Q&A: What to do with a big tax refund?

Dear Liz: I got a big tax refund this year and am trying to figure out what to do with the money. Right now I have school loans with a 4% interest rate that I do not need to make a payment on until 2024 with my current payment plan, but the amount I owe is pretty hefty and I know it’s going to compound more over time. I also have a very low-interest car loan (1.9%) that will be paid off in 31/2 years. I also could put that money in the market in hopes that it will grow. I should add I am 27 years old. Any advice?

Answer: Yes: Please review the terms of your student loans, because it’s likely you’ve misunderstood your obligation.

Federal education loans typically don’t allow you to go 10 years without payment, said financial expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors Network.

“With federal education loans, the economic hardship deferment has a three-year limit and most forbearances have a three-year limit, with one or two having a five-year limit,” Kantrowitz said.

“One could potentially consolidate the loans after getting a deferment and forbearances to reset the clock and thereby get a new set of deferments and forbearances on a new loan. But most of the forbearances aren’t mandatory, so one can’t count on stacking deferments and forbearances to get a 10-year suspension of the repayment obligation.”

Another possibility is that you’ve signed up for an income-based repayment plan that has reduced your payment to zero, but your eligibility is determined year by year. “2024 is a very specific date, so it seems unlikely that this is [income-based repayment],” Kantrowitz said.

“The most likely scenario is this borrower is misunderstanding the terms of his loan,” Kantrowitz said. “The next most likely scenario is that this borrower is not referring to a qualified education loan, but to a particular personal loan that he was able to obtain that few other borrowers would be able to obtain.”

Whatever the case may be, one of the best uses for a windfall is to boost your retirement savings. Even if you don’t have a workplace plan, you could set up an IRA or a Roth IRA as long as you have earned income.

Once you’re on track for retirement, your next goal would be to build your emergency fund, since you don’t have any high-rate debt. Once those goals are met, you can start paying down lower-rate debt (such as your student loans).

Beware of loans to family

Dear Liz: I went with my brother to his credit union to refinance his house and found out his wife has about eight medical bills that went to collections and he owes a phone company more than $2,000. Their debt totals about $6,300. I could lend them the money or they could do a debt consolidation or talk to a credit counselor. What’s your opinion on these options?

Answer: None of these options is likely to work the way you hope.

Your brother should be wary of any “debt consolidation” offers he gets, as many will be scams and others will charge outrageous interest. The collections accounts have trashed the couple’s credit, which means mainstream lenders will probably avoid them until their situation improves.

The debt management plans offered by legitimate credit counseling agencies, meanwhile, are designed to help people pay off credit card bills, not past-due medical or phone bills. A credit counselor may give the couple some helpful budgeting advice to enable them to pay their debts, but it typically wouldn’t arrange payment plans.

Lending your brother the money would enable the couple to pay off the overdue bills. That won’t help their credit scores, however, unless your brother is able to persuade the collectors to remove the accounts from their credit reports. That’s often difficult to do, said debt collection expert Gerri Detweiler of Credit.com.

Your brother could start by asking the medical providers to take back any accounts that have been assigned to collectors and making payment arrangements directly with those providers. Medical collections are often on consignment and can be called back if the provider wishes.

The phone account, by contrast, was probably sold to a collection agency and can’t be reassigned to the original company. Even if your brother can’t get the account deleted from credit reports, he’ll probably need to pay or settle it if he hopes to refinance his mortgage because lenders usually don’t like to see open collection accounts.

Before you lend him the money, you should understand that loans to people with debt problems often don’t get repaid. If you can’t afford to lose this money, don’t lend it.

Independent contractor clarity

Dear Liz: I was taken aback by your answer to the receptionist whose employer was paying her as an independent contractor although she should have been paid as a W-2 employee. I believe your response was to lie on her tax returns and hide the fact that her employer was doing something illegal. I cannot say in how many ways that is wrong. As a human resources professional, I would advise this person to contact regulators under her state’s whistle-blower protections and let them know what has happened and take the advice that they give. If the writer has been given a 1099, you can be assured that others in the company have too. Her name remains anonymous. Even if her employer finds out it was her, she has recourse if she’s fired. I’ve always enjoyed your column and look forward to reading it each Sunday, but this response was totally off the charts.

Answer: Actually, the advice was exactly the opposite. Tax pro Eva Rosenberg recommended telling the truth by filing new forms, which would alert the IRS to the employer’s deception. Rosenberg said that it probably would take the tax agency a couple of years to get around to auditing the employer, which would give the receptionist time to find a new job.

Also, not all states have laws protecting whistle-blowers, and some of those that do apply only to public employees. No one should assume she is protected by such a law without during further research.

Can a small credit card improve your credit score?

Dear Liz: I am trying to increase my credit scores so I can buy a house in a couple of years. My scores are pretty bad, but I do have a car loan that I have never been delinquent on. I have recently obtained a secured credit card with a $300 limit. Will a credit card with such a small limit help improve my credit score?

Answer: Yes, but you may need longer than two years to get your scores up to snuff, depending on how bad they are.

Regaining points always takes much longer than losing them, so you should make sure to pay all your bills on time and use your new credit card lightly but regularly. Charge less than $100 a month and pay the balance in full, because there’s no advantage to carrying a balance.

After six months or so of regular payments, consider adding another card to the mix. In a year or two, you may qualify for a regular credit card that will continue to enhance your scores.
Also, make sure you’re looking at your FICO scores, because those are the credit scores most mortgage lenders use. Other scores may be offered for free or sold by the credit bureaus, but they typically aren’t FICOs.

Love and money

Dear Liz: I am in a new relationship with a great woman. I’ve talked a little bit about money and retirement with her (she’s 30). I am trying to let her know that it would be wise to contribute at least enough to her company’s retirement program to get the full match. What are some books or articles that would show her the importance of saving for retirement? I like her, but this can be a deal breaker for me. What is the best way to introduce her to personal finances without scaring her?

Answer: You could start by hopping down from that high horse you’re riding.

The fact that she’s not saving for retirement is unfortunate but hardly unusual. Many people her age have trouble understanding the need to start saving young for retirement. Even those who do may have trouble investing their money, thanks to the 2008 market crash and subsequent recession. A recent survey by MFS Investment Management of people with $100,000 or more in investable assets found nearly half of adults under 34 say they would never be comfortable investing in stocks.

Of course, millennials need to get comfortable with the idea of stock market investing, because otherwise they’re unlikely to grow their wealth enough to afford a decent retirement. Some books that can help them understand the principles of investing — and the importance of scooping up those free company matches — include:

•”Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back,” by Kimberly Palmer.

•”Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties,” by Beth Kobliner.

•”On My Own Two Feet: A Modern Girl’s Guide to Personal Finance,” by Manisha Thakor and Sharon Kedar.

As you talk to your girlfriend, remember that few couples are on exactly the same page financially. Everyone has different family cultures and experiences growing up that inform how we deal with money. Asking her to talk about her background with money and taking the time to understand her perspective is a great place to start your conversations about finances. It’s certainly better than issuing ultimatums at this early stage.

When is the best time to take spousal benefits?

Dear Liz: My wife will be 62 in a few months. I am 77 and we both work full time. Can she collect her spousal Social Security benefit while still working and take her full benefit at 70?

Answer: That option is available to her only if she waits until her full retirement age (currently 66) to apply for spousal benefits. If she applies for spousal benefits before age 66, she won’t be able to switch to her own benefit later. Also, applying early means that her benefit would be reduced by $1 for every $2 she earns above an annual limit, which is $15,480 in 2014.

Can life insurance be used as an estate planning tool?

Dear Liz: I am 70 and my wife is 59. My pension covers us for both our lifetimes. We have no debt. My wife and I do not need the required minimum distributions I will soon have to start taking from my 457 deferred compensation plan, which is currently worth $1 million. I planned to invest these distributions in an index fund to leave to our son. My accountant recommends instead that I buy a joint whole life insurance policy for me and my wife because it will be tax free when our son inherits our estate years from now. Does it make sense to buy insurance as an estate planning tool?

Answer: Does your accountant sell insurance on the side, by any chance?

Because a tax pro should know that the money in that index fund would get a so-called step up in tax basis when you die and your son inherits the account. If he promptly sold the investments, he wouldn’t owe any taxes on the growth in the account (the capital gains) that happened while you were alive. Even if he hangs on to the investments for a while, he would owe capital gains tax only on the growth in value since your death. That’s a pretty awesome deal.

If you buy life insurance, by contrast, you’d have to weigh any tax benefit against the not-insubstantial amount you’d pay the insurer for coverage. At your ages, such a policy would be far from cheap.

Any time someone suggests that you buy life insurance when you don’t actually need life insurance, you would be smart to run the proposed policy past a fee-only advisor — one who doesn’t receive commissions or other incentives to sell insurance.

There’s an outside chance that your accountant recommended a permanent life insurance policy for estate tax purposes. These taxes will be an issue only if the combined estate of you and your wife is worth more than $10 million. If that’s the case, you should consult an estate planning attorney about your options.

Does Paying Off Old Debts Help Your Credit Score?

Dear Liz: How can I get a clear and complete picture of the debts that are hurting my credit score? I have my credit report already. I’m a bit lost and I need to get my credit cleared up to buy a home.

Answer: You actually have three credit reports, one at each of the major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Your mortgage lender is likely to request FICO credit scores from each of the three, so you need to check all three reports.

You get your reports for free at one site: http://www.annualcreditreport.com. There are many sites masquerading as this free, federally mandated site, so make sure that you enter the URL correctly. You may be pitched credit scores or other products by the credit bureaus while you’re on this site, but you won’t be required to give a credit card number to get your free reports. (If the site is demanding that you give your credit card number, you’re at the wrong site.)

You should understand that old, unpaid bills may be depressing your scores, but paying them off may not improve those scores. In other words, the damage has been done. You may be able to reduce the impact if you can persuade the collectors to remove the accounts from your reports in exchange for payment, something known in the collections industry as “pay for delete.” But you probably can’t erase the late payments and charge-offs reported by the original creditor before the accounts were turned over to collections, and those earlier marks against you are even more negative than the collection accounts.

That’s not to say you should despair. Over time, your credit scores will improve as you handle credit responsibly. But you shouldn’t expect overnight miracles.

Triggering the Gift Tax

Dear Liz: In 2007, my parents signed over their house deed to my name. Does this trigger the gift tax? They never filled out a gift tax form. Is it too late? Dad has passed on but Mom is still with us. She has Alzheimer’s disease, and I have her power of attorney. Are there no taxes due because of the lifetime exclusion?

Answer: Yes, a gift tax return should have been filed, but no, the gift tax itself almost certainly wasn’t triggered. In 2007, each of your parents would have had to give away more than $1 million in their lifetimes before gift tax would be owed. The gift tax exemption limit has since been raised to more than $5 million.

A tax professional can help you file the overdue return. Then you should consult an attorney about what to do next.

If your parents’ intent was to avoid taxes by transferring the home to you, they probably made a mistake. By giving the house to you, they also gave their tax basis. That means that when you sell the house, you would have to pay capital gains taxes on the difference between the sale price and what they paid for it, perhaps many years ago. The capital gains would be decreased by any improvements made in the subsequent years and by selling costs, but you still could face a substantial tax bill.

If you’d inherited the home after their deaths, on the other hand, you would get a new tax basis that essentially makes those gains tax-free.
You could undo the gift by transferring the deed back to your mother and filing another gift tax return. (Again, no tax probably would be owed.) But that’s probably not something you’d want to do if your mother will qualify for Medicaid, the government program that pays nursing home expenses for the poor, said Howard Krooks, an attorney with Elder Law Associates in Boca Raton, Fla., and president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

Medicaid looks back at the previous five years to see if the family transferred assets for less than fair-market value and delays eligibility if such transfers are found. Since you’re outside the five-year mark, you may want to leave things the way they are if Medicaid is in your mom’s future, Krooks said.

An elder law attorney can help you sort through the options. You can get referrals from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org.

Charitable giving can help keep tax deductions steady

Dear Liz: Regarding the reader who was worried about not having sufficient tax deductions: I recommend charitable giving. As our mortgage interest per payment fell, I augmented it with charitable giving to maintain the same annual total for income tax deductions (interest plus charity). As the years go by, our interest decreases and charity increases. Payments to charity accomplish a social benefit, while interest payments just line the pockets of bankers. We give to a broad variety of charities: national, local and international organizations, religious and secular, health and social care, care for children at risk, veterans, Red Cross, etc. The great thing about charitable giving is that we get to choose whom we wish to help. When asked, most organizations will keep your demographic information private so that you are not inundated with requests via the sale of donor lists.

Answer: Thanks for sharing your approach, but people should understand that it requires paying out more money over time to maintain the same level of itemized deductions.

Mortgage payments typically remain the same over the life of the loan, with the amount of potentially deductible interest shrinking and the amount applied to the principal increasing with each payment. So as the amount of deductible interest declines, you would have to increase your contributions to charity in addition to making your mortgage payment each month if you wanted to keep your itemized deductions unchanged.