Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I have been with my significant other for over 30 years. We have an adult son. My significant other has a much larger Social Security benefit than I will have when it’s time for me to retire. I understand that if we were to marry and something happened to him, I would receive his benefit. But the law on Social Security is confusing. It says you have to be married several years to collect your spouse’s benefit unless you have a child. If we were married soon, would I be eligible for his benefits if something happened to him or would we have to be married for many years?

Answer: Social Security benefits can be confusing, but you don’t have to be married for many years to receive benefits.

To qualify for survivor benefits, you typically must have been married for at least nine months. To qualify for spousal benefits, you generally have to be married a year. If you have a natural child together and that child is a minor, the one-year requirement for spousal benefits is waived.

Survivor benefits are what you get when a higher-earning spouse dies. The benefit is 100% of what the deceased spouse received (or earned, if he hasn’t started benefits), but the amount is reduced if you as the surviving spouse begin benefits before your own full retirement age. The current full retirement age is 66 and will rise to 67 for people born in 1960 and later.

Spousal benefits are what you can receive while a spouse is still alive. This benefit is typically equal to half that spouse’s benefit and is reduced to reflect early starts.

You’ll need a longer marriage to get benefits should you divorce. The marriage must have lasted 10 years, and you must not be currently remarried to receive divorced spousal benefits based on your ex’s work record. For divorced survivor benefits, the marriage also must have lasted 10 years but you’re allowed to remarry at age 60 or later.

Q&A: Investors need to stop trying to time the market

Dear Liz: My 25-year-old son is a new investor. He put $11,000 ($5,500 each for 2016 and 2017) into an IRA in a money market fund with a discount brokerage firm. He doesn’t want to get into the market yet because he thinks it is in a bubble. I’m afraid with this strategy, he could be sitting there for a long time losing out to inflation. How would you present this argument?

Answer: You might ask him when he plans to enter the market. When stocks fall 10%? 20%? More? If stocks do tumble to his target level, there are likely to be plenty of scary headlines indicating that the market could fall further. Will he be able to follow through on his plan or will he put off investing — and miss the inevitable rise that will follow?

Newbie investors, and even some more experienced ones who should know better, often think that they can time the market. They can’t. They’re better off diving in with a well-diversified portfolio and adding to it regularly without worrying about the day-to-day swings of the market. Your son won’t need this money for decades, so there’s no sense fretting about what might happen tomorrow or next week. Over the next 40 years, he’ll see significant gains — but only if he gets off the sidelines and puts his money to work.

Q&A: Co-signing a loan may affect credit score

Dear Liz: Despite having high credit card debt (about $35,000), which I am working hard to pay off, my FICO score is consistently over 765 and I have never been denied credit — until now. I was recently denied for a card because of “high debt to earnings” (I earn about $85,000 annually.) Could that be because I recently co-signed for a $15,000 education loan for my grandson? I trust him completely to pay off the loan, but is it now showing on my credit history as money owed even though it is not payable until after he graduates?

Answer: You’d need to check your credit reports to be sure, but it’s entirely possible the new loan is already showing up and affecting your scores. Your debt-to-income ratio was high even before adding this loan, though, so it’s not surprising that the credit card company balked.

It’s unfortunate that you weren’t clear about this when you co-signed, but you’re on the hook for that student loan every bit as much as your grandson is. If he misses a single payment, you could see your credit scores lose 100 points or more overnight.

If you want to protect your credit scores and have the opportunity to get good credit card deals in the future, continue to pay down your debt. Also, consider making the payments on the education loan yourself and having your grandson reimburse you. That’s really the only way to make sure a missed payment won’t torpedo your scores.

Q&A: Capital gains tax on home sale profit

Dear Liz: I recently sold a home and am trying to escape the dreaded capital gains tax. I’ve done everything I can to reduce my overall tax bill, including maxing out my retirement contributions. I don’t want to buy a more expensive home to escape the gains tax. Any thoughts?

Answer: Buying a more expensive home wouldn’t change what you owe on your previous home. The days when you could roll gains from one home purchase into another are long gone.

These days you’re allowed to exclude up to $250,000 in home sale profit from your income (the limit is per person, so a couple can shelter $500,000). In other words, that amount is tax free, as long as you lived in the home for at least two of the previous five years. Beyond that your profit is subject to capital gains taxes. The top federal capital gains rate is 20%, plus a 3.8% investment surtax if your income is more than $200,000 for singles or $250,000 for married couples.

Here’s where good record-keeping may help. While generally you’re not allowed to deduct repair and maintenance costs from that profit, you can use home improvement expenditures to reduce the tax you owe. Home improvements are added to your cost basis — essentially what you paid for the property, including settlement fees and closing costs, and that’s what is deducted from your net sales price to determine your profit.

You’ll need receipts plus credit card or bank statements to prove what you paid. Improvements must “add to the value of your home, prolong its useful life, or adapt it to new uses,” according to IRS Publication 523, Selling Your Home. Examples of improvements include additions, remodels, landscaping and new systems, such as new heating or air conditioning systems. You can include repairs that are part of a larger remodeling job, but you can’t include improvements you later take out (such as the cost of a first kitchen remodel after you do a second one).

Q&A: What to do about heavy credit card debt

Dear Liz: I have a lot of credit card debt and am just able to make minimum payments. I feel like after doing this for four years now that I am not getting ahead. I will be 61 this summer and don’t have much saved for retirement. My rent keeps going up along with other expenses. I have an 11-year-old car that is in need of maintenance but don’t have the funds to do it. My question is, what would happen if I walk away from the credit card debt? Will I be facing garnishment?

Answer: Yes, you could be sued and face wage garnishment if you simply stopped paying your debts.

You could consider a debt management plan offered through a credit counselor, which could lower the interest rates you pay. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. But you’d be making payments for the next five years or so, when you could be putting that cash toward your retirement.

A Chapter 7 bankruptcy, by contrast, would take a few months and legally erase your credit card debt to give you a fresh start. Bankruptcy is often the best of bad options when you can’t make progress on your debts. Consider meeting with both a credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney so you understand all your options.

Q&A: Parking money for a short term

Dear Liz: We will soon be selling our home and moving into an apartment until we purchase a new home. Our proceeds from the sale will be over $600,000. It seems that there is no place to safely put the funds and get some meaningful interest to boot. Savings accounts and money markets pay very little interest, and certificates of deposit have a fixed time. We may need to withdraw the money in as few as 30 days, but it may be six months or longer. Any suggestions where to park our money?

Answer: Some online banks currently offer interest rates around 1% for savings accounts. It’s not much, but it’s better than the 0.06% rate that’s currently the national average, according to the FDIC’s April 3 report. An Internet search for “best savings rates” should turn up competitive offers.

A rate of 1% isn’t much and means that you’ll lose a little ground to inflation, which is currently more than 2%. But it’s more important that your money be safe and liquid, ready when you need it, than for you to try to squeeze a high return from it.

Q&A: Professional investment management fees

Dear Liz: I have an IRA with over $100,000 at a discount brokerage. I had it in a target date fund. Due to market downturns, I got nervous and was convinced to put my investment into the brokerage’s portfolio advisory services with additional fees coming to $1,600 per year. In general, is it wise to change investments to these more professional services?

Answer: If professional management keeps you from bailing out of your investments when markets decline, then paying a higher fee may be justified. But the higher the fees you pay, the less money you can accumulate. For example, your IRA could grow to more than $600,000 over 30 years if you net a 6% return. If your fees are one percentage point higher, and you net just 5%, you’d end up with less than $450,000.

Some discount brokers, including Schwab, Fidelity and Vanguard, now offer a low-cost “robo” option that invests your money using computer algorithms. These robo options don’t offer the highly customized investment portfolios that some other services provide, but they come at a much lower cost — typically 0.3% to 0.4%. A few, including Vanguard and Betterment, offer access to financial advisors.

Q&A: Annuities have indirect costs

Dear Liz: Thank for your right-on reply to the reader who claimed that fixed and indexed annuities were available at no cost to investors. I am so tired of hearing from agents and investors that their annuity is great and does not have fees!

Answer: Insurance companies aren’t charities providing investments at no cost. They’re businesses that have to keep the lights on and pay the people who sell their products. With fixed and indexed annuities, the cost is built into the interest rate spread, which is the difference between what the insurer earns on your money and what it pays into your account. The investor pays an indirect cost, rather than a direct cost that’s explicitly disclosed.

Q&A: Credits can boost a refund beyond the taxes paid — and keep millions out of poverty

Dear Liz: A friend of mine received a 2016 tax refund of over $9,000 even though this person did not pay nearly that amount in taxes over the course of the year. My friend has a fairly low-paying job with no benefits, is a single parent of two young children and receives no support from the children’s other parent. Given this scenario, is it possible to get a tax refund in an amount greater than what you paid in taxes?

Answer: Absolutely, and these refundable credits keep millions of working Americans out of poverty each year.

Refundable credits are tax breaks that don’t just offset taxes you owe but also can give you additional money back. Most of your friend’s refund probably came from the earned income tax credit, which was initially created in the 1970s to help low-income workers offset Social Security taxes and rising food costs due to inflation.

The credit was expanded during President Reagan’s administration as a way to make work more attractive than welfare. Each administration since has increased the credit, which has broad bipartisan support.

The maximum credit in 2016 was $506 for a childless worker and $6,269 for earners with three or more children. Your friend probably also received child tax credits of up to $1,000 per child. This credit, meant to offset the costs of raising children, is also at least partially refundable when people work and earn more than $3,000.

Q&A: Investment advisor’s fees

Dear Liz: Two years ago I rolled my 401(k) into an IRA at the suggestion of an advisor after I lost my job. The rollover was $383,000, and a secondary amount of $63,000 was transferred from my after-tax savings to a second account. All the fees for the advisor are taken from my small account and are 1.5% annually. My IRA is now at $408,000. Assuming an average earnings of 3% annually ($12,000), and with the advisor taking 1.5% ($6,000), I’m thinking this is not beneficial to me financially and that can I do better. Also, why is the advisor taking his fee out of my small (after-tax) account? I am 67 and filed for full Social Security in January.

Answer: You should ask your advisor to confirm this, but withdrawals from the smaller account are likely to trigger a smaller tax bill since most of the money there has already been taxed. A withdrawal from your larger account, which is presumably all pre-tax money, would result in a larger tax bill for you.

That’s the end of the good news. Given your age, with perhaps decades of retirement ahead, a good benchmark for you to use to compare your returns would be Vanguard’s Balanced Composite Index, which tracks the performance of funds that have 60% of their portfolios in stocks and 40% in bonds. The index returned 8.89% in 2016 and has a three-year average of 6.49%. Even a portfolio with a much lower proportion of stocks would have gotten better results than you did. Vanguard’s Target Retirement 2015 fund, with a stock exposure of less than 30%, earned 6.16% last year and 4.04% on average over the last three years.

Investment performance shouldn’t be the only way you judge an advisor, but giving up half your returns to fees could dramatically reduce the amount you have to live on in retirement.

Fortunately, you have options. You could hire a fee-only planner who charges by the hour to design a portfolio for you, and implement it yourself at one of the discount brokerage firms such as Schwab, Vanguard, Fidelity or T. Rowe Price.

Or you could explore the digital investment options known as robo-advisors, which invest and rebalance your money using computer algorithms. Some of the pioneers in this field include Betterment, Wealthfront and Personal Capital. Schwab, Vanguard and T. Rowe Price also offer digital investment services directly to consumers, while Fidelity offers it to advisors.

If you still want the human touch, some of the services — including Betterment, Personal Capital, Vanguard and T. Rowe Price — combine digital investment with access to advisors.