Q&A: When a Roth IRA makes sense

Dear Liz: I have some money saved in a brokerage account, over and above my maximum 401(k) contribution. I just turned 60. Is it advantageous to move that money into a Roth IRA or should I keep it in the brokerage account?

Answer: If you suspect you’ll need this money within five years, then you probably should leave it in the brokerage account (and move it to cash, since money needed within the next few years should not be in the stock market). Otherwise, there’s little downside to moving some of the money to a Roth IRA, if you can, and plenty of upside.

Having money in a Roth gives you “tax diversification,” or a potentially tax-free bucket of money to draw from or leave alone as you see fit. That’s in contrast to 401(k)s, regular IRAs and other retirement plans, which typically require withdrawals to begin at age 72.

You can always withdraw an amount equal to your contributions without paying taxes or penalties. Once the account is at least 5 years old and you’re over 59½, whichever comes later, you also can withdraw any earnings without tax or penalty.

You can contribute up to $7,000 to a Roth this year, assuming you have earned income of at least that amount and your modified adjusted gross income is less than $124,000 if you’re single or $196,000 if you’re married filing jointly. (The contribution limit is $6,000 for people under 50.) If your income is above those limits, your ability to contribute to a Roth starts to phase out. The ability to contribute directly to a Roth ends when your modified adjusted gross income is over $139,000 for singles and $206,000 for married couples.

Q&A: When an executor doesn’t heed the will

Dear Liz: My dad’s will clearly divided his estate equally between his two sons. By the time Dad died, my brother had two kids. After the funeral, my sister-in-law sat me down and told me that everything will be divided into three parts. I would get one-third and they get two-thirds, because they had the kids. This was not a request; it was, “That’s the way it’s going to be and there’s nothing you can do about it.” My brother, who was the executor, was nowhere to be seen — a pattern when dealing with money issues. This was many years ago. I was a student at the time. I went along with it but wonder to this day about the fairness of the situation.

Answer: Wonder no more. If the situation was as you describe and your brother ignored your father’s will, then he wasn’t just unfair to you. He violated the law.

Executors are supposed to follow the will’s directions to the best of their ability. If they don’t, they can be held personally responsible. But each state has statutes of limitation that give you only a certain amount of time to file a civil lawsuit in these situations. You may have a bit more time if you were a minor when all this happened, but you’d want to consult an attorney to discuss your options.

You wouldn’t be the first person done out of an inheritance by a self-dealing sibling, unfortunately. This should be a reminder to parents not to reflexively choose the oldest child, or indeed any child, to fill this role without thinking about the child’s character.

Q&A: Stimulus money for Social Security recipients is finally on the way

Dear Liz: My mother filed a paper return for 2019 in early March but hasn’t received her refund yet. Also, she hasn’t received the stimulus check to which she is entitled. She receives Supplemental Security Income via direct deposit and she included her banking info on her tax return for direct deposit. Given the IRS’ limited staffing, when might she receive her money? Will she still receive her stimulus check if many more months pass before the IRS processes her tax return?

Answer: Your mom may have already received her stimulus paymentby the time you read this. The Social Security Administration said Tuesday that it had started sending payments to SSI recipients.

The best way to check her refund status is via the IRS site. People who filed electronically can check their refund status 24 hours after filing. When a paper return is filed, people should wait four weeks before checking. She’ll need to enter her Social Security number, filing status and exact amount of her expected refund.

Q&A: Stimulus funds don’t count as income

Dear Liz: I hold power of attorney for my aunt, who is in a local nursing home. Medicaid pays the bulk of her cost to stay there. Her $1,200 stimulus check was just deposited into her bank account at the end of last month. The state Medicaid rules require that she not have more than $2,000 in assets. I try to keep her bank balance below that each month, which can be a challenge. Do you have any idea how the state Medicaid will handle this additional income to her bank account? Will I have to pay the nursing home additional money from it or reimburse Medicaid? Or will she be allowed to keep the whole amount? I want to be judicious with her finances and not screw up her eligibility for Medicaid (her greatest fear is being thrown out on the streets).

Answer: Your aunt is lucky to have you, and fortunately there’s no need to worry. The payments are not considered income for recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), according to a blog post by Social Security commissioner Andrew Saul. State Medicaid programs are not allowed to impose eligibility requirements that are stricter than SSI standards, according to ElderLawAnswers, a referral site for attorneys who specialize in issues relating to seniors.

Q&A: Big debt is bad in the coronavirus downturn. But a consolidation loan might not be the answer

Dear Liz: I have about $40,000 in credit card debt and am considering a consolidation loan. I’m current with my cards. My income is about $130,000 per year. Can you recommend a lender? Any cautions?

Answer: As you probably know, this is a bad time to be burdened with a lot of debt. But taking out another loan may not be the answer.

Personal loans — the type of unsecured loan often used to consolidate other debt — work out best when you can lower the rate on your debt, get it paid off within three to five years and avoid accruing more debt while you do so.

Unfortunately, people who take out consolidation loans often don’t, or can’t, fix the problem that caused the debt in the first place. If the debt came from overspending, for example, they don’t trim their expenses to match their income and wind up borrowing more. If the debt is from medical bills, ill health may cause them to incur more medical-related debt.

Another issue is interest rates. Personal loans typically have fixed rates, which is good, along with fixed payments so you actually pay off the debt over time. That’s in sharp contrast to credit cards, which usually have variable rates and minimum payments that don’t pay down much of your principal.

Unless your credit is good and your income secure, though, you may wind up paying a higher rate than you are now — assuming you can get a personal loan at all. Lenders have tightened their standards considerably in recent weeks because of the current and expected economic fallout from the pandemic.

Many people are better off paying down their debt on their own, making extra payments to get their highest-rate card paid off first, and then moving to the next-highest-rate card, while paying minimums on the rest. (Another approach is to pay the smallest balance first, to give yourself a psychological win that can motivate you to keep going.)

If you can’t pay more than the minimums, then you’re likely in too much debt to dig your way out on your own. Consider making appointments with a credit counselor affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and with a bankruptcy attorney (the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys offers referrals) so you can better understand your options.

Q&A: Spousal benefits go to spouse, not partner

Dear Liz: I’ve been separated from my husband for 50 years but there’s been no legal divorce. If he dies, do I receive his Social Security benefit or does his common-law wife of 20 years?

Answer: You do.

Social Security recognizes common law marriage if a couple lives in a state that recognizes such unions, or lived in one when the marriage began. No state, however, recognizes common-law bigamy. As long as he’s still married to you, he can’t be legally married to someone else.

If the two of you divorced and he re-married, his spouse could qualify for benefits on his work record — but so could you. Since your marriage lasted more than 10 years, you could qualify for divorced spousal benefits (a percentage of his benefit while he was alive) as well as divorced survivor benefits (100% of his benefit when he dies). Your divorced spousal benefits would end if you remarry. If he dies and you get divorced survivor benefits, you would be able to keep those if you’re 60 or older when you remarry.

Q&A: What to do if an employer messes up your 401(k) coronavirus hardship withdrawal

Dear Liz: I used the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to cash out my 401(k). My ex-employer waived the 10% penalty but withheld 20% for federal taxes. It seems unconscionable to keep $20,000 of my money for at least eight months instead of sending it to me. The law states I have three years to pay the taxes and I need that hard-earned money now. Is there anything I can do to make my former employer release my money?

Answer: Please contact your former employer immediately. It sounds like what you got was a regular distribution, which can be penalized as well as taxed and which can’t be paid back. Your employer can’t waive an IRS penalty — it either applies to the distribution by law or it doesn’t — and the 20% withholding indicates this was not a coronavirus hardship withdrawal, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

Coronavirus hardship withdrawals allow qualified people to withdraw as much as $100,000 of their balances from 401(k)s and IRAs, but these withdrawals aren’t available to everyone. You must have been affected physically or financially by the pandemic.

Plus, if you want to take the distribution from a 401(k), check if your employer is offering the option. A majority of employers now offer coronavirus hardship withdrawals, according to a Willis Towers Watson survey, but some are opting not to do so.

If you qualified for a coronavirus hardship withdrawal from a 401(k) plan offering that option, the distribution should not have been subject to withholding.

You would owe income taxes but not the usual 10% federal early withdrawal penalty, and you would have three years to pay the income taxes on the withdrawal. You also would have the option to pay the money back within three years and then amend your tax returns to get the taxes you paid refunded.

If your former employer did not offer coronavirus hardship withdrawals but you otherwise qualified, you had the option of rolling your 401(k) money into an IRA and then taking a coronavirus hardship withdrawal from the IRA. (You can typically roll money out of only a former employer’s plan. If you’re still working for that employer, such rollovers usually aren’t allowed.)

If your employer won’t release the withheld money, you still have a way to limit the damage. You can put the rest of what you received into an IRA, as long as you do so within 60 days, and then take a coronavirus hardship withdrawal from the IRA.

Unless you can come up with the $20,000 that was withheld, however, you’ll have to pay taxes and penalties on that $20,000 and you won’t be able to pay that money back. That’s unfortunate, but it’s better than having the entire $100,000 penalized and not having the option to pay any of it back.

Q&A: Getting your stimulus check

Dear Liz: Do you have suggestions on what we should do about not receiving our stimulus check? We have our Supplemental Security Income checks direct deposited, making our bank information correct and known to the IRS. I have checked the IRS “Get My Payment” site daily and continue receiving the message, “payment status not available.” I’ve contacted the IRS, our governor, both state senators, our congresswoman, the mayor and several in the media without a response. Whom can I contact to receive an answer and information?

Answer: The U.S. Treasury Department says people who receive SSI should receive their relief payments in early May. The huge volume of payments means the money is being doled out in stages, but the IRS portal that’s supposed to help you track your payment has experienced a number of glitches.

One possible workaround is to enter your address on the IRS website in capitalized letters. Older computer systems and buggy programs sometimes respond to capital letters when they can’t process lowercase ones. The IRS insists the tool is not case sensitive, but it does suggest not using punctuation when entering your address.

The $1,200 payments are being sent automatically, but if you’re on SSI and have children 16 or younger, you only have until May 5 to request an additional $500-per-child payment through the IRS portal.

Q&A: A shutdown reality check

Dear Liz: Recently a reader asked about withdrawing money from an IRA to pay credit card debt. You mentioned the many ways that was a bad idea, including the fact that retirement money is protected in bankruptcy court. Liz, the writer had only $10,000 in credit card debt. Bankruptcy should be a last resort. A lifestyle change or picking up a second job would be a better route to knocking out the debt.

Answer: “Picking up a second job” — really? Most people will be lucky to hang on to the ones they have in the coming months.

No one suggested that this reader should file bankruptcy, but anyone considering taking money from a retirement plan to pay debt should understand this major drawback — especially now. Bankruptcy experts expect business and personal bankruptcy filings to soar because of the pandemic.

You might want to check your other assumptions, as well. People typically don’t wind up in bankruptcy court because they refused to cut out their lattes or didn’t work hard enough. They get sick or disabled, lose their health insurance, get divorced, have a breadwinner die — or get stuck in a pandemic. Those with higher incomes and more savings may be better able to weather financial setbacks, but few of us are truly immune from their effects.

Q&A: How to make ends meet if the coronavirus shutdown has reduced your income

Dear Liz: My husband’s salary was cut by more than 50%. While we are thrilled he is still employed, this deep cut will make it very challenging to pay all bills for our family of four. We don’t qualify for the $1,200 relief checks based on our 2019 taxes, which have already been filed. He is ineligible for unemployment because he’s salaried and his hours haven’t been cut. Are there other options for financial support or am I misinterpreting the government options?

Answer: You may have a few options for making ends meet during this trying time.

The first is mortgage forbearance. If you have a federally backed mortgage and have been affected by the pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act gives you the right to forbearance for nearly a year if you request it. You can ask for 180 days initially as well as an additional 180-day extension.

Most mortgages are federally backed, including those lent or guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Veterans Administration, the Federal Housing Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you have one of these mortgages, you won’t have to pay back the skipped payments all at once. You could spread out the payments or tack them on to the end of your loan.

To find out if you have a federally backed mortgage, and to request forbearance, contact your mortgage servicer — the company that accepts your payments. Be prepared to wait because lenders are overwhelmed with requests right now.

Even if you don’t have a federally backed loan, your mortgage lender is likely to have some forbearance options — as does your credit card issuer, your car loan company and any other lender you owe. Make sure you understand how each program works and how you would repay the skipped payments. In most cases, your balances will continue to accrue interest, but the programs could give you some breathing room while you wait for better times.