Q&A: Inheriting an IRA can get messy

Dear Liz: My brother passed away at age 47. My mother was named beneficiary of his retirement account. We opened an inherited IRA under her name. Sadly, my mother recently passed away, and my father is the beneficiary of the account. Does my father open a regular IRA or inherited IRA? How would the title on the account be listed with my mother and brother deceased? Are they both listed?

Answer: Inheriting an inherited IRA complicates an already complex set of rules.

The regulations are different depending on whether the person inheriting is a spouse. Spouses can treat the inherited account as their own. They can leave the money where it is, make new contributions or transfer the funds to another retirement account they own. They also have more flexibility in how to take required minimum distributions from the account.

Non-spouse beneficiaries, like your mother, don’t have the option of treating the IRA as their own. They must set up a new inherited IRA and start distributions. Until this year, non-spouse beneficiaries could take distributions over their lifetimes. Now non-spouse beneficiaries are required to drain their inherited IRAs within 10 years.

How the account is titled is important, because improper titling can cause it to lose tax deferral and accelerate the tax bill. Let’s say your brother’s name was Tom Johnson and he died in March 2019, leaving his IRA to your mother, Mabel Johnson. A correct title for the new inherited IRA would be “Tom Johnson (deceased March 2019) Inherited IRA for the benefit of Mabel Johnson.”

Your family’s situation creates a hybrid of the two situations. Your dad would have an inherited spousal IRA, but his mandatory withdrawals would be based on your mother’s required minimum distributions, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

Your dad should open a new inherited IRA, Luscombe says. Assuming his name is Bill Johnson, the title of the inherited IRA should be “Tom Johnson (deceased March 2019) Inherited IRA for the benefit of Bill Johnson, successor beneficiary of Mabel Johnson.”

Q&A: Car repo is a nonstarter

Dear Liz: I had to move to assisted living due to a stroke. I no longer need my car — or the car payment. Can I simply stop paying and let it be repossessed? There are about 18 months to go before it’s paid off. I don’t need great credit anymore and our current expenses exceed our income.

Answer: If you’re that close to paying off the loan, then you probably have a good chunk of equity. It would be a shame to lose any of that value to the costs of repossession.

Typically repossessed cars are sold at auction, often for less than their resale value. The proceeds, minus the expenses of repossessing and preparing the car, are applied to your loan. You’d only get what’s left over. (If what’s left over is less than what you owe, the amount is added to your debt.)

This bad financial outcome is on top of the damage done to your credit, which can be substantial. Even if you think it unlikely you’ll need credit again, you don’t know for sure that you won’t.

If you have the option of selling the car to a private party or dealer — or asking a trusted friend or relative to help you do so — that’s usually a much better way to go than letting the vehicle be repossessed.

Q&A: Those IRS coronavirus-extended deadlines apply to more than just taxes

Dear Liz: Now that we’re not required to file our taxes until July 15 this year, has anything been said about pushing back the 2019 contribution deadline for IRAs and Roth IRAs?

Answer: The IRS recently confirmed that the deadline for making contributions to IRAs has also been extended to July 15. The deadlines were pushed back from April 15 because of stay-at-home orders and other disruptions stemming from the coronavirus outbreak.

You can contribute up to $6,000 to IRAs for 2019 if you’re under 50, or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older. The limits are the same for 2020.

You didn’t ask, but the deadline for contributing to a health savings account also has been extended.

HSAs allow people with qualifying high-deductible health insurance plans to put away money that can be used tax-free for eligible medical expenses. The maximum amount individuals can contribute to an HSA is $3,500 for individual coverage and $7,000 for family coverage. The “catch up” provision for people 55 and older allows an additional $1,000 contribution.

Q&A: Reducing taxes in retirement

Dear Liz: I agree with this concept of delaying Social Security to lessen overall taxes and have a further suggestion. My spouse and I are gradually converting our traditional IRA account funds to Roth IRAs. The converted funds are immediately taxable but could continue to gain in value and future distributions would not be taxable. Also, Roth accounts don’t have required minimum distributions.

Answer: Conversions make the most sense when you expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement.

That’s not the case for most people because they’re in a lower tax bracket when they stop working. Some older people, however, do face higher tax rates in retirement — typically because they’ve been good savers, and required minimum distributions from their retirement accounts will push their tax rates higher.

When that’s the case, they may be able to take advantage of their current lower tax rate to do a series of Roth conversions.

The math can be tricky, though, so it’s advisable to get help from a tax pro or financial planner. You don’t want to convert too much and push yourself into a higher tax bracket, or trigger higher Medicare premiums.

If your intention is to leave retirement money to your heirs, Roth conversions may also make sense now that Congress has eliminated the stretch IRA.

Stretch IRAs used to allow non-spouse beneficiaries — often children and grandchildren — to take money out of an inherited IRA gradually over their lifetimes. This spread out the tax bill and allowed the funds to continue growing. Now inherited IRAs typically have to be drained within 10 years if the inheritor is not a spouse.

To compensate, some people are converting IRAs to Roths — essentially paying the tax bill now, so their heirs won’t have to do so later. Heirs would still have to withdraw all the money in an inherited Roth IRA within 10 years, but taxes would not be owed.

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: Now is a good time to get a financial tuneup. Here’s how

Dear Liz: I’m hoping you could provide recommendations, referrals or tips on how to help me manage my money. I’m seeking a financial planner who can help me pay my bills on time, learn to budget and pay off credit card debt.

Answer: When you’re struggling with the basics, a financial fitness coach or an accredited financial counselor may be a better fit than a financial planner.

Financial coaches and counselors specialize in budgeting, debt management, retirement planning and creating better money habits in general. Coaches and counselors in private practice typically charge $100 to $150 an hour, although many work on a sliding scale, said Rebecca Wiggins, executive director of the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education, which grants both credentials.

These accredited financial professionals also are employed by the military, credit unions and other organizations to provide services for free or low cost. You can start your search at https://www.afcpe.org/.

Q&A: Which to tap first: IRA or Social Security?

Dear Liz: I retired in 2015 but have not started Social Security. My wife and I are living on a pension and savings. I read an article saying that taking early IRA withdrawals and holding off on Social Security can help minimize the so-called tax torpedo, which is a sharp rise and fall in marginal tax rates due to the way Social Security benefits are taxed.

I made a spreadsheet to compare the cumulative income we could expect by starting IRA withdrawals now and delaying Social Security until age 70, versus starting Social Security now and delaying the IRA withdrawals. The spreadsheets indicate that by taking early IRA distributions and delaying Social Security, we would get a significant increase in total cumulative income as the years go by.

We feel we need a professional to verify our results and perhaps advise us as to which might be our best route, as well as getting an assessment of our income tax implications for the next five years or so. My wife thinks we should ask a Certified Public Accountant and is concerned about the price of a fee-only advisor.

Answer: Your findings are similar to what researchers reported in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning. The tax torpedo increases marginal tax rates for many middle-income households. One solution is to delay Social Security until age 70 and tap IRAs instead. That maximizes the Social Security benefit while reducing future required minimum distributions.

It’s always a good idea to get an objective second opinion on retirement distributions, however. Mistakes can be costly and irreversible. A fee-only certified financial planner should have access to powerful software that can model various scenarios to help confirm your results and guide your next steps.

Q&A: This innocent oversight can torpedo your credit scores

Dear Liz: My wife just had a credit card closed due to late payments, and we need some advice. It was a mileage card that she stopped using, but in November she made a charge for $120. She forgot about the charge, and in December they added the annual $60 fee. We weren’t monitoring the card, as it wasn’t being used, so we missed paying the two charges for three months. They closed the account and refused to reopen it even after we paid the balance.

This was an account my wife had for 17 years, always making payments on time, with a $26,000 credit line. Is there a way to get the company to reopen the account? Would you suggest writing a goodwill letter asking the bank to remove the account from our credit record? This was a stupid oversight on our part, and now I fear it’s going to kill our credit score!

Answer: Let’s take the good news, bad news approach.

The good news is that there is no such thing as a joint credit score. If this account was in your wife’s name alone, then only her credit scores have been affected. If you were an authorized user on the card, then the late payments may be affecting your scores as well, but you have some recourse. You can call the issuer and ask to be removed as an authorized user from the closed account, or you can dispute the account with the credit bureaus and (hopefully) get it removed that way.

Now, the bad news. If your wife’s credit scores used to be high, they aren’t anymore. That first skipped payment probably knocked 100 points or more from her scores. The next two skipped payments just exacerbated the damage. The account’s closure didn’t help matters, but most of the damage happened when she missed the first payment.

She can try writing a letter asking the issuer for mercy, but she shouldn’t get her hopes up. The issuer no longer wants her business and has little incentive to accommodate her.

Fortunately, credit score damage isn’t permanent, but it may be a few years before her scores are back to where they were.

This is a good reminder to consider putting all credit accounts on automatic payment, so at least the minimum payments are made each month. It’s also smart to monitor at least one of your credit scores and get alerts if there’s a sudden drop. Many banks and credit cards offer free scores, as do financial websites.

Q&A: How IRS Free File works

Dear Liz: I wanted to alert you to the fact that online tax preparation companies are up to their old tricks again this year despite being called out last year for deceptively hiding their free tax filing from eligible filers. My son, who qualifies for free filing, was redirected to the paid “deluxe” version when it turned out he qualifies for a “Savers Tax Credit.” He makes modest tax-deferred contributions through an employer that matched contributions. (He’s a low-income student who works in retail.) He logged out of that website and instead successfully used a competitor provider for free.

Answer: The way to access the IRS’ Free File program is through the IRS website, which directs people to the private tax preparation companies that have agreed to offer this service. Unfortunately, many of those same companies spend a lot of money trying to obscure that fact that most Americans can file for free.

Independent news organization ProPublica reported last year that tax preparation companies were hiding their free file options from online search engines and steering people instead into paid tax preparation. A government report in February confirmed that more than 14 million taxpayers paid for tax preparation last year that they could have received free.

The companies have since been banned from hiding the free option and are supposed to include a link that returns people to the IRS Free File site if they don’t qualify for the company’s free offer. But ProPublica found that they continue to steer people away from free filing in various ways, including advertising that misuses the word “free.”

Also, many people like your son discover only late in the tax preparation process — often after they’ve added most of their information — that they don’t qualify for that company’s free option, although they would qualify elsewhere.

Here’s what people need to know about free filing:

People with adjusted gross incomes under $69,000 a year can qualify for free filing, but they should start their search at the IRS Free File webpage.

People in the military and their families can use MilTax, provided by the Department of Defense.

They can also get advice from a tax professional at (800) 342-9647.

In addition, people may qualify for the IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance if they make less than $56,000, live with a disability or speak limited English. Use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance locator tool or call (800) 906-9887.

People who don’t qualify for the above services can still use free fillable forms. In addition, some tax preparation companies may have free options for people filing basic forms. The types of income and credits that allow someone to file for free should be prominently displayed on the company’s free file page.

Q&A: Worried about stocks? Why you shouldn’t try to time the market

Dear Liz: I’m a federal employee with a Thrift Savings Plan account. I’m 35 and have put about $125,000 into my TSP. However, I never changed it from the low-risk G fund so it’s not gaining as much interest as it should. Should I wait for the market to tank before moving it around or is it OK to move it now due to my age and amount of time I have before retirement? I’m worried I’ll move it and I’ll lose the value in a downturn, so maybe I should wait for a downturn to act.

Answer: You sent this question a few weeks ago, before the recent correction. Did you use the downturn as an excuse to hop into the market? Or did you stay on the sidelines, worried it might drop further?

Many people in your situation get cold feet. You’re better off in the long run just diving in and not trying to time the market.

Waiting for a downturn sounds good in theory, but in reality there’s no sure way to call the bottom of any stock market decline. And when the stock market recovers, it tends to do so in a hurry. If you delay too long, you risk missing much of the upside.

It won’t feel good if the market plunges a day, a week or a year after you invest your money, but remember that you’re investing for the long term. The day-to-day or even year-to-year gyrations of the stock market don’t matter. What matters is the trend over the next 30 years — and long term, stocks outperform every other asset class.