Q. I am hoping you can help. My sister lost her husband 2 years ago. Unfortunately, although they lived together for twelve years, they married only 3 months before he died. She was relying on his Social Security benefits but now faces living in poverty on her meager benefits. She also has very limited financial assets, an IRA with about $100,000.
She will be 66 in September. She is retiring due to health issues at the end of this month. She doesn’t own a home. Fortunately, she has less than $5,000 in debt.
If she is forced to pursue low-income housing when she moves to the Seattle area after retirement, is her IRA considered an asset? She is planning at this time to start collecting Social Security in February which will provide her with about $1,300 a month.
Should she draw from her IRA instead? This would prolong starting Social Security until she has exhausted her IRA. She will likely need to live on both at some point. Thanks for any help you can offer. —C.H., Seattle, WA
A. Having a $100,000 IRA account won’t prevent your sister from being eligible for public housing. It will have a minor impact on what she has to pay for rent. Let’s consider Section 8 housing as an example. In this program the government subsidizes market level rents for people with modest incomes. If assets are greater than $5,000 the income from those assets must be considered. Since eligibility for this program is based on having income less than 80 percent of median income in the area, eligibility would not be affected unless the investment income brought total income over that 80 percent threshold.
As a practical matter, deferring Social Security benefits for a 66 year old with health issues by running down an IRA account probably isn’t a good bet. A better path would be to try to live on Social Security and required minimum distributions (when they must be made) and spending some of the IRA for health emergencies.
Q. My husband and I are having a heated discussion about finance. We are retired. We live very comfortably with a nice nest egg. Our brokerage house charges an annual management fee of about one percent.
My husband believes that our brokerage house somehow picks up all the hidden fees within the mutual funds we own as part of the management fee. I say no way. Those fees are taken out of the mutual fund itself. He also thinks that there is no way our manager and company get "kickbacks" for pushing certain funds. This isn't a fiduciary relationship.
Unfortunately, a close family member is the manager (head honcho) in this asset group within the bigger investment house. The fee comes from his trader/investor. So who is right? —S.M., Ravenna, Ohio
A. You’re right, but give your husband a hug for being such a positive thinker. Financial service firms have many ways to steer business in directions that are very profitable for them, not so good for us. The method can be as simple as special expense-paid trips offered as rewards for sales of a particular product or service. In a recent column, for instance, I wrote about meeting a couple that were on their way to an all-expense-paid Viking cruise. A recent report from Senator Elizabeth Warren goes into detail.
In addition, brokerage firms have a compensation grid that determines how much they are paid for different kinds of business. If a broker doesn’t pay attention to the grid, he can do a lot of work and have very happy customers— but have no income. If that doesn’t give the broker a clue, the firm will eventually take away his desk and phone. While some brokers make far more money than others, few get into the business because they want to avoid making money.
Finally, while some managed accounts minimize outside fees by sticking to low-cost index funds, the majority try to create the illusion of deep thinking by using a wide variety of higher cost managed funds. Even if the costs of those funds are average, this means that the total cost (management fee plus mutual fund expenses) is likely to exceed 2 percent a year. That’s too much.