Q&A: “File and suspend” Social Security

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing about the “file and suspend” option that allows you to delay taking Social Security while still reserving the ability to get a lump sum if you later change your mind.

If I file and suspend but choose not to take a lump sum before my benefit maxes out at 70, what happens to those funds? What happens to those funds if I die before 70?

Answer: Remember that Social Security is a pay-as-you-go program. The Social Security taxes you pay aren’t piled up in some kind of account, waiting for you to retire. Your taxes pay current retirees’ benefits, just as future workers’ taxes will pay yours.

When you delay starting Social Security, you’re rewarded with a potentially larger check each year you put off claiming until age 70. Your benefit grows by about 7% each year between age 62 and your full retirement age, which is currently 66.

Between full retirement age and 70, your benefit grows at 8% each year in what’s called “delayed retirement credits.”

If you file and suspend at your full retirement age, then change your mind, you can get a lump sum equal to all those checks you passed up since you filed. However, you lose the 8% delayed retirement credits you could have otherwise claimed.

Your benefit is reset to the lower amount you would have received at full retirement age, and that’s the benefit on which all future cost-of-living calculations would be made.

Should you die after filing and suspending, your surviving spouse would be able to benefit from those delayed retirement credits. His survivor’s benefit would be equal to what you could have claimed as of the date of your death.

Q&A: Waiting on Social Security

Dear Liz: I started Social Security at 62 and did the spreadsheet myself showing the break-even point. I would have to be 80 before the graphs even cross.

You, and others, have to stop that business about waiting on Social Security if you can. My own mother lived to 90 and it is about quality of life, not collecting lots from the government.

Answer: Exactly. And since you have longevity in the family, you especially should have paid better attention to the message about the importance of delaying benefits.

If your mother started benefits at 62, or ended up living on a survivor’s benefit from a husband who started early, then her checks were 30% to 50% smaller than they could have been. That difference can be especially crucial in a person’s later years, when she’s far more likely to have outlived her other assets and need the additional money.

Remember that the decision to claim Social Security is separate from the decision to retire. People can retire early and draw from other accounts while putting off Social Security to maximize their checks.

Most people who try to do the math on spreadsheets fail to factor in the effects of inflation and taxes, among other factors.

You can get better calculations from one of the free calculators, such as the ones at AARP and T. Rowe Price. You can find a more robust calculator for about $40 at MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com and SocialSecurityChoices.com.

Another option is to read the recent bestseller published by Simon & Schuster: “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.”

Q&A: 401(k) employer limits

Dear Liz: My company doesn’t allow us to contribute more than 50% of our paycheck to our 401(k). This limits my contribution to far less than the IRS’ $18,000 annual limit because I’m low paid.

How can I tackle this situation, as I would want to contribute more but am being constrained by the 50% contribution cap?

Answer: Your zeal to save for retirement is admirable. Your company may not have anticipated that anyone in your situation would be able to save so much, so consider simply asking if the limit can be raised.

You can explore other avenues as well, such as contributing to an IRA or a Roth IRA. Many people incorrectly believe they can’t contribute to these individual retirement accounts if they have a workplace plan, but that’s not true.

You can contribute up to $5,500 to a Roth (plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution if you’re 50 or older) if your income is below certain limits. The ability to contribute is reduced between modified adjusted gross incomes of $116,000 and $131,000 for single filers and $183,000 and $193,000 for marrieds filing jointly. Alternatively, you can contribute $5,500 (plus the $1,000 catch-up contribution) to an IRA regardless of your income, although your ability to deduct your contribution if you have a workplace plan is phased out for incomes between $61,000 and $71,000 if single and $98,000 to $118,000 for marrieds.

Q&A: “File and suspend”

Dear Liz: You recently encouraged a reader to listen to his financial advisor, who wanted him to file for his Social Security benefit at his full retirement age of 66 but then suspend the application until his benefit maxes out at age 70.

Another good feature of this “file and suspend” maneuver is the ability to ask for all the unpaid benefits in a single lump sum in the event one develops a terminal illness or needs funds for some other exigent circumstance, such as long-term care. The potential lump sum “back pay” can be a pretty good insurance policy while waiting for age 70.

Answer: Thanks for highlighting this important feature. Many people who are on the fence about delaying Social Security don’t understand that their decision is reversible — as long as they wait until their full retirement age to file.

At that point, they have the option to file and suspend. If they later change their minds, they can request a lump sum for all the benefits back to the date they filed.

They lose any “delayed retirement credits” from waiting — in other words, their benefit is reset to what it would have been had it started at full retirement age — but they get a big chunk of cash when they may need it most.

People who file before their full retirement age, which is currently 66 and rising to 67 for people born in 1960 and later, don’t have the option to file and suspend.

Q&A: Max contributions to 401(k)s

Dear Liz: I understand that anybody with a 401(k) can contribute up to $18,000. Does the amount you can contribute depend on your salary? Say you make $45,000. Therefore I would assume you could put in the full $18,000, or 40% of your salary. Am I wrong?

Answer: The maximum the IRS allows someone under 50 to contribute to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan is $18,000 in 2015. The additional “catch up” contribution limit for people 50 and older is $6,000.

The plans themselves, though, may impose lower limits. Even if the plan doesn’t cap contributions, your contributions may be limited if you’re considered a “highly compensated employee.” Last year, highly compensated employees were those who earned more than $115,000 or owned more than 5% of the business. If lower-earning employees don’t contribute enough to the plan, higher earners may not be able to put in as much as they’d like.

Q&A: Postponing Social Security

Dear Liz: My question is on when to take Social Security. My financial advisor recommends that I file for my benefit at age 66 but suspend the application so my benefit can continue to grow until it maxes out at age 70. At 66, I would receive $2,614 per month. At age 70 I would receive $3,451 per month. In those 48 months I would have received $125,472. I calculate that it would take me 12.49 years to make up the difference of $837 a month. So why should I postpone until age 70? What am I missing?

Answer: There’s a big difference between postponing Social Security until your full retirement age of 66 and postponing again until age 70.

Postponing until full retirement age is pretty much a slam-dunk, if you can afford to do so. That’s because most people will live beyond the break-even point, which is typically somewhere between ages 77 and 78.

The break-even point for postponing until age 70 is between age 83 and 84, which is cutting it closer in terms of average life expectancy. A man who reaches age 65 is expected to live on average until age 84. Women reaching 65 are expected to live until 86.

But focusing just on break-even points ignores other, more important factors.

One is that waiting offers an 8% annual return between age 66 and 70. No other investment offers a built-in, guaranteed return that high.

Another has to do with survivors. If your spouse earned less than you, she would end up depending on your check alone should you die first. (Survivors get the larger of their own benefit or their spouse’s, but not both.) The larger the check, the better off she’ll be.

You can think of Social Security as a kind of longevity insurance that protects you against poverty in old age. The longer you or your spouse live, the greater the chance that your assets will be exhausted and that one or both of you will end up depending on Social Security for the greatest part of your income.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I’m 52 and my wife is 57. I recently retired from the military and will have a small retirement from my new job. When should I take Social Security and when should she take hers? Her letter from the Social Security Administration says that based on her work record, she will receive $88 a month. She has spent most of our married life as a homemaker and caregiver to our children.

Answer: Your wife can’t file for spousal benefits until you file for your own benefit, and that can’t happen until you turn 62 in 10 years.

You may not want to file that early, though, since that would force you to take a permanently reduced benefit. You would be settling for about half of what you could get by letting your benefit grow, which also means a much smaller benefit for your wife should she outlive you.

A better strategy may be for each of you to wait to apply at least until you reach your own full retirement ages (66 1/2 for her, 67 for you).

Your wife would get her own small benefit until you turned 67. At that point, you could “file and suspend.” That means you file so she could get her much-larger spousal benefit, but you would immediately suspend your application so your own benefit could continue to grow.

The “file and suspend” strategy is really helpful for maximizing what married couples can get from Social Security, but the maneuver is available only for those who have reached their full retirement age.

Three years later, when your benefit maxes out at age 70, you can end the suspension and start getting your checks.

It’s especially important for higher-earning spouses to avoid locking themselves into permanently reduced checks. If your wife outlives you, she’ll have to get by on a single check — yours — so you want the amount to be as large as it can be.

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: 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: 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