Over the years a number of women -- it was always women and soon after being widowed -- have complained to me of being totally unfamiliar with their tax returns.
"My husband always made it out or had it made out and I just signed it," was the standard statement. The reasons given were superficial: "Handling the finances was his responsibility." Or, "I couldn't understand all those numbers." Or even, "My husband thought I couldn't understand all those numbers."
But most of the women turned out to be fully capable of following my explanations and understanding the various parts of Form 1040 and related schedules.
The real reasons were much more complex than the transparent excuses, with roots in the basic marriage relationship and the male macho image still prevalent in our society and more overwhelming in the time frame of these marriages.
As a rule, the blame could be laid at the feet of both parties. Husband and wife had to acquiesce in this conspiracy to deprive the woman of her right to know.
Wives, if your husband doesn't voluntarily keep you informed about family finances in general and the tax picture in particular, you should insist on knowing. If it's the other way around in your house, and the wife handles finances, the husband should be informed.
And to you husbands who worry about leaving your wife "well taken care of" and load up on insurance so she can have a comfortable income in case of your death, take that last additional step.
Make sure that she is sufficiently knowledgeable in financial and tax matters that she can handle competently all that money you plan on leaving her.
It's uncomfortable to contemplate one's own death, but taking the possibility into consideration in your planning really doesn't hasten the reality.
You buy life insurance and prepare a will, so bring your wife in on family financial and tax matters, too. And there's a "living" dividend: In case of illness or the temporary absence of either partner, the other is ready to cope with the financial needs of daily living at any time.
Question: My husband will be eligible to retire in 1984 at age 65. At that time he will take his pension in a lump sum, around $100,000. His company made all the payments into the pension plan so there was no tax paid. Can you please tell us how best to pay this tax? Is there a way to defer payment so it will not be such a burden?
Answer: Under the circumstances you describe, there is an excellent technique that can reduce the tax burden. It's called special 10-year averaging, and the tax is calculated on IRS Form 4972.
Your husband's situation meets all the requirements: It must be a lump-sum distribution (all in a single tax year), after the employe reaches age 59 1/2, of pension money contributed entirely by the employer.
There are two parts to the tax computations. That part of the distribution attributable to his employment before 1974 may be taxed as a long-term capital gain, meaning only 40 percent is subject to tax.
The balance, for employment from 1974 on, is taxed as if it had been received over a 10-year period, with no other income considered: Tax is figured at the lowest rate rather than at your marginal or top rate.
As an alternative, you could roll over the funds into an IRA, later withdrawing a part of the money each year as needed. Withdrawals must start by age 70 1/2.
Tax liability would be deferred until the money is withdrawn. But all withdrawals would be fully taxable; you lose the right to use special 10-year averaging if you roll the distribution over into an IRA.
You might try making some projections about future income to see which method has the lower potential tax cost.