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Should a soon-to-be retiree use savings to pay off the mortgage?

Should a soon-to-be retiree use savings to pay off the mortgage?
Using the bulk of your savings to pay off your mortgage before retirement might not be a wise choice. (Dreamstime / TNS)

Dear Liz: I am 64, single and planning to retire in two years. I have saved enough to pay off my $100,000 mortgage. It will take the bulk of my savings but I have no other debts. I will have a pension and Social Security. I also have a credit score over 800. Should I do this?

Answer: Probably not.

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Being debt free in retirement is wonderful, but being stuck short of cash is not. It’s a particularly bad idea to use pretax money from retirement accounts to pay off a mortgage. Not only can the withdrawal trigger a big tax bill, but it may push you into a higher tax bracket for that year and cause other unexpected tax consequences.

Even if your pension and Social Security cover your expenses now, that probably won’t be the case for the rest of your life. For example, Medicare covers about half of the typical retiree’s medical costs, and doesn’t pay at all for most long-term care expenses if you should need those.

You could pay off the mortgage and then arrange a home equity line of credit you could tap for such expenses or for emergencies. Just be aware that lenders can freeze or close lines of credit at their discretion, so it won’t be the same as having cash on hand.

Decisions made about retirement are complex and often irreversible. Consider consulting with a fee-only financial planner about your retirement plans so you better understand your options and the consequences of the choices you’re making.

Figuring the tax toll for an inherited house

Dear Liz: I inherited my home when my husband died. If I sell this house now at a current market value of around $900,000, what will be the basis of the capital gains tax? I think at the time of my husband's death, the house's market value was $400,000.

Answer: Based on your phrasing, we’ll assume your husband was the home’s sole owner when he died. In that case, the home got a new value for tax purposes of $400,000. That tax basis would be increased by the cost of any improvements you made while you owned it. When you sell, you subtract your basis from the sale price, minus the costs to sell the home, such as the real estate agent’s commission, to determine your gain. You can exempt up to $250,000 of the gain from taxation if it’s your primary residence and you’ve lived in the house at least two of the previous five years. You would owe capital gains taxes on the remaining profit.

Here’s how the math might work. Let’s say you made $50,000 in improvements to the home, raising your tax basis to $450,000. You pay your real estate agent a 6% commission on the $900,000 sale, or $54,000. The net sale price is then $846,000, from which you subtract $450,000 to get a gain of $396,000. If you meet the requirements for the home sale exclusion, you can subtract $250,000 from that amount, leaving $146,000 as the taxable gain.

If your husband was not the sole owner — if you owned the home together when he died — the tax treatment essentially would be the same if you lived in a community property state such as California. In other states, only his share of the home would receive the step-up in tax basis and you would retain the original tax basis for your share.

Self insurance brings risk

Dear Liz: A letter writer in your column says that “self insurance,” or going without health insurance, “certainly reinforces healthy lifestyle choices.” My husband made all of those “right” choices for more than 60 years, which was absolutely no protection against being diagnosed with brain cancer. Your penny-pinching correspondent might currently be running marathons or doing daily yoga, but as Clint Eastwood put it: “You've gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?’”

Answer: As a nation, we could certainly lower our healthcare costs by choosing healthier lifestyles — exercising, avoiding obesity, not smoking and so on. But accident or illness can strike even the healthiest among us, which is why health insurance is a necessity not just to ensure we can get care but to protect against catastrophic medical bills.

Unfortunately, as human beings we often have the delusion that what’s happened in the recent past will continue indefinitely. If we’ve been lucky with our health, we may think that will always be the case. The reality is that everybody’s luck runs out at some point, and often does so at great expense.

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