Q&A: Capital gains on house sale

Dear Liz: I am one of those seniors who purchased their house in the 1970s. I would like to move but I’m reluctant because of the huge capital gain tax that I would have to pay. The exemption amount has not been raised since 1997 when it was enacted. In comparison, the estate tax exemption has risen from $600,000 in 1997 to more than $11 million currently. Wouldn’t raising the capital gain exemption stimulate the real estate market as more people would put their homes on the market and give more first-time buyers a chance at homeownership?

Answer: Perhaps, but you shouldn’t let tax law be the sole determinant of what you do or don’t do. Minimizing taxes can be a factor in your decisions but shouldn’t be the only one.

Also, keep in mind that the median home price in the U.S. is currently $226,300, according to real estate site Zillow. Most homeowners haven’t seen and probably won’t see enough appreciation to use a single $250,000 exemption, let alone the $500,000 available to couples.

So you may have a problem, but it’s an enviable problem. Even if you pay taxes at top rates, you’ll still have a substantial sum left over. And you may be able to spread out the tax bill using an installment agreement, in which the buyer pays you over time. You’ll want a tax pro’s help if you go that route, but you should consult one in any case to make sure you’re taking advantage of every other legal opportunity to reduce what you owe.

Q&A: Loans, taxes and home sales

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about determining home sale profits for a widow. My question is how you calculate taxes when there’s a loan in the mix. For instance, when I bought my home, I took out a mortgage. Subsequently, I took out a second mortgage to pay for a pool and landscaping. I also refinanced several times, but never took a mortgage with cash out. Please advise me how to calculate my cost basis given these loans. Of course, you can broaden your response to include other loan scenarios and how they play into cost basis.

Answer: This will be a short answer, because they don’t. What you owe the mortgage lender(s) is typically irrelevant for calculating your capital gain.

Q&A: Facing retirement with parent student loans? Transfer them to the kids

Dear Liz: I’m 60. Should I take a $50,000 distribution from my 401(k) to pay down my $146,000 parent Plus college loan and then try to refinance the balance with a private lender at a lower interest rate? I have $364,000 in my 401(k). I’m paying 8% interest on the parent Plus loan and planning to retire at age 66 years and 10 months, my full retirement age for Social Security.

Answer: Are you sure you can afford to retire?

You would still have a massive amount of education debt even after paying it down, plus a smaller nest egg. Unless you have a substantial amount of savings outside your 401(k) or another source of income besides Social Security, you could run a substantial risk of running short of money even if you can persuade a private lender to refinance your debt.

That may not be the best option, in any case. Federal loans have more consumer protections, including deferral and forbearance options and income-contingent repayment plans that could lower your payments.

Refinancing with a private lender might make the most sense if you can transfer this debt to the child or children who benefited from the education. Several private lenders offer this option if the kids have good credit and decent incomes.

In any case, you’d be smart to consult a fee-only financial planner who can review the specifics of your finances and offer advice.

Q&A: Student loan forgiveness fail

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from someone who had defaulted on federal student loans. You mentioned ways to get out of default and qualify for income-driven repayment plans that could reduce her monthly payments. Couldn’t she also qualify for student loan forgiveness?

Answer: There are programs that are supposed to allow federal student loan balances to be forgiven after 10 years of payments for people in public service jobs and after 20 or 25 years for other borrowers. It’s questionable how much anyone should count on getting this relief, however.

Last year was the first time borrowers qualified for forgiveness under the 10-year public service program, which was enacted under President George W. Bush in 2007. The Department of Education has denied the vast majority of applicants their expected relief. Nearly 40,000 people had applied by Dec. 31 and fewer than 300 people have been approved, according to the Washington Post.

Critics say the U.S. Department of Education has set much more rigid standards for approval than anything Congress envisioned when creating the program. Many applicants also relied on erroneous advice given by the private companies that service federal student loans.

It’s possible that lawsuits, or Congress, will force the Education Department to forgive more of the debt. But if this is what can happen to people who have given a decade of their lives to public service, one has to wonder how much relief other borrowers can expect to get.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.Distributed by No More Red Inc.

Q&A: Figuring home-sale taxes

Dear Liz: My husband and I bought a home in Los Angeles in 1976 for $200,000. He died in 1992. The value of the house was at that time about $850,000. (I had it appraised.)

I want to sell the house now. The value is about $2 million. How much would be the stepped-up base for capital gain tax when I sell it?

Answer: In most states, only your husband’s half of the home would have gotten a new tax basis at his death. (A tax basis is used to determine potentially taxable profit.) In community property states such as California, however, both halves of a property get the step up in basis when one spouse dies.

You can add to your basis any commissions or fees paid to purchase the property and the cost of any additions or improvements. What you spent on maintenance and repairs doesn’t count. The improvement must add to the value of your home, prolong its useful life or adapt it to new uses to qualify, according to the IRS.

To figure your taxable profit, you’ll take the net amount you receive from the sale — the sale price minus any commissions or fees paid to sell the home — and subtract your basis from that. You can exempt up to $250,000 of the home sale profit, but you would pay long-term capital gains rates on the rest.

Let’s say you invested $150,000 in improvements over the years. That would be added to your $850,000 basis for a total adjusted basis of $1 million. Let’s also assume you pay $100,000 in commissions to sell your home, netting $1.9 million. Your $1 million basis would be subtracted from the $1.9 million, leaving you with a $900,000 home sale profit. Because $250,000 of that would be exempt, you would owe long-term capital gains tax on $650,000.

Q&A: When student loan payments overwhelm, here’s a pathway out

Dear Liz: I went to college in 2004. I did it the American way with student loans. Well, my son had a bad seizure that put him on life support for three weeks. I had to quit college to take care of him. So now I’m in hock with no degree. He is on disability but that doesn’t cover much.

The federal government is now taking my tax refund. I used to get money back that helped him and me. So now what? I still don’t make enough and never will to pay back the loans.

Answer: Because these are federal student loans, you have some options to get out of default and get a payment plan you can afford. Otherwise, the government will continue taking your refunds until the debt is paid back. (The feds can even take a chunk of people’s Social Security checks, which are protected from other creditors.)

Since you can’t pay the debt in full, the fastest way out of default would be to make three full, on-time monthly payments and then consolidate the loans into a new Direct Consolidation Loan. (It’s important to know these terms, because the private companies that service federal loans don’t always give complete or accurate information.)

Once you have a Direct Consolidation Loan, you can qualify for an income-driven repayment plan. Your payments would be 10% of your discretionary income, defined as the difference between your total income and 150% of the poverty guideline for your family size and state of residence. Your payments can be reduced to zero if your income is low enough.

Another option is to “rehabilitate” your loan, which would require you to make nine monthly loan payments within 10 consecutive months. You can’t be more than 20 days late on any payment. Your new monthly payment will be 15% of your discretionary income as defined above. You also may request a lower amount.

You can find more information about getting out of federal student loan default at the Education Department’s student aid website StudentAid.ed.gov.

Q&A: Rules for inherited property

Dear Liz: If someone owns an asset, such as a home or stocks, and passes away, the heirs can get a stepped-up cost basis. What if that same person also owned a second home, vacation property and rentals? Do those properties also get a stepped-up cost basis for the heirs?

Answer: Typically, yes. A step-up in cost basis means that the increase in value that happened during a person’s lifetime isn’t subject to capital gains taxes. Let’s say your mom bought a stock for $2 and it was worth $10 at her death. If she had sold it herself just before she died, or given it to you to sell, taxes would be owed on the $8 gain. If she bequeathed the stock to you in her will instead, you could sell it for $10 and owe no tax. If the price went up to $11 before you sold, you would owe tax on the $1 gain since her death.

The step up in basis also wipes out the need to recapture depreciation taken for rental and commercial properties, says tax expert Mark Luscombe, principal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. (Depreciation is the loss in value over time due to age and wear and tear. Depreciation write-offs allow owners to deduct over several years the costs of buying and improving a rental or commercial property.) If your mom owned an apartment building and wrote off the depreciation, she would need to pay depreciation recapture taxes if she sold it. If you inherit the building, by contrast, you not only don’t owe taxes on the depreciation she took, but you can start depreciating the building all over again.

There’s an important exception to these general rules, however. If your mom placed the asset in an irrevocable trust before her death, it would be treated the same as a gift when you inherit it after her death, Luscombe says. You would get her basis, which means you would owe taxes on all the gain that happened during her lifetime plus any depreciation recapture taxes when you sold the asset.

Irrevocable trusts aren’t the same as the revocable living trusts people use to avoid probate, but are sometimes used when people are trying to get assets out of their estates to reduce future estate taxes. For the vast majority, though, estate taxes are no longer an issue, so irrevocable trusts can cause potentially unnecessary tax issues.

Q&A: Ask yourself these questions before using savings to pay off student debt

Dear Liz: I’m wondering whether I should use part of my emergency fund to pay off student loans. I currently have $15,000 in an emergency fund to cover three to six months of my living expenses and owe $18,000 in federal student loans. I’ve been feeling the itch to pay off a chunk of my student loans to reduce the years (and interest) I have to keep paying. I’d like to use $5,000 to $6,000 of my emergency fund to put toward the loan. For context, I’m already contributing 15% to my 401(k) and have no other debt.

Answer: First of all, well done. The fact that you have any emergency fund puts you ahead of the game, plus it’s great that you’re also saving for your retirement and avoiding credit card debt.

There are a few things to consider before using savings to pay down your loan. “Prepaying” a student loan is different from paying down credit cards. Reducing credit card debt typically frees up additional credit that you could use in an emergency. Paying down credit card debt also can help your credit scores by reducing your “credit utilization,” or the amount of your available revolving credit that you’re using. Extra money sent to a student loan lender, by contrast, can’t be clawed back if you should need it and doesn’t help your scores as much.

Federal student loan debt has other advantages. Interest rates tend to be low, and up to $2,500 of interest can be subtracted from your income even if you don’t itemize. That is a valuable “above the line” adjustment that can help you qualify for other tax breaks.

You shouldn’t hang on to debt just because of the tax savings, of course, since the value of the tax break usually is much less than the interest you pay. But most people have better things to do with their money than pay down low-rate, tax-deductible debt, especially if they have other types of debt, haven’t maxed out their retirement savings and don’t have an adequate emergency fund.

Which brings us back to your situation. You’ve checked all those other boxes. If your job situation is reasonably stable, then using a chunk of your savings to pay down debt can make sense — particularly if you have access to credit or other funds, such as help from friends or family, as a backup while you rebuild those savings.

Q&A: Why co-signing a loan, especially a student loan, can be a costly move

Dear Liz: I co-signed a student loan to help a 31-year-old woman complete her schooling to become a nurse. I know this was something I should not have done, but I just could not refuse her. I did not realize that because no payments had to be made until after the student’s graduation, the loan amount would double. I am looking into a life insurance policy on the student to protect my interest.

Is there any advice you can provide me other than paying off the loan? I know the student can complete a form to take me off this loan, but she will not qualify on her own.

Answer: She may not be able to take you off the loan now, but hopefully she can within a few years of graduation. Most private lenders will allow a co-signer to be removed from a student loan after a certain number of on-time monthly payments, typically 12 to 48. If she has good credit and a decent income, she also may be able to refinance this loan with another lender to get you off the note.

In the meantime, you’ll want to protect your credit, because a single missed payment can damage your credit scores. Contact the lender to find out what notice, if any, you’ll get if she falls behind on payments. Discuss with her the importance of making payments on time, every time, and ask her to contact you immediately if there’s any chance that won’t happen.

Just as many people don’t realize that they’re putting their good credit in the other person’s hands when they co-sign a loan, many also don’t realize what can happen if they take a lender up on its offer to defer payments until graduation.

The loan amount swelled because of something known as capitalization. Because payments aren’t being made, the unpaid interest is being added to the loan amount and dramatically increasing what the two of you owe.

If the loan were a subsidized federal loan, the government would pay the interest while the student was in school. With unsubsidized federal loans and private student loans like the one you signed, it’s smart to start making payments immediately to avoid capitalization and having to pay interest on interest.

Q&A: Social Security’s widespread benefits

Dear Liz: I encourage you to educate your readers about the real intention of Social Security, as well as the real problem facing it. Social Security was designed as a safety net to keep the elderly, disabled and orphaned from abject poverty. It was not intended to provide decades of benefits to individuals who are not at risk of living in poverty. It does no good to further the inaccurate notion that everyone is entitled to “their share” from a social safety net meant for the poor.

Answer: You’ve misunderstood Social Security’s structure and its history.

Social Security was deliberately created as a social insurance program, not as welfare assistance. Workers fund the system themselves through payroll taxes. They have to pay into the system a certain number of years to qualify for benefits. In return, they receive inflation-adjusted income that they can’t outlive and that isn’t vulnerable to market downturns.

Social Security benefits are progressive, which means they’re designed to replace more income for a lower-paid worker than a higher-paid one. But people who pay more into the system get larger benefits than those who pay less, and benefits are not means-tested.

Programs for the poor tend to be easy targets for politicians, but Social Security’s universal nature contributes to its widespread support. More than 1 out of every 6 U.S. residents, or about 62 million people, collected Social Security benefits in June 2018.