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Single mom wonders if she made right decision to buy a home

ColumnEconomy, Business and FinanceLiz Weston
Tying up all your money in a single purchase or investment is never ideal, but what's done is done
He definitely isn't receiving a smaller check than you just because he's rich
A trustee who's asleep at the switch may allow the spouse to dig too

Dear Liz: I am a single mom who has been renting a condo for seven years. My landlord decided to increase my rent and for two weeks I didn't know by how much. In the meantime, I looked for a house so I would have a Plan B. I found a totally renovated foreclosure. By the time I found out what my new rental amount would be (just $46 a month more), my son and I had decided to get the house. I used my entire life's savings of $25,000 as my down payment. Now I owe $62,000. Do you think I made the right decision to buy the house, or should I have stayed in the condo and continued renting? I am torn.

Answer: Of course you are. That's a very common emotion after taking such a big step.

Tying up all your money in a single purchase or investment is never ideal, but what's done is done. Focus now on rebuilding your savings (including your retirement savings) and keeping your house in good shape so that you don't face expensive repairs down the road.

You're unlikely to get any tax benefit from this home, given your enviably small mortgage, but you will build equity over time as you pay down the loan. You'll quickly discover the many challenges and rewards of owning a home, which most people prefer to renting.

Social Security benefit is based on income

Dear Liz: I have a friend who is a multimillionaire. He told me what he collects in Social Security, and it was much less than what I receive even though my income while I was working was small. He said because of his status, Social Security pays him much less. Is that true? I thought your benefits are based on what your income was.

Answer: They are. The Social Security system was designed to replace a larger percentage of income for lower-paid workers, based on the idea that these workers had less opportunity to save for their future. The higher your income, the lower the percentage of your pay the system is designed to replace.

But people who earned high salaries during their working lifetime will reap bigger checks than those who didn't, all other factors being equal.

Assuming your friend is telling the truth about his benefit, there are several explanations for why he's getting less. One is that he was a business owner who controlled his own pay and deliberately kept down the amount of his salary that was subject to payroll taxes. (People think they're saving money by doing this, until it's time to claim Social Security and they realize what it has cost them.)

Another possibility is that he has income from another source, such as a public pension, that would reduce his check because of the government's windfall elimination provisions.

Other possibilities: Perhaps he started his benefits early, while you delayed yours to let them grow. Or maybe he was one of those diligent, frugal people who built wealth on a smaller income. Or it could be he was talking about his after-tax benefit, since Social Security benefits are taxable once your income exceeds certain amounts.

Those are just some possibilities, but he definitely isn't receiving a smaller check than you just because he's rich.

Stepmother kept tapping principal in trust

Dear Liz: You've been writing about people who expect inheritances they don't get. Here's another situation. My elderly dad thought he'd tied up everything in a trust, but his surviving elderly second spouse regularly invaded the principal instead of just receiving the interest. She would simply call her broker and ask for whatever she wanted. The broker, not being a knowledgeable trust officer, would send her the money. Finally, to soothe a fretting sibling, my husband and I paid for an estate lawyer to move the trust from Stepmom's broker to a good third-party trust institution. It took more than a year plus paying a fee (OK, a bribe) for Stepmom to relinquish her direct access to the trust. She continued to receive the interest and was quite well off. She never did understand why we thought she was doing something wrong.

Answer: People set up trusts for a variety of reasons, but the type you're describing is usually used to preserve an inheritance for the children while allowing the surviving spouse to live off the income. These trusts typically allow the survivor to tap the principal for certain purposes ("health, education, maintenance and support" is the usual phrase used). A trustee who's asleep at the switch may allow the spouse to dig too deep, which not only reduces the children's inheritance but also endangers the whole structure of the trust, which is designed to save future estate taxes. Your investment in hiring a competent trustee could save a lot of expense and hassle in the long run.

Questions may be sent to Liz Weston, 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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