Q&A: A $100 fee to close a brokerage account? Really?

Dear Liz: My brokerage recently sent an updated fee list. They now are charging $100 to close an account. That seems an incredibly high fee should I choose to move my investments somewhere else. The fine print says the fee will not apply to anyone who holds at least $5 million in qualifying assets. Well that certainly isn’t me. So they’re hitting those who have the least with a ridiculously high fee when it comes time to end the account. Is this typical across the investment industry?

Answer: Unfortunately, yes, but the usual fee is closer to $75.

Many brokerages have lowered their fees in recent years, with many eliminating commissions. But the account closure fee has stuck around, probably because most people don’t think about the costs of shutting down an account after they’ve opened one.

Q&A: The ins and outs of what counts for probate

Dear Liz: The value of our car, furniture and personal items is well below the $185,000 that currently triggers probate in California. We no longer own real estate. Am I correct that investment and bank accounts that have designated beneficiaries do not count toward the probate limit?

Answer: Yes. (Your car doesn’t count either, by the way.)

Most states have simplified procedures for smaller estates. California’s limit, which is raised with inflation every three years, was set at $184,500 on April 1, 2022. What’s counted for probate purposes depends on state law, and California excludes cars, boats and mobile homes, as well as bank accounts owned by multiple people, property that transfers directly to a spouse and real estate outside California.

Other property that avoids probate includes life insurance proceeds, death benefits and accounts that have named beneficiaries. Real estate can avoid probate if it’s held in joint tenancy or is transferred using a transfer-on-death deed. Property in a living trust also avoids probate.

Q&A: Should this reluctant retiree pay an advisor?

Dear Liz: I’m about to retire. A friend’s money manager has done well by her, doubling her portfolio in five years. This manager would charge a 1.5% fee to take control of my money, invest it, and generate income to supplement my Social Security. My heart is truly uncomfortable turning over control of my life savings to professional management, even though my head tells me it makes sense. Would a fair compromise between my heart and head be to pay a financial advisor to tell me what to do, but allow me to retain control of my hard earned savings?

Answer: Yes. You may have to search a little harder to find such an advisor, but you could be better off.

First, don’t be too impressed by a manager who doubled a portfolio in the last five years. An investment in a plain vanilla S&P 500 index fund would have performed about as well, at a much lower cost.

Speaking of cost, a 1.5% fee is relatively high for asset management. A 1% fee is much more common. If instead of a money manager you hired a fiduciary, fee-only financial planner — one committed to putting your best interests first — you typically would get comprehensive financial planning advice as well as investment management for that 1%. Such planning could include a tax-smart, sustainable plan for tapping your retirement funds, advice on Social Security claiming strategies, help picking the right Medicare coverage and a review of your estate plan, among other services.

If you’d rather not have someone else manage your portfolio, though, you have other options. The Alliance for Comprehensive Planning (www.acplanners.org) and the XY Planning Network (/www.xyplanningnetwork.com) represent fiduciary, fee-only planners who charge retainer fees. You can find fiduciary, fee-only financial planners who charge by the hour at Garrett Planning Network (www.garrettplanningnetwork.com).

Q&A: Naming beneficiaries turns tricky

Dear Liz: I have spent the majority of the last three decades abroad. Relationships fade away if there is little contact. Such is life. Most of the financial accounts that I have allow me to provide an organization as a beneficiary. But some institutions, like TreasuryDirect, require an actual person to be listed as a beneficiary. I have approached some acquaintances to ask if they would like to be my beneficiary, but as soon as I say I need their Social Security numbers, they think that I am trying to scam them. My bizarre question is: Whom can I leave my money to?

Answer: If you don’t name a beneficiary for your U.S. savings bonds, they become part of your estate when you die.

The proceeds can be distributed according to your will or living trust. This may require the court process known as probate, but whether that’s a big deal depends on where you live and the size of your probate estate. Many states have simplified probate that can make (relatively) short work of small estates.

If your savings bond holdings aren’t substantial and your other accounts have beneficiaries — which typically means they avoid probate — then this could be a reasonable approach.

Another option is to create a living trust and have the bonds reissued to the trust, said Burton Mitchell, an estate planning attorney in Los Angeles. Living trusts involve some costs to set up, but they avoid probate and they’re flexible.

“The reader can then modify the living trust whenever desired without re-titling the financial accounts,” Mitchell said.

Q&A: Here’s how a health savings account works. Spoiler: It can be a stealth retirement fund

Dear Liz: For the first time, I signed up for a high-deductible insurance plan along with a health savings account. However, I don’t quite understand a couple of key concepts. When our medical bills roll in, will we pay using our personal credit card or the HSA card provided by my employer? We have no trouble using our personal card but is that the right way to use an HSA — by not using it, in effect? Also, I read that the unused HSA funds can be invested to grow tax-deferred. How does the money get invested? Does my employer have a relationship with a specific broker? Or can I invest unused HSA funds with any broker?

Answer: If you want your HSA balance to grow for retirement, then paying your medical bills out of pocket is the way to go. If you use your credit card to pay medical bills, however, make sure you can pay off the balances in full. The benefits of an HSA would be diluted if you were paying double-digit interest rates.

If you do need to access your HSA funds, you can use your employer-provided card to pay medical bills or submit receipts to the HSA administrator for reimbursement.

As you probably know, HSAs offer a rare triple tax break. Contributions are pre-tax, your account can grow tax-deferred and withdrawals for qualifying medical expenses are tax-free. Because the account can be invested and balances rolled over from year to year, many people treat their HSAs as an additional way to save for retirement.

Your employer has chosen an HSA provider that typically will offer some investment options, but usually you can transfer your balances to a different provider if you wish. Compare fees, minimum balance requirements and investment options. If you decide to move your account, ask your current provider to set up a “trustee-to-trustee” transfer.

Q&A: Transferring bonds after a spouse dies

Dear Liz: In 2001 I bought $50,000 worth of I Bonds. Half of them were in my name with my wife as beneficiary; the other half were in her name with me as beneficiary. She died two years ago but I do not want to cash her bonds in. How do I get them in my name without selling and repurchasing?

Answer: You can have the bonds reissued in your name alone because you were named as the beneficiary. The reissued bonds will be in electronic form, so if you haven’t already, you’ll need to create an account with TreasuryDirect, which is operated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. If you have questions, you can reach the site’s call center at (844) 284-2676 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time Monday through Friday.

Q&A: What happens to your HSA money when you die?

Dear Liz: What designation or instructions should I make for assets (if any) which remain in my health savings account at the time of my death? Do any remaining funds go directly to my estate or am I allowed to name a beneficiary for this money? If “yes” to the beneficiary question, is the beneficiary subject to the same 10-year payout requirement that applies to most other retirement account beneficiaries? I assume that if the funds go to my estate, the estate would pay tax on the funds given I’ve never paid tax on that money.

Answer: Yes, you can name beneficiaries for health savings accounts. But the tax advantages of these plans often disappear at death.

HSAs, which are paired with high deductible health insurance plans, are known for their rare triple tax benefit. Contributions are tax-deductible and balances can grow tax-deferred, while withdrawals for qualifying medical expenses can be tax free. HSAs don’t have the “use it or lose it” clause that applies to flexible spending accounts; balances can be rolled over from year to year and invested for growth.

What’s more, the withdrawals needn’t happen in the same year you incur the medical costs. As long as you keep good records of unreimbursed medical expenses, you can use them to justify tax-free withdrawals years or even decades in the future.

As a result, many people who can afford to pay medical expenses with other funds use their HSAs as a kind of supplemental retirement fund. There are no required minimum withdrawals, and it can be tempting to leave balances in an HSA as long as possible.

If you’re married and name your spouse as your beneficiary, that may not be a problem. Spouses who inherit HSAs can opt to treat the account as their own, which means they can make tax-free withdrawals to pay for qualified medical expenses.

Other beneficiaries, though, will be required to empty the accounts and pay income tax on the withdrawals. These withdrawals won’t be penalized, but they also can’t be delayed. By contrast, non-spouse beneficiaries typically have 10 years to empty most inherited retirement plan accounts.

If you don’t name a beneficiary, any remaining funds in the account will be paid to your estate and taxed on your final income tax return.

Q&A: Watch out for probate triggers

Dear Liz: My wife and I have a living trust that includes most of our assets. We have two bank accounts that are not in the trust totaling $130,000. Will these accounts be subject to probate? If it matters, she is in memory care and I handle all finances. Our executor son is a signer on one bank account to have ready access to cover final expenses in case I predecease my wife.

Answer: As you know, living trusts are designed to avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death to distribute someone’s estate. In some states, including California, probate can be expensive, prolonged and often worth avoiding. Assets typically must be titled in the name of the living trust or have a designated beneficiary to avoid probate. There are some exceptions, but you’d be smart to consult an estate planning attorney to make sure you don’t inadvertently trigger the probate you’re trying to avoid.

Q&A: So you’ve got a friend spewing investment advice from social media. Here are some grains of salt

Dear Liz: I am in my early 60s and have a friend the same age who keeps telling me to invest in companies which she has found from looking at YouTube videos. She says that she picks stocks by seeing which companies are repeated over and over again in different videos. She claims she is making a 400% return. She tells me I am losing money by investing in safer products, such as certificates of deposit. First of all, is this a good idea to invest everything in stocks, when one is in their mid-60s to 70s, when retirement is on the horizon? Also, neither she nor I are working full time at the moment, so, the risk is great if the market goes up and down and the value of a portfolio changes. I’ve seen my retirement funds drop the last few years, even though they are ever so slowly creeping back up. Finally, what is your opinion on getting financial advice or stock picks from social media platforms?

Answer: Perhaps your friend is the next Warren Buffett. More likely she’s exaggerating her results or simply hasn’t dealt with a down market yet. Few investors can consistently produce outsize returns over time, especially when they’re essentially picking stocks at random.

In answer to your first question: It’s rarely smart to invest everything in any one thing, whether it’s stocks, bonds, real estate, certificates of deposit or alpaca farms. Diversification helps investors reduce risk. If one type of investment is performing poorly, another may be doing better.

Having some money in “safe” investments may be prudent, but you’re typically losing ground to inflation with low-return CDs or Treasurys. Most people will need to have at least some portion of their portfolios in stocks, before and after retirement, if they want to outpace inflation.

Q&A: How to dump your broker and invest your own money

Dear Liz: I have a mutual fund and a Roth IRA that are actively managed by a broker. The accounts have not done well. I would like to withdraw them from the broker and reinvest them on my own. How do I safely and securely withdraw them from the broker? What paperwork and fees should I expect?

Answer: Look through your records to find the agreement you signed with the brokerage when these accounts were opened. The agreement may include the steps for closing the account along with any fees. You also could try searching for the name of the brokerage and “account closure fees” to see what, if anything, you might owe.

The brokerage may give you the option to manage the account on your own, or you may want to set up accounts at a new, less expensive discount brokerage. Once the accounts have been opened, your new brokerage will help with the transfers. If any of your money is invested in “proprietary funds” — that is, investments offered only at the old brokerage — those investments probably would have to be sold first. Such a sale wouldn’t incur any tax consequences with your Roth IRA. If your mutual fund is proprietary, though, its sale may incur capital gains taxes.