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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.

Comments (10)

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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Now available: My new book!

Aug 28, 2012 | | Comments Comments Off

Do you have questions about money? Here’s a secret: we all do, and sometimes finding the right answers can be tough. My new book, “There Are No Dumb Questions About Money,” can make it easier for you to figure out your financial world.

I’ve taken your toughest questions about money and answered them in a clear, easy-to-read format. This book can help you manage your spending, improve your credit and find the best way to pay off debt. It can help you make the right choices when you’re investing, paying for your children’s education and prioritizing your financial goals. I’ve also tackled the difficult, emotional side of money: how to get on the same page with your partner, cope with spendthrift children (or parents!) and talk about end-of-life issues that can be so difficult to discuss. (And if you think your family is dysfunctional about money, read Chapter 5…you’ll either find answers to your problems, or be grateful that your situation isn’t as bad as some of the ones described there!)

Interested? You can buy this ebook on iTunes or on Amazon.

Dear Liz: We married late in life and each of us brought separate property to the marriage. One spouse has four children and the other none. We have a marital trust that allows for the spouse upon death to receive the entire estate. Upon the death of both spouses, how would you draft a provision that would allow the remainder of one spouse’s separate property to be allocated to her children and the other spouse’s separate property to be donated to a charitable foundation?

Answer: Instead of allowing each other to inherit everything outright, you might want to consider a bypass trust. These trusts allow the surviving spouse to benefit from the assets during his or her lifetime. Upon the surviving spouse’s death, the assets are bequeathed to the ultimate beneficiaries. The survivor can’t alter the trust to change or prevent that.

Bypass trusts can create family tension, however. If the mother in your example were the first to die, her children would have to wait for “their money” until her spouse died. In the case of much younger or unusually healthy spouses, that can be a long wait, with the kids worrying that the surviving spouse will spend most or all of the money in the meantime.

If that could be an issue in your case, you might consider buying life insurance on the mother, Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell said.

“Some people fund for the children with life insurance on that parent’s life, so that the children don’t have to wait for the second death,” Mitchell said, “and to minimize tension with the children with the surviving spouse.”

You also should consider having a meeting with the children once you’ve decided how to handle this, Mitchell said.

“It is often better for them to understand what is happening and let them ask questions to their parent, before they discover the facts after the funeral,” he said. “At that point, someone is already dead and the survivor’s answers are suspect.”

If your estate is greater than estate tax exemption limits — currently $5.12 million, but scheduled to drop to $1 million in 2013 — you may want to take additional steps to reduce the future tax bite. One option is known as a qualified terminable interest property or QTIP trust. Your estate planning attorney can provide you with details. And yes, you should have an attorney, particularly if you have a large estate or someone may contest the will.

“Anyone can download documents off the Internet or go to a forms service or mill, but to do it right and to minimize problems later, you have to understand each individual’s situation and craft a plan that works best for them,” Burton said. “It’s like snowflakes — estate plans may look similar, but no two should be identical.”

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