Q&A: Here’s why two 401(k) accounts aren’t better than one

Dear Liz: I changed jobs more than three years ago and did not roll over my 401(k) when I started a 401(k) account with my new employer. I’m perfectly happy having separate accounts. However, I’ve read some IRS rules that I cannot understand about being penalized for not contributing to a 401(k) for five years. So my question: After turning 59½, will I face any sort of penalty or loss when I begin withdrawing funds from a 401(k) account that has been sitting idle?

Answer: There’s no penalty for not contributing to an old 401(k). In fact, you cannot contribute to an old 401(k). Once you leave the employer that sponsored the plan, you generally can’t put any more money into it.

What you may have stumbled upon are IRS rules that apply to employers who sponsor 401(k) plans that have a profit-sharing component.

Employers aren’t required to make contributions to these plans every year — there may be years when there’s no profit to share — but their contributions have to be “recurring and substantial.” If the employer hasn’t made contributions in three of the past five consecutive years, the plan could be terminated, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

That obviously doesn’t apply to your situation, and if you want to continue managing two 401(k) accounts, you’re welcome to do so. But consider rolling the money into your new employer’s plan, if it’s a good one and accepts such transfers. That would mean one fewer account you need to track and also could give you access to more money if you wanted to take out a loan.

Q&A: IRA confusion leads to disappointment

Dear Liz: Many years ago, I read in a personal finance magazine about a mutual fund company that paid $1 million to a customer who had an IRA for 40 years. So I started an IRA at that company in December 1992 and paid $10,000. As of today, that account is worth only $80,000. What happened to the high payoff?

Answer: First things first. The maximum you were supposed to contribute to an IRA in 1992 was $2,000. If you were able to contribute more, you may have opened a different type of account, such as a regular taxable brokerage account. Either that or you have some explaining to do to the IRS.

Also, IRAs hadn’t been around for 40 years in 1992. They were created in 1974 by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. So what you probably read in the magazine was a hypothetical example of what someone might accumulate over time in an IRA. Someone who contributed $2,000 a year to an IRA for 40 years could wind up with $1 million, but only with returns in excess of 10%.

Actual returns historically have been closer to 8%, but that’s an average. Some years it’s less, some years it’s more. There are no guarantees. What you end up with depends on how you invested the money and what fees you paid, among other factors. If your investment had done as well as the broader stock market, as measured by the Standard & Poor’s 500, you would have over $100,000 by now.

If your money is in an IRA, you could move it to be a better investment, such as a low-cost, broad-market index fund, without tax consequences. If it’s not in an IRA, then selling the investment to buy another could generate a tax bill, so consult a tax pro before taking any action.

Q&A: The benefits of delaying Social Security

Dear Liz: I retired and started collecting Social Security at 62. My husband is currently 68 and plans to retire next year. I called Social Security before I retired and they told me that I could collect Social Security at 62 and when my husband retired, I could collect my own Social Security or half of my husband’s, whichever was greater. Is this accurate? I should have done more research before taking my benefit as I’m not sure this is true.

Answer: It’s true. There’s a substantial penalty for starting early, and most people are stuck with a permanently reduced payment, but your situation is one of the potential exceptions.

You weren’t eligible for a spousal benefit at 62 because your husband hadn’t started his benefit. When your husband does start, the spousal benefit will be half of what he would have received had he applied at his full retirement age of 66. If you’re younger than your own full retirement age, the spousal benefit will be reduced to reflect the early start. If all those calculations result in an amount that’s more than what you collect, you’ll get the larger amount.

By waiting to start benefits, your husband gets delayed retirement credits equal to 8% for each year he has waited past his full retirement age. Spousal benefits don’t qualify to share those credits, but survivor benefits do. When one of you dies, the smaller of the two checks you receive as a couple goes away and the survivor receives the larger of the two benefits. The survivor’s check will be larger because your husband waited to apply.

This is why it’s so important for the larger earner in a married couple to delay filing for as long as possible. The higher earner’s benefit determines what the survivor will have to live on, often for years and sometimes for decades, after the first spouse dies.

Q&A: Taking out a reverse mortgage may help if coronavirus wipes out your job

Dear Liz: I read with interest the letter from the person who was a tour guide and lost their job due to the virus. I kept reading, expecting you to suggest a reverse mortgage. Are these a bad idea?

Answer: Not necessarily. The person in question owned the home with a sibling, and the sibling did not live in the home, which could complicate the process of getting a reverse mortgage.

If there was substantial equity in the home, however, a reverse mortgage could pay off the existing mortgage and might be worth the effort. One way to investigate this option is to talk to a HUD-approved housing counseling agency.

Q&A: Balancing disability and survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My 70-year-old husband is retiring at the end of the month. I’m 64 and collecting Social Security disability. If he should pass away before me, which is not likely considering my medical conditions, will I still get at least half of his Social Security income instead of my own, if it’s more than what I’m already collecting? I do understand that my disability benefit will stop at 65. I will then be collecting a regular Social Security benefit at my retirement age of 67. We are totally confused and trying to decide whether to forgo getting a retirement annuity benefit for me from his employer pension if he should pass before me.

Answer: Your disability benefit doesn’t stop at 65. It continues until you reach your full retirement age of 67, and then converts to a retirement benefit. The name for the benefit changes but the amount doesn’t.

If the amount you’re receiving is less than what your husband gets, and your husband dies first, you will get a survivor’s benefit equal to what he was getting. Survivors don’t get their own benefit plus their spouse’s; they just get the larger of the two benefits.

With pensions, it would be smart to get expert advice before you sign away your right to a survivor benefit. The default payout option for a married person is typically “joint and survivor,” which means the survivor would continue to receive the checks after the person dies. Opting for a “single life” payout instead increases the monthly check, but the money stops when he dies. While it may seem more likely you’ll die first, there are no guarantees and waiving your right to a survivor benefit could lead to a steep drop in your income.

The pension may offer different joint and survivor options, such as 100%, 75% and 50%. With the 100% option, the payments continue to be the same if he dies first. The 75% and 50% options reduce the payment after his death to 75% or 50% of the previous amount. Choosing 75% or 50% could be a decent compromise that allows you to get more money now but still get payments should he die first.

Q&A:The IRS doesn’t need your worry

Dear Liz: My mother received a stimulus payment on behalf of my late father in April. Per an IRS directive on May 6, I returned the money to the IRS. As of Aug. 1, the check I sent has not been cashed. I have made two phone calls to the specific IRS phone number that deals with any stimulus payment issues and both times have been told, “Don’t worry about it.” Do you have any suggestions for us?

Answer: Yes. Don’t worry about it. And stop calling.

The IRS is dealing with a tremendous backlog that accumulated while its operations centers were shut down because of the pandemic. Although the centers have reopened, the pandemic is still affecting the agency and probably will do so for some time.

The IRS recently warned that “live assistance on telephones, processing paper tax returns and responding to correspondence continue to be extremely limited.” The IRS will cash the check eventually; your calls won’t speed that up and will unnecessarily tax an already overwhelmed system.

In the future, consider using the IRS’ online payment systems. They’re safer than sending checks in the mail and you’ll get instant confirmation that your payment was received.

Q&A: What to do when coronavirus brings job loss, debt and a housing dilemma

Dear Liz: I was employed as a tour guide for seniors but because of COVID-19, all our trips are canceled. I depended on the income because I have no other, besides Social Security, which I started at age 62. I now have credit card debt. I also needed a new car (mine was 24 years old and dying) so I’m leasing a car. The lease is up early next year and I would love to keep the car, if possible. My question is what to do with my home, where I have lived for more than 65 years. It was our parents’ home and now it’s owned equally with my brother, although because I live here, I pay everything: mortgage, taxes, insurance and so on. Should I sell my house and get an apartment? Rent it out? Get a roommate? Getting a roommate would not be my first choice, but I really want to stay in my home that I love so much.

Answer: If getting a roommate would give you enough income, then that may be the best solution — particularly since staying in your home is a top priority. Ideally, the rent you could charge would be enough to allow you to make ends meet, pay off your debt and save to buy your car.

If you’d still be running a deficit, however, then consider other solutions. If you can’t rent the home for enough to keep your head above water, then you probably should consider a sale.

One option, if your brother is amenable, is to sell some or all of your equity to him with the understanding that you could remain in the home. Make sure to get a written agreement; a lawyer could help with this. If your brother is not willing or able to buy your equity, you may have to put the house up for sale.

These are difficult changes, but your job isn’t likely to come back anytime soon. Finding a new gig, at your age and in this economy, may not be possible. Selling the house could free up some money for the future and allow you to reduce expenses rather than going deeper into debt.

Q&A: The bottom line on getting your credit scores in better shape

Dear Liz: I want to write a letter of explanation to be included on my credit reports to explain a negative posting. How much impact will the letter have on my credit scores?

Answer: Credit scoring formulas can’t read, so letters of explanation won’t help your scores.

You do have a federal right to demand the credit bureaus include your explanation, which is also known as a consumer statement, in your credit reports. Theoretically, the statement could help a lender understand why you have the negative mark — but only if a human being actually examines your credit report and uses the information in evaluating your creditworthiness.

Because lending is largely automated, however, there’s no guarantee your statement will be read, let alone factored into a lending decision. Many of the other details of your credit report are converted to standardized codes used to calculate credit scores, but not consumer statements.

If the negative information in your reports isn’t accurate, you can dispute it with the credit bureaus. If the information is accurate, you can work to offset the effect on your scores.

Paying your credit accounts on time, all the time, will help rebuild credit. So will using less than 10% of your limits on credit cards.

If you don’t have a credit card, consider getting a secured card — where the credit limit typically is equal to the amount you deposit with the issuing bank. Credit builder loans, available at many credit unions, also can help add positive information to your credit reports.

Don’t close accounts, because that could hurt your scores and won’t get rid of any associated negative information.

People with only a few credit accounts also can help their scores by being added as an authorized user to a responsible person’s credit card. The responsible person doesn’t need to grant access to the actual card. Before taking this step, though, ask the credit card issuer whether authorized user information will be imported to your credit reports because issuers’ policies vary.

Q&A: Side effects of IRA conversions

Dear Liz: I thought your readers would benefit from additional knowledge about Roth conversions. I started converting our IRAs to Roth IRAs when my wife and I turned 60 years old. Years later, I realized that our premiums for Medicare Part B and D were higher because our income in those years exceeded $174,000.

Answer: Triggering Medicare’s income-related monthly adjustment amount (IRMAA) is just one of the potential side effects of a later-in-life Roth conversion.

That’s not to say these conversions are a bad idea.

People with substantial amounts in traditional retirement accounts might benefit from transferring some of that money to Roth IRAs, particularly if the required minimum withdrawals that start at age 72 would push them into a higher tax bracket. They may have a window after they retire, when their tax bracket dips, to convert money and pay the tax bill at a lower rate.

Roths also don’t have the required minimum distributions that apply to other retirement accounts, so people have more control over their future tax bills.

Converting too much, however, can push people into higher tax brackets. Many financial advisors suggest their clients convert just enough to “fill out” their current bracket.

For example, the 12% bracket for married people filing jointly was $19,401 to $78,950 in 2019. A couple with income in the $50,000 range might convert $28,000 or so, because a larger conversion would push them into the 22% tax bracket.

But there are other considerations, as you discovered.

People with modified adjusted incomes above certain levels pay IRMAA adjustments that can add $144.60 to $491.60 each month to their Medicare Part B premiums for doctor visits and $12.20 to $76.40 to their monthly Part D drug coverage premiums. Higher income could reduce or eliminate tax breaks that are subject to income phaseouts, and conversions can subject more of your Social Security benefits to taxation.

At the very least, you should consult a tax pro before any Roth conversions to make sure you understand the ramifications. Ideally, you’d also be talking with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner to make sure conversions, and your retirement plan in general, make sense.

Q&A: Helping a son with horrible credit scores

Dear Liz: My 33-year-old son has horrible credit scores. If I added his name to my credit card, would it have a positive effect on his score without any negative ramifications to mine? Could any of his creditors come after me?

Answer: Adding someone to your credit card as an authorized user can have a positive effect on their credit scores without negatively affecting your own or obligating you to pay their other debts. You would be responsible for any debt your authorized user incurred on the card.

In your son’s case, though, being added as an authorized user probably won’t help much.

When someone has fallen behind on their bills, the effect on their scores depends on three main factors: recency (how recently did a late payment occur?), severity (how far behind are they — 30 days, 60 days, 90 days or more?) and frequency (how many accounts have late payments?).

One skipped payment can knock 100 points or more off good scores but won’t result in “horrible” credit. Truly bad credit typically requires someone to be well behind on a number of accounts in the recent past. The fact that you’re worried about his creditors indicates that he may not have resolved his financial problems enough to start rebuilding his credit.

What he should do now depends on his circumstances.

If he still has a job, he may be able to arrange a payment plan or settle debts with collectors. If his income has dropped or he’s otherwise unable to pay, he may need to consider bankruptcy.

Once his past debts are resolved — either paid, settled or legally erased — he can take steps to improve his credit, one of which could include being added to your card. A credit builder loan, offered by many credit unions, also could help, as could a secured credit card, which requires a deposit.

It’s crucial that he be able to make all his payments on time, however. If he falls behind again, he’ll offset any progress that’s been made.