Q&A: Missing 401(k) plan

Dear Liz: I have two 401(k) plans that have vanished into the night. They are both more than 20 years old and the companies I worked for have been bought, sold, merged, spun off, and nobody knows anything anymore. Between them, the accounts are worth six figures. Do you know of any way I can find out what happened to my money (and hopefully retrieve it)?

Answer: There’s no central repository for missing 401(k)s as there is for missing pensions, which typically can be found at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. So tracking down your money can be tough.

If you still have paperwork from the missing accounts, you might check with the plan providers — the financial services companies that provided the investment choices.

If that’s a dead end, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Abandoned Plan Database shows plans that have been or are about to be terminated, typically with contact information for the plan administrator.

It’s possible that your money was turned over or escheated to a state unclaimed property department. You can check at Unclaimed.org, the official site of the National Assn. of Unclaimed Property Administrators. NAUPA also endorses the site MissingMoney.com.

Another place to check is the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, which is run by a private company called PenChecks that says it’s the largest private processor of retirement checks.

If you do find your money, understand that you may still have missed out on a lot of growth. Your investments may have been converted to cash, which has earned next to nothing in the last two decades, particularly after inflation.

Leaving a 401(k) account in an old employer’s plan can be a convenient option, but only if you’re willing to keep track of the money — and let the administrator know each time you change your address. If that’s too much work, you should roll the account into a new employer’s plan or into an IRA. Your retirement may depend on it.

Q&A: Understanding pension vs Social Security

Dear Liz: I recently retired as a lifelong federal employee after 40 years of service. I participated under the old Civil Service Retirement System. My pension is about $85,000 per year. I will be 64 this year.

Twenty years ago, my ex-wife and I divorced after 17 years of marriage. Friends of mine have indicated that because we were married more than 10 years, I am eligible for a spousal Social Security benefit. I thought because I was covered under the CSRS, any Social Security received would be offset against the monthly pension payment.

I think this is due to the government pension offset, which has been in effect since 1983. My Social Security benefit would in effect be zero. Is my understanding accurate?

Answer: Yes. If you’re receiving a government pension based on work for which you didn’t pay Social Security taxes, then the pension offset typically reduces the amount of any so-called dependent benefits you might receive by two-thirds of the amount of that pension.

That reduction can wipe out any spousal or survivor benefit you might otherwise get.

Before the offset, people with government pensions that didn’t pay into Social Security could wind up better off than people who had paid into the system their entire working lives.
Those who paid into the system would get the larger of the checks to which they were entitled — either the dependent check or their own — while those who had pensions outside the Social Security system could get both their own benefit and dependent benefits.

There is a way you could have received a spousal benefit, and that’s if you had put off receiving your pension, said Laurence Kotlikoff, coauthor of “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.”

If putting off the pension would have increased the amount you received, it could have made sense to do so and take the spousal benefit in the meantime.

There are various other exceptions to these rules, so you should check out the government pension offset information available at the Social Security site, www.ssa.gov.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits and divorce

Dear Liz: My former husband is 11 years older than I am, and we were married for 15 years.

I am 54 and have never remarried. When I turn 62, can I claim spousal benefits based on his work record because he will be past full retirement age? Or do I have to be at my own full retirement age of 67 before I can claim the divorced benefit?

I was thinking that I could start claiming spousal benefits at 62 and then wait until I am 70 (letting my benefit grow). At that point, we can see which benefit is larger — half of his benefit or my full benefit. He has made much more money than I have through the years, but he has also been unemployed off and on while I have been employed consistently.

Answer: You can claim divorced spousal benefits as early as age 62 long as you remain unmarried and your marriage lasted at least 10 years.

But you lose the option to switch from a spousal benefit to your own benefit if you start Social Security before your own full retirement age.

So if your plan is to get the maximum benefit, it’s important to wait until you turn 67 to apply. At that point, you can file a restricted application for spousal benefits only and receive an amount equal to half of your ex’s benefit while letting your own grow a guaranteed 8% each year until age 70, when your benefit maxes out.

Q&A: Rolling 401(k) into an IRA

Dear Liz: I’m leaving my job later this month and am trying to decide what to do with my 401(k) account. Some of my friends say to leave it where it is, and others say to roll it into a traditional individual retirement account or Roth IRA. Which is best?

Answer: You can’t roll a 401(k) directly into a Roth IRA. You would first need to roll it into a traditional IRA, then convert that to a Roth and pay the (often considerable) tax bill.

But let’s back up a bit. There are few reasons you might want to leave the money where it is, if you’re happy with your employer’s plan. Many large-company plans offer access to low-cost institutional funds that are cheaper than what you might find as a retail customer with an IRA.

Money in a 401(k) also has unlimited protection from creditors in case you’re ever sued or wind up filing for bankruptcy. When the money is in an IRA, the protection is typically limited to $1 million.

If you’re not happy with your old employer’s plan, you could transfer the account to your new employer’s plan if that’s allowed. If not, you can roll the 401(k) into an IRA, but choose your IRA provider carefully.

You’ll want access to a good array of low-cost mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs). The costs you pay to invest make a huge difference in how much you eventually accumulate, so it’s important to keep those expenses down.

If you want help managing the money, many discount brokerages offer access to financial planners and some, including Vanguard and Charles Schwab, offer low-cost digital investment advice services. The services, also known as “robo-advisors,” use computer algorithms to invest and monitor your portfolio.

You’ll want to arrange a direct rollover, in which the money is transferred from your 401(k) account into the new IRA.

Avoid an indirect rollover, in which the 401(k) company sends a check to you. You would have 60 days to get the money into an IRA, but you’d have to come up with the cash to cover the 20% that’s withheld in such transfers. You would get that cash back when you file your taxes, but it’s an unnecessary hassle you can avoid with a direct rollover.

Before you decide to convert an IRA to a Roth, consult a tax professional.

Conversions can make sense if you expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement, which is often the case with young investors, and you can tap some account other than the IRA to pay the income taxes. But these can be complex calculations, so you should run your plan past an expert.

Q&A: Home remodel

Dear Liz: I would like to add on and remodel so my home will be nice for me when I retire in a few years (probably around age 65).

I have a recently refinanced 30-year mortgage at 4.1%, but I’ve been making additional principal payments on a 20-year schedule. I think I can do what I want for around $200,000. (But of course it may be more.)

Post-construction, I’m estimating that the house would have a market value of $800,000 to $900,000, but the real motivation is to have new heating and air conditioning, new windows and floors, and electrical wiring.

I think I deserve it, despite the major disruption that remodeling provides. My question is: Do I do this with cash, or should I finance it?

If things work out as planned, I’ll have a pension of around $7,000 a month that should take care of my living expenses (including the ability to pay a bit of a higher mortgage), and I have about $350,000 in post-tax savings.

I additionally have about $500,000 in pretax retirement accounts that I plan to draw off of for inflation as the years go by.

I have never been comfortable with a lot of risk — I’ve never even had a car payment — but I probably could have amassed more if I hadn’t been so financially conservative.

Answer: You’re contemplating adding a considerable amount of debt at a time in life when most people are eager to pay theirs off.

They want to reduce their living expenses and the amount they have to pull from retirement funds. Being debt-free is one way to reduce the chances of running short of money after you quit working.

That’s not to say debt in retirement is always bad — especially for people like you, who have enough pension income to cover living expenses plus a good amount of other savings.

Your investments, if properly deployed, are likely to earn a better return than the after-tax cost of your debt. That said, your conservative nature could make it hard for you to sleep at night if you face significant house payments after you stop working.

You should discuss your options with a fee-only financial planner who can evaluate your entire financial situation.

You can discuss tapping your savings for the remodel, taking on more debt, changing the scope of what you want or moving. If what you’re after is a more modern home, it may make more sense to move than to endure the expense and disruption of a major remodel.

If you do remodel, consider adding features that will allow you to age in place more safely, such as installing grab bars, widening hallways and doorways, improving lighting and eliminating steps where possible.

The National Assn. of Home Builders has an Aging-in-Place Remodeling Checklist on its site, at www.nahb.org.

Q&A: Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: My husband and I will be retiring at the end of 2016. He will be 70 and will start taking his Social Security; I will be 65 soon after.

Thanks to your advice, I plan to sign up to get 50% of his Social Security benefit when I’m 66 (my full retirement age) and switch to my own benefit later.

But will my own Social Security be less because I won’t be earning any money between age 66 and 70? If so, would I be just as well off taking my own benefit at 66 or should I still wait until I’m 70? Money needs will not be an issue.

Answer: Your benefit will grow 8% every year you put off filing for your own retirement checks between age 66 and age 70. That’s a powerful incentive to delay, especially when you can get spousal benefits in the meantime.

If you did work after age 66, your benefit might increase a bit more depending on how much you earned.

Your Social Security benefit is based on your 35 highest-earning years, so a higher-earning year late in life could replace a lower-earning year earlier in life.

Your continued employment would have the biggest effect if those lower-earning years showed no or very little income.

Q&A: Homeowners association fees

Dear Liz: I am a single woman 10 to 15 years away from retirement. My town home will be paid off next month. Does it make better financial sense to sell my town home to avoid significant monthly homeowners association fees and invest in a single-family home?

Answer: It depends. Many single-family homes, particularly in newer developments, also have sizable HOA fees. Even when that’s not the case, you can face significantly higher repair and maintenance costs with a single-family home compared to a town home.

You also need to factor in the costs of selling your home and moving. Real estate commissions can eat up 5% to 7% of the value of your home, and moving expenses can add thousands of dollars to your costs.

Now would be an excellent time to consult a fee-only financial planner who can review your plans for retirement and discuss your alternatives.

Mistakes you make in the years immediately before and after retirement can be particularly devastating, so make sure you have an objective second opinion.

Q&A: How to get millennials to save for retirement

Dear Liz: We have 90 employees, many of them millennials, and only about 30% take advantage of our retirement plan. What resources and advice can I use to get our employees to take control of their retirement future?

Answer: The youngest generation of adults and near-adults vividly remembers the stock market crash and financial turmoil of 2008-09. So they’re understandably wary of investing, plus more of them are dealing with student loan debt than previous generations. Getting them to focus on investing in their futures can be difficult.

That said, employers have discovered that one of the most effective ways of getting this and other generations into retirement plans is to enroll them automatically. Status quo bias — the human tendency to accept the current situation rather than struggle to change — pays off in this case, since once in the plan few people decide to opt out. You can take further advantage of this inertia by offering an auto-escalation feature that increases employees’ contributions 1% or so each year.

Company matches, simpler investment choices such as target-date funds and access to advice (human or computerized) also can increase participation. If your plan provider isn’t offering you suggestions for increasing enrollment, it may be time to look for a new one that can.

Q&A: Social Security eligibility

Dear Liz: I have a few Social Security credits but not enough for full Social Security benefits. My husband receives a check monthly. He is 79 and I am 75. Am I eligible for any benefits at this time?

Answer: You’ve been eligible for full spousal benefits since you turned 65. You could have gotten a reduced amount as early as age 62. You’ve missed out on thousands of dollars of benefits that were yours to claim.

People need 40 credits with Social Security to apply for their own retirement benefits. Typically that means working a minimum of 10 years. But you didn’t have to work at all to receive spousal benefits based on your husband’s employment record. At your own full retirement age (which is now 66, but was 65 until recently), you could have received a monthly check equal to 50% of your husband’s benefit.

Once you file, you only can get six months of retroactive benefits. There’s nothing that can be done about the rest of the benefits you’ve missed, but perhaps this letter will alert other spouses that they may qualify for Social Security even if they haven’t worked much outside the home.

Q&A: Thrift Savings Plan

Dear Liz: I am a federal government retiree with a very small retirement account in the Thrift Savings Plan. Where can I invest my small savings so it can safely grow? The balance has not changed for over six months now. If I keep it in the Thrift Savings Plan, what fund is the safest?

Answer: “Safe growth” is an oxymoron. If your balance isn’t changing, then you’re probably in the safest option — which means you won’t see much if any growth in the future, either.

You probably chose TSP’s G Fund, which invests in Treasury securities. You won’t lose money, but you probably won’t earn enough to offset inflation. If you want your money to grow, you need to have at least some of your retirement account in stocks.

Fortunately, the plan offers several “L” or lifestyle funds geared to when you expect to begin withdrawals. L funds offer professional management and a mix of investments that grow more conservative as that date approaches. Retirees who are tapping their accounts typically invest in the L Income fund, which has about 20% of its balance in stocks. If you are five years or more away from using the funds, the next most conservative lifestyle option is L 2020, which has half of its total invested in stocks.