Use inheritance to pay credit cards, not mortgage

Dear Liz: I will be inheriting around $300,000 over the next year. My instincts are to pay down debt with this money. I have two homes and for practical reasons need to keep them. One home has a $260,000 mortgage balance at 5%. The other has a $130,000 mortgage at 4%. We have $35,000 in credit card balances. Some are telling us to invest. I think we should pay off all the credit cards and then pay down the larger mortgage by $100,000 or more. Am I on the right track?

Answer: Paying off your whopping credit card debt is a great idea. You need to figure out, though, what caused you to rack up so much debt and fix that problem. Otherwise, you’re likely to find yourself back in the hole.

Paying down a mortgage is a trickier proposition. Most people have better things to do with their money than prepay a low-rate, tax-deductible debt. Before they consider doing so, they should make sure they’re saving adequately for retirement, that all their other debt is paid off, that they have a substantial emergency fund of at least six months’ worth of expenses, and that they’re adequately insured with appropriate health, property, life and disability coverage. Those with children should think about funding a college savings plan.

If you’ve covered all these bases, then paying down and perhaps refinancing the larger mortgage makes sense.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to save on your healthcare costs. Also in the news: Planning a successful retirement, how to handle new found wealth, and nine surprising stats on Social Security.

4 Ways to Save on Healthcare Costs
Preparing for January’s change in health care costs.

3 Phases of Successful Retirement Planning
Customizing your retirement planning based on your age.

Inheriting a Windfall: How to Handle Sudden Wealth
What to do once the shock wears off.

Nine surprising Social Security statistics
In 2012, 20% of the United States received Social Security.

Don’t Fall for these Credit, Gift Card Pitfalls and Gotchas
The importance difference between gift cards and pre-paid cards.

Thursday’s need-to know-money news

College studentAvoiding health care scams, improving your credit mix, and navigating the rocky roads of inheritance.

How to Avoid Healthcare Fraud
Don’t let yourself be scammed.

Rules of the Road for Improving Your Credit Mix
Taking on new credit could make it easier to get a mortgage.

Stop Family Feuds Over Inheritances Before They Start
Few things can tear a family apart worse than a will.

7 Huge Mistakes Back to School Shoppers Make
How to avoid overspending during the chaos of back to school shopping.

How to Buy Maternity and Kids Clothes on the Cheap
Don’t spend a fortune on clothes everyone will outgrow.

Don’t rush to pay taxes

Dear Liz: I am a CPA and fairly knowledgeable about investing, but I have a question about my IRAs. I am 58 and my husband is in his mid-80s. We both are retired with federal pensions and no debt other than a mortgage. My plan is to start taking money annually from my traditional IRA in two or three years. I want to reduce the required minimum distribution I will need to start taking at age 701/2 and lessen the tax impact at that time. Should I put these annual withdrawals in my regular investment account or should I put them in the Roth IRA? My goal is to lessen the tax impact on my only child when he ultimately inherits this money. Does my plan make sense?

Answer: Your letter is proof that our tax code is too complex if it can stymie even a CPA. Still, it’s hard to imagine any scenario where you’d be better off accelerating withdrawals from an IRA and putting them in a taxable account.

A required minimum distribution “is merely a requirement to take the money out anyway,” said Certified Financial Planner Michael Kitces, an expert in taxation. “All you’re doing by taking money out early to ‘avoid’ an RMD [required minimum distribution] is voluntarily inflicting an even more severe and earlier RMD on yourself.”

In other words, you’d be giving up future tax-advantaged growth of your money for no good reason.

What might make sense, in some circumstances, is moving the money to a Roth. You can’t make contributions to a Roth if you’re not working, because Roths require contributions be made from “earned income.” What you can do is convert your traditional IRA to a Roth, either all at once or over time. You have to pay taxes on amounts you convert, but then the money can grow tax-free inside the Roth and doesn’t have to be withdrawn again during your lifetime, since Roths don’t have required minimum distributions. Whether you should convert depends on a number of factors, including your current and future tax rates and those of your child.

“In other words, if your tax rate is 25% and your child’s is 15%, just let them inherit the [traditional IRA] account and pay the lower tax burden,” said Kitces, who has blogged about the Roth vs. traditional IRA decision at http://www.kitces.com. “In reverse, though, if the parents’ tax rate is lower … then yes, it’s absolutely better to convert at the parents’ rates than the child’s. In either scenario, the fundamental goal remains the same — get the money out when the tax rate is lowest.”

If you do decide to convert, remember that the conversion itself could put you in a higher tax bracket.

“It will be important not to convert so much that it drives up the tax rate to the point where it defeats the value in the first place,” Kitces said. “Which means the optimal strategy, if it’s to convert anything at all, will be to do partial Roth conversions to fill lower tax brackets but avoid being pushed into the upper ones.”

Estate taxes no longer a worry for most people

Dear Liz: My father passed away two years ago and my mother recently died as well. I will be getting about $50,000 from the sale of their house. Everyone tells me the tax on this will be very high, so I need advice about how not to give my parents’ money to the government. Their grandchildren should be able to see a legacy of their grandparents.

Answer: You need to stop listening to “everyone,” since these people clearly don’t know what they’re talking about.

You have to be pretty rich to worry about estate taxes these days. The money you inherit wouldn’t be subject to federal estate taxes unless your parents’ estates exceeded the federal exemption limit (which is currently more than $5 million per person). Some states have lower limits and a few have “inheritance taxes,” which base the tax rate on who is inheriting (spouses are typically exempt, and lineal descendants such as children pay a lower rate than others).

The vast majority of inheritors, however, won’t face any of these taxes. You should check with a tax pro, but chances are good your inheritance won’t incur a tax bill and you’ll be able to pass the entire amount along to your children without taxes as well if you wish.

Inheritance tax may not be worth avoiding

Dear Liz: My father-in-law’s spouse recently died. He is 89 and not in very good health. He has assets of about $3 million and lives in a state (Pennsylvania) that has an inheritance tax. What can he do to avoid state taxes and make sure his assets go where he wants them to go? He does not like to talk about these things but I’m trying to help. I have no interest in benefits to myself but I would hate to see his assets go to the state.

Answer: It’s one thing to encourage a parent or in-law to set up estate documents that protect them should they become incapacitated. Everyone should have durable powers of attorney drawn up so that someone else can make healthcare and financial decisions for them if they’re unable to do so.

It’s quite another matter to urge a potential benefactor to make sure the maximum amounts possible land in inheritors’ laps, especially if he or she doesn’t want to discuss the matter. You may need to accept that not everyone is interested in minimizing taxes for his heirs. Your father-in-law’s resistance to talk about these things is a good indicator that you should back off.

It’s not as if the majority of his assets will wind up in state coffers anyway.  Although Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has an inheritance tax, the rate isn’t exorbitant for most inheritors. (Unlike estate taxes, which are based on the size of the estate, inheritance taxes are based on who inherits. Your father-in-law doesn’t have to worry about estate taxes, since the federal exemption limit is now over $5 million and Pennsylvania doesn’t have a state estate tax.) In Pennsylvania, property left to “lineal descendants” — which includes parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren — faces tax rates of 4.5%. The tax rate is 12% for the dead person’s siblings and 15% for all others. Surviving spouses are exempt.

If he were interested in reducing future inheritance taxes, your father-in-law could move to one of the many states that doesn’t have such a tax. He also could give assets away before he dies, either outright or through an irrevocable trust. He may not be interested in or comfortable with any of those solutions. If he is, it’s up to him to take action. If he needs help or encouragement, let your wife or one of her siblings provide it. In estate planning matters, it’s usually best for in-laws to take a back seat.

Is a reverse mortgage a good option for this couple?

Dear Liz: I try to watch out for my neighbors, a married couple in their early 90s. Two of their three sons, who are both in their 60s, want them to get a reverse mortgage. The couple’s house is paid off as well as their cars. They pay all their monthly bills with Social Security and his pension. They have a living trust as well. Neither I nor the couple see any reason or upside but the sons are pressuring. Any input?

Answer: A reverse mortgage is typically a last-resort option for elderly people who are strapped for cash and who have few options for generating income other than tapping their home equity. The couple you’re describing does not seem to fit that profile.

The sons, however, may fit the profile of greedy relatives who can’t wait for their inheritances and who are trying to get their mitts on some money early (possibly squeezing out the third brother).

That assessment may be too harsh, but you might encourage the couple to talk to the attorney who drew up their living trust about this. If that attorney isn’t experienced in helping the elderly protect themselves, a field known as elder law, you could help them find someone who is by getting referrals from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, http://www.naela.org. If the two sons have any role in handling their parents’ money should the parents become incapacitated, it might be prudent to replace them or at least name another trusted party to serve with them.

Your neighbors also should consider letting the third son know what his brothers have been trying to do. In some families, the best defense against greed is an ethical relative who can keep his eye on the rest.

Windfall in your 50s? Don’t blow it

Dear Liz: I am 56 and will be receiving $175,000 from the sale of a home I inherited. I do not know what to do with this money. I have been underemployed or unemployed for six years, have no retirement savings and am terrified this money will get chipped away for day-to-day expenses so that I’ll have nothing to show for it. Should I invest? If so, what is relatively safe? Should I try to buy another house as an investment?

Answer: You’re right to worry about wasting this windfall, because that’s what often happens. A few thousand dollars here, a few thousand dollars there, and suddenly what once seemed like a vast amount of money is gone.

First, you need to talk to a tax pro to make sure there won’t be a tax bill from your home sale. Then you need to use a small portion of your inheritance to hire a fee-only financial planner who can review your situation and suggest some options. You can get referrals for fee-only planners who charge by the hour from the Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

You’re closing in quickly on retirement age, and you should know that typically Social Security doesn’t pay much. The average check is around $1,000 a month. This windfall can’t make up for all the years you didn’t save, but it could help you live a little better in retirement if properly invested.

You should read a good book on investing, such as Kathy Kristof’s “Investing 101,” so you can better understand the relationship between risk and reward. It’s understandable that you want to keep your money safe, but investments that promise no loss of principal don’t yield very much. In other words, keeping your money safe means it won’t be able to grow, which in turn means your buying power will be eroded over time.