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: How young people can build their credit

Dear Liz: Our 23-year-old daughter has a low-limit credit card from her bank, primarily to build her credit history. For the same purpose, we also added her as an authorized user on one of our credit cards (yes, we can trust her). When she checked her credit reports recently at annualcreditreport.com, one of the agencies produced a report but another claimed they couldn’t find her. Is that normal for a relatively new credit user? Could it possibly be because she has a hyphenated middle name? Should we worry?

Answer: It can take 30 days or more for information to be updated at the credit bureaus, so she should try again and also check the third credit bureau. If two bureaus can’t find her after 30 days, then it’s possible that both credit cards report to only one bureau. In that case, she should consider getting a credit-builder loan from a credit union that reports to all three bureaus.

Otherwise, the problem is likely the credit bureau’s, and she should try ordering the missing credit report via the U.S. mail. The bureau that couldn’t find her will have instructions for requesting a report that way on its site.

Q&A: Safe deposit box shortcomings

Dear Liz: You recently advised against keeping one’s will in the bank safe deposit box. That was on the grounds that upon death, the bank could seal the box. My daughter is named on my box (she is also named as executrix) — that is, the bank ran her through several hoops, and the result is she can gain access to the box as she wishes. Does your advice hold in this case?

Answer: Find out what the bank’s policy is. If the bank confirms your daughter will have access in the event of your death, ask that the assurance be put in writing.

One problem with keeping anything in a safe deposit box is that the contents can be escheated — turned over to the state — if the bank decides the box has been abandoned. That usually won’t happen if you’re paying the bill for the box on time and making sure the bank has up-to-date contact information, but physically checking the box’s contents once a year or so is a good practice.

Q&A: Storing will and trust documents

Dear Liz: You recently advised a person to leave their original will or trust with their attorney. As a practicing attorney, I cannot tell you how many times original wills and trusts have been lost as the attorney that prepared the documents retired or died before the client. There are requirements to inform clients of a retirement, but very few lawyers follow those rules, unfortunately. The best thing is to buy a home safe or put the documents in double zip-close freezer bags in your freezer (which should be fireproof and is a great preserver of the documents). Or, hire a younger lawyer who will still be around when you want to amend your will or trust or you pass away.

Answer: Thanks for sharing your perspective, but freezers are not fireproof. A fireproof home safe would be a better option for those who want to keep their wills at home.

There is, unfortunately, no one perfect option for storing wills. You’re quite right that people often don’t stay in touch with the attorneys who create their documents, even though estate plans should be reviewed and updated regularly. The risk of losing a will may not be as high if the attorney is part of a large firm, but even those can go out of business.

Some states allow you to file your will in advance with the probate court or a registrar of wills, so that’s another avenue to consider.

Q&A: Why home equity loans are a better option than credit cards

Dear Liz: My husband is 68, I am 70, both of us are retired and on Social Security. We have little in savings. My husband wants to charge $10,000 to a low-interest credit card to pay for a new furnace and water heater. He plans to pay the minimum each month and at the end of each year transfer the balance to a different credit card with low interest. Is this a good idea?

Answer: You may have better options.

Many credit cards offer low introductory rates that expire after 12 to 21 months, but you typically won’t know before you apply what your credit limit will be.

You may not get a high enough limit to make all your purchases or you could use up so much of the limit that it causes damage to your credit scores. (Scoring formulas are sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using, and ideally you wouldn’t use more than about 10% to 30% of your credit limits at any given time.) When you apply to transfer your balance to another low-rate card, you’ll run similar risks.

A home equity line of credit or home equity loan might be a better choice. HELOCs have variable rates, but you would have a source of funds you can tap and repay as needed (much like a credit card, but backed by the equity in your home). Home equity loans typically have fixed terms and rates, so you can borrow what you need and pay off the debt over time (often 15 to 20 years).

If paying back the money would be a hardship, a reverse mortgage might be an option. Reverse mortgages can be complicated and expensive, however, so talk to a housing counselor approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development before proceeding with one.

Q&A: Lump sum vs. annuity

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about taking a lump sum retirement versus an ongoing pension. You didn’t mention that the pension will stop when the employee dies (whether it’s after 40 years or 40 days) or when the spouse dies (same thing) if that was chosen. The children get nothing. What about taking the lump sum and putting it in a fixed indexed annuity? Yes, there is a yearly fee, but then the money can continue to the spouse, children and on and on and on.

Answer: See above. There’s more than a single “yearly fee” with these annuities, which are complicated insurance products that tend to have high costs and pay high commissions to the advisors who recommend them. If you’re considering this investment, you should run it past a fee-only financial planner first.

Many people dislike the idea that an annuity stops when they do, which is why insurers are often willing to sell you — for an additional fee — a guarantee that something will be leftover. There may be better, less expensive ways to leave a legacy, which a fee-only planner can discuss with you.

Q&A: What you need to know about power of attorney documents

Dear Liz: My husband has Parkinson’s disease and is showing early signs of dementia. I’ve been advised to get a financial power of attorney. If all of our accounts are joint, is this necessary? What will that do for me?

Answer: A power of attorney gives you the authority to make decisions on your husband’s behalf. You wouldn’t need one to pay the bills from your joint accounts, but this document could be invaluable if you wanted to take action on jointly held property, such as selling a car or house or refinancing a mortgage. Otherwise, you might have to go to court to get a guardianship, which can be expensive.

Please don’t wait. For the document to be valid, your husband needs to be able to understand what a power of attorney is and what it does. You’ll also need a power of attorney for healthcare, which is sometimes called a healthcare proxy or advanced directive, to make decisions regarding his medical care.

There are do-it-yourself options, but given your husband’s condition you may want to hire an experienced estate planning attorney who can offer personal guidance and help make sure the documents won’t be challenged.

Q&A: How to boost your credit scores in the next year

Dear Liz: I am 36 with a 535 credit score and about to move back to the U.S. from Colombia with my future wife. I’d like to increase my score by 100 or 200 points within eight to 12 months. Is it possible?

Answer: Increasing your credit scores to the mid-600s within a year or so is probably a reasonable goal.

Most consumer credit scores are on a 300-to-850 range. The higher your scores, the easier it will be to get approved for loans and credit cards, plus you’ll be offered better rates and terms.

What’s considered a good or bad score depends on the lender and the scoring formula. In general, scores below 630 or so are considered bad while scores in the mid-600s are usually considered “fair.” Good scores typically begin around 690.

Consider a credit builder loan from a credit union or online lender. The money you borrow is placed in a certificate of deposit or a savings account for you to claim after you’ve made 12 on-time payments. You’ll pay interest to the lender but be building your savings at the same time.

Secured credit cards are another way to build credit. You deposit a certain amount with the issuing bank, often $200 to $2,000, and get a credit line in the same amount. If you use the charge lightly and pay it off in full each month, you can build credit without paying interest.

Q&A: Lump sum or annuity?

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about whether to take a lump sum or an annuity payout from a pension. I think you need to be more cautious about making a blanket statement about the payout being the only viable option. There are other reasons for taking the lump sum, such as the pension fund’s stability. My mother’s friend lost her entire pension when Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt. Also, I like the idea of being able to access the lump sum in the case of a catastrophic need (call me a control freak!).

Answer: You certainly can access more of your money with a lump sum, but that’s a double-edged sword. You could withdraw too much too fast and run out of money. You could lose money to bad markets, bad investments, bad decisions and fraud. Even if you’re making good financial decisions now, that may not always be the case as our cognitive abilities tend to decline with age.

The column you’re referencing didn’t say that an annuity is the only viable option, however. In that particular case, the annuity option came with retiree health insurance while the lump sum option did not. It would be pretty hard to top guaranteed income for life plus medical benefits, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

A lump sum could be a better option if the pension is particularly generous and the pension fund isn’t solvent. Your mother’s friend’s pension, for example, was covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., so she didn’t lose the whole thing when Bethlehem Steel went under. Workers there lost part of what was promised them because their pensions were larger than the amount covered by the PBGC.

Q&A: House gift needs a lawyer’s help

Dear Liz: I have a rental house that I would like to give to my sister as an outright gift. (She is the current tenant but cannot afford to buy the house.) How can I do this legally? Do I need a lawyer? If so, what kind? I have already asked a real estate agent, and I’ve been told that I don’t really need her services. She suggested asking an escrow company. The house is in the name of my revocable trust and I own it free and clear. For various reasons, I would like to give her the house now rather than leave it to her in my will. I realize she will be stuck with my cost basis, but she has no plans to ever sell it because she has lived there for 10 years and wants to live in it for the rest of her life.

Answer: Talk to a real estate attorney, who can help you through the multi-step process of transferring a house deed and getting it recorded. You could try to do it yourself, but the attorney can ensure the transfer is done properly and answer any questions you may have.

Because the house probably is worth more than the annual gift exemption limit — which is currently $15,000 and rising to $16,000 next year — you also will have to file a gift tax return. Actual gift taxes aren’t owed until you’ve given away millions of dollars in your lifetime. If you’re wealthy enough to be concerned about that, please also consult an estate planning attorney.