Q&A: Taking Social Security at 70

Dear Liz: My husband will be turning 70 in August. Must he start taking Social Security at 70 or can he wait a little longer? He will still be earning money and if I understand correctly that will lower the amount he will receive. Does he have to do anything like apply for it or do they know he is turning 70?

Answer: He should apply for retirement benefits — online at www.ssa.gov, in person at a local office or by calling 800-772-1213 — three months before he turns 70. Benefits max out at that age, so there’s no reason to delay any longer.

The earnings test you fear only affects people who start benefits before their full retirement ages, which for your husband was 66. When you start benefits early, Social Security deducts $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($15,720 in 2016). After full retirement age, that penalty disappears.

Q&A: Taking Social Security early

Dear Liz: My wife will be 62 in November and does not work. I am 55 and have a 401(k) for our retirement. I know you preach waiting to take Social Security. But what about if my wife takes it early and we invest all of the money? Would it then make sense to take early?

Answer: You would need to get returns well in excess of 7% to beat the guaranteed annual return you get from waiting to take Social Security. In today’s volatile markets, that would be quite a feat.

You can run the numbers yourself at a Social Security claiming calculator. AARP offers a free one, or you can pay $40 to use one of the more sophisticated options such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

Q&A: Social Security survivor’s benefits

Dear Liz: I became a widow in my 40s. My children collected Social Security until reaching age 18. At age 60, I started collecting survivor’s benefits. Now that I’m 65, do I need to do anything to collect my late husband’s full Social Security amount at age 66?

Answer: Starting early means you won’t get his full Social Security benefit.

Survivor’s benefits are based on what your husband would have received at his full retirement age if he hadn’t started benefits when he died, or what he actually received if he had started benefits.

His benefit was reduced to reflect your early start, however. Only by starting at your own full retirement age of 66 would you have received 100% of his benefit.

Starting early with survivor’s benefits can be a good option if you had a solid work history and your own benefit eventually will be larger than the survivor’s benefit. If that’s the case, you can leave your own benefit to grow until it maxes out at age 70 while still receiving Social Security checks. If your own benefit won’t be larger, though, it may have been smarter to wait.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I am 63 and retired but have not started to collect my Social Security. My husband will be 67 in March. He started his Social Security at 62. Our plan is to wait until I am 70 to start my benefit, which would make my monthly amount significantly larger than his. If I predecease my husband, would he be able to collect my benefit instead of his own? If I started benefits now, our checks would be relatively close in size, although mine would be a bit higher than his current amount.

Answer: If you had started benefits already, your husband’s survivor benefit would equal what you were receiving when you died. Since you didn’t start early, though, your husband will get more.

If you should die before your full retirement age of 66 without starting retirement benefits, he would receive a survivor benefit equal to what you would have received at 66.

If you continue to delay benefits past age 66, your retirement — and thus his survivor benefit — would accrue the “delayed retirement credits” that boost your Social Security check by 8% annually between age 66 and age 70, when your benefit maxes out. In other words, if you die between 66 and 70 without starting benefits, he would get the delayed retirement credits and larger check you’d earned even if your checks hadn’t started.

As you can see, delaying the start of benefits is a great way to maximize what a survivor receives. It’s particularly important for the higher earner in a couple to put off filing for retirement benefits for as long as possible.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My 90-year-old father recently passed away. My mother, who will be 90 in February, has a phone meeting with Social Security coming up. It is my understanding that she will have the opportunity to take my dad’s full benefit in place of hers since it is much higher. Is that correct? Is there anything else I should know to help her receive the maximum benefits?

Answer: Survivors get only one Social Security check, and it’s the larger of the two they received when their spouses were alive. So yes, she will get the amount your father got. At this point she can’t do much to maximize her Social Security benefit. What she gets depends on when your father started his benefit. The later he started, the more she’ll receive.

Q&A: Social Security windfall elimination provision

Dear Liz: You’ve written about the windfall elimination provision, which reduces the Social Security checks of people who get a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. I am affected by this provision, but a Social Security representative told me that as long as I don’t start withdrawals from my government pension account, I am entitled to full Social Security payments. This ends when I turn 701/2 years old and must start taking automatic withdrawals from my pension. This info might help with the planning process.

Answer: Thank you for sharing this tip. The windfall elimination provision was enacted to keep people with government pensions that didn’t pay into Social Security from receiving proportionately more than people who paid into the system their entire working lives. But as you note, it’s possible to delay the provision by putting off the start of pension benefits.

Social Security can be complex, and claiming strategies that might work for one person could shortchange another. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself and seek out advisors who understand how Social Security works.

Q&A: Social Security and marriage

Dear Liz: My partner is 69 and receives about $800 monthly from Social Security. I am 66 and receive about $1,100 from Social Security. We are not married but have been living as such for the past 10 years. We own our home together. Does it make sense financially for us to marry?

Answer: When one of you dies, the survivor will have to get by on one Social Security check. If you were married, it would be the larger of the two checks you received as a couple. Unmarried survivors keep their own checks and lose their partners’ benefits, even if the partners’ benefits were larger.

One reason not to marry would be if either of you qualified for spousal benefits based on a previous marriage, and those benefits were greater than what you’re receiving now. Many people don’t realize that divorced people can receive spousal benefits based on an ex’s work record, as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years and the ex is at least 62. Divorced spousal benefits end, however, when the recipient remarries.

Divorced people who were married at least 10 years also may qualify for survivor benefits if their exes have died. Unlike spousal benefits, however, survivor benefits can continue if the recipient remarries after reaching the age of 60.

Q&A: Using Roth IRA earnings for a first-time home purchase

Dear Liz: My 29-year-old son recently married, and as a gift I pledged $20,000 as a down payment on a house. My daughter-in-law is beginning a career as a registered nurse and I know they will not be buying for a few years. Is there any type of account that will grow tax-free or tax-deferred for a first-time buyer? Maybe I could gift this money to them into a retirement account for the time being?

Answer: You may be able to give them enough money to fund Roth IRA accounts for both 2015 and 2016. They would be able to withdraw those contributions tax- and penalty-free at any time in the future for whatever purpose they wanted.

Withdrawing earnings from a Roth can trigger taxes and penalties, but that’s not likely to be an issue in this case. Each person is allowed to withdraw up to $10,000 in Roth earnings for a first-time home purchase. If they plan to buy a home within a few years, it’s highly unlikely that your gift would generate enough earnings to cause concern.

The ability to contribute to a Roth begins to phase out for married couples filing jointly at modified adjusted gross income of $183,000 in 2015 and $184,000 in 2016. Assuming their incomes were below those limits, they each can contribute up to $5,500 per year to a Roth. The deadline for making 2015 contributions is April 15, 2016. If you give them the money now, they could fund two years’ worth of contributions at once.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefit

Dear Liz: I am 57 and my husband is 60. I will have a bigger Social Security benefit than he will. He plans to retire at 65 when he will take his own retirement benefit. I will file and suspend at my full retirement age (66 and 6 months), at which time he can file for spousal benefits. Then at 70, I can take my benefits. Is this correct? Or is the spousal benefit half of what I will get, which would be less than his reduced benefit anyway?

Answer: The spousal benefit is never more than half the primary earner’s benefit. If that would be less than his own benefit, then it wouldn’t make much sense for your husband to switch from his own check.

In any case, Congress is eliminating the option to file and suspend in order to trigger a spousal benefit. Since you must have reached your own full retirement age to file and suspend, and you won’t have done so by the April 29 deadline, filing and suspending is off the table for you.

It still makes sense for you to delay starting Social Security as long as possible, because you’re the higher earner. When one of you dies, the other will have to get by on a single check, so it makes sense to ensure that the survivor’s benefit is as large as possible.

Q&A: College savings strategy

Dear Liz: I will be 66 in May 2016. My wife is 68 and retired. She began receiving Social Security when she turned 66. I am still working, making a high six-figure income, and will continue to do so until I reach 70, when my Social Security benefit reaches its maximum. I plan to use my Social Security earnings to save for my grandchildren’s college educations (unless an emergency occurs and we need the income). I want to maximize the amount that I can give them. What is the best strategy, taking into consideration the recent change in Social Security rules relating to “claim now, claim more later”?

Answer: You just missed the April 29 cutoff for being able to “file and suspend.” Before the rules changed, you could have filed your application at full retirement age (66) and immediately suspended it. That would allow your benefit to continue growing while giving you the option to change your mind and get a lump-sum payout dating back to your application date.

Since Congress did away with file-and-suspend for people who turn 66 after April 30, that option is off the table for you. There are other ways to maximize your household benefit, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, author of “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” They include:

•Your wife suspends her benefit and lets it grow for another two years, then restarts getting checks when she turns 70.

•At 66, you file for a spousal benefit. People who are 62 or older by the end of this year retain the ability to file a “restricted application” for spousal benefits only once they turn 66. That option is not available to younger people, who will be given the larger of their spousal benefits or their own benefits when they apply.

•At 70, you switch to your own, maxed-out benefit. Again, the ability to switch from spousal to one’s own benefit is going away, but you still have the option to do this.

Consider saving in a 529 college savings plan, which offers tax advantages while allowing you to retain control of the money. You can even withdraw the money for your own use if necessary, although you would pay income taxes and a 10% federal penalty on any earnings.

You should know, however, that college-savings plans owned by grandparents can mess with financial aid. Plans owned by grandparents aren’t factored into initial financial aid calculations, but any disbursements are counted as income that can negatively affect future awards. One workaround is to wait until Jan. 1 of the child’s junior year, when financial aid forms will no longer be a consideration, and pay for all qualified education expenses from that point on.

Obviously, you won’t have to worry about this if your grandchildren wouldn’t qualify for financial aid anyway. If your children also make six-figure incomes, that’s likely to be the case.