Social Security benefits for spouses can pump up household income
Dear Liz: I have a friend who has a selfish, controlling husband. When talking with her recently, she told me she got only $300 a month from Social Security based on her work history while her husband gets $1,800. I told her she should be getting $900, half of his monthly amount, as a spousal benefit. I guess he thought if she got more it would reduce his check. I told her the $900 would be in addition to the $1,800 he gets.
She has been collecting her smaller benefit for seven or eight years. Does she have any recourse? I doubt he would take her to the Social Security office but maybe her daughter would.
Answer: It sounds like the husband’s greed has cost this household tens of thousands of dollars in lost benefits.
Spousal benefits (and divorced spousal benefits) do not reduce the primary worker’s check. This benefit, as you correctly told your friend, is available in addition to what her husband gets. Spousal and divorced spousal benefits can be up to half of the primary worker’s benefit. The amount that spouses and divorced spouses get is reduced if they start benefits before their own full retirement ages.
Your friend can’t get back the years of benefits she missed out on, but she should ask the Social Security Administration to switch her to the larger benefit. She can contact the administration at 1-800-772-1213.
When a student loan co-signer dies
Dear Liz: I have a friend who recently died after co-signing a student loan for her son. She was making the payments. Does that loan go to her son now to repay?
Answer: Possibly. Another possibility is that her estate is on the hook.
It all depends on the loan agreement, which varies from private lender to private lender. (We know this is a private loan because federal student loans, which have many more consumer protections, do not require co-signers.)
In many cases, nothing happens if the other borrower takes over the payments and continues to make them on time. Some lenders, however, have a contract clause that makes the balance of the loan due immediately. In the past, lenders also could consider a death to be an “automatic default” that could seriously damage the living borrower’s credit. Fortunately, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau pushed lenders to change their policies on new and existing loans so that co-signer deaths no longer trigger such defaults.
If you’re close to this young man, you should urge him to check the contract and to contact the lender.
Deducting medical expenses racked up by another person
Dear Liz: I recall reading that an individual could deduct unlimited medical expenses for another person, as long as the provider was paid directly. Looking at IRS Publication 502, it appears that now only a “qualifying relative” (the closest I could get to eligibility) is eligible for a deduction on another person’s return. I’m asking because my sister is helping with my medical expenses, and I had hoped to give her a deduction. Her tax person is insistent that she cannot take a deduction for my expenses. I don’t qualify under the “qualifying relative” clause because she doesn’t provide more than half my support. Have I always misinterpreted this rule, or has the rule changed recently?
Answer: You’re confusing the medical deduction rules with the gift tax exemption.
The gift tax rules require givers to file tax returns for gifts in excess of $14,000 per recipient, unless the giver paid medical or tuition expenses directly to a provider (such as a hospital or college). Paying these expenses isn’t considered a gift, so your sister can pay an unlimited amount of your medical bills without having to file a gift tax return or counting those gifts toward her lifetime exclusion amount, which is currently $5.49 million. Gift taxes aren’t owed until that lifetime exclusion amount is exceeded.
Your sister can deduct medical expenses from her income taxes only when she pays them on behalf of herself, her spouse, her dependents and her “medical dependents.” Claiming someone as a dependent or medical dependent requires that she provide at least half that person’s support. Only the amount of qualifying medical expenses that exceed 10% of her adjusted gross income in 2017 would be deductible.
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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