Q&A: Refinancing brings tax questions

Dear Liz: I recently refinanced my house and got $9,400 cash back. I also received a $2,400 escrow check from my previous mortgage lender. Is this money taxable? Should I put away a certain percentage of it to pay those taxes? My plan is just to put it back into household repairs (fireplace, painting, etc.).

Answer: You got cash back because you took out a larger loan than the one you previously had. You have to pay that money back, so it’s not taxable income. The escrow check represents a refund of money you’d already paid to the first lender. You don’t get taxed on that, either.

Q: They paid off the mortgage. Then the credit score fell. Can that be right?

Dear Liz: My wife and I recently paid off our mortgage. We have no other debt. Soon after, I received a message from Experian that my FICO score, which has been perfect for quite a while, was reduced by 31 points. What justifies such action, and what do I need to do to bring up my score?

Answer: Credit scores were never intended to be a measure of anyone’s financial health. Instead, they were created to help lenders gauge the risk that an applicant would default on a loan or credit card debt.

Having a mix of types of credit, including installment loans (such as a mortgage) and revolving accounts (such as credit cards), generally helps your credit score. Because the mortgage was your only installment loan, that could have led to a larger-than-normal effect on your scores.

If your previous score was “perfect,” or 850 on the FICO scale, then there’s nothing you need to do. Once your scores are over about 760, you’re getting the best rates and terms, and there’s typically no other benefit to shoot for, other than bragging rights.

Q&A: Death doesn’t take a holiday

Dear Liz: In a recent response, you wrote, “Your living trust should name a successor trustee who can take over managing your affairs if you should become incapacitated or die.” This sort of writing is not uncommon but it implies some people won’t die. It would have been better to write “… take over managing your affairs when you die or if you should become incapacitated.” This is important, since it is noteworthy how many people are unwilling to face the facts when it comes to being prepared and finances: None of us are going to get out of this alive.

Answer: Good point!

Q&A: Rent-or-buy question isn’t simple

Dear Liz: I often agree with your advice, but recently you suggested a 70-year-old widow rent rather than buy. I say buy the condo with the stairs and reap the appreciation. Later, if you need a home without stairs, sell the condo and buy another with your profit. I’m 73, and buying rather than renting has allowed me to live payment-free while leaving some future equity for my heirs.

Answer: In a follow-up email, the reader told me she had already purchased the condo and just wanted confirmation she’d done the right thing. A bigger issue than the stairs is her lack of savings and the possibility she would become house rich and cash poor. Fortunately, though, the condo is new and she’s not likely to face large special assessments for repairs, which would be an issue for an older building.

Q&A: They want to give the caretaker the house she lives in without imposing a tax burden

Dear Liz: Our family owns a vacation home. A caretaker for the property lives in a smaller house next door that is also owned by our family. We consider her part of our extended family and would like to show our appreciation when the property is sold. Our wish would be to give the smaller house in which she lives to her as a gift, but we know the annual payment of property taxes would probably be too great a financial burden for her to live there as a retiree. (She is currently in her 50s.) Is there some sort of trust or fund we could set up that would cover her property taxes until her death without adding to her taxable income?

Answer: Yes, but there may be a better solution.

A trust can be set up to pay the property taxes or other property expenses during the caretaker’s lifetime, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. Trusts face high tax rates, however, and cost money to set up and administer. Plus, you have to find people willing to be trustees and backup trustees who are likely to outlive the caretaker. You also must decide what happens to the money when the caretaker passes away.

All these issues are surmountable, of course. Younger members of your family could be trustees, for example, or you could hire professional trustees. The money could be invested conservatively, or in tax-efficient mutual funds, to minimize taxes. Or it could be invested aggressively enough to pay the tax bill and still provide enough income to pay the property expenses.

Another, simpler solution would be to give her the cash outright. Gifts are not taxable to the receiver, so the gift itself would not increase her income taxes. She would have the burden of managing the cash, of course. Like the trust, she could invest to minimize taxes or more aggressively to potentially grow the money and offset inflation. Either way, her tax rates probably would be lower than the trust’s.

An estate planning attorney can help your family discuss the various options and set up the documents to carry out your wishes.

Q&A: Unloading collections while you’re still alive

Dear Liz: You recently advised someone who didn’t know whom to select to administer a living trust because the person has no spouse, children or other living relatives. This person mentioned they had collectibles. An additional thing they should consider doing is donating the collection while alive to an archive, museum or other appropriate organization that would be interested in receiving it or in selling the items to support their mission. That way they won’t end up in the trash but will be handled appropriately. There also might be a tax advantage to this donation.

Answer: That’s an excellent suggestion. Here’s another good one:

Dear Liz: Selling off collectibles is a long, time-consuming undertaking. My husband was a huge collector and we did not want to leave that burden to our son. So when he retired, he started selling things on EBay. It was a lot of work and took him years. (We checked with our son to make sure he didn’t want the things he sold.)

Answer: What an excellent retirement project as well as a huge gift to your son. The first step is being willing to part with a collection while alive. Those who are ready to do so may be in a better position to find eager buyers than anyone who inherits the collection.

Collectors who don’t have the time or energy for this process can consider hiring someone to do it. Other alternatives include selling to a dealer, either outright or through consignment, or hiring an auction house, if the collection is valuable enough to attract bidders’ interest.

Q&A: A look at property title

Dear Liz: You’ve mentioned that in community property states, a couple’s primary residence gets a full step-up in tax basis when one spouse dies. Does this require that the title to the property specify that it is community property? My husband and I purchased our home about 6 weeks before we were married, so we hold title as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Should we get the title changed?

Answer: The answer is probably yes, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer.

The title to your home does not have to specify that it is community property for it to be treated as community property, Luscome said. If you live in a community property state and are married, the property you acquire and the income you earn during the marriage are generally considered community property regardless of how you hold title. However, property acquired before the marriage would not generally be treated as community property, he said.

The title to your home does not have to specify that it is community property for it to be treated as community property, Luscome said. If you live in a community property state and are married, the property you acquire and the income you earn during the marriage are generally considered community property regardless of how you hold title. However, property acquired before the marriage would not generally be treated as community property, he said.

Each way of holding title has its advantages. Joint tenancy with right of survivorship avoids probate and offers protection from creditors. Community property offers the tax advantage you mentioned: The whole property gets a new basis for tax purposes at the first spouse’s death. That means all the appreciation that occurred before the first death is never taxed. In non-community property states, only the deceased partner’s half gets that new value. Community property states include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Alaska is an “opt-in” community property state.

Some community property states offer the best of both worlds by allowing real estate to be titled as community property with right of survivorship. Those states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada and Wisconsin, according to self-help site Nolo.

Q&A: What to consider when deciding whether to buy or rent a home

Dear Liz: I’m just turning 70 and am on my own for the first time in my life. In the last three years I took care of both my 100-year-old mother and my husband as their health failed. My daughter and son-in-law live in Colorado and are going to have a baby, and I plan on moving there in the near future.

I had originally planned to move into a senior living apartment complex. Then my children said I should buy a condo for the freedom, privacy and potential investment. They found a condo building under construction with units I could afford, plus a mortgage company willing to take me on and help with the down payment.

I’m torn about what to do. Because of both bad luck and bad decisions, currently I have only about $18,000 in savings. Between my pension and Social Security I make about $47,000 a year.

Do I invest in the condo and use up a good chunk of my savings? It’s on the second floor (the steps aren’t very steep, fortunately) and I’m strong and in good shape, but I’m also 70 and things can go south quickly. But, as the kids have said, I could live there for 10 years and make a good profit from the sale.

Or do I move into the senior living apartment and keep my savings but face regular increases in rent (thus “throwing my money away”)? The senior complex has amenities and activities and elevators but lots of people around all the time (thus sacrificing some privacy). Having a place of my own would be so wonderful, but I need to be smart about this decision.

Answer: Younger people often don’t understand about stairs. No, they’re not a big deal now, but even a few steps can become a huge barrier if you have mobility issues — and those issues become more likely the older you get. Having an elevator or a unit on the ground floor, preferably with a zero-step entry, is a good insurance policy against the vicissitudes of aging.

Besides, you aren’t necessarily throwing money away when you rent. You’re buying freedom. You don’t have to worry about paying for repairs and other unpredictable costs, and you can move more easily if your circumstances change. People are often advised to rent first when they move to a new area, just so they can get a better idea of the advantages and disadvantages of various neighborhoods before they commit. Renting also could give you a chance to build up your reserves so that if you do decide to buy, you won’t be quite so
house poor.

Having more people around isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. You’re newly widowed, and moving to an area where you presumably don’t know many people. The senior complex could make it a lot easier to make friends. A good social network is essential to staying mentally and physically healthy as we age.

Q&A: Older parents and retirement: What about child benefits?

Dear Liz: I am trying to decide whether to take Social Security at my full retirement age (66 years and four months) or wait and take it at 70. I am 64 and have two children, 13 and 11. My older child could get the child benefit for 24 months while my younger one would receive it for 41 months. Currently I am scheduled to receive about $2,600 a month at full retirement age or $3,500 at 70. My family maximum is $4,668 per month. I am having a hard time finding out what each dependent would earn monthly. Also, when my older child turns 18, does my younger child’s payment increase?

Answer: Starting Social Security earlier than age 70 means giving up the delayed retirement credits that otherwise would boost your checks for the rest of your life, and potentially those of a surviving spouse. As mentioned in an earlier column, though, child benefits complicate the math that typically favors waiting to claim Social Security.

Once you start your own Social Security benefit, each eligible child could get an amount up to 50% of your benefit. Eligible children are those who are unmarried and younger than 18, or under 19 if they’re still in high school, or 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.

There’s a maximum a family can receive based on one worker’s earning record, however. The family maximum is 150% to 180% of the worker’s benefit. If your family’s total benefit would exceed that maximum, the children’s checks would be reduced, but yours would stay the same.

If you were receiving $2,600 a month, and your family maximum is $4,668, your children would split the remaining $2,068 and get $1,034 apiece. Once your older child is no longer eligible, your younger child’s benefit would increase to equal 50% of what you receive ($1,300, plus any cost of living adjustments).

If you were to start your benefit now, before your full retirement age, these checks would be subject to the earnings test that reduces the benefit by $1 for every $2 earned over a certain limit, which is $18,240 in 2020. The earnings test doesn’t apply after full retirement age.

Free Social Security claiming calculators typically don’t include child benefits as a variable, so you’d be wise to invest $20 to $50 in a more sophisticated calculator, such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions.

Q&A: Downside of unused credit cards

Dear Liz: In the past, you have recommended not canceling credit cards because doing so can hurt credit scores. Over the years, my husband has signed up for at least a dozen credit cards, eight of which we never use and have not used for as long as 10 years. He signed up for another card recently because it offered attractive cash rewards. Is having so many credit cards advisable and safe? Does it make us more vulnerable to identity theft? Without hurting our credit scores, may we discontinue the older cards we have stopped using? Is there any drawback to having multiple, perhaps dozens, of credit cards, especially if some are older and never used?

Answer: The biggest downside to having a bunch of unused credit cards is having to monitor all those accounts for fraudulent transactions, and perhaps paying unnecessary annual fees. The unused accounts add to the amount of available credit you have, which is a positive factor for credit scores.

If you’re concerned about identity theft, your best move would be to freeze your credit reports at all three bureaus. Such freezes are now free, and you can easily “thaw” the freeze temporarily if you want to apply for credit.

Credit freezes make it harder for criminals to open new accounts in your name. If a criminal uses one of your existing accounts, you’re typically protected. The vast majority of credit cards offer “zero liability,” which means you won’t be held responsible for fraudulent charges. Even without zero liability, federal law limits your liability to $50.

If monitoring multiple accounts is too much hassle, though, then he should consider closing some of the cards. If he’s paying fees for cards he’s not using, another option is to ask the issuer for a “product change” to a card that doesn’t charge fees.