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Here’s a primer on all those estate planning documents

Cemetery
Estate planning is confusing, and mistakes can be costly to heirs.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Dear Liz: Our dad’s kidneys are failing. Our mother passed away awhile ago, so it’s just me and my sister. He has a will, and my sister is on his bank account, but how do we handle the house transfer? Do we need a living will? We don’t want it to go into probate. We are splitting everything equally.

Answer: Losing a parent is stressful, so it’s good that you have your father’s estate-planning document to guide you. If it was properly drawn, it will name an executor who will handle the details of settling his bills, paying his creditors and transferring his remaining assets to his heirs.

If the executor happens to be you or your sister, you’ll be able to hire an attorney to help you and pay for it out of the estate’s assets. Having an attorney can help make the process much smoother and help avoid potentially costly mistakes.

You asked about a living will, but that’s a document designed to communicate someone’s wishes regarding end-of-life medical care. Living trusts are the documents that can avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death.

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In many states, including California, probate also can be avoided with a “transfer on death” deed. If your father is still able to make decisions, you might want to hire the attorney now to advise you about which document makes the most sense.

Mortgage payoff pros and cons

Dear Liz: Should we use a $350,000 inherited non-spousal Roth IRA to pay off our mortgage? We have $285,000 left on our mortgage and would like to retire within 10 years. This is our dream home, and we don’t think we can otherwise pay it off before retiring. We have $1.1 million in other retirement accounts, an emergency fund, a $40,000 pension, and no other debt. Our home is worth $900,000.

Answer: In general, paying off a mortgage before retirement makes a lot of sense. Doing so reduces the amount of money you need to take from retirement funds, which can help make those funds last longer.

Being mortgage-free is not a goal you should pursue at any cost, however. You could end up having too much money tied up in your house and not enough in savings or investments. Also, the inherited Roth has significant advantages. Although you must take minimum distributions from the account, those are tax free and can be based on your life expectancy, which means the bulk of the money can continue growing for quite some time.

Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: My wife plans to file for her Social Security benefit when she turns 66 in April 2020. I plan to file for my benefit at age 70 in July 2022. Can I file for a spousal benefit when my wife files in 2020? Can my wife claim a spousal benefit in 2022 when I file for my own benefit, assuming it is more than her own benefit? Will my wife’s spousal benefit increase like my benefit does between my ages of 66 to 70, or does it max out at my age 66?

Answer: Because you’ve reached your full retirement age of 66 and you were born before Jan. 2, 1954, you are still allowed to file a restricted application for spousal benefits once your wife applies for her own benefit. When your benefit maxes out at age 70, you would switch to your own because there’s no incentive to further delay.

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Restricted applications are no longer available to people born later. Instead, when they apply for benefits they are deemed to be applying for both their own and any spousal benefit to which they might be entitled. They’re given the larger amount and typically can’t switch later.

One of the exceptions could apply in your case, however. Your wife won’t be able to take a spousal benefit when she applies because you won’t have started your benefit. Once you start, if her spousal benefit based on your work record is larger than what she’s receiving based on hers, she could switch.

Because only one spousal benefit is allowed per couple, you’ll want to investigate which could result in more money before you apply.

As for your last question: Spousal benefits don’t earn the delayed retirement credits that can increase a worker’s retirement benefits by 8% annually between full retirement age and 70. If your wife had started spousal benefits before her own full retirement age of 66, the amount would have been permanently reduced — she would receive less than 50% of the benefit you’d earned at your full retirement age. But she won’t get more than 50% if she starts them after her full retirement age.

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.


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