Friday’s need-to-know money news

smartphones_financeToday’s top story: A good retirement savings option for the self-employed. Also in the news: Jobs that could mark you as a risk for late payments, what to ask before giving a cell phone as a gift, and the financial perks of not celebrating Christmas.

A Good Retirement Savings Option for the Self-Employed
Consider a Solo 401(k).

Study: These Jobs Could Mark You as a Risk for Late Payments on Personal Loans
Is yours on the list?

Ask These Questions Before Giving a Cell Phone This Season
What you need to know before making a purchase.

The Financial Perks of Not Celebrating Christmas
The upside to being The Grinch.

Gift cards aren’t gifts

gift-cardsIf it’s the thought that counts, then gift cards don’t count much at all.

They’re popular, granted. Six out of 10 people responding to National Retail Federation surveys this year said they wanted to receive gift cards for the holidays, and more than half said they planned to give them.

The rest of us may think of gift cards as a cop-out. Gift cards are what you give when you don’t have a clue what makes the recipient tick and can’t trouble yourself to find out.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why it makes more sense to give cash this holiday season instead of gift cards, and why the search for the perfect gift still matters.

Q&A: Graduation gifts and financial aid

Dear Liz: Our grandson’s stellar high school performance and his family financial situation were such that he was admitted to his state university with grants sufficient to pay all school fees, including room and board, with no loans or work-study. His grandmother and I have a 529 account in his name that has enough money to pay about twice his estimated books and living expenses, given this level of financial aid.

His other grandparents gave him a high school graduation present of a check for four times the annual estimated books and living expenses. Does he need to amend this year’s financial aid form to reflect this generous gift? Should I suggest he put part of the gift aside for future years to diminish the effect on future financial aid?

Because of his unexpected gift, we plan to not use the funds in the 529 account until needed for his undergraduate or possible graduate school expenses. If he doesn’t need the money, we plan to transfer the balance to his younger sister’s 529 account.

Answer: Your grandson won’t have to amend this year’s financial aid forms but he will have to declare the gift on next year’s form. That could indeed reduce his financial aid package, since such gifts are considered to be the student’s income and thus will be counted heavily against him next year.

There’s not much that can be done about it now, but generous grandparents in this situation might think about holding off on their gifts until the student’s final year in college when financial aid is no longer a consideration. Paying that last year’s expenses, or paying down any student loan balances, would be a gift without repercussions.

What Mom really wants on Sunday…

Massage of shuolder…is a day at the spa, according to a poll commissioned by Insure.com.

About two out of five moms picked pampering as their top choice for a purchased gift. A family getaway was the next most popular option, preferred by about one third of respondents. Gift cards, a nice dinner out, a romantic getaway, chocolates and breakfast in bed were other favorites.

As for the day itself, the majority wanted to spend time with the whole family and preferred homemade presents from their kids.

Appreciating Mom means appreciating all the things mothers do, which offers a natural segue (at least for personal finance types) to a discussion about the importance of life insurance. That’s part of the Insure.com post as well. The idea is that if Mom weren’t around, you’d have to not only replace her income (assuming she works outside the home, as most mothers do) plus hire someone to perform at least some of the many tasks she accomplishes each day.

But “Hey, Mom, I bought you some life insurance!” doesn’t really have the right ring to it. So look into getting insurance, but book the massage as well.

Capital gains boost income tax bracket

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about potential capital gains on the sale of a property that was a gift from the parents (“Gifting home creates unnecessary tax bill“). The husband of the seller made $75,000 a year in income and the seller didn’t work. Isn’t it true that if his taxable income remains in the 15% bracket (taxable income of $70,700 or less), they would owe no capital gains tax, at least as it stands for 2012? With standard deductions, he would fall into the 15% bracket.

Answer: It’s true that the capital gains tax rate is zero for people in the 10% and 15% income tax brackets. But the amount of capital gains is added to your other income to determine your bracket.

“The $75,000 of current income plus $85,000 of gain would put them well into the 25% tax bracket and subject to the 15% capital gain rate,” said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm CCH. “A standard deduction of $11,900 plus a couple of exemptions of $3,800 each for 2012 could make part of the $85,000 gain taxed at a 0% rate, but the bulk of it would be taxed at the 15% capital gain rate.”

Gifting home creates unnecessary tax bill

Dear Liz: My wife and her brother are selling their parents’ home. The parents transferred the deed to their children’s names years ago. My wife should receive about $85,000 from the sale. Our yearly income (one salary; she’s a stay-at-home mom) is around $75,000. My wife is worried about capital gains taxes and wants to reinvest in another real estate property because she’s heard that that will eliminate the capital gains tax. Is that correct? I would really rather invest that money in our current home (finish the basement into a family room, update some items) and pay off our car loan than worry about another property to take care of. What do you think?

Answer: A 1031 exchange is a tax maneuver that allows owners of business or investment property to swap the real estate they have with another property, a transaction that can defer (but not necessarily eliminate) capital gains taxes.

It’s questionable whether your in-laws’ home would qualify as business or investment property, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for tax research firm CCH.

“Were the parents paying rent to the children after the title was passed to the children? If the kids owned the property and the parents were living there without paying rent, I do not think that would constitute investment property,” Luscombe said. “Perhaps if the parents were still paying upkeep expenses and real estate taxes, that might approach the equivalence of rent.”

If there’s a chance the property might qualify, your wife should consult a tax pro experienced with 1031 exchanges for details. Otherwise, she’ll need to write some good-sized checks to the tax authorities. Currently the federal capital gains tax rate is a maximum of 15%, although it will rise to 20% on Jan. 1 if Congress doesn’t reach a compromise on the so-called fiscal cliff. Add to that any state or local taxes on capital gains.

You may think of these taxes as a small price to pay compared with the risk of owning a piece of rental property. Your wife may have another concern that she has not voiced, however: She may not want this legacy from her parents to disappear into the general family budget. She may feel an obligation to preserve and try to grow the money, rather than sinking it into home improvements and other consumption. Legally, gifts and inheritances are considered separate property owned only by the spouse to whom they were given, even in community property states where most other assets are considered jointly owned.

If she wants to keep this money separate, in other words, that’s her right. It would be nice if she carved out a small chunk for family consumption, but she’s under no obligation to do so. If a 1031 exchange isn’t possible or feasible, then she could consult a fee-only planner about other ways to invest the money for the future.

By the way, it needs to be said: This tax bill was avoidable. If your in-laws had, instead of gifting the property, waited and bequeathed it at their deaths, the home would have received a so-called step-up in tax basis. Such a step-up in effect eliminates the need to pay capital gains taxes on any home price appreciation that occurred during the parents’ lives. Any parent thinking of adding a child’s name to a real estate deed should first consult an estate planning attorney to understand the ramifications, since gifting property this way can be an expensive mistake.