EagleStone Tax & Wealth Newsletter – July 2017

Don't Let Rising Interest Rates Catch You by Surprise

You’ve probably heard the news that the Federal Reserve has been raising its benchmark federal funds rate. The Fed doesn’t directly control consumer interest rates, but changes to the federal funds rate (which is the rate banks use to lend funds to each other overnight within the Federal Reserve system) often affect consumer borrowing costs.

Forms of consumer credit that charge variable interest rates are especially vulnerable, including adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs), most credit cards, and certain private student loans. Variable interest rates are often tied to a benchmark (an index) such as the U.S. prime rate or the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), which typically goes up when the federal funds rate increases.

Although nothing is certain, the Fed expects to raise the federal funds rate by small increments over the next several years. However, you still have time to act before any interest rate hikes significantly affect your finances.

Adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs)

If you have an ARM, your interest rate and monthly payment may adjust at certain intervals. For example, if you have a 5/1 ARM, your initial interest rate is fixed for five years, but then can change every year if the underlying index goes up or down. Your loan documents will spell out which index your ARM tracks, the date your interest rate and payment may adjust, and by how much. ARM rates and payments have caps that limit the amount by which interest rates and payments can change over time. Refinancing into a fixed rate mortgage could be an option if you’re concerned about steadily climbing interest rates, but this may not be cost-effective if you plan to sell your home before the interest rate adjusts.

Credit cards

It’s always a good idea to keep credit card debt in check, but it’s especially important when interest rates are trending upward. Many credit cards have variable annual percentage rates (APRs) that are tied to an index (typically the prime rate). When the prime rate goes up, the card’s APR will also increase.

Check your credit card statement to see what APR you’re currently paying. If you’re carrying a balance, how much is your monthly finance charge?

Your credit card issuer must give you written notice at least 45 days in advance of any rate change, so you have a little time to reduce or pay off your balance. If it’s not possible to pay off your credit card debt quickly, you may want to look for alternatives. One option is to transfer your balance to a card that offers a 0% promotional rate for a set period of time (such as 18 months). But watch out for transaction fees, and find out what APR applies after the promotional rate term expires, in case a balance remains.

Variable rate student loans

Interest rates on federal student loans are always fixed (and so is the monthly payment). But if you have a variable rate student loan from a private lender, the size of your monthly payment may increase as the federal funds rate rises, potentially putting a dent in your budget. Variable student loan interest rates are generally pegged to the prime rate or the LIBOR. Because repayment occurs over a number of years, multiple rate hikes for variable rate loans could significantly affect the amount you’ll need to repay. Review your loan documents to find out how the interest rate is calculated, how often your payment might adjust, and whether the interest rate is capped.

Because interest rates are generally lower for variable rate loans, your monthly payment may be manageable, and you may be able to handle fluctuations. However, if your repayment term is long and you want to lock in your payment, you may consider refinancing into a fixed rate loan. Make sure to carefully compare the costs and benefits of each option before refinancing.

Future of the Federal Estate Tax

While no one can predict the future, the possibility of tax reform is once again in the spotlight. If it occurs, it may very well include repeal of the federal estate tax and related changes to the federal gift tax, the federal generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax, and the federal income tax basis rules.

History of the federal estate tax

In general, an estate tax is a tax on property a person owns at death. In one form or another, a federal estate tax has been enacted or repealed a number of times since 1797.1

Estate tax enacted Estate tax repealed
1797 1802
1862 1872
1894 1902
1916 2010*
2011*

*For 2010, the estate tax was repealed, but later retroactive legislation provided that an estate could elect to be subject to estate tax in return for a stepped-up (or stepped-down) income tax basis for most property. The estate tax was extended in 2011, with some changes.

The estate tax has undergone many changes over the years, including the addition of a federal gift tax and a federal GST tax during modern times. A gift tax is a tax on gifts a person makes while alive. A GST tax is a tax on transfers to persons who are two or more generations younger than the transferor. In recent years, property owned at death has generally received an income tax basis stepped up (or down) to fair market value at death.

During the 2000s, the estate, gift, and GST tax rates were substantially reduced, and the gift and estate tax lifetime exclusion and the GST tax exemption were substantially increased. The estate tax and the GST tax, but not the gift tax, were scheduled for repeal in 2010 (although certain sunset provisions would bring them back unless Congress acted), but legislation extended the estate tax and the GST tax in 2011. (For 2010, the estate tax ended up being optional and the GST tax rate was 0%.) The gift and estate tax lifetime exclusion and the GST tax exemption were increased to $5,000,000 and indexed for inflation in later years. For 2013, the top estate, gift, and GST tax rate was increased to 40%, and the extension and modifications were made “permanent.”

2017 Estate Planning Key Numbers
Annual gift tax exclusion $14,000
Gift tax and estate tax basic exclusion amount $5,490,000
Noncitizen spouse annual gift tax exclusion $149,000
Generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax exemption $5,490,000
Top gift, estate, and GST tax rate 40%

Federal estate tax

Repeal of the estate tax seems possible once again. If repeal occurs, it could be immediate or gradual as during the 2000s. Would it be subject to a sunset provision, so that the estate tax would return at a later time? All of this may depend on congressional rules on the legislative process, other legislative priorities, and the effect the legislation would have on the budget and the national debt.

Federal gift tax

If the estate tax is repealed, the gift tax may also be repealed. However, it is possible that the gift tax would be retained as a backstop to the income tax (as in 2010). To some extent, the gift tax reduces the ability of individuals to transfer property back and forth in order to reduce or avoid income taxes.

Federal GST tax

If the estate tax is repealed, the GST tax would probably be repealed (as in 2010). If the gift tax is not repealed, it is possible that the lifetime GST tax provisions would be retained, but the GST tax provisions at death repealed.

Federal income tax basis

If the estate tax is repealed, it is possible that the general income tax basis step-up (or step-down) to fair market value at death would be changed to a carryover basis (i.e., the decedent’s basis before death carries over to the person who inherits the property). In 2010, a modified carryover basis (a limited amount of property could receive a stepped-up basis) applied unless the estate elected to be subject to estate tax. It is also possible that a Canadian-style capital gain tax at death could be adopted in return for a stepped-up basis for the property.

Student Loan Debt: It Isn't Just for Millennials

It’s no secret that today’s college graduates face record amounts of debt. Approximately 68% of the graduating class of 2015 had student loan debt, with an average debt of $30,100 per borrower — a 4% increase from 2014 graduates.1

A student loan debt clock at finaid.org& estimates current outstanding student loan debt — including both federal and private student loans — at over $1.4 trillion. But it’s not just millennials who are racking up this debt. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), although most student loan borrowers are young adults between the ages of 18 and 39, consumers age 60 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the student loan market.2

Rise of student debt among older Americans

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of individuals age 60 and older with student loan debt quadrupled from about 700,000 to 2.8 million. The average amount of student loan debt owed by these older borrowers also increased from $12,100 to $23,500 over this period.3

The reason for this trend is twofold: Borrowers are carrying their own student loan debt later in life (27% of cases), and they are taking out loans to finance their children’s and grandchildren’s college education (73% of cases), either directly or by co-signing a loan with the student as the primary borrower.4Under the federal government’s Direct Stafford Loan program, the maximum amount that undergraduate students can borrow over four years is $27,000 — an amount that is often inadequate to meet the full cost of college. This limit causes many parents to turn to private student loans, which generally require a co-signer or co-borrower, who is then held responsible for repaying the loan along with the student, who is the primary borrower. The CFPB estimates that 57% of all individuals who are co-signers are age 55 and older.5

What’s at stake

The increasing student loan debt burden of older Americans has serious implications for their financial security. In 2015, 37% of federal student loan borrowers age 65 and older were in default on their loans.6 Unfortunately for these individuals, federal student loans generally cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, and Uncle Sam can and will get its money — the government is authorized to withhold a portion of a borrower’s tax refund or Social Security benefits to collect on the debt. (By contrast, private student loan lenders cannot intercept tax refunds or Social Security benefits to collect any amounts owed to them.)

The CFPB also found that older Americans with student loans (federal or private) have saved less for retirement and often forgo necessary medical care at a higher rate than individuals without student loans.7 It all adds up to a tough situation for older Americans, whose income stream is typically ramping down, not up, unlike their younger counterparts.

Think before you borrow

Since the majority of older Americans are incurring student loan debt to finance a child’s or grandchild’s college education, how much is too much to borrow? It’s different for every family, but one general guideline is that a student’s overall debt shouldn’t be more than his or her projected annual starting salary, which in turn often depends on the student’s major and job prospects. But this is just a guideline. Many variables can impact a borrower’s ability to pay back loans, and many families have been burned by borrowing amounts that may have seemed reasonable at first glance but now, in reality, are not.

A recent survey found that 57% of millennials regret how much they borrowed for college.8 This doesn’t mean they regretted going to college or borrowing at all, but it suggests that it would be wise to carefully consider the amount of any loans you or your child take out for college. Establish a conservative borrowing amount, and then try to borrow even less.

If the numbers don’t add up, students can reduce the cost of college by choosing a less expensive school, living at home or becoming a resident assistant (RA) to save on room costs, or graduating in three years instead of four.

1 The Institute for College Access & Success, Student Debt and the Class of 2015, October 2016

2-7 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Snapshot of Older Consumers and Student Loan Debt, January 2017

8 Journal of Financial Planning, September 2016

What is a rollover IRA, and do I need one?

Generally, the term “rollover IRA” refers to an IRA that you establish to receive funds from an employer retirement plan like a 401(k). A rollover IRA is also sometimes referred to as a “conduit IRA.”

When you roll funds over from an employer plan to an IRA, your financial institution may suggest that you use a rollover IRA to receive the funds. Of course, you can transfer those dollars to any other IRA you own at some future date, because there’s no legal requirement that you keep your plan distribution in a separate IRA. But even though separate IRAs are not legally required, there are at least two reasons to consider keeping your employer plan rollover separate from your contributory IRAs.

The first reason to maintain a separate rollover IRA deals with federal bankruptcy law. Your IRAs are protected from your creditors under federal law if you declare bankruptcy, but this protection is currently limited to $1.28 million for all your IRAs.1 The $1.28 million limit doesn’t apply, though, to amounts you roll over to an IRA from an employer plan, or any earnings on that rollover. These dollars are protected in full if you declare bankruptcy, just as they would have been in your employer’s plan. Obviously, it’s easier to track the amount rolled over, and any future earnings, if you keep those dollars separate from your contributory IRAs. So a rollover IRA may make sense if creditor protection is important to you.

The second reason to maintain a rollover IRA is that you might decide in the future that you want to roll your distribution back into a new employer’s plan. In the distant past, employer plans could accept rollovers only from rollover (conduit) IRAs — rollovers from contributory IRAs weren’t permitted. Now, however, employer plans can accept rollovers from both contributory IRAs and rollover IRAs.2 Despite this, employer plans aren’t required to accept rollovers, and they can limit the types of contributions they’ll accept. And while it’s becoming less common, some still accept rollovers only from rollover IRAs. So keep this in mind if you are contemplating a rollover back to an employer plan in the future.

1SEP and SIMPLE IRAs have unlimited protection under federal bankruptcy law.

2Nontaxable traditional IRA dollars can’t be rolled back into an employer plan.

Can I roll my traditional 401(k) account balance over to a Roth IRA?

Yes, you can make a direct or 60-day rollover from a 401(k) plan [or other qualified plan, 403(b) plan, or governmental 457(b) plan] to a Roth IRA, as long as you meet certain requirements.*

First, you must be entitled to a distribution from your plan. While you can always access your account when you terminate employment, in some cases you may be able to withdraw your own or your employer’s contributions while you’re still working (for example, at age 59½).

[Note: Your plan may also permit the “in plan” conversion of all or part of your account balance to a Roth account, regardless of whether you’re eligible for a distribution from the plan. Check with your plan administrator.]

Second, your distribution must be an “eligible rollover distribution.” Distributions that cannot be rolled over include hardship withdrawals, certain periodic payments, and required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Third, you must include the taxable portion of the distribution in your gross income in the year you make the rollover (“conversion”). But that’s the price you have to pay to potentially receive tax-free qualified distributions from your Roth IRA in the future.

Fourth, if your distribution includes both after-tax and pre-tax dollars, you can generally direct that only the after-tax dollars be rolled over to the Roth IRA (resulting in a tax-free conversion), while making a tax-deferred rollover of the pre-tax dollars to a traditional IRA.

When evaluating whether to initiate a rollover from an employer plan to an IRA, be sure to: (1) ask about possible surrender charges that your employer plan or IRA may impose, (2) compare investment fees and expenses charged by your IRA with those charged by your employer plan (if any), and (3) understand any accumulated rights or guarantees that you may be giving up by transferring funds out of your employer plan. Also consider all of your distribution options, including leaving the money in your employer’s plan, transferring the funds to a new employer’s plan, or taking a cash withdrawal.

*If you make a 60-day rollover, your plan will withhold 20% of the taxable portion of your distribution for federal income tax purposes.

 

IRS Circular 230 disclosure: To ensure compliance with requirements imposed by the IRS, we inform you that any tax advice contained in this communication (including any attachments) was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding tax-related penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any matter addressed herein.

Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2017

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