Q&A: HELOC situation improves

Dear Liz: Your recommendation that a retired couple consider a home equity line of credit to pay for home repairs astonished me. According to news reports, HELOCs are becoming harder and harder to find. Banks that still offer them have gotten stricter. And to suggest a reverse mortgage for a couple who only need $10,000, I think, is not the best option for them.

Answer: Lenders did tighten their requirements for HELOCs after the pandemic began, and some stopped offering them entirely. But the situation is starting to ease, thanks to rising levels of home equity and a generally strong economy.

The original letter writer’s spouse had proposed using a low-rate credit card to pay for a new furnace and water heater. Using a low-rate card isn’t a bad option if the balance can be paid off quickly, but could become expensive otherwise. Low rates are typically teaser rates that expire after a certain period. The couple then could try to roll the balance onto another low-rate card, but there’s no guarantee they would be approved for such a balance transfer or that they would get a large enough credit limit.

You’re quite right that a reverse mortgage wouldn’t be a great solution if the couple needed only $10,000, but the letter writer indicated they had little in savings. A reverse mortgage or line of credit could provide an ongoing source of funds for those with few other options.

Q&A: Adding sister to a house deed

Dear Liz: A reader recently asked about giving a rental house to the sister that has been living in it for 10 years. You mentioned that the reader would have to file a gift tax return since there is a max of $15,000 for a gift exemption. Couldn’t the owner simply add the sister to the title so when they pass the sister becomes the sole owner of the house without having to deal with taxes, probate, etc? Similarly, if the sister dies first the current owner would retain ownership to give, sell, donate as they choose.

Answer: Adding the sister to the deed would be considered a gift, so the reader would still have to file a gift tax return.

Owning the home together would avoid probate and give the surviving sister a tax break, and that half of the house would get what’s known as a step-up in tax basis at the first sister’s death. Another option, if the reader wanted to retain ownership, would be a transfer-on-death deed, which is available in many states. The reader was clear that she wanted to give an outright gift, but she could consult a real estate or estate planning attorney about other options.

Q&A: Windfall elimination provision

Dear Liz: I just read your answer regarding the windfall elimination provision question. I receive a pension after having retired from law enforcement. I was fortunate to be able to retire at 46. Then I landed a great job with excellent pay. I expect to pay into Social Security for a total of 17 years and I’ve been contributing the maximum for the last six. How will this affect my benefits? Will I still be penalized?

Answer: The only way the windfall elimination provision wouldn’t affect you is if you paid into Social Security for 30 years or more. If you pay Social Security taxes for 20 years or less, you’ll face the full impact of this provision, which affects those who get pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security. Starting at year 21, the effect begins to lessen until it disappears at year 30.

You can learn more about what to expect on Social Security’s site. Some of the paid Social Security claiming strategy sites, including Maximize My Social Security and Social Security Solutions, can incorporate the windfall elimination provision into their calculations if you want to model how different retirement dates might affect your benefits.

Q&A: Gift taxes vs. estate taxes

Dear Liz: A reader recently asked about passing a $500,000 inheritance to their children. You mentioned the option of disclaiming, or refusing the inheritance so that it would go to their kids. You wrote, “If you decide not to disclaim and later give the entire $500,000 to your kids, you wouldn’t have to pay gift taxes until you gave away considerably more. Plus, gifts are tax free to the recipients.” Are you possibly mixing up gifting and inheriting? As I understand it, gifting to your kids is limited to something like $15,000 per parent per kid. Unless you have a huge family, that’s not going to add up to $500,000 of tax-free giving.

Answer: Many people get confused about how gift taxes work. The gift and estate tax systems are intertwined, causing further confusion.

There’s no limit on how much you can give away during your lifetime: You can give as much money as you want to as many people as you want. If you give more than $15,000 to any one recipient in a given year, however, you’re required to file a gift tax return. That doesn’t mean you owe gift taxes.

The amounts over $15,000 count against your lifetime estate and gift tax exemption, which is currently $11.7 million per person. So if you give someone $20,000, the extra $5,000 would be deducted from your $11.7-million lifetime exemption. Only after you exhausted that lifetime exemption would you owe gift taxes.

Q&A: More about Medicare choices

Dear Liz: I’ve enjoyed your columns about choices between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage. I have a terminology question: What is the difference between a Medigap policy and a supplemental one? I have traditional Medicare and a supplemental plan, which covers the deductibles and copayments that Medicare doesn’t cover. According to your article, it seems a Medigap policy does the same. Please clarify and keep up the good work.

Answer: Medigap and supplemental policy are two terms for the same product: an insurance policy sold by private insurers to cover the “gaps” in Medicare coverage. If you have traditional Medicare (also known as original Medicare), it’s generally advisable to have a Medigap supplemental policy as well.

You can’t get a Medigap policy, however, if you have Medicare Advantage. Medicare Advantage is also provided by private insurers but is meant to be an all-in-one alternative to traditional Medicare, rather than a supplement to it.

Q&A: Mailing checks really is a bad idea

Dear Liz: I differ with your opinion that electronic payments are far more secure than sending checks through the mail. My own personal experience sending checks for about 40 years with only one mishap (which wasn’t attributable to the USPS) provides great confidence in mail as a payment system. In contrast, not a month goes by without news of some large organization entrusted with all kinds of personal and financial information being breached in a cyberattack. If the bad guys get my credit card information, I’m out no greater than $50. I’m not also going to risk them having my bank account and routing numbers for the dubious convenience of saving a stamp. Yes, mailboxes get broken into, but until there are real penalties for inadequate computer security, corporations will continue to underfund their network security and be reactive instead of proactive. I’ll take my chances with the local thieves and not the worldwide population of black hat hackers.

Answer: You’re quite right that databases where information is stored can be vulnerable to hackers if companies don’t take the proper precautions. But avoiding electronic payments doesn’t keep your information out of those databases. Information about you is collected and stored whether you like it or not. You didn’t contribute your Social Security number, date of birth and credit account details to Equifax, for example, but chances are good you were one of the 147 million Americans whose information was exposed when that credit bureau was breached.

In contrast to some databases, electronic payment transactions have strong encryption that makes it extremely difficult for hackers to intercept and read the information. Criminals would much rather target information that’s at rest in databases than try to capture and decode it in transit.

Your checks are almost certainly being converted to electronic transactions, in any case. Few checks are physically passed between banks these days. Often a biller will take the routing and account numbers that are printed on your check and use them to request an electronic funds transfer through a clearinghouse such as the Automated Clearing House (ACH).

Because those numbers are printed on every check you send out, by the way, anyone who sees that piece of paper, from a mail thief to someone inputting the payment into a company’s computer system, could misuse that information. That’s a far bigger risk than the possibility an electronic payment could be hacked in transit.

Q&A: Establish home’s value at spouse’s death

Dear Liz: I think you left one thing off your list of things to do when your spouse dies. If you’re a homeowner, establish the value of the house as of the date of death. The best way would be to have a local Realtor run some comparables for your neighborhood. But even a printout from Zillow would suffice. As you know, a surviving spouse receives a step-up in basis as of the date of death so it’s important to know what the house was worth at that time for when the house is sold down the road. I see many clients at our CPA firm who have to try to figure out many years later what their house was worth when their spouse died.

Answer: Thank you for the excellent suggestion.

In fact, many things were left off last week’s list of things to do when a spouse dies, which is why I directed people to their attorney or accountant for a detailed checklist. I also recommended people consult a fee-only financial planner, since there probably will be decisions that require expert help.

Q&A: A collection of advice on selling collections

Dear Liz: I concur with your advice regarding selling collections. I am a retired licensed marriage and family therapist. I’ve witnessed clients struggle with caring for a loved one and their things. One family started taking photos of their loved one with much-treasured collectible objects, and recording the stories told about them. This offered increased connection and understanding across the generations. With this recorded story, it was easier to release and sell the things. And there were a few treasures that family members asked to keep, pleasing their elders immensely!

Answer: What a lovely idea! As collectors know, it’s all about the story, and many would embrace the chance to share theirs.

Dear Liz: A friend collected and has some wonderful pieces of Japanese items such as antique tonsu chests and porcelain, some of which are quite valuable. When she was updating her estate plan, her attorney suggested she ask me, as a friend and fellow collector, to be an advisor to her family about disposing of these items after her death (assuming she predeceases me). My contact info was then shared with her loved ones. Another trick I have seen is to have copies made of receipts with identifying information and prices paid placed inside drawers of valuable furniture. Whether these items are sold at auction, estate sale or upscale consignment, the information is extremely valuable in helping to determine authenticity. Naturally, this information should also be stored with legal documents. Prior to a recent surgery I also shared my information with my sister and went over the location in my files for all pertinent information. It can be difficult for heirs to differentiate Baccarat crystal, vintage Wedgwood china and top-quality French copper from goods sold in discount chains. Once they know what the items are, the internet and EBay make it easy to get a sense of the value of items for sale. Hope you find this helpful.

Answer: Very much so, and I’m sure readers will as well. Thanks for the tips!

Dear Liz: Regarding your advice to the collectors and the impact on the executors, there can be another wrinkle: disagreements on valuations among the heirs.

I’m the executor for my parents’ estate and my mother spent a considerable amount of time and resources collecting art. Unfortunately there is little documentation on the art and it is in a niche market where it will be hard to get accurate values.

I’ve decided that when the time comes, I will use what little documentation my mother had to establish values and then divide the art collection among the heirs. If the heirs want to liquidate the art, that is their choice. It takes me out of the middle of squabbles over whether or not I got a “good” price for something. And it gives me time to decide for my portion of the collection what pieces I want to keep for myself and what I want to sell. This obviously only works when the heirs are people and not organizations and they have the ability to take the collection rather than a check.

Answer: Oh, boy.

If you are the executor, you will have a fiduciary duty to the estate. What that means is that you will be legally required to act in the estate’s best interests, rather than in your own. Cherry picking a collection is an excellent way to violate that duty and potentially get yourself sued. Another way to invite lawsuits is to rely on scanty, out-of-date documentation to establish values without attempting to get current appraisals.

If you really don’t want the hassle, ask your mother to designate, in writing, who gets what. She should discuss this with an estate planning attorney to see if her estate documents need updating or if she can include a letter detailing her bequests.

Q&A: To sell or not to sell that collection

Dear Liz: You’ve twice advised collectors to sell their collections while they’re still alive, rather than leave the task to an executor who won’t have the collector’s intimate knowledge of the market for these items. Collectibles bring joy to the collector and are probably most valued the closer the end approaches. It would bring sadness rather than joy to unload them right at that point in life. Right now, I’m trying to declutter my house and even the stuff that has been moldering in boxes for decades hurts a little to let go of. I’m named as the executor in a buddy’s trust and will need to move his tools. Even if his old arthritic hands can’t operate the lathe anymore, he looks at the machine and I can see the memory of turning a bowl in the expression he wears. I say, accept the responsibility of an executor fully.

Answer: If you haven’t served as an executor, you may not fully understand how daunting and time consuming the task can be even without having to deal with a large collection.

No one is suggesting that people divest themselves entirely of a prized collection. But letting go of stuff can be immensely freeing, as well as a real gift to the people we leave behind.

If you need motivation to continue your decluttering, consider reading Margareta Magnusson’s book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant.”

Q&A: Retitling a deed after marriage

Dear Liz: Our house was titled “joint tenant with right of survivorship” after my husband inherited the property in 1998. As a same-sex couple, we were not married at the time. However, we legally married in 2013. Will one of us get the step-up in tax basis when the other passes, or do we have to retitle the house some way? We also want to avoid probate. We live in California.

Answer: As you know, California is one of the community property states that allows both halves of a property to get a step-up in tax basis when one spouse dies. This double step-up can be a huge tax saver, since none of the appreciation that happened before the death is taxed. Other community property states include Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. In Alaska, spouses can sign an agreement to make specific assets community property.

In contrast, in common law states, only half of the property gets the step-up to a new tax basis when one spouse dies. The other half retains its original tax basis.

Although assets acquired during a marriage are generally considered community property regardless of how they’re titled, in your case the property was acquired before marriage. The current title of joint tenants with right of survivorship would avoid probate, but it will not achieve full step-up in basis when the first spouse dies, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm Wolters Kluwer.