Q&A: When student debt payoff becomes complicated by identity theft

Dear Liz: I went back to school in 2002 to get my teaching credential. I took out several student loans and set up a repayment plan upon graduating with automatic deduction out of my checking account. Several years ago, the IRS started garnishing my bank account stating that there was a lien but I never received any other type of indication what was going on.

After contacting the IRS, we found that someone took out a fraudulent student loan using my former married name. I also got my credit reports, which showed the loan. I was able to get the signed loan documents from the U.S. Department of Education but now the department does not respond to my certified letters or phone calls.

I’m at a loss at what to do at this point. I filed a police report and notified the credit reporting agencies. I’m out almost $10,000. Is there any other advice you could give me?

Answer: First, follow up with the credit bureaus to make sure the fraudulent loan has been removed from your credit reports. Consider setting up credit freezes at all three bureaus to reduce the chances of being victimized again. The Identity Theft Resource Center at www.idtheftcenter.org has more information to help you protect yourself.

Getting the actual loan dismissed and your money back is a more difficult task. You may be able to have the loan erased under what’s known as a false certification discharge, but qualifying for that isn’t easy, said Jay Fleischman, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in student loan problems.

It’s not enough to have a police report. You’d need to identify and file a lawsuit against the thief. If you can get a court judgment against that person, you would provide the Education Department with that as well as proof of your identity and possibly signature samples from the approximate date of the loan.

Even if you did everything necessary to prove eligibility for discharge, the department could still deny it if you received any benefits from the loan — if it paid any costs of your education instead of someone else’s, Fleishman said.

At this point, you may need to hire an attorney familiar with identity theft issues. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates at www.naca.net.

Q&A: The road to homeownership should be paved with skepticism

Dear Liz: My husband is 46 and I am 43. We have been living in Las Vegas for six years. We are aware that we missed out on buying a home a few years ago. Are we chasing a dream or do you think that we might have another chance to buy a house in the next few years? I am also very concerned about another recession. Some websites forecast one in 2018.

Answer: Some websites forecast the end of the world in 2016. And 2015. And 2014. And so on.

Recessions, by contrast, are pretty much inevitable but they’re not really predictable. You shouldn’t try to time your real estate purchases hoping to avoid, or take advantage, of the lower prices they might bring.

In general, you need to be a lot more skeptical about what you read and what you’re told if you want to be a homeowner and not get fleeced.

Everyone involved in real estate transactions — as well as in most other financial transactions — may have an incentive to mislead you or at least not tell you the whole truth. That’s why it’s so important to do your own research and make your own decisions.

Here’s just one example. A lender will tell you how large a mortgage it will give you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can really handle that loan. You may have other goals, such as retirement, that you won’t be able to achieve if you take on a too-large payment.

The best time to buy a home is when you want to be a homeowner, you’re financially ready to do so and you can afford to stay put for several years, because it can take a few years’ worth of appreciation to offset the costs of buying and selling a home (not to mention moving costs).

You also should make sure you have a healthy emergency fund — three months’ worth of expenses is a good start — to handle the inevitable unexpected expenses that arise when you own a home.

Q&A: Start saving early for retirement in case that last day of work sneaks up on you

Dear Liz: What advice would you give to a Silicon Valley professional who hasn’t done a good job planning for retirement? I’m 53 and maxing out my 401(k), saving $24,000 a year with my employer matching my contributions dollar for dollar up to 6% of salary. In addition, I’m saving $50,000 to $60,000 of my $240,000 annual salary. I’m debt free.

I wish I had started saving like this early in my career. Looks like I’ll probably have to work until I’m at least 65 or 70. Any advice on retirement planning would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Your current savings rate is impressive, but you probably should plan to work at least until your full retirement age for Social Security, which is age 67.

Retiring earlier would require you to cut back even more on your spending or increase the odds your funds won’t last you through a long retirement.

Early retirement may be involuntary, of course.

Many people retire sooner than they expect thanks to a layoff, a health crisis or the need to take care of a family member. That is yet another reason why people should get started saving for retirement as early as possible — they may not have as many years to save as they think, and making up for lost time gets increasingly difficult the longer they wait.

Most people aren’t in the fortunate position to be able to save 30% or more of their incomes in their 50s, which means catching up is close to impossible.

You may still have options if your career and your savings sprint are cut short.

If you own a home, you can tap the equity either by downsizing (selling and moving to a smaller place) or using a reverse mortgage. You can reduce your expenses, possibly by moving to an area with a lower cost of living. You can supplement your retirement income by working part-time.

You also should consider maximizing your Social Security check by delaying benefits until age 70, even if you wind up retiring earlier. Social Security benefits grow by 8% a year between full retirement age and age 70, which is a guaranteed rate of return you can’t find anywhere else.

Delaying Social Security is a way to insure against longevity — if you live longer than you think and run out of other money, that larger check can help protect you from poverty at the end of your life.

Q&A: Keeping retirement money in various accounts helps with tax bills

Dear Liz: I am having difficulty determining if I should invest money in my 457 deferred compensation account or in a taxable account, as I am in the 15% tax bracket.

Also, does it matter whether I invest in a Roth IRA instead of my traditional IRA? My biggest pot of money is in a taxable account, then my IRA, then a Roth. I am single, no dependents and over 50.

Answer: In retirement, having money in different tax “buckets” can help you better control your tax bill.

Taxable accounts, for example, can allow you to take advantage of low capital gains tax rates plus you can withdraw the money when you want: There are no penalties for withdrawals before age 59½ and no minimum distribution requirements.

Tax-deferred accounts allow you to save on taxes while you’re working but require you to pay income taxes on withdrawals — and those withdrawals typically must start after you turn 70½.

Roth IRAs, meanwhile, don’t have minimum distribution requirements, and any money you pull out is tax free, but contributions aren’t tax deductible.

Because most people drop to a lower tax bracket in retirement, it often makes sense to grab the tax benefit now by taking full advantage of retirement accounts that allow deductible contributions.

That means the 457 (generally offered by governmental and nonprofit entities) and possibly your regular IRA. (Your ability to deduct your IRA contribution depends on your income, since you’re covered by the 457 plan at work.)

If your IRA contribution isn’t deductible, then contribute instead to a Roth. If you still have money to contribute after that, use the taxable account.

If you expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement, though, consider funding the Roth first. Prioritizing a Roth contribution also can make sense if you have plenty of money in other retirement accounts and simply want a tax-free stash you can use when you want or pass along to heirs.

Q&A: Figuring out capital gains when an inherited house is sold

Dear Liz: I’ve have been following your responses related to the tax exemption on home sales. I understand that up to $250,000 per person of home sale profit is exempt from capital gains taxes and that married couples are entitled to exempt up to $500,000.

My spouse and her two siblings inherited a home from their parents. My father-in-law passed away four years ago, and my mother-in-law died last year. My wife was assigned as executor of their living trust. Who is entitled to take the tax exemption of the proceeds from the sale of the house? My wife? All three siblings? All of the above and their spouses?

Answer: None of the above, but don’t despair because the house will incur little if any capital gains when it’s sold.

We’ll assume your mother-in-law inherited the house outright from her husband, since that’s usually the case. When your mother-in-law died, the house received a “step up” in tax basis to reflect its current market value. If the house was worth $2 million when she died, for example, that’s the new value for tax purposes — even if she and your father-in-law paid only $25,000 decades ago for the house. All the gain that occurred in between their purchase and her death won’t be taxed.

If your wife sells the house for $2.2 million, there potentially would be some taxable capital gain. But the costs of marketing and selling the home would be deducted from its sale price. If those costs are 6% of the sale price — which is a pretty conservative assumption — the taxable gain would be about $68,000. (Six percent of $2.2 million is $132,000. Subtract the $2 million value at death and the $132,000 of sales costs, and you’re left with $68,000.) If your wife as executor sells the house and distributes the proceeds to the beneficiaries, the estate would pay the tax. If siblings inherit the house and then sell it, they would pay any tax.

Every year, millions of dollars of potential capital gain vanish this way as people inherit appreciated property. It’s a huge benefit of the estate tax system that many people don’t understand until they’re the beneficiaries of it.

Q&A: Social Security lets you un-retire to avoid a benefit hit, but only once

Dear Liz: My wife recently retired at age 62 and will collect Social Security. But she has decided to return to work full time. I know she will collect less if she makes more than Social Security allows per month. If she eventually goes back to not working at all, can she go back to collecting the original amount?

Answer: Yes, but she’d be smart to reconsider her decision to start collecting Social Security early because she’s permanently reducing her benefit for little (if any) good reason.

The earnings test, which applies when people start Social Security early, takes away $1 of benefits for every $2 she earns over a certain limit, which is $16,920 in 2017. The earnings test will end when she reaches her full retirement age, which for people born in 1955 is 66 years and two months. Her check at that point would be what she originally received at 62, plus any cost of living increases.

But that original check is reduced by nearly 25% from what she would get at full retirement age, and the reduction lasts for the rest of her life. That’s a huge hit, and it should make her question the advisability of starting benefits early when so much could be taken away from her.

Fortunately, she has a little time to change her mind. Social Security allows applicants to withdraw their applications, allowing their benefit to continue growing, if they do so within 12 months of becoming entitled to benefits. People who withdraw their applications have to pay back any benefits that received in order to restart the clock.

This is a one-time do-over: Applications can be withdrawn only once in a lifetime and can’t be withdrawn after a year has passed. She can read more about this at the Social Security site, https://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/withdrawal.html.

Social Security benefits make up half or more of most people’s retirement income. Making smart decisions is essential if you want to avoid a lifetime of regret.

At a minimum, people should use a free claiming-strategies calculator, such as the one on the AARP site, to determine when and how to begin benefits. For $40, they can use more sophisticated planners such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com and SocialSecuritySolutions.com.

Another good option is to consult a fee-only financial planner familiar with Social Security claiming strategies to make sure they’re not making an irrevocable mistake.

Q&A: Capital gains

Dear Liz: If and when we sell our house, the capital gain is likely to exceed the $500,000 exemption limit. I am carrying over a loss of about $100,000 from stock sales. Can I use this loss to offset the capital gain from the house?

Answer: Yes. Capital losses can be used to offset capital gains, including those from a home sale.

Q&A: To help elderly dad hold off mooching adult kids, call in the experts

Dear Liz: My dad, age 90, needs personal care and I am trying to get him to move out of his house to a senior residential place. He is in agreement, but it is taking a long time to make this happen. He owns his home free and clear and, along with the sale of his home, has enough financial assets to cover these costs.

The problem is my two sisters’ husbands, who overspend and are in debt. These two guys continue to pressure my sisters to ask my dad for money for such things as their mortgages, expenses for their children and credit card debt. My sisters are not just starting out — they are in their 50s! Not only that, when I ask them for help with our dad, they flake out on me. I’ve told them that the financial assistance can’t continue because Dad will need his money to pay for his care.

I feel that my sisters’ and their husbands’ behavior is senior financial abuse. I read that this situation happens a lot in families, where the kids will milk an elderly, wealthy, sympathetic parent or grandparent, sometimes draining their savings. Or one dysfunctional sibling with take financial advantage of a parent, while other siblings in the family struggle with making ends meet. In our family, both my sisters have children, so my dad feels a soft spot for helping them out. I am single, no children, and I am treated differently. I do struggle to make ends meet. My dad is sometimes even reluctant to reimburse me $20 for gas that I spend driving him around and doing shopping and errands.

I’m trying to remain on good terms with my sisters but it is getting tough. Is there any financial advice or references you can give in my situation?

Answer: You’re right that most financial abuse of the elderly is committed by people close to the person, typically family, friends or caregivers. The toll isn’t small, either. A survey by Allianz Life Insurance Company found that the average victim lost $30,000 and 1 in 10 lost more than $100,000.

Family members may not see what they’re doing as abuse. They may think that they “deserve” the money or that it’s some kind of advance on a future inheritance. They also know that Dad just can’t say no and will continue to press him for money as long as they’re allowed to do so.

You and your dad should consult an elder law attorney to discuss ways your dad can be protected against predators. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Elder Law Attorneys at naela.org, and the attorney can discuss your options.

One obvious solution would be for Dad to hand over his checkbook to you, which would give you the unpleasant job of standing up to your brothers-in-law. You’re certainly in a better position to do so than your elderly father, but he may not be willing to give up control or you may not want the job.

Another option is hiring third parties. Daily money managers provide personal finance and bookkeeping services to elderly clients. They can keep a watchful eye on transactions and spot signs of fraud. You can get referrals from the the American Assn. of Daily Money Managers at aadmm.com. Hiring a geriatric care manager also could be a good move. The manager could assess your father’s health, living and financial situations and help craft a plan to help him move forward. Referrals are available from the Aging Life Care Assn. at aginglifecare.org.

Q&A: Deferred compensation plans

Dear Liz: I’m 54 and plan on retiring at 55 with a government pension. I have about $450,000 in a 457(b) deferred compensation plan. I owe about $220,000 on my home. I would like to pay off my 15-year, 2.5% interest mortgage. This would free up $1,900 a month and leave us debt-free. Everyone I’ve spoken to says this is a bad idea since I’d lose my mortgage interest deduction and I’d be “investing” in a low-interest vehicle (my mortgage). My only other obligation is my daughter’s college education, and I’m paying that in cash. Am I crazy to pay off this mortgage?

Answer: You’re not crazy, but you probably haven’t thought this all the way through.

The money in your deferred compensation plan hasn’t been taxed. Withdrawing enough to pay off your mortgage in one lump sum would shove you into a higher tax bracket and require you to take out considerably more than $220,000 to pay the tax bill. You could easily end up paying a marginal federal tax rate of 33% plus any applicable state tax — all to pay off a 2.5% loan.

There are a few scenarios where using tax-deferred money to pay off a mortgage can make sense. Some people have so much saved in retirement plans that the required minimum distributions at age 70½ would push them into high tax brackets and cause more of their Social Security to be taxed. They also may have paid down their mortgage to the point where they’re no longer getting a tax break.

In those instances, it may be worth withdrawing some money earlier than required to ease the later tax bill. The math involved can be complex, though, and the decisions are irreversible, so anyone contemplating such a move should have it reviewed by a fee-only financial advisor who is familiar with these calculations.

In fact, it’s a good idea to get an objective second opinion from a fiduciary any time you’re considering tapping a retirement fund. (Fiduciaries are advisors who pledge to put your interests ahead of your own.)

During your meeting, you also should review the other aspects of your retirement plan. How will you pay for health insurance in the decade before you qualify for Medicare? If you’re a federal employee, you should be eligible for retiree health insurance but your premiums may rise once you quit work. If you’re planning to buy individual coverage through a healthcare exchange, what will you do if that’s yanked away or becomes unaffordable? How will you pay for long-term care if you need it, since that’s not covered by health insurance or Medicare?

You can get referrals to fee-only financial planners from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors at napfa.org. You can find fee-only planners who charge by the hour at Garrett Planning Network, garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Q&A: Too many cards?

Dear Liz: My husband and I have opened accounts to take advantage of 0% interest financing for special purchases. These accounts are paid in full prior to the end of the promotional period and we don’t use them again. I’ve read to not ever close any accounts, but am nervous about having so many accounts open with such high limits. Is there potential for issuers to stop granting us credit because we have so much available? Are we at greater risk for identity theft with all of these open accounts?

Answer: People used to believe that closing accounts could somehow help their credit scores. Credit scoring companies and experts have done their best to combat that myth, but in doing so have left some people thinking that they can’t ever close unneeded accounts. That’s not true either.

Your credit scores won’t be hurt by having “too many” accounts with high limits. That’s generally a good thing, since multiple lenders have deemed you creditworthy. You get the most credit scoring benefit, though, from accounts you’re actively using.

Leaving unused accounts open can leave you more vulnerable to fraudulent account takeover. At the very least, it adds to the hassles in your life, since you have to keep an eye on all your accounts. And conceivably a lender could balk at seeing a lot of unused credit lines, even if it didn’t hurt your scores.

You don’t want to close accounts if you’re trying to improve your scores or in the market for a major loan, such as a mortgage or auto loan. Otherwise, though, you shouldn’t worry about closing an account now and then if you’re not using it.