Dear Liz: I am 63 and my husband is almost 64. He lost his job last year. We have been living on his $1,500 monthly pension plus what I could make from small contracts and drawing down our emergency fund. The fund and the contracts are now gone. We would like to get jobs, but we live in an isolated area and must sell our house first so we can move. It’s worth about $350,000 with no mortgage, but selling it could take a while.
My question: Is it better to pull from our retirement investments of $750,000, use our home equity line of credit until we sell our house or have me file for early Social Security benefits? We plan to have my husband wait to apply until his full retirement age and then file a restricted application so he gets only spousal benefits until age 70, when his own benefit maxes out. Meanwhile, we need money to live on. I ran a Social Security calculator, and it seemed to say the difference between my starting early and the maximum we could get for waiting was $35,000. Our financial advisor says to take Social Security, but he also manages our investments. We pay him 1% of our portfolio, so reducing it would reduce his income. Can you offer any guidance?
Answer: The benefit from delaying the start of your Social Security benefits is typically so great that knowledgeable financial planners would suggest tapping other funds, including your retirement account, if that’s the only way you can hold off.
If you followed the 4% rule for sustainable withdrawals, you could take $30,000 from your retirement fund the first year without having to worry too much about running out of money. You could take more, of course, and plan to cut back when the Social Security checks start flowing, but you run the risk of a downturn dramatically increasing the chances that you won’t have enough money to last your lifetimes.
Of course, everybody’s situation is different. If the gap between your strategy and maximum benefits is just $35,000 over your lifetimes, you’ll have to decide if that’s incentive enough to wait. Understand, though, that calculators designed to evaluate Social Security strategies aren’t all equal. The free ones tend to be simpler, while the ones that require a fee (typically $40) are more sophisticated and allow you to take more factors into account.
So here’s a game plan. Run one or more of the more sophisticated calculators such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, SocialSecuritySolutions.com and SocialSecurityChoices.com. Then take the results to a fee-only financial planner who charges by the hour to get another opinion. You want a planner who uses Social Security maximizing software and who has received education in Social Security planning strategies (just ask). If you can’t find someone locally, there are plenty of good planners willing to consult long-distance via phone and email. You can get referrals from Garrett Planning Network, among other sources.
Dear Liz: As a faculty member who was only recently allowed to participate in our state’s public employees’ retirement system, I will have a very small pension. I’m told that Social Security will then reduce my benefit by up to 50% as a result of the so-called windfall elimination provision. Can you tell me how this is legal?
Answer: Many people affected by Social Security’s windfall elimination provision are outraged that their benefits will be reduced. Before the provision was enacted in 1983, though, people who paid less into the Social Security system wound up getting an outsized benefit.
Here’s why. Social Security is designed to replace more of a worker’s income the less he or she makes, with the understanding that saving for retirement is harder the lower your income.
When you get a pension from an employer who doesn’t pay into the Social Security system, but you also qualify for Social Security benefits from other jobs, your Social Security earnings record can look as if you were a long-term, low-wage worker even when you’re not. Without the windfall elimination provision, you could wind up with a Social Security check that replaces more of your income than you would have received had you only worked in jobs covered by Social Security.
How much your benefit will be reduced depends in part on how many years you worked in those other jobs — the ones that were covered by Social Security. The longer you worked at jobs covered by Social Security, the less the windfall elimination provision affects you, as long as you had “substantial earnings” from those jobs. The amount that’s considered substantial varies by year, ranging from $3,300 in 1974 to $21,750 this year. You’ll experience the maximum 50% reduction if you have 20 or fewer years of substantial earnings. If you have 30 years of such earnings, the provision doesn’t affect you at all.
Dear Liz: My partner of 30 years recently died. Am I eligible for Social Security survivor benefits? I don’t want anything I don’t deserve, but if I’m entitled to something, every penny would be appreciated. I am 54 and make minimum wage.
Answer: Your eligibility for Social Security benefits as a spouse depends on three factors: whether your state recognizes same-sex marriages, whether it did so on the date your partner died and whether you were legally married. (You wrote “partner” rather than “spouse,” which suggests you may not have been.)
The Supreme Court paved the way for Social Security to offer same-sex benefits when it ruled parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional last summer. Social Security has taken the position that it must follow state law in recognizing same-sex marriages and that what matters is where the couple live, not where they married. Even in states where same-sex marriage is currently legal, Social Security denies survivor benefits if it wasn’t legal when the spouse died.
If you are eligible, you can start receiving benefits as early as age 60. (Survivor benefits are available at any age if the widow or widower takes care of a child receiving Social Security benefits who is younger than 16 or disabled.)
Starting early reduces your survivor benefit significantly compared with what you would get if you wait until your full retirement age of 67. As a survivor, though, you’re allowed to switch to your own benefit later, if that benefit is larger. (That’s different from spousal benefits, where spouses are precluded from switching to their own benefits if they start getting Social Security checks before their own full retirement age.) If your survivor benefit is likely to be larger than any benefit you’ve earned on your own, though, it typically makes sense to delay starting Social Security as long as possible to maximize what you’ll get.
Dear Liz: Can you please explain Social Security spousal benefits? Is there a certain length of time a husband and wife need to have been married that will qualify the spouse to get the spousal benefit after divorce? For example, if a couple has been married for 20 years and then divorces, will the spouse still be entitled to collect the spousal benefit, or is the spousal benefit only for those who stay married?
Answer: Spousal benefits are available to divorced spouses as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. But you have to be unmarried to get benefits based on an ex’s work record. If you remarry, those benefits end.
The amount you get as a spouse or divorced spouse can equal up to half of what the primary earner gets. As with other Social Security benefits, however, your checks typically will be reduced if you start benefits before your own full retirement age. Starting spousal benefits early also precludes you from later switching to your own retirement benefit, even if that benefit would be larger.
Dear Liz: I have a 401(k) that has a required annual distribution because I am over 71 1/2 years old. Can I use this distribution as qualified income to invest in a Roth IRA? I have no W-2 earnings, although I do have other income sources that are reported on 1099 forms.
Answer: To contribute to a Roth or other individual retirement account, you must have taxable compensation, which the IRS defines as wages, salaries, commissions, tips, bonuses or net income from self-employment. The IRS also includes taxable alimony and separate maintenance payments as compensation for IRA purposes.
So if the money reported on one of those 1099 forms is from self-employment income, then you can contribute to a Roth IRA. If the form is reporting interest and dividends or other income that doesn’t meet the IRS definition of taxable compensation, then you’re out of luck.
If you don’t have income that meets the IRS definition of taxable compensation, but your spouse does, you may still qualify for IRA contributions, provided you file a joint return that meets the required income thresholds.
Dear Liz: I am 13 years older than my wife. Is it possible for me to receive Social Security spousal benefits based on her earnings when I reach full retirement at age 66? I’d like to shift to my benefit when it reaches its maximum at age 70. If I can do this, what impact, if any, would there be on the benefits she ultimately receives?
Answer: Spousal benefits wouldn’t reduce her checks, but she has to be old enough to qualify for Social Security for you to get these benefits. Given your age gap, waiting for that day probably isn’t an optimal solution.
On the other hand, she could file for spousal benefits when she reaches her own full retirement age (which will be somewhere between 66 and 67, as the full retirement age is pushed back). That would give her own benefit a chance to grow, and she could switch to that amount if it’s larger at age 70. If she starts benefits before full retirement age, she would lose the option to switch.
AARP’s free Social Security calculator can help you figure out the claiming strategy that makes the most sense for your situation.
Dear Liz: I’ve been reading your answers to Social Security questions, but they do not address my situation, which is extremely unconventional. I was a quasi-widow at 31 with three children under age 9. My husband was institutionalized because of an accident when he was 33. He died 23 years later, having outlived all his insurance. I never remarried. I was disabled at 61 and started receiving my deceased husband’s Social Security benefit at age 62, after the expiration of my disability benefits from work. I am now 73. Am I eligible to also begin receiving my own Social Security benefits as well as my late husband’s? I hope your answer is positive.
Answer: It’s not. Although the details may not be conventional, your situation doesn’t change the fact that widows (and widowers) are entitled to only one check. They can’t collect their own benefits plus survivor’s benefits. They can and should, however, choose the larger of the checks to which they’re entitled.
It is possible that you’ve earned a larger benefit on your own work record than the survivor’s benefit you’re currently receiving. You should call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 and ask.
Dear Liz: My wife and I are both 59. We expect to retire in two or three years. We would not take Social Security until probably 67 because we will not need it when we retire. But would our Social Security benefits be less because we do not work for those five years before applying to Social Security? Is Social Security affected at all by the last few years of income or simply by the total lifetime deposits into the system?
Answer: Your Social Security benefits are based on your 35 highest-earning years. So if you’ve worked more than 35 years, a few years at the end of your career in which you earn less or don’t earn anything at all shouldn’t affect your benefits.
While you’re researching your options for claiming Social Security, check out the “claim now, claim more later” strategy that would allow one of you to claim spousal benefits while allowing his or her own benefit to grow. It’s one of a number of strategies available to married couples that can significantly increase the amount of Social Security benefits over a lifetime. Another important factor to consider is that one of you is likely to survive the other, perhaps by many years, and will have to get by on a single check. You should make sure that check is as large as it can be to lessen the chances the survivor will face poverty in old age. You can find more information about Social Security claiming strategies at the AARP site (aarp.org).
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.
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