Q&A: Social Security benefits for children

Dear Liz: My older brothers-in-law signed up for Social Security benefits at 62 and then suspended their benefits so that their children, who were under 18, could receive 50% of their checks. Is this process still available at age 62 for those with children who are below the age of 18?

Answer: In order for family members to receive spousal or child benefits based on the primary earner’s work record, that primary earner has to be receiving his or her own benefit.

In the past, people who had reached full retirement age — which used to be 65, is now 66 and is rising to 67 — had the option of immediately suspending their applications so their family could receive benefits while their own continued to grow. The “file and suspend” option was not available to people who applied for benefits before their full retirement age. And now it’s no longer available period, thanks to Congress.

If you do apply for your benefit early, keep in mind that your checks — and your children’s checks — will be subject to the earnings test. That reduces Social Security benefits by $1 for every $2 you earn over $16,920 in 2017. (The earnings test goes away at full retirement age.) Your benefit also will be reduced to reflect the early start.

Also, there’s a limit to how much a family can receive based on the worker’s record. The family maximum can be from 150% to 180% of the parent’s full benefit amount.

If you’re still working and your children will be younger than 18 by the time you reach full retirement age, it may make sense to wait until then to apply. To know for sure, though, you should use one of the calculators that takes child benefits into account, such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

Q&A: How much risk is too much in retirement?

Dear Liz: If you have all your required obligations covered during retirement, is having 70% of your portfolio in equities too risky?

Answer: Probably not, but a lot depends on your stomach.

Retirees typically need a hefty dollop of stocks to preserve their purchasing power over a long retirement, with many planners recommending a 40% to 60% allocation in early retirement. A heftier allocation isn’t unreasonable if all of your basic expenses are covered by guaranteed income, such as Social Security, pensions and annuities. Ideally, those pensions and annuities would have cost-of-living adjustments, especially if they’re meant to pay expenses that rise with inflation.

Historically, retirees have been told they need to reduce their equity exposure as they age, but there’s some evidence that the opposite is true. Research by financial planners Wade Pfau and Michael Kitces found that increasing your stock holdings in retirement, where the allocation starts out more conservative and gets more aggressive, may reduce the chances of running short of money. Their paper, “Reducing Retirement Risk with a Rising Equity Glide-Path,” was published in the Journal for Financial Planning and is available online for free.

That said, you don’t want your investments to give you ulcers. If you couldn’t withstand a big downturn — one that cuts your portfolio in half, say — then you may want to cushion your retirement funds with less risky alternatives.

Q&A: Social Security calculators may overestimate your benefits

Dear Liz: All of the Social Security calculators that I have found assume that you will work until you start drawing Social Security benefits. However, I plan on retiring around 62 but not drawing my benefits until age 66 or later. Whenever I calculate my future benefits, the calculator assumes that I will continue to draw the same salary as I have today until I start benefits. I’m worried the calculators are overestimating my benefit.

Answer: As you probably know, Social Security uses your 35 highest-earning years to calculate your benefit. When you work longer than 35 years, you’re typically replacing your lower-earning years in your teens or 20s with higher earnings from your 50s and 60s.

Free Social Security calculators usually assume that pattern will continue. If you stop working or earn less, the calculators may overstate your benefits. To get a better estimate, you’ll need to shell out $40 to use MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, which allows you to customize your future earnings assumptions.

Q&A: What to consider when investing in target date retirement funds

Dear Liz: I have 100% of my 401(k) in a fund called “Target Retirement 2030.” This fund is made of several other funds, so does that qualify as “diversified”?

Answer: It does. Target date funds have become increasingly popular in 401(k) plans because they do the heavy lifting for investors. The funds select asset allocations and grow more conservative in their mix as the retirement date approaches.

Target date funds aren’t perfect, of course. Some are too expensive. The typical target date fund charges about 1%, but Vanguard and Fidelity charge as little as 0.15%.

Another issue is the “glide path” — how quickly the funds get more conservative. There’s no consensus about what the right glide path should be, and investment companies offer a lot of different mixes. Any given glide path may be too steep for some people and too shallow for others, depending on their circumstances. As an investor, you can compensate for that by choosing funds dated later or earlier than your targeted retirement date. If the 2030 fund gets too conservative too fast for your taste, for example, you could choose the 2040 fund instead.

Despite the downsides, you’re likely to be much better off in a target date fund than you are in some of the other options. Too often novice investors take too much or too little risk without realizing it. They may have all of their money in “safe” low-return options, which means they’re losing ground to inflation. Or they may have all their money in stocks, including their own company’s stock, and would be unprepared for a downturn wiping out a good chunk of their portfolio’s value.

Even those who know they should diversify often do it wrong by randomly distributing their contributions across their investment options. If you don’t know what you’re doing, or you simply prefer investing professionals to take charge, target date funds are a good way to go.

Q&A: Friend erroneously declared deceased

Dear Liz: I have an elderly friend who was recently erroneously declared deceased by the Social Security Administration. She received no notice of this declaration and her first awareness that something might be wrong was when her personal checks and automatic payments to utilities and others began to bounce. When she called her bank, she was informed that all of her accounts had been frozen by the Social Security Administration.

My friend is now faced with multiple returned check charges, threatening phone calls and cut-off services. Efforts to straighten things out with Social Security and her bank have been only moderately successful so far. Although they will probably clear things up eventually, this will take time and quite a bit of legwork on her part.

Under what authority does Social Security freeze someone’s assets? And is this common? Aren’t they required to at least notify someone of impending action? After all, when any one of us does in fact die, we still have financial obligations and such actions can only create headaches for survivors.

Answer: The Social Security Administration doesn’t freeze bank accounts, but it does erroneously declare people dead a few thousand times every year. Financial institutions check Social Security’s death notices and may freeze or close accounts as a result. It can take weeks or months to clear up the confusion.

People in this situation should visit their local Social Security office and bring some identification, such as a driver’s license or passport, to establish that they are, in fact, alive. Social Security will issue a letter called an “Erroneous Death Case — Third Party Contact” notice that can be shown to financial institutions, doctors and others who may have been misinformed of their deaths. Your friend should not only ask that services be restored but that bounced-check fees and other costs be waived. There’s no guarantee that they will be, but she should ask.

Your friend also might consider whether it’s time to ask for help in managing her finances. It sounds from your description as if she didn’t notice the problem for quite some time. Utilities don’t shut off service at the first missed payment. Threatening phone calls — presumably from collection agencies — typically don’t start until accounts are months overdue. She should consider adding a trusted person to her checking account or at least sharing online credentials so that another set of eyes is monitoring what’s going on with her money.

Q&A: Social Security survivor’s benefit

Dear Liz: My husband will retire next spring but has wisely decided to not collect Social Security until he is 70. I have been retired for several years and have been collecting my Social Security benefits, which are significantly less than what his will be because he was the higher wage earner. Should he die before age 70, would I still be able to claim, as his surviving spouse, his larger benefit, even though he would not have started collecting it yet? The information I read only talks in terms of the higher wage earner already collecting Social Security benefits before his or her demise.

Answer: Even if your husband dies before starting Social Security, you can collect the larger benefit he’s earned, including any delayed retirement credits from putting off his application.

Those delayed retirement credits increase his benefit, and yours as the surviving spouse, by 8% each year between his full retirement age of 66 and age 70. That can make a huge difference in the quality of life of the surviving spouse, who has to get by on a single check after the other partner dies.

Q&A: Social Security benefits for children

Dear Liz: My husband was 51 when our last child was born, meaning that our son was only 15 when my husband turned 66. Because I was working full time and we had sufficient income, we adhered to the traditional advice of delaying my husband’s Social Security payment. However, when he filed this past year at age 69, we learned that our son is eligible to receive a considerable monthly amount. Fortunately, the Social Security office was able to backdate my husband’s application for six months, but nevertheless we lost out on several thousand dollars by not filing when my husband was 66. Although his monthly payout would have been lower, the accumulated difference would have been considerable with our son’s payment. Therefore, although most retiring people do not have minor children, I believe that all financial advisors should be aware of this option and that those parents should plan carefully to maximize their payout.

Answer: More than 4 million children receive Social Security benefits because their parents are disabled or deceased or have reached retirement age. A child can receive up to half the parent’s disability or retirement check. If the parent dies, a child’s survivor benefit can be up to 75% of the parent’s basic benefit. (There’s a limit to how much a family can receive, though, which ranges from 150% to 180% of the parent’s check.) Benefits typically stop at age 18, although they can continue until two months past the child’s 19th birthday if the child is still in high school. Benefits can continue indefinitely if the child is disabled.

Children’s benefits can be subject to the same earnings test that reduces Social Security retirement checks if the parent claims early and continues working. So it often makes sense to wait to start benefits until the parent is full retirement age, currently 66, when the earnings test no longer applies. You’re right that delaying beyond that age may not make sense when the child is young enough to receive benefits, since they can considerably boost a family’s total benefit.

Having minor children at retirement age definitely complicates the calculation of when to take benefits. Many free Social Security claiming calculators don’t let you include minor children in your calculation, so if you’re in this situation it can be worth paying $40 to get a customized claiming strategy from calculators such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

Q&A: Why surviving spouses aren’t always entitled to Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I am confused. I thought all wives were entitled to Social Security if the husband’s earnings qualified. My husband is deceased and he received a larger Social Security benefit than I because he worked longer in a qualified system. We were married almost 49 years. Most of my earnings are from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. I was told because I had a high retirement income, I could not qualify for a percentage of my husband’s benefit. I didn’t know there was an income basis for Social Security. My income was severely reduced when he died. I appreciate any resource in understanding Social Security you could provide.

Answer: It sounds like your survivor’s benefits were eliminated by something known as the “government pension offset,” or GPO. While this sounds draconian, the GPO is actually meant to ensure that people in your situation don’t wind up getting a bigger benefit than people who paid into the Social Security system.

If you had paid into Social Security, you would get the larger of either your own benefit or your husband’s after his death. You wouldn’t be able to continue receiving both checks. Since you’re receiving a government pension from outside the Social Security system, you would be receiving much more than a typical survivor if you could keep that pension AND get your husband’s check. The GPO reduces your survivor benefit by two-thirds of your government pension to compensate. If your pension is big enough to completely eliminate your survivor’s benefit, that means you’re still better off than you would have been just receiving your husband’s check.

Q&A: Guaranteed income in retirement

Dear Liz: Is there such a thing as guaranteed income in retirement? Private pensions are gone and public pensions aren’t far behind. There are calls for pension reform and I’m not sure if anything is guaranteed anymore. As far as annuities are concerned, insurance companies are on shaky ground and the U.S. government had to bail out AIG. My kids, in their 20s, have told me they aren’t expecting Social Security to be there when they retire. The term “guaranteed income” has lost its meaning.

Answer: I wouldn’t rely on your twenty-something offspring to be oracles of financial wisdom. The reality is that Social Security will collect enough in taxes to pay about three-quarters of promised benefits even if Congress never gets its act together to improve the system’s financial situation. As bad as Americans can be at math, most of us can understand that “75%” is not the same as “0%.” Social Security is an immensely popular government program that millions rely on for most or all of their retirement income, so the odds are pretty good that the system will be there when your kids need it.

Pensions are another common source of retirement income. Private pensions are on the wane but millions of people still have them. If a plan can’t pay promised benefits, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. takes over. The PBGC has a maximum limit for payouts, which may trim the pensions of highly paid employees, but the vast majority of workers get what they were promised.

Public pensions, meanwhile, aren’t impossible to cut, but it’s tough to do, and most government agencies prefer to defer the pain by trimming benefits for younger employees rather than older ones.

Finally, it’s not true that insurers are on shaky ground — the vast majority survived the financial crisis without a bailout. You still should check into an insurer’s financial strength before you buy an annuity, of course, and many financial planners recommend buying only from top-rated companies. If an insurer does fail, many annuities are covered by state guaranty associations up to certain limits (typically $250,000).

Q&A: Getting through to Social Security

Dear Liz: I read your article about checking your Social Security earnings record and benefits. I tried to set up an account with the Social Security Administration to track my retirement benefits (I turn 65 in December). Apparently the Social Security Administration will only text a required security code to a cellphone. I do have a cellphone but live in an area with very sketchy reception. I couldn’t get a signal the day I tried to set up the account. Do you have any suggestions about an alternate source or method for accessing my benefits?

Answer: The Social Security Administration briefly required people to use a one-time code sent to their cellphones in order to set up an online account. You weren’t the only one who was having trouble with this new hurdle, and the administration has since dropped the requirement.

People still have the option of getting and using a code if they’re comfortable doing so. This so-called two factor authentication — which uses both something you know, such as a password, and something you have, such as a code sent to your phone — is a smart idea for any sensitive online account. Banks and brokerages should offer this option to further protect customers’ security, but many of them don’t.

By the way, the Social Security Administration allows only one account per Social Security number, so you’d be smart to continue setting up your account. That will prevent someone else from doing so and making unauthorized claims or changes.