Should You Take Social Security Benefits at 62?

The vast majority of workers choose to receive their Social Security benefits as soon as they turn 62. And they could be leaving a lot of money on the table. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the 39 million retirees in the U.S. are receiving reduced benefits because they began taking Social Security before they reached full retirement age, according to the Social Security Administration’s 2015 Annual Statistical Supplement.

In fact, you’ll only receive 75% of your benefits if you start taking Social Security at 62. For every year until you reach “full retirement age” (66), the greater your benefit check will be. The chart below shows you exactly how much your benefit will be affected by electing your benefits early.

Age Percentage of Benefit
62 75%
63 80%
64 86.7%
65 93.3 %
66 100%

 

But decisions like this are rarely cut and dried. If you’re younger than 62 and contemplating when you should elect your Social Security benefits, we’re going to discuss the factors you should consider first.

3 Reasons You Should Take Social Security Benefits at 62

The Social Security retirement benefit is a bit of misnomer because you don’t actually have to be retired to receive the benefit. Under certain circumstances, electing your Social Security benefit at 62, or any other time before full retirement age (66), could be the right decision for you.

  1. You need the income to meet your basic daily needs. When considering whether or not you should begin receiving Social Security benefits at age 62, look at your budget. Since Social Security will effectively serve as a paycheck, think about whether or not you actually need the additional income.
  2. You don’t have longevity in your family. Nobody wants to leave money on the table. If you don’t have longevity in your family or simply expect your lifespan to be shorter than average, it is worth considering taking your benefits early. Just keep in mind that upon your death, however, your spouse will receive a lower survivor’s benefit than he or she would have if you had waited.
  3. You need to be retired. There are a host of indications that it is time to retire. If you’re realizing one or more of them, but your retirement savings are not enough to sustain your lifestyle, electing your benefits at 62 could be a wise decision.

3 Reasons to Wait to Take Social Security Benefits Until After Age 62

The most common reason someone will tell you to wait until full retirement age is that your annual benefit is reduced if you take it sooner. If you elect benefits at age 62, expect to receive a 25% smaller benefit that you would receive at age 66, for the rest of your life. In addition to the downside of a reduced benefit, think about how these factors apply to your life:

  1. You can afford to wait. If your budget does not rely on the additional income that will be provided by Social Security, your patience will be handsomely rewarded. Your benefit amount increases with each year you wait, up until you turn 70.
  2. You’re still working and making too much money. “Too much money” sounds quite relative, but in terms of Social Security, individuals who elect benefits before full retirement age will have their benefits reduced by $1 for every $2 earned over $16,920. For people older than full retirement age, but younger than age 70, benefits will be reduced $1 for every $3 earned over $44,880.
  3. You will get a larger benefit if you wait.
  1. You’re rewarded for your patience in two ways, and the first is through earnings alone. Your Social Security benefit is determined by the 40 highest-earning quarters of your work history. So, if you’re 62 or older and earning more money each quarter, it could mean a larger monthly benefit when you eventually elect Social Security.
  2. Whether or not your earnings increase during the final quarters of your working years, the Social Security Administration will also reward you for waiting to take your benefit until age 66 or later.
Age Percentage of Benefit
66 100%
67 108%
68 116%
69 124%
70 132%

3 Ways to Boost Income and Avoid Taking Social Security Benefits Early

The Annual Statistical Supplement does not discuss why so many people elect benefits before full retirement age, but if you are considering an early election of your benefits due to an income need, judge the following first:

  1. Your budget
  1. Can you generate enough monthly savings to offset your Social Security benefit before full retirement age? The benefits of waiting to take your Social Security benefit far outweigh the costs, so if you’re able to apply a short-term solution for a larger, long-term benefit, it could be in your best interest.
  1. If retired, take a part-time job
  • . According to the 2015 Annual Statistical Supplement, the average monthly benefit for a retired worker was $1,329. If after assessing your monthly budget, and the deficit you hoped to fill with Social Security is close to or below what your monthly benefit would be, think about a part-time job. Your annual income will likely fall below the threshold for a reduced benefit, and you will avoid a lifelong reduction in Social Security benefits.
  1. Consider adjusting your portfolio to a more income-oriented allocation
  • . Disclaimer: This approach should be discussed with a professional. If you have retirement or investment accounts, you have two strategies at your disposal to help generate income:
    1. Take dividends in cash, rather than reinvesting. While this may provide a stream of income, it could also slow the growth of your investments.
    2. Adjust your asset allocation to one that is income-oriented. Then, take the dividends in cash.
  1. Acknowledging that this approach is more complicated than the previous two, it is also a prudent one because it is reversible. The last thing you want to do, as you approach what could be decades in retirement, is permanently reduce any stream of income.

The Bottom Line

Think about the timing of your Social Security like a tattoo. Both can act like a double-edged sword in your life and, for discussion’s sake, are irreversible. Deciding to get a tattoo is not always a good decision; similarly, electing to take Social Security at 62 is not always a smart choice either. However, the reverse is also true, and the only way to know if this choice is right or wrong is to weigh the factors at play in your life against the consequences of your decision.

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Best Places to Retire Early 2017

The rise of the FIRE (Financial Independence and Retiring Early) movement has given way to a new emphasis on retiring early. Rather than leaving the workforce at the typical age of 62, FIRE retirees aim to retire in their 40s or 50s. This lofty goal typically requires an aggressive savings plan, as early retirees must live off their savings until they can expect to withdraw benefits like Social Security or dip into their 401(k) or IRA savings without facing a penalty.

In a new study, MagnifyMoney ranked 217 U.S. cities to find the best and worst places to retire early.

Methodology:

We sought to find cities that had a combination of a low cost of living (highest priority), a great quality of life and access to employment if needed to supplement income.

Each city was given a final composite score out of 100 possible points. The composite score was based on those three factors, each weighted differently: cost of living (50%), quality of life (30%), and employability (20%).

Within each of these three categories, we looked at specific elements that play a key role in determining the best city to retire early.

Cost of Living: The cost of groceries, housing, utilities, transportation, health care and other goods and services.

Quality of Life: Weather (average annual temperature and number of sunny days); access to arts and entertainment services; walkability.

Employability: Early retirees may choose to incorporate part-time work into their lives even after they retire to stay active and supplement their existing savings. We looked at the minimum wage, unemployment rate, average commute time and state income tax for each metro.

Key Findings:

Looking for a low cost of living? Move South or Midwest

Cities in the South and Midwest dominated the list of best places to retire early, mostly due to a lower average cost of living than any of the four regions studied. Southern and Midwestern cities boasted an average cost of living score of 63 —13 points higher than the average score across all 216 cities studied of (50).

The South and Midwest also boasted the two highest overall early retirement scores (57 and 56, respectively).

The South may be the best bet for early retirees looking for the option of part-time work to supplement their income as well. The region scored the highest employability score of any other area. The employability score was based on the unemployment rate, minimum wage, average commute time and state income tax.

Favor quality of life over low cost of living? Head Northeast

-Early retirees will need to save a pretty penny to retire in the Northeast, but they may find retirement more entertaining at least. Although the Northeast earned the highest score of any region for quality of life (67, well above the national average of 50), the region suffered due to its relatively high cost of living. It earned the lowest cost of living score of any region with a paltry 17.

Western cities had a poor showing in all three categories, barely eeking out a higher final score than the Northeast. But whereas the expensive Northeast was buoyed by its relatively high quality of life score, the West was dragged down on all three fronts.

The 10 Best Cities to Retire Early

The 10 Worst Cities to Retire Early

10-Worst-Cities

 

RANKINGS BY REGION

Region-Wise

MIDWEST: The 10 best cities to retire early

MIDWEST-10-Best-Cities

MIDWEST: The 10 worst cities to retire early

MIDWEST-10-Worst-Cities

NORTHEAST: The 10 best cities to retire early

NORTHEAST-10-Best-Cities

NORTHEAST: The 10 worst cities to retire early

NORTHEAST-10-Worst-Cities

SOUTH: The 10 best cities to retire early

SOUTH-10-Best-Cities

SOUTH: The 10 worst cities to retire early

SOUTH-10-Worst-Cities

WEST: The 10 best cities to retire early

WEST: The 10 worst cities to retire early

Sources:

Cost of living:

http://coli.org

Quality of life:

Employability:

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Costco is Raising the Cost of Membership Fees — Here’s How Much More You’ll Pay

 

For the first time in six years, Costco will hike the cost of its annual membership fee for individuals and businesses. The increased prices will go into effect June 1, 2017, the wholesale retailer announced on Thursday.

The raise will affect about 35 million members.

Here’s how much more you’ll be paying for your Costco membership:

Primary Costco Members

“Primary” Costco members (both individuals and businesses) pay $5 more, bringing the cost of an annual membership to $60.

Executive Costco Members

Members at the “Executive” tier, who earn 2% cashback on their purchases for the year, among other perks, will see their annual membership fee rise by $10 to $120. Executive members also receive discounts on Costco Services such as check printing, identity theft services and roadside assistance.

Perhaps to dull the sting of the higher membership fee, Costco has decided to raise the cap on the amount of cashback executive members can earn each year — from a maximum of $750 to $1000.

How to save on Costco shopping

Costco membership fees might be going up soon, but Costco members can recoup some extra funds and save money by using certain credit cards.

Costo’s Anywhere Visa card is a good option for frequent shoppers. The card has no annual fee and earns better rewards than its predecessor, including 2% back on Costco purchases, 4% on gas, 3% on restaurants and 1% on everything else.

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New Study Shows Number of Americans with Past-Due Medical Debt Down 6%

Fewer Americans are struggling to pay back medical debt.

The rate of American adults aged 18 to 64 with past-due medical debt dropped from 29.6% to 23.8% between 2012 and 2015, according to new study released by researchers at the Urban Institute.

Not surprisingly, people who did not have insurance were more likely to say that they currently had unpaid bills from a health care or medical service provider (a rate of 30.5%). But with the rise of high-deductible health plans, even people who have insurance find themselves in medical debt — 22.8% of insured consumers had past-due medical debt, according to the study.

When researchers looked at past-due debt by region, the differences were particularly staggering. There was “enormous variation across states,” according to Senior Research Associates Kyle Caswell and Michael Karpman, who authored the study.

Eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of past-due medical debt were in the South, including Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Georgia. The other two were midwestern states Indiana and Missouri.

The researchers could not point to a solid conclusion as to why Southerners were harder hit by medical expenses.

“Of course we would like to understand better why, but it does give us a starting point for asking questions as to why the population differs from state to state,” said Caswell.

Why are rates of past-due medical debt dropping? It would be easy to conclude that the drop is due to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. People today are simply more likely to have insurance, as the rate of uninsured Americans has fallen from 16.6% to 10.5% since the implementation of ACA in 2013, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But Caswell and Karpman said it would be a stretch to give all the credit to the expansion of health care under the Affordable Care Act. The steady drop in unemployment and a general improvement of the U.S. economy over the last few years could also play a role, making it more likely that people can afford to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses.

As the Urban Institute’s report found, simply carrying health insurance isn’t enough to protect consumers against unexpected medical bills. Their findings are bolstered by a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found 70% of people with medical debt also have insurance, mostly through employer-provided plans.

How to Tackle Unpaid Medical Debt

In just moments, an unexpected medical emergency can put the average American family in thousands of dollars of medical debt. That can pose a burden, considering about of 47% Americans would struggle to scrape together $400 in case of an emergency according to the Federal Reserve’s 2016 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households.

Families with medical debt say the debt undercut their ability to save and afford basic household needs, the Urban Institute’s study found. To cope, families may rely more on credit cards and other forms of debt to make ends meet.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, outstanding medical debt makes up more than half of all collection notices on credit reports. Past-due medical debt can seriously harm your credit score. If bills go unpaid for long enough, consumers may wind up facing a lawsuit or even bankruptcy.

To help avoid these types of consequences, follow these tips to tackle medical debt you can’t afford to pay:

Ask for a detailed billing statement and check for errors

You may receive a billing statement from your insurer or medical provider, but it may not give the full picture of services you received. Request a detailed, line item statement and review it carefully for any errors. It’s possible you could have received treatment from an out-of-network doctor without your knowledge. Or, there may be duplicate charges or charges for care you didn’t receive. If you find errors, contact the provider directly and have them corrected and a new statement sent.

Negotiate with your medical provider directly

You might be able to negotiate down your medical debt or arrange a payment plan with the medical provider, whether it’s your doctor’s office, a hospital, or your insurer. Along the way, keep careful records of who you talk to and what was said. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to negotiate a medical bill with a health insurance company.

Try a 0% APR credit card

If your bill isn’t overwhelmingly large, you could try paying the debt off with a credit card with an introductory 0% interest period. Since you won’t be charged interest, you’ll pay less over the period. Before you apply, make sure you’ll be able pay off the balance before the 0% interest introductory period expires.

Pay off medical debt with a personal loan

If you’ve been unable to negotiate or you are struggling to find a 0% APR credit card deal, a personal loan may be another option. Depending on your credit history, rates on personal loans range from 4.7% to 36%. We’ve pulled together a list of six great personal loan options here.

Negotiate a settlement with a collection agency

Past-due medical debt eventually gets charged off and sold to a collection agency. But that doesn’t mean your window to negotiate has totally closed. If you have access to enough cash, ask if you can settle the debt for a lesser amount and forgive the remaining balance. Just be aware that forgiven debts can be treated as taxable income in some cases.

Seek help from a medical billing advocate

If you’ve been unsuccessful in trying to negotiate down your medical debt, the debt has significantly damaged your credit, or you are on the brink of filing bankruptcy, consider reaching out to a medical billing advocate. Don’t confuse these advocates with debt settlement or repair firms, which should be treated with caution.

You can find a medical billing advocate through the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants or the Alliance of Claims Assistance Professionals. These services aren’t free, and whether or not it makes financial sense to hire a pro depends on how much money you stand to save by lowering your debts. Advocates typically charge either a flat fee or a percentage of your savings.

Look for a charitable foundation that can help

You may want to consider reaching out to a nonprofit for assistance. If you were diagnosed with a particular condition, look toward organizations such as the Lupus Foundation of America for individuals with lupus or the American Kidney Fund for those with kidney disease. You can also apply for grants from nonprofits that provide more general assistance such as the Patient Access Network and the HealthWell Foundation, which may be able to grant funds toward medication assistance or other medical costs. With these foundations, limits for assistance may depend on your diagnosis and other factors.

Consider bankruptcy as a last resort

If the debt is more than 50 percent of your annual income, bankruptcy might be a viable move to make. Let the hospital know you’re considering bankruptcy first, as they may then be open to negotiation. Be aware the filing bankruptcy can adversely impact your credit for years after the fact.

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Trump’s Congressional Speech Debrief: 5 Changes He Has in Store for Obamacare

In his first speech to Congress Tuesday night, President Donald Trump outlined the overhaul he and his administration plan to make to the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

The proposed new health care plan now heads to the Congressional Budget Office and could face more changes as Democrats and Republicans battle over it in the House and Senate.

Trump urged Congress “to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.”

The president promised to repeal and replace Obamacare. Here are five key ways he plans to dismantle the current health care system.

You could be in a high-risk pool if you have a pre-existing condition

“First, we should ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, and that we have a stable transition for Americans currently enrolled in the health care exchanges,” Trump said in his speech Tuesday night.

A draft of revisions to the Affordable Care Act leaked to Politico on Feb. 24 references high-risk pools, although Trump did not discuss them in his speech.

States would have the ability to create high-risk pools for people with pre-existing conditions who are searching for health care. According to the draft, states would receive $100 billion over nine years in “innovation grants” that would be used to fund high-risk participants, news outlets such as CNN reported.

“High-risk pools would need a lot of taxpayer funding to work properly, experts say,” the Commonwealth Fund, a private nonpartisan foundation that supports independent research on health and social issues, tweeted after Trump’s speech.

You could receive a tax credit — even if you don’t deserve one

Tax credits and expanded health savings accounts could help Americans purchase their own coverage. It should be “the plan they want, not the plan forced on them by our government,” Trump told Congress.

Tax credits based on age, with the elderly receiving higher tax credits, would take the place of Obamacare’s income-based subsidies.

“For a person under age 30, the credit would be $2,000. That amount would double for beneficiaries over the age of 60, according to the proposal,” reported Politico prior to the speech.

The credits were also heavily criticized by some GOP members.

“So the headline is that the GOP is reducing subsidies to needy individuals when in fact, the growth of the taxpayer-subsidized reimbursements will actually increase,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told CNN. “The total dollars that we spend on subsidies will be far greater. So you can be a millionaire and not have employer-based health care and you’re going to get a check from the federal government — I’ve got a problem with that.”

“What are tax credits & savings accounts going to do for those who don’t have money to spend on healthcare in the first place?” tweeted Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization.

Chris Rylands, a partner in the Atlanta office of Bryan Cave LLP, says many people are worried that the tax credits will make it difficult for low-income participants to afford coverage.

Under the current system, many individuals eligible for a subsidy are immune to price hikes in insurance because the government picks up such a large portion of the cost. The proposed Republican system might make them better consumers, says Rylands, whose practice focuses on employee benefits.

“However, given the complexity of health insurance plans and the opacity of the pricing of health care services, it’s not clear whether individuals can really become well-informed consumers,” Rylands says.

You could lose Medicaid

Trump said his changes would give governors the resources and flexibility they need with Medicaid “to make sure no one is left out.”

Under the Trump administration’s revisions, Medicaid would be phased out within the next few years. Instead, states would receive a specific dollar amount per citizen covered by the program. States would also receive the ability to choose whether or not to cover mental health and substance abuse treatment.

“Medicaid is the nation’s largest health insurer, providing coverage to nearly 73 million Americans,” tweeted the Commonwealth Fund after Trump’s speech. In a follow-up tweet, it said capping spending for Medicaid will reduce coverage rates and increase consumer costs and the federal deficit.

However, the Center for Health and Economy, a nonpartisan research organization, reported in 2016 that block-granting Medicaid in the states will lead to additional savings. H&E projects that the decrease in the use of Medicaid funds, by block-granting Medicaid in the states and the repeal of the Medicaid expansion, would be an estimated $488 billion from 2017 to 2026.

Rylands points out that this will not be a popular provision in Congress.

“What I heard here — although [Trump] didn’t say so in so many words — is that they want to try to turn Medicaid into a block grant program, similar to what was done with welfare reform in the 90s,” Rylands says. “However, I suspect many governors from both parties will not like this because it could mean states will pick up more of the tab for Medicaid.”

You could pay less for drugs

Trump proposes legal reforms to protect patients and doctors from unnecessary costs that make insurance more expensive and bring down the “artificially high price of drugs.”

Alongside medical device manufacturers and insurers, the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry is obligated by the Affordable Care Act to pay a yearly fee. It was determined the industry would pay $4 billion in 2017, $4.1 billion in 2018, and $2.8 billion each year after. However, proposed revisions to the Affordable Care Act include repealing the tax.

Some consumer advocacy groups are hopeful that repealing the taxes will reduce drug prices.

“From life-saving cancer drugs to EpiPens, high Rx prices push critical care out of reach for those who need it,” tweeted AARP Advocates, a nonprofit advocacy group for senior citizens.

You could purchase cheaper health insurance across state lines

“Finally, the time has come to give Americans the freedom to purchase health insurance across state lines — creating a truly competitive national marketplace that will bring costs way down and provide far better care,” Trump told Congress.

Under the current law, many states have the choice whether or not to allow insurers to sells plans between states. However, even when allowed, there isn’t much incentive for health care providers to do so.

Difficulty building a network and attracting enough customers to create a large enough risk pool makes this option unappealing to insurers, the Center for Health and Economy reported.

Whether this proposed change will result in a healthy competition in the industry or in a race to the cheapest offer remains to be seen, says Rylands.

“This has the potential to undermine traditional state regulation of insurance … since it would allow insurance companies to sell into a state without having to comply with that state’s particular insurance laws,” Rylands says.

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Tax Tips for Recent College Graduates

When life changes, so do your taxes, and graduating from college brings several life changes that can affect your tax return. You may go from being claimed as a dependent by your parents to filing on your own for the first time. You may move out of state, collect a paycheck for the first time, and start paying off student loans. All of these events present opportunities to save — and costly pitfalls to avoid. To help you keep more of what you earn in this next phase of life, check out these tax tips for recent college graduates.

Figure out if your parents can still claim you as a dependent

If you just graduated, you may still be eligible to be claimed as a dependent on your parents’ tax return. Dependency rules are complex, but essentially, for your parents to claim you as a dependent:

  • you must be under age 24 at the end of the year,
  • you must be a full-time student (enrolled for the number of credit hours the school considers full time) for at least five months of the year,
  • you must have lived with your parents for more than half the year (you are deemed to live with your parents while you are temporarily living away from home for education), and
  • your parent must have provided more than half of your financial support for the year.

If you meet all of these tests, your parents can still claim you as a dependent and take advantage of the dependency exemptions and education credits.

Even if your parents claim you as a dependent, you may still be required to file your own return if you had more than $2,600 of unearned income (interest, dividends, and capital gains) or more than $7,850 of earned income (wages or self-employment income).

Get reimbursed for moving expenses if you moved in order to take a new job

If you moved for a new job after graduation, you might be able to deduct any unreimbursed moving expenses, as long as the new job is at least 50 miles away from your old home. Those expenses include costs to pack and ship your belongings and lodging expenses along the way, but not meals. You can also take a deduction for 17 cents per mile driven for 2017 (down from 19 cents per mile in 2016).

If you moved out of state, you might have to file two state returns if you had taxable income in both states. Many students have a part-time job while in school and take a full-time job in another state after graduation. Rules vary drastically by state. In some states, you will have to claim 100% of your income on your resident state return, then receive a credit for any taxes paid to another state. In this case, you may be better off working with a professional who can help guide you through filing in both states.

Make sure you’re withholding the right amount from your paycheck

When you start your new job, the human resources department will ask you to complete a Form W-4 to indicate how much of your paycheck you’d like your employer to take out for taxes. Working through the questions on the form is simple enough, but it doesn’t take into account how much of the year you’ll be working.

Most new graduates end up having too much federal tax withheld in their first year, effectively giving the government an interest-free loan, says Bradley Greenberg, a CPA and partner at Kessler Orlean Silver & Co. in Deerfield, Ill.

That’s because graduates rarely start new jobs right at the start of a new year. You may graduate in May and start working in June, or graduate in December but not find a job until February. Yet you are taxed as if you have been earning that pay for the entire year.

“The withholding tables are designed with the assumption that one makes the same amount of money for each pay period of the year, regardless of how many pay periods were worked,” Greenberg says. “For example, a June graduate starting a job on July 1 for $50,000 will have the same taxes withheld per pay period as a colleague with the same salary, marital status, and number of exemptions, but who worked the entire year.”

Greenberg recommends two courses of action for new graduates:

  1. Set up your withholding in your first year of employment so less tax is withheld. Then make sure you adjust it on the following January 1, so you don’t have too little tax withheld in your first full year of employment, or
  2. View this as a savings plan and file your taxes as early as possible next year to get your refund from the IRS.

Take advantage of student tax credits

If your parents can no longer claim you as a dependent, you may be eligible to claim valuable tax credits for any tuition you paid during the year. There are two tax credits for higher education costs: the Lifetime Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Credit.

For 2016, there is also the tuition and fees deduction (Congress failed to renew this deduction, which expired on December 31, 2016, so it is not available for 2017). The rules and income limits for each credit and the deduction vary, but the IRS offers an interactive tool on their website to help you determine which tax break applies to you.

If you used student loans to pay for your education, you can take a deduction for up to $2,500 of interest paid on a qualified student loan. If your parents made loan payments on your behalf, you are in luck. Typically, you can only deduct interest if you actually paid the debt, but when parents pay back student loans, the IRS treats it as if the money was given to the child, who then repaid the debt.

Don’t ignore your 401(k) or health savings account at work

New college graduates may be financially strapped and hesitant to divert part of their paycheck into a retirement plan or health savings account, but opting out means missing out on substantial tax-saving and wealth-building opportunities.

If your employer offers a matching 401(k) contribution, as soon as you’re eligible you should contribute at least enough to get the employer match. Otherwise, you’re missing out on free money. If you select a traditional 401(k), you can save on next year’s taxes. That’s because any contributions you make will be tax free, and they will reduce the amount of your income subject to federal income tax as well as Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes.

For better or for worse, many employers now offer high-deductible health insurance plans. These plans often come with health savings accounts (HSAs). Any money you set aside in an HSA can be used for any qualifying medical expense, from co-pays to prescriptions. The best part is that money you put into your HSA is not taxed, so you can potentially save a lot by using your HSA for medical expenses rather than paying out of pocket.

HSA funds stay in the account until you use them and are portable, meaning you can take it with you even if you leave your job. If you have big medical bills down the road, the funds can come in handy. If not, think of them as another tax-advantaged way to save for retirement.

Bring in a professional if you think you need help

If this is your first time filing on your own, you may be wondering whether you should do it yourself or pay someone to prepare your return for you. If you have a simple return with just a Form W-2 and perhaps some interest income, you could save money by buying some tax software and doing it yourself. MagnifyMoney’s guide to the best tax software is a great place to start.

But if you have dependents, investments, or a small business, you may be better off going to a reputable accountant.

Doing your taxes is never fun, but for recent college graduates, they may not be as big a headache as you might have heard. Keep in mind that tax laws often change, and everyone’s situation is a little different. But taking the time to know which tax breaks apply to you can make your post-college life significantly easier.

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5 Ways Your Obamacare Coverage Could Change This Year

 

Humana’s announcement last week that it is dropping out of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) exchange and President Donald Trump’s tweet Friday that the Obamacare repeal is “moving fast” capped a frenzied week for the embattled law.

The proposed rule the Trump administration issued last week could mean major changes and increased costs for those who have Obamacare as well as other coverage. Congress would have to act to change Obamacare.

Amid the uncertainty about what will happen to Obamacare, here are five potential ways you and your health care spending could be impacted if the changes succeed.

The main changes would include:

  • Giving insurers the ability to offer more products that also cost more.
  • Removing the federal government’s oversight of insurers’ hospital and doctor networks.
  • Cutting in half the open enrollment period.
  • Requiring paperwork in advance that proves eligibility for enrolling outside of the open period.

    1. You might need to find a new health plan

Humana last week announced it will drop out of the exchange, saying it would no longer provide individual plans in 2018.

“That’s been a pretty consistent phenomenon for the last two years, where you might have a particular insurance provider and then they pull out of the exchange, and so now you’ve got to go find another one,” says Chris Rylands, a partner in the Atlanta, Ga., office of Bryan Cave LLP, an international law firm. His practice focuses on employee benefits.

Humana analyzed the customers who had signed up through the exchange and found too much risk

2. Your costs for women’s health benefits could rise

With the Trump administration’s vow to overhaul Obamacare, some American women are feeling insecure about their birth control options.

In one example, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in January that Planned Parenthood’s patient requests for IUDs has jumped by 900%.

Sneha Bhakta, 22, is among the women who plan to look into requesting an IUD.

She and her parents pay about $500 each month for the three of them to have insurance through Obamacare.

“I follow the news extremely closely. Yes, my parents are concerned about the changing policies. Mostly because it’s all up in the air,” Bhakta says.

Bhakta, who lives in Atlanta, Ga., attended the Atlanta March for Social Justice and Woman in January, which was among hundreds of events the same weekend as the Women’s March on Washington. She says she’s scared about the possibility of losing coverage, especially the reproductive health care benefits, such as free birth control and pap exams.

3. Your deductible could go up

Proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act will create more leniency in how plans are classified. The greater leniency will allow for more diverse choices in the health care market, but could increase co-payments and deductibles for consumers.

All participating insurance plans have to cover 60% of out-of-pocket costs to qualify as a bronze-level plan, 70% for a silver plan, and 80% for gold. While the insurance plan pays for 70% of out-of-pocket costs for a silver plan, consumers would pay the remaining 30% through a combination of deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance. Under the Obama administration, a two-point disparity was permitted, meaning that a plan could cover 68% of the costs and still qualify as a silver plan.

With Trump’s proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, the disparity has been increased from 2% to 4%. Plans with only 66% coverage would still qualify as a silver plan.

It gives insurers a little more room to vary their plan terms,” Rylands says.

He adds that although there’s the potential for higher deductibles or out-of-pocket costs, the fact that the proposal extends it by only 2 percentage points means those increases will not be significant.

Already, Americans are showing they’re willing to pay for a plan with high deductibles in order to save money on premiums.

Over the last two years, enrollment in high-deductible health plans with a savings option by workers with employee-sponsored health insurance has increased 8 percentage points, to 29%, according to the 2016 Employee Health Benefits Survey by Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust.

The survey found average premiums for those plans were “considerably lower” than the average for all plan types, at $5,762 for single coverage and $16,737 for family coverage.

4. You may have to be a bit more on the ball to enroll

The Trump administration’s proposal would cut the open enrollment period, typically three months, in half.

Under the new guidelines, those who need to enroll in health care for 2018 would have from between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15, 2017. Insurance coverage will end on Dec. 31, 2017, for all participants, no matter their enrollment date.

Not only would the open enrollment period be shorter, but the president has already slashed the advertising budget for Obamacare. Upon taking office, Trump cut $5 million in advertising days before the Jan. 31, 2017, enrollment deadline.

Enroll America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that serves as the nation’s leading health care enrollment coalition, criticized the decision and its timing during the critical final days of the enrollment period for 2017. In a January statement, Anne Filipic, president of Enroll America, said, “their decision to halt outreach will have real impact on real people’s lives.”

Also last week, the Trump administration announced plans to place more stringent guidelines for the special enrollment period, in an effort to reduce the number of consumers registering outside the open enrollment period. For 2017, the enrollment period ran from Nov. 1, 2016, to Jan. 31, 2017.

The special enrollment period was originally meant for people who experience unexpected changes, such as unemployment, a new baby, or moving states. The Affordable Care Act allows consumers to enroll and submit proof later that they qualify for the special enrollment.

Insurance agencies have found that people signing up under the special enrollment period have higher health care costs, leading agencies to believe that Americans are signing up when already sick.

Under the proposed revisions, consumers will be required to provide proof before signing up for special enrollment.

Your providers could change

Proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act will also remove federal review of insurance networks. The networks were created by the Obama administration in response to complaints that there were too few providers accepting insurance policies purchased in the exchange.

The requirement for a minimum number of providers within a set distance from enrollees could be removed.

While this could reduce consumers’ access to health care within a reasonable distance, Rylands is hopeful it could allow more health insurance companies to continue providing services on the exchange.

“We’ll just have to wait and see if that happens though,” Rylands says.

The post 5 Ways Your Obamacare Coverage Could Change This Year appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

9 Essential Tax Tips for Entrepreneurs

For many entrepreneurs, there is no topic more fraught than taxes. In fact, a 2015 survey of small business owners found that 40% say dealing with bookkeeping and taxes is the worst part of owning a small business and that they spend 80+ hours a year dealing with taxes and working with their accountants. Taxes can be time-consuming, confusing, and a drain on your finances if you don’t prepare well. So whether you choose to do your taxes on your own or hire a professional, this guide can provide some sound advice and hopefully make tax time a little less taxing.

 

#1 Select the Right Entity for Your Business

 

One of the first decisions you’ll make when setting up your business is whether to function as a sole proprietor, partnership, LLC, or corporation. In her recent blog post, Wendy Connick, an IRS enrolled agent and owner of Connick Financial Solutions, says “the type of business entity you choose will have a huge effect both on how you pay taxes and how much tax you pay. It’s wise to consider the pros and cons of each business structure before making a final decision.”

Sole proprietorship

A sole proprietorship is the simplest way to form a business, as it is not a legal entity. The business owner just needs to register the business name with the state and secure the proper local business licenses. The downside is that the sole proprietor is personally liable for the business’s debts.

Partnership

A partnership is similar to a sole proprietorship, but two or more people share ownership. Both partners contribute their money, labor, or skill to the business and share in its profits and losses.

Limited liability company (LLC)

An LLC provides more protection from liability than a sole proprietor or partnership but with the efficiency and flexibility of a partnership.

Corporation

A corporation is more complicated and usually recommended for larger companies with multiple employees. It is a legal entity owned by shareholders, so the corporation itself, not its shareholders, is legally liable for business debts.

Unlike other business entities, corporations pay income tax on their profits, so they are subject to “double taxation,” first on company profits and again on shareholder dividends.

To avoid double taxation, corporations can file an election with the IRS to be treated as an S Corporation. S Corporation income and losses “pass through” to the shareholder’s personal income tax return instead of being taxed at the corporate level.

Some small businesses and freelancers may save on self-employment taxes by registering as an S Corporation and paying themselves a salary. Sole proprietors, partners, and LLC members pay self-employment tax on their entire business net income, but S Corp shareholders only pay self-employment taxes on their wages. They can receive additional income from the corporation as a distribution, which is taxed at a lower rate.

Connick says “many small business owners start out as sole proprietors and adopt a different structure once the business gets big enough to make it worthwhile (which would typically be when the business is making over $50,000 a year).”

 

#2 Get an Employer Identification Number

 

All businesses, even sole proprietors should get an Employer Identification Number (EIN). Technically, sole proprietors can use their Social Security number (SSN) as the business’s identification number, but that means providing an SSN to any clients or vendors who need to issue a 1099, a move that can leave you more exposed to identity theft.

Applying for an EIN from the IRS is free and can usually be done in a matter of minutes using the IRS’s online form.

#3 Make Sure Your Business Isn’t Just a Hobby

 

You know you’re in business to make money, but would the IRS agree? If your company is operating at a loss, the IRS could reclassify your business as a hobby, resulting in some serious tax consequences.

A business is allowed to offset taxable income with business expenses, but hobby expenses cannot be netted against hobby income. Instead, they are deducted as miscellaneous itemized deductions on Schedule A and limited to the amount of hobby income reported on Schedule C. This means a hobby business can never result in a net loss, and you may be prevented from deducting hobby expenses entirely if you don’t itemize deductions.

If you’ve been making money in your business for a while and just have one bad year, you don’t have to worry about the IRS reclassifying your business as a hobby. If you’ve been losing money for a while and especially if your business involves some element of personal pleasure or recreation (such as horse racing, filmmaking, or restoring old cars), you’ll want to make sure you’re treating your business like a business in case the IRS challenges your losses.

The IRS takes several factors into consideration:

  • Does the amount of time you put into the business suggest an intention of making a profit? Side projects are more likely to face scrutiny because you’re spending the majority of your time at another full-time job.
  • Do you depend on the income you receive from the business?
  • Were any losses beyond your control or occur in the startup phase? Losses due to poor management and overspending are less likely to hold up under examination.
  • Have you changed operation methods to improve profitability? Many business experience setbacks. If you learn from mistakes and try to correct your course, the IRS is more likely to agree that you have the intention of running a profitable business.
  • Do you have the knowledge and experience necessary to be successful in your field?

If you are concerned about an IRS challenge of your losses, there are a few steps you can take to treat your activity as a business:

  • Keep thorough business books and records.
  • Maintain separate business checking and credit accounts.
  • Obtain the proper business licenses, insurance, and certifications.
  • Develop and maintain a written business plan.
  • Document the hours spent working on your business, especially if it is a side project.

 

#4 Track Income and Expenses Carefully

 

Maintaining separate business checking and credit card accounts is not only a good way to demonstrate that your business is not a hobby, but it’s also an excellent way to simplify tracking business income and expenses.

Benjamin Sullivan, an IRS enrolled agent and a certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group LLC in its Austin, Texas, office, says “small business owners can get a tax benefit from almost anything that is an ordinary and necessary business expense. Travel, meals, advertising, and insurance costs are just some of the popular deductions.”

Use small business bookkeeping software

Small business accounting software like FreshBooks, Xero, or QuickBooks Online can help you easily and quickly track your business revenues and expenses. They can usually be set up to import transactions from your business checking account automatically and let you snap pictures of receipts with your phone.

Whether you choose to use a software program or just a spreadsheet, establish a system for organizing records and receipts right from the beginning. “Little expenses can add up quite a bit over the course of a year,” Connick says, “but you can’t deduct them if you don’t know what they are.”

Special rules for travel, meals, and entertainment

It is especially crucial to maintain good records for business travel, meals, and entertainment expenses. The IRS allows taxpayers to deduct 100% of their business-related travel and 50% of the cost of business meals and entertainment expenses, whether you are taking a client out for a meal or traveling out of town. Because these categories are prone to abuse, the IRS requires documentation to substantiate that these expenses have a legitimate business purpose.

For meals and entertainment, in addition to a receipt that shows the amount, time, and place, taxpayers should also make a note of the individuals being entertained and the business purpose. Meeting this requirement can be as simple as jotting down a note on your receipt or in your calendar regarding who you dined with and the business matters discussed.

For travel expenses, hotel receipts must include a breakdown of the charges for lodging, meals, telephone, and other incidentals. Your hotel should be able to provide an itemized receipt at checkout.

Save cash instead of taxes

One trap that small business owners often fall into is spending money to save on taxes. At year end, many entrepreneurs look at business profits and think they need to spend their cash to avoid a big tax bill. Don’t spend a dollar to save forty cents in tax. If you truly need a new computer, extra supplies, or a new vehicle, buy it. Don’t spend money just to avoid a tax bill. Remember, taxes are a cost of doing business. If you’re paying taxes, you’re making money.

#5 Set Aside Money for Taxes

 

When you set up a separate business checking account, it’s also a good idea to set up a separate savings account to help you organize funds and set aside money for taxes.

Our tax system is a “pay as you go” system. When you receive a paycheck from an employer, money is regularly withheld on your behalf. When you are self-employed, making estimated tax payments is your responsibility. If you don’t pay in enough during the year to cover your income tax and self-employment tax, you may have to pay an underpayment penalty.

Estimated tax payments are due on the 15th day of April, June, September, and the following January. You have a few options for calculating what you owe each quarter:

Use Form 1040ES

This form includes a worksheet to help you estimate how much you owe for the current year. (Corporations use Form 1120-W to calculate estimated taxes.)

Look at last year’s return

If you’ve been in business for a while and there are no significant changes this year, you can aim to pay 100% of last year’s tax as a safe-harbor estimate (110% if your adjusted gross income for the prior year was more than $150,000).

Make a quarterly estimate

If your income fluctuates, you may prefer to make a quarterly calculation. Calculating estimated payments is complex. It depends on your tax bracket, deductions, credits, etc. In this case, it’s best to work with a tax professional who can consider all of the factors and recent changes in the tax law.

Sullivan says, “Tax planning isn’t a one-time exercise that should be done at the end of the year or at tax time. Instead, tax planning is an ongoing process of structuring your affairs in a tax-efficient manner.”

#6 Don’t Forget to Track Your Mileage

 

When you drive your personal vehicle for business, you have two options for deducting business automobile expenses: the standard mileage rate or actual expenses.

The IRS releases the standard mileage rate annually. The rate is $0.54 per mile for 2016. It goes down to $0.535 cents per mile for 2017. You simply multiply the standard mileage rate by the number of miles you drove for business during the year.

To use the actual expense method, total up all of the costs of operating your vehicle for the year, including insurance, repairs, oil, and gas, and multiply them by the percentage of business use. For example, if you drove 10,000 miles during the year and 5,000 of those miles were for business, your percentage of business use would be 50%. If it cost $7,000 to own and operate your vehicle, your deduction using the actual expense method would be $3,500 ($7,000 x 50%).

You can use whichever method gives you the largest deduction. However, if you want to use the standard mileage rate, you must choose it in the first year the car is used for business. In subsequent years, you can choose either method.

Whichever method you choose, you must track your business miles. You can do that with a paper log kept in your glove compartment or with an app such as MileIQ or TrackMyDrive. “Note that ‘business purpose’ is a pretty broad category,” Connick says. “If you drive to the supermarket and pick up some pens for your home office while buying groceries, the trip counts as business mileage.”

 

#7 Consider the Home Office Deduction

 

Some business owners avoid claiming the home office deduction, believing it to be an audit trigger. That may have been true in the past, but today’s technology has made home offices much more common. Connick suggests entrepreneurs shouldn’t fear the home office deduction if they meet the requirements. “It’s no longer audit bait,” she says, “especially if you use the safe harbor method to calculate your deduction.”

To take advantage of the home office deduction, you must use the area exclusively and regularly, either as your principal place of business or as a setting to meet with clients. The home office deduction is based on the percentage of your home used for the business. You can choose either the traditional method or the simplified method for deducting expenses.

Under the traditional method, you’ll calculate the percentage of your home that is used for business by dividing the square footage of your office by the square footage of your entire home. For example, if your home is 1,500 square feet and your office occupies 150 square feet, the business percentage is 10%. Then, you can deduct 10% of all of the expenses of owning and maintaining your home, including mortgage interest, real estate taxes, utilities, association dues, insurance, repairs, etc.

Under the simplified method, you’ll take a deduction of $5 per square foot, with a maximum of 300 square feet. So if your home office measures 150 square feet, the home office deduction would be $750 (150 x $5).

 

#8 Save for Retirement

 

For most self-employed people, the simplest option for retirement saving is an individual retirement account (IRA). Anyone can contribute to a traditional IRA, but with an annual contribution limit of just $5,500 ($6,500 if you are age 50 or older), you may want a retirement savings option that allows you to save more.

Connick says her number one tip for entrepreneurs is to open a SEP-IRA. “These retirement accounts are cheap to open and maintain,” she says. They also “have a high contribution limit, and contributions are fully tax deductible.” SEP-IRAs allow entrepreneurs to contribute up to 25% of their net earnings from self-employment, up to a maximum of $53,000 for 2016.

The deadline to contribute to a SEP-IRA is the due date of your return, including extensions. So 2016 contributions can be made until April 18, 2017, or October 15, 2017, if an extension is filed.

 

#9 Get Help from a Professional

 

Connick recommends that entrepreneurs hire a professional to do their taxes. “If you pick someone who knows their stuff,” she says, “you will likely save more than enough off your tax bill to pay for their fees. For that matter, tax preparation fees are deductible!”

When choosing a tax professional, look for someone with experience working with self-employed taxpayers. The IRS maintains an online directory of return preparers who have additional credentials, such as EAs, attorneys, and CPAs. Search the directory to find a professional near you with the credentials or qualifications you prefer.

If there is one thing all entrepreneurs can agree on, it’s that everybody dreads tax season. Having a basic understanding of tax law, maintaining organized records throughout the year, and working with a professional can help you make the most of this least wonderful time of the year.

The post 9 Essential Tax Tips for Entrepreneurs appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Should My Spouse and I Have the Same Investments?

 

One of the golden rules of investing is not to have all of your eggs in one basket. This is pretty easy to do when you’re planning by yourself. It can get complicated when you are married. Should you both have the same investments or is it better to do something different?

Unlike combining checking accounts or getting a joint credit card, combining your investment goals and objectives with your spouse is a bit more complex. Legally, it is not possible to combine retirement accounts like a 401(k) or IRA. However, it is possible to align your retirement saving strategy. Typically these are the biggest investment accounts, and how you choose your investments will determine your level of financial freedom during retirement. Before you sit down with your spouse (possibly with help from a professional financial adviser) to determine how you can both approach your savings in order to maximize your joint benefit, it’s important to consider these things first.

Before you align your investments, start by aligning your investment goals

Before deciding on what investments you may need, you and your spouse should figure out your investment goals. If you’re around the same age, do you both plan on retiring at the same time? If there is a significant gap in age, there is a chance that one of you could be working much longer than the other, and your investments should reflect that.

A common example could be shown with target-date funds (TDFs). Currently, TDFs are offered by 70% of 401(k) plans, and they give investors the ability to invest according to the year they plan on retiring. Someone planning to retire in 2040 would choose the 2040 target-date fund. If you and your spouse are the same age, it would be OK to invest in the same TDF. But if one of you is choosing to retire in 2040 and the other in 2030, it may be in your best interest to choose funds that correspond to your individual goals instead.

Even if you don’t choose TDFs, your investment choices should be based primarily on your tolerance for risk and the amount of time you estimate working before you retire (also known as time horizon). If you and your spouse have different risk levels, then you should definitely have different investments.

If the younger spouse earns significantly less income, this presents a special challenge best left to a financial planner. A discrepancy in income would directly affect the amount you’re able to save and how it is allocated. In some cases you may have to adjust your allocation to compensate. Again, because there are several individual factors which could affect your investment decisions in this specific situation, you will want the guidance of a financial planner.

Understand diversification and asset allocation

The concepts of diversification and asset allocation are the cornerstones of sound investing. By diversifying your assets, you are spreading out your risk over several different types of assets, rather than simply owning one or two. This is why mutual funds have become extremely popular. Because mutual funds consist of a broad range of investments across the stock and bond market, they provide instant diversification. But it may not be necessary or helpful for you and your spouse to own different mutual funds in hopes of diversifying yourselves even more.

Sometimes it is best to keep things simple. You and your spouse could own the same investments but in different proportions.

For example, the two of you may decide to own Mutual Fund A, which is made up of stocks, and Mutual Fund B, which is made up of bonds. Because you’re older and more conservative, you may choose to invest in a portfolio that is split down the middle: 50% in Mutual Fund A and 50% in Mutual Fund B. Your spouse, especially if they are much younger, may choose a more risky asset mix, investing in a mix of 75% Fund A and 25% Fund B. Both of you would still own the same investments but own different amounts due to your preference for risk.

Additionally, if you invest consistently in funds from the same investment firm, such as Franklin Templeton Investments, MFS, or American Funds, you could qualify for discounts after investing a certain amount called breakpoints. Most companies will charge you a percentage to invest in the fund. For example, if you invest $10,000 consistently every year, you could be charged 2.25% or $225. When you hit a breakpoint, however, the fee goes down. After 10 years, you’ve invested $100,000 and anything you put in after this point will be 1.75%. Instead of paying $225 on every $10,000 you invest each year, you would now pay $175 until you hit the next breakpoint. Every company has their own breakpoint levels and fees they charge, which can vary wildly depending on the type of fund and philosophy of the company.

Most experts agree that it is better to choose a few mutual funds with one fund manager and take advantage of the breakpoints rather than choose one fund from several different managers. Using more than one manager can also make it more difficult to track your investment performance.

The Bottom Line

If you and your spouse are the same age and plan to retire around the same time, you should be OK holding the same investments, assuming they are solid investment choices. But if your age difference is more than three years, this should be reflected in your separate portfolios.

The post Should My Spouse and I Have the Same Investments? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Facing a Medical Debt Lawsuit? Take These 10 Steps First

If you’ve ever been sued by a debt collector or service provider over medical debt, you know how stressful it can be. If you couldn’t afford to pay the original debt, you likely still can’t afford it. And if you want to defend yourself, you’ll have to face the additional time and cost of going to court, too.

You should know that you’re not alone. According to staff attorney Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center, when you look at debt collection items on credit reports in America, “half of those items are from medical debt. Not credit cards. Not auto loans. Medical debt.”

You may be tempted to ignore the suit since you know you can’t pay, but Wu advises against inaction.

“Always show up,” she says. “Never ignore a lawsuit. If you ignore it, the debt collector or service provider on the other side automatically wins by default.”

What happens when you show up, though? Here are four steps to take if you’re facing a medical debt lawsuit.

  1. Find Out Where the Debt Comes From

You cannot properly address your lawsuit if you don’t understand where the debt comes from. If you look back at your past bills, you should be able to find a date of service and itemized list of services rendered with associated costs.

You may be in debt because you’re uninsured, but even insured patients end up in this boat thanks in part to a rise in high-deductible health plans. Mistakes can happen as well. If a patient visits an in-network hospital, but is unknowingly seen by an out-of-network doctor, they can be charged out-of-network fees. Doctors are independent contractors, so while the hospital may be affiliated with your insurance company, that doesn’t mean your service provider is inherently in-network.

2.Don’t ignore the lawsuit

In most consumer debt cases, consumers don’t have an attorney at all. But hiring an attorney to advise you can be a wise move. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune either, Wu says.

Most lawyers will provide a free consult before taking you on as a client. In this consult, they may be able to help you find your bearings so you can represent yourself.

Wu recommends seeking help from the Legal Services Corporation, a government-supervised nonprofit that provides legal representation at a low cost to low-income households. You can also seek help from nonprofit legal assistance firms in your area.

If you’re uninsured, one way to keep the case from going to court is to contact the doctor or debt collector immediately to negotiate your bill down to Medicaid/Medicare prices — which are often 2-3 times less than that of the gross price you were billed. When a provider refuses to negotiate down to these lower rates, it is called “discriminatory pricing,” and your legal counsel may recommend using it as a defense in court.

  1. Prepare for Court

The first thing you must do is prepare an answer to the lawsuit, including any defenses or countersuits that you want to raise. This will involve filing paperwork at the court, mailing paperwork, and showing up on your initial court date. Again, it’s advisable to get a lawyer to help you through this, or at least get a consult. The National Association of Consumer Advocates has a helpful video explainer on preparing to defend a medical debt lawsuit.

It’s important to make this initial court date. It is very unlikely the judge will grant you a continuance that would move the court date further out.

There are some exceptions to this. If you are being sued in a state in which you no longer reside, it’s easier to mount a defense if you can’t appear in court. In fact, appearing in court could work against you, demonstrating to the court that you have no problem traveling to and from court out of state.

If you’ve been served in a state outside of your own, it is very important to get legal representation.

This is because you must answer the suit, but you must also do so in a way that does not imply that you are submitting to that court’s jurisdiction over you. The process is one that is best handled by someone trained in law.

After you answer the suit, the court will set a date for the discovery part of the trial. You will have to file more paperwork with the court before this date so that you are able to present evidence that you are not liable for the debt.

  1. Understand Wage Garnishment

If you are found liable for the debt, or you fail to answer the lawsuit and the judge rules against you, the court may issue an order giving the lender or collection agency the ability to garnish your wages. By federal law, they cannot leave you with less than 75% of your income or $217.50 per week — whichever is greater. State law may protect you even further.

Medical debt collectors are able to garnish your wages, but they cannot garnish Social Security benefits, disability insurance payments, unemployment insurance payments, VA benefits, pension distributions, child support payments, or public assistance benefits. If you have any of these forms of income, it’s wise to set up a different bank account where those funds are deposited and keep all garnishable wages in another separate account.

You should do this because a court order can go after your bank account balances, too. While that doesn’t make it legal to take money that came from any of these protected sources, separate bank accounts will make the incidence of errors smaller — saving you headaches and potential victimization.

  1. Understand Your Rights Before You go to Court

When it comes to medical billing and debts, you do have rights as a patient. Make sure you understand them so you can lower or eliminate your bill before or after you’ve been sued.

Were You Served Properly?

Sometimes wages are garnished before the plaintiff is even aware that there’s a lawsuit against them. This happens most commonly when you’re improperly served. Examples of using “improperly served” as a legal defense include papers being only mailed to you and not delivered in person, papers being left at an incorrect residence, or papers being mailed to an old address. Being “improperly served” does not mean that the papers were left with a family member or friend at your residence and they forgot to tell you about it. If that happened, you’re still on the hook.

If you have been improperly served, or if you find out that the court mistakenly started garnishing wages because you have the same name as an actual plaintiff, you should contact a lawyer immediately to figure out what possible recourses there may be for your specific situation.

  1. Get Low-Cost or Free Help from Financial Assistance Programs

In 2016, about 58% of community hospitals in the U.S. were not-for-profit, according to the American Hospital Association. This gives them tax-exempt status, but also obligates them to give back to their communities. Under the Affordable Care Act, these hospitals must provide some type of financial assistance program to low-income patients. Even if you aren’t from a low-income household, you should apply, as some hospitals extend their programs far beyond the poverty line. Many hospitals also extend this program to insured patients.

These hospitals have an obligation to let you know about their financial assistance programs within four months of when your bill has been issued.

You have until eight months after the initial bill was issued to apply for financial assistance. You have the right to do this even if the debt has been sold to a third-party collector, and even if that collector is the one suing you in court.

  1. Be Aware of Discriminatory Pricing

We’ve already touched on the fact that you can try to negotiate your medical bills down to Medicaid/Medicare prices. If you are being sued in court and are uninsured, discriminatory pricing can serve as a defense. If you qualify for the hospital’s financial assistance program, they legally must reduce your bill to the amount generally billed to insured patients.

  1. Look Out for Balance Billing

Balance billing happens when your hospital or medical provider bills you instead of or in addition to Medicaid or Medicare. It’s a forbidden practice, and you are not responsible for any amounts due when this happens.

You may be able to identity balance billing if you receive an “Explanation of Benefits” from your insurer that states the amount they covered and the amount you still owe. If this does not match the bill your medical provider sent you, there is a cause for concern. Additionally, if the bill you receive does not show any payment from your insurance when you are, in fact, on Medicaid or Medicare, it may be a sign that you are a victim of balance billing.

  1. Stop Lawsuits Before They Begin

If something about your bill doesn’t look quite right, there are ways to reduce it to its fair amount.

First of all, make sure the hospital didn’t make an error that resulted in a larger bill. One way this could happen is if something they did caused you to have to stay in the hospital an extra night, inflating your costs beyond what they should have been originally.

Another good avenue to pursue is to have your bill examined by a medical bill advocate. They’re familiar with coding and laws that you’re not, making them the perfect people to review your charges. You may find one in your community by asking around, or you can start your search with the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants.

Debt collectors, hospitals, and other medical providers don’t want to take you to court. It costs them money, and the odds of them actually getting a full payment at that point are very low. They are almost always willing to work with you before issuing a lawsuit. Negotiate. Apply for financial assistance. Set up zero-interest payment plans directly with your health care provider.

Keep the lines of communication open so that no one ends up with the additional costs of litigation.

  1. Weigh Bankruptcy

At any point in this process, you can choose to file for bankruptcy. Filing for bankruptcy may alleviate the medical debt. Just be cautious. Bankruptcy is not a decision that should be made lightly, as it will remain on your credit report for up to 10 years and make it difficult to qualify for new credit.

There are two types of bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7 requires you to sell off all of your assets to settle what you can of your debt obligations. If you don’t have any or many assets, that aspect of it doesn’t matter much. What will matter is that the debt will essentially disappear after you file.

If you file for Chapter 13, you do not have to sell off any assets, but the debt won’t disappear either. Instead, you’ll be put on a 3-5 year payment plan in order to settle.

This may make sense if the court has already issued an order against your wages, but at any other point in your case, it would make more sense to try to set up a payment plan with the medical service provider or debt collection agency directly. Their last resort is wage garnishment. Don’t let it get that far. Know your rights so you can negotiate with them effectively rather than damaging your credit report through Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

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