Q&A: Avoid this hidden risk to your retirement

Dear Liz: I have very low net worth and just inherited $500,000 from a cousin’s annuity. My net worth includes a $400,000 house with a $290,000 mortgage at 3.75%, IRA accounts of $65,000 and savings of $90,000. I also have a pension from which I receive $50,000 annually and from which our health insurance is paid. My husband is 72 and receives $6,000 annually from Social Security. I will turn 70 in a few months and will begin taking Social Security and tapping my IRAs. I have very little debt. What is the safest thing to do with this inheritance?

Answer: That depends on how you define “safe.”

Investments that don’t put your principal at risk typically offer returns that don’t beat inflation over time. That means your buying power is eroded. At 70, you may not think you need to worry much about inflation. But your life expectancy as a woman in the U.S. is 16.57 more years. About one-third of women your age will make it to age 90.

That doesn’t mean you have to take investment risk with this money by buying stocks, which are the one asset class that consistently outpaces inflation. But you’d be smart to have a fee-only financial planner take a look at your situation to make sure you’re investing appropriately, based on your goals.

And it’s your goal for this money that will help determine how to invest it. If you want the money to be readily available and safe from investment risk, then you could put it in an FDIC-insured, high-yield savings account paying 2% or so. Just make sure you don’t exceed FDIC limits, which typically cap insurance coverage at $250,000 per depositor, per bank. (You can stretch that coverage if you put the money in different “ownership categories,” such as individual, joint, retirement and trust accounts.) If you don’t expect to need the money for many years, investing at least some of it in bonds or stocks may be appropriate.

Also, a small reality check: Your net worth before the inheritance was $265,000, based on the figures you provided. That’s more than most people in your age bracket. Households headed by people ages 65 to 74 had a median net worth of about $224,000 in 2016, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances. That’s not to say you’re rich, but you do have more than most of your peers — especially now.

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: Redirecting a 529 college savings plan

Dear Liz: Years ago when my children were young, we established 529 college savings plans for them. Unfortunately, both children ended up in the wrong crowds and never entered college. We still have the funds. What are our options? We do have a grandson now; would it be possible to change the beneficiary?

Answer: Yes. You can change a 529 plan’s beneficiary without triggering a tax bill as long as the new beneficiary is a “qualifying family member.” By the IRS’ definition, that includes the original beneficiary’s child or other descendant. (Qualifying family members also include spouses and siblings, parents, in-laws, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and cousins.)

Q&A: Signing up for Medicare

Dear Liz: Is it mandatory to sign up for Medicare at age 65, and how is it paid for? I’m 64, don’t have any assets and I’m not working (I’m living with a friend for free). I’d like to wait until 70 to collect Social Security. Is that possible? Someone just told me that I have to sign up for Medicare, and to pay for it, I have to sign up for Social Security. Is that true?

Answer: No.

You’re not required to get Medicare at 65. You should, however, at least sign up for Medicare Part A. Part A is the portion of Medicare that’s free and covers hospital visits. You sign up for Medicare through Social Security, either online or in a Social Security office, but you don’t have to start your Social Security benefit to do so.

The other parts of Medicare — Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, and Part D, which covers prescription drugs — require paying premiums, but you can pay those without signing up for Social Security. Some people are confused about this, because most people who get Medicare have those premiums deducted from their Social Security checks. But that’s not required.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I’m confused by Social Security benefits for divorced spouses, which you’ve written about recently. I was told that because I remarried (after age 60), I have to wait until my ex-husband died before receiving a part of his benefits. Is this still true for remarried ex-spouses? My ex does collect Social Security and I collect my small benefit (both of us started at full retirement age).

Answer: Yes. Divorced spousal benefits would be available only if you are currently unmarried. Survivor benefits, on the other hand, could still be available if you remarried at 60 or older.

Spousal and divorced spousal benefits can be up to 50% of the worker’s benefit, while survivor and divorced survivor benefits can be up to 100%.

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: Strategies for overcoming a spouse’s bad investment decisions

Dear Liz: I tell people we lost a huge chunk of money in the Great Recession, but it wasn’t the downturn that did us in. My husband made some incredibly poor choices. I’m embarrassed to admit that he absolutely refused to listen to me and stop the financial self-destruction until I grew a backbone. I told him I’d divorce him unless he stopped. He has mended his ways and we’re still together (which is really for the best; we’ve been married almost 47 years).

He’s now being very transparent and prudent about investing, but we’re still looking at an underfunded retirement and I’d like to maximize what we have. We’re both 71 and still working (we’re self employed). Our home is worth about $800,000 and we owe $160,000. We have a rental nearby with about $100,000 in equity that pays for itself, but there’s no extra income from it. We have $210,000 in investments and $25,000 in savings with no debt.

I think more real estate would be a good investment vehicle for us, but we’d have to cash out some of our limited portfolio in order to purchase more. So instead, I make an extra principal payment equal to half the regular mortgage payment on each of the properties each month. I’m not sure if that’s the wisest thing to do, but I figure it’s still investing in real estate and will help us when we finally retire, sell and downsize.

Answer: Right now, the vast majority of your wealth is tied up in two properties in the same geographic area. A financial planner would want you to diversify, not double down by putting even more money into real estate.

And a fee-only financial planner is what you need to help you map out your future while easing the investment reins out of your husband’s hands. As we get older, we’re more vulnerable to fraud, exploitation and just plain bad choices. Your husband may have been scared straight for now, but he easily could make future decisions that could again imperil your finances. That’s especially true if his prior behavior was related to a gambling addiction. Not all problem gamblers choose casinos or horse tracks; some are day traders.

Given all that, you may want to consider purchasing a single premium immediate annuity when you retire. These annuities offer a guaranteed stream of income for life, in exchange for a lump sum. This would be income that can’t be lost to stock market downturns, real estate recessions, bad investments or fraud.

That’s something to discuss with your planner, along with ways you can use your businesses to maximize your retirement savings. (The self employed have many options, including a basic Simplified Employee Pension or SEP, solo 401(k) plans and traditional defined benefit pension plans.)

You can get referrals to fee-only planners at the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the XY Planning Network, the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners and the Garrett Planning Network.

Q&A: Why not to prepay a mortgage

Dear Liz: I want to save interest by making biweekly mortgage payments. My loan company said I couldn’t do that, but I wondered if there was a way by first paying the monthly mortgage and then making a half payment mid-month toward the next month’s due date, to get started. Then I’d make another half payment at the beginning of the following month. Ideally, this would all be arranged with autopay. I’m retired with a 4%, 30-year mortgage that has a $1,900 monthly payment and my retirement accounts are currently paying better returns.

Answer: You actually won’t save any interest until your mortgage is paid off, which could be 25 years from now if your mortgage is relatively recent. And getting a better return from your investments is a good reason not to accelerate your mortgage payments. You also shouldn’t prepay a mortgage if you have any other debt, lack a substantial emergency fund or are inadequately insured. (Those who are still working also should be maxing out their retirement contributions before making extra mortgage payments.)

With a biweekly payment plan, you’d pay half your monthly mortgage payment every two weeks. Instead of making 12 payments a year, you make the equivalent of 13 payments. Paying the extra amount helps you pay off the mortgage sooner. A bi-weekly payment plan would shave about four years off a $400,000 mortgage at 4%. The interest savings kick in once you’re mortgage-free. Then you’d save the $47,000 or so in interest you’d otherwise pay in the final years of the loan.

If you’re determined to do this, you should talk to your mortgage lender, because the arrangement you’re describing sounds a lot like the biweekly payments it won’t accept. You could hire a company that specializes in these arrangements, but the fees you pay for the service detract from your savings and aren’t really necessary. Instead, consider simply making an extra payment against the principal each month. Ask your lender how to set this up with autopay so that you’re actually paying principal. Otherwise, the extra amount might just be applied to the next month’s payment, defeating the purpose.

Q&A: Can this marriage’s finances be saved?

Dear Liz: I am 64 and my husband is 63. I retired five years ago after a 30-year professional career. My husband is an executive and plans to work until 70. We own two homes and one is a rental property. Both our boys are successfully launched. Currently, 67% of our retirement money is in stocks and stock index funds. The rest is cash and IRAs or 401(k)s. I am working on re-allocating that 67% to safer investments, but our two investment advisors don’t even agree on what that would look like. And my husband does not want to leave potential stock market gains. Help! I think it is time to switch to more conservative investments. What do you think?

Answer: Many financial planners would say you should only take as much risk as required to in order to reach your goals. Exactly what that looks like depends on how much you’ve saved, how much you spend and how much guaranteed income you expect to receive from Social Security, pensions and annuities, among other factors.

Most people need a hefty exposure to stocks in retirement to get the returns they’ll need to beat inflation, but whether that proportion is 30% or 60% depends on their individual circumstances. Your current allocation could be fine if your basic expenses are entirely covered by guaranteed sources (Social Security, pensions, annuities) and you want to leave a substantial legacy for your sons. Or you could be way overexposed to stocks and vulnerable to a downturn if you’ll need that money for living expenses soon.

Your IRAs and 401(k)s are not investments, by the way. They’re tax-deferred buckets to hold investments. How that money is allocated among stocks, bonds and cash matters as much as how your other investments are allocated and should be included when calculating how much of your portfolio should be in stocks.

If neither of your investment advisors is a certified financial planner, consider seeking one out to create a comprehensive financial plan for you and your husband. The plan should consider all aspects of your finances and give you a road map for investing and tapping your retirement savings. You can find fee-only financial advisors through the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the XY Planning Network, the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners and the Garrett Planning Network.

Q&A: Confusion over spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I am currently receiving a spousal benefit from Social Security that’s equal to 50% of my husband’s benefit. My husband and I applied when we were 66 years old in 2015. I do not think my own benefit will be higher than the spousal benefit I am currently receiving when I turn 70 later this year.

But I was told by an agent over the phone that I am still required to file for my own benefit at age 70, and she set me up with a phone appointment. Is this true?

If I do apply and my benefit comes out less than the spousal benefit I have been receiving, will that amount be adjusted so that I can still receive the full 50% of my husband’s benefit? Or will I end up with a smaller amount just for applying?

I can’t see why I should “rock the boat” if I might get benefits taken away. I was just curious when I called in to see if they could figure it over the phone for me to see if I would benefit from the change, but instead I had to set up the appointment.

Answer: You won’t end up with a smaller amount. You’ll either continue with your current benefit or get an increase.

If you didn’t file a restricted application four years ago, then you’re already receiving your own benefit, plus an additional amount so that your checks equal 50% of your husband’s. If that’s the case, there’s no reason to do anything further and your benefits will continue as they are now.

But the phone rep’s insistence that you needed the appointment could mean that you filed what’s known as a “restricted application for spousal benefits only.” That form allowed people born before Jan. 2, 1954, to receive only a spousal benefit while their own benefits continued to grow.

Retirement benefits can increase 8% each year they’re delayed after full retirement age (which for you was 66) and 70, when benefits max out. If your benefit has been growing and is now larger than your current benefit, you’ll get the increase, so it’s certainly worth checking.