Q&A: Dumping debt could make you ‘credit invisible.’ Why that’s a problem and how to fix it

Dear Liz: I have a credit card issue that I’ve not been able to resolve and hope that you can provide some helpful suggestions. I am a debt-free senior. I owe nothing on my house or vehicles and I pay off my one credit card each month. I’ve no missing payments on utilities. My credit card reduced my credit limit last year saying that my credit scores were too low. In fact they’ve fallen from 800s to 600s over the last year. The bank that issues my business credit card says they use an algorithm that allows no human interaction for adjustments for people like me who are debt-free. Any suggestions?

Answer: Many people who once had good credit become “credit invisible” if they’ve paid off all their loans and stopped using credit cards.

But regularly using a credit card or two should be enough to stay visible to the credit score algorithms and to keep good scores. The problem may be the type of card you’re using. Business credit cards often don’t show up on personal credit reports, so your use of the card wouldn’t be included in credit score calculations. If that’s the case, consider applying for a personal card to start rebuilding your scores.

The other possibility is that you’ve become the victim of identity theft. Please check your credit reports at the three major credit bureaus. You can do so for free by typing AnnualCreditReport.com into your browser window or by calling (877) 322-8228.

Q&A: Deciding on when to take Social Security

Dear Liz: My ex-husband is 13 years younger than I. We were married for 10 years and he earns more than I do. If I start drawing my own Social Security benefit at age 70, can I switch to his benefit when I’m 75 and he is 62?

Answer: Normally when someone applies for Social Security, they’re “deemed” or assumed to be applying for all the benefits for which they’re eligible. If you’re eligible for your own retirement benefit as well as a divorced spousal benefit, for example, you would get the larger of the two amounts. You wouldn’t be able to switch from one to the other later.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, however, and your situation is one of them. You won’t be eligible for a divorced spousal benefit until your ex-husband reaches minimum retirement age (62). At that point, you would be eligible for 50% of his primary insurance amount, or the check he would get at his full retirement age, which is currently between 66 and 67. If that amount is larger than what you’re receiving, you could switch.

If you’re going to switch, though, you may not want to wait until 70 to apply for your own benefit. Delaying makes sense for most people, because they’ll live past the break-even age in their late 70s when the larger value of the delayed benefit more than makes up for the smaller checks they pass up in the meantime. If you switch at 75, though, you won’t have received your own benefits for long enough to make up for bypassing the smaller checks, says Dr. William Reichenstein, head of research at Social Security Solutions.

Deciding when to start Social Security can be tricky even in simpler situations than yours, so consider using a site such as Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security for advice on when to claim.

Q&A: Inherited IRA taxes

Dear Liz: I have about $16,000 in a Roth IRA that I plan to leave to my daughter. When she collects this on my death, does she pay tax on the withdrawals?

Answer: No. She would have to pay taxes on withdrawals if the money were in a regular inherited IRA, but not if the money is in a Roth. She will be required to withdraw the money within 10 years, though. Congress eliminated the so-called “stretch IRA” for most inheritors, so non-spouse beneficiaries can no longer stretch withdrawals over their own lifetimes.

Q&A: Here’s what you should do about suspicious credit report activity

Dear Liz: I recently obtained copies of my credit reports from the three major credit bureaus and discovered my brother’s home address listed in the personal information section. I am extremely concerned about how and why this happened since I have never lived with my brother. This brother is the executor of our father’s estate, and the address listing was dated just before the distribution of that estate. What possible reason could my brother have for searching my credit background? I have zero communication with him because of an ongoing feud. He ignores any requests or inquiries. After I discovered this, I asked the bureaus to remove the address and put security freezes on all three credit reports, which I probably should have done sooner.

Answer: Your brother’s address wouldn’t show up in your credit reports in the unlikely event he had checked your credit. It might show up there if he had committed identity theft using your information, but if nothing else was amiss — you didn’t spot a credit account or loan you didn’t recognize, for example — then most likely the error was made by a creditor or other company that reports information to the credit bureaus.

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act limits who can access your credit reports. Only businesses with a legitimate need to know the information can do so, and often your permission is required. You can check who has accessed your credit during the last two years in the “inquiries” section of your credit reports.

You may never discover exactly how your brother’s address wound up in your file, but you took the right steps in disputing the error and in freezing your credit reports.

For readers not as credit-report savvy: You can access your reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. But be careful; lots of sites want to sell you your reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. If you’re asked for a credit card number, you’re on the wrong site.

When you get your reports, look for accounts that aren’t yours and other suspicious activity. Consider freezing your credit reports at each of the bureaus to prevent someone from opening new accounts in your name. You can thaw the freeze whenever you need credit, also for free.

Q&A: Consider taxes before retirement

Dear Liz: I began converting two 401(k)s from previous employers to Roth IRAs. To lessen the huge tax hit, I decided to do the conversions over the course of seven years. Even with that, the tax hit is higher than I realized and too painful. Now that partial conversions have begun annually, am I required to complete the total conversion to 100%? Or can I stop midway and leave the remainder in the original accounts? Also, is there an age limit before which Roth conversions must be completed?

Answer: You don’t have to continue making conversions. (Before 2018, you could have even reversed conversions you already made, but that’s no longer possible.) There’s also no age limit for conversions, but the older you get, the less likely conversions are to make financial sense.

Conversions are a good bet if you expect to be in the same or a higher tax bracket in retirement. If you’re young and in a low tax bracket now, you can reasonably expect that to be the case.

As you approach retirement, though, the opposite may be true. Many people find their tax bracket drops once they retire. Why pay a big tax bill now if you can access the money at a lower tax rate later?

Then again, if you’re a good saver, you may discover you’ve accumulated so much that your tax bill will soar once you’re required to start taking minimum distributions at age 72. If that’s the case, then converting some of your retirement money might save you on taxes overall.

But you’ll want to discuss this with a tax pro or financial planner who can model how the conversions are likely to affect your overall finances, including any Medicare premiums, since those can increase with income.

Q&A: IRS changes on required withdrawals

Dear Liz: When informing me of my required minimum distribution for 2022, my brokerage has apparently used a distribution period that differs from the one used in past years. This results in a distribution amount that’s noticeably smaller. I recall there was some talk of revising the IRS tables, but has this been done?

Answer: Yes. The IRS has updated the life expectancy tables used to calculate how much people must withdraw from their retirement accounts to reflect longer lifespans. That’s good news for people who withdraw only the minimums each year, since their required distributions will be smaller and the rest of their balances can continue to grow tax deferred.

Q&A: Starting Social Security too early

Dear Liz: Does the Social Security Administration still allow a person to start taking Social Security benefits at age 62 and then later return the full amount received and begin taking the higher delayed benefits? For people who don’t need the income, this seems like a smart strategy as they could obtain the investment income on the benefits received from age 62 to 70 as well as the higher benefits amount starting at age 70.

Answer: Social Security closed that particular loophole in 2010.

As you know, Social Security retirement benefits increase each year you put off applying between age 62 and age 70, when benefits max out. An early start typically means a permanently reduced benefit.

Before 2010, people who started early, but who were able to repay all the money they received, were allowed to restart benefits at an older age and claim the larger checks as if they’d never applied before. This do-over prompted some recipients to apply early, invest the money and enjoy a kind of interest-free loan from the government.

People who make the mistake of starting Social Security too early still have a couple of options. They can withdraw their application for benefits within 12 months, but they are required to repay any benefits received, including benefits received by family members such as spousal or child benefits.

Another option is to wait until their full retirement age, which is currently between 66 and 67, and simply suspend their benefit.

No money has to be paid back and the recipient receives the delayed retirement credits that increase their benefits by 8% for each year they delay. Benefits will be automatically restarted at age 70, although the recipient can start them earlier, if desired.

Q&A: Saving at online banks

Dear Liz: My wife keeps over $60,000 in her checking account at a brick-and-mortar bank. I think that is a bad idea. Too easy for possible fraud. I have tried to convince her the safest place to keep the bulk of her cash is in a savings account, preferably in an online bank, which I believe provides added protection against fraud as long as we maintain good computer health. What do you think?

Answer: Many people have the opposite conviction, which is that online banks are somehow less safe than brick-and-mortar versions. In reality, both types offer encryption and other safety measures to deter fraud. Accounts are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and covered by federal banking regulations designed to protect consumers against fraud.

Your wife’s money wouldn’t necessarily be safer in a savings account, but she’d earn a little more interest. Many online banks currently offer rates of about 1% on savings accounts. If she moved all but $10,000 out of the checking account, she could earn about $500 a year in interest and perhaps more if the Federal Reserve continues to raise rates.

Q&A: How a ‘like-kind’ 1031 exchange can help you defer real estate capital gains taxes

Dear Liz: My husband and I are selling a commercial property for $600,000 and we have capital gains questions. Our Realtor said that we have 90 days to buy another property but suggested we don’t make a purchase due to the state of the economy at this time. We are looking for any suggestions to lessen our capital gains. Do you have any suggestions that we could look into or articles to read?

Answer: Your Realtor is referring to what’s known as a “like-kind” or Section 1031 exchange. These exchanges allow people to defer capital gains taxes when they sell commercial, rental or investment real estate as long as the proceeds are used to purchase similar property.

Section 1031 exchanges happen all the time, in all sorts of economic conditions, so your Realtor’s attempt to dissuade you based on “the state of the economy” is a bit odd. Also, like-kind exchanges don’t have to be completed in 90 days. Owners have 45 days to identify potential replacement properties and a total of 180 days to complete the transaction. There are a number of other rules you must follow, so you’ll want to use companies known as exchange facilitators that specialize in handling these transactions.

Your first step, though, should be finding a qualified tax professional. You’ve just experienced what can happen when you turn to non-tax professionals for tax advice.

While your desire to educate yourself is laudable, and you certainly can find books about taxes at your local bookstore, there’s no substitute for consulting an experienced tax pro who can give you personalized advice.

Q&A: How to avoid Medicare late enrollment penalties

Dear Liz: I am 65, still working and have health insurance through my employer. I have not enrolled for Medicare and have been told I do not need to. I plan to once I retire. There is a passage in my Social Security statement that says, “Because you are already 65 or older, you should contact Social Security to enroll in Medicare. You may be subject to a lifetime late enrollment penalty. Special rules may apply if you are covered by certain group health plans through work.” I have tried to research further through the Medicare website but can’t find a clear answer about whether or not I am OK not enrolling at this time.

Answer: If your employer has 20 or more employees, then you’re fine for now. When you stop working for that employer, you’ll have eight months to sign up for Medicare without owing penalties.

If you want your Medicare coverage to start when your job-based coverage ends, though, you should sign up a month before you retire. Similar rules would apply if you were covered by a spouse’s workplace health insurance plan. As long as your spouse is still working for the employer that provides the coverage, you can avoid permanent Medicare penalties.

If your employer has fewer than 20 employees, however, you may be required to sign up for Medicare when you’re first eligible. Check with your employer.