Dear Liz: My partner passed away a little more than a year ago. I inherited his 401(k) and life insurance. I opened an IRA in which to place the amount of the 401(k), but the company told me that after a year (which is now), I have to withdraw the money over five years. Is that really required? I'd like to be able to have it on hand in case of an emergency but at the same time save it for our 2-year-old son's college education.
Answer: Since you weren't married, you don't have the option of treating this inherited account as your own. That would have allowed you to delay withdrawals until after you turned 70 1/2 , if you wanted.
The fact that this is a non-spouse inherited IRA, however, doesn't necessarily mean you're bound by the five-year rule. That rule requires the IRA be distributed by Dec. 31 of the fifth year following the year of the original retirement account owner's death. You may also have the option of beginning distributions based on your life expectancy. That would allow the bulk of the money to remain in the IRA, continuing to earn tax-deferred returns, and is usually a better choice.
Whether you have this second option depends on the terms of the IRA and the original 401(k) plan.
"It is important to check the IRA terms rather than rely on oral statements since the five-year option may be pushed when it is not required," said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America. "It is also important to make a determination on the availability on the life-expectancy rule in the year after death since distributions must start under the life-expectancy rule in that year. Waiting too long could force one into the five-year rule by default."
Tapping ex-spouse's Social Security benefits
Dear Liz: I've been reading with interest your answers to questions about Social Security spousal benefits, particularly those available to divorced spouses. What if the former spouse is now remarried for more than 10 years, and the current spouse is receiving benefits? Are spousal benefits still available and how are they calculated?
Answer: The answer depends on whose earnings record we're talking about, so a few pronouns might have helped clarify your question.
Let's say you're the earner. If your former spouse has remarried, then he is no longer eligible to receive spousal benefits based on your earnings record. Only divorced people whose marriages lasted 10 years and who are not married can get spousal benefits based on an ex's earnings record.
If you're the one hoping for spousal benefits, however, it doesn't matter that your ex has remarried as long as you're unmarried. Your ex's current spouse and any previous spouses who qualify can receive spousal benefits. The amounts they get don't affect any other spouse's checks or the checks received by the earner (your ex).
Spousal benefits can be up to half the earner's "primary insurance amount," which is the check the earner would get if she started Social Security at full retirement age. The benefits are permanently discounted if the spouse or ex-spouse begins receiving them before his own full retirement age.
FICO scores come in many varieties
Dear Liz: I am confused. I have always thought there was one FICO score, prepared by a private company. I thought each credit agency also had its own credit score but it was not scaled the same as FICO. Your recent column said one can buy two of the three FICO scores (Equifax and TransUnion), and the third (Experian) will soon offer its FICO through the MyFICO website. Please clarify.
Answer: It's no wonder you're confused. Many of the companies marketing credit scores don't make it clear that there are many types of credit scores, and even many types of FICOs, which is the leading credit scoring formula.
The credit bureaus typically sell their own proprietary scores to individuals, either "consumer education" scores that lenders might not use or some version of the VantageScore, a credit scoring formula that was created as a rival to the FICO. Older versions of the VantageScore ranged from 500 to 990, but the latest version has the same 300-to-850 scale as the FICO.
The bureaus also sell FICO scores of various types to lenders. The FICO formulas were created by a separate company, Fair Isaac. Bureaus apply the proprietary FICO formula to the data in your credit reports to create your FICO scores.
Individuals usually can't purchase their FICO scores directly from the credit bureaus. People can, however, buy their FICOs from the MyFICO website, which now offers FICOs from all three bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. (For a few years Experian had refused to sell its FICOs to individuals, but that's now changed.)
Something else you should know is that the FICOs you see may be different from the ones lenders see. The underlying data in your credit reports may change between the time you see your scores and the time the lenders see them. Or the lenders may buy FICO scores that are tweaked for their industry, such as for credit cards or auto loans. Another possibility is that lenders may use a different (usually older) version of the formula from the ones used to create the MyFICO scores.
Still, the scores you get from MyFICO at least should be in the same ballpark as the ones your lenders use. The same might not be true of any credit score that's not specifically labeled FICO.
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