Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Don’t let technology bully you into tipping. Also in the news: 4 things that could make you the target of an audit, how lending a hand by co-signing a loan can backfire, and 7 smart ways to spend a $1,000 tax refund.

Don’t Let Technology Bully You Into Tipping
You decide how much.

4 Things That Could Make You a Target for a Tax Audit
Freelancers especially.

Lending a Hand by Co-Signing a Loan Can Backfire
Good intentions can lead to bad trouble.

7 Smart Ways to Spend a $1,000 Tax Refund
How to spend your windfall.

Q&A: A large foreign bequest could trigger U.S. taxes

Dear Liz: I have received an inheritance of $445,000 from a relative who died out of the country. Do I have to pay income tax on this money?

Answer: If you inherited from someone who was a U.S. citizen who lived abroad, then that person’s estate may be subject to U.S. estate taxes. The estate would have to be quite large, though. In 2017, estates worth less than $5.49 million per person were exempt from the tax. In 2018, the amount was raised to $11.18 million.

If you had paid any taxes on your inheritance to a foreign government, you could take a tax credit on your U.S. tax return for that amount.

Otherwise, you probably won’t owe any taxes. The federal government and most states don’t levy inheritance taxes on people who receive bequests. The exceptions are Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which do levy taxes on inheritances. All exempt spouses, and some exempt other immediate relatives.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: The single parent’s guide to life insurance. Also in the news: How to pay your taxes with a credit card if you must, life insurance and suicide, and how to prepare your kids for “adulting.”

The Single Parent’s Guide to Life Insurance
Protecting your children’s future.

If You Insist on Paying Taxes With a Credit Card, Here’s How
Don’t pay more than you already have to.

Does Life Insurance Cover Suicide?
Practical issues to address.

Here’s how to prepare your kids for ‘adulting’
Having the “money talk.”

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What the Fed rate hike means for your CDs. Also in the news: Steps to take if you don’t trust your spouse at tax time, 3 women you should know in investing, and 6 personal finance rules to live by in your 40s.

What the Fed Rate Hike Means for Your CDs
Look for higher rates.

5 Steps to Take If You Don’t Trust Your Spouse at Tax Time
Watch what you sign.

3 Women You Should Know in Investing
Leaders in investing.

6 Personal Finance Rules to Live By in Your 40s
Time to bulk up your retirement savings.

Q&A: Here are some tips for getting more retirement money into accounts with tax advantages

Dear Liz: My wife and I are about 35. I’m self-employed and contribute to a SEP IRA. My wife contributes to a workplace retirement plan. We don’t qualify to contribute to Roth IRAs. In order to get more money into retirement accounts, would you recommend doing back-door Roth contributions? What else is there to do to get retirement money into accounts that will have a tax benefit now or later?

Answer: Roth IRAs don’t provide an upfront deduction, but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. That makes them especially enticing to people who expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement — mostly higher-income people and good savers.

People who earn more than certain limits, however, are prohibited from contributing directly to a Roth IRA. For 2018, direct Roth contributions aren’t allowed for people whose modified adjusted gross incomes exceed $199,000 for married couples filing jointly or $135,000 for single filers.

Several years ago, however, Congress eliminated income limits on who was allowed to convert a regular IRA to a Roth IRA. That change created the back-door Roth strategy, in which a high-income taxpayer contributes to a regular IRA and then converts the money to a Roth.

The strategy works best for people who don’t already have a large IRA filled with pre-tax contributions and earnings. When you convert all or some of an IRA to a Roth, you have to pay a proportionate amount of income taxes on the conversion based on all of your IRA holdings. If you don’t have an existing IRA and don’t deduct the IRA contribution, you’ll owe little if any taxes on the conversion.

The IRS hasn’t specifically blessed or banned the back-door Roth strategy, so it remains somewhat controversial. Many investing and brokerage sites promote it. Some proponents, however, recommend letting several months pass between the contribution and the conversion. The idea is to avoid IRS scrutiny by making the transactions appear to be separate decisions rather than one clearly meant to get around the contribution limits.

If you want to stay out of gray areas and potentially contribute more cash to your retirement, consider setting up a solo 401(k). This version of the popular workplace plan is meant for self-employed business owners with no full-time employees other than themselves and their spouses. Plan participants under age 50 can contribute up to $18,500 a year. Those 50 and older can contribute up to $24,500. The plan can have a Roth and an after-tax contribution option in addition to a pre-tax option. In addition, the business can make a 25% annual profit-sharing contribution (or 20% if the business is a sole proprietorship or single member LLC). The combined maximum of participant and business contribution is $55,000 for those under 50 and $61,000 for those 50 and older.

If you’re able to contribute more than these amounts each year, consider a traditional defined-benefit pension. Those involve considerable set-up and ongoing costs, so consult a tax pro to see if it’s a good fit.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Selling stocks in a panic could jack up your tax bill. Also in the news: This 5-minute task can protect your banking rep, how to get started with frequent flyer programs, and how your Amazon Echo could be making you spend more money.

Selling Stocks in a Panic Could Jack Up Your Tax Bill
Don’t act impulsively.

This 5-Minute Task Can Protect Your Banking Rep
Using a ChexSystem freeze.

How to Get Started With Frequent Flyer Programs
Start putting all those miles to work.

Your Amazon Echo could be making you spend more money
In addition to laughing at random times.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 4 good ways to put your tax refund to work. Also in the news: 4 wats to speed up your tax refund, how 3 students got an education on the cheap, and Amazon may be getting into the banking business.

4 Good Ways to Put Your Tax Refund to Work
Use your refund to ease financial stress.

4 Ways to Speed Up Your Tax Refund
Skip the mailbox.

How 3 Students Got an Education on the Cheap
Avoiding years of debt.

Amazon’s next product may be a checking account
The online giant is eyeing banking.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: It’s tax scam season. Here’s when to call shenanigans. Also in the news: Starting with a budget when planning a wedding, how to find good, cheap stocks, and a major data breach at the Marine Forces Reserve.

Planning a Wedding? Start With the Budget
Setting reasonable expectations.

It’s Tax Scam Season. Here’s When to Call Shenanigans
Pay close attention.

4 Steps to Finding Good, Cheap Stocks
Tips for beginners.

Major data breach at Marine Forces Reserve impacts thousands
Social Security numbers, banks transfers and other personal info has been leaked.

When a tax refund is a lifeline, not a windfall

The typical advice about what people should do with their tax refunds — save for retirement! pay off debt! — ignores how little wiggle room many families have with their finances.

Tax refunds averaged $2,895 last year, and were the largest single cash infusion received all year by 40 percent of the checking account holders recently studied by the JPMorgan Chase Institute. In my latest for the Associated Press, a look at how Americans use their tax refunds.