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Dear Liz: I am 64 and happily, gratefully receiving early Social Security benefits. My wife is 59, and when she turns 62 she will get half of my $1,650 monthly benefit. My question, though, is this: If she starts getting half of my benefit at 62, can she later switch to her own benefit? If she can get spousal benefits at 62 and switch to her own benefit when it maxes out at age 70, then starting early would be a no-brainer.

Answer: Yes it would, but that’s not how Social Security works.

First, your wife will not receive an amount equal to half of your check if she applies for spousal benefits before her own full retirement age, which is 66. Instead, she would be locked into a significantly discounted amount — closer to 35% of your benefit than 50% if she applies at 62. She also would lose the option of switching to her own benefit later. The “claim now, claim more later” strategy of starting with spousal benefits and then switching to one’s own benefit isn’t available to those who start early.

You’ve already left a lot of money on the table by starting benefits before you reached your own full retirement age. Having her begin benefits prematurely would just compound the problem. Remember too that when one of you dies, the other will have to live perhaps for many years on a single check. It makes sense to make sure that check is as large as it can possibly be.

AARP has excellent information on its site about Social Security claiming strategies, as well as a calculator that can help you see how much it pays to wait. Please educate yourselves before making a decision that you, or she, could live to regret.

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Q&A: Paying down debt without touching home equity

Jul 20, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: My wife and I accrued $28,000 of credit card debt over the past eight years. In addition to a sizable student loan bill for law school, our home mortgage and the expenses associated with three young children, we are struggling to get ahead enough to knock our credit card debt down. While we make good income between the two of us, it would seem not enough to pay more than the minimum on our debts. We have curbed a number of our bad habits (we eat out less, take lunch to work, say no to relatives) but the savings are not translating to lowered debt. Our 401(k)s are holding steady and we continue to contribute and I don’t want to touch those (I did when I was younger and regret it.). We’ve been considering taking out a home equity line of credit to pay off the cards and reduce the interest rate. Of course we have to be disciplined enough to not go out and create more debt, but I think my wife got the picture when I said no family vacations for the next few years. What are your thoughts?

Answer: You say, “Of course we have to be disciplined enough to not go out and create more debt,” but that’s exactly what many families do after they’ve used home equity borrowing to pay off their cards. They wind up deeper in the hole, plus they’ve put their home at risk to pay off debt that otherwise might be erased in Bankruptcy Court.

Bankruptcy probably isn’t in the cards for you, of course, given your resources. But before you use home equity to refinance this debt, you need to fix the problems that caused you to live so far beyond your means.

You’ve plugged some of the obvious leaks — eating out and mooching relatives — but you may be able to reduce other expenses, including your grocery and utility bills. If those smaller fixes don’t free up enough cash to start paying down the debt, the next places to look are at your big-ticket expenses: your home, your cars and your student loans. There may not be much you can do about the latter, although you should explore your options for consolidating and refinancing this debt. That leaves your home and your cars. If your payments on these two expenses are eating up more than about 35% of your income, then you should consider downsizing.

What you don’t want to do is to tap your retirement funds or reduce your contributions below the level that gets the full company match. Retirement needs to remain your top financial priority.

Reducing your lifestyle may not be appealing, but it’s better to sacrifice now while you’re younger than to wind up old and broke.

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Q&A: Social Security Payouts

May 12, 2014 | | Comments (10)

Dear Liz: My wife and I, 63 and 62, plan to continue working till at least 65. We will begin collecting Social Security benefits in September. Our combined income is $58,000, we own our home outright, and we have no debt, no children, $84,000 in a traditional IRA and $90,000 in a stock portfolio.

I just sold a portion of a mutual fund for a $30,000 gain that is in the bank for the time being. How long do we have to reinvest without paying a capital gains tax? Or would it be best to pay the tax now, leave the money in the bank and be done with it?

Answer: Unless you sell another investment for a $30,000 loss to offset the gain, you’re going to have to pay taxes on your profit.

“There is no way to do a tax-free reinvestment,” said tax professional Eva Rosenberg, an enrolled agent who runs the TaxMama.com site. “And the time to ask questions like that is before you sell the mutual funds.”

You still have time to avoid a much bigger mistake: signing up for Social Security now.

Your Social Security checks would be reduced $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain level, which this year is $15,480. That “earnings test” applies until you reach your full retirement age (which is 66, not 65, for both you and your wife). What’s more, you would lock in lower benefits for life and give up a chance to boost your Social Security payout in a way that’s available only to married couples who wait until full retirement age to start benefits. (More on that in a moment.)

Your savings are too small to generate much income, particularly if you want to minimize the chances of running out of money. You should be looking to maximize your Social Security benefits to help make up for that deficit. Your benefits grow substantially each year you put off applying for them, and most people will live past the break-even point where delaying benefits until full retirement age results in more money than taking them early.

Many people erroneously think they should grab Social Security as early as they can, but the Social Security system isn’t going away, and you are likely to regret settling for a smaller check. Remember that your wife probably will outlive you and will have to get by on one check, so you should make sure your benefits are as big as they can be.

One way to do that is for the lower-earning spouse to claim spousal benefits at his or her full retirement age. Once the lower earner’s benefit maxes out at age 70, he or she can switch if that benefit is larger.

But spousal benefits can’t start until the higher earner files for his or her own benefit. If the higher earner waits until full retirement age to apply, he or she has the option to “file and suspend” — a maneuver that lets the spouse claim spousal benefits while leaving the higher earner’s benefit untouched so it can continue to grow.

This “claim now, claim more later” strategy is available only to people who wait until their full retirement age to start.

Your tax question and your plan to start Social Security early indicate you could really use some sessions with a fee-only financial planner. Such a consultation is a good idea for everyone as they’re approaching retirement, but in your case, it’s essential.

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Social security switch

Apr 13, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: When I turned 66, I applied for and then suspended my Social Security benefits so that my husband could take spousal benefits based on my work record. Shortly after he turned 69, he decided to start taking his full benefit from his own work record, so we canceled the spousal benefits.

After he applied to take his full benefit, I applied for spousal benefits from his account. Since I am only 67, the plan was for me to collect spousal benefits until I reached 70 and then collect off my account. Since I am the primary breadwinner, that allows the maximum lifetime funding should something happen to either of us. I sat with an employee at the local Social Security office. Together we processed all the appropriate documentation and she submitted it.

I just received a notice of denial that says, “We cannot approve your request because we received it after the 12-month limit.” I took the letter to the Social Security office for an explanation, and the woman had never heard of the rule it cited. The rule, it turns out, was designed to prevent people from repaying all the benefits they’ve received over the years so that they can restart their benefit at age 70. The rule says that they can pay back only benefits received in the prior 12 months to restart their benefits. But that is not what I did.

Answer: No, it’s not, but what you tried to do still won’t work.

Here’s the simplest way to explain it: There’s only one spousal benefit for each couple. Once you filed for your own benefit, allowing your husband to claim spousal benefits, you aren’t allowed to switch even though you hadn’t started receiving checks yet.

If it’s any consolation, you chose the right spouse to receive spousal benefits, since you’re the higher earner. It would have been best if your husband had waited to switch at age 70, when his benefit reached its maximum, but his checks are still substantially larger than they would have been if he had started earlier.

Another point that should be made because it’s often misunderstood, is that your husband was allowed to switch from spousal benefits to his own benefit because he started Social Security at or after his own full retirement age. If he’d started benefits before his full retirement age, which is currently 66, he would have been stuck with a discounted spousal benefit and couldn’t have switched to his own benefit later.

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How couples can agree on a retirement plan

Jan 07, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: My husband and I are 56. We need to plan for retirement, but whenever the topic comes up, I find that either we have no idea or we disagree on what we will do during our retirement. Naturally, our activities during retirement will affect the funds we will need. We need help to figure out the things we agree on and where we might want to plan for different individual options. Do you have some resources to suggest?

Answer: You can start with a visualization exercise that some financial planners use to clarify their clients’ values.

Imagine your ideal day in retirement. Start with when you’ll wake up and where — what type of dwelling and in what area. In your mind, walk through your day hour by hour — where you’ll be, what you’ll be doing and with whom. Write it all down, even if you don’t think what you’re visualizing is realistic or even possible. The point is to identify, for yourself and your partner, what’s most important to you: what you want your life to be like and whom you want in it. If you visualize waking up in Paris, for example, it doesn’t mean you need to move there. You may be just as content with a trip to the City of Light or travel to less-expensive destinations.

You each should do the exercise separately and then compare what you’ve written. Don’t despair if you visualize yourself on the Champs-Elysees and he’s fishing off his back porch. As you correctly note, you can have different goals and desires for retirement. Complete harmony has never been a requirement of staying married, and that won’t change when you quit your jobs.

Let’s say you want to get deeply immersed as a volunteer for a local, at-risk school, and your husband wants to spend a year roaming the country in an RV. He could opt to pursue other interests during the school year, and you could take extended trips together during the breaks.

Once you’re clearer about what you want for your retirements, you can start working the numbers and figuring out compromises that work for both of you. Start with your expenses — what you’re spending annually now — and subtract any costs that will disappear or substantially diminish when you retire (such as commuting expenses and work clothes). Add in the amounts you’ll need to pursue your passions. (Will you buy the RV used or new? In retirement or before? Tip: Buying a lightly used vehicle before retirement will give you both a chance to get the hang of RVing and its costs so you can decide whether it’s really for you.)

Compare your expected expenses with your expected income, including Social Security, any pensions and withdrawals from your retirement accounts (which initially should be just 3% to 4% of the total balance, planners say). If there’s a gap, that’s what you’ll need to fill in the coming years with increased savings.

Still at an impasse? Hire a fee-only planner who has experience in “life planning,” or helping clients figure out their life goals. You can get a referral from the Kinder Institute of Life Planning at http://www.kinderinstitute.com/dir/.

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Ex is trashing her credit scores

Sep 03, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: How long must I be punished for my ex’s poor payment history? In our divorce he agreed to pay the credit cards and other bills. He defaulted and has filed for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. My credit scores plummeted, and recently one of the cards I obtained on my own to help rebuild my credit has dropped me, stating my credit scores as the reason. Do I have any recourse here?

Answer: Not really. As you’ve discovered, creditors don’t have to pay any attention to divorce decrees that say who’s responsible for paying what. You agreed to pay the bill when you signed up for the card. So if your name is on the account, your credit scores will be hurt if it’s not paid.

That’s why it’s so important for separating couples to separate their credit as well. Jointly held accounts should be closed, and any balances transferred to a card that’s in the responsible party’s name only. Otherwise, missed payments and charge-offs will continue to affect both people’s credit for years.

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Dear Liz: I have three credit cards that are in my name only, plus a small loan at my credit union. My husband did not sign for any of these, nor does he know the extent of my debt, which is about $10,000. If I should die before I can get them paid off, will he be responsible for my debt?

Answer: Your debts become an obligation of your estate when you die. That means creditors will be paid out of the assets you leave behind. The extent to which creditors can make a claim on jointly owned assets — such as, say, your home — varies by state. In a community property state such as California, debts are generally considered owed by both people in a marriage, so a jointly owned home would be fair game. In other states, creditors could go after assets co-owned by your husband if the debts were incurred to benefit you both.

That’s not the only reason secret debts are a bad idea. Every day you hide these debts, you’re lying to your spouse about your true financial picture, both as an individual and a couple. Even if you keep your financial accounts strictly separate, you should have a clear idea of each other’s assets and obligations so you can plan your future together.

If you’re keeping mum because you’re worried your spouse will get violent, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799−SAFE (7233) for advice and help.

Otherwise, it’s time to come clean so that the two of you can work out a plan to pay off your debt and prevent you from incurring more.

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Tax refundMy recent MSN Money columns, in case you missed them:

How to avoid tax-return rip-offs Beware of promises to get your refund faster. Refund anticipation loans are gone, and what’s replaced them isn’t worth the cost.

Gay marriage can muddle finances Gay and in love? You might want to wait to marry.

‘Boomerang’ kids: Moving out again Household formation is on the rise and the kids who moved into their parents’ basements are finally able to move out on their own. Here’s what they, and their parents, need to know to avoid future boomerangs.

Simple retirement can be satisfying If you haven’t saved much for retirement, all is not lost as long as you’re willing to pursue a much simpler lifestyle than what you’re probably living now. One man who lives just such a life is happy he does.

 

Dear Liz: My soon-to-be ex wants to refinance our mortgage to pay for renovations so we can sell it for more money. He also wants to take out some cash to pay off unsecured loans. (I have $11,000 in credit card debt, and he has over $50,000.) The house recently appraised for $310,000 and we owe $158,000 on it. Is it wise to refinance in this circumstance?

Answer: A cash-out refinance would be a risky maneuver even if you intended to stay married. Renovations rarely boost a home sale price enough to cover their cost. Also, home equity that’s used to pay off credit card bills is often wasted, since the borrower never fixes the problem that led to overspending in the first place and simply runs up more debt. Since he would be getting the bulk of the benefit by having more of his debt paid off, you also would need to adjust the rest of your property settlement.

Often, the best and easiest solution in a divorce is to simply sell the house. You certainly wouldn’t want to remain on a mortgage with an ex after the divorce was final, if you could possibly avoid it. A good divorce attorney can give you advice about how to proceed from here.

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