Q&A: Where should you keep your estate planning documents?

Dear Liz: What do you do with your will or living trust once it’s created? Do you put the document in your home safe or a safe deposit box at the bank? Leave it with a friend or relative? What’s to prevent someone who has access to your property from destroying that document? I heard of such a case where the will was never found and the wrong relative took everything.

I imagine you could leave it with your attorney with instructions to ensure it is abided by upon your death. But who will contact the attorney after your death to ensure your wishes are abided by? I know the coroner won’t do it, nor a funeral home.

Answer: Definitely don’t put the original document in a safe deposit box. Once notified of your death, your bank will typically seal the box until your executor can prove they have the legal right to retrieve it — and that will be complicated if the document naming them as executor is in the box.

Keeping the original in your own safe is better than leaving it at the bank, but still not ideal if you fear someone with bad intent could access it. For most people, the best option is to leave the original with their attorney. You can provide copies to your executor and other trusted people and give them your attorney’s contact information.

Q&A: Be wary of advisor motives

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you discussed the difference between fee-only vs fee-based financial planners. Most of my retirement dollars are in an IRA with one of the better-known investment companies. One of the advisors with that firm has advocated for an annuity with a well-known insurance company as a component of my portfolio. So, does this affect the advisor’s status of fee-only vs fee-based, or is this person to be only on the fee-based side of the equation? Or am I just confused?

Answer: You’re confused because it’s confusing — deliberately so. Many investment companies, including the better known ones, don’t make it clear that their advisors do not have to put your best interests first. Most are held to a lower “suitability” standard that allows them to recommend an investment that isn’t as good as the alternatives, simply because it pays them a higher commission.

If you want an advisor that puts your interests ahead of their own, seek out a fee-only financial planner — one who only accepts fees paid by clients rather than commissions and other incentives. This advisor should be a fiduciary, meaning the advisor is required to put your best interests first. The advisor must be willing to state, in writing, that they will put your interests ahead of their own.

It’s especially important to check with such a fiduciary advisor before purchasing an annuity, since these are complex products with potentially significant downsides that could be glossed over by someone who’s being paid to sell you one. An annuity could be the right fit for you, or it could be an expensive mistake. Get an objective review from a fiduciary before you buy one.

Q&A: Windfall elimination provision explained

Dear Liz: I understand your explanation of the windfall elimination provision that reduces Social Security benefits if someone is receiving a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. I am a teacher with such a pension who also worked more than 10 years in the private sector. I’d accept the explanation and the reduction if the WEP were applied in all 50 states. As you know, it is not. How is this reduction justifiable in any way?

Answer: The idea that WEP doesn’t apply in all states is a myth. WEP applies regardless of where you live. What matters is whether you’re getting a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. Some states provide such pensions while others don’t.

“If a state doesn’t provide its workers with their own pension and instead has them join Social Security, then exempting them from the windfall elimination provision is fully appropriate,” says economist Laurence Kotlikoff, president of Economic Security Planning Inc., which offers Social Security claiming software at MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

As mentioned earlier, WEP is not designed to take away from you a benefit that others get. Rather, the provision is designed to keep those who receive pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security from getting significantly higher benefits than workers who paid into the system their entire working lives.

That can happen because of the progressive nature of Social Security benefits, which are meant to replace a higher percentage of a lower-earner’s income than that of a higher earner.

People who don’t pay into the system for many years can appear to be much lower earners than they actually are. Without adjustments, they would get bigger benefit checks than people in the private sector with the same income who paid much more in Social Security taxes.

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: Getting a small estate transferred

Dear Liz: My brother passed away three years ago leaving no will. All of his bills have been paid. I am unable to transfer his stocks and retirement account to my name. I have repeatedly checked the unclaimed properties list to no avail. No probate was required because the estate was too small. Will you please assist me with the steps I need to file to make this transaction occur?

Answer: Each state has its own laws for small estates and how to transfer assets, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.

In California, for example, a small estate is one with $166,250 or less in assets. If your brother’s estate was under this amount, you can complete a form that’s commonly referred to as a small estate affidavit and present it to the financial institutions or a stock transfer agent to start the transfer process. You can search online for a sample form or ask an attorney for help.

Q&A: Lump sum or monthly payout?

Dear Liz: I need advice on choosing between a lump sum retirement benefit and a monthly payout till death (with a cost of living adjustment). The monthly payout option also includes health insurance benefits but the lump sum option does not.

Answer: It’s hard to imagine a better option than a guaranteed, inflation-adjusted stream of income for life — particularly if that option includes retiree health insurance benefits, which are increasingly rare.

If you take the lump sum, you’ll be responsible for investing the money with no guarantees that you’ll get as much as if you’d picked the payment option. A bad market or bad investments could dramatically reduce your nest egg, as could fraud or improvident spending.

Even if you’re a good investor now, there’s no guarantee you’ll remain so. Our financial decision-making abilities tend to decline with age, although our confidence in those abilities often remains high — a truly scary combination.

The devil’s always in the details, though, so take the paperwork describing these options to a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner so you can get customized advice based on your situation.

You can get referrals to fiduciary financial planners from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners, the Garrett Planning Network and the XY Planning Network. The Garrett network represents advisors willing to charge by the hour; XY Planning Network advisors offer the option of paying a retainer fee.

Be absolutely sure you’re dealing with a fiduciary financial planner — one who agrees, in writing, to put your best interests first.

Most advisors are held to a lower “suitability” standard that allows them to recommend investments and strategies that pay them more, rather than those that may be the best fit for you. An advisor held to this lower standard may urge you to take the lump sum not because it’s in your best interest but because they can earn commissions by selling you various investments.

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: Exes and Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I receive Social Security. My recently divorced girlfriend receives Social Security from her ex-husband who is still living. If we were to get married, would either of us lose part or all of our Social Security benefits? It seems like a simple, straightforward question, but every Social Security representative I speak with by phone or in person gives me a different answer. My girlfriend did not work long enough to earn her own Social Security benefits. She was married over 30 years and is over 60.

Answer: Your girlfriend would lose her divorced spousal benefits if she remarries, but she could then qualify for spousal benefits based on your earnings record. Your benefits would not be affected. A Social Security representative should be able to calculate how much her benefit would change.

Q&A: How a fee-only financial planner differs from a fee-based one

Dear Liz: What is the difference between a fee-based financial planner and a fee-only financial planner? I have had a few complimentary meetings with a fee-based financial planner regarding retirement planning and income-generating strategy. I am 61 and currently have $325,000 in a traditional IRA and a 401(k) from a former employer, with 70% of both accounts held in stocks. The planner suggests that I put the whole $325,000 into a fixed indexed annuity, which he says is no risk. Is this a good idea?

Answer: Someone who is “fee based” typically accepts commissions or other incentives for selling certain investments in addition to charging fees. “Fee only” advisors accept money only from their clients.

Another important word that starts with f: fiduciary. Fiduciary advisors promise to put your interests ahead of their own. A fiduciary advisor, for example, typically wouldn’t recommend putting all your money in a single investment since having all your eggs in one basket is rarely in your best interest.

Most advisors are not fiduciaries, however, and may recommend poorly performing or expensive products to you when better options are available because those lesser options pay them more. Indexed annuities can pay high commissions to the people selling them, for example, and that can be a powerful incentive for your advisor to gloss over their potential disadvantages.

Indexed annuities are sold as a way to benefit from some of the upside of the stock market without the risk of loss if the market falls. But these annuities are complex and insurers can typically change the rules that govern your returns. In addition, you may face surrender charges if you need to take your money out.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has issued investor alerts about indexed annuities. These alerts urge potential investors to thoroughly investigate how the contracts are structured, how returns are figured and how the calculations can change. Anyone who is considering an indexed annuity would be smart to run the purchase past a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner to see whether it really makes sense for their situation.

By the way, there’s no such thing as a no-risk investment. Every investment poses some kind of risk, and a fiduciary advisor will take the time to explain those to you so you can make an informed judgment.

Q&A: When mortgage shopping, does checking your credit scores lower them?

Dear Liz: We’re trying to refinance a mortgage. All of the mortgage lenders claim that checking our credit scores will not affect the scores. However, that is not true. What gives? The three credit bureaus all list “too many inquiries” and penalize us. Does calling them do any good or make it even worse?

Answer:
Checking your own scores is considered a soft inquiry that has no effect on your scores. When a lender checks your scores, there can be a small ding, but credit scoring formulas also have a feature that reduces the effect when you’re shopping for a mortgage.

Essentially, all the mortgage inquiries made within a certain amount of time are grouped together and counted as one. In addition, the formulas ignore any mortgage inquiries made within the previous 30 days. The amount of time you can shop varies with the credit scoring formula, so it’s generally a good idea to concentrate your shopping into a two-week period.

What you don’t want to do when you’re in the market for a mortgage is to apply for other credit. Those inquiries are not grouped with your mortgage inquiries. The effect of these inquiries fades quickly and is usually pretty small — typically 5 points or less for FICO scores, for example. But even a small ding could cause you to pay more in interest if your scores aren’t already excellent.