Q&A: Need help with your IRA? Call a CPA, or maybe a PFS

Dear Liz: My husband and I have substantial pre-tax savings in our workplace retirement plans and IRAs. Based on where those balances would be in retirement, we would definitely be paying more in taxes than now, and face the potential of running out of money if forced to withdraw it all. You often refer people to the Garrett Planning Network for fiduciary financial planners. Is there a similar organization for tax planners who can provide a strategy for rolling over our pre-tax accounts in order to take part of the hit now, and reduce taxes later? The financial planners we’ve found through Garrett have some tax knowledge, but refer us to tax professionals for more in-depth tax analysis.

Answer: Many fee-only financial planners work with tax professionals such as certified public accountants — CPAs — to craft Roth conversion plans that can reduce future taxes. If you want an all-in-one pro, though, you could consider hiring a CPA who is a personal financial specialist, or PFS. The PFS credential is similar to the certified financial planner credential, but is granted only to CPAs. To find one in your area, you can use the American Institute of CPAs’ directory at https://www.aicpa-cima.com/directories. Click the plus sign next to “Find a credential/designation holder,” select “PFS” in the box titled “Credential/designation name” and then input your location.

Q&A: Safeguarding your personal data is hard. Here are a few tips.

Dear Liz: I was recently alerted that my Social Security number has been found on the dark web. My information was part of the AT&T breach that took place recently. I am no longer an AT&T customer and haven’t been for several years, but they have not made any contact with me. What do I do to keep myself safe and how do I get my information removed from the dark web? Why hasn’t AT&T reached out to me?

Answer: As a consumer, you don’t have much power. Companies often demand your personal data, such as Social Security numbers, before they’ll do business with you. Once your information is in their databases, you have no control over what happens to it. And if your information is leaked, there’s no way to remove it from the dark web.

You can’t even be sure how your information got there, given the sheer volume of database breaches in recent years. If you’re an adult with a Social Security number, chances are pretty good that number can be found on the black market sites where criminals buy and share information, says Eva Velasquez, chief executive of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit that helps identity theft victims.

In other words, your data may have been compromised long before the latest incident, which AT&T says affected 73 million current and former customers. AT&T began notifying impacted customers via letters or email starting in April. Those customers should have received an offer for free credit monitoring.

There are a few things you can do to make yourself a bit less vulnerable to identity theft, such as putting freezes on your credit reports, not clicking on links in texts or emails if you didn’t initiate the transaction and using digital wallets or other secure payment methods.

Also, don’t be your own worst enemy. Beware of sharing personal information (birth dates, address, phone number, etc.) on social media. Consider limiting your audience to people you know and trust, Velasquez says.

The Identity Theft Resource Center also recommends using passkeys, a technology that replaces passwords, whenever you’re offered that option. If a passkey is not available, the center suggests using passphrases of 12 characters or more rather than shorter passwords. A passphrase is a sequence of words that can be personalized for easier memorization, typically with numbers added and a mix of capital and lowercase letters. The center gives an example of a passphrase for a 2015 University of Texas graduate: “H00kEmH0rns2015.” You’ll still need unique passphrases for every account and site. You also should turn on two-factor authentication or multi-factor authentication where available. This requires an extra step, such as getting a code on your phone or from an app, but this will make your accounts harder to compromise.

Q&A: Is my wife’s pension at risk?

Dear Liz: My wife worked in the private sector for 30 years and paid into Social Security before starting her current job in the public sector. She will get a small pension from this job when she decides to retire. It’s our understanding that the windfall elimination provision won’t apply to her since she contributed to Social Security for 30 years. Is that correct? Will she also be able to receive her small pension?

Answer: Yes and yes. The windfall elimination provision normally applies to people who receive pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security. This provision can reduce, but not eliminate, the benefits they get from Social Security. However, the provision doesn’t apply to people who have 30 or more years of “substantial earnings” from jobs that did pay into Social Security. The amount considered “substantial” varies by year; in 2024, it’s $31,275.

Q&A: A sticky inheritance scenario

Dear Liz: I have an adult daughter by a previous marriage who has no savings or retirement funds. I want to change my living trust to ensure that my daughter only receives a monthly amount similar to my required minimum distribution from my IRA, plus half of our paid-off house after my wife and I pass away. Do I need a trust attorney?

Answer: Restricting access to an inheritance might be necessary, but few adults would be happy about being put on an allowance. Unhappy heirs may be more likely to challenge an estate plan, so you should get expert advice if you want your wishes to prevail.

Even if your daughter is amenable, you still need an estate planning attorney’s help to craft the trust that doles out the money. Understand that inherited IRAs typically must be drained within 10 years. (The exceptions are for surviving spouses, minor children, the disabled or chronically ill or survivors who are not more than 10 years younger than the account owner.) If the beneficiary is a trust, the distributions don’t have to be paid out to your daughter, but any amount retained by the trust will typically be taxed at a higher rate. Plus, you’ll have to find someone to manage the trust, notes Burton Mitchell, a Los Angeles estate planning attorney. Who you select to be the trustee is critically important, as they will have to deal with your daughter for the rest of her life, Mitchell says.

Also, you may need to reconsider how you own your house if you want to ensure half goes to your daughter. Typically couples own property jointly, so that the survivor inherits automatically. If you want to bequeath your half of the property to someone other than your spouse, you may need to change the ownership structure to tenants in common. You’ll need to think this through carefully, since such a change would have legal, tax and practical implications that you’ll want an attorney to thoroughly explain. For example, if your spouse dies before you, she could leave her house to someone other than you, Mitchell notes. The house could be sold and you might need to find somewhere else to live. Conversely, if you die first, your wife could be forced to move if your daughter insisted on selling the house.

In other words, achieving what you want may be a lot more complicated and have more repercussions than you currently imagine. Talking with an experienced estate planning attorney can help you better understand your options.

Q&A: Credit for time spent on a DIY home project?

Dear Liz: My husband remodeled all of the bathrooms in our home. We have receipts for the materials we purchased so that we can reduce our capital gains when we sell our home. Can we claim my husband’s time as labor costs for the home improvements?

Answer: No.

You can add the cost of improvements to your tax basis, which will be deducted from the sale amount to determine your potentially taxable capital gains. But you can’t add to your tax basis the value of your own labor, or any labor for which you didn’t pay.

Q&A: Remarriage wouldn’t affect her divorced survivor benefit if she’s over 60

Dear Liz: I’m a CPA and getting conflicting answers from the Social Security office about a case I’m working on. Both clients are 70 and they’re considering legal separation or divorce. She took Social Security at 62 and receives about $1,500 a month before deductions. He started Social Security at 70 and receives about $4,600. How would her Social Security change at his death or their divorce, if she doesn’t remarry?

Answer: Based on the amounts involved, both parties are receiving their own retirement benefits and those aren’t affected by divorce, said William Reichenstein, a principal at Social Security Solutions, a claiming strategy site. (If the wife were receiving spousal benefits, those would continue after divorce as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years and she did not remarry.)

If the husband dies and they haven’t divorced, the wife would be entitled to survivor benefits equal to his full monthly benefit amount ($4,600, plus any future cost of living increases). If they divorce and the marriage lasted at least 10 years, she also would be entitled to his full amount. Remarriage wouldn’t affect her divorced survivor benefit since she’s over 60, Reichenstein said.

Q&A: Managing mortgage debt in retirement

Dear Liz: My husband and I are Gen Xers who are renting. We have enough cash from the sale of our last home to make a small down payment on another. If we moved to a more affordable community, we could manage the payments, but it would still be a stretch. That scenario would not have bothered me 10 years ago, but now I’m close to 50. Is it a good idea to take on a mortgage at this point? What is the best way to ensure I can afford to keep the roof over my head when I can no longer work full time?

Answer: Having a mortgage in retirement used to be uncommon, but that’s no longer the case. The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University found 41% of homeowners 65 and older had a mortgage in 2022, compared with 24% in 1989. Among homeowners 80 and over, the percentage with mortgages rose from 3% to 31%.

The amounts owed have skyrocketed as well. Median mortgage debt for those 65 and older rose more than 400%, from $21,000 to $110,000 (both figures are in 2022 dollars). Median mortgage debt for those 80 and over increased more than 750%, from $9,000 to $79,000.

Mortgage debt doesn’t have to be a crisis if you can afford the home and the payments don’t cause you to run through your retirement savings too quickly. In fact, some retirees are better off hanging on to their loans. It may not make sense to prepay a 3% mortgage when you can earn 5% on a certificate of deposit, for example. Paying off a mortgage early also could leave you “house rich and cash poor,” with not enough savings to deal with emergencies and later-life expenses.

But the key is affordability. A mortgage that’s a stretch now might become easier to afford if your income rises, which was almost a given when you were younger. Now, however, you’re approaching the “dangerous decade” of your 50s, when many people wind up losing their jobs and failing to ever regain their former pay, according to a study by ProPublica and the Urban Institute.

Renting has its risks as well, of course. You aren’t building equity and you typically have little control over rent increases, other than to move.

For help in sorting through your options, consider talking to a fee-only, fiduciary advisor. Among the most affordable options are accredited financial counselors and accredited financial coaches, who typically are well-versed in the money issues facing middle-class Americans. You can get referrals from the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education at www.afcpe.org.

Q&A: Can my credit score really be marred over $20?

Dear Liz: I have had great credit for years. Late last year, I somehow overlooked a $20 payment due from one of my credit cards. My score dropped by more than 50 points, from about 815 to 765. I quickly paid the $20 and contacted the issuer. They told me they were required by law to report my delinquent payment, which I found out was not true. I went back and forth with them, but they would not do anything to help. I did file an inquiry with one of the credit bureaus, but I was told there was nothing they could do without the issuer’s cooperation. I spoke with someone in the issuer’s corporate offices, but he could not have cared less. It turns out that this hit on my credit could last seven years — and all over $20. I charge thousands of dollars every year on credit cards and pay the balance every month. Is there anything else I can do to restore my credit to the previous levels?

Answer: The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act does require creditors to report accurate information to the credit bureaus. However, some people say they’ve been able to get their accidental late payments removed by writing “good will” letters to their issuers. These letters explain what happened, emphasize the customer’s previous record of on-time payments and politely request the issuer extend some good will by removing the one-time lapse from their credit reports.

Your issuer is under no obligation to grant your request, and some categorically say they won’t. But it can’t hurt to try.

You also can use this incident as a reason to review how you pay your credit cards. Setting up automatic payments to cover at least your minimum payment will ensure this doesn’t happen again. Keep an eye on your credit utilization as well. Aim to use 10% or less of your credit limits. If you find it difficult to keep your charges below that level, consider making multiple payments each month to keep your balance low.

The unexpected drop in your credit scores was painful, but the good news is that you still have great scores. This oversight is unlikely to have any lasting effect on your financial life. And if you continue to use credit responsibly, your scores will improve over time.

Q&A: Complicated condo question

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about gifting a condo. I understood the first part of your answer: If the person receiving the gift lives in the condo for two of the last five years, then there is no capital gains exposure. The second part of your answer is a little confusing to me. You wrote, “However, her taxable gain would be based on your tax basis in the property: basically what you paid for the home, plus any qualifying improvements.” So, if my mother gifted her condo to me and she paid $50,000 for it 40 years ago, and the condo today is selling for $250,000, what is my capital gains exposure? To keep it simple, assume no capital improvements or other factors.

Answer: Living in and owning a home for two of the previous five years does not erase someone’s capital gains exposure. Instead, they’re entitled to exclude up to $250,000 of home sale gains from their income.

In the case you describe, your potentially taxable capital gain would be $200,000. That’s the selling price of $250,000 minus your mother’s tax basis (which is now your tax basis) of $50,000.

If you owned and lived in the home at least two of the previous five years, your exclusion would more than offset your gain, so the home sale wouldn’t be taxable. If you didn’t make it to the two-year mark, you could get a partial exemption under certain circumstances, such as a work- or health-related move. For more details, see IRS Publication 523, “Selling Your Home.”

Q&A: Handling family property, when to take retirement and building credit history

Dear Liz: My wife and I plan to leave our house to our four children. My concern is that one may want to sell and split the proceeds; another may want to keep the house, rent it and divide up the income; and of course there’s always the real possibility that one may want to move in and live in it (we live in a nice community in California). My goal is to prevent doing anything that drives a wedge between them. Any advice on how best to approach this issue short of requiring the house be sold?

Answer: You’ve identified some of the complicating factors of leaving property to multiple heirs. There are many others, including changing circumstances and inclinations. The one who now wants to move into the property may be nicely settled elsewhere when the time comes. Or the one who’s keen on creating a rental may decide that screening tenants, collecting rent and fielding 3 a.m. calls about plumbing problems is too much hassle. Some of the heirs may be in a better position than others to absorb the ongoing costs of maintaining the home, including taxes, insurance and repairs. Even if their financial circumstances are roughly equal, they may have trouble agreeing on the timing and cost of repairs or improvements. And that’s assuming there are no reversals of fortune. Someone who is adamant about keeping the home may find themselves in need of funds later. And so on.

Your life isn’t immune to change either, by the way. You, or your widow, may want to downsize someday or need to sell the house to fund long-term care needs.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you sort through your options because this is a common scenario and one that can be approached in different ways, including requiring the house to be sold, creating a trust or forming a family partnership to manage the property.

The attorney also can help you frame the discussion you’ll want to have with the kids. Knowing their current preferences and circumstances may be helpful, but given your goal, it’s also a good opportunity to emphasize the importance of family unity. Let your kids know you expect them to put family first and that harmonious relationships are worth more than any piece of real estate could be.