Q&A: When credit scores take a pandemic dive, how to figure out what caused it

Dear Liz: My VantageScores as reported by TransUnion were in the 780 to 790 range until around February, when they all dropped 40 points for no discernible reason. My FICO 8 and 9 credit scores remained unchanged around 760 and still continue to increase. What would cause that?

Answer: VantageScores tend to react more than FICO scores when you apply for new credit, but 40 points is a pretty big drop. The other usual culprit when good scores fall is higher credit utilization, or using more of your available credit, but typically your FICO scores would have dropped as well.

Most credit monitoring services will offer you some kind of explanation for why your scores changed, so that would be the first place to look for clues. You also should check your credit reports, which are now available weekly from AnnualCreditReport.com.

Q&A: Learning an expensive car loan lesson

Dear Liz: My grandson bought a new car with a loan that has a 24% interest rate. He owes $17,000, and the car is now worth $5,000. What options does he have to get out of this situation?

Answer: The best solution would be to refinance, but that can happen only if your grandson has some equity in the car or is able to get a lower-rate, unsecured personal loan to pay off the car loan. Your grandson probably would need good credit and steady employment to get a personal loan, as lenders are scrutinizing applications more closely these days.

Otherwise, his best course is to “drive out of the loan,” or keep making payments until he owns the vehicle free and clear. He should be making extra principal payments, if possible, to speed up that day.

You can encourage him to hang on to this car as long as possible after it’s paid off so that he can save up the cash for his next car. If he can learn from this experience to pay cash for cars, or to have at least a 20% down payment, then the expensive lesson may have been worth it.

Q&A: Social Security isn’t going broke

Dear Liz: You have addressed Social Security in your column recently and detailed the benefits to waiting until age 70 to take payments. I read that Social Security funds are expected to run out around 2035. At that time I’ll be 76 and would only get six years of benefits versus 13 years if I start at age 62. Do you still think it is wise to wait on benefits as Social Security may go away?

Answer: Social Security isn’t going anywhere. What’s being depleted is its trust fund, which is used to supplement the taxes Social Security collects to pay benefits. This trust fund is scheduled to be out of money in 2031, according to a new Congressional Budget Office estimate that takes into account the effects of the pandemic. Even if the fund is depleted, however, the system will still collect enough in taxes to pay 76% of promised benefits.

So benefits won’t stop, and it’s highly unlikely Congress would allow benefits to be cut for retirees and near retirees. Social Security is a hugely popular program, and such cuts would be politically unpopular, to say the least, which is why most experts predict that lawmakers will fix the system before that happens.

If you allow yourself to be panicked into starting benefits early, on the other hand, you’re permanently reducing your benefit by 30%. If you’re married and are the higher earner, you’d also be locking in a lower survivor benefit. A lower Social Security benefit can have a huge effect on your standard of living in retirement, so make sure you understand the facts about the system before making a decision you may live to regret.

Q&A: Here’s why you shouldn’t put that huge hospital bill on a credit card

Dear Liz: Because of COVID, my 27-year-old son lost his job and health insurance. He was unable to afford continued health insurance and did not qualify for Medicaid. He contracted spinal meningitis and was hospitalized 12 days. The hospital reduced his bill to $28,000 from the original $80,000, but he is still unable to pay. He remains unemployed and without any savings. What would you suggest he do?

Answer: Your son should first call the hospital and ask about applying for financial assistance. Federal law requires nonprofit hospitals to offer this help to low-income patients, and many for-profit hospitals also offer programs that can reduce or even eliminate the charges.

He also should ask about a payment plan geared to what’s left of his income. He should resist any hospital pressure to put the bill on a credit card, because hospital payment plans typically don’t charge interest while credit cards do.

If he’s still left with a bill he can’t pay, he should consult a bankruptcy attorney, and do so as soon as possible. Bankruptcy experts are predicting a big uptick in filings as people and businesses struggle with fallout from the pandemic.

Q&A: Finding affordable financial planning

Dear Liz: I’ve read your advice and that of many others to only use a fee-only financial planner. However, we’ve never felt like we could afford that expense, and many of the planners I’ve found wouldn’t take accounts as small as ours anyway. We’re in our mid-40s and feel like we’ve wasted many years waiting to be “ready” for a fee-only planner. Is it really better to have zero financial planning advice, rather than just using a free planner?

Answer: A “free” planner is typically an advisor who is paid by commission. You may not pay for the advice directly, but you could wind up with underperforming, overpriced investments because the advisor is not required to put your best interests first.

You can find certified financial planners who charge by the hour at Garrett Planning Network, and the XY Planning Network represents planners willing to charge monthly retainers. Many discount brokerages and robo-advisors offer access to certified financial planners, as well. You might also consider an accredited financial counselor or financial fitness coach, which you can find through the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education. Whereas many certified financial planners cater to higher income people, coaches and counselors handle issues relevant to middle- and lower-income Americans, including budgeting, debt management and retirement planning.

Q&A: Death, taxes and home sales: How to handle the mixture

Dear Liz: My wife and I bought our house 61 years ago in Southern California. The wife passed away seven years ago, and I became the sole owner. If I should die owning the house, I know my daughter will inherit and her tax basis will be the value of the house on that date. But if I sell the house, I’m not sure what my basis will be. Do I pick up the 50% of what the house was worth on the day my wife died and add to that the 50% of the original purchase price that would be mine? Or is my basis the original price of the house?

Answer: In most states, only your wife’s half of the home would get a new value for tax purposes at her death. In community property states such as California, though, both her half and yours get this step up in tax basis.

Tax basis determines how much taxable profit there might be when property and other assets are sold. For those who aren’t sure how tax basis works, a simplified example might help.

Let’s say Raul and Ramona bought their home for $40,000 in 1959. In 2013, when Ramona died, the home was worth $800,000. Today, it’s worth $1 million.

At her death, Ramona’s half of the home got a new tax basis. Instead of $20,000 (half of the purchase price), her half of the home now has a tax basis of $400,000 (half of its $800,000 value at the time).

In most states, Raul would keep the $20,000 tax basis on his half, so his combined basis in the home would be $420,000. If he should sell the home for $1 million, the profit for tax purposes would be $580,000.

In California and other community property states, the entire house gets a step up in basis to $800,000 when Ramona dies. If Raul sells the house for $1 million, the profit (or capital gain, in tax parlance) would be $200,000.

Of course, there would be no tax owed on this home sale, since Raul can exempt up to $250,000 of home sale profits. Raul could use Ramona’s home sale exclusion, and avoid tax on up to $500,000 of home sale profit, if he sells the home within two years of her death.

If Raul keeps the home until his death, on the other hand, it will get a further step up in tax basis equal to whatever the home’s fair market value is at the time (let’s say $1.2 million). If the daughter sells it for that amount, no capital gain tax would be owed.

Q&A: Backdoor Roth IRA contributions

Dear Liz: You mentioned in a previous column that a backdoor Roth contribution could be expensive if you have a large pretax IRA. I was in that situation, and opted to first roll my IRA into my employer’s 401(k). I then made a nondeductible contribution to a new IRA and shortly afterward converted it to a Roth. This allowed me to get money into a Roth without a big tax bill.

Answer: That’s a great solution for those who have access to 401(k) plans that accept such transfers, and many do.

For those who don’t know, backdoor Roths are a two-step process for people whose incomes are too high to contribute directly to a Roth. Instead, they contribute to a regular IRA and then convert that money to a Roth because there’s no income limit on conversions.

Taxes are usually owed on Roth conversions, based on how much pretax money you have in IRAs. But the conversion can be tax free if the contribution was nondeductible, you convert shortly after the contribution and you don’t already have a pre-tax money IRA.

Some questioned the legality of this particular loophole, but Congress blessed it in 2017 as part of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017.

Q&A: 2020 taxes bring another stimulus shot

Dear Liz: My 2019 tax return was electronically submitted May 11 and my income was low enough to qualify for a stimulus payment. I got my refund at the end of July but was told I wouldn’t get a stimulus check because my 2018 income was too high. The IRS agent on the phone said I could request the money when I filed my 2020 taxes. But isn’t that past the deadline? The agent sounded like he was just trying to get me off the phone.

Answer: He probably was, but he gave you the correct information. The IRS used the tax returns it had on hand this spring when it started sending out stimulus payments. Since your 2019 return hadn’t been filed, it used your 2018 income to determine how much, if anything, to send you.

People who didn’t get checks or got too little aren’t out of luck. The stimulus checks were an advance payment of a credit that will be added to people’s 2020 tax returns. If you should have received a check but didn’t, you’ll get the full credit added to your refund next year.

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: Retirement funds and creditors

Dear Liz: I keep reading conflicting things about 401(k)s and IRAs. If I roll over my 401(k) from my previous employer into an IRA, is it still protected from creditors? I’ve left it in the old 401(k) plan for now because I’ve read IRAs can be seized in lawsuits or bankruptcy, or alternatively that only $1 million is protected and the rest could be at risk. I’ve read that if I leave it in the 401(k), the whole amount is protected. Can you please help clear up this confusion so I can make a wise decision?

Answer: Your 401(k) is protected from creditors, full stop. Federal law bans creditors from taking money in a pension plan that was set up under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and that includes 401(k)s as well as traditional pensions.

Your IRA is protected in bankruptcy court up to a certain amount, currently $1,362,800. Whether creditors outside of bankruptcy court can access your IRA funds depends on state law. In California, for example, there’s no specific dollar amount.

If a creditor wins a judgment against you and goes after your IRA, a court would decide how much of the account was necessary for your support and protect that. The rest could go to the creditor.