Q&A: At retirement, should you roll your 401(k) into your IRA? Think about these factors

Dear Liz: I turned 70 last week and therefore I am leaving my part-time job after about 13 years. No big deal, but now that I am retiring I have a 401(k) worth about $60,000 and an IRA that is somewhere around $50,000. Should I roll my 401(k) account into my IRA or just let it sit there collecting dust? I do understand that at age 70½ I am supposed to start withdrawing some of the funds, but am not sure how much. It seems 70 years creeped up on me.

Answer: Years have a nasty habit of doing that.

You mentioned that you’re retiring because you’ve achieved a certain age. Few jobs have mandatory retirement ages, though. If you don’t retire, you can continue putting off required minimum distributions from your 401(k). You would still have to take minimum distributions from your IRA, unless your employer allows you to roll that money into your 401(k) plan.

But we’ll assume you’re happy with your decision. Rolling your 401(k) into your IRA isn’t necessarily the best option. What you should do next depends on the details of both accounts.

Most large-company 401(k)s allow retirees to take regular distributions, including required minimum distributions, from the plans. These plans also tend to offer low-cost institutional funds that may be a much better deal than those you can access as a retail investor with an IRA. If you’ve got a good 401(k) that allows retirement distributions, there may be no need to move your money.

If your employer’s plan doesn’t allow such distributions, don’t automatically assume your current IRA provider is the best choice, especially if it’s a full-service brokerage or insurance company. Compare the fees of the investment options with what’s available from a discount brokerage. Transferring all your retirement money to a lower-cost provider can help you keep more money in your pocket.

Calculating your required minimum distributions isn’t difficult. The IRS has tables on its website, and in Publication 590, to help you figure out how much money to withdraw. Various sites have calculators as well.

One caveat: If you keep your IRA and 401(k) separate, you’ll have to calculate required minimum distribution separately for each account and withdraw those amounts from each account, says Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for taxes and accounting at Wolters Kluwer. That’s different from the rules when you have multiple IRAs. When you have more than one IRA, you calculate the required minimum distribution based on the total of all your IRAs but are allowed to take the distribution itself from any one of them.

Q&A: How to cut back after spending a windfall

Dear Liz: I inherited a substantial amount of money when a relative died. I put most of it in retirement funds, but as a few stray accounts were found, sometimes I just deposited them in my bank account and lived comfortably on $1,000 to $2,000 over my normal income. I have no debt, but I’ve grown accustomed to this extra cash. What’s the best way to reel back into a lifestyle I can afford on my $62,000 annual salary?

Answer: Those windfalls represented a substantial increase to your regular income, so cutting back may be painful. It’s so much easier to ramp up our lifestyles than to crank them back.

Start by tracking your spending. Once you understand your patterns, you can figure out where to cut back.

Don’t automatically assume that the luxuries you were able to buy with the extra money are now off limits. If you traveled more and enjoyed it, for example, that should still have a place in your budget. You could cut elsewhere to make sure travel is part of your life. If some of your spending didn’t bring you much joy, though, pay attention to that as well. You may have started eating out more only to find your health suffered, or you didn’t enjoy it that much, and you’d be fine doing that less often.

Your goal with any spending plan should be identifying which expenditures are important to you and which aren’t — then reducing the latter so you can have more of the former.

Q&A: You may be good with money, but if sister didn’t ask your opinion, butt out

Dear Liz: My sister and her husband are in their 80s. They are not in the greatest health but still able to live on their own. They’ve had some bad luck financially in the past. Last year they decided to convert part of their property to serve as a short-term rental. I questioned the advisability and legality of this. I was told they had checked and it was all right legally. They proceeded, but it wasn’t legal and their homeowners association shut them down. They have now decided to rent the space month-to-month through a property management firm as the HOA will allow rentals of one month or longer.

I shared my experience with rental property, which has been very mixed. Busybody that I am, I also provided information from a friend whose family had invested in rental property. My brother-in-law insists that he had a good experience many years ago with rentals. Am I wrong to call this a bad idea? Should old people try to recoup the money they put into their ill-advised initial rental attempt with another ill-advised rental attempt?

Answer: The answer to both questions is most likely, “It’s none of your business.”

You didn’t indicate anywhere in your letter that your sister or brother-in-law had sought your opinion. You also didn’t mention any signs that they may suffer from diminished capacity or any other cognitive problem that would require intervention.

What you did do was call yourself a busybody. You might want to reflect on what causes you to repeatedly offer advice to people who aren’t interested in hearing it. Those of us who are “good with money” often feel justified in lecturing those who aren’t, or who have had (as you put it) bad luck financially. Our advice is seldom welcomed, though, and can be more about making ourselves feel superior than really helping someone else. Giving unsolicited advice is actually a terrible habit, and a hard one to break since it’s so deliciously enjoyable (although not for the recipient, obviously).

If we want our opinions to truly matter, we should be more sparing with them. We can start by proffering advice only when it’s specifically requested. When we’re tempted to make an exception to this rule, we should do so only after careful thought and preferably after consulting with a friend who already is in the habit of keeping her opinions to herself. We’ll likely discover what she’s already learned, which is that our meddling usually isn’t appreciated.

Q&A: When to consider creating a trust

Dear Liz: You’ve written about trusts recently, but I’m confused. What are the benefits of creating a trust and putting all of your assets in it? Does it make sense for someone in their 30s and without any major assets, such as a house, to create a trust? Will I need to create a new trust if I get married?

Answer: There are many different types of trusts, but they’re typically designed to protect assets in one way or another. If you don’t have a lot of assets, you may not need a trust — at least not yet.

One of the most common types of trusts is a revocable living trust, which is designed to avoid the potential costs and delays of probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. In some states, probate is not that big a deal, while in others, including California, probate can be lengthy and expensive.

It’s often possible to avoid probate using beneficiary designations on financial accounts and, in some states, on property including vehicles and real estate. That may be sufficient for small estates or people just starting out. Once you have a home and some assets you’ll want to investigate whether a living trust makes sense.

Q&A: A husband’s death. A pile of bills. Now what?

Dear Liz: After my husband died, I was in shock and really not in my right mind for at least a year, but really more. During this time I didn’t pay attention to bills. Only the ones that were getting shut off got paid. Now I’m behind on several credit cards that I’ve had for years. I can’t keep up anymore, but I don’t know what to do.

Answer: It’s natural in your situation to be overwhelmed and not know where to start. Your first task should be determining if you can realistically pay what you owe.

If your unsecured personal debt — credit cards, medical bills, payday loans and personal loans — equals half or more of your income, then you may not be able to dig yourself out. If that’s the case, consider making appointments with a credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney to review your options. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org or (800) 388-2227 and the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org.

Even if your debts don’t total half your income, you may find it helpful to discuss your situation with a credit counselor or an accredited financial counselor (referrals from the Assn. for Financial Counseling and Planning Education at www.afcpe.org). These counselors can review your situation and help you craft a plan to get your finances back on solid ground.

Social Security survivor benefits also can be a way to restore your financial stability, depending on your age. You can receive survivor benefits starting at age 60, or age 50 if you’re disabled, or at any age if you’re caring for your husband’s child if the child is younger than age 16 or disabled.

Applying for survivor benefits doesn’t preclude you from applying for your own retirement benefit later. You could take a widow’s benefit at 60 and then switch to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70, if your own benefit would be larger at that point.

Q&A: The reasons behind falling credit score

Dear Liz: Please explain to me how one’s credit depreciates. After paying off my home, my credit score went from mid-700 to mid-600. There were no changes or inquiries. I built it back up to 734, got into a tight spot and took a loan from my bank. I just checked the score again and now it’s 687. I have not been late or missed a payment. I thought keeping current on all payments and in some cases paying more would help, but it’s not. I need some help and direction.

Answer: We’ll assume that you’ve been monitoring the same type of score from the same credit bureau. (You don’t have just one credit score, you have many, and they can vary quite a bit depending on the credit bureau report on which they’re based and the formula used.)

Paying off a mortgage could have a minor negative impact on your credit scores if that was your only installment loan. Credit score formulas typically reward you for having a mix of installment loans and revolving accounts, such as credit cards.

But the drop shouldn’t have been that big. Something else probably triggered the decline, such as an unusually large balance on one of your credit cards.

Scoring formulas are sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using, so you may be able to restore points by paying down your debt if you carry a balance or charging less if you pay in full each month. There’s no advantage to carrying a balance, by the way, so it’s better to pay off your cards every month.

Q&A: Can creditors get your IRA funds?

Dear Liz: You recently wrote that workplace retirement plans offer unlimited protection from creditors but that IRAs are protected only up to $1,283,025. When I transferred my 401(k) to a rollover IRA, the advisors at the brokerage assured me that the rolled-over money also enjoys the unlimited protection. Your article seems to imply otherwise. Can you clarify what is the correct rule?

Answer: Two sets of rules apply, which causes a fair amount of confusion.

In bankruptcy court, your transferred money would be protected. Money rolled into an IRA from a workplace plan such as a 401(k) enjoys unlimited protection from creditors in bankruptcy filings. Outside of bankruptcy court, however, creditor protection is determined by your state’s laws, which may not be as generous. If someone successfully sues you and wins a judgment, for example, your IRA could be at risk.

Q&A: An inexpensive lawyer in the suburbs is fine for smaller estates

Dear Liz: My wife and I have updated our will and trust every 10 years. So far we’ve been sorely disappointed. The local bar association recommended some attorneys, but they were relatively young, inexperienced, unable to answer a lot of our most basic questions, and produced documents that I could have created on my home computer. It seems as though the most experienced attorneys are downtown in tall office buildings with equally tall price tags while the suburbs get the new graduates, the generalists or the estate planning attorneys who didn’t make it in the big leagues. Can you recommend a referral source that will actually suggest someone who is experienced, specializes in estate planning and won’t require us to drive 40 miles to downtown?

Answer: The first question that must be asked is whether yours is a big-league estate.

If your joint estate is worth more than $22.4 million, the current estate tax exemption limit for a married couple, you probably should swallow your distaste and hire a skyscraper-based attorney. You’ll need expert help dealing with estate tax issues, and that doesn’t come cheap.

If your estate is not in the big leagues, you should still be able to hire a competent, experienced attorney if you do sufficient research beforehand. Understand that software will be drafting your plan, regardless of which lawyer you choose.

What you’re paying for is advice on the documents you need, assurance that those documents are prepared correctly and help getting the deeds for your real estate recorded for your trust, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. Good estate planning attorneys have seen the many ways an estate plan can go wrong so they can give the guidance needed to help you avoid disaster and create the outcomes you want.

Sawday said the best source of referrals maybe your CPA or tax preparer. Your tax pro has a good idea of your financial situation and probably has referred many other clients to good attorneys. Financial planners and attorneys who specialize in other areas can often recommend someone as well.

“Professionals don’t refer to other professionals time and time again who give bad service or otherwise generate unhappy clients,” Sawday said.

Interview two or three attorneys before you decide. You’ll typically have to pay a consultation fee, but you’ll have a much better idea of whether they can answer your questions to your satisfaction.

The suburbs, by the way, are precisely where you’re likely to find reasonably priced, competent attorneys, since they don’t have the same overhead costs as the skyscraper set.

Q&A: When rolling your 401(k) into an IRA isn’t a good idea

Dear Liz: I have just retired. I have a 401(k) from work. Do I keep it as is or do I roll it over into an IRA?

Answer: Investment companies and their representatives like to push the idea of rollovers as the best option, but that may profit them more than it does you.

Leaving your money in your employer’s 401(k) has several potential advantages. Many 401(k)s offer access to institutional funds, which can be much cheaper than the retail funds available to IRA investors. Workplace retirement plans also offer unlimited protection from creditors if you’re sued or forced to file bankruptcy. An IRA’s bankruptcy exemption is limited to $1,283,025, and protection from creditors’ claims varies by state. (In California, for example, only amounts “necessary for support” are out of reach of creditors.)

If you retired early, you can access your 401(k) without penalty at age 55. The typical age to avoid penalties from IRA withdrawals is 59½.

You may opt for a rollover if your 401(k) offers only expensive or poorly performing options. Even if you decide to roll over the rest of your 401(k), though, get a tax pro’s advice before you roll over any company stock. You may be better off transferring the stock to a taxable account now so you can let future appreciation qualify for capital gains rates. Ask your tax pro how best to take advantage of this “net unrealized appreciation.”

Q&A: A ‘poor man’s trust’ may be a poor estate plan

Dear Liz: I am 85 and my wife is 76. We have a house free of mortgage worth about $1 million. We have market investments above $4 million and life insurance of $1 million. We do not have a trust, just a will. Our financial advisor says that we do not need a trust because we have named both of our grown children as beneficiaries on all of our accounts and on the deed to our house. Please advise us if a trust is needed in our situation or if we are fine the way things are set up.

Answer: If your financial advisor is an estate-planning attorney, he or she may be correct. Otherwise, you’d be smart to seek out a lawyer experienced in these matters to review what you’ve done.

Naming beneficiaries on financial accounts, and on deeds in states that allow that, can allow those assets to pass to heirs without going through probate. So-called transfer-on-death accounts and deeds are sometimes called “the poor man’s trust.” You’re far from poor, though, and a living trust may be a better option for distributing your wealth because there are many ways the current arrangement could go wrong.

The surviving spouse, for example, could change the beneficiaries. You both may be of sound mind now, but there’s no guarantee you’ll remain so. Fraud experts can tell story after story of caregivers, relatives, friends, advisors and romantic interests persuading a vulnerable older person to change beneficiaries in favor of the interloper. A living trust that bypasses probate can include language to prevent your children from being completely disinherited.

Another potential problem: paying funeral costs and the expenses of settling the estate. If everything does go to the kids at the survivor’s death, the executor may have to go after them to return some of the money.

This column isn’t long enough to detail all the other ways transfer-on-death arrangements can misfire, so you’ll want to make an appointment with an experienced estate-planning attorney soon.