Could You Lose Your Social Security Benefits to Creditors?

What if you are retired and the only income you have is your Social Security benefit? “Can Creditors Come After Your Social Security Benefits” is the question posed by Yahoo! Finance. While for the most part, you don’t have to worry about creditors coming after your Social Security benefits, there are others who can get them, if you haven’t paid certain debts.

Personal loan payments, credit card payments, or medical bills are usually not able to take your Social Security benefits. But there are some exceptions you’ll need to know about:

  • The IRS will not blink at taking up to 15% of your benefits, if your taxes are not paid.
  • If you owe on student loans, the loan companies can come after your Social Security benefits, even if the debt is decades old.
  • The same is true if you are behind on either child support or alimony payments.

As long as your outstanding debt is not tax-related, the first $750 of your benefits is protected from being garnished. However, if you’re behind on child support or alimony, you could lose more than 50% of those benefits.

There are steps to take if debt is an issue. First, if you owe money to the IRS, contact the local IRS office to work out a payment plan. They will almost always work with people to reach an agreement on an installment payment agreement. This will avoid having your benefits garnished.

If you’re behind on student loan payments, reach out to the lender and work out an arrangement. If you can prove that your financial situation is dire, you might be able to come up with a deferred payment plan or change the repayment schedule.

If things are really bad, consider filing for bankruptcy. If you do, realize that not all your debt will be dischargeable. For the most part, the same debts that can cause Social Security benefits to be garnished, like overdue taxes and student loans, are not forgivable by a bankruptcy. If those are your key issues, bankruptcy is not your best option.

This might be a situation where a bankruptcy attorney or a debt settlement firm is needed. Be very cautious about working with a debt settlement firm, to be sure that they are credible and trustworthy. The firm or the attorney will be able to help negotiate the debts. Remember that the ultimate goal of any creditor is to get paid, and sometimes getting paid half of the amount is better than not being paid at all.

Your best bet is to approach this problem and tackle it before you file for Social Security. If your sole source of retirement income is compromised, you want to contact the local county Office for Aging services to find out what kind of help is available in your community. Don’t leave this hanging and hope that it will be resolved by itself.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (April 27, 2019) “Can Creditors Come After Your Social Security Benefits”

How Big or Small Will Your Retirement Paycheck Be?

You’ve spent years saving for retirement, and maybe you’ve gotten that down to a science. That’s called the “accumulation” side of retirement. However, what happens when you actually, finally, retire? That’s known as the “deaccumulation” phase, when you start taking withdrawals from the accounts which you so carefully managed all these years. However, says CNBC, here’s what comes next: “You probably don’t know how much your retirement paycheck will be. New technology is working to change that.”

Unless you are a trained professional, like a financial advisor or a CPA, chances are good that you have no idea how to transform a lifetime of savings into a steady, tax-efficient income stream. A study for the Alliance for Lifetime Income asked pre-retirees, if they have done the math to figure out how much money they’ll need for retirement. About 66% say they haven’t done the calculations. Just 38% of households can count on having a pension or an annuity to provide a steady stream of cash.

In response to this common question, one company has launched a feature that was created to help you create a steady paycheck in retirement. The company, Kindur, was founded by a woman whose career included nearly two-decades in asset management at J.P. Morgan. She was inspired by her own experience helping her father decide how to draw down his assets. After devoting hours to Social Security books, she realized that technology could solve this problem. Throughout her career, she saw how financial institutions used technology to present and manage complex information. The goal of her company was to take this complexity out of retirement income planning.

Kindur, however, is not alone in this space. The founder of Social Security Solutions and Income Strategy found himself wishing there was a way to coordinate retirement income some ten years ago. He teamed up with the investment strategy chair at Baylor University, for what he thought would be a short project. In the end, it took years to sort through all the rules of Social Security. However, a platform was created to help people figure out claiming strategies. His second company analyzes   the accounts from which they should withdraw and when.

Another company, Income Strategy, provides users with help to figure out how to withdraw money and provides the option of how that transaction will be executed.

The future will likely hold more of these kinds of platforms, as the next generation becomes more comfortable with allowing AI (Artificial Intelligence) to manage their money and their withdrawals. For now, most people are still more comfortable with a person providing financial guidance, although that guidance is often helped by AI. Together, AI and an experienced professional make the best advisors.

As you plan for the future, remember to include the estate planning component. There have are many online legal drafting platforms, but so far, they have fallen short.

Reference: CNBC (April 7, 2019) “You probably don’t know how much your retirement paycheck will be. New technology is working to change that.”

Having a Generous Spirit is a Good Thing for Many Reasons

Many people give generously throughout the year, for birthdays, to help children or grandchildren with college costs or just because they want to help family or friends. However, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader’s article “Lifetime (noncharitable) giving has many advantages—and not just for tax purposes.”

Lifetime giving means that you are more involved with giving, than if your giving occurs after you have died. Perhaps the best part of gifting with warm hands, is that you are able to enjoy seeing the recipient (donee) benefit from your gift. It’s a good feeling to see a person have his life enriched by your generosity.

It should also be noted that sometimes, giving away something can be a way of liberating yourself. With less property, there’s less for you to manage, insure or provide upkeep.

If you die with no will, the intestacy laws of your state will determine who gets what. With a will, you have the opportunity to make your intentions known clearly. However, since you will not be alive, you won’t be able to see the actual transfer of property. A beneficiary might decide that they don’t want an asset. It is also possible that someone who always told you that he loved the painting in the foyer of your home, may decide to sell it, instead of keeping it.

Lifetime giving lets you react to changing circumstances and provides some control over how your assets are distributed.

After your death, your property and your estate may go through probate, which in some states can be a lengthy process. Lifetime giving also reduces the costs associated with probate and estate administration, because they won’t be included in your estate at the time of death. Assets that come out of the probate estate, reduces the likelihood of estate creditors or dissatisfied heirs. Lifetime gifts are private, while probate is public.

However, there are also tax advantages. If your gifting program is structured correctly by an experienced estate planning attorney, income and estate taxes can be decreased. Generally, a gift is not taxable income to the donee. However, any income earned by the gift property or capital gain subsequent to the gift, is usually taxable. The donor holds the responsibility of paying state or federal transfer taxes imposed on the gift. There are four taxes to be aware of: the state gift tax, the state generation-skipping transfer tax, federal gift and estate taxes and the federal generation-skipping transfer tax.

Many people give, because they want to support charitable causes or help friends and family enjoy a higher quality of life. The need to reduce the size of an estate to lower estate taxes is now less prominent, since the federal estate tax exemption is so high. It should be kept in mind that the new tax laws regarding federal estate taxes end in 2025. That may seem far away, but it will be here soon enough.

Another way to give, is to help with college expenses. Any gift must be made directly to a qualified institution. Similarly, if you’d like to help a friend or family member with medical expenses, a gift needs to be made directly to the healthcare provider. Not only are these types of transfers exempt from federal gift and estate taxes, but they are outside of the $15,000 annual gift exclusion gift you can make to an individual in any given calendar year.

This is a simple overview of gifting. An estate planning attorney should be consulted to create a plan for giving, that aligns with your overall estate plan and tax management plan.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (April 7, 2019) “Lifetime (noncharitable) giving has many advantages—and not just for tax purposes”

What You Need to Know, If the Next Generation Is Inheriting the Family Farm

Understanding the tax liabilities for inheriting, buying or being gifted the family farm, is critical to avoid a costly financial misstep, says Capital Press in the article “The family farm is coming to you: What’s next?” You’ll need to work closely with your estate planning attorney and CPA to make sure you understand the basis in the real estate, especially if the property is sold and taxes will need to be paid. How you inherit the property, makes a big difference in the tax bill.

If you receive the property as a gift from parents while they are alive, then you retain their income tax basis in the property. If they inherited it also, they likely have a low tax basis. Farms with a basis of $50,000 that are now worth $2 million are not unusual. If the farm is sold, there will be a capital gains tax on the difference between the basis and the present value, which could be more than $600,000.

If you inherit the farm from a parent and then sell it for $2 million, its value at the time of their death, you would not have to pay a capital gains tax. That saves $600,000.

The estate tax may not be so bad, depending upon your state’s estate tax, which is probably lower than the highest capital gains rate. If you live in Oregon, you may be eligible for the Oregon National Resource Credit, which was created to reduce Oregon estate taxes on family farms. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you plan for and manage these taxes.

If you bought the farm from a parent’s trust or estate for $2 million, then you have a $2 million basis in the property and will probably not owe any property gains tax, if you eventually sell it for $2 million.

Just be sure that you comply with all reporting requirements. If you are in Oregon and took the Oregon National Resource Credit, then for five out of eight years after the death, the recipient of the inherited property is required to file an annual certification to keep the credit that was used to lower the estate tax. Failure to comply, means that a portion of the estate tax will have to be repaid.

If you own the farm without other family members, you should start planning your next steps. To whom do you want to pass the farm? If you want to keep the farm in the family, work with an attorney who is familiar with farm families, so that you can keep working the land and reduce any disputes.

Farmers often separate business operations from the land, with the operations held by one business and the land held by another entity. This allows the estate planning attorney to plan for succession in how operations and land are transferred to the next generation. It also provides asset protection, while you are alive.

Make sure that your farm succession plan and your estate plan are aligned. A common issue is finding that buy-sell documents don’t align with the will or trust. Some farmers use a revocable living trust as a will, so they can incorporate estate tax planning and transition the farm privately upon death.

Reference: Capital Press (March 24, 2019) “The family farm is coming to you: What’s next?”

 

How Do I Cash in My Life Insurance Policy?

There are some drawbacks to using life insurance to meet immediate cash needs, especially if you’re compromising your long-term goals or your family’s financial future. Investopedia’s recent article “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy” says that if other options are not available, life insurance—especially cash-value life insurance—can be a source of needed income.

Cash-value life insurance, like whole life and universal life, builds reserves through excess premiums plus earnings. These deposits are held in a cash-accumulation account within the policy. You can access cash accumulations within the policy through withdrawals, policy loans, or partial or full surrender of the policy. Another alternative is selling your policy for cash, known as a life settlement. Note that although cash from the policy might be useful during stressful financial times, you could face unwanted consequences, depending on the method you use to access the funds.

You can usually withdraw limited cash from a life insurance policy, based on the type of policy you own and the insurance company. The big advantage is that the withdrawals aren’t taxable up to your policy basis, as long as your policy isn’t classified as a modified endowment contract (MEC). However, these can have unexpected or unrealized consequences. Withdrawals that decrease your cash value, could cause a reduction in your death benefits. This is a potential source of funds you or your family might need for income replacement, business purposes or wealth preservation. Cash-value withdrawals also aren’t always tax-free. If you take a withdrawal during the first 15 years of the policy, and the withdrawal causes a reduction in the policy’s death benefit, some or all of the withdrawn cash could be subject to tax. Withdrawals are treated as taxable, to the extent that they exceed your basis in the policy.

Withdrawals that reduce your cash surrender value could mean higher premiums to maintain the same death benefit, or the policy could lapse.

If your policy is determined to be an MEC, withdrawals are taxed, according to the rules applicable to annuities–cash disbursements are considered to be made from interest first and are subject to income tax and possibly a 10% early-withdrawal penalty, if you’re under age 59½ at the time of the withdrawal. Policy loans are treated as distributions, so the amount of the loan up to the earnings in the policy will be taxable and could also be subject to the pre-59½ early-withdrawal penalty.

Surrendering the policy can provide the cash you need, but you’re relinquishing the right to the death-benefit protection. You can sell your life insurance policy to a life settlement company in exchange for cash. The new owner will keep the policy in force (by paying the premiums) and get a return on the investment, by receiving the death benefit when you die.

To qualify for a life settlement, the insured must be at least 65 years old, have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years or less, and usually have a policy death benefit of at least $100,000. However, the taxation of life settlements is complicated. The gain in excess of your basis in the policy is taxed to you as ordinary income. In addition to the tax liability, life settlements usually include up to a 30% in commissions and fees, which reduces the net amount you receive.

If you are interested in learning more about tax planning or how your life insurance policy can affect your estate plan, speak with your local estate planning or elder law attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (January 9, 2019) “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy”

How to Be Smart about an Inheritance

While there’s no one way that is right for everyone, there are some basic considerations about receiving a large inheritance that apply to almost anyone. According to the article “What should you do with an inheritance?” from The Rogersville Review, the size of the inheritance could make it possible for you to move up your retirement date. Just be mindful that it is very easy to spend large amounts of money very quickly, especially if this is a new experience.

Here are some ways to consider using an inheritance:

Get rid of your debt load. Car loans, credit cards and most school loans are at higher rates than you can get from any investments. Therefore, it makes sense to use at least some of your inheritance to get rid of this expensive debt. Some people believe that it’s best to not have a mortgage, since now there are limits to deductions. You may not want to pay off a mortgage, since you’ll have less flexibility if you need cash.

Contribute more to retirement accounts. If the inheritance gives you a little breathing room in your regular budget, it’s a good idea to increase your contributions to an employer-sponsored 401(k) or another plan, as well as to your personal IRA. Remember that this money grows tax-free and it is possible you’ll need it.

Start college funding. If your financial plan includes helping children or even grandchildren attend college, you could use an inheritance to open a 529 account. This gives you tax benefits and considerable flexibility in distributing the money. Every state has a 529 account program and it’s easy to open an account.

Create or reinforce an emergency fund. A recent survey found that most Americans don’t have emergency funds. Therefore, a bill for more than $400 would be difficult for them to pay. Use your inheritance to create an emergency fund, which should have six to 12 months’ worth of living expenses. Put the money into a liquid, low-risk account, so that you can access it easily if necessary. This way you don’t tap into long-term funds.

Review your estate plan. Anytime you have a large life event, like the death of a parent or an inheritance, it’s time to review your estate plan. Depending upon the size of the estate, there may be some tax liabilities you’ll need to deal with. You may also want to set some of the assets aside in trust for children or grandchildren. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide you with experienced counsel on the use of the inheritance for you and future generations.

Reference: The Rogersville Review (March 21, 2019) “What should you do with an inheritance?”

Estate Taxes, Death and a Other Certainties

As the old saying goes, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Many people don’t have the faintest idea of just how extensive those taxes can be, says Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the article “Death and taxes—and taxes and taxes.” For all the headlines and noise about federal estate taxes, those are the last ones most of us have to think about.

The federal estate tax is a non-event, unless you belong to the upper one percent of wealthy Americans. The federal tax is paid, based on the value of the assets owned by the decedent at the time of death. It also includes any assets that are controlled by the decedent at the time of death. The first $11.4 million is now excluded from any taxes due for an individual, and $22.8 million for a couple.

Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, this exemption was roughly $5 million, so many more people had to pay it. The levels are expected to go back to the pre-2018 amount at the end of 2025, unless the law changes before that time.

This is an important point to remember: the tax laws change, and anytime tax laws change, your estate plan should be reviewed to ensure that it is still going to work the way you intend.

In some states, like Pennsylvania, there are still inheritance taxes. Only six states have inheritance taxes, and only 12 states still have an estate tax. Your estate planning attorney will know what your state’s inheritance and estate taxes are and can help you plan, so that your family is not overly burdened when it comes time to pay these taxes.

Inheritance taxes are generally based on the value of the assets owned or controlled by the decedent. It is independent of the obligation to file an income tax return for the estate.

The decedent’s representative, usually the executor, is responsible for filling all state, local and federal income tax returns for the portion of the year, in which the decedent was still living.

When a person passes and their last will and testament is admitted to probate, the executor receives an employer identification number (EIN) from the IRS. If the decedent died owning a trust, the trustee must obtain an EIN. Once the EIN is obtained, the IRS sends a letter notifying you of the due date for the income tax return for the estate or the trust. These are known as “fiduciary income tax returns.” They must be filed every year for the year that the estate or trust exists.

Note that the tax returns involve federal capital gains tax and how assets purchased before death will be treated for tax purposes, when they are sold after death. Usually these are real estate and investments. There are a LOT of taxes to consider, each has a unique due date and there may be ways to pay some taxes that will have an impact on other taxes, depending upon the situation.

The key, and an estate planning attorney can help with this, is to create a plan that takes all the taxes into consideration and plans out a strategy to minimize taxes, ensure that everything is paid on time, and prepare for the taxes to be paid.

Ideally, all this planning takes place before someone dies, as part of their estate plan, so that their loved ones are not left figuring out all of the different tax liabilities and how to pay them.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (March 25, 2019) “Death and taxes—and taxes and taxes”

Digital Assets in Estate Planning: The Brave New World of Estate Planning

Cryptocurrency is almost mainstream, despite its complexity, says Insurance News Net in the article “Westchester County Elder Law Attorney… Sheds Light on Cryptocurrency in Estate Planning.” The IRS has made it clear that as far as federal taxation is concerned, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are to be treated as property. However, since cryptocurrency is not tangible property, how is it incorporated into an estate plan?

For starters, recordkeeping is extremely important for any cryptocurrency owner. Records need to be kept that are current and income taxes need to be paid on the transactions every single year. When the owner dies, the beneficiaries will receive the cryptocurrency at its current fair market value. The cost basis is stepped up to the date of death value and it is includable in the decedent’s taxable estate.

Here’s where it gets tricky. The name of the Bitcoin or cryptocurrency owner is not publicly recorded. Instead, ownership is tied to a specific Bitcoin address that can only be accessed by the person who holds two “digital keys.” These are not physical keys, but codes. One “key” is public, and the other key is private. The private key is the secret number that allows the spending of the cryptocurrency.

Both of these digital keys are stored in a “digital wallet,” which, just like the keys, is not an actual wallet but a system used to secure payment information and passwords.

One of the dangers of cryptocurrency is that unlike other financial assets, if that private key is somehow lost, there is no way that anyone can access the digital currency.

It should also be noted that cryptocurrency can be included as an asset in a last will and testament as well as a revocable or irrevocable trust. However, cryptocurrency is highly volatile, and its value may swing wildly.

The executor or trustee of an estate or trust must take steps to ensure that the estate or the trust is in compliance with the Prudent Investor Act. The holdings in the trust or the estate will need to be diversified with other types of investments. If this is not followed, even ownership of a small amount of cryptocurrency may lead to many issues with how the estate or trust was being managed.

Digital currency and digital assets are two relatively new areas for estate planning, although both have been in common usage for many years. As more boomers are dying, planning for these intangible assets has become more commonplace. Failing to have a plan or providing incorrect directions for how to handle digital assets, is becoming problematic for many individuals.

Speak with an estate planning attorney who has experience in digital and non-traditional assets to learn how to protect your heirs and your estate from losses associated with these new types of assets.

Reference: Insurance News Net (Feb. 25, 2019) “Westchester County Elder Law Attorney… Sheds Light on Cryptocurrency in Estate Planning”

Using a Health Savings Account for Retirement Health Care Costs

If it’s done right, the older American worker has an opportunity to save additional money for health costs during retirement. That’s if they do it right, according to CNBC’s article Over 55? Maximize your savings in this tax-advantaged account.” Over 55? You can put away an additional $1,000.

Starting in 2019, people with self-only coverage in a high-deductible health insurance plan will be allowed to save up to $2,500 in a Health Savings Account (HSA). If you’ve got family coverage, you can save $7,000.

HSAs permit users to put away money that is pre-tax or tax deductible. The funds accumulate interest on a tax-free basis, and then the account owner can withdraw the money tax-free for qualified medical expenses. Catch-up contributions for those 55 and older of $1,000, make this an even more attractive way to save for health care costs.

However, there are a few complications you’ll need to know about, if you are married and if you are getting close to being eligible for Medicare.

Keeping one HSA, if you’re married and in a high-deductible health plan works, until one of the spouses celebrates a 55th birthday. If the spouse under 55 years has the HSA account, but the older spouse is eligible for the catch-up contribution, the spouse who is over 55 should open their HSA and put away the additional $1,000. There are no joint HSAs, so only the older spouse can make that contribution.

If both spouses are 55, the only way each can make a $1,000 contribution, is if they have separate HSAs. If both spouses have family coverage, they can split the total plan contribution of $7,000 between the two accounts. However, those $1,000 catch up contributions still have to go into the account of the spouse permitted to make that contribution.

Once you or your spouse turns 65 and you enroll in Medicare, you are no longer permitted to make contributions. You can use the funds for qualified medical expenses, but no more contributions.

Let’s say you celebrated your 65th birthday in July and enrolled in Medicare. You were in a plan with self-only coverage. In that case, you are only permitted to make contributions until June—one month before you enrolled in Medicare. The most you are permitted to contribute to your HSA account for that year would be $2,250.

Contribute too much, and you’ll need to get the money out of there. Your deadline to do so is April 15.

One last detail: you are permitted a one-time-only rollover from your IRA to your HSA. There’s a limit, of course: $3,500 if you have self-only coverage or $7,000 if you have a family plan—and the $1,000 catch-up contribution if you’re over 55. It’s a smart move, taking taxable money and making it nontaxable, as long as it’s used for qualified medical expenses.

ReferenceCNBC (Dec. 24, 2018) Over 55? Maximize your savings in this tax-advantaged account”