Dear Liz: A few months ago, I purchased a large television from a nearby store. I was offered no interest for 12 months using the store's credit card. The TV was stolen from the back of my pickup truck before I was able to bring it into my apartment. I called the police and filed a report. The next day I returned to the store and asked if anything could be done. They said they could only offer another television for a discounted price. I wrote to the credit company and they responded that it wasn't up to them and any deals would have to be made with the store, which I did not return to. I have since made small payments on the loan, and will expect to pay if off in a few months with no problem. The remaining amount is just over $900. My question is, how bad would it affect my credit score if I simply decided not to pay the balance? Currently, I have a great score. My only other debt is for another television I purchased.
Answer: Failing to pay what you owe will trash your credit, because a single missed payment can knock more than 100 points off good scores. You'll lose more points the longer the bill goes unpaid and suffer additional damage when the account is turned over for collections.
A better approach is to pay what you owe and resolve to stop borrowing to buy televisions. Instead, use a credit card that reimburses you for such losses and then pay off the balance in full by the due date.
As you've discovered, store cards often don't offer this "purchase protection" that kicks in if an item is lost, damaged or stolen. Purchase protection is a free benefit that comes with higher-end credit cards and shouldn't be confused with overpriced paid add-ons such as "credit protection." Check your current cards to see if any offer this feature. If none of your cards do, use your good credit to get one that does and use it in the future for all large purchases.
Capital gains tax on mutual funds
Dear Liz: My mother, who is approaching 100 and in good health, has a significant mutual fund holding. It is mostly made up of capital gains. She does not need this fund for her daily living expenses. The question she has: Are the taxes on disposition the same before or after she dies? I am thinking of things like the capital gains tax exemption (never used) as well as inheritance taxes.
Answer: The capital gains tax exemption applies to the sale of a primary residence — a home, not a mutual fund. If your mother sold the fund today, she would owe capital gains tax on the difference between the sale price and her "cost basis." Her cost basis is what she paid for the fund originally plus any reinvested dividends. The top federal capital gains tax rate is 20%, although most taxpayers pay a 15% rate.
If her objective is to get the maximum amount to her heirs and minimize the tax bill, she should bequeath this investment to them at her death. Then the mutual fund will get a "step up" in tax basis to the current market value. When the heirs sell the investment, they'll only owe taxes on the appreciation that occurs after her death (if any).
You asked about inheritance taxes, but only a few states levy taxes on inheritors. Typically, it's the estate that would pay the taxes, and only those above certain amounts. In 2016, the federal estate taxes exemption is $5.45 million.
Fee-only financial planners
Dear Liz: When you recommend a "fee-only adviser," do you mean an adviser that charges customers by the hour for advice or one that charges a percentage of the customer's portfolio that the adviser manages?
Answer: Fee-only planners charge their clients in a number of different ways. What distinguishes them is the fact that they are only compensated by their clients; they don't accept commissions from the products or services they recommend.
Some fee-only planners charge by the hour, which is helpful for people just starting out or those who need targeted help, such as advice on their retirement portfolios. You can get referrals to fee-only planners who charge by the hour from the Garrett Planning Network at www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.
Many fee-only planners charge a percentage of your assets that they manage or a percentage of your net worth. Another popular method is to charge a quarterly or annual retainer fee. You can get referrals to these types of planners from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors at www.napfa.org.
It's a good idea to interview a few planners to discuss what they can do for you and the expected costs before making a decision. In addition, the Financial Planning Assn. has tips on choosing a financial planner at www.plannersearch.org.