Q&A: Protecting home sales proceeds from taxes

Dear Liz: My friend has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and is now living in a secure assisted living facility. After a year in this home, his sister finally sold his condo. Her tax person says he will take a big tax hit. I say it is totally medically ordered and he’ll need the money for his current housing ($5,000 a month) until he dies. I also question whether part of that $5,000 should be deductible because it is only ordered because of his illness. Your thoughts?

Answer: Your friend may not be able to protect all of his home sale proceeds from taxation, but he likely will be able to protect some.

If your friend lived in his condo for at least two of the previous five years before the sale, he will be able to avoid tax on up to $250,000 of home sale profits. Even if he fell short of the two-year mark, he likely would benefit from IRS rules that allow partial exemptions when the sale is due to “unforeseen circumstances.”

Meanwhile, medical expenses, including some long-term care expenses, are potentially deductible if they exceed 7.5% of someone’s adjusted gross income. Assisted living expenses may qualify as deductible medical expenses if the resident is considered chronically ill, which means they cannot perform at least two activities of daily living (eating, toileting, bathing, dressing, getting in and out of bed and remaining continent) or they require supervision because of cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The personal care services must be provided according to a plan of care prescribed by a licensed healthcare provider. Typically, assisted living facilities prepare such care plans for their residents.

Q&A: House transfer in a trust

Dear Liz: My dad set up a living trust that included his house, which has a mortgage on it. The lender accepted the transfer of the home to the trust. Dad recently passed away so the house should transfer to my sister and myself. Can the lender trigger the due-on-sale clause? Or make me or my sister qualify for the mortgage?

Answer: A federal law known as the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982 details several situations in which lenders can’t enforce due-on-sale clauses, including when a home passes to a relative or joint tenant, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. The law applies to residential properties with four or fewer dwelling units.

You and your sister won’t have to qualify for a new loan but can continue making payments under the current mortgage terms. If you can’t afford the payments, you’ll need to consider other options, such as refinancing or selling the home.

Q&A: Future home sale affects Medicare

Dear Liz: I am 65 and have a very low income but will be selling my home of 25 years soon to downsize. How will the one-time capital gains affect my Medicare payments, which are currently at the minimum? Can I share with the Social Security office that this is a one-time event and that the following years will all have a very low income stream? Will they adjust my payments up one year and back down the next?

Answer: You can exempt up to $250,000 per person of home sale profit from capital gains, so only profit above that amount would be added into your modified adjusted gross income to determine your Medicare premiums. There’s a two-year lag, so if you sell your home this year and report it on the tax return that’s due next year, your premiums will increase the following year (in your case, in 2023).

As noted in a previous column, you can appeal the increase if your income was affected by certain life-changing events including marriage, divorce, death of a spouse, work stoppage or reduction, loss of income-producing property (because of a disaster or other event beyond your control), loss of pension income or an employer settlement payment because of an employer bankruptcy or reorganization. If you don’t qualify to appeal, the increase would only be for one year and your premiums would return to normal afterward.

Another option is to structure the deal so you receive the payout over time, rather than all at once, but consult an accountant or financial planner before proceeding.

Q&A: A house in one state, a spouse in another. What about taxes?

Dear Liz: My husband recently took a dream job in a different state. We are renting a place there, and it is his primary residence. We own our home in the “original” state, where I live and work. We intend to keep our home for another three to four years. How will this impact our taxes? We are married, filing jointly and our income is straightforward W-2. Will we need to file as residents in both states? I know most states will credit taxes already paid on income earned in another state, but which is our “primary” residence? I may base permanently in the new state because I can work remotely. I am confused about filing jointly when each spouse lives in a different state.

Answer: Please talk to an accountant about the best way to handle your returns. In some cases, spouses who live in different states can submit their federal tax returns as “married filing jointly” while filing their respective state returns as “married filing separately.” Other times, there may be tax advantages to filing jointly in one state, or the nonresident spouse will be required to file.

If you are required to submit a return to the nonresident state, your accountant can tell you whether you qualify for credits. Alternatively, there may be a reciprocal tax agreement between states that allows nonresidents to avoid taxes if they follow certain rules.

But you’ll want to be particularly careful if you currently live in a high-tax state with a reputation for aggressive residency audits such as California, New York and Illinois.

A state auditor may decide that your husband’s move is temporary and his income is thus subject to your state’s taxes. It would be up to him to prove otherwise, and that may not be as easy as changing his voter registration. A tax pro can help guide him, and later you, on the best way to establish residency.

Q&A: Refinancing brings tax questions

Dear Liz: I recently refinanced my house and got $9,400 cash back. I also received a $2,400 escrow check from my previous mortgage lender. Is this money taxable? Should I put away a certain percentage of it to pay those taxes? My plan is just to put it back into household repairs (fireplace, painting, etc.).

Answer: You got cash back because you took out a larger loan than the one you previously had. You have to pay that money back, so it’s not taxable income. The escrow check represents a refund of money you’d already paid to the first lender. You don’t get taxed on that, either.

Q&A: Rent-or-buy question isn’t simple

Dear Liz: I often agree with your advice, but recently you suggested a 70-year-old widow rent rather than buy. I say buy the condo with the stairs and reap the appreciation. Later, if you need a home without stairs, sell the condo and buy another with your profit. I’m 73, and buying rather than renting has allowed me to live payment-free while leaving some future equity for my heirs.

Answer: In a follow-up email, the reader told me she had already purchased the condo and just wanted confirmation she’d done the right thing. A bigger issue than the stairs is her lack of savings and the possibility she would become house rich and cash poor. Fortunately, though, the condo is new and she’s not likely to face large special assessments for repairs, which would be an issue for an older building.

Q&A: They want to give the caretaker the house she lives in without imposing a tax burden

Dear Liz: Our family owns a vacation home. A caretaker for the property lives in a smaller house next door that is also owned by our family. We consider her part of our extended family and would like to show our appreciation when the property is sold. Our wish would be to give the smaller house in which she lives to her as a gift, but we know the annual payment of property taxes would probably be too great a financial burden for her to live there as a retiree. (She is currently in her 50s.) Is there some sort of trust or fund we could set up that would cover her property taxes until her death without adding to her taxable income?

Answer: Yes, but there may be a better solution.

A trust can be set up to pay the property taxes or other property expenses during the caretaker’s lifetime, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. Trusts face high tax rates, however, and cost money to set up and administer. Plus, you have to find people willing to be trustees and backup trustees who are likely to outlive the caretaker. You also must decide what happens to the money when the caretaker passes away.

All these issues are surmountable, of course. Younger members of your family could be trustees, for example, or you could hire professional trustees. The money could be invested conservatively, or in tax-efficient mutual funds, to minimize taxes. Or it could be invested aggressively enough to pay the tax bill and still provide enough income to pay the property expenses.

Another, simpler solution would be to give her the cash outright. Gifts are not taxable to the receiver, so the gift itself would not increase her income taxes. She would have the burden of managing the cash, of course. Like the trust, she could invest to minimize taxes or more aggressively to potentially grow the money and offset inflation. Either way, her tax rates probably would be lower than the trust’s.

An estate planning attorney can help your family discuss the various options and set up the documents to carry out your wishes.

Q&A: A look at property title

Dear Liz: You’ve mentioned that in community property states, a couple’s primary residence gets a full step-up in tax basis when one spouse dies. Does this require that the title to the property specify that it is community property? My husband and I purchased our home about 6 weeks before we were married, so we hold title as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Should we get the title changed?

Answer: The answer is probably yes, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer.

The title to your home does not have to specify that it is community property for it to be treated as community property, Luscome said. If you live in a community property state and are married, the property you acquire and the income you earn during the marriage are generally considered community property regardless of how you hold title. However, property acquired before the marriage would not generally be treated as community property, he said.

The title to your home does not have to specify that it is community property for it to be treated as community property, Luscome said. If you live in a community property state and are married, the property you acquire and the income you earn during the marriage are generally considered community property regardless of how you hold title. However, property acquired before the marriage would not generally be treated as community property, he said.

Each way of holding title has its advantages. Joint tenancy with right of survivorship avoids probate and offers protection from creditors. Community property offers the tax advantage you mentioned: The whole property gets a new basis for tax purposes at the first spouse’s death. That means all the appreciation that occurred before the first death is never taxed. In non-community property states, only the deceased partner’s half gets that new value. Community property states include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Alaska is an “opt-in” community property state.

Some community property states offer the best of both worlds by allowing real estate to be titled as community property with right of survivorship. Those states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada and Wisconsin, according to self-help site Nolo.

Q&A: What to consider when deciding whether to buy or rent a home

Dear Liz: I’m just turning 70 and am on my own for the first time in my life. In the last three years I took care of both my 100-year-old mother and my husband as their health failed. My daughter and son-in-law live in Colorado and are going to have a baby, and I plan on moving there in the near future.

I had originally planned to move into a senior living apartment complex. Then my children said I should buy a condo for the freedom, privacy and potential investment. They found a condo building under construction with units I could afford, plus a mortgage company willing to take me on and help with the down payment.

I’m torn about what to do. Because of both bad luck and bad decisions, currently I have only about $18,000 in savings. Between my pension and Social Security I make about $47,000 a year.

Do I invest in the condo and use up a good chunk of my savings? It’s on the second floor (the steps aren’t very steep, fortunately) and I’m strong and in good shape, but I’m also 70 and things can go south quickly. But, as the kids have said, I could live there for 10 years and make a good profit from the sale.

Or do I move into the senior living apartment and keep my savings but face regular increases in rent (thus “throwing my money away”)? The senior complex has amenities and activities and elevators but lots of people around all the time (thus sacrificing some privacy). Having a place of my own would be so wonderful, but I need to be smart about this decision.

Answer: Younger people often don’t understand about stairs. No, they’re not a big deal now, but even a few steps can become a huge barrier if you have mobility issues — and those issues become more likely the older you get. Having an elevator or a unit on the ground floor, preferably with a zero-step entry, is a good insurance policy against the vicissitudes of aging.

Besides, you aren’t necessarily throwing money away when you rent. You’re buying freedom. You don’t have to worry about paying for repairs and other unpredictable costs, and you can move more easily if your circumstances change. People are often advised to rent first when they move to a new area, just so they can get a better idea of the advantages and disadvantages of various neighborhoods before they commit. Renting also could give you a chance to build up your reserves so that if you do decide to buy, you won’t be quite so
house poor.

Having more people around isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. You’re newly widowed, and moving to an area where you presumably don’t know many people. The senior complex could make it a lot easier to make friends. A good social network is essential to staying mentally and physically healthy as we age.

Q&A: Remodel the house or sell it?

Dear Liz: Should we take out a home equity loan so we can do some improvements on our house and make it work better for us, or should we sell it and upgrade to a bigger house? We are not in a rush to move, so we are content to take our time to find the right new home at the right price. We are also considering staying and doing work on our current home. But we have a lot of equity and are wondering: Would it be smarter to cash that in? We both remember the housing crash and are very nervous about getting in over our heads.

Answer: People are spending a lot of time at home these days, and many are longing for a little extra space. Interest rates are low, which makes borrowing for improvements or a bigger home more affordable for many.

You’re smart to be cautious about taking on too much debt, though. Lenders are much more cautious than they were before the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, but it’s still possible to borrow more than you can comfortably repay. Big mortgage payments could prevent you from saving for important goals such as retirement or your children’s college education.

If you like your current neighborhood, remodeling is often the more economical route. You spend roughly 10% of your home’s value when you sell it and buy another. Real estate commissions take a big chunk, as do moving costs. Bigger houses — whether through remodeling or moving — also can mean higher tax, insurance and utility bills. That’s not to say you should never upgrade, but you’re smart to consider all your options because the cost of exchanging homes is pretty high.

By the way, you aren’t really cashing in equity when you use it to buy another home or borrow against it to make improvements. Some people would say that’s “putting your equity to work,” but the idea that equity needs employment is what led many people to borrow excessively against their homes before the last recession. It’s perfectly fine, and often desirable, to have lots of equity just sitting around. That way, it’s there for you when you really need it. You can tap it in an emergency, for example, or to help fund your retirement.