Q&A: IRA interest rate terms

Dear Liz: I went to renew my IRA certificate of deposit and the bank officer suggested that I renew at the greater rate being offered for a five-year term (about 1.5% APR) rather than the lower rate for a one-year term (about 1% APR). She explained that since I am over 59 1/2, I can close the account at any time and roll it over to a new IRA should rates rise (for example to 1.75% in 15 months) with no penalty whatsoever. Is this true?

Answer: You don’t have to close and reopen IRAs when a CD matures or you want to change investments. The IRA is the bucket that holds your investment, not the investment itself. You also should be skeptical about claims that you would pay no penalty for early withdrawal. Not only are such penalties the norm, but a Bankrate survey found 9 out of 10 banks won’t just require you to forfeit the interest but will dip into your principal to pay the fees if necessary. The bank may offer a one-time opportunity to lock in a higher rate; if that’s the case, you should get the details in writing as well as the penalties if you have to withdraw the money prematurely.

In fact, any time someone pitches you an investment for your retirement funds, you should ask a lot of questions and get every detail and promise in writing. If the pitch is coming from someone who will profit from your investment — which is often the case — you should consider running it past a neutral third party such as a fee-only planner.

By the way, the Federal Reserve has signaled that it’s considering raising interest rates this year. That’s no guarantee that it will, but locking up your money now is a gamble.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I earned more than my wife, who died at age 57 after 18 years of marriage. When I turn 60, can I take survivor Social Security benefits based on her work record and then request my benefit at age 70?

Answer: In a word, yes, and doing so may be smart.

Survivor benefits are different from spousal benefits, which inflict some severe penalties for starting checks early. When you start spousal benefits before your own full retirement age, you’re locked into a permanently smaller check and you can’t later switch to your own benefit, even if it’s larger. The only way to preserve the ability to switch is to file a restricted application for just the spousal benefit at your own full retirement age (which is 66 for people born from 1943 to 1954 and gradually increases to age 67 for people born in 1955 and later). Then you preserve the right to change to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70.
With survivor benefits, starting early means a reduced check — your widower benefit at 60 would be 30% smaller than if you waited until your full retirement age — but you can switch to your own benefit later. And if you don’t work, starting survivor benefits at 60 is the better course, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, coauthor of “Getting What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Social Security.”

“Getting a reduced benefit for 10 years, from 60 to 70, is better than getting an unreduced benefit for fewer years,” Kotlikoff said.
If you work, however, the math becomes less clear. When you start benefits early, your check is reduced $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain limit, which in 2015 is $15,720. That penalty disappears once you hit your full retirement age.

Online calculators can help you determine the best Social Security claiming strategy. AARP and T. Rowe Price are among the sites that provide free calculators, but they don’t factor in survivor benefits. Consider spending about $40 for one of the more sophisticated calculators, such as Kotlikoff’s MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, that can include this important benefit.

Q&A: Balancing savings vehicles and tax benefits

Dear Liz: I’m 26 and make $45,000 per year. I currently have about $60,000 saved with no debt. Roughly half of my assets are in retirement accounts, and the other half are in non-retirement accounts. I strive to save 30% of my income (about 15% in pre-tax retirement accounts and 15% in taxable accounts). I hope that my savings habits will provide me the option to retire early. But I am concerned that I am locking up too much of my money in retirement accounts and that a couple decades down the road, I will not be able to access my money when I would like to. How should I balance various savings vehicles and tax benefits, so that I have most options down the road?

Answer: Your savings habits are admirable, but you shouldn’t worry too much about “locking up” your money. There are a number of ways to tap retirement funds if you really need the cash. Ideally, you’d leave the money alone to grow tax-deferred until you’re ready to retire, but you’re not required to do so.

One way to save for retirement with plenty of flexibility is to fund a Roth IRA each year. You don’t get a tax deduction upfront, but you can withdraw your contributions at any time without penalty. If you don’t tap the money until you’re 59 1/2 or older, your contributions and your earnings are tax free if you’ve had the account at least five years. Another advantage of a Roth is that you’re not required to start distributions after age 70 1/2, as you are with other retirement accounts.

Q&A: Spousal benefits and Social Security

Dear Liz: I am divorced. If I apply for Social Security spousal benefits at age 62, based on my former spouse’s work record, can I continue to collect it if I get remarried? I understand that I cannot switch from spousal to my own benefit if I start early. But if I remarry, do I continue to collect spousal benefits or do I get nothing?

Answer: Spousal benefits based on an ex’s work record end when you remarry. (Some people think they can continue spousal benefits if they marry after they reach age 60, but that’s not true. Only survivor benefits for widows and widowers continue when a recipient remarries after age 60.)

When you file for spousal benefits before your own full retirement age, you are deemed to be applying for both your own benefit and your spousal benefit, and essentially given the bigger of the two, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, founder of MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com. If the spousal benefit was larger and you remarry, the Social Security Administration looks at your benefit compared to your spousal benefit based on your new spouse and again gives you the larger of the two.

Understand that your benefit will be deemed to have started when you first applied for benefits. So rather than growing almost 7% each year between age 62 and your full retirement age, which it would have had you put off filing, it will effectively grow only at the rate of inflation.

That’s why it’s usually a better course to wait to file until your own full retirement age. Then you have the option of filing a restricted application just for spousal benefits, leaving your own benefit alone to grow (at 8% annually between full retirement age and age 70). You can switch to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70.

Q&A: IRA’s and 401(k)’s

Dear Liz: You answered a reader who asked whether to contribute to her IRA, her Roth IRA or her regular or Roth 401(k) account. I thought that if you have access to a 401(k) at work, you couldn’t make a contribution to an IRA or Roth IRA.

Answer: That’s a common misconception. You can contribute to an IRA even if you have a workplace plan. What you may not be able to do is deduct the contribution. The tax deduction depends on your modified adjusted gross income and phases out in 2015 between $61,000 and $71,000 for singles and $98,000 to $118,000 for married couples filing jointly.

You also may be able contribute to a Roth IRA if you have a workplace plan. Contributions to a Roth are never deductible, but your ability to contribute phases out between $116,000 to $131,000 for singles and $183,000 to $193,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Q&A: Maxing out retirement savings

Dear Liz: My husband and I are in our late 40s. We’re in a good financial position and trying to max out our retirement savings. We have small traditional IRAs and are now above the income limit to deduct contributions to it. We have Roth IRAs that we converted from traditional IRAs several years ago (our income is borderline for being able to contribute directly to a Roth). We also recently got a Health Savings Account that we are maxing out and saving for retirement. But the bulk of our retirement savings is in our 401(k)s, which we max out every year. I hear I should have a mix of pre-tax and after-tax sources of income in retirement. Can I wait until the first year we retire and roll some of my 401(k) into a traditional IRA and then convert it to a Roth, at presumably a lower tax rate due to lower income? Or would it be better to contribute now to a Roth 401(k) at work instead of a regular 401(k), even knowing that our tax rate will probably be lower in retirement?

Answer: You already have a mix of pre- and after-tax sources of income in retirement. Withdrawals from your Roth IRAs will be tax free in retirement, as will your HSA withdrawals if they’re used for medical expenses.

Roth conversions and contributions to Roth 401(k)s make the most sense when you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, rather than a lower one. Otherwise, you’re giving up a tax break now (your deductible contributions) for what’s likely to be a lesser tax benefit later. Conversions at retirement are particularly tricky, since you may not have decades of tax-free compounding ahead of you to make up for the fact that you accelerated the tax bill.

Talk to a tax pro, but it’s likely that maxing out your regular 401(k)s is the best move.

Q&A: Keeping investments in one brokerage

Dear Liz: I recently retired at 56 and am receiving a pension. My wife is set to retire next year at 56 and will also receive a pension. I chose to leave my 401(k) in my employer’s plan but am planning to consolidate it with my wife’s 457 and four 403(b) accounts once she retires. We also have a portfolio of stock and bond mutual funds. I’d like to consolidate everything at one brokerage firm to simplify record keeping, but what’s the level of risk of having all our investments with one company? We have about $3 million in assets total.

Answer: You can’t combine your retirement accounts with your wife’s, but you certainly can move everything to a single brokerage firm to reduce fees and make it easier to coordinate your investment strategy.

Whether you should is another matter. The chances of a well-established brokerage firm going bankrupt or suffering massive fraud are slim, but it does happen: Lehman Bros. and Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities are two examples from the 2008 economic meltdown.

Investors have some protection against bankruptcy and fraud when their accounts are covered by the Securities Investor Protection Corp. Protected accounts are insured for up to $500,000 in securities and cash, with a $250,000 limit on the cash.

SIPC uses a concept called “separate capacity” to determine coverage when investors have multiple accounts. You can learn more about coverage limits on its website.
You can expand your total protection by using different types of accounts. Accounts held in your name alone are covered up to $500,000, and you can get another $500,000 in coverage for joint accounts. Your individual retirement accounts and Roth IRAs are also treated separately, and each type of account gets another $500,000 of coverage. (You don’t get $500,000 on each IRA if you have multiple accounts, though. SIPC combines all your traditional IRAs and treats them as one.)
Let’s say you and your wife have individual brokerage accounts as well as a joint account. Then we’ll suppose you each have IRAs as well as Roth IRAs, for a total of seven eligible accounts. That could give you a total of $3.5 million of SIPC coverage.

Of course, the amounts in your accounts may not line up so neatly with the coverage limits. You might not have any Roth IRAs, for example, but have more than $500,000 in that 401(k) you were hoping to roll over to an IRA, or your wife may have more than $500,000 in her retirement accounts (which, if rolled over into one or more IRAs, would be treated as one account). If you leave your 401(k) with your employer, on the other hand, you would be covered under federal employee benefit laws that require defined contribution accounts to be held in trust, separate from the company’s own funds, which would protect your account regardless of its size.

There’s a chance you could be made whole even if your accounts exceed SIPC limits. That was the case with Lehman, where individual retail customers got all their money back. With Madoff, everyone with claims under $925,000 is expected to be made whole, while the remaining claimants have gotten about half their money back in addition to the $500,000 advance SIPC paid out.

But you’ll have to assess your risk tolerance. If you have none, then use more than one brokerage firm.

Q&A: Taking a mortgage for the tax deduction

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both 66 and in good health. Currently we have about $1.2 million in IRAs. We’re receiving about $80,000 a year from a pension and $110,000 in salary. We have been aggressive about reducing any lingering debt. So we think we are in good shape for me to retire within the next year or so. If we decide to stay in our home rather than move, we will need to make some significant repairs and improvements. We were thinking of taking out a $200,000 mortgage to pay off our last remaining debt ($50,000 on a home equity line of credit) and fund the renovations. This would give us a better tax deduction and not incur the high taxes we would pay by making an IRA withdrawal. Our grown children have expressed no interest in the home after we die, so it probably would be put up for sale at that time. Does this seem like a reasonable approach if we choose to go that route? Anything we haven’t considered?

Answer: Considering the tax implications of financial moves is smart, but you shouldn’t make decisions solely on that basis. You especially shouldn’t take on mortgage debt just for the tax deduction. The tax benefit is limited to your bracket, so for every dollar in mortgage interest you pay you would get at best a federal tax benefit worth 39.6 cents. State income tax deductions might boost that amount, but you’d still be paying out more than you get back in tax benefits. You also would be locking yourself into debt payments at a time in life when most people prefer the flexibility of being debt-free.

If you’re comfortable having a mortgage in retirement, though, you might want to consider a reverse mortgage. Although once considered expensive loans of last resort for people who were running out of money in retirement, changes in the federal reverse mortgage program caused financial planners to reassess the no-payment loans as a potential wealth management tool. The idea is that homeowners could tap the reverse mortgage for funds, especially in bad markets, instead of depleting their retirement accounts.
Reverse mortgages are complex, though. The upfront and ongoing costs can be significant. Because you don’t make payments on the money you borrow, your debt grows over time and reduces the amount your heirs might get once the home is sold. You’d be smart to find a savvy, fee-only financial advisor to assess your situation and walk you through your options.

Q&A: Windfall Elimination Provision followup

Dear Liz: In a recent column, I believe you got one aspect of Social Security’s Windfall Elimination Provision wrong. If you’re affected by WEP, in no case can you get more than 90% of your Social Security benefit. It is a sliding scale. With 20 years of earnings under Social Security, you get 40%. It goes up 5% per year to a maximum of 90% at 30 years. I worked 28 years as a paramedic and firefighter, most of the time for agencies that offered a pension instead of paying into Social Security. I also have 22 years of substantial earnings that were covered by Social Security and plan on working eight to 10 more years to get to 90%.

Answer: It’s easy to get confused about how Social Security figures benefits, but rest assured: If you have 30 years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security, you will get 100% of your Social Security benefit even if you have a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security.

Here’s what you need to know. Social Security is designed to replace more income for lower-wage workers, because higher-wage workers presumably find it easier to save for retirement. People who get pensions from employers who don’t pay into Social Security, but who also had jobs from employers that did, can look to the Social Security system as though they were long-term low-wage workers even when they’re not. Without the Windfall Elimination Provision, they could get a bigger Social Security check than they would have earned had they paid into the system all along.

To compute our benefits, Social Security separates our average earnings into three amounts and multiplies those amounts by different factors. For a typical worker who turns 62 this year, Social Security would multiply the first $816 of average monthly earnings by 90%, the next $4,101 by 32% and the remainder by 15%.

Those affected by WEP have a different formula, but it affects only that first part of their average earnings — the part where everyone else gets credited for 90%. The WEP formula is, as you note, on a sliding scale. Someone with 20 or fewer years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security would see the first $816 multiplied by 40%. Someone with 28 years, by contrast, would have the first $816 multiplied by 80%. Someone with 30 years or more would get the full 90%.

Social Security’s pamphlet on WEP lays this out, and notes that the Windfall Elimination Provision does not apply to anyone with 30 or more years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security. You can read more about it here: http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10045.pdf.

Q&A: When to start Social Security benefits

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.