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Dear Liz: Your answer to the reader asking about Social Security survivor benefits for same-sex couples was incomplete. If the person was a registered domestic partner in a state that did not allow them to marry, they still qualify for spousal death benefits. Please tell those affected so they know they should apply ASAP.

Answer: Thanks for pointing that out. Social Security survivor benefits are available to legally married same-sex couples whose marriage is recognized by the state where the couple was living at the time of the spouse’s death (assuming the deceased spouse meets all other qualifications for benefits). If the state where the couple lived doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, a surviving partner may still qualify as a widow or widower for Social Security benefits if the intestacy laws of that state allow the surviving partner of a non-marital legal relationship (such as a civil union or domestic partnership) to inherit as a spouse.

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Dear Liz: A friend of mine has told me that he thinks that I can apply for spousal benefits at my full retirement age and hold off getting my Social Security under my own work record until I am 70. Here is the scenario: My husband is 77 and has been collecting Social Security since he was 62. He continues to work. I will be 66 in November and I am still working. I plan to take Social Security at age 70. Can I apply for spousal benefits and receive an amount equal to half of what my husband receives from the age of 66 until I turn 70 and then apply under my own account at age 70 and receive my maximum benefit at that age? My friend feels strongly that this can be done, but I called Social Security and explained it clearly (or at least I thought I did) to them and they said that this could not be done. Then I went into the Social Security website and looked under “Spousal Benefits,” but the wording did not clearly say that this couldn’t be done.

Answer: What you’re describing is the “claim now, claim more later” strategy that can boost a couple’s lifetime Social Security by tens of thousands of dollars. It’s one of the approaches outlined in AARP’s excellent primer, “How to Maximize Your Social Security Benefits,” which you’ll find on its site, http://www.aarp.org, along with a calculator to help you understand how different claiming strategies could affect what you get.

These strategies capitalize on the fact that delaying the start of Social Security benefits results in substantially larger checks for life. In the case of two-earner couples, the “claim now, claim more later” strategy allows one spouse the option of getting checks (the spousal benefit) for a few years while allowing her own benefit to grow to its maximum.

As long as you wait until your own full retirement age to apply for spousal benefits, and your spouse is already receiving benefits, then you should be allowed to switch to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70. If your spouse weren’t receiving benefits yet, but had reached his full retirement age, he could file for benefits and immediately suspend his application (“file and suspend”) so that you would be eligible for spousal benefits and his own benefit could continue to grow.

It’s not clear why you would have been told otherwise, since this isn’t exactly a secret strategy. But not all Social Security employees are equally informed. Sometimes calling back and asking your question again of another representative will result in a different or more complete answer.

When you file for benefits, make clear on the form that you are restricting your application to the spousal benefit only and aren’t collecting your own retirement benefit

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Dear Liz: I sold a rental property this year and will have a long-term capital gain of about $100,000. My normal income usually puts me in the 10% tax bracket and my Social Security is not taxed because my total income is under $25,000. I pay $104 per month for Medicare. Will the sale of the rental property count as income and make my Social Security benefits taxable? Will I suddenly be deemed “rich” enough to pay more in Medicare payments? If so, will the Medicare payments go back to normal because I will have total earnings under $25,000 after 2014? I am 66, single and by no means rich.

Answer: This windfall will affect your Social Security taxes and your Medicare premiums, but the changes aren’t permanent.

The capital gain will be included in the calculation that determines whether and how much of your Social Security checks will be taxed, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America. That will likely cause up to 85% of your Social Security benefit in 2014 to be taxable.

Your Medicare premiums are also likely to rise based on your higher modified adjusted gross income, said Jay Nawrocki, senior healthcare law analyst for Wolters Kluwer Law & Business. The income used to determine Medicare premiums is the modified adjusted gross income from two years earlier, so your premiums shouldn’t increase until 2016. If your income reverts to normal in 2015, your premiums should also revert to normal in 2017, Nawrocki said.

The exact amount you’ll pay can’t be predicted, but people with modified adjusted gross incomes under $85,000 paid $104.90 per month in 2014. Those with MAGI of $85,000 to $107,000 paid $146.90, while those with MAGI of $107,000 to $160,000 paid $209.80. If your income for 2014 puts you in that last group, you should count on your premiums roughly doubling in 2016.
There is some good news. You’ll qualify for the 0% capital gains rate on the portion of the gain that makes up the difference between your income and the top of the 15% tax bracket (which is $36,900 in 2014 for a single person). If your income is $24,000, for example, then $12,900 of your capital gain wouldn’t be taxed by the federal government. The remaining $87,100 would be subject to the 15% federal capital gains rate. You may owe state and local taxes as well, so consult a tax pro.

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Dear Liz: My husband works for the government and will be receiving a pension when he retires. Am I still supposed to save the recommended amount for retirement from my income or can that amount be reduced since we know we have the pension? We are starting a family and could use any extra money we can get right now.

Answer: If your husband is just a few years away from collecting that pension, counting on it to be there is reasonable. Since you’re just starting a family, though, it’s much more likely that retirement is decades away, and a lot can happen in that time.

Your husband could be laid off or fired, or he could quit. Even if he sticks it out, the government could change the way his pension is accrued to make it less generous. (The rising cost of public employee pensions concerns many lawmakers and taxpayers.) Even if he gets what he expects, his pension may not be enough to support the two of you in old age.

So yes, you should be saving for retirement. A cautious person would save as if no pension existed. Someone who’s comfortable with risk might simply aim to fill the gap between the expected pension and future living costs. Others might find a comfortable saving rate between those two points. You can use AARP’s retirement calculator to help you create a plan that allows you to take care of your family today without depriving yourselves in the future.

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Dear Liz: I don’t know where to turn. My husband is 76. He has a federal government pension and collects Social Security but he has only a $17,000 life insurance policy. We still have a $229,000 mortgage and no savings other than my small 401(k). I am 59 and also a federal worker. Do you have any suggestions or guidance for me? Is there such a thing as an insurance policy that could pay off the mortgage if he passes before me?

Answer: Buying a life insurance policy on your husband that would pay off your mortgage isn’t necessarily impossible, but it would be expensive and might not be the best use of your funds. You can explore that option, of course, but you also should research your own retirement resources and what’s likely to remain after he’s gone.

Will your husband’s pension make payments to his survivor or will it end when he dies? How much will your own federal pension pay you when you retire? How much will Social Security pay you, and how does that compare with your survivor’s benefit (which is essentially equal to what your husband is receiving when he dies)? What are your options for maximizing those benefits?

You also need to know if your Social Security benefits could be reduced because of your public pensions. Some federal employees and employees of state or local governments receive pensions based on earnings that were not subject to Social Security taxes. When that’s the case, their benefits could be reduced by the Windfall Elimination Provision or the Government Pension Offset. Most federal employees hired after 1983 are covered by Social Security, but just in case you should check out the information at http://www.ssa.gov/gpo-wep/.

Once you have an idea of your income as a widow, you can compare that with your expected expenses and see whether continuing to pay your mortgage will pose a burden. If that’s the case, you might consider downsizing now to a place you could afford to buy with cash or a much smaller mortgage. Reducing your expenses also could help you build up that 401(k), which will help provide you with a more comfortable retirement.

Establishing a relationship with a fee-only planner now will help you prepare for the future and give you someone to turn to for financial advice should you be left on your own.

Q&A: Inheritance vs Reality

Jul 28, 2014 | | Comments (3)

Dear Liz: I have really bad credit. I always have because I have never really had any money. So now I am inheriting a lot of property and some cash. Most of the property is rental properties that bring in income. There are no mortgages on them. I may want to sell one or two of them and buy a four- or five-unit apartment building so I can live in one and rent the others out. How do I do that? Unfortunately, it isn’t happening as quickly as it should since one of my siblings thinks it is all hers. So I have to go through litigation first.

Answer: Let’s start with some reality checks.

The kind of litigation you’re talking about can get expensive fast and eat into the estate’s assets. If your sister happens to be the executor, she may be able to have the estate pay for her defense. You’ll need to come up with the money to hire your own attorney to advise you, but often in these cases a settlement makes a lot more sense than a family war.

The next reality check has to do with your bad credit. Yes, it’s harder to pay your bills on a low income, but people do it. In fact, income is not even a factor in credit scoring formulas, since how much money you make doesn’t predict whether you’ll pay your debts. If you have bad credit, it’s because you borrowed money that you didn’t pay back on time, not because you “never really had any money.”

What will change if you get your hands on a substantial amount of money is that your creditors will renew their efforts to get paid. You’ll probably need some more legal advice to deal with those efforts and to avoid getting sued.

What probably won’t change, without some effort, is your poor money management skills. If you don’t improve, you’ll probably blow right through your inheritance. So you should add to your list of advisors a fee-only planner who can help you with budgeting, rebuilding your credit, investing and retirement planning. Seeking good advice and following it are the key to making money last. You can get referrals to fee-only planners from the Garrett Planning Network, http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com. Another option is the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors at http://www.napfa.org.

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Dear Liz: Your tax expert’s answer to a person who wanted to roll over a $30,000 capital gain on a mutual fund missed an important point. Since the couple were solidly in the 15% tax bracket with a taxable income under $72,000, they should qualify for the 0% federal capital gain tax rate. (They may, of course, owe state taxes.)

Answer: They may not have had a capital gain at all, as other tax pros have pointed out. When people own mutual funds, the earnings are often reinvested each year. If the couple paid taxes on those earnings, their basis in the mutual fund would increase each year. To know if the couple had any capital gain, we’d need to know that adjusted tax basis. In any case, the original answer — that you can’t roll over the gain on a mutual fund into another investment to avoid capital gains taxes — still stands.

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Q&A: Social Security and marriage

Jul 20, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: Each year, I track my estimated Social Security benefit on the SSA.gov website. At full retirement age of 67, my estimated benefit is $1,504. Is it true that my actual benefit may be reduced by 50% since I am married?

Answer: Good heavens, no.

If you’re married, your spouse may be entitled to a benefit that equals up to half of your check. But your check is not reduced to provide this spousal benefit. Instead, the Social Security Administration typically would calculate the benefit your spouse earned on his own, compare that to his spousal benefit, and then give him the larger of the two amounts.

If you have ex-spouses from marriages that lasted at least 10 years, they too could be entitled to spousal benefits. But those benefits wouldn’t reduce your check or your husband’s.

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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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Dear Liz: You’ve often talked about delaying the start of Social Security benefits to maximize your check. But what about in the case of a widow? My husband died in 2006 at the age of 57. I will be 62 this year and could start receiving benefits based on his earnings. (I did not work during our marriage as I was a home-schooling mom.) I’ve been living off my husband’s modest pension benefits. Would waiting until full retirement age increase the monthly payment I would ultimately get? One of the reasons I ask is that I have an adult son who lives with me and who probably will never be able to have a job. Yet he is not officially disabled and, as far as I know, is not eligible for any kind of benefits. I wondered if it might be a good idea to start taking Social Security as soon as I could and either save or invest the monthly checks to add to what I could leave my son (I have an IRA and other assets I hope not to have to touch). My pension will cease when I die.

Answer: You could have started receiving survivor’s benefits at 60. (Those who are disabled can start survivor’s benefits as early as age 50, or at any age if they’re caring for a minor child or a child who is disabled under Social Security rules.) Since your husband died before he started benefits, your check would be based on what your husband would have received at his full retirement age of 66. If you start benefits before your own full retirement age, however, the survivor’s benefit is permanently reduced.

For many people, starting survivor’s benefits isn’t as bad an idea as starting other benefits early. That’s because survivors can switch to their own work-based benefit any time between age 62 and 70 if that benefit is larger. Starting survivors benefits early can give the survivor’s own work-based benefit a chance to grow.

In your case, however, the survivor’s benefit is all you’re going to get from Social Security. While it may be tempting to take it early and invest it, you’re unlikely to match the return you’d get from simply waiting a few years to start.

Your description of your non-working adult son as “not officially disabled” is a bit baffling. If he has a disability that truly prevents him from working, getting him qualified for government benefits would provide him with income and healthcare that would continue despite whatever happens with you. (You may not want to touch your assets, but that might be necessary if you need long-term care.) If he can work, then getting him launched and self-supporting would be of far greater benefit than hoarding your Social Security checks for him.

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