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.

Q&A: Retirees and mobile home parks

Dear Liz: I’ve been following the discussion of the reader who was 70 and trying to decide between renting in a senior living facility versus buying a second-floor condo with no elevator. There is a third choice for people who are older and cannot stay in their present residence. We moved to a senior citizen manufactured-home park. It has a clubhouse, and before the COVID epidemic the park had all kinds of activities. It is a great place for seniors.

Answer: That’s a good suggestion and actually just one of many choices people have to age safely. Many mobile home parks are “naturally occurring retirement communities,” a term for areas that weren’t necessarily created for seniors but that nonetheless have a high concentration of older folks. At their best, these organic retirement communities provide services and activities that benefit seniors, including opportunities for socializing and the sense that their neighbors are looking out for them.

Q&A: Your prized collection isn’t going to sell itself

Dear Liz: I am in the process of winding down my duties as executor of the estate of a 91-year-old gentleman who, like the reader who wrote to you, had a prized collection. I had repeatedly urged him to dispose of his prized things. I reasoned that because he was retired and had the time, and because he knew the story behind his prized items, he was in a far better position to find a buyer than I would ever be. (Knowing the provenance of the item is important because people purchase the story, not just the item itself.) He did dispose of some of the more valuable things and actually got some good cash, which he was able to enjoy. But he didn’t follow my advice completely, which meant that when he died, I had to deal with his remaining prized collectibles.

My suggestion to any older person who has collectibles is: Don’t wait to dispose of items that have market value. If you’re retired and have the time, sell the items yourself! If you don’t need the cash, deposit the money into the bank account that will pass to your heirs in due course. Don’t burden your executor — who is probably still working full time and who has bigger things to deal with, like your house, car and investment accounts — with disposing of your collectibles.

Answer: Obviously, parting with collectibles can be tough. The alternative, though, could be that precious items wind up in a yard sale or a dumpster. Collectors who sell get the satisfaction of knowing that the items are going to people who really want them.

Q&A: Death doesn’t take a holiday

Dear Liz: In a recent response, you wrote, “Your living trust should name a successor trustee who can take over managing your affairs if you should become incapacitated or die.” This sort of writing is not uncommon but it implies some people won’t die. It would have been better to write “… take over managing your affairs when you die or if you should become incapacitated.” This is important, since it is noteworthy how many people are unwilling to face the facts when it comes to being prepared and finances: None of us are going to get out of this alive.

Answer: Good point!

Q&A: Rent-or-buy question isn’t simple

Dear Liz: I often agree with your advice, but recently you suggested a 70-year-old widow rent rather than buy. I say buy the condo with the stairs and reap the appreciation. Later, if you need a home without stairs, sell the condo and buy another with your profit. I’m 73, and buying rather than renting has allowed me to live payment-free while leaving some future equity for my heirs.

Answer: In a follow-up email, the reader told me she had already purchased the condo and just wanted confirmation she’d done the right thing. A bigger issue than the stairs is her lack of savings and the possibility she would become house rich and cash poor. Fortunately, though, the condo is new and she’s not likely to face large special assessments for repairs, which would be an issue for an older building.

Q&A: Why it makes sense to play the Social Security waiting game

Dear Liz: I’m concerned that you don’t make it clear that in order for a Social Security benefit to grow, a person needs to keep working and earning the same income that they’ve been making. I’ve retired recently and am lucky enough to have a pension to live on. I talked to someone at the Social Security office recently. She recommended that I go ahead and start drawing my benefits now because there will be minimal growth for the next seven years if I’m not working. She says lots of people think that they should wait, no matter what. However, she says it doesn’t make sense if you’re not working. Even my personal financial advisor was recommending that I wait, but the person at the Social Security office convinced me otherwise. When you go on Social Security’s website to check your benefits, all the estimates are based on continued employment at your current salary. There’s no way to check and see what your estimates are if you are working less or not at all. I think it’s important to give the whole story.

Answer: Yes, it is, and you didn’t get the whole story — or even correct information — from the Social Security employee who convinced you to ignore your financial advisor.

Benefits grow by 5% to 7% each year you delay starting between age 62 and your full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67, depending on the year you were born. After your full retirement age, your benefit grows by 8% each year you delay until age 70, when it maxes out. That guaranteed growth happens regardless of whether you continue working or not.

You are correct that Social Security’s estimates of the dollar amount you’ll receive assume you will continue working until you apply, so it’s possible that your benefit will be somewhat lower when the agency actually calculates your first check. But that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from the delay — you just won’t benefit quite as much as they’re estimating.

If you want to get a better idea of what your benefit will look like without additional earnings, you can use an online tool like Social Security Solutions or MaximizeMySocialSecurity.

Your financial advisor probably has access to similar tools, as well as a wealth of research about the best claiming strategies that make it clear most people are better off delaying. Plus, your advisor knows the details of your personal financial situation.

The woman at the Social Security office did not. Even if she had her facts straight, she should not have been giving you advice about maximizing your benefits.

You may still have time to rectify this mistake. You can withdraw your application within 12 months and pay back the money you received to reset the clock on your benefits. If it’s been longer than 12 months, you can suspend your benefit once you reach your full retirement age and at least get the 8% delayed retirement credits for a few years.