Why a reverse mortgage might be a good idea for some older homeowners

Dear Liz: I recently retired to a small house I bought 30 years ago. I refinanced four times to get the rate down from 11% to 3.5%. This provided me with a low monthly mortgage (just under $450), but my current 30-year loan won't be paid off until I'm 92. I'll be 67 in two months, and just received an inheritance of $400,000 following the death of my parents. My only income is $2,000 a month from Social Security and a monthly pension check of $1,100, although I do have an IRA that should be worth roughly $170,000 by July.

I'm thinking about paying off the $90,000 remaining on my mortgage, which would allow it to be passed on to my sister, nephew (or whomever) without any complicated bank or loan issues. It also would free up that mortgage payment for other household expenses. The house needs some work, such as a new carport, double-pane windows, proper insulation, deck repair and maybe termite work, all of which will probably eat up the better part of $100,000. Is it worth keeping the loan just to maintain the tax deduction or does it makes financial sense to pay it off?

Answer: Keeping a mortgage just for the tax deduction doesn’t usually make much sense. Here’s why: If you’re in the 25% federal tax bracket, you’re getting back only about 25 cents for each dollar in interest you pay. Most homeowners get even less back, and many don’t get any tax advantage from their mortgages at all.

It can make sense, though, to keep a mortgage to preserve liquidity. Younger people, especially, should be wary of tying up most of their net worth in a home if that equity would be hard to tap in an emergency. Home equity lines of credit offer one way to access that equity, although lenders can freeze or reduce those lines on a whim.

Because you’re over 62, you could consider paying off the loan and then setting up a reverse mortgage line of credit.

An FHA-insured reverse mortgage line of credit can’t be shut down once it’s established, as long as you abide by the loan rules (such as paying your property taxes and insurance, and keeping the home in good condition). In fact, the amount you can borrow can increase over time with a reverse mortgage credit line. You don’t have to make monthly principal and interest payments on the money you borrow with a reverse mortgage.

Any amount you borrow will grow over time, typically at variable interest rates, and will have to be repaid when you die, sell or permanently move out of the home. That would complicate leaving the house to your heirs, but if the amount you owe is greater than the home’s worth, your heirs aren’t on the hook for the difference with an FHA-insured reverse mortgage, also known as a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage.

In any case, preserving an inheritance probably shouldn’t be your top priority. You should focus instead on preserving your quality of life and your financial flexibility.

Reverse mortgages have gotten safer and less expensive in recent years, but you would need to exercise discipline not to waste the money you borrow on frivolous purchases. You want that equity to be available for you when you need it, such as for nursing home or other long-term care expenses.

You would be required to get counseling before applying for a reverse mortgage, but you also should talk to an independent, fee-only financial planner to make sure this approach makes sense.

Living trusts and tax advantages

Dear Liz: You mentioned recently that there are no tax advantages if your assets are held in a living trust. Aren't you forgetting the tax exemption feature that allows an exemption of $5.49 million for each person? Hence a married couple can exclude up to about $11 million of their estate through an appropriate living trust. And the unused portion for the first spousal death can be “ported” or used by the successor spouse. Big tax implications that I believe are available only through a living trust.

Answer: That’s a common misconception, but the estate tax exemption is available with or without a living trust. The primary purpose of a living trust is to avoid the court process known as probate that otherwise follows death, not to avoid or reduce estate taxes.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, 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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