Q&A: There can be legal pitfalls in DIY estate planning

Dear Liz: You answered a letter from a reader who was asked to be the executor of a friend’s estate. The reader was worried about being pulled into a lawsuit because the friend planned to disinherit a brother. You mentioned that the friend’s estate will pay the legal fees and other expenses if the brother contests the will and that executors can be compensated for their time. You also should have mentioned the importance of hiring an experienced attorney when disinheriting someone because there are a lot of ways this can go wrong.

Answer: Even Nolo, the self-help legal publisher, warns people that they need to hire an attorney if their estate plans are likely to be contested. A do-it-yourself estate plan can wind up costing far more than it saves if the parties wind up in court.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits complications

Dear Liz: My husband started collecting Social Security benefits at age 62. I was still working at the time. When I reached my full retirement age of 66, I started collecting spousal benefits, or 50% of the benefit he received. After I reached age 70 and retired, I switched over to my own benefit as it was a larger amount.

If my husband should die first, can I switch back to a survivor benefit based on his earnings record or do I have to continue collecting my own? As I understand it, the survivor benefit would be 100% of his benefit, which is more than I currently receive.

Answer: When one of you dies, the survivor will get one check instead of two, and the amount will be the larger of the two benefits you’re receiving now. So if he dies first, you’ll essentially stop getting your check and start collecting a survivor’s benefit equal to his.

You were lucky that you were able to file what’s known as a “restricted application” to get spousal benefits first, so that your own benefit could continue to grow. That option is not available to people born on or after Jan. 2, 1954.

But it’s unfortunate that your husband started benefits early because that permanently reduces the amount the survivor will receive in the future. Typically it’s best for the higher earner in a couple to delay receiving Social Security benefits as long as possible to maximize what’s left for the survivor.

Q&A: Independent contractors face a wealth of tax consequences

Dear Liz: My son was recently hired in his dream job, but his employer has classified him as an independent contractor rather than as an employee. This would be his first time drawing pay without all the taxes, benefits, insurance and so on taken out. I’m afraid he’s only seeing the good wage and not the flip side.

He’s a newlywed and doesn’t need his mama telling him what’s what. I thought if I sent him this “anonymous” letter that appeared in your column, that advice would be coming from you and he might just listen!

Answer: If your son doesn’t listen, that dream job could turn into a tax nightmare.

Tax pros often suggest their self-employed clients put aside half of what they earn to cover taxes and other obligations. Independent contractors have to pay both the employer and employee portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes, or roughly 15.3% instead of the 7.65% regular workers pay. That’s in addition to whatever federal, state and local income taxes he’ll owe.

He’s now required to make quarterly estimated tax payments because ours is a “pay as you go” system. Employees typically have those taxes withheld, but independent contractors must make quarterly estimated tax payments by Jan. 15, April 15, June 15 and Sept. 15. (The deadlines are moved to the following Monday if those dates fall on a weekend.) If he waits until he files his annual tax return to pay, he’ll probably owe penalties.

He also may need to register his business with his city or county and get a tax registration certificate.

If he doesn’t get health insurance through his spouse, he’ll need to find a policy, probably through an Affordable Care Act exchange. He also should save at least something for retirement. Although the self-employed have several good options for retirement savings, including SEP IRAs and solo 401(k)s, he’ll have to do without the “free money” that company 401(k) matches represent.

Business insurance may be another concern. He may need coverage to protect against lawsuits, disabilities and other potential setbacks.

Your son would be smart to hire a tax pro, such as an enrolled agent or CPA, to help him navigate this brave new-to-him world of self-employment.

Q&A: Claiming Social Security can get complicated

Dear Liz: I am 63 years old, born in November 1955. My husband and I divorced five years ago after 37 years of marriage. I work full time and plan to continue until age 70 at least. Am I eligible for the option of applying for restricted benefits under my ex-husband’s Social Security when I turn 66 and then switching to my maximum benefit at age 70? He was always a much higher wage earner than I was, and I’m confused about whether I qualify for any of his Social Security benefits.

Answer: You’re not eligible to file a restricted application for spousal benefits, which would allow you to claim a benefit based on a husband’s or ex-husband’s benefit while allowing your own benefit to grow. Congress eliminated the restricted application option for people born on or after Jan. 2, 1954. Instead, when you apply for benefits, you’ll be “deemed” to be applying for both your own retirement benefit and any spousal or divorced spousal benefit to which you might be entitled, and will essentially get the larger of the two. You can’t switch later.

Something you should keep in mind: Although your own benefit can grow 8% each year you delay, between ages 66 and 70, spousal benefits don’t earn such delayed-retirement credits. There’s no incentive, in other words, for you to wait beyond age 66 to claim Social Security if the spousal benefit is going to be the larger of the two benefits you could receive.

Social Security claiming rules can be complicated. If you don’t have a trusted financial advisor who is well versed in claiming strategies, consider spending $40 or so for a service such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, which can analyze your particular situation and suggest the smartest option.

Q&A: Is it smarter to save for retirement or pay off debt first?

Dear Liz: I graduated from college in May and began a full-time job in October making $36,000. I also do freelance work and receive anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a month from that. I live at home, so I don’t have to pay for rent or groceries, which really helps. Currently, I have just over $18,800 in student loans at an average interest rate of 4.45%. I have also opened a Roth IRA.

My plan currently is to contribute $500 a month to my IRA in order to max it out, and pay $700 a month to my student loans in order to get them out of the way quickly. Or is it better to skip the Roth and put that extra $500 toward my student loans? That way, I would be debt free when I move out of my parents’ house next year. The stock market has done nothing but fall since I opened my account, and I am reading that it could do the same this year as well. But I have also read that it’s good to just keep consistently contributing to an IRA when your debt isn’t high-interest to reap the rewards of compounded returns.

Answer: It’s generally a good idea to start the habit of saving for retirement early and not stop. What the market is doing now doesn’t really matter. It’s what the market does over the next four or five decades that you should care about, and history shows that stocks outperform every other investment class over time.

The $6,000 you contribute this year could grow to about $100,000 by the time you’re in your 60s, if you manage an average annual return of around 7%. (The stock market’s long-term average is closer to 8%.) And Roth IRAs are a pretty great way to invest, because withdrawals are tax-free in retirement.

That said, your other option isn’t a bad idea either. You are not proposing to put off retirement savings for years while you pay off relatively low-rate debt, which clearly would be a bad idea. Instead, what you’re losing is the opportunity to fund a Roth for one year. That’s an opportunity you can’t get back — but you could fully fund the Roth next year, and perhaps use some of your freelance money to fund a SEP IRA or solo 401(k) as well.

Either way, you should be fine.

Q&A: Why do 401(k) and IRA contributions have such different rules?

Dear Liz: Can you please explain to me why the IRS allows an employee in a workplace 401(k) to contribute $19,000 but a wage earner without a 401(k) can contribute only $6,000 to an IRA? This seems grossly unfair. Why does one group get to save three times as much for retirement?

Answer: Congress works in mysterious ways, and this is far from the only weird byproduct of tax law.

The 401(k) and the IRA were created through different mechanisms.

The 401(k)’s birth was almost accidental. Benefits consultant Ted Benna created the first 401(k) savings plan in 1981, using a creative interpretation of a section of IRS code. Benna crafted the plan to provide an alternative to cash bonuses, not to replace traditional pensions — although that’s what it ended up doing.

IRAs, by contrast, were created deliberately by Congress in 1974 to provide a way for people to save independent of their employers.

Raising the IRA limit would be costly to the budget, while decreasing 401(k) limits would be unpopular, since so many people rely on them for the bulk of their retirement savings.

You aren’t, however, limited to saving only $6,000 annually for retirement. You can always save more in a taxable account. You wouldn’t get the tax deduction for contributions, but your investments can qualify for favorable long-term capital gains treatment if you hold them for at least one year.

Q&A: A required minimum distribution headache

Dear Liz: For more than four years my husband has had to take a required minimum distribution from his 457 deferred compensation plan. We have always chosen when to do that, knowing that it has to be done by Dec. 31.

This year we processed the distribution on Dec. 28 to take advantage of stock market movements. We saw the direct deposit of that transaction hit our savings account as planned. To our astonishment, we got a letter (dated Dec. 27 but received after Jan. 1) from the plan’s trustee informing us that “as a courtesy” it had initiated a required minimum distribution “on our behalf.” The letter even “assisted” us with information on how we can “establish a recurring RMD” in the future. We received a check in the mail Jan. 5 for this unnecessary and unwanted distribution.

Not only is this a duplication of my husband’s RMD for this account, but this distribution also may push us into a higher tax bracket. It also sets me up for a further increase in my Medicare B premiums because of the higher income.

I have searched but could not find any information on how to roll this back or how they could have been so bold, and under what authority they took the liberty to babysit a depositor. Can you provide any information?

Answer: Before any more time passes, put the money into an IRA and keep documentation of the “redeposit,” said Robert Westley, a CPA and personal financial specialist with the American Institute of CPAs’ PFS Credential Committee.

The plan provider likely will send a 1099-R form that includes the second withdrawal, so you’ll need this documentation to avoid taxation on the extra money. If you don’t already have a tax pro to help you, consider hiring one to help you navigate this.

Some retirement plans, including 457s, have language that allow forced distributions, since many people either don’t understand the requirement or choose to ignore it. But your husband clearly was not in that group.

Your husband can call the 457 plan provider to find out what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Or he might just roll this 457 into an IRA at another provider.

This advice assumes that the plan is a governmental 457, which allows rollovers into an IRA. If it’s a non-governmental 457, however — the kind used for highly paid executives in private companies — the rollover option doesn’t exist and you might be stuck with a higher tax bill.

Q&A: How to find affordable healthcare insurance

Dear Liz: I am 25 and work two part-time jobs, neither of which offers health insurance. Once I’m 26, I will no longer be able to remain on my parents’ policy. Do I need a full-time job to receive health benefits, or do I have other options?

Answer: You currently have other options, but you may still want to look for a full-time job that offers this important benefit.

Although a Texas judge ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, the law giving people access to health insurance remains in effect while legal challenges play out. You can start your search for coverage at www.healthcare.gov. The open enrollment period for most people has ended, but some states including California have extended the deadline to Jan. 15. In addition, you would qualify for a “special enrollment” period once you turn 26 and lose eligibility for coverage on a parent’s plan.

If the ACA does go away, health insurance may become harder to qualify for and more expensive. Group health insurance through an employer may become your best option.

Q&A: Options for high debt, low income

Dear Liz: I’m 87 and drowning in debt, owing more than $21,000 with an income of $23,000 from Social Security and two small pensions. I don’t like the idea of debt consolidation but is that better than bankruptcy? My only asset is a 2003 car.

Answer: Debt consolidation merely replaces one type of debt (say, credit cards) with another, typically a personal loan. You are unlikely to qualify for such a loan and even if you did, your situation wouldn’t improve much if at all because your debt is so large relative to your income.

You may be confusing debt consolidation with debt settlement, which is where you or someone you hire tries to settle debts for less than what you owe. Debt settlement can take years and may not result in much savings, since the forgiven debt is considered taxable income and hiring a debt settlement company can cost thousands of dollars. In addition, people in the debt settlement process risk being sued by their creditors. Bankruptcy is typically a better option for most people because it costs less, is completed more quickly and ends the threat of lawsuits.

You may not need to file for bankruptcy, however, if you’re “judgment proof,” which means that even if you stop paying your creditors and they successfully sue you, the creditors wouldn’t be able to collect on those judgments. That’s typically the case when someone’s income comes from protected sources, such as Social Security and certain pensions, and they don’t have any assets a creditor can seize.

Please discuss your situation with a bankruptcy attorney who can review your options. You can get a referral from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org.

Q&A: Retirement planning needs expert help

Dear Liz: I am about to retire and have had to make some very important decisions: How should I receive my company pension, when should we start taking Social Security, should we convert some IRAs to Roths, how to best cover our healthcare needs and what the best ways are to manage our tax bill. I think we are OK and on track, but I worry about people who don’t have a college degree and who have not studied these issues trying to make similar decisions. I think it’s scary and we should do more to help people secure their retirement.

Answer: You’re quite right that retirement involves a number of complex choices, many of which are irreversible. It’s easy to make the wrong decisions, even if you do have a college degree and think you know what you’re doing.

Everyone approaching retirement should realize that they don’t know what they don’t know, and if possible seek out an expert, objective second opinion on their retirement plans to ensure they’re making the best possible choices.