Q&A: Pitfalls of unequal will distributions

Dear Liz: You’ve written that when writing their wills, parents should be careful about leaving unequal distributions to their children. What wasn’t mentioned was that a person could have a “good” child and a “bad” one. The “bad one” has never done a thing for the parent, such as inviting her to the child’s home at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and only visits the parent in the summer when the parent just happens to live at the beach. The “good” one is very attentive and visits the parent even in winter, and so on. What is your thinking in inheritance in this case?

Answer: It’s your money, and there’s no one right way to divide an estate. However, it’s disturbing that your assessment of your children seems to be based solely on how much attention you get.

It’s possible one child acts more selfishly or thoughtlessly than the other. It’s also possible that you are difficult to please, and one child understandably limits the time she spends trying to do so.

Q&A: Getting sister’s house without a will

Dear Liz: When I retired in 2018, I rolled over my 403(b) teachers retirement account into a traditional IRA and made my sister sole beneficiary. I sent her a copy of that beneficiary statement showing her name, her percentage (100%), and my account number. My sister later told me in a phone call that she wished to bequeath me her house should she predecease me. She explained she didn’t have a will but she made her feelings known to our older brother. Even if I were on speaking terms with our older brother, I would find this arrangement naive. Knowing my sister, she actually believes this method is the right way to proceed with her wishes. I’m asking you to be Dear Abby, perhaps, but what do I do?

Answer: You can explain to her that if she doesn’t have a will, the laws of her state will determine who gets her house regardless of what she intended. If your sister does not have a spouse or children, and your parents are dead, you and your brother would probably inherit the home as well as the rest of her estate. You would have to negotiate what to do with the house, which could be difficult if you two still aren’t speaking.

If you can’t get her to write a will, there may be another option. Many states allow “transfer on death” deeds, which are forms that allow people to name a beneficiary for their home. This would ensure that the house is left to you and that it avoids probate, the court process that otherwise follows death.

Q&A: Where’s my refund?

Dear Liz: I filed a paper 2019 federal tax return in mid-February. It’s been more than nine weeks, and they haven’t electronically deposited my refund yet. Last week, I called the “Where’s My Refund” IRS number and got an automated response that basically they couldn’t help me. I then called the taxpayer advocate number listed in the IRS booklet, and they couldn’t help me but transferred me to the IRS’ toll-free number. After taking my information, the service person couldn’t find my return and suggested I resubmit my forms. The whole process took over two hours. Then my brother told me IRS offices are closed or have limited staff and they aren’t processing the tax returns. Why don’t they just say that at the beginning of all of their messages, instead of saying you should get it within six weeks of filing?

Answer: Over the last decade, Congress has cut the IRS’ budget by more than 20% after factoring in inflation, even as the population grew and tax law got ever more complicated. The agency was limping along with ancient technology and too few people to help the public even before the pandemic sent most of its workers home, without the ability to telecommute.

The agency has been trying to recall its workforce as quickly as it can, but there is a truly massive backlog of paper returns that has yet to be processed. Sending out stimulus relief checks has taken priority, and that Herculean effort is still in process.

You may be frustrated by what you perceive as poor customer service, but this situation didn’t develop overnight and taxpayers are reaping what they sowed, or at least reaping what their lawmakers sowed. You should let those lawmakers know how you feel if you want this to change.

And you should change, as well. It is not smart to send a tax return through the U.S. mail. Electronic filing is a much more secure alternative, and it’s quicker. With direct deposit, you can get your refund within days. Even with the pandemic, most e-filers have gotten their refunds promptly.

Q&A: Good news about your coronavirus stimulus money: It doesn’t count as income or an asset

Dear Liz: I have a question about a recent answer you gave. The question was whether stimulus payments count as income for people who get Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income. Your — correct — answer was that they don’t, of course, but you seemed to gloss over the fact that even though this payment was not “income,” it would still count as an asset in the recipient’s bank account. The recipient’s assets are limited to $2,000 by the Medicaid program.

Answer: The relief payments do not count as income or as an asset. The money is excluded from the recipient’s resources for 12 months.

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.