BUSINESS

Personal Finance Q&A: Don't cash out retirement fund to pay off credit card debt

Money Talk

Dear Liz: I owe about $49,000 on my credit cards and now have the money to pay them off in full. Should I? Or should I slowly pay them in large amounts?

Answer: There's typically no reason to delay paying off credit card debt. Carrying balances costs you money and doesn't help your credit scores. You'll see the fastest improvement if you pay them off in one fell swoop.

The only excuse for delaying would be if this windfall comes from a retirement fund. Cashing out a 401(k) account or IRA to pay off debt is not wise, since you'll trigger huge taxes and penalties. Add in the future tax-deferred compounding you lose and the total cost is far more than you'll save in interest.

No tax break for bailing out son

Dear Liz: Our son bought a house and lost his job two months after the purchase. We have helped him stay afloat. Thankfully he has a new job. We don't expect to get the money back — he is still trying to get out from under — but we have given him close to $10,000. Can we claim this as a "gift" to him on our income taxes?

Answer: The IRS doesn't view money given to family members as a charitable donation. In other words, there's no tax break for bailing out your kids.

If you're so wealthy that estate taxes might be an issue — which means estates worth more than $5.45 million a person in 2016 — then you might be concerned about gift tax rules. You're allowed to give a certain amount to any person annually without having to file a gift tax return. In 2015 and 2016, that amount is $14,000, so you and your wife together could give up to $28,000 to your son without needing to file a gift tax return. It's only when the total value of gifts over this annual exclusion hit $5.45 million that you'd have to worry about paying gift taxes. Clearly, this isn't an issue for most families.

Taking Social Security at 70

Dear Liz: My husband will be turning 70 in August. Must he start taking Social Security at 70 or can he wait a little longer? He will still be earning money and if I understand correctly that will lower the amount he will receive. Does he have to do anything like apply for it or do they know he is turning 70?

Answer: He should apply for retirement benefits — online at www.ssa.gov, in person at a local office or by calling 800-772-1213 — three months before he turns 70. Benefits max out at that age, so there's no reason to delay any longer.

The earnings test you fear only affects people who start benefits before their full retirement ages, which for your husband was 66. When you start benefits early, Social Security deducts $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($15,720 in 2016). After full retirement age, that penalty disappears.

Financial benefits of marriage

Dear Liz: My registered domestic partner and I are both 64. We have similar incomes, similar 401(k) accounts and own a home together. We plan on retiring at 66, at which time we will also get similar Social Security benefits. We are each other's beneficiary on all insurance, accounts, etc. My question: Now that the Supreme Court has made it legal, would it benefit us financially to get married? We've never felt an emotional need for that validation but are questioning whether it would make sense for other practical reasons.

Answer: When incomes are dissimilar, there's a strong argument to be made for marriage. The lower earner may get more from a Social Security spousal benefit than from his or her own retirement benefit. In addition, the lower earner could get a much bigger survivor benefit, since a survivor gets the larger of the couple's two Social Security checks.

If either of you had a traditional pension, a spouse would be entitled to survivor benefits that an unmarried partner can't claim. And if you were of dramatically different ages, marriage would allow a younger survivor to put off starting mandatory withdrawals from inherited accounts.

Marriage also has estate planning advantages, but those primarily benefit wealthy couples (see above). If you do remain unmarried, you'll want to make sure you both have powers of attorney for healthcare and finances so you can make decisions if the other becomes incapacitated.

There are many other benefits to marriage, which the self-help legal publisher Nolo has summarized at http://bit.ly/1mOmpZA. You also might want to talk to a fee-only financial planner who has experience with same-sex couples to make sure that your assets and rights are adequately protected if you remain unmarried.

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

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 05, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "How to pay off credit card debt - MONEY TALK" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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