Q&A: What’s better, collecting Social Security early or blowing through retirement savings?

Dear Liz: I am married and six months away from my full retirement age, which is 66. I have not filed yet. My wife started collecting Social Security at 62 but does not get very much. We are both in excellent health and have longevity in the genes. We don’t own a home. I have around $960,000 in diversified investments. I take out around $7,000 to $8,000 a month to meet my monthly expenses. Fortunately, the markets have been good, helping my portfolio, but I am not counting on that to continue at the same pace.

Doesn’t it make more sense to be taking less money out each month by starting Social Security now? I know I would receive less money than waiting until 66 or later, but between my check and the spousal benefit my wife could get, I would reduce my annual living expense withdrawals from my account by close to 50%. This would give my portfolio more opportunity to grow, since I will not be taking out so much every month.

I wish I could cut my expenses or could earn more income but cannot at this point. I am shooting for not taking more than 5% a year out of the portfolio going forward.

Answer: You’re right that something needs to change, because your withdrawal rate is way too high.

You’re currently consuming between 8.75% and 10% of your portfolio annually. Financial planners traditionally considered 4% to be a sustainable withdrawal rate. Any higher and you run significant risks of running out of money.

Some financial planning researchers now think the optimum withdrawal rate should be closer to 3%, especially for people like you with longevity in their genes. Chances are good that one or both of you will make it into your 90s, which means your portfolio may need to last three decades or more.

So even if you start Social Security now, you’ll need to reduce your expenses or earn more money to get your withdrawals down to a sustainable level.

Generally, it’s a good idea for the higher earner in a couple to put off filing as long as possible. The surviving spouse will have to get by on one Social Security check, instead of two, and it will be the larger of the two checks the couple received. Maximizing that check is important as longevity insurance, since the longer people live, the more likely they are to run through their other assets. Your check will grow 8% each year you can delay past 66, and that’s a guaranteed return you can’t match anywhere else. In many cases, financial planners will suggest tapping retirement funds if necessary to delay filing.

But every situation is unique. Your smartest move would be to consult a fee-only financial planner who can review your individual situation and give you personalized advice.

Q&A: The ins and outs of inherited IRAs

Dear Liz: I have questions about inherited IRAs. A friend has designated me and three others as beneficiaries of her IRA. Is this to be considered community property with my husband? How can I inherit this as “sole and separate property”? Must taxes be paid on this? Also, may I give gifts of cash to relatives beforehand rather than naming them as recipients of my IRA and burdening them with taxes? If I do not name survivors to my IRA, what happens to my hard-earned money after I die?

Answer: Inheritances are considered separate property in every state, including community property states. If you commingle the funds — by depositing a withdrawal in a jointly held checking account, for example — then that money potentially becomes community property. You should consult a tax pro or financial planner about the rules governing non-spouse inheritors, since they’re somewhat complicated. You’ll pay income taxes on withdrawals from regular IRAs you inherit, but typically not from Roths.

You’re welcome to give anyone as much as you want, and they won’t have to pay taxes on the gift. You could owe taxes if you give away enough money, but that’s unlikely. You have to file a gift tax return if you give more than $15,000 per recipient in a given year, but you won’t actually pay gift taxes until the amounts you give away over that annual exclusion limit exceed your lifetime limit, which is currently $11.2 million.

If you’re concerned about taxes, though, naming people as IRA beneficiaries is often a smarter tax move than not doing so and having your estate inherit the money.

If your estate is the beneficiary, the money typically would have to be paid out to your estate’s heirs — and taxed — faster than if specific people were named. Your heirs might have to empty the account within five years, or the IRA custodian may opt to distribute the whole amount to the estate in one taxable distribution. Naming people, on the other hand, may allow the option of stretching the IRA, which means taking distributions over their lifetimes. The tax-deferred money that remains in the account can continue to grow. This is another topic to discuss with your advisor.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 12 freebies and deals for Tax Day 2018. Also in the news: 3 ways parents can help grown kids own a home, why your parents’ financial advice is probably wrong (for you), and what you should know about getting an advance on your tax refund.

12 Freebies and Deals for Tax Day 2018
A little something to ease the pain.

3 Ways Parents Can Help Grown Kids Own a Home
Ground rules are important.

Your Parents’ Financial Advice Is Probably Wrong (for You)
However well-intentioned.

Thinking about getting an advance on your tax refund? Here’s what you should know
Watch for hidden fees.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 4 ways to curb your online shopping enthusiasm. Also in the news: 13 last-ditch ways to avoid the poorhouse in retirement, why you should freeze your child’s credit, and 8 inspirational stories of people who overcame debt.

4 Ways to Curb Your Online Shopping Enthusiasm
Back away from the mouse.

13 Last-Ditch Ways to Avoid the Poorhouse in Retirement
There’s still time.

Why You Should Freeze Your Child’s Credit
Identity theft starts early.

8 inspirational stories of people who overcame debt
Learning from those who have been there.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 5 ways to mute the “buy now” appeal in infomercials. Also in the news: What you need to know about investing in IPOs, 3 smart ways to supercharge your travel rewards, and what to know about income-driven student loan repayment plans.

5 Ways to Mute the ‘Buy Now’ Appeals in Infomercials
Don’t reach for your wallet.

What You Need to Know About Investing in IPOs
The risks and rewards.

3 Smart Ways to Supercharge Your Travel Rewards
Rack up more miles.

What to Know About Income-Driven Repayment Plans
For those with high student loan debt and low income.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How bad credit can increase your car costs. Also in the news: Owning Bitcoin creates a complex tax situation, 13 last-ditch ways to avoid the poorhouse in retirement, and the top 7 tax deductions and credits people forget.

Good Driver, Bad Credit: What Makes Your Car Costs So High
It’s not just the monthly payment.

Owning Bitcoin Creates a Complex Tax Situation
Taxing cryptocurrency.

13 Last-Ditch Ways to Avoid the Poorhouse in Retirement
Before it’s too late.

Top 7 Tax Deductions And Credits That People Forget
Leave no deduction behind.

How not to run out of money in retirement

Americans aren’t terrific at saving for retirement. Many are even worse when it comes to figuring out how much to spend once they get there.

An actuary who’s studied the issue for three decades recently proposed a relatively straightforward strategy that can help. In my latest for the Associated Press, how to use this strategy to make your retirement savings last.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 7 gifts that help your grad stash more cash. Also in the news: Why rideshare insurance is a must, how credit card issuers pursue wary Millennials, and how to know if you qualify for public service loan forgiveness.

7 Gifts That Help Your Grad Stash More Cash
Cool and practical.

Why Rideshare Insurance Is a Must
Minding the gap.

How Credit Card Issuers Pursue the Wary Millennial
Brand trust and unique experiences.

How to Know If You Qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Making sure you’re on the right track.

Q&A: Their kids are spendthrifts. How do parents protect them with a trust?

Dear Liz: My wife (71) and I (68) have been diligent savers our entire lives. We have accumulated IRA assets of approximately $2 million along with a house and other assets. Our total estate is under $10 million. We have two adult children in their 20s who did not inherit the saving gene. My question is: Does a trust exist that would maintain the IRA’s tax-deferred status, make required minimum distributions to our kids and include appropriate spendthrift provisions? Also, would the distributions be based on our life expectancies or on theirs?

Answer: Yes, you can create a spendthrift trust and name it as the beneficiary of your IRAs. Your children could be named beneficiaries of the trust. Required minimum distributions for inherited IRAs would be based on the elder child’s life expectancy. Your children would not be able to “invade” or tap the principal.

A spendthrift trust would not only prevent your kids from blowing through any money left in the IRAs. It also would prevent creditors from getting the money in case of bankruptcy. In many states, inherited IRAs are vulnerable to creditor claims.

Here’s the thing, though: This is a question you should be asking your estate planning attorney. If you don’t have one, you need to get one. People with small, simple estates may be able to get away with do-it-yourself planning, but yours is neither small nor simple. Trying to save money by using software or forms just isn’t a good idea. Whatever money you save may be wasted when your estate plan goes awry in ways you didn’t foresee, because you’re not an estate planning expert.

Trusts that name IRAs as beneficiaries, for example, must have special language to accomplish what you want, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. Without the right language, the IRA custodian might liquidate the IRA instead. That would trigger the taxes and lump sum payouts you’re trying to avoid.

Q&A: Managing debt with credit counseling

Dear Liz: I contacted a company to help me resolve my debt. They present themselves as a nonprofit organization and seem to offer a possible solution by reducing the interest rate I’m paying on my credit cards. How do I determine the trustworthiness of this and other such organizations?

Answer: If the organization is affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, then it’s a legitimate credit counseling agency. These agencies offer debt management plans that typically allow people to pay off their credit card debt over three to five years at reduced interest rates. People enrolled in the plans make monthly payments to the counseling agency, which then distributes the money to the creditors. Fees vary by agency, but the cost to set up a plan is typically less than $50 and the monthly fee around $35.

Debt management plans are not loans or debt consolidation. They’re also not a way to settle your debt for less than you owe. They’re a potential solution for people to pay off what they owe over several years.

Credit counseling got a bad name in the 1990s when a bunch of companies masquerading as nonprofits got into the business of offering debt management plans. Many siphoned off money that was meant for creditors or failed to pay creditors at all. The IRS cracked down and cleared out many of the worst offenders.

You can visit www.nfcc.org to see if the agency is listed and to get its contact information. (It’s best to get the information directly from NFCC, just in case you’re dealing with a copycat.)

Before you sign up with a credit counselor, though, you also should consult with a bankruptcy attorney. Credit counselors may try to steer you away from bankruptcy, and you’ll want an attorney to review your situation to help you understand if bankruptcy may be a better option.