Why you need to pay attention to your credit utilization
Dear Liz: Our credit scores are in the low 800s. We always pay all credit card balances off before the next billing period. We are presently charging a cruise for us and our daughter and her husband. We’re worried about using too much of our available credit and thus reducing our credit scores. We’re using one credit card and paying half the balance this billing period and the rest on the next billing period. I’ve never been able to calculate the “credit utilization,” but I’m sure we will exceed it for the next two months even though we will pay the amount charged in full. With this large charge, can you suggest anything else we can do?
Answer: Your credit utilization is simply the amount of available credit that you’re using. If your card has a $10,000 limit and you make $5,000 in charges, your credit utilization ratio is 50%. (If you’re not sure what your credit limit is, you can check your account online or call the number on the back of your card and ask.)
In general, the less of your available credit you use the better.
The balance that matters for credit scoring purposes is the balance that’s reported to the credit bureaus — and that’s typically what you owe as of your statement closing date.
Making a payment right before the statement closes can help reduce your credit utilization. Some people make payments every week, or even more often, to keep their utilization in the single digits.
If you don’t plan to apply for a new credit card or loan, however, you probably don’t need to worry about a temporary ding to your credit scores because they’re already so high. Your scores will probably still be quite good and will rebound once you pay off the balance.
People may be eligible for benefits from ex-spouses’ work records if the marriage lasted at least 10 years. The rules are complex. Here’s a primer.
Estate taxes on house bequests
Dear Liz: You recently wrote about the capital gains tax implications when someone sells a house they’ve been given, versus one they’ve inherited. Would you elaborate on the estate ramifications for the donor if that person has a large estate? Would their estate pay tax on the gift?
Answer: Few people have to worry about either gift or estate taxes, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment. But large gifts can potentially reduce the amount a wealthy donor can pass on to heirs tax free after death.
That’s because the gift and estate tax systems are combined. Gifts over the annual exclusion amount — which in 2023 is $17,000 per recipient — reduce the donor’s lifetime gift and estate tax exemption, which in 2023 is $12,920,000.
Let’s say a donor gives a $1-million house to a friend. The amount in excess of the $17,000 annual limit, or $983,000, is deducted from the donor’s lifetime limit. If the donor died in 2023, the amount of their estate in excess of $11,937,00 would be subject to estate taxes. (Donors only owe gift taxes after they give away so much that they exhaust that lifetime limit.)
Receiving assets as a gift also means the recipient may face more taxes than if they had inherited the property.
The previous column mentioned that when someone inherits a home, the house’s tax basis is “stepped up” to the current market value. That means the appreciation that occurred during the previous owner’s lifetime isn’t subject to tax.
If someone is given a house by a still-living donor, different rules apply. There’s no step up in value. The recipient gets the donor’s tax basis, which is typically what the donor paid for the home, plus any qualifying improvements.
When the house is sold, that basis is deducted from the proceeds to determine potentially taxable profit. The recipient could face capital gains taxes on the appreciation that happened since the original owner bought the house.
On the other hand, giving away assets during life is one way to control the size of a potentially taxable estate, says Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell. Once the house is given away, for example, its future appreciation won’t increase the donor’s estate.
Anyone with an estate large enough to worry about these taxes should, of course, consult an estate planning attorney about the best strategies for their situation.
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.