutional formula (which, unlike the federal, counts home equity). We still wouldn’t get any need-based help from most colleges but could get some breaks if our daughter gets into one of the most-expensive elite schools. (The total cost of the average public college is $20,000 to $25,000; $40,000 for privates and $60,000 for elites.)

If we didn’t have a fat college savings account, we likely would steer our daughter toward public schools or privates willing to offer merit scholarships to reduce the total cost. It’s much better to start a college search knowing what you can afford than to have to tell your kid, dream school acceptance letter in her hand, that you can’t send her there. Or worse, that you will–and then never be able to retire.

For more about how financial aid formulas work, read my Reuters column this week: “A guide to figuring out the real cost of college.”

 

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Nov 18, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

homebuyerToday’s top story: How to financially prepare for winter. Also in the news: How to determine if you should rent or buy a home, how to keep student loans from ruining your life, and how to avoid gift card fraud during the holidays.

8 Ways to Tackle Winter Money Challenges With Ease
How to reduce heating costs and holiday expenses.

Know Your “Rent-to-Price” Ratio When Deciding If You Should Buy a Home
How to determine if you should consider buying vs renting.

7 ways to top student loans from ruining your life
Taking charge of your loans.

How to Avoid Gift Card Fraud This Holiday Season
Protecting your purchases.

When You’re Most Likely to Get a Call From a Debt Collector
Prepare yourself.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Grab your Small Business Saturday credits now

Nov 17, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailAmerican Express’ “Small Business Saturday” credits are back, and they’re more lucrative this year: a $10 statement credit for purchases of $10 or more at qualifying small businesses on Nov. 29. You can get up to $30 in credits on each registered card.

I signed up three of our Amex cards yesterday when registration opened, which means we’re now eligible for $90 in statement credits. I then checked the list of small businesses in our neighborhood where we can use the credits, and sketched out what I plan to buy where. I’ll get a chunk of my Christmas shopping done, while also picking up supplies I was planning to buy anyway.

Free money is always good, and free money to support the businesses that support our community is even better.

Amex says registration for the cards is limited, so hop to it. You can use the “Amex offers for you” tab in your online Amex account or the ShopSmall.com site. Using “offers for you” tab seems to preclude you from registering more than one card, but it appears you can register additional cards at the ShopSmall site. Make sure to read the offer terms so you understand how the credits work and what type of transactions don’t qualify (such as transactions made with an electronic wallet, through a third party or if the merchant uses a mobile or wireless card reader to process the transaction).

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Monday’s need-to-know money news

Nov 17, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

22856641_SAToday’stop story: For a low-cost college education, consider moving to these places. Also in the news: Celebrating your small financial victories, the hype surrounding Black Friday, and why more Americans are having a tough time making ends meet.

The Best and Worst Places to Live for a Low-Cost College Education
Planning ahead.

Celebrate Your Small Financial Wins for Better Savings Motivation
Small victories quickly add up.

5 Black Friday Deals That Aren’t (and 3 That Should Be)
Don’t believe the hype.

America’s Top Money Problem: Trying to Make Ends Meet
More Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

Everything You Need to Know About Down Payments
When to take that giant leap.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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