Rainbow rope tied in a knot.

Financial Bonus of (Same-Sex) Marriage

Two important U.S. Supreme Court decisions in two years removed not only the obstacles to same-sex marriage but also most of the financial inequities couples faced.

The June decision upholding same-sex marriage opened up financial advantages of marriage that either had been completely unavailable to gay and lesbian couples or were complicated by marrying in a different state than the state in which they live. The decision came on the heels of the high court’s 2013 ruling against sections of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a ruling that made Social Security benefits available to gay and lesbian couples in states that permitted them to marry.

In the wake of these decisions, “If marriage is an option and it makes sense emotionally for the couple, that’s also the best financial strategy,” said Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

There are disadvantages to marrying.  Filing joint tax returns can mean higher income taxes or less financial aid for college-bound offspring. Nevertheless, Garrett, co-author of “Money without Matrimony: The Unmarried Couple’s Guide to Financial Security,” said the court rulings together make a compelling argument for marrying.

She provided Squared Away with five financial benefits of same-sex marriage listed below. They’re the same advantages that were always available to heterosexual couples who could produce a marriage license. …Learn More

New Books of Note

Several new books are pertinent to topics frequently covered by this blog. Three worth noting are about low-income savers, older workers, and small employers with retirement plans that are overdue for an upgrade.

Here are brief descriptions:

  • A Fragile Balance: Emergency Savings and Liquid Resources for Low-Income Consumers:”:

a fragile balanceFor low-wage workers in fast food, retail, and similar jobs, just finding enough money for living expenses is like squeezing blood from a turnip. Research shows that many want to save, and the absence of this backstop only increases their financial fragility. The default is often to resort to high-cost debt, which further confounds their ability to pay the bills, much less weather the next emergency such as a car repair.

Finding effective savings interventions to help low-wage workers may be the toughest personal finance challenge there is. It’s also the mission of the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and its director, Michael Collins. In this volume, edited by Collins, leading researchers review various interventions and policies – from mortgage reserve accounts and impulse saving to programs that encourage low-income workers to save their tax refunds. [Watch for future blogs about specific findings in this volume.] …

Grads With Student Loans: Rent or Buy?

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Some college graduates are so overburdened with student loan payments that they struggle just to stay afloat.  But for those who can make their payments and even save some money, the logical next question might be: when can I buy a house?

This is a weighty question for 20-somethings new to the labor force and carrying unprecedented levels of student debt, which puts them at greater financial risk than previous generations of graduates.  Squared Away asked two financial planners from the sensible Midwest – Danielle Schultz and Mark Zoril – to help young adults work through the difficult financial tradeoffs they’ll face as they juggle student loan and car payments, retirement saving, and homeownership.

Here’s their advice:

Danielle L. Schultz, a financial planner in suburban Chicago, believes buying a house should be a 20-something’s lowest priority.

The highest priorities are building up an emergency fund and contributing regularly to an employer’s retirement savings plan.  The minimum emergency fund for a young, healthy adult who earns, say, $36,000, is around $6,000 – $10,000 would be better. [The standard emergency fund equals at least three months of necessary living expenses, excluding splurges like vacations or restaurant meals with friends.]

Schultz feels strongly about the emergency fund, especially if buying property is the goal. When something goes wrong – a car accident, a job loss, a house fire – renters “can always move in with mom and dad or a friend, but when you’ve got a mortgage, it’s not easy to get out of,” she said.  Schultz also is not wild about real estate as an investment, since property values aren’t rising appreciably in many areas.

After the emergency fund is established, it’s wise to knock down the student debt first by paying off the loans with the highest interest rates, she said.  Many graduates have multiple loans, so don’t sweat the loans with interest rates at, say, 2 percent – that’s effectively “free money” when inflation is running at 2 percent. …Learn More

Coin stacks

Why I Dropped My Financial Adviser

My financial adviser is smart. She’s ethical. And her special IRS tax certification has come in handy at tax time.

So why did I drop her? Fees.

Every year, her firm extracted 1 percent of my modest retirement account balance. This is less than some advisers charge, but on top of that I pay between 0.8 percent and 1.2 percent in fees to various mutual fund firms for the mostly stock funds she selected for my investments. These aren’t exorbitant fees, either, for actively managed funds. But when you add this up, I was shelling out at least 2 percent of my account every year.

Thanks to fees and my penchant for some international stocks, which were sluggish or declined last year, my retirement portfolio did not grow at all in 2014, despite a booming U.S. stock market that gained nearly 14 percent, based on the Standard & Poor’s 500 index.

I used a simple fee calculator to estimate my savings in fees, and the resulting increase in my investment returns, from letting my adviser go. If I don’t tap my IRA funds until age 70, I would save nearly $40,000. This sum won’t radically improve my retirement. But it’s not chump change either. It would pay for a few really big trips my husband and I hope to take – or a large chunk of a year in a nursing home. …Learn More

Savings Products Deter Senior Fraud

Ken Osborne with his mother.

Ken Osborne became vigilant about safeguarding his 81-year-old mother’s savings as her memory loss set in. She often failed to recall what she’d said during frequent, unsolicited phone calls from people prying into her personal life and financial affairs.

“She’s vulnerable,” Osborne, a resident of Jacksonville, Florida, says about his mother who lives 140 miles away.

Osborne took preventive action. He signed his mother up for a debit card funded by, but segregated from, her primary bank account.  Osborne maintains a $500 balance in the card account, giving his mother the freedom to spend her own money – whether for groceries or a church excursion to North Carolina – while giving him control of the nest egg to protect her from herself and others.

Sold by True Link, the debit card is among a handful of new financial products capitalizing on what the Senate Committee on Aging called an “invisible epidemic.”  The incidence of fraud is rising, especially online, and experts warn that aging baby boomers will increasingly be the targetsTrue Link chief executive Kai Stinchcombe was moved to form his San Francisco start-up after his grandmother started writing small checks adding up to more than $1,000 a month to a multitude of soliciting charities.

Banks, which often become aware of fraud against seniors, are also in a position to help.  California now holds bank employees liable for failing to immediately report suspicious transactions and elder financial abuse to local law enforcement or adult protective agencies.

The Bank of American Fork in Utah went further, introducing anti-fraud accounts for seniors in 2011 after seeing problems ranging from an older woman who repeatedly wired money to a lottery in Spain to a man with a drug problem looting his elderly mother’s account. …Learn More

Navigating Taxes in Retirement

IRS logo

The tax landscape shifts suddenly when most Americans leave the labor force to retire.  The single most important thing to remember is that income taxes can fall dramatically, because retirement incomes are typically lower and because all or a portion of your Social Security benefits will be tax-exempt.

This was among the tax insights supplied by Vorris J. Blankenship, a retirement tax planner near Sacramento, California, who has just finished the 2015 edition of his 5-inch thick “Tax Planning for Retirees.”   The following is an edited version of tax information he supplied to Squared Away:

Lower taxes in retirement. Brian and Janet are a hypothetical couple renting an apartment in Nevada, a state with no income tax. In 2013, Brian earned $40,000 at his job, and Janet’s wages were $20,000, for a total income of $60,000. They took the standard deduction on their federal tax return and paid income tax of $5,111.

Brian retired on December 31, 2013. In 2014, he received Social Security payments of $15,000 – $2,750 of which was taxable – and a fully taxable pension from his former employer of $10,000. About one-third of retirees pay some income taxes on their Social Security benefits, because their retirement income exceeds certain thresholds in the tax code.

In 2014, Janet again earned $20,000, but the couple’s total household income declined to $45,000 from $60,000. They took the standard deduction on their federal tax return and paid income tax of only $1,248.

The 75 percent reduction in their taxes is much larger than the 25 percent decline in their income after Brian retired. …Learn More

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Breaking Up (the Pension) Is Hard to Do

In a divorce, splitting up the pension is trickier than dividing the house.

Divorcing couples and their advisers “who aren’t hip to divorce splitting of retirement plan assets often do it improperly,” said Howard Phillips, a Delray Beach, Florida, actuary and author of “Dividing Retirement Plan Assets in a Divorce.”  He knows, because he values pensions for couples negotiating their divorce settlements and then drafts the order that will be entered into the court.

Dividing a house is easy.  Two realtors pouring over sales of comparable nearby properties can readily agree on a value – once the house is sold, the parties pay the realtor and split the proceeds.  But a pension plan’s value greatly depends on how and when it’s counted and the method used to allocate that value between the spouses.

Phillips explained the basics of how defined benefit plans and defined contribution plans – 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and IRAs – may be handled in a divorce during a recent podcast for the Retirement Income Industry Association.  The following methods for splitting a pension 50/50 have strikingly different outcomes for the participant in the pension plan and for his or her former spouse:

Defined contribution plans:

  • Tracing assets: If one spouse comes to the marriage with $50,000 in a 10-year-old 401(k) account, only contributions made during the marriage – and investment returns on the new contributions – are divided.  If the plan now has $150,000, the amount that’s divided up can vary widely – or it can be zero if no new contributions were made during the marriage. The remaining balance goes to the spouse who started the 401(k) account. …
  • Learn More

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