Q&A: When to keep a mortgage into retirement years and reasons you might want to pay it off

Dear Liz: My husband and I have no debt other than the mortgage on our home. My husband will retire in three years while I will continue to work. (I will have to pay for healthcare at that time, as I currently receive my benefits through his employer.) My husband insists that we pay our mortgage off before he retires. The mortgage balance is $59,000 now. We are able to do this, however, I am concerned that we will have no tax deduction whatsoever if we do. Who is correct?

Answer: You may have received some tax benefit in the past for your mortgage. After last year’s tax reform, it’s unlikely you’ll get any tax break going forward.

You have to be able to itemize your deductions to write off your mortgage interest. Now that Congress has nearly doubled the standard deduction, few taxpayers will have enough deductions to make itemizing worthwhile.

Even before tax reform, though, many homeowners got little or no tax benefit from their mortgages. They didn’t pay enough mortgage interest to make itemizing worthwhile, or their itemized deductions barely exceeded the standard deduction. The homeowners who got the biggest benefit were the ones with the largest mortgages. Even people with big mortgages tend to pay less interest over time as they pay down their loans.

Keeping a mortgage just for the tax break is kind of shortsighted, in any case, since you’re only getting back a fraction of what you pay out. For example, if you were in the 25% tax bracket, each dollar you paid in interest reduced your taxes by just 25 cents.

The best arguments for keeping a mortgage have to do with liquidity and investment returns. You shouldn’t pay off a mortgage if it means most of your money is tied up in your home, and if you don’t have enough other assets to cover emergencies and to generate future income. Also, some wealthier people opt to keep a mortgage because the loan is cheap, and they can make better returns on their money elsewhere.

Most people are better off without debts in retirement, though, so if you can pay off your home loan without compromising the rest of your financial life, you probably should.

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