Q&A: How the COVID-19 pandemic is delaying inheritances

Dear Liz: My mother passed away in March due to old age. She lived in California. I live out of state and couldn’t travel because of the pandemic. My siblings took care of her burial. Her will named me executor. I’d like to know how long I have to settle her estate and whether I will need an attorney. Her house was her major asset and was assessed at $400,000. There’s no mortgage. The house goes to an older brother and me, and two grandsons each get $10,000. I want to make sure the grandsons get their inheritances as soon as possible.

Answer: Your grandsons will have to wait awhile. California probate is slow at the best of times, with a typical case taking eight to 12 months or more. Pandemic-related court closures are adding many months to the process. Courts are slowly reopening but dealing with a significant backlog of filings.

Your mother’s will should be filed with the appropriate county within 30 days of her death and the county tax assessor should be notified within 150 days because she was a property owner, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. Though most counties allow electronic filing for probate matters, it’s typically not the most user-friendly process and you may want to consult a probate attorney. The initial consultation is usually free. Hiring an attorney to handle the whole process probably won’t be cheap: By law, probate attorneys can charge 4% of the first $100,000 of the estate, 3% of the next $100,000, 2% of the next $800,000, 1% of the next $9 million, and 0.5% of the next $15 million.

Your mom could have avoided probate entirely if she’d created a revocable living trust, or if she had taken other probate-avoidance measures. In California and many other states, real estate can be passed on with a “transfer on death” deed that avoids probate. She also could have set up bank accounts and designated your grandsons as beneficiaries to avoid probate.

It’s too late now, obviously. But whatever you do, don’t jump the gun by making distributions, Sawday warned.

“If there is a will, under no circumstances should he make the cash gifts to the grandsons until the court admits the will, appoints him as executor and probate actually commences,” Sawday said.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Now is the time to teach your Gen-Z kids about credit. Also in the news: 1 in 4 retirees say COVID-19 may force them to go back to work, when and how should you report your no-show stimulus check to the IRS, and how to set up a zero-based budget.

Now Is the Time to Teach Your Gen-Z Kids About Credit
Preparing them for the real world.

1 in 4 Retirees Say COVID-19 May Force Them to Go Back to Work. What This Could Mean for You
A dramatic change in plans.

When and how should you report your no-show stimulus check to the IRS?
Tracking down your check.

How to set up a zero-based budget
Making your income and expenses match.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What to do if your kid’s emergency fund is you? Also in the news: Frequently asked questions about Coronavirus unemployment, how 3D home tours are allowing buyers to keep their distance, and why you should make a COVID-19 backup plan before returning to your office.

What to do if your kid’s emergency fund is you?
The Bank of Mom and Dad.

Frequently asked questions about Coronavirus unemployment
Over 42 million Americans have filed for unemployment since March.

How 3D home tours are allowing buyers to keep their distance
Staying safe while shopping for a new home.

Why you should make a COVID-19 backup plan before returning to your office
It’s a whole new working world.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Get your finances ready to refi your student loans. Also in the news: Watching out for COVID-19 student loan relief scams, complaints against financial institutions rise during the pandemic, and a beginner’s guide to employee stock plans.

Get Your Finances Ready to Refi Student Loans
You probably shouldn’t refinance most student loans until after Sept. 30. But you can get ready right now.

Don’t fall for COVID-19 student loan relief scams
Scammers are still working during the pandemic.

In the Pandemic, Complaints Against Financial Institutions Rise
Complaints are up over 31%.

A Beginner’s Guide to Employee Stock Plans
important basics you should know.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How the pandemic alters Americans’ financial habits. Also in the news: Navigating LGBTQ financial challenges, a July 15th tax extension reminder, and Americans are heading back to the stores.

Survey: How the Pandemic Alters Americans’ Financial Habits
Nearly 70% of Americans have been dealing with a negative impact to their finances.

Q&A With Debt Free Guys: Navigating LGBTQ Financial Challenges
Happy Pride!

If You Request a Tax Extension, You Still Have to Pay by July 15
You must file AND pay.

Americans appear ready to shop again
Back to the stores.

When parents are the emergency fund

Financial fallout from the pandemic is hitting millennials hard — and many will soon turn to their parents for help, if they haven’t already.

Before parents ride to the rescue, financial planners urge them to map out a strategy that doesn’t just plug a short-term need but also makes sense in the long run.

“Often the heartstrings will get pulled — ‘I really have to help them!’— but it can be detrimental to the parent,” says certified financial planner Jeffrey L. Corliss of Westport, Connecticut.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why parents must be cautious when rescuing their children financially.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: These are probably your best options for travel this summer. Also in the news: A new episode of the SmartMoney podcast on how the pandemic is changing our financial lives, how your state may let you deduct the costs of working from home during the pandemic, and 10 steps to avoiding tax-return identity theft.

These are probably your best options for travel this summer
It’s going to be weird.

SmartMoney Podcast: The Pandemic Is Changing Our Financial Lives, and What to Know About Refinancing Now
Things have changed dramatically.

Your State May Let You Deduct The Costs of Working From Home During the Pandemic
Covering the costs of your upgrades.

10 Steps to Avoiding Tax-Return Identity Theft
Protecting your Social Security number.

Q&A: Why tax refunds are taking so long to arrive

Dear Liz: You mentioned that people who file electronically and use direct deposit generally get their refunds much more quickly than those who file paper returns. That has always been true for me, but this year I filed in February and got a message that there was a problem but not to contact the IRS for 60 days. Then COVID-19 happened and the IRS basically shut down. Can you tell me when they will release my money?

Answer: No one knows. The IRS is still in the process of calling employees back to work and some operations centers won’t reopen until later this month.

As employees return, they’re confronting an almost incomprehensible backlog of paperwork and requests for help. Millions of paper returns are sitting in trailers, waiting to be input into the IRS’ computers, and no one has been available to process electronically filed returns that were flagged because of problems.

People who have already been waiting months may still have to wait several weeks more before they see their money or can even access someone who knows what’s happened to their returns. As a reminder, the IRS extended the tax filing deadline to July 15.

Q&A: Refinancing reverse mortgage

Dear Liz: I am a senior citizen who fell for the hype about reverse mortgages during a really hard time in my life. To this date I regret profoundly having sold my home to the devil! I never imagined that my debt would grow such as it has. My home is currently valued at $120,000 and my debt is $189,000. I was paid just $40,000 when I initiated the loan. Plus, the loan was sold to a company I don’t like. They charge fees for everything, which just adds to the debt, and I am totally unable to do anything about what they charge. Can I refinance this loan with another company?

Answer: A reverse mortgage technically can be refinanced, but you would need to have substantial equity in your home. Since that’s not the case, you’re stuck.

Many people don’t understand how a reverse mortgage balance can grow over time. Although reverse mortgages allow people 62 and older to convert home equity to cash, without requiring payments, any amount borrowed grows at the interest rate specified in the loan contract. People who tap their home equity early in retirement may find they don’t have any equity left later.

Although your debt exceeds your home’s value, neither you nor your heirs will be on the hook for the difference. The lender will have to accept the proceeds of the home’s sale when you die, sell or move out as payment in full.

Q&A: Roth IRA penalties

Dear Liz: I read your column in which you talked about the Roth IRA and how withdrawals can be penalized if you’re younger than 59½ or the account is not 5 years old. But are there any exceptions? Can we withdraw from our Roth IRA and not pay any tax or penalty if we use the money to pay for our children’s college?

Answer: You can avoid the early withdrawal penalty, but you’ll owe taxes on any earnings you withdraw from a Roth IRA when you use the money for qualified higher education expenses.

To recap, you can always withdraw an amount equal to your total contributions to a Roth IRA without owing any taxes or penalties. You don’t even have to wait five years.

When you withdraw earnings, however, you can avoid taxes and penalties only if the account is at least 5 years old and you’re 59½ or older, or you’re taking the distribution because you’re totally and permanently disabled, you inherited the Roth IRA from the account owner or you’re using as much as $10,000 for a first-time home purchase.

If you don’t meet those qualifications, there are still ways to avoid the penalty if not the taxes.

Withdrawing money to pay qualified education expenses is one of those exceptions, as is paying medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, withdrawing as much as $5,000 after the birth or adoption of a child, paying an IRS levy, taking a qualified reservist distribution if you’re a military reservist called to active duty or taking a series of substantially equal periodic payments.

Let’s say you’ve contributed $20,000 to a Roth that’s now worth $30,000. The first $20,000 you withdraw is tax- and penalty-free. The final $10,000 you withdraw would be taxable, but it would not face the 10% early withdrawal penalty if you used it for your children’s college tuition, fees, books, supplies or other qualified expenses.