Dear Liz: My mother just turned 75 and wants to downsize from her four-bedroom house. My father passed away six years ago. She owns her home outright, and at the time of my father's death the value of the house was estimated at $1.2 million. Right now she has enough income from retirement accounts and investments to live comfortably. She could even buy another smaller property if need be. As the executor of her estate, I'm trying to help her decide what to do with the house. She could let another family member live in it who couldn't pay rent but could help with upkeep; she could rent it out for market value; or she could sell. We see advantages and disadvantages with all three options. What do you think?
Answer: If she hasn't already, your mother needs to hire a good estate-planning attorney who can help her evaluate her options. Consulting a fee-only financial planner and a tax pro may be a good idea, as well.
If she sells, your mother could face a sizable capital gains tax depending on where she lives. Federal law allows a certain amount of capital gains on the sale of a primary residence — $250,000 per person — to be excluded from income, but after that, capital gains taxes apply.
The gain would be the difference between the home sale proceeds and your mother's tax basis in the home. At least half of the home received a "step up" in basis to the then-current market value when your father died. If your mom lives in a community property state, such as California, both halves of the property would have received this step up at his death. Any increase in value since then would be subject to capital gains tax (minus, again, the $250,000 federal exclusion).
There's another tax issue to consider. If she dies owning this house, her heirs would get a tax basis equal to the property's value at her death. In other words, regardless of the state where she lives, none of the house's appreciation during her lifetime would be taxable.
The tax issues alone shouldn't dictate what your mother does. But she should be aware of them to make an informed decision about what to do next.
Social Security spousal, survivor benefits
Dear Liz: If my spouse takes spousal benefits from Social Security before his full retirement age, does that ultimately affect the survivor benefits he could receive?
Answer: As covered in previous columns, applying for spousal benefits before his full retirement age of 66 or 67 will lock him into a diminished check and preclude him from switching to his own benefit later. It does not, however, affect what he would receive as a survivor. His survivor benefit would be equal to what you were receiving at your death. To protect him (and yourself, should you be the survivor), you probably should delay starting benefits as long as possible to make sure you're receiving the maximum benefit.
Use separate credit card for Web purchases
Dear Liz: I saw your recent column from the couple upset about the inconvenience of having to reset the automatic payments when their credit card was reissued due to fraud. We had the same problem (our credit card has been reissued six times now!) and got some great advice I'd like to share. We got a separate credit card that is used for nothing but automatic payments and online purchases. It has never been hacked like our other card that we use constantly in the community because we earn airline miles. The last two times our regular card had to be replaced was in the Target and Home Depot hacking, but the other card has been fine so far. We are keeping our fingers crossed. Our issuer has now given us a chip card to replace the constantly hacked one, so I hope we have better luck going forward with both credit cards.
Answer: Several other readers wrote to say they do something similar by using different cards for different purposes, including devoting one to making automatic charges.
It might be wise to have a separate card just for online purchases, however, since the incidence of "card not present" fraud (including online and phone transactions) is higher than that for transactions where the card is physically presented to the merchant.