Q&A: This retiree got a big surprise: taxes

Dear Liz: I’m 76 and retired. During the decades I worked, I contributed to my IRA yearly using my tax refund or having money deducted from my paycheck. No one told me I would have to pay taxes on this when I turned 70. For the past six years, I have been required to withdraw a certain percentage of this IRA money and pay taxes on it. Is there ever going to be an end to this? Do I have to keep paying taxes on the same money every year? And what about when I pass away, do my children have to keep paying?

Answer: Ever heard the expression, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”?

You got tax deductions on the money you contributed to your IRA over the years, and the earnings were allowed to grow tax deferred. Those tax breaks are designed to encourage people to save, but eventually Uncle Sam wants his cut.

Also, you aren’t “paying taxes on the same money every year,” because the money you withdraw has never been taxed. Plus, you’re required to take out only a small portion of your IRA each year starting at 70½. The required minimum distribution starts at 3.65% and creeps up a bit every year, but even at age 100 it’s only 15.87% of the total. You can leave the bulk of your IRA alone so it can continue to grow and bequeath the balance to your children.

Your heirs won’t get the money tax free. They typically will be required to make withdrawals to empty the account within 10 years and pay income taxes on those withdrawals. Previously, they were allowed to spread required minimum distributions over their own lifetimes. Congress recently changed that to require faster payouts because the intent of IRA deductions was to encourage saving for retirement, not transfer large sums to heirs.

The Roth IRA is an exception to the above rules. There’s no tax deduction when you contribute the money, but the money can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement or left alone — there are no required minimum distributions. Your children would be required to start distributions, but wouldn’t owe taxes on those withdrawals.

Q&A: This generous gift has no tax effects

Dear Liz: If I give $15,000 to my grandson, do I report it on my tax return? Is it deductible? Does my grandson report the gift on his tax return and does he owe tax on it? What if three sets of grandparents (parents and stepparents of his parents) do the same?

Answer: No, no, no, no and it doesn’t matter for tax purposes (although obviously your grandson should be delighted he has such generous grandparents).

Gifts to individuals aren’t tax deductible, but neither are they taxable to the recipient.

People can give a certain amount each year to as many recipients as they like without having to report the gifts via a gift tax return. In 2019 and 2020, the limit is $15,000. Each grandparent could give up to that amount to your grandson; he wouldn’t have to report the income on his tax returns, and it wouldn’t cause any of you to have to file gift tax returns.

There’s no limit to the number of people who can give $15,000 to your grandson this way.

You wouldn’t owe gift taxes until the amount you’d given away above the annual exemption limit exceeded $11.4 million.

Q&A: Working past 70

Dear Liz: If I continue to work after 70, will Social Security taxes still be deducted from my check? I understand my benefits will cap out at 70, so why would I need to still pay into the fund?

Answer: Because Social Security is insurance, not a bank account.

And it may not be true that your benefit maxes out at 70, if you continue to work. It’s true that delayed retirement credits no longer increase your benefit if you delay starting Social Security past age 70. But as long as you continue working, you’re potentially growing your benefit.

Your Social Security check is based on your 35 highest-earning years, adjusted for inflation. If you make more in a current year than you made in one of those previous highest-earning years, the current year will be substituted for the earlier one. That in turn can increase your benefit. This can happen at any age, including after you start benefits.

You might not see much increase, of course, or any increase at all if you’ve earned a high income for a long time. If you exceeded the maximum income limits subject to Social Security taxation every year for 35 years, your benefit wouldn’t increase with additional work. (In 2019, for example, the maximum income limit is $132,900; you don’t pay Social Security tax on earnings above that level, although you continue to pay Medicare tax.)

On the other hand, your benefits won’t be stopped once you collect as much from the system as you paid in. You will continue receiving benefits for as long as you live, even if that amount far exceeds what you’ve paid in taxes. That’s insurance worth paying for.

Q&A: Death doesn’t take a financial holiday. Here’s a cautionary tale

Dear Liz: My daughter has two children, ages 2 and 4. Recently the children’s father took his own life. He was 27. The job he worked as long as I knew him paid him in cash, so he didn’t pay into Social Security. Does this mean the children cannot receive survivor benefits from Social Security?

Answer: If the father never worked at a job that paid into Social Security, your grandchildren — and your daughter — won’t qualify for the survivor benefits they could have received had he been paid legally rather than under the table.

Their one hope is if he had a previous job that did pay into Social Security.

At 27, he would have needed at least six quarters of coverage to trigger survivor benefits, says Bill Meyer, founder of Social Security Solutions, a claiming strategies site.

The older a person is, the more quarters are needed to qualify for benefits, but no one needs more than 40 quarters. The amount of earnings required for a quarter of coverage is $1,360 in 2019. Once you earn $5,440, you’ve earned your four quarters for the year.

If the father had earned those six quarters, his death would trigger survivor benefits for his children that typically last until age 18 (or until 19, if they are still in high school full time). Your daughter also would be entitled to benefits until the younger child turned 16, because she’s caring for the deceased person’s minor children.

It’s possible this young man was paid under the table because he was not able to work legally in the U.S. If that’s the case, he and his family wouldn’t qualify for Social Security benefits even if payroll taxes had been deducted. If he opted for cash because he or his employer didn’t want to pay taxes, though, that was a choice that had expensive repercussions for the people he left behind.

Q&A: Don’t keep a mortgage just for the tax deduction

Dear Liz: Does the new tax law, with its increased standard deduction, change the calculus of maintaining my mortgage? I owe about $250,000 at 3.25% on a 30-year mortgage. I no longer itemize, so I don’t get the benefit of the tax deduction for the interest. My payments are about $1,500 a month, but I could easily pay it off.

Answer: It never made much sense to keep a mortgage just for the tax deduction. The tax savings offset only a portion of the interest you pay. (If you’re in a 33% combined state and federal tax bracket, for example, you’d get at most 33 cents back for every $1 in mortgage interest you paid.)

A more compelling reason to keep a mortgage would be if you were able to get a better return on your money by investing it, or if you didn’t want to have a big chunk of your wealth tied up in a single, illiquid asset.

Q&A: Unloading a timeshare

Dear Liz: How can a timeshare owner get rid of the timeshare and claim the loss on taxes?

Answer: Timeshares typically are considered a personal asset, like a boat or a car, so the losses aren’t deductible. The best way out of a timeshare is often to give it back to the developer, if the developer will take it. You also could try to sell it on sites such as RedWeek and Timeshare Users Group. Unless your timeshare is at a high-end property, you are unlikely to recoup much and may have to pay the buyer’s maintenance fees for a year or two as an incentive.

Q&A: Escaping California’s tax auditors is tough even after leaving the state

Dear Liz: My husband and I will be trying out several different areas after the sale of our Los Angeles area house, which will be some time this summer. What happens if we end up renting in three different states? I’m under the impression that we need to be able to prove that we resided in a particular state for six months and one day in order to say we are residents of that state. Even though my husband has been retired for many years, he still does a small amount of business through a company based in Southern California. Will we be forced to pay California tax even though we are residing elsewhere?

Answer: California, like other higher-tax states, has residency auditors whose specialty is asserting that affluent people who have left the state are still legal residents and thus are subject to its taxes. The audits can be stunningly thorough, looking at everything from the doctors you visit to where your artwork and other valuable possessions are stored.

If audited, you would need to prove that you have a fixed, permanent residence elsewhere and that it’s truly your home. And yes, it’s up to the taxpayer to prove this — there’s no presumption of innocence in tax audits, says tax attorney Mark Klein, chairman of Hodgson Russ LLP in New York City. (New York is another state with notoriously hard-nosed residency auditors.)

Just leaving the state for six months and registering to vote elsewhere typically won’t be enough. You likely would need to spend substantially more time in your new “home” state than in California. Klein, who recently taught a session on establishing residency at the AICPA’s annual ENGAGE conference, tells his clients to spend at least two months in the new place for every month they spend in the old one.

Also, you should “stick the landing,” in Klein’s words. Let’s say you try to establish residency in Nevada but then move to Florida by the time California’s auditors find you. They may well decide that your Nevada stay was temporary and that you were still subject to California taxes during the time you lived in the Silver State.

Escaping the long arm of California’s tax auditors could be tough while you’re still figuring out where to live next. You’d be smart to consult a CPA experienced with California residency audits for advice on how to cut ties to the state cleanly.

Q&A: Estate tax versus inheritance tax

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you wrote that “only six states … have inheritance taxes.” My state of Oregon is not listed. Oregon certainly has an estate tax (one of the highest in the U.S.) and Washington also has one.

Answer: Many people confuse estate and inheritance taxes, but they’re not the same thing.

As the name implies, estate taxes are taxes levied on the dead person’s estate. The federal government, 12 states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington) and the District of Columbia have estate taxes.

Only the six states mentioned in the previous column — Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — have an inheritance tax, which is levied on the person who inherits. New Jersey had an estate tax, but that was repealed in 2018, leaving Maryland as the only state with both types of tax.

Q&A: Selling an inherited house to a relative will affect tax treatment

Dear Liz: My mother recently died, leaving a house to my three siblings and me. We had the house appraised in February. My sister is buying the rest of us out. We decided to give our sister a break and sold her the house below the appraised amount. As the “selling price” (which will be a public record) will be below the appraisal, can I take my “loss” on my taxes this year? I gave her a $25,000 reduction, so I assume I can take $3,000 a year for eight years. Is this true?

Answer: Probably not.

The sale to a family member probably dooms any chance of taking a capital loss, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax and accounting at Wolters Kluwer.

“The law is not entirely clear on this topic with the IRS perhaps taking a more severe stand than the Tax Court, but both seem to frown on any use of the real estate for personal purposes after the death of the parent,” Luscombe said.

For a capital loss, the IRS appears to require that the inherited property be sold in an arm’s length transaction to an unrelated person, Luscombe said. The IRS also requires that you and your siblings did not use the property for personal purposes and did not intend to convert the property to personal use before the sale.

Even the Tax Court cases appear to at least require a conversion to an income-producing purpose before the sale and no personal use of the property after the death of the parent.

“The reader may find a court willing to say that personal use by a sibling is not personal use by the reader, and, from the reader’s perspective, it was converted to investment property,” Luscombe said. “However, since this was a sale to a sibling and not an unrelated person, I think that the IRS would disagree with that position.”

Q&A: Consult a pro when planning elder care

Dear Liz: My parents and I are discussing the best ways to protect their assets if one of them must live in a nursing home. Their home is paid off, and we were wondering if adding my name on the deed will secure the home from a mandatory sale for caregiving expenses. Please note, I am the only child. Also, I may want to live there someday to care for the other parent. Looking for the best options for saving money and avoiding inheritance tax for this asset.

Answer: Please consult an elder law attorney before you take any steps to “protect” assets because the wrong moves could come back to haunt you (and your parents).

It sounds like you’re contemplating the possibility that one of your parents may wind up on Medicaid, the government health program for the poor that covers nursing home costs. Medicaid has a very low asset limit and uses a “look back” period to discourage people from transferring money or property just so they can qualify. In most states, transfers made within 60 months of the application are examined and, if found to be in violation of the rules, used to determine a penalty period to prevent someone from qualifying for Medicaid coverage. In California, the look-back period is 30 months.

The state can attempt to recoup Medicaid costs from people’s estates by putting liens against their homes. You might see that as an “inheritance tax,” but inheritance taxes are taxes imposed in a few states on people who inherit money or property. Although all states try to recoup Medicaid costs, only six — Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — have inheritance taxes, and these either exempt or give favorable rates to children who inherit.

Having your name added to the deed can cause problems, as well. Your creditors could go after the home if you’re sued, and you could lose a portion of the step up in tax basis you would get if you inherited the house instead. If you’re married and get divorced, your portion of your parents’ home could be considered a “marital asset” that has to be divided.

It’s great that you and your parents are trying to plan for long-term care, but you should seek out professional guidance.