This $1 house deal comes with elder care responsibility. It could get complicated

Written by MLHA Team

June 10, 2021

Dear Liz: My father-in-law died recently. My mother-in-law is not well enough to live alone. My husband has a brother and a sister who would like my husband and me to buy my in-laws’ big, old home for $1, take care of my mother-in-law 24/7, and make 60 years’ worth of updates and repairs to the house. I see plenty of downsides to this arrangement, but no upside. Is there a way this deal can work for us, and not just for the other siblings?

Answer: The upside is that you would own the house. Although the home may not be in great shape, it presumably is an asset with some value. Whether it has enough value to be worthwhile, and whether you want to acquire it this way, are open questions.

If you and your husband buy the home for $1, the IRS will assume that your mother-in-law gave the two of you her property, and that can be problematic. The difference between the sale price of the home and its fair market value would be treated as a gift for gift tax purposes, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Your mother-in-law probably wouldn’t owe gift taxes, but she likely would have to file a gift tax return, and the gift would use up part of her lifetime gift and estate tax exemption.

If the home is a gift, you get her tax basis, as well. If instead she bequeathed the home to you and your husband in her will, the home would get a new, stepped-up value for tax purposes. How big a deal this might be depends on a lot of factors, including which state the home is in, so you’d need to consult a tax professional for details.

On the other hand, taking title to the home before your mother-in-law dies ensures that you and your husband actually get this asset. If it’s left in a will, your mother-in-law could change her mind and leave it in full or in part to someone else. If she doesn’t have a will, the house would be divided according to state law, which probably means your husband would have to share the asset with his siblings.

There are other aspects to consider. Taking care of another person can be costly: Caregivers spend nearly 20% of their personal income on out-of-pocket costs related to helping a loved one, according to an AARP study in 2019.

Also, more than half of family caregivers adjust their work hours by taking time off, reducing their hours or quitting altogether, AARP researchers found. In addition to losing income, they can lose promotions, job security and opportunities to save for retirement.

Caregiving also is associated with higher levels of stress, worse health and increased risk of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Before you take on this task, consider hiring a geriatric care manager to help you assess your mother-in-law’s needs and discuss alternatives. You can get referrals from the Aging Life Care Assn.

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Dear Liz: The common assumption seems to be that, in most cases, it’s a good idea to delay collecting Social Security because the longer you wait, the higher your monthly benefits will be. I will reach my full retirement age of 66 years and 2 months in July. According to the Social Security Administration website, my monthly benefit would get bumped up if I waited to start collecting until 66 years and 8 months, next February. The next bump wouldn’t be for another full year, at 67 years and 8 months. My current plan is to retire in March or April of next year. Is there any reason I shouldn’t start collecting my benefit as soon as I get to the 66 years and 2 months threshold?

Answer: It’s not clear what you were looking at, but your Social Security benefit earns delayed retirement credits every month you put off your application after your full retirement age. Those credits add up to 8% annually and increase your checks for the rest of your life.

Social Security can be complicated, and making the right claiming decision isn’t always easy, but your choice can have a huge impact on your future financial security. Please consult a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner before you retire so you can be confident you’re doing the right thing.

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.

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