Dear Liz: My husband and I have no debt other than the mortgage on our home. My husband will retire in three years while I will continue to work. (I will have to pay for healthcare at that time, as I currently receive my benefits through his employer.) My husband insists that we pay our mortgage off before he retires. The mortgage balance is $59,000 now. We are able to do this, however, I am concerned that we will have no tax deduction whatsoever if we do. Who is correct?
Answer: You may have received some tax benefit in the past for your mortgage. After last year’s tax reform, it’s unlikely you’ll get any tax break going forward.
You have to be able to itemize your deductions to write off your mortgage interest. Now that Congress has nearly doubled the standard deduction, few taxpayers will have enough deductions to make itemizing worthwhile.
Even before tax reform, though, many homeowners got little or no tax benefit from their mortgages. They didn’t pay enough mortgage interest to make itemizing worthwhile, or their itemized deductions barely exceeded the standard deduction. The homeowners who got the biggest benefit were the ones with the largest mortgages. Even people with big mortgages tend to pay less interest over time as they pay down their loans.
Keeping a mortgage just for the tax break is kind of shortsighted, in any case, since you’re only getting back a fraction of what you pay out. For example, if you were in the 25% tax bracket, each dollar you paid in interest reduced your taxes by just 25 cents.
The best arguments for keeping a mortgage have to do with liquidity and investment returns. You shouldn’t pay off a mortgage if it means most of your money is tied up in your home, and if you don’t have enough other assets to cover emergencies and to generate future income. Also, some wealthier people opt to keep a mortgage because the loan is cheap, and they can make better returns on their money elsewhere.
Most people are better off without debts in retirement, though, so if you can pay off your home loan without compromising the rest of your financial life, you probably should.
Medicare Part B allows an eight-month grace period
Dear Liz: I have a question after reading your column about avoiding costly Medicare mistakes. My husband and I have both reached 65 this past year. We both signed up for Medicare Part A hospital coverage, which is free. I retired two years ago, but am covered by my husband's employer's health insurance. I'm now confused about whether I should have signed up for Medicare Part B, which covers doctors visits but requires monthly premiums. His employer explained to him that he would avoid penalties if he signed up for Part B within eight months of his retirement, but no one has mentioned his wife.
Answer: You’re covered under the same rules. As long as your spouse is still working and you’re covered by that employer’s health insurance, you don’t have to sign up for Medicare Part B. But, as your husband’s employer noted, when that employment ends you both should enroll in Part B within eight months to avoid future penalties.
A reader’s college funding rules
Dear Liz: I’d like to share with other parents how my husband and I paid for college for our two daughters. We had three rules. 1. If an out-of-state or private college was chosen, then they would be required to pay us back the difference compared to an in-state public school. They both did opt for that and both paid us back every cent. 2. We would only pay for four years and not one more day. Get in, get out. Go to summer school and work jobs. 3. They would receive a monthly allowance of $100 only. Both daughters got a fabulous education, are grateful and felt they had invested in their future well. So did we and we are very proud of them.
Answer: As well you should be! Obviously, many parents can’t afford to be nearly as generous with their kids, but those who can be should think about putting limits on their generosity to make sure their progeny are motivated to get the most out of their education. One caveat: Getting a degree in four years has become increasingly difficult at many public colleges because of budget cuts. You don’t say when your daughters graduated, but today’s parents may need to keep that in mind when figuring out how much to contribute.