Q&A: Social Security and Divorce

Dear Liz: Can my 63-year-old ex-husband, who was a slacker who never worked, collect on my Social Security? I am 59 and happily remarried. He hasn’t remarried. We were married for 25 years before I left him.

Answer: Since you were married for more than 10 years, your former husband can apply for spousal benefits based on your work record. He can’t do so, however, until you’re old enough to get retirement benefits, which means he has to wait another three years until you’re 62. If you were still married, he would have to wait until you actually applied for your own retirement benefits to get a spousal benefit. That requirement is waived for divorced spouses to keep a vengeful ex from deliberately withholding the right to benefits. His ability to claim spousal benefits on your work record would end if he remarried.
Any spousal checks he gets won’t affect or reduce your benefit or any benefits claimed by your current spouse. Should you die first, both your current and your former husbands could claim survivors’ benefits — again, without affecting each other’s checks

Q&A: Credit card interest rates

Dear Liz: I have had a certain credit card for over five years. I just received a letter stating that my interest rate was going to be raised from 10.24% to 12.24%. My FICO score is 819 and I have never had late payments on any of my cards. I called the issuer to complain about this change but they will not reduce the rate. The letter states that they obtained my FICO score of 819 from Experian and used the score to make the decision to raise my APR. They told me that they are raising rates across the board for customers with FICO scores over 800. Why are credit card companies allowed to do this? It is so unfair.

Answer: Credit card companies are no longer allowed to raise interest rates arbitrarily on individuals’ existing balances, as they could — and often did — before the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009. Now card issuers are allowed to raise your interest rate on an existing balance only if you’re 60 days or more late with your payment, a promotional rate has expired or the index to which a variable-rate card is linked has gone up.

Credit card companies can, however, raise your interest rate going forward for pretty much any reason they want, and new balances will accrue at the higher rate. Also, the CARD Act’s restrictions apply only to consumer credit cards; business credit cards aren’t covered by the law.

Changeable rates are just one of the reasons why it’s not smart to carry credit card balances. Since you have high credit scores, though, it should be easy for you to find another card with a low promotional rate. Some cards now offer a 0% rate for 12, 15 or 18 months, although you’ll typically pay a balance transfer fee of around 3%. Sites such as CreditCards.com, NerdWallet and LowCards.com, among others, list these competitive offers.

Once you get the new card, you should work to pay off the entire balance before the promotional rate expires.

Q&A: Early withdrawal penalties on CDs

Dear Liz: You told a reader to be suspicious of a bank’s offer to waive early withdrawal penalties on a certificate of deposit. But several credit unions allow early withdrawals from five-year CDs after the account holder turns 59 1/2. These credit unions will even allow you to get higher-interest CDs at other credit unions with no penalty after 59 1/2 . My husband and I and sister did this for many years until just a few years ago. I even do Roth conversions every year and take money from five-year CDs with no penalty and go to the place with the highest interest rate. There are many rewards and unexpected privileges at credit unions. When my husband passed and I disclaimed his traditional IRAs, the children were allowed to keep the 6% interest on those CDs until they matured, even after they were changed to inherited IRAs.

Answer: Credit unions, which are owned by their members, often have better rates and terms than banks, although some banks also offer to waive early withdrawal penalties after 591/2 on certain CDs.

But no one should rely on a verbal assurance that a fee will be waived. The offer to waive the fee should be in writing and kept with other financial documentation.

Q&A: Saving for retirement

Dear Liz: After many years of unemployment, I finally got a full-time position. It is a state job with a pension. How much do I need to save for retirement? Can I focus on paying off debt and saving for college, and trust I will be OK in retirement?

Answer: Your long stint of unemployment should have taught you that no job, and no plan for your life, is guaranteed.

You may have to work for the state for years to become “vested” in the plan, or eligible for a retirement check. In order to actually retire, you typically have to stay employed by the state for a decade or more. Even then, your check in retirement may not replace a big chunk of your salary. Traditional defined benefit pensions tend to offer the highest benefits to those who work for the system for decades.

A lot can happen while you’re waiting for your pension to build. You could get fired or laid off or suffer a disability that limits your ability to work. The pension plan itself could change.

If your employer doesn’t pay into the Social Security system, that adds another layer of uncertainty to your future. You could wind up without a pension, or only a small pension, and less Social Security than you might have had with a job that did pay Social Security taxes.

That’s why it’s essential to save for retirement even with the prospect of a good pension. You may be offered a tax-deferred workplace plan, or you can save on your own through IRAs or taxable accounts.

Q&A: Credit freezes

Dear Liz: Is there a way to lock my credit history and access to prevent the unscrupulous from opening accounts in my name? Maybe I’m rare, but I have enough existing credit cards, don’t have a mortgage and essentially have no debt, and I want to keep it that way. I suspect businesses that make their living issuing credit reports will resist this ability, but I want to do all I can to make it tough for anyone to steal my identity.

Answer: You can lock up your credit reports with what’s known as a credit freeze (also called a security freeze). The three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — have information about how to do this on their websites. You also can find general information about credit freezes on Consumer Reports’ site.

Credit freezes can prevent new account identity theft — someone opening new credit accounts in your name. Lenders typically check credit reports when they get new credit applications. If they can’t access your reports thanks to a credit freeze, they’re unlikely to approve the application.

Of course, the freeze applies to you as well. If you change your mind and want to apply for a new account, you’ll need to temporarily thaw the freeze.

Other entities also check credit reports, so you may need to lift the freeze if you apply for a job, insurance, new utilities or cellphone service. You typically have to pay fees (which range from $2 to $15, depending on your state) to each bureau to lock up your credit and another set of fees to thaw it.

Credit freezes won’t interfere with your ability to use your credit cards or prevent your current lenders from accessing your reports.

Credit freezes also won’t prevent other types of identity theft, including tax refund fraud, medical identity theft and criminal identity theft (which occurs when criminals give law enforcement your information when they get arrested, rather than their own).

Still, credit freezes are a good solution if your identity has already been stolen or you’re at high risk because your Social Security number has been swiped or exposed in a data breach.

Credit bureaus may suggest you put a temporary fraud alert on your reports instead, or pay for credit monitoring or identity theft “protection” (which actually doesn’t protect you against anything but simply offers an early warning if your reports are compromised). A credit freeze is a more secure solution, but you have to weigh the potential hassle and cost against the benefit.

Q&A: How to help family while on a limited budget

Dear Liz: My son, who is almost 50, is mentally and emotionally challenged. He has been unemployed and homeless for years. Although not a criminal, he’s been in jail a few times because of his explosive, combative nature. There seems to be no help for him in the state where he lives. I do send a few dollars for his basic needs when I can, but must be careful with my budget. Do you have any tips that might be helpful in this situation?

Answer: You’re living with a heartbreaking situation. You want to help, but given your age and financial circumstances your ability to do so is limited. Unless you set some boundaries, you could run through your savings and possibly wind up homeless yourself.

You’ll find some helpful resources at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org), which offers information and, in many locations, support groups for families. Another place to find comfort, insights and suggestions would be a 12-step group for co-dependency, such as Co-Dependents Anonymous (www.coda.org), Al-Anon (www.al-anon.org) and Nar-Anon (www.nar-anon.org). Substance abuse often accompanies mental illness, so you may find it helpful to talk to others who have dealt with problem drinkers (Al-Anon) or addicts (Nar-Anon).

Every state has at least some resources for the mentally ill. You can start your search at MentalHealth.gov to see what might be available where your son lives and let him know the options. But as the members of any support group will tell you, you cannot fix another human being or force him to change. What you can do is to take care of yourself.

Q&A: Rolling traditional IRA to a 403(b)

Dear Liz: My husband and I both have employer-sponsored 403(b) retirement plans. We each also have a Roth IRA, and I have a traditional IRA that I started in the 1980s before I started work with my current employer. I do not actively contribute to this traditional IRA as I am contributing the maximum amount allowed into both my Roth IRA and my 403(b) plan. My husband is also maxing out on his Roth and 403(b). We are both in our 50s. Should I contribute anything into my traditional IRA? Should I see if I can roll it into my 403(b)? Or roll it into my Roth? Our adjusted gross income is high enough where I would not be able to take the deduction if I did start contributing. Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: If you can’t get a tax deduction for your contributions, then putting the money in a Roth IRA is usually the better option — assuming, of course, that your income is under the Roth limits (which it sounds like it is). Nondeductible contributions reduce the income taxes owed on any withdrawals from a traditional IRA, but withdrawals from a Roth can be entirely tax-free.

If you have a good, low-cost 403(b), rolling your traditional IRA into it could be a good choice. It would be one less account for you to have to monitor and coordinate with your other savings.

You won’t be able to roll your traditional IRA into a Roth without triggering a (possibly hefty) tax bill. The older you are, the harder it is to make a good argumen

Q&A: Social Security solvency

Dear Liz: Can you tell us what the status is of the Social Security system? Will the money that I and my employers have paid into the system be there for me when I need it in 15 or 20 years?

Answer: The money you pay into the system provides benefits for current retirees. When you’re retired, other workers will provide the money for your benefits. It isn’t a retirement plan where you contribute money that you later withdraw. It’s an insurance fund to protect you against poverty in old age.

The Social Security system isn’t about to disappear. The depletion of its trust funds is expected in 2033, but that doesn’t mean Social Security will go out of business. The system will continue to receive enough in payroll taxes from current workers to pay 77% of promised benefits. So even if Congress doesn’t get its act together to make necessary and sensible reforms, you’ll still get a check. If Congress does get its act together, the reforms probably will affect younger workers more than those close to retirement.

For more on how Social Security works and its benefits, read “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security” by Laurence Kotlikoff, Philip Moeller and Paul Solman.

Q&A: IRA interest rate terms

Dear Liz: I went to renew my IRA certificate of deposit and the bank officer suggested that I renew at the greater rate being offered for a five-year term (about 1.5% APR) rather than the lower rate for a one-year term (about 1% APR). She explained that since I am over 59 1/2, I can close the account at any time and roll it over to a new IRA should rates rise (for example to 1.75% in 15 months) with no penalty whatsoever. Is this true?

Answer: You don’t have to close and reopen IRAs when a CD matures or you want to change investments. The IRA is the bucket that holds your investment, not the investment itself. You also should be skeptical about claims that you would pay no penalty for early withdrawal. Not only are such penalties the norm, but a Bankrate survey found 9 out of 10 banks won’t just require you to forfeit the interest but will dip into your principal to pay the fees if necessary. The bank may offer a one-time opportunity to lock in a higher rate; if that’s the case, you should get the details in writing as well as the penalties if you have to withdraw the money prematurely.

In fact, any time someone pitches you an investment for your retirement funds, you should ask a lot of questions and get every detail and promise in writing. If the pitch is coming from someone who will profit from your investment — which is often the case — you should consider running it past a neutral third party such as a fee-only planner.

By the way, the Federal Reserve has signaled that it’s considering raising interest rates this year. That’s no guarantee that it will, but locking up your money now is a gamble.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I earned more than my wife, who died at age 57 after 18 years of marriage. When I turn 60, can I take survivor Social Security benefits based on her work record and then request my benefit at age 70?

Answer: In a word, yes, and doing so may be smart.

Survivor benefits are different from spousal benefits, which inflict some severe penalties for starting checks early. When you start spousal benefits before your own full retirement age, you’re locked into a permanently smaller check and you can’t later switch to your own benefit, even if it’s larger. The only way to preserve the ability to switch is to file a restricted application for just the spousal benefit at your own full retirement age (which is 66 for people born from 1943 to 1954 and gradually increases to age 67 for people born in 1955 and later). Then you preserve the right to change to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70.
With survivor benefits, starting early means a reduced check — your widower benefit at 60 would be 30% smaller than if you waited until your full retirement age — but you can switch to your own benefit later. And if you don’t work, starting survivor benefits at 60 is the better course, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, coauthor of “Getting What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Social Security.”

“Getting a reduced benefit for 10 years, from 60 to 70, is better than getting an unreduced benefit for fewer years,” Kotlikoff said.
If you work, however, the math becomes less clear. When you start benefits early, your check is reduced $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain limit, which in 2015 is $15,720. That penalty disappears once you hit your full retirement age.

Online calculators can help you determine the best Social Security claiming strategy. AARP and T. Rowe Price are among the sites that provide free calculators, but they don’t factor in survivor benefits. Consider spending about $40 for one of the more sophisticated calculators, such as Kotlikoff’s MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, that can include this important benefit.