Q&A: The value of waiting

Dear Liz: This is a follow-up question to one you recently answered about tapping 401(k)s in order to delay the start of Social Security. I am 63 and retired early with a good pension that fully covers my basic living expenses. Any additional money would only be “gravy” for vacations and travel. Would I be taxed the same if I start taking Social Security now vs. waiting? I could easily tap my 401(k) to put off applying for Social Security.

Answer: When it comes to Social Security, if you can wait, you probably should.

Many middle-income people who have retirement funds will pay higher taxes if they start their benefits early, according to researchers who studied the “tax torpedo,” which is a sharp increase and then decline in marginal tax rates caused by the way Social Security benefits are taxed. The researchers found that many could lessen its effects by delaying the start of Social Security and tapping retirement funds instead.

If you’re married and the primary earner, it’s especially important to delay as long as possible because your benefit determines the survivor benefit that one of you will receive after the other dies.

Q&A: Culture and parental advice

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from a parent who wanted to know how to fix a financial issue in an adult child’s marriage. Your advice was basically to butt out. I think that may depend on culture. What if your advice saved your child’s marriage? What if it prevented your child from going into bankruptcy? Would it be worth the uncomfortable conversation? In some cultures, the approach is to butt in and confront the issue; if it causes problems, well then you deal with that also.

Answer: There may well be a culture in which the interference of in-laws is gladly received, rather than merely tolerated. There may even be people who enjoy being the target of unsolicited advice. It’s hard for some of us to imagine, but it’s certainly possible.

It’s probably safer to assume that your counsel is unwelcome and annoying unless it’s been specifically requested — and often even then.

Q&A: Different approaches to marital finances

Dear Liz: Thank you for mentioning that many couples like to keep their finances entirely or mostly separate. Our solution was to create a joint bank account just for paying joint expenses, such as rent, food, entertainment together, vacations and so on. We each funded this account proportionately, based on our income (for example, the person earning 65% of the total income contributed 65% of the funds). Expenses, such as gifts to our separate children, entertainment on our own, car payments and all personal expenses were paid out of our own separate accounts. Each year at tax time, we’d revise the proportion of the joint account, if necessary, based on our separate tax return figures. It was so simple and tension-free. This was a second marriage for both of us, and we never had disagreements about money.

Answer: Congratulations for finding an approach that worked so well for both of you. As you demonstrate, there’s no one right way for couples to handle their money. Some prefer to have everything in joint accounts, others keep everything separate, and most are somewhere in between.

Q&A: An emergency kit document hack

Dear Liz: Thanks for answering my question about storing hard copies of financial services records for emergency preparedness. My wife and I finally reached a compromise: We printed out our account numbers, but we attached code names to them that only we would recognize. Now both of us are comfortable that even though someone might have our account numbers, they’ll never know which financial institution to contact.

Answer: That’s a terrific compromise that keeps your important financial information accessible to you but not to an identity thief.

Q&A: Required distributions and charity

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you mentioned that after age 70½, one can donate up to $100,000 to a charity directly from an IRA. Can one still take that as a charitable donation on income tax forms? If I have a required minimum distribution of $10,000, but make a $10,000 donation to a charity, does that take care of the required minimum distribution for that year?

Answer: The $10,000 charitable contribution would count as your required minimum distribution for the year and the money would not be included in your income, but you can’t also deduct the contribution. That would be double dipping.

As a refresher: Money doesn’t get to stay in retirement accounts forever. At some point, withdrawals must begin and those withdrawals are typically taxed as income. Congress recently changed the rules so that required minimum distributions now start at age 72 (they used to start at age 70½). But so-called qualified charitable distributions — donations made directly from a retirement account to charity — can still begin at 70½.

Before you make a qualified charitable distribution or any other withdrawal from a retirement account, consult with a tax pro to make sure you understand the rules that apply to your situation. Penalties for mistakes can be high, so it pays to get expert help.

Q&A: A tricky Social Security plan

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you described the difference between withdrawal and suspension of Social Security benefits. I am 64 and want to take Social Security for two months to get out from under a few one-time bills. I’ll then withdraw my application and pay back the money. Do I understand that I’d have 12 months to pay back the funds? Is this something that can be done every 12 months? I see it as an interest-free short-term loan. Of course this only works if the money is paid back.

Answer: The answer to both your questions is no. You’re allowed to withdraw an application only once, and it must be in the 12 months after you start benefits. Once you submit your withdrawal request, you have 60 days to change your mind. If you decide to proceed, you must pay back all the money you’ve received from the Social Security Administration, including any other benefits based on your work record such as spousal or child benefits, plus any money that was withheld to pay Medicare premiums or taxes. In other words, you have a two-month window to pay back the funds, not 12 months.

If you can’t come up with the cash, you’d be stuck with a permanently reduced benefit. You could later opt to suspend your benefit once you’ve reached your full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67. (If you were born in 1956, it’s 66 years and four months.) At that point, your reduced benefit could earn delayed retirement credits that could increase your checks by 8% for each year until the amount maxes out at age 70.

There are a few situations in which starting early and then suspending can make sound financial sense, but a short-term cash need is not typically one of them.

Q&A: Avoiding Medicare sign-up penalties

Dear Liz: Someone recently asked you if signing up for Medicare is mandatory. Your answer implied no, one does not have to sign up at 65. However, it is my understanding that if a person does not enroll when first eligible, they will be hit with large penalties on their Medicare premiums if they sign up later. Am I missing something?

Answer: Not at all. That answer was too short and should have mentioned the potentially large, permanent penalties most people face if they fail to sign up for Medicare Part B and Part D on time.

To review: Medicare is the government-run healthcare system for people 65 and older. Part A, which covers hospital care, is free. Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, and Part D, which covers prescriptions, typically require people to pay premiums. Many people also buy Medigap policies to cover what Medicare doesn’t, or opt for Medicare Part C. Part C, also known as Medicare Advantage, is an all-in-one option that includes everything covered by Part A and Part B and may include other benefits.

There’s a seven-month initial enrollment period that includes the month you turn 65 as well as the three months before and three months after.

People who don’t sign up when they’re first eligible for Part B usually face a penalty that increases their monthly cost by 10% of the standard premium for each full 12-month period they delay. For Part D, the penalty is 1% of the “national base beneficiary premium” ($33.19 in 2019) times the number of full months the person was uncovered.

People who fail to enroll on time also could be stuck without insurance for several months because they may have to wait until the general enrollment period (Jan. 1 to March 31) to enroll.

People typically can avoid these penalties if they have qualifying healthcare coverage through a union or an employer (their own or a spouse’s). When that coverage ends, though, they must sign up within eight months or face the penalties. Also, they might not avoid the penalties if their employer-provided coverage becomes secondary to Medicare at 65, which can happen if the company employs fewer than 20 workers. Anyone counting on union or employer coverage to avoid penalties should check with the company’s human resources department and with Medicare to make sure they’re covered.

The original letter writer had no income to pay Medicare premiums, so the answer also should have included the information that Medicaid — the government healthcare program for the poor — might help pay the premiums. People in this situation should contact the Medicaid office in their state. (Medicaid is known as Medi-Cal in California.)

Q&A: Figuring homes’ adjusted basis

Dear Liz: In your response to a question about the adjusted basis of a residence after the death of a spouse, you state that the surviving spouse may add to the adjusted basis “any commissions or fees paid to purchase the property and the cost of improvements.” Your example adds $150,000 in “improvements over the years” to the $850,000 value of the home at the time of the spouse’s death in 1992. Wouldn’t those improvements (and other costs) have to be made after the date of the spouse’s death, since otherwise they would already be included in determining the value of the home at the date of death?

Answer: Good point. If the surviving spouse lives in a community property state, only improvements that happened after the date of the first spouse’s death would increase the basis, because both halves of the property get a step up to the current fair market value when one spouse dies. In other states, only the deceased spouse’s half of the property would get the step up. The surviving spouse can add his or her half of the improvements made before the death, and anything done after the death, to the tax basis to determine home sale profits.

Q&A: Many factors go into rental choice

Dear Liz: You recently answered a reader who didn’t want to keep and rent out the home she inherited with her brother. You mentioned that if he refused to buy her out, she could go to court to force a sale.

Another option is to hire a property management company to provide a buffer between the siblings but also between them and the tenants. The house will provide a healthy income to both bro and sis.

Answer: Actually, we don’t know that. While Mom-and-Pop landlords can make a tidy profit with single-family homes in some areas, just breaking even is hard in others. In many high-cost areas of the country, rents aren’t enough to cover the considerable costs of ownership, especially if the property still has a mortgage.

Even if it’s paid off, the house could need extensive repairs or be damaged by future tenants. Vacancy rates could be high in that area, and the property management company would still need to get paid. The siblings also will need additional liability insurance to protect against being sued.

The sister could get a much better return from investments that require a lot less from her. Mutual funds don’t call to tell you the roof is leaking or the furnace needs replacement.

The home could turn out to be immensely profitable and still be a bad investment for a sister who’s an unwilling business partner and who resents the brother who refused to buy her out when he had the opportunity.

Q&A: The value of a special needs trust

Dear Liz: You recently answered an inquiry from a lady who was furious about the lack of estate planning provided by her brother-in-law for his disabled daughter. As the father of a special needs child, I read the synopsis hoping that a special needs trust was created and maybe was just not known by the sister-in-law. This would explain why the father had, in essence, disowned his own daughter. I hope you will make an addendum to your answer highlighting this very important tool for others like us to ensure our loved ones are cared for after our passing.

Answer: A special needs trust is an estate planning tool that can help disabled people continue to qualify for government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. The money can’t be given directly to the disabled person but can be spent on her behalf in a variety of ways such as paying out-of-pocket medical expenses or providing vacations. Anyone thinking of leaving a bequest to a disabled person should be aware that the money could disqualify the recipient from essential resources and consider a special needs trust instead.

If the attorneys were aware of the father’s disabled daughter, as the writer suggested, they most likely would have mentioned the possibility of creating such a trust. The sister-in-law said everything had been left to the surviving spouse, so presumably she had seen a copy of the will or trust. If not, she could ask the attorneys for the document on behalf of the daughter.

Remember, though, that the 29-year-old daughter hadn’t been signed up for disability or medical benefits until the sister-in-law intervened. The young woman had not seen a doctor since her mother died more than a decade earlier. She also was kicked out of her childhood home by the man’s surviving spouse. This does not paint a picture of a caring father who wanted to provide for his daughter.