Q&A: Establish home’s value at spouse’s death

Dear Liz: I think you left one thing off your list of things to do when your spouse dies. If you’re a homeowner, establish the value of the house as of the date of death. The best way would be to have a local Realtor run some comparables for your neighborhood. But even a printout from Zillow would suffice. As you know, a surviving spouse receives a step-up in basis as of the date of death so it’s important to know what the house was worth at that time for when the house is sold down the road. I see many clients at our CPA firm who have to try to figure out many years later what their house was worth when their spouse died.

Answer: Thank you for the excellent suggestion.

In fact, many things were left off last week’s list of things to do when a spouse dies, which is why I directed people to their attorney or accountant for a detailed checklist. I also recommended people consult a fee-only financial planner, since there probably will be decisions that require expert help.

Q&A: Tax consequences of giving versus bequeathing

Dear Liz: Someone who expects to be an executor recently wrote to you about a plan to distribute individual pieces of art to family members. Your response addressed the executor’s responsibility to determine the art’s worth before doing so. You also suggested having the parent designate what was to go to whom. What would the consequences be of the parent giving the pieces of art to the intended recipient prior to death? My mother did both; i.e., gave some to me and some to my sister prior to her death, and designated others to be distributed following her death. She had personal rather than financial reasons for doing it this way.

Answer: Let’s say your mom bought a painting from a struggling artist for $500. Later, the artist became famous and the painting’s value rose to $500,000. If she gave you the painting and you sold it, you would have to use the amount she paid — her basis — to determine the taxable profit ($499,500).

If she bequeathed the painting to you instead, the artwork would get a new tax basis which is usually its value on the day she died. You could sell the painting for $500,000 and not owe a dime in taxes.

Few people have artworks that experience that kind of appreciation — or any appreciation, for that matter. The issue of basis most often comes up when people are transferring real estate, stocks or other assets in transactions that are reported to the IRS. If your mom did have valuable works, though, transferring them through bequests could be advisable.

Q&A: To sell or not to sell that collection

Dear Liz: You’ve twice advised collectors to sell their collections while they’re still alive, rather than leave the task to an executor who won’t have the collector’s intimate knowledge of the market for these items. Collectibles bring joy to the collector and are probably most valued the closer the end approaches. It would bring sadness rather than joy to unload them right at that point in life. Right now, I’m trying to declutter my house and even the stuff that has been moldering in boxes for decades hurts a little to let go of. I’m named as the executor in a buddy’s trust and will need to move his tools. Even if his old arthritic hands can’t operate the lathe anymore, he looks at the machine and I can see the memory of turning a bowl in the expression he wears. I say, accept the responsibility of an executor fully.

Answer: If you haven’t served as an executor, you may not fully understand how daunting and time consuming the task can be even without having to deal with a large collection.

No one is suggesting that people divest themselves entirely of a prized collection. But letting go of stuff can be immensely freeing, as well as a real gift to the people we leave behind.

If you need motivation to continue your decluttering, consider reading Margareta Magnusson’s book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant.”

Q&A: Retitling a deed after marriage

Dear Liz: Our house was titled “joint tenant with right of survivorship” after my husband inherited the property in 1998. As a same-sex couple, we were not married at the time. However, we legally married in 2013. Will one of us get the step-up in tax basis when the other passes, or do we have to retitle the house some way? We also want to avoid probate. We live in California.

Answer: As you know, California is one of the community property states that allows both halves of a property to get a step-up in tax basis when one spouse dies. This double step-up can be a huge tax saver, since none of the appreciation that happened before the death is taxed. Other community property states include Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. In Alaska, spouses can sign an agreement to make specific assets community property.

In contrast, in common law states, only half of the property gets the step-up to a new tax basis when one spouse dies. The other half retains its original tax basis.

Although assets acquired during a marriage are generally considered community property regardless of how they’re titled, in your case the property was acquired before marriage. The current title of joint tenants with right of survivorship would avoid probate, but it will not achieve full step-up in basis when the first spouse dies, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm Wolters Kluwer.

Q&A: Your prized collection isn’t going to sell itself

Dear Liz: I am in the process of winding down my duties as executor of the estate of a 91-year-old gentleman who, like the reader who wrote to you, had a prized collection. I had repeatedly urged him to dispose of his prized things. I reasoned that because he was retired and had the time, and because he knew the story behind his prized items, he was in a far better position to find a buyer than I would ever be. (Knowing the provenance of the item is important because people purchase the story, not just the item itself.) He did dispose of some of the more valuable things and actually got some good cash, which he was able to enjoy. But he didn’t follow my advice completely, which meant that when he died, I had to deal with his remaining prized collectibles.

My suggestion to any older person who has collectibles is: Don’t wait to dispose of items that have market value. If you’re retired and have the time, sell the items yourself! If you don’t need the cash, deposit the money into the bank account that will pass to your heirs in due course. Don’t burden your executor — who is probably still working full time and who has bigger things to deal with, like your house, car and investment accounts — with disposing of your collectibles.

Answer: Obviously, parting with collectibles can be tough. The alternative, though, could be that precious items wind up in a yard sale or a dumpster. Collectors who sell get the satisfaction of knowing that the items are going to people who really want them.

Q&A: Death doesn’t take a holiday

Dear Liz: In a recent response, you wrote, “Your living trust should name a successor trustee who can take over managing your affairs if you should become incapacitated or die.” This sort of writing is not uncommon but it implies some people won’t die. It would have been better to write “… take over managing your affairs when you die or if you should become incapacitated.” This is important, since it is noteworthy how many people are unwilling to face the facts when it comes to being prepared and finances: None of us are going to get out of this alive.

Answer: Good point!

Q&A: Why it makes sense to play the Social Security waiting game

Dear Liz: I’m concerned that you don’t make it clear that in order for a Social Security benefit to grow, a person needs to keep working and earning the same income that they’ve been making. I’ve retired recently and am lucky enough to have a pension to live on. I talked to someone at the Social Security office recently. She recommended that I go ahead and start drawing my benefits now because there will be minimal growth for the next seven years if I’m not working. She says lots of people think that they should wait, no matter what. However, she says it doesn’t make sense if you’re not working. Even my personal financial advisor was recommending that I wait, but the person at the Social Security office convinced me otherwise. When you go on Social Security’s website to check your benefits, all the estimates are based on continued employment at your current salary. There’s no way to check and see what your estimates are if you are working less or not at all. I think it’s important to give the whole story.

Answer: Yes, it is, and you didn’t get the whole story — or even correct information — from the Social Security employee who convinced you to ignore your financial advisor.

Benefits grow by 5% to 7% each year you delay starting between age 62 and your full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67, depending on the year you were born. After your full retirement age, your benefit grows by 8% each year you delay until age 70, when it maxes out. That guaranteed growth happens regardless of whether you continue working or not.

You are correct that Social Security’s estimates of the dollar amount you’ll receive assume you will continue working until you apply, so it’s possible that your benefit will be somewhat lower when the agency actually calculates your first check. But that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from the delay — you just won’t benefit quite as much as they’re estimating.

If you want to get a better idea of what your benefit will look like without additional earnings, you can use an online tool like Social Security Solutions or MaximizeMySocialSecurity.

Your financial advisor probably has access to similar tools, as well as a wealth of research about the best claiming strategies that make it clear most people are better off delaying. Plus, your advisor knows the details of your personal financial situation.

The woman at the Social Security office did not. Even if she had her facts straight, she should not have been giving you advice about maximizing your benefits.

You may still have time to rectify this mistake. You can withdraw your application within 12 months and pay back the money you received to reset the clock on your benefits. If it’s been longer than 12 months, you can suspend your benefit once you reach your full retirement age and at least get the 8% delayed retirement credits for a few years.

Q&A: Missing refund update

Dear Liz: Thank you for including my previous email about a missing tax refund in your recent column. Just to update you, on Aug. 20 I checked the IRS “refund status” website and lo and behold, it showed they had received my mother’s paper return, processed it, and even approved the refund (with $3.59 interest no less)! The check is to be mailed on Aug. 27. So for those concerned about the delays: The IRS will indeed get to them eventually and, as you’ve previously advised, there is no need to call them and check. Their backlog is massive, so let’s keep them working on that.

Answer: Thanks for the update!

Q&A: IRA conversions and taxes

Dear Liz: You recently advised a reader that if their income was too high to contribute to a Roth IRA, they could still contribute to an IRA or any after-tax options in their 401(k). You didn’t mention a two-step Roth IRA — first making a nondeductible contribution to an IRA and then immediately converting that amount to a Roth. That way those people whose income is too high to contribute to a direct Roth IRA can still have a Roth IRA using the two-step process.

Answer: This is known as a backdoor Roth contribution, which takes advantage of the fact that the income limits that apply to Roth contributions don’t apply to Roth conversions. Conversions, however, typically incur tax bills and don’t make sense for everyone. If you have a substantial amount of pretax money in IRAs, the tax bill can be considerable. (The tax bill is figured using all your IRAs, by the way. You can’t get around it just by contributing to a separate IRA that you then convert.)

Incurring that tax bill could make sense if you expect to be in the same tax bracket in retirement, or in a higher one. If you’re young and a good saver, it’s a good bet that will be the case. Roth conversions also can be advisable later in life if your tax bracket could jump when you reach age 72 and have to start taking required minimum distributions from your retirement accounts.

If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement, however, you probably should forgo Roth conversions because you’ll pay more now in taxes than you would later.

Of course, if you have little or no pretax money in your IRA, then backdoor conversions get a lot more attractive because the tax bill would be minimal. Otherwise, you should seek out a Roth conversion calculator to get a better idea of whether a conversion might be the right choice.

Q&A: The ups and downs of reverse mortgages

Dear Liz: I have been a reverse mortgage specialist for the last 12 years and had some thoughts about the writer who complained that the $40,000 she initially borrowed had grown to a debt of $189,000, or more than her home was worth.

Using a compound interest calculator, it would take about 16.5 years for the debt to grow that large. The borrower would have lived in their home for all that time without making payments toward the debt, although they were still responsible for taxes, insurance and maintaining the property. They can stay in the home for as long as it’s their principal residence. Once they leave the home, the lender will sell the home and receive the difference between the sales price and the loan balance from the government insurance program that everyone with a reverse mortgage pays into. Otherwise, no lender would take out this loan for a potentially long term and risk losing money in the end. Maybe it was a good deal.

Answer: Possibly, but she regretted the decision anyway. She took out a reverse mortgage at a time of financial hardship and now wishes she hadn’t.

Advertisement

People facing financial crises often develop tunnel vision and grab at solutions without thinking through the future costs of their decisions. (The excellent book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explains the science of why that happens.)

Advertising for these loans can gloss over the downsides, such as potentially not being able to tap your equity later, when you may need it more. Reverse mortgages can be a good solution for some seniors but certainly not all of them.