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Retirement Category

Q&A: Social Security Payouts

May 12, 2014 | | Comments (10)

Dear Liz: My wife and I, 63 and 62, plan to continue working till at least 65. We will begin collecting Social Security benefits in September. Our combined income is $58,000, we own our home outright, and we have no debt, no children, $84,000 in a traditional IRA and $90,000 in a stock portfolio.

I just sold a portion of a mutual fund for a $30,000 gain that is in the bank for the time being. How long do we have to reinvest without paying a capital gains tax? Or would it be best to pay the tax now, leave the money in the bank and be done with it?

Answer: Unless you sell another investment for a $30,000 loss to offset the gain, you’re going to have to pay taxes on your profit.

“There is no way to do a tax-free reinvestment,” said tax professional Eva Rosenberg, an enrolled agent who runs the TaxMama.com site. “And the time to ask questions like that is before you sell the mutual funds.”

You still have time to avoid a much bigger mistake: signing up for Social Security now.

Your Social Security checks would be reduced $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain level, which this year is $15,480. That “earnings test” applies until you reach your full retirement age (which is 66, not 65, for both you and your wife). What’s more, you would lock in lower benefits for life and give up a chance to boost your Social Security payout in a way that’s available only to married couples who wait until full retirement age to start benefits. (More on that in a moment.)

Your savings are too small to generate much income, particularly if you want to minimize the chances of running out of money. You should be looking to maximize your Social Security benefits to help make up for that deficit. Your benefits grow substantially each year you put off applying for them, and most people will live past the break-even point where delaying benefits until full retirement age results in more money than taking them early.

Many people erroneously think they should grab Social Security as early as they can, but the Social Security system isn’t going away, and you are likely to regret settling for a smaller check. Remember that your wife probably will outlive you and will have to get by on one check, so you should make sure your benefits are as big as they can be.

One way to do that is for the lower-earning spouse to claim spousal benefits at his or her full retirement age. Once the lower earner’s benefit maxes out at age 70, he or she can switch if that benefit is larger.

But spousal benefits can’t start until the higher earner files for his or her own benefit. If the higher earner waits until full retirement age to apply, he or she has the option to “file and suspend” — a maneuver that lets the spouse claim spousal benefits while leaving the higher earner’s benefit untouched so it can continue to grow.

This “claim now, claim more later” strategy is available only to people who wait until their full retirement age to start.

Your tax question and your plan to start Social Security early indicate you could really use some sessions with a fee-only financial planner. Such a consultation is a good idea for everyone as they’re approaching retirement, but in your case, it’s essential.

Comments (10)

Q&A: Millionaires and social security

May 05, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I have a friend who is a multimillionaire. He told me what he collects in Social Security, and it was much less than what I receive even though my income while I was working was small. He said because of his status, Social Security pays him much less. Is that true? I thought your benefits are based on what your income was.

Answer: They are. The Social Security system was designed to replace a larger percentage of income for lower-paid workers, based on the idea that these workers had less opportunity to save for their future. The higher your income, the lower the percentage of your pay the system is designed to replace.

But people who earned high salaries during their working lifetime will reap bigger checks than those who didn’t, all other factors being equal.

Assuming your friend is telling the truth about his benefit, there are several explanations for why he’s getting less. One is that he was a business owner who controlled his own pay and deliberately kept down the amount of his salary that was subject to payroll taxes. (People think they’re saving money by doing this, until it’s time to claim Social Security and they realize what it has cost them.)

Another possibility is that he has income from another source, such as a public pension, that would reduce his check because of the government’s windfall elimination provisions.

Other possibilities: Perhaps he started his benefits early, while you delayed yours to let them grow. Or maybe he was one of those diligent, frugal people who built wealth on a smaller income. Or it could be he was talking about his after-tax benefit, since Social Security benefits are taxable once your income exceeds certain amounts.

Those are just some possibilities, but he definitely isn’t receiving a smaller check than you just because he’s rich.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Q&A: Social Security and spousal benefits

Apr 28, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I just got laid off and will be collecting unemployment. In January, I will be eligible for Social Security at my full retirement age of 66. Can I collect 50% of my spouse’s benefits (he is 76) instead of collecting on my record and continue to let my Social Security benefits grow until age 70?

Answer: Yes. As long as you wait until your own full retirement age to apply for spousal benefits, you retain the option of switching to your own benefit later. If you apply for spousal benefits early, you are locked into the smaller payment and can’t switch.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Q&A: What to do with an old IRA?

Apr 27, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I left a job several years ago to become a full-time freelancer. I have a SEP IRA and a SIMPLE IRA from that job that have basically just been sitting there. What are my options in moving this money to a better retirement investment?

Answer: SEPs and SIMPLEs are just the tax-advantaged buckets into which you (and your then-employer) put money. It’s the investments you choose within those buckets that determine what kind of returns you’ll get. The financial institution that’s holding these accounts can be a factor as well: If it’s charging a lot of fees, your returns will suffer accordingly.

Your best bet is to make sure the accounts are being held at a low-cost provider and that you have sufficient exposure to stocks to offer growth that will offset inflation over time. Most discount brokerages and mutual fund companies offer target-date maturity funds that give you diversification, professional asset allocation and automatic rebalancing at a low cost.

Categories : Investing, Q&A, Retirement
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Q&A: Home equity loans, mortgages and retirement

Apr 21, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I wish to add a little more information for the retired individual who had trouble getting approved for a home equity loan because he had no regular income (although he had plenty of assets). I’d suggest consulting a mortgage broker, not a bank. An independent broker is not captive to one set of policies. My broker suggested that I set up automatic withdrawals from my IRA to show that I had income in addition to Social Security. Once this was done and I met all the other credit requirements, I closed on a refinance in less than 30 days at a very good interest rate. Then, I discontinued my automatic withdrawals and went back to taking my funds as needed. I learned to use a qualified mortgage broker many years ago after a divorce and not having a job. I could not get a mortgage on my own, but my mortgage broker did and at very good terms. Each time I’ve used a broker, the process went smoothly and was stress free.

Answer: Many people don’t realize that lender policies differ quite a bit. In this case, mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have clarified that mortgage lenders can calculate a retiree’s income based on his or her assets, but not all lenders are willing to do the extra work these loans require.

People who are W-2 employees with solid income histories and great credit scores probably don’t need help finding a loan, because plenty of lenders will want to compete for their business. When your situation is outside the norm, however, a mortgage broker may be able to track down a lender when others balk. The National Assn. of Mortgage Brokers at http://www.namb.org offers referrals.

Categories : Q&A, Real Estate, Retirement
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Social security switch

Apr 13, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: When I turned 66, I applied for and then suspended my Social Security benefits so that my husband could take spousal benefits based on my work record. Shortly after he turned 69, he decided to start taking his full benefit from his own work record, so we canceled the spousal benefits.

After he applied to take his full benefit, I applied for spousal benefits from his account. Since I am only 67, the plan was for me to collect spousal benefits until I reached 70 and then collect off my account. Since I am the primary breadwinner, that allows the maximum lifetime funding should something happen to either of us. I sat with an employee at the local Social Security office. Together we processed all the appropriate documentation and she submitted it.

I just received a notice of denial that says, “We cannot approve your request because we received it after the 12-month limit.” I took the letter to the Social Security office for an explanation, and the woman had never heard of the rule it cited. The rule, it turns out, was designed to prevent people from repaying all the benefits they’ve received over the years so that they can restart their benefit at age 70. The rule says that they can pay back only benefits received in the prior 12 months to restart their benefits. But that is not what I did.

Answer: No, it’s not, but what you tried to do still won’t work.

Here’s the simplest way to explain it: There’s only one spousal benefit for each couple. Once you filed for your own benefit, allowing your husband to claim spousal benefits, you aren’t allowed to switch even though you hadn’t started receiving checks yet.

If it’s any consolation, you chose the right spouse to receive spousal benefits, since you’re the higher earner. It would have been best if your husband had waited to switch at age 70, when his benefit reached its maximum, but his checks are still substantially larger than they would have been if he had started earlier.

Another point that should be made because it’s often misunderstood, is that your husband was allowed to switch from spousal benefits to his own benefit because he started Social Security at or after his own full retirement age. If he’d started benefits before his full retirement age, which is currently 66, he would have been stuck with a discounted spousal benefit and couldn’t have switched to his own benefit later.

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When is the best time to take spousal benefits?

Mar 31, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: My wife will be 62 in a few months. I am 77 and we both work full time. Can she collect her spousal Social Security benefit while still working and take her full benefit at 70?

Answer: That option is available to her only if she waits until her full retirement age (currently 66) to apply for spousal benefits. If she applies for spousal benefits before age 66, she won’t be able to switch to her own benefit later. Also, applying early means that her benefit would be reduced by $1 for every $2 she earns above an annual limit, which is $15,480 in 2014.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: I am 55 and my wife is 65. She only worked a few part-time jobs as she spent most of her working years raising our nine beautiful children. My question is, since she does not have enough credits to collect Social Security on her own work record, can she claim spousal benefits on my work history? If so, at what age and how will it affect my benefits?

Answer: Your wife can receive spousal benefits based on your work record, but those checks can’t start until you’re old enough to qualify for benefits at age 62 (when she’s 72).

If you apply at 62, however, you’re typically locked into a check that would be about 30% smaller than what you’d get if you waited until your “full retirement age” to start. Full retirement age used to be 65, but it’s now 66 and will gradually increase to 67 for people born in 1960 or later.

At your full retirement age, you have the option to “file and suspend,” in which you file for retirement benefits and then immediately suspend your application. Your wife can start receiving spousal benefits, but because you aren’t actually receiving checks, your benefit can continue to grow until it maxes out at age 70.

For many couples, it makes sense for the higher earner to delay starting benefits as long as possible. Given your big age gap, however, you may be better off with a hybrid approach: starting your own benefits (and your wife’s spousal benefit) at age 62 and then suspending your benefit when you reach full retirement age, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor who created the site MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com to help people analyze their claiming options. Your benefit would grow 8% a year from the time you suspend to the time you restart at age 70. Your wife would continue to receive her spousal benefit in the interim.

Because your wife will be older than her own full retirement age of 66 when she starts receiving checks, she will be entitled to half of the benefit you’re scheduled to get at your full retirement age. What she gets doesn’t diminish what you get. Spouses who haven’t reached their full retirement age when they apply for spousal benefits have to settle for a discounted check.

Clearly, claiming decisions can be complicated, especially for married people and even more so when there’s a big gap in their ages. AARP has a free calculator that can help most people understand their options. T. Rowe Price also has an easy-to-use calculator, but it doesn’t work for married couples with more than a six-year age gap.

For a more detailed and customizable calculator, you may want to pay $40 to use the software at sites such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com or SocialSecurityChoices.com, co-developed by economist (and Social Security recipient) Russell F. Settle.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Strategic bill paying

Mar 03, 2014 | | Comments (1)

Dear Liz: We received $100,000 from the sale of some undeveloped land. We are trying to figure out the best way to pay off our bills. Our primary residence has a balance of $173,000 at 4.25% and is a 30-year loan. We also own a home we rent out in which we cover the mortgage with the rent income. The balance on it is $131,500 at 4.5% for a 20-year loan. This home is often a burden when tenants change on an average of every 1 to 2 years, and we don’t have the income to cover the mortgage without the rental income. My husband took a $20,000 loan out of his retirement fund for closing costs for our primary residence, a debt that is being paid back through paycheck deductions. We also have an auto loan with a balance of $7,800 at 2.74% and credit cards with varying interest rates with total owing of $22,000. What should we do?

Answer: Your first task should be examining your spending habits to see why you have so much credit card debt. If you don’t fix the problem that’s causing you to live beyond your means, you’re likely to find yourself in a deeper hole eventually, regardless of how well you deploy this windfall.

You also should see if you’re on track with retirement savings. Boosting your retirement plan contributions at work and to individual retirement accounts can help you convert this money into long-term economic security.

Next, pay off the credit card debt and consider retiring the retirement plan loan. If your husband lost his job and couldn’t repay the debt, the outstanding balance would become a withdrawal that would incur income taxes and penalties.

Any money that’s left over can go into an emergency fund to protect against job loss and to keep you from going into debt between tenants. Your low-rate car loans and tax-advantaged mortgage debt aren’t top priorities for repayment, but you can start paying them down over time once your other bases are covered.

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Dear Liz: I retired last year. I am 67, have more than $1 million in my retirement accounts, $80,000 in individual stocks, $50,000 in cash and more than $200,000 in equity in my home. I don’t need to tap my Social Security benefit yet and can afford to wait until I am 70 to get the maximum monthly amount. I recently purchased a new car with a 0% loan for five years. That and my mortgage are the extent of my debt. One thing I would like to do is some home improvement. My fee-only financial planner suggested getting a home equity line of credit to cover the repairs and upgrades. This makes sense to me in that it spreads out the burden over time and is tax-deductible. My credit scores are 736, 801 and 839. But I’m finding it difficult to get a commitment from either my credit union or my bank because they don’t see an income. I have been with both of these institutions for more than 30 years and the credit union holds the first mortgage. How do we get the lenders to factor retirement assets into the qualification calculations?

Answer: Last year, mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac issued guidelines on retirement fund annuitization that would allow mortgage lenders to calculate a borrower’s income based on his or her retirement assets.

Lenders, however, have to be willing to go to a little extra effort to learn the rules and apply them properly.

If yours aren’t willing to do so, then it might be time to take your business elsewhere. A mortgage broker (referrals from http://www.namb.org) may be able to connect you with a lender who’s more up to date.

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