Q&A: Consult a pro when planning elder care

Dear Liz: My parents and I are discussing the best ways to protect their assets if one of them must live in a nursing home. Their home is paid off, and we were wondering if adding my name on the deed will secure the home from a mandatory sale for caregiving expenses. Please note, I am the only child. Also, I may want to live there someday to care for the other parent. Looking for the best options for saving money and avoiding inheritance tax for this asset.

Answer: Please consult an elder law attorney before you take any steps to “protect” assets because the wrong moves could come back to haunt you (and your parents).

It sounds like you’re contemplating the possibility that one of your parents may wind up on Medicaid, the government health program for the poor that covers nursing home costs. Medicaid has a very low asset limit and uses a “look back” period to discourage people from transferring money or property just so they can qualify. In most states, transfers made within 60 months of the application are examined and, if found to be in violation of the rules, used to determine a penalty period to prevent someone from qualifying for Medicaid coverage. In California, the look-back period is 30 months.

The state can attempt to recoup Medicaid costs from people’s estates by putting liens against their homes. You might see that as an “inheritance tax,” but inheritance taxes are taxes imposed in a few states on people who inherit money or property. Although all states try to recoup Medicaid costs, only six — Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — have inheritance taxes, and these either exempt or give favorable rates to children who inherit.

Having your name added to the deed can cause problems, as well. Your creditors could go after the home if you’re sued, and you could lose a portion of the step up in tax basis you would get if you inherited the house instead. If you’re married and get divorced, your portion of your parents’ home could be considered a “marital asset” that has to be divided.

It’s great that you and your parents are trying to plan for long-term care, but you should seek out professional guidance.

Selling mom’s house may require an appraisal first

Dear Liz: My mother recently passed away. The title to her home was held in the family trust. My siblings and I are in the process of clearing out the house in preparation for a sale. Do we need to obtain a “step-up” basis appraisal before the sale to use in determining capital gain on the home? We do not know the original price paid for the home in the late 1960s. Alternatively, could we use an appraisal made in November 2016 as a basis and apply the one-time $250,000 capital gain exclusion?

Answer: You definitely need to establish a property’s value for income tax purposes soon after the owner’s death. If you sell within a year, you could use the fair market value as the home’s new basis, said estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell.

“There is no law about this one-year period,” Mitchell said. “It is just what is often used by both IRS and practitioners.”

You may want more certainty or think the sale may not happen within a year. Estate planning attorney Jennifer Sawday of Long Beach recommends you immediately reach out to a real estate agent to get a broker opinion value letter or hire a certified real estate appraiser to determine the exact value of the home at the date of your mother’s death.

“If you are able to sell the home close to or not much higher than the date of death valuation, the trust will not have any capital gains,” she said. “Plus real estate expenses and other trust administration fees will be computed against the home selling price to minimize any capital gains as well.”

A tax pro can help you figure this all out. The costs of hiring tax and legal help can be charged to the estate.

All the gain in value from the past five decades won’t be taxed. In some parts of the country where home prices are high, such as California, that step-up in basis is far more valuable than the $250,000 home sale exclusion, which you wouldn’t be able to use anyway unless you lived in and owned the home for at least two of the previous five years.

Q&A: Here’s a big tax mistake you can easily avoid

Dear Liz: I’m self-employed and my wife wasn’t working last year. In December, we returned to California and found a small home to purchase using $107,000 I took out of my IRA. Since we weren’t quite certain of what our income would be, we received our health insurance in Oregon through an Affordable Care Act exchange.

When we filed our taxes we got hit with a $20,000 bill for the insurance, because we earned too much to qualify for subsidies, and a $10,000 bill for the IRA withdrawal. Our goal was to own our home outright, which we do, but now we have a $30,000 tax bill hanging over us.

Can we work with the IRS somehow on this? We didn’t “earn” the $107,000; we invested it in a home. It wasn’t income, so why should we be punished for using our savings to purchase a home?

Answer: If you mean, “Can I talk the IRS out of following the law?” then the answer is pretty clearly no. The IRA withdrawal was income. It doesn’t matter what you did with it.

Consider that you probably got a tax deduction when you contributed to the IRA, which means you didn’t pay income taxes on that money. The gains have been growing tax deferred, which means you didn’t pay tax on those, either.

Uncle Sam gave you those breaks to encourage you to save for retirement, but he wants to get paid eventually. That’s why IRAs and most other retirement accounts are subject to required minimum distributions and don’t get the step-up in tax basis that other investments typically get when the account owner dies.

(If you did not get a tax deduction on your contributions, by the way, then part of your withdrawal should have been tax-free. If you’d contributed to a Roth IRA, your contributions would not have been deductible but withdrawals in retirement would be tax-free.)

The IRS does offer long-term payment plans that may help. People who owe less than $50,000 can get up to six years to pay their balances off. You would file Form 9465 to request a payment plan. The IRS’ site has details.

Here’s a good rule to follow in the future: If you’re considering taking any money from a retirement account, talk to a tax professional first. People often dramatically underestimate the cost of tapping their 401(k)s and IRAs; a tax pro can set you straight.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why buying an energy-efficient home is a financially bright idea. Also in the news: Calling your credit card issuer for a favor, a new bundle of tax hassles for Harry and Meghan, and how to see beyond the “money fog.”

Buying an Energy-Efficient Home: A Financially Bright Idea
Good for the earth and your wallet.

Need a Favor From a Credit Card Issuer? Make a Call
Pleading your case.

Harry, Meghan and Royal Family Welcoming New Bundle of Tax Hassles
Dual citizenship could make taxes interesting.

How to See Beyond the ‘Money FOG’
Fear, obligation, guilt.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What really happens when you try to win money to pay down student loans. Also in the news: How to sidestep the potential pitfalls of travel credit cards, new Barclays feature gives you more spending control, and how to pay the exact amount of taxes you owe in advance.

What Really Happens When You Try to Win Money to Pay Down Student Loans
Behind the scenes.

How to Sidestep the Potential Pitfalls of Travel Credit Cards
Free travel can be costly.

New Barclays Feature Takes Card Locking One Step Further
More ways to control your spending.

How to Pay the Exact Amount of Taxes You Owe in Advance
Using the IRS Withholding Calculator.




Thursday’s need-to-know money news


Today’s top story: How being late on your taxes could ground your vacation plans. Also in the news: 5 ways to maximize ‘shoulder season’ travel, what it’s like to win money to pay down student loans, and why you shouldn’t use your debit card on anything you can’t afford to lose.

Late on Your Taxes? Your Vacation Plans May Get Grounded
Your passport could be in jeopardy.

5 Ways to Maximize ‘Shoulder Season’ Travel
Off-peak travel offers bargains.

What it’s really like to win money to pay down student loans
Pressing your luck.

Don’t Pay Debit on Anything You Can’t Afford to Lose
Learning from WOW Airlines.




Your 401(k) just got more valuable

If your tax refund this year was disappointing, you may be able to do something about it: Contribute more to a retirement fund.

Tax-deductible contributions to 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement accounts are among the few remaining ways to reduce taxable income if you don’t itemize deductions. And few of us do these days: Only about 1 in 10 taxpayers is expected to itemize now that Congress has nearly doubled the standard deduction, tax experts say. That’s down from about 1 in 3 before the law changed.

As a result, many of the traditional tips and tricks for reducing tax bills either no longer work or are of limited help.  In my latest for the Associated Press, how to use your 401(k) to reduce your taxable income.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news


Today’s top story: Why you should love robo-advisors. Also in the news: 7 ways to trim your tax bill in retirement, how Roth IRA taxes work, and how to save money for the future when it’s uncertain.

Why You Should Love Robo-Advisors
Keeping costs low and advice honest.

Taxes in Retirement: 7 Ways to Trim Your Bill
Ideas that can reduce financial stress in retirement.

How Roth IRA Taxes Work
A good investment at tax time.

How to save for the future when it’s uncertain
Preparing for a variety of outcomes.





Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 3 things that will change when you’re a homeowner. Also in the news: 3 times you can pay taxes with plastic and come out ahead, eight ways you can save money right now, and what happens if you default on a loan.

3 Things That Change When You’re a Homeowner
All you’ll think about is money.

3 Times You Can Pay Taxes With Plastic and Come Out Ahead
Build up your rewards.

Eight Ways You Can Save Money Right Now
Automate your savings.

What Happens if You Default on a Loan?
Don’t take it lightly.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 3 reasons to choose a college based on price. Also in the news: 3 times you can pay taxes with plastic and come out ahead, 7 tax changes investors should watch for when they file, and why you should check your hospital bill against your explanation of benefits.

3 Reasons to Choose a College Based on Price
Avoiding high debt.

3 Times You Can Pay Taxes With Plastic and Come Out Ahead
Building card perks.

7 Tax Changes Investors Should Watch For As They File
Investors face several new changes.

Check Your Hospital Bill Against Your Explanation of Benefits
Billing mistakes are rampant.