By now, you've probably seen a lot of banks, savings and loans and others advertising "tax-free" retirement investments called IRA's (Individual Retirement Account). "Taxfree" always has a nice ring to it, and you may have considered looking into IRA's. But they are reserved for people who either (1) Do not belong to any going retirement benefit plan (pension, profitsharing or employer annuity plan) or (2) Have money coming to them in lump-sum retirement funds that they want to keep in a tax-free status.
If you qualify for a tax-free IRA investment, the next big question is: Where do you put your money to get the best rate of return? The Federal Trade Commission, in a staff report, bluntly states: "Some investments are not well suited for use as IRAs."
The report cites the case of IRA annually or endowment plans sold by insurance companies. Some of these plans, according to FTC investigators, require fixed, annual payments that allow the IRA investors no flexibility in case payments can't be made or the investor becomes part of a pension plan on a new job. (Remember, if you're in a retirement-benefit plan, you can't contribute to an IRA.)
And, in many cases, if you stop payments into your IRA annuity or endowment plan, the contract is canceled and you lose much, if not all, of your investment. So, it's wise to know all the restrictions before you invest in any insurance plan.
On top of the restrictions, most insurance plans pay lower dividends on your investment. This is because sales commissions and other charges are loaded into the first few years of your plan. If you have a plan that allows you to withdraw your money after a year or so, you might find that the sales charges have eaten up everything you've put in - or a good chunk of it. When they say you'll be getting 7 or 8 percent interest on your investment, be sure the interest is based on your entire contribution, not your contribution makes all the sales charges.
If insurance IRAs don't appeal to you after you've asked a lot of questions, you may want to consider plans offered by banks and savings and loans.
As a rule, there are no commissions or other charges. And if you select a long-term savings certificate as your investment, you should get 8 percent interest - the top allowed.
Don't settle for less. It just doesn't make sense to put your money into an account that earns only 5 or 6 percent when you can get 8 percent.
The law says you cannot withdraw your money from an IRA for personal use before age 59 and a half without losing all your tax savings and incurring a 10 percent penalty.
But the law also says you can take your money out of an IRA investment plan after age 59 1/2 without incurring any tax penalty or early withdrawal penalty charge by the bank or savings and loan. So go for the highest interest rate - even if you have to buy a long-term (eight-year) certificate.
You can also buy an IRA mutual fund investment in a portfolio that contains stocks or bonds or both. High-dividend bond funds are not a bad bet, along with stock funds that pay good dividends from companies that have strong assets. Before buying any type of IRA, though, you should read "Frank Talk About IRAs," a free booklet published by the Federal Trade Commission, Room 130, 6th and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20580. It could save you a lot of money.
Q: Does a finance company have the right to take money from my bank? The only money I have is from Social Security and I need it to live on. My husband died and left me with bills to be paid.
A: A finance company may have the right to take money from your bank account to satisfy a debt, but first the company has to go to court and get a judgment against you. You have the right to be heard and you may persuade the court that your meager income is needed to survive.
No creditor can get your Social Security checks to satisfy a debt, except in the case of a child-support judgment. But once you put your money into a bank account it may become vulnerable to a creditor's court order to satisfy a debt, I say "may" become vulnerable, because the law varies from state to state.
According to attorney Ralph Warner, author of "Billpayers' Rights" (Nolo Press, $4.95), a creditor may not grab your bank account in California if it can be proven all the money came from Social Security or other government benefits (disability pay, workers' compensation, unemployment compensation, veteran's benefits, welfare and the like). Other states may have similar exemptions.
To avoid having your income attached to pay off a debt, don't put your money in the bank. You can always cash your government benefit check to pay your rent, utility bills, buy food for a month and otherwise take care of your bare necessities. But if you live in a high-crime area, it could be dangerous having so much money on your person.
Your best bet is to get free legal assistance through Legal Aid or Neighborhood Legal Services. A lawyer might be able to show you how to protect your income or how to negotiate with the creditor to make small, monthly payments. You can find addresses for free legal assistance from your local bar association or your local court house (the telephone information operator should have the numbers).