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Here’s a retirement dilemma: Pay off the house first or refinance?

This illustrations shows houses
Most people would be smart to have their homes paid off by the time they retire. But refinancing into a long-term mortgage is a good option for some.
(Kyle Kim / Los Angeles Times)

Dear Liz: My husband and I are retired, with enough income from our pensions and Social Security to cover our modest needs, plus additional money in retirement accounts. We have owned our home for 35 years but refinanced several times and still have 15 years to go on a 20-year mortgage.

With rates so low, we were contemplating refinancing to a 15-year mortgage just for the overall savings on interest, but we started thinking about the fact that, at 67 and 72 years old, it’s unlikely that both of us will survive for another 15 years to pay off this loan. Since that’s the case, we’re now thinking about taking out a 30-year mortgage, with monthly payments $700 or $800 less than what we currently pay.

Our house is worth around 10 times what we owe on it, and if we had to move to assisted living we could rent it out at a profit, even with a mortgage. We also each have a life insurance policy sufficient to pay off the balance on the mortgage should one of us predecease the other.

I know that conventional wisdom says that we should pay off our mortgage as quickly as we can. But an extra $700 or $800 a month would come in handy! Am I missing something? Is this a bad idea?

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Answer: Not necessarily.

Most people would be smart to have their homes paid off by the time they retire, especially if they won’t have enough guaranteed income from pensions and Social Security to cover their basic living expenses. Paying debt in retirement could mean drawing down their retirement savings too quickly, putting them at greater risk of ultimately running short of money.

Once people are in retirement, though, they shouldn’t necessarily rush to pay off a mortgage. Doing so could leave them cash poor.

You are in an especially fortunate position. Your guaranteed income covers your expenses, including your current mortgage, and you have a way to pay off the loan when that income drops at the first death. (The survivor will get the larger of the two Social Security checks. What happens with the pension depends on which option you chose — it may drop or disappear or continue as before.) Even with a mortgage, you have a large amount of equity that can be tapped if necessary.

So refinancing to a longer loan could make a lot of sense. To know for sure, though, you should run the idea past a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner who can review your situation and provide comprehensive advice.

Who inherits when estranged spouse dies?

Dear Liz: I lost my husband a year ago. We had been married since 1997 but separated 10 years ago. Does the house belong to me or my 22-year-old son? Also, how do I find out if he had life insurance without being charged a lot? His girlfriend said he did.

Answer: The two most important factors here are whether you were legally separated and whether your husband made a will. If you were legally separated, there may have been an agreement approved by a judge that could affect how assets are divided. If the separation was informal, then the law typically treats you as if you were still married.

If your husband had a will, that would dictate who gets what. If he died without a will, then state law determines how to divide what’s left after his final expenses and creditors have been paid. When someone is married and has children with the current spouse, typically the entire estate would go to that spouse. Otherwise, half usually goes to the spouse and the rest is split among other heirs, such as children from another union.

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This assumes the house wasn’t jointly owned with someone else, such as your son or the girlfriend. Property held in joint tenancy, tenancy by the entirety, or community property with right of survivorship will automatically pass to the other owner at death.

“Consulting with an attorney or trusted CPA, checking title to the real property and reviewing mortgage statements should be done to help determine their rights and how to proceed,” said estate planning attorney Jennifer Sawday of Long Beach.

If you would be the beneficiary and probate hasn’t been started, consider hiring a probate attorney to put that process in motion. The person settling his estate can look through his bills and other paperwork for evidence of life insurance, or you can try the life insurance policy locator maintained by the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners.

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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