The perils of procrastination can be huge where finances are concerned
Dear Liz: My husband was killed in 2016 and was self-employed for the last three years of his life. I hadn’t gotten around to filing his taxes until earlier this year in June. At first the Social Security rep told me we were approved for survivor benefits but within the hour changed her decision. She said that since it’s been more than three years, the IRS won’t report his credits to Social Security and that is what ultimately disqualifies my children and me. I’m so confused and feel like my stomach just dropped to the floor.
Answer: Understandably. This appears to be one of those awful cases where putting something off has profound, irreversible consequences.
Survivor benefits are monthly checks paid to a worker’s minor children, typically until they turn 18. Surviving spouses normally can start benefits at age 60, but they can start at any age if they’re caring for the worker’s minor children. In that case, the caretaking spouse qualifies for benefits until the youngest child turns 16.
Limits vary, but what a family can receive is generally equal to between 150% and 180% of the worker’s basic benefit. The average survivor benefit for children is more than $800 a month, and the average for a caretaking mother or father is over $900 a month.
No worker needs more than 40 credits, which requires 10 years of work, to qualify a family for survivor benefits. The number of credits varies by age, so younger people need fewer credits.
Even if your husband didn’t have the required number of credits for his age, survivor benefits could have been paid if he had worked for at least 18 months in the previous three years.
But there is a deadline for self-employed taxpayers to have their incomes counted toward Social Security credits, which they do by filing their federal tax returns. The deadline is three years, three months and 15 days after the end of the calendar year in which the income is earned, said economist and Social Security expert Laurence Kotlikoff of MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.
The deadline for reporting your husband’s 2016 income passed in March, while the deadlines for his 2014 and 2015 income passed in March 2018 and March 2019, respectively.
Appeal the decision because it’s possible that your husband earned enough other credits to qualify your family for benefits even without his last few years of work. But steel yourself for the likelihood that you’ve lost thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of dollars of potential benefits.
U.S. is best when picking a trustee
Dear Liz: My wife and I have a revocable living trust and we would like to change our primary successor trustee to someone who lives in the United Kingdom. The new trustee is not related to us nor is he a U.S. citizen. Can this be done and would our trust then become a foreign trust subject to a lot of U.S. taxes? How can we avoid this becoming a foreign trust?
Answer: Please rethink your plan, and not just for the reason you suggest.
Naming a foreign trustee very well may change the trust to a foreign trust for federal or state tax purposes when you die, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.
But settling an estate is difficult enough when the successor trustee lives nearby. Trying to manage the process from another country could qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.
If you really don’t have someone in the U.S. whom you trust, consider hiring a professional trustee. Some banks offer trust administration or settlement services as well as other fiduciary services, Sawday said. A licensed professional fiduciary could handle this role as well. Your estate planning attorney should be able to give you some referrals.
Hiring someone could cost more than naming a friend or family member, but often the money is well spent, Sawday said, because the professional is familiar with the work and is efficient compared to a layperson who may serve as a trustee once in a lifetime.
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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