Q&A: Account closure and credit scores

Dear Liz: My mother is very focused on her credit score, which is consistently excellent. I found out that she recently called her bank and asked it to lower her credit limit on one of her long-held credit cards from $32,000 to $5,000. She uses the card only to charge infrequent, small amounts and always pays it off. She believes having a large credit limit counts as “potential debt” and hurts her credit profile, whereas I believe having a high credit limit on a lightly used card is very good for your credit. I guess we’ll find out who’s right next month when my mom diligently checks her credit score. In the meantime, could you weigh in?

Answer: You are correct. Credit scoring formulas like to see a big gap between the amount of credit you’re using and the credit you have available. Lowering your credit limit on a card can have a negative effect on your scores.

Before the advent of credit scoring, lenders did worry that someone with a lot of available credit would suddenly run up big balances and default. Data scientists discovered, however, that people who had been responsible enough to be granted high limits tended to remain responsible with their credit.

If your mother has several other credit cards and uses this one lightly, the effect may not be significant. If she wants to keep her scores high, however, she probably shouldn’t repeat the experiment with any other cards.

Q&A: Dad didn’t trust banks. How to handle the hoard he left behind

Dear Liz: My father was eccentric and given to conspiracy theories. He didn’t trust banks or the stock market and invested the bulk of his money in gold coins and bars. We are talking millions of dollars at current gold prices. My parents set up a living trust, so when my mother dies, I am confident the gold will be distributed equitably to myself and my siblings, without a lot of hassle in probate. But I have no idea how to convert all that gold into a more liquid investment like an IRA or money market fund. How do I do it and not be overwhelmed with fees and taxes?

Answer: Let’s hope the gold is safely stored and properly insured. It would be a shame if burglars walked away with your inheritance.

If your mother’s estate is large enough to owe estate taxes, the estate will pay those — not the heirs. (The current exemption is more than $11 million per person, so very few estates owe this tax.)

Under current law, the gold will receive a new, “stepped-up” value for tax purposes on the day your mother dies, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. You should note the price of gold on that day, using a reliable gold pricing site, and print out the information for future tax purposes, Sawday said.

Once you receive the gold, you can take it to a precious metals exchange and cash it in. If the price you get is higher than the price of gold on the day your mother died, you would have a taxable capital gain. If the price is lower, you would have a capital loss. You wouldn’t owe any taxes and could use the loss to offset capital gains elsewhere or, if you don’t have gains, as much as $3,000 of income per year until the loss is exhausted.

You can deposit the cash in a bank account, or open a brokerage account and choose your investments from there. Those investments might include a money market fund as well as stocks, bonds, mutual funds and so on.

An IRA is a type of retirement account, not an investment, and requires you to have earned income to contribute. The contribution limit is $6,000 this year, or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older, so you wouldn’t be able to put much of your inheritance into an IRA in any case.

An excellent use of some of this cash would be to hire a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner who can help guide you on how to invest the money wisely and with an eye to minimizing taxes.

Q&A: When to claim Social Security

Dear Liz: The common assumption seems to be that, in most cases, it’s a good idea to delay collecting Social Security because the longer you wait, the higher your monthly benefits will be. I will reach my full retirement age of 66 years and 2 months in July. According to the Social Security Administration website, my monthly benefit would get bumped up if I waited to start collecting until 66 years and 8 months, next February. The next bump wouldn’t be for another full year, at 67 years and 8 months. My current plan is to retire in March or April of next year. Is there any reason I shouldn’t start collecting my benefit as soon as I get to the 66 years and 2 months threshold?

Answer: It’s not clear what you were looking at, but your Social Security benefit earns delayed retirement credits every month you put off your application after your full retirement age. Those credits add up to 8% annually and increase your checks for the rest of your life.

Social Security can be complicated, and making the right claiming decision isn’t always easy, but your choice can have a huge impact on your future financial security. Please consult a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner before you retire so you can be confident you’re doing the right thing.

Q&A: This $1 house deal comes with elder care responsibility. It could get complicated

Dear Liz: My father-in-law died recently. My mother-in-law is not well enough to live alone. My husband has a brother and a sister who would like my husband and me to buy my in-laws’ big, old home for $1, take care of my mother-in-law 24/7, and make 60 years’ worth of updates and repairs to the house. I see plenty of downsides to this arrangement, but no upside. Is there a way this deal can work for us, and not just for the other siblings?

Answer: The upside is that you would own the house. Although the home may not be in great shape, it presumably is an asset with some value. Whether it has enough value to be worthwhile, and whether you want to acquire it this way, are open questions.

If you and your husband buy the home for $1, the IRS will assume that your mother-in-law gave the two of you her property, and that can be problematic. The difference between the sale price of the home and its fair market value would be treated as a gift for gift tax purposes, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Your mother-in-law probably wouldn’t owe gift taxes, but she likely would have to file a gift tax return, and the gift would use up part of her lifetime gift and estate tax exemption.

If the home is a gift, you get her tax basis, as well. If instead she bequeathed the home to you and your husband in her will, the home would get a new, stepped-up value for tax purposes. How big a deal this might be depends on a lot of factors, including which state the home is in, so you’d need to consult a tax professional for details.

On the other hand, taking title to the home before your mother-in-law dies ensures that you and your husband actually get this asset. If it’s left in a will, your mother-in-law could change her mind and leave it in full or in part to someone else. If she doesn’t have a will, the house would be divided according to state law, which probably means your husband would have to share the asset with his siblings.

There are other aspects to consider. Taking care of another person can be costly: Caregivers spend nearly 20% of their personal income on out-of-pocket costs related to helping a loved one, according to an AARP study in 2019.

Also, more than half of family caregivers adjust their work hours by taking time off, reducing their hours or quitting altogether, AARP researchers found. In addition to losing income, they can lose promotions, job security and opportunities to save for retirement.

Caregiving also is associated with higher levels of stress, worse health and increased risk of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Before you take on this task, consider hiring a geriatric care manager to help you assess your mother-in-law’s needs and discuss alternatives. You can get referrals from the Aging Life Care Assn.

Q&A: A sudden death brings a financial quandary

Dear Liz: My son suddenly passed away and his $1-million life insurance policy was awarded to me, his mother. I want the money to be divided equally between his two children for future use. They are 18 and 15 now. What financial vehicle should I use? The funds are in my money market account just waiting to be placed into something.

Answer: Please use some of the money to pay for individualized counsel from advisors who are fiduciaries. Fiduciary means the advisor is required to put your best interests first. Most advisors are not fiduciaries but you can find financial planners who are through the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the XY Planning Network, the Garrett Planning Network and the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners.

The vehicle or vehicles you use for the money will depend on your goals and how you want to distribute the funds over time. You’ll need good advice about how to invest, minimize taxes and incorporate the money into your own estate plan. Distributing money to your grandchildren can trigger the need to file gift tax returns, although you wouldn’t actually owe gift taxes until you’d given away millions of dollars.

Your son may have chosen you as his beneficiary because he trusted you to do right by his children. Or he may not have updated his beneficiaries since applying for the policy. (More than a few ex-spouses have wound up with life insurance proceeds because the policy owner didn’t update the beneficiaries after the divorce.) It’s a good idea to check the beneficiaries on any life insurance once a year or after any major life change to make sure the money is still going where you want.

Q&A: Here’s how to pick the best retirement account

Dear Liz: Can you explain the difference between a Roth IRA and a Roth 401(k)? What are the benefits of a Roth 401(k)? My company offers it and I am considering beginning to make deferral contributions there while continuing my 401(k) contributions.

Answer: Contributions to Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s are after tax, which means you don’t get an upfront tax deduction as you do with traditional IRA and 401(k) accounts. But the money grows tax deferred and can be tax free in retirement.

You typically open and contribute to a Roth IRA at a brokerage, which gives you access to a wide range of investment options. Just like traditional 401(k) accounts, Roth 401(k)s are offered by an employer, usually with a limited number of investment choices.

Roth 401(k)s allow people to contribute significantly more than they could to Roth or traditional IRAs. Roth 401(k)s also allow contributions by higher earners, who might be shut out of contributing to a Roth IRA.

Roth IRA contributions are limited to $6,000 with a $1,000 catch-up contribution for people ages 50 and older. Your ability to contribute begins to phase out at certain income limits. This year, the phaseouts start at $125,000 of modified adjusted gross income for single filers and $198,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Roth 401(k)s don’t have income limits and allow you to contribute as much as $19,500 ($26,000 for those age 50 and older). That is the combined limit for elective deferrals from your paycheck. If you’re under 50 and contributing $10,000 to the pretax portion of the 401(k), for example, you could contribute a maximum of $9,500 to the Roth option.

Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s also have different rules for withdrawals. You can remove your contributions from a Roth IRA at any time without paying taxes or penalties. Withdrawals from a Roth 401(k) before age 59½ also can incur taxes and penalties, although you usually do have the option to take loans.

Also, you’re not required to start taking withdrawals at age 72 from a Roth IRA, as you typically are with other retirement accounts, including Roth 401(k)s. You will have the option of rolling a Roth 401(k) into a Roth IRA, typically after you leave your job, so you can avoid minimum required distributions that way.

Q&A: If you lost your job, here’s how to find free health insurance

Dear Liz: I have read that the unemployed can qualify for free health insurance through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. I’m trying to confirm whether my state, which did not accept expanded Medicaid coverage, is offering this to its residents. My position was eliminated with no warning because of the pandemic and I’m finding Healthcare.gov rather convoluted to navigate.

Answer: It may be July before the ACA exchanges reflect the extra tax credits that will make comprehensive health insurance free for anyone who receives unemployment benefits in 2021.

Some of the health insurance changes authorized by the American Rescue Plan, which President Biden signed in March, went into effect April 1. Those included providing larger tax credits that lowered costs for most people who buy health insurance on the exchanges and increasing the number of people who qualify for those premium-reducing credits.

In the past, people with incomes above 400% of the poverty line typically didn’t qualify for subsidies that lowered their costs, but now people with incomes up to 600% of the poverty line — up to $76,560 for a single person or $157,200 for a family of four — can qualify, according to medical research organization KFF (formerly Kaiser Family Foundation). The law also created a new special enrollment period that extends through Aug. 15, 2021.

The exchanges have been slower to reflect the increased tax credits for people who receive unemployment benefits at any point during 2021. These credits will effectively allow those who don’t have access to other group coverage to qualify for a free silver plan with a $177 deductible. The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has promised that the credits “will be available starting this summer.”

You shouldn’t be without health insurance, so you could sign up for coverage now and update your information when the increased tax credits become available.

But you may have another option. The American Rescue Plan also requires employers to provide free COBRA coverage from April 1 through Sept. 30 to eligible former employees who lost their healthcare coverage because of involuntary termination or a reduction in hours. (Employers will get a federal tax credit to cover their costs.)

Even if you turned down COBRA coverage when you lost your job — as many people do because it’s so expensive — you could still get free coverage if it hasn’t been more than 18 months since you lost your job. Employers are required to notify eligible former employees by May 31. If you haven’t heard from yours by then but think you’re eligible, reach out to the company’s human resources department.

Q&A: Taxes on a home sale

Dear Liz: My wife wants to sell our home of three years for a $300,000 profit after an extensive remodel and move into our rental home. She wants to stay there for two years and then sell to take advantage of the capital gains exemption. If we do it her way, we lower our monthly mortgage payment but lose the yearly rental income of $30,000. Our income is around $130,000. Any input?

Answer: Each homeowner can exclude up to $250,000 of home sale profits from capital gains taxes if they have owned and lived in a property as their primary residence for at least two of the previous five years. Married couples can exclude up to $500,000. This tax break can be used repeatedly.

The federal capital gains tax rate is currently 15% for most people, so the full $500,000 exemption could save a seller $75,000 in federal capital gains taxes. If your state or city has an income tax, you could save there as well. California, for example, doesn’t have a capital gains tax rate, so home sale profits would be subject to ordinary income tax rates of up to 13.3%.

The math is a little different when you move into a property you’ve previously rented out, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer. Over the years, you’ve taken tax deductions for depreciation of your property. When you sell, the Internal Revenue Service wants some of that benefit back, something known as depreciation recapture.

When you sell a former rental property, some of the gain will be taxed as income, even if you’ve converted the home to personal use, Luscombe said. The maximum depreciation recapture rate is 25%.

A tax pro can help you figure out the likely tax bill. Any tax savings would be offset by the net result of a move, such as the lost rental income (minus the lower mortgage payments) and the substantial costs of selling, including real estate commissions and moving expenses.

It’s not clear if you’ve already remodeled your current home. If you haven’t, please think twice about an extensive remodel if you plan to sell, because you probably won’t get back the money you spend. Home improvement projects rarely return 100% of their cost. You’ll typically get a better return by decluttering, deep cleaning, sprucing up the yard or putting on a new coat of paint.

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: Does a teenager need a Roth IRA?

Dear Liz: Our 16-year-old daughter has been frugal since she started understanding money at about age 6. She works and makes a decent income for a high school student. Her savings are now quite substantial. She wants to open a Roth IRA while she is young and has no income tax liability. My wife and I have pensions and substantial savings but only one IRA. So we have no idea how to help her open a Roth. What should she do? She has enough money to maximize her contributions every year through high school and college and wants to take full advantage of 50 years of tax-free growth.

Answer: Contributing to a Roth IRA is an excellent way for young people to build wealth, and the earlier they can start, the better.

Traditional IRAs typically offer a tax deduction for contributions but withdrawals are taxable. Roth IRAs, by contrast, don’t offer an upfront tax deduction but withdrawals are tax free in retirement. Opting for a Roth over a traditional IRA makes sense when you expect your tax rate to be the same or higher in retirement.

A $6,000 contribution at age 26 can grow to about $105,000 by retirement age, assuming 7% average annual returns. (That’s a reasonable average for a multi-decade investment in a diversified stock portfolio.)

Make the same contribution at age 16, and the money could grow to over $210,000 by age 67. The extra 10 years of compounded gains effectively doubles the total.

To contribute to an IRA or Roth IRA, people must have earned income such as wages, salary or self-employment income.

They’re allowed to contribute 100% of their earnings during the tax year or $6,000, whichever is less. (People 50 and older can make an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution.) If your daughter earned $4,000 this year, for example, that’s the maximum she could contribute to a Roth for 2021.

Your daughter typically can’t open her own account until she’s 18, so you would need to find a brokerage that offers custodial Roth IRAs. She would be the account owner and you would be the custodian until she turns 18. Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard are among the discount brokerages that offer custodial Roth IRAs without requiring minimum investments or charging maintenance fees.