Officially ending a marriage simplifies taxes

Every year during tax season I come across people who are still legally married even though they haven’t had contact with their spouse for years. They cannot file a tax return as “Single.” If they aren’t divorced or legally separated, that leaves them stuck with a “Married Filing Separately” (MFS) tax status.

There are several disadvantages to using the MFS filing status, including:

  • You are not eligible for Earned Income Credit.
  • You can not deduct student loan interest paid.
  • You do not qualify for Education Credits (American Opportunity or Lifetime Learning Credit) related to college expenses.
  • You must know and list your spouse’s name and social security number on your tax form; if you cannot, then your tax return will need to sent in by mail instead of submitting electronically.
  • If one spouse itemizes deductions, the other spouse must also itemize deductions.
  • On the Iowa return, you must report approximately how much income your spouse has; if you cannot, then your Iowa return will need to be sent in by mail.

There is an exception – one group of people who are split from their spouse but do not have to file MFS. These are people who are paying the cost to keep up a home for someone else (typically a parent who is keeping up a home for his/her children).  These individuals can be “considered unmarried” if they have not lived with their spouse at any time during the last six months of the year; if so they qualify for “Head of Household” filing status, which allows them to receive the Earned Income Credit and other tax benefits. However, when the children are grown and the taxpayer can no longer claim “Head of Household,” then they must use Married Filing Separately as their tax status.

“What’s the point of all this?” you may be asking.  I have two reasons for covering this topic today, as this long COVID-extended tax season finally approaches its end.

  • First, I’m tired of breaking bad news to people – the news that their tax return may be difficult to file and they can’t get some of the tax credits they might want.  
  • Second, to put forth the suggestion indicated in the title: If the marriage is over, maybe it would be smart to make that official. If you have reasons to avoid divorce, consider a legal separation if possible. Taking that step would make tax filing easier for both parties.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Laid Off? Health Insurance Options

It’s tough to live on reduced income after a reduction in hours or a job loss, but unemployment benefits can help to bridge that gap, at least for a while. The expanded eligibility and expanded benefit amount provided through federal legislation in response to COVID-19 has helped thousands of Iowans.

Losing employment (or even reduction in hours) often means that workers also lose their health insurance coverage. Depending on the situation, that loss may be even more disruptive than the loss of income. Fortunately, there are some good options available for obtaining affordable health insurance outside of your workplace.

Free Insurance. If your income is below a certain threshold, you may be eligible for free health coverage through the state, and you can apply at any time during the year. This coverage is available to everyone, regardless of whether they are disabled or have children in the home, thanks to the fact that Iowa signed on to the expanded Medicaid portion of the Affordable Care Act.  The income guidelines for this option depend on family size:  for a single individual, the 2020 income limit is nearly $17,000; for a family of four, it is nearly $35,000. There are some nuances in the recording of income, so even if your income is a little above the limit, it is worth applying – you may be eligible. ALSO – even if your income for the first six months of the year puts you over the limit, it is still worth applying if your situation has changed, because the income limits are considered on a month-by-month basis. To apply, contact the Department of Human Services at 855-889-7985.

Coverage for Children. Through Healthy and Well Kids in Iowa (Hawk-I), children and teens under age 19 are eligible for free or nearly-free health coverage up to much higher income levels, so if you are having trouble affording health insurance for your children use the same DHS phone number (855-889-7985) to inquire and apply.

Income too high for free coverage? There are still options! The high cost of health insurance often means that even those with average incomes may find it unaffordable. Through the Health Insurance Marketplace, you can find high-quality health insurance plans; you may be eligible for help in paying the premiums if you do not have access to an affordable employer plan and if your income is below a generous limit. The 2020 income limit here is $49,960 for a single individual, and $103,000 for a family of four. You will be expected to pay part of the premiums, based on your income, but the government will pay the rest. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health Insurance Subsidy Calculator will provide a good estimate of the help you might receive.  

To enroll mid-year in coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace, you must be eligible for a special enrollment period; generally that ends 60 days after your previous coverage ends. Learn more or enroll at www.healthcare.gov or by calling 800-318-2596. Many community health centers offer assistance in considering options and enrolling, as well. 

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Nursing Home Residents: Keep your economic impact payment

If finances are tight, the federal economic impact payment being issued through the CARES Act for coronavirus relief may have a big impact on your well-being. Unfortunately, residents of care facilities in many states (including Iowa) are being told incorrectly that they must relinquish their payment.

This problem occurs when an individual is receiving Medicaid benefits to help cover the cost of their care. Nursing home administrators, acting on misinformation, believe they must recover the extra income to defray Medicaid costs. However, the CARES Act specifically labels the payments as “tax credits,” and tax credits are exempt from income and resource limits placed on those who are benefiting from certain government assistance programs.

Nearly every United States household should receive an economic impact payment, including households that receive Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Veterans Administration benefits. The payments should be deposited automatically to the same account where you receive either your tax refund or your SSA, SSI, or VA income. The IRS, which is responsible for issuing the payments, offers a lookup resource to help people track their payment. Note: the look-up link for those who do not file a tax return is separate from the link for tax filers; be sure to use the correct link.

If you have loved ones living in care facilities, especially if they are receiving Medicaid benefits to help cover the cost of care, be on the watch for any attempts to get them to turn over their economic impact payment to the facility. If this has already occurred, it should be refunded; contact the Iowa Attorney General’s office for help if needed. Note: it is important to keep in mind that nursing home administrators who try to claim the payment are not trying to steal; they are trying to do the right thing, but are simply misinformed about what the law requires.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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When Income Goes Down…

bar graph showing 7 months income and expenses; first month income and expenses equal, then income suddenly drops, while expenses decline slowly, until in the seventh month they are in line with lower income.

When income goes down, it often goes down suddenly – one month it is normal, and the next month it is suddenly much less. People may be much slower to reduce their expenses, often taking many months until their expenses are finally in line with their new (lower) income. Why? Denial, unwillingness to modify their lifestyle, lack of needed skills, or other reasons.

That slow response will, unfortunately, delay their recovery and increase their financial problems. The graph (above) depicts a family whose income declined by $800/month. It shows five months where the family’s expenses continued to exceed their new income. During those five months, their spending exceeded their income by a total of $2,000.

Where did that $2,000 come from? Perhaps they had an emergency savings account – if so, the balance in that account is now depleted. If they, like many Americans, had no savings, then they had no choice but to go in debt — they may have made partial payments on some bills, or built up the balance on their credit cards. They are $2,000 in the hole. And while it only took a few months to get into that hole, it may take years to repay that $2,000! (or to rebuild their savings)

The second graph depicts the same situation, but in this case the family rapidly reduced their spending to match their new income. This family also spent more than they earned, but only in the first two months, and only by about $500. They will recover much more quickly from this financial setback.

Reducing expenses isn’t easy. But in the long run, people who quickly adjust to the new situation are more satisfied with the outcome. Even in situations where the income reduction is expected to be temporary, people who adjust quickly come out of the situation in a stronger financial position.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Choices: Cut to the core

When you face unfamiliar financial stress, the choices are difficult. But they are still choices – and we know how to do that. We’ve been making choices since we were small children deciding what book we wanted for a bedtime story, or which treat to order at the ice cream store.  I know – these days we would LOVE to face such simple choices, right? Sometimes the key to dealing with difficult choices is to make them more simple — cut through the extraneous details and get to the core of it.

Faced with a budget shortfall, the hard truth is that we no longer have the money for the lifestyle we enjoyed in the past. To put it simply: I can’t still have everything. So which do I need and want the most?

Think about something special to you – maybe it’s a monthly subscription, or your favorite soda or beer, or planting flowers in your pots and your yard. Whatever this special thing is, we’ll call it  your “treasure.” It’s hard to give up. But ask yourself: would I rather have “my treasure” or running water? If the answer is running water, then you’ll pay the water bill. Would I rather have “my treasure” or keep my car? Your financial decision will follow your answer.

Sometimes we say “I was FORCED to give up ‘my treasure.'” But it’s not really true. We could have kept the “treasure” and given up something else. We kept the “something else” for a reason. Instead of feeling defeated and deprived, we can feel PROUD of the decision we made. We gave up something less important in order to keep something more important.

Looking at the bare facts can help us feel a little better about choices we wish we weren’t facing. Simplifying makes some things really clear.

Really? Of course, it’s not always as simple as I’m trying to make it. Sometimes we have more options. Perhaps I can keep “my treasure” and just delay my car payment. That means I’m choosing to make extra payments later. In order to do that, I need to be REALLY certain that my income will go back up sometime soon. – it’s a risk. Having the option to delay or make partial payments dilutes the simplicity I’m trying to convey. After all, real adult life IS more complicated than childhood decisions.

Even so, if we cut through some of the static, we get down to the bare choices. It’s always about choosing what is most important to ourselves and our families. Sometimes it’s also about carefully weighing future risks and deciding if we’re willing to take them. If we choose to take on the risk of extra payments in the future, we know we need to start now to plan for them. Accepting that reality is also part of cutting through the details and looking at the core of the decisions we’re making.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Seek Additional Resources

Audio Blog

In all aspects of life, when we face any kind of shortage (time, money, food, etc) we generally have two choices. We can prioritize and narrow down our goals, which we have discussed in earlier posts. OR we can expand our available resources. In most cases, it’s smart to do a little of both!

The current public health crisis is wreaking havoc with the economy at large and with the economic well-being of many individual households; the widespread nature of the crisis has led to availability of expanded public supports for those whose income is disrupted. Find out if you are eligible for the unemployment relief available during the COVID-19 crisis, and apply. Learn about food pantry options in your community; spending less on food can free up funds for other critical needs and bills.

In addition, consider your personal resources. Do you own something you can sell to help you through this crisis?  If you have a boat or a snowmobile or other item of value, selling it can provide a boost. If you are currently laid off from your regular job, is there temporary work available in your community? Keep an open mind and consider all options for dealing with your current situation.

If you have lost your health insurance, check on the free or subsidized health insurance available through the Affordable Care Act: contact DHS at 855-889-7985 to see if you are eligible for free insurance, OR for subsidized insurance through the marketplace, go to www.healthcare.gov or call 800-318-2596. Through the marketplace, your share of the insurance premium is on a sliding scale depending on your income: people generally pay premiums equivalent to 2% – 8% of their income, and the government pays the remainder.

Seek other public or community assistance as well if you qualify. These resources exist because we live in a society that wants to ensure all can stay safe and healthy. Perhaps you are new to seeking help, but consider that others have needed them in the past and others will need them in the future; now is the time when you need them. If you don’t know much about available resources in your area, dial 211 or go to the website. This free service provides information and referral on a wide range of issues.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Communicating with creditors

When a tight financial situation leaves you truly unable to pay all your bills according to the prescribed schedule, then difficult choices must be made, as discussed in my previous post. After evaluating your situation and figuring out the best strategy you can come up with, the next step is to make some phone calls. Note: in some cases emails or on-line communication may be the company’s only option, but I encourage you to first attempt to reach creditors by phone.

As much as you might dread the phone call, communicating with creditors is essential if you cannot pay on time. The fact that you called and explained your situation will make a huge difference in their willingness to work with you. This is especially true if you have previously been a reliable customer; creditors recognize the losses people are facing during this unprecedented crisis. A couple of suggestions:

  1. Be prompt – call them before your payment is due.
  2. Be honest with them – tell the truth without embellishment or exaggeration.
  3. Ask if they have any “hardship plan” that would reduce or eliminate the fees or interest that come with late payments.
  4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Example: sometimes people are so nervous that when the creditor says “Will you be able to pay the remaining balance by next Wednesday,” the customer just says yes, even though it is not realistic. If they want a promise that you are not sure you can live up to, consider this option: you can promise that you will make another payment by next Wednesday, although you can’t guarantee it will be the full amount.
  5. Keep a record of what phone number you called, who you talked with, the date and time of the conversation, and what exactly was agreed.

Need help with all this?  In many communities a non-profit credit counseling service is available to help you negotiate the process.  To find a reputable credit counselor near you, check with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling; either by phone or on-line, they can do a zip code search to find the member agency nearest you.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Prioritizing when money is tight

Audio Blog
Weighing Priorities

As we focus on what we can control in our personal finances, the most obvious thing we control is our spending. When money is tight, choosing your top priorities is critical. Prioritizing includes expenses like groceries, household supplies and personal needs: think about needs vs. wants and use your limited funds on the things that truly bring value to your family. Prioritizing can be even more important when it comes to paying bills.

Before going to the point of skipping a bill or making a partial payment, start by getting a complete picture of all your bills and debts – total owed, monthly payment, current standing (i.e. are you currently caught up), and interest rate or fees for late payment.

Then consider each bill’s importance. They will all need to be paid eventually, and it is never desirable to leave bills unpaid or partially paid, but in times of real financial shortfall, people sometimes have no choice. So how do you choose among your many bills?

Consider what you have to lose if a bill is unpaid. Losing housing, core utilities or a vehicle is generally the greatest possible loss to a household – therefore those payments may be top priorities for many families. By contrast, getting behind on a credit card account, student loan, or medical bill payment plan may not affect your immediate well-being. Note: it may affect your credit score, and is not something to take lightly, but that is an impact you can recover from.

In addition to prioritizing among your existing bills, it is also wise to consider what bills you will continue to incur. You may have on-going monthly subscriptions – to video services, cable, newspapers, weight-loss programs, wine clubs, (the list is endless). Stop and think about whether to continue them during this time. Those are often things we enjoy, and we don’t like the idea of giving them up, but if you’re worried about paying the car insurance or water bill, then it’s appropriate to include these subscriptions as you consider options.

If your situation has left you unable to pay all your bills, be sure to communicate with those creditors. That is the topic for tomorrow’s post, so stay tuned!

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also offers tips for protecting your finances during this time.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Crisis: Focus on what you can control

If you are experiencing financial challenges due to income loss or unexpected expenses during this time of pandemic and shut-down, you’re probably feeling tremendous stress. As always, one key to managing uncertainty and stress is to focus on what you can control. There’s no benefit to expending mental and emotional energy on things outside of your influence, and that energy drain will prevent you from focusing effectively on what you CAN do.

What do you have control over? Perhaps more than you realize. You control what you do, including what bills you pay and what money you spend. You may even control the option to return purchases you haven’t yet used!

You control what you say, including to your family members and to your creditors. You also control your attitude — keeping a positive attitude focused on problem-solving will help you be open to new ideas and opportunities.

What do you NOT have control over? Prices. Your past behavior (such as building up credit card bills). The stock market. Your employer (although you may have influence – if you do, consider how to use that influence in a productive way). Don’t waste time and energy stewing over these things. They are what they are. You have choices about how to respond.

Stay tuned the rest of this week for 3 more posts about managing through a challenging time.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Time to refinance?

cartoon house

The uncertainty (almost chaos) that we are experiencing due to the current pandemic is hurting the economy, and is a pointed reminder of the need to plan for short- and long-term financial security. Because the Federal Reserve Board has lowered interest rates, however, there is one group who might be able to benefit from the situation: those who have a mortgage at an interest rate higher than they wish.

            How do you know if refinancing is a wise choice for you? Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple answer for that question, but I can give you a few tips on how to evaluate the decision. First, two generalizations. Consumers who are most likely to benefit are those who:

  1. Have the highest interest rates on their current mortgages; and/or
  2. Have many years left to pay on their current mortgages.

Why? Because the main benefit of refinancing is to pay less interest on your mortgage over the long term. The total interest you pay depends on the interest rate and the length of time on the loan, along with (of course) how much you owe.

            If it were free, everyone would benefit from refinancing when interest rates drop, as long as they did not lengthen the remaining term on the mortgage. However, refinancing is not free. Lenders will charge closing costs that will include a loan origination fee, along with appraisal fees and other fees. Note: fees may be lower if you stay with the same lender that holds your current mortgage, but will generally be equivalent to 1-3% of the amount of the loan. If your refinance will cost $2,000, then it is only worthwhile if you will save noticeably more than $2,000 in the long run.

            Imagine that you took out a 25-year mortgage several years ago at 4.25%, with a monthly payment of $560 plus taxes and insurance. The current balance on the loan is $78,000; it will be 16 years and 1 month till it is paid off, and you will pay $29,686 in interest during those 16 years. 

  • What if you could refinance at 3.5%?  If closing costs were $2,000 and you borrowed the money to pay those costs, then you would be borrowing $2,000. You could get a 15-year mortgage with a payment of $572 (plus T&I); the total interest you would pay would be $22,938; that would save you over $5,500 in interest! Of course your payment and savings would be lower if you paid the closing costs in cash.
  • Even better, refinancing at a 3.0% rate (15 years) would lower your payment on an $80,000 loan to $553 (plus T&I), and reduce total interest to $19,419, for a total savings over $10,000.

A caution: Refinancing only makes sense if there is no penalty for pre-paying your existing mortgage. Iowa law prohibits pre-payment penalties, so for Iowa-based loans it’s not an issue, but it is an issue to be aware of in other states. For more information, explore the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau web page on mortgages.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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