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Retirement Category

Spousal vs. survivor benefits: the key differences

Sep 03, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I am 66 years old. When I was 60, my husband of 42 years died. He was a banker with more than 40 years of work history at a good income level. I remarried a year later. When I was 62, I was downsized and took early Social Security benefits based on my first husband’s earnings record. This amounts to about $2,000 a month. It would have been about $2,500 at full retirement age (66) and about $3,000 at age 70. I was not advised about survivor’s benefits at all or about any variance of survivor’s benefits versus Social Security based on my deceased husband’s earnings. Do you think I would have gotten a bigger benefit amount if I had taken survivor’s benefits at age 62?

Answer: No, because survivor’s benefits are what you’re getting.

Both spousal benefits and survivor’s benefits are based on the earnings record of the other person in a couple (whom we’ll call the “primary earner”). The maximum spousal check is 50% of the primary worker’s benefit. As with other Social Security benefits, the amount you get is permanently discounted if you apply before your own full retirement age.

Spousal benefits are available to current and former spouses, although former spouses must have been married for at least 10 years to the primary earner and must be currently single. (In other words, you can’t have remarried, unless that marriage has ended as well.)

Survivor’s benefits, on the other hand, can be up to 100% of the primary worker’s benefit. Survivor’s benefits based on a deceased spouse’s earnings record are not available to those who remarry before age 60, but can be claimed by those who remarry after that point.

Since the biggest Social Security benefit is around $2,500 a month and you’ve remarried, it’s clear that what you’re getting is the survivor’s benefit, discounted because you applied early.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: I inherited my brother’s Roth IRA about three years ago. I find it hard to get any information about non-spousal inherited Roths. Can you tell me more about this type of Roth IRA?

Answer: It may be unfortunate that you didn’t ask sooner.

When a spouse inherits a Roth IRA, he can roll it into his own Roth IRA, and it’s as if he or she was the owner of the inherited funds all along. There’s no minimum distribution requirement, so the money can continue to grow.

If you’re not a spouse, you have the option of transferring it into an account titled as an inherited Roth IRA. You also have the option of taking distributions over your lifetime — which means keeping the bulk of the money growing for you tax-free — but to do that you must begin taking required minimum distributions by Dec. 31 of the year after the year in which the owner died.

If you didn’t start these required distributions on time, you have to withdraw all the assets in the account by Dec. 31 of the fifth year after the year your brother died, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America. You won’t have to pay taxes on this withdrawal, but it would have been better to let the money continue to grow tax-free in the account.

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Dear Liz: I am 65 and recently visited our local Social Security office to apply for spousal benefits. (My wife, who is also 65, applied for her own benefit last year.) I wanted to get the spousal benefit, even if the amount is discounted, so I can let my own Social Security benefit grow. The Social Security office manager advised us that I cannot claim spousal benefits until my full retirement age. You said in a recent column that I can. Who is correct?

Answer: You can apply for spousal benefits before your own full retirement age. But doing so means you’re giving up the option of switching later to your own benefit. The office manager gave you correct information, based on your goal. If you want the choice of letting your own benefit grow, you must wait until your full retirement age (66) to apply for spousal benefits.

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Dear Liz: My daughter, 63, has been recently amicably divorced and receives a small alimony ($1,000). Her ex-husband of 30 years is a doctor who just retired. Is she entitled to part of his Social Security? Neither has remarried.

Answer: Because they were married for more than 10 years, your daughter should qualify for spousal benefits, which can equal up to half of her ex’s benefit at his full retirement age. That amount would be permanently discounted if she applies before her own full retirement age (which is 66).

The ex’s marital status doesn’t matter, although your daughter’s does. If she remarries, she will lose access to spousal benefits as a divorced spouse. This is just one of the ways that spousal benefits differ from survivor’s benefits, which are based on 100% of the earner’s benefit and which widows and widowers can receive even if they remarry after age 60.

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Don’t rush to pay taxes

Aug 05, 2013 | | Comments (3)

Dear Liz: I am a CPA and fairly knowledgeable about investing, but I have a question about my IRAs. I am 58 and my husband is in his mid-80s. We both are retired with federal pensions and no debt other than a mortgage. My plan is to start taking money annually from my traditional IRA in two or three years. I want to reduce the required minimum distribution I will need to start taking at age 701/2 and lessen the tax impact at that time. Should I put these annual withdrawals in my regular investment account or should I put them in the Roth IRA? My goal is to lessen the tax impact on my only child when he ultimately inherits this money. Does my plan make sense?

Answer: Your letter is proof that our tax code is too complex if it can stymie even a CPA. Still, it’s hard to imagine any scenario where you’d be better off accelerating withdrawals from an IRA and putting them in a taxable account.

A required minimum distribution “is merely a requirement to take the money out anyway,” said Certified Financial Planner Michael Kitces, an expert in taxation. “All you’re doing by taking money out early to ‘avoid’ an RMD [required minimum distribution] is voluntarily inflicting an even more severe and earlier RMD on yourself.”

In other words, you’d be giving up future tax-advantaged growth of your money for no good reason.

What might make sense, in some circumstances, is moving the money to a Roth. You can’t make contributions to a Roth if you’re not working, because Roths require contributions be made from “earned income.” What you can do is convert your traditional IRA to a Roth, either all at once or over time. You have to pay taxes on amounts you convert, but then the money can grow tax-free inside the Roth and doesn’t have to be withdrawn again during your lifetime, since Roths don’t have required minimum distributions. Whether you should convert depends on a number of factors, including your current and future tax rates and those of your child.

“In other words, if your tax rate is 25% and your child’s is 15%, just let them inherit the [traditional IRA] account and pay the lower tax burden,” said Kitces, who has blogged about the Roth vs. traditional IRA decision at http://www.kitces.com. “In reverse, though, if the parents’ tax rate is lower … then yes, it’s absolutely better to convert at the parents’ rates than the child’s. In either scenario, the fundamental goal remains the same — get the money out when the tax rate is lowest.”

If you do decide to convert, remember that the conversion itself could put you in a higher tax bracket.

“It will be important not to convert so much that it drives up the tax rate to the point where it defeats the value in the first place,” Kitces said. “Which means the optimal strategy, if it’s to convert anything at all, will be to do partial Roth conversions to fill lower tax brackets but avoid being pushed into the upper ones.”

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Dear Liz: Two years ago, I elected to start my Social Security benefits early, at age 62. My current benefit is $1,350 per month. My spouse, currently working, will be turning 62 next year and is also planning to take an early retirement benefit because of health issues. Her benefit is expected to be slightly more than my benefit at that time. If she dies before me, what can I expect to collect from Social Security as the spouse of someone who started benefits early?

Answer: If your wife dies before she begins receiving Social Security, your survivor’s benefit would be based on what’s known as her “primary insurance amount.” That’s the amount she would receive at full retirement age (which is 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954; after that, full retirement age increases gradually to age 67 for those born in 1960 or later).

Once she begins benefits, though, your survivor’s benefit is based on what she’s actually getting. So if she receives a reduced benefit, your survivor’s benefit is reduced as well. It would be further reduced if you, as a widower, begin taking survivor’s benefits before your own full retirement age.

You would not be able to get your own benefit plus a survivor’s benefit if your wife should die, by the way. You would get the larger of the two, but not both.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Are Roths safer than other IRAs?

Jul 29, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I found your recent discussion of Roth IRAs informative. But I’ve been told that one of the main advantages of a Roth vs. a traditional IRA is that a Roth is a safer investment when it comes to creditors trying to attack it. How can that be? Is one type of IRA safer than another?

Answer: The short answer is no.

Employer-sponsored retirement plans, including 401(k)s and 403(b)s, typically have unlimited protection from creditors in Bankruptcy Court. The exceptions: The IRS and former spouses can make claims on such plans.

Individual retirement accounts, including IRAs and Roth IRAs, lack the protection afforded by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. But the bankruptcy reform law that went into effect in 2005 protects IRAs of all kinds up to a certain limit (which in April rose to $1,245,475).

Short of bankruptcy, the amount of your IRAs or Roth IRAs that creditors can access depends on state law.

If there’s any chance you’ll be filing for bankruptcy or the target of a creditor lawsuit, you should talk to an experienced bankruptcy attorney about your options.

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How much do you really need to retire?

Jul 29, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: None of the Web-based tools I’ve seen really get at the heart of the problem of how much I really need in retirement. For example, if I am diligent and save 20% of my income (I earn over $150,000), why would I need to replace 95% or even 80% of my income to maintain my standard of living in retirement? If I subtract the 20% going to savings, another 10% for the costs of working (clothes, lunches, gas) and reduce my income tax 5%, shouldn’t I be living the same lifestyle at 65% of my current income? Now, if I have a pension that will replace 10% of my pay, and if Social Security benefits for my spouse and me replace 30%, don’t my investments have to produce only the remaining 25%? Or am I missing something?

Answer: The further you are from retirement, the harder it can be to predict how much you’ll need when you get there.

Financial planners often use an income replacement rate of 70% to 80% as a starting point. It’s just that, though. Planners will tell you some of their clients’ spending actually increases in the early years of retirement as they travel and indulge in other expensive hobbies. Those who are frugal or used to living well below their means are often able to retire comfortably with a much lower income replacement rate.

A big wild card is the cost of medical and nursing care in your later years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey shows average overall spending tends to drop after retirement and continues to decline as people age. Serious illness or a nursing home bill can cause spending to surge late in life, however, leading to a U-shaped spending pattern for many.

Taxes also are hard to predict. While most people drop into a lower tax bracket once they stop working, those with substantial retirement incomes and investments may not. Tax rates themselves could rise in the future, even if your income doesn’t.

Social Security benefits may change, as well. Although it’s highly unlikely the program will disappear, some proposals for changing Social Security reduce checks for higher earners.

Once you’re within a decade or so of retirement, you should have a better handle on what you’ll spend once you quit work. Before that point, err on the side of caution. Assuming a higher income replacement rate gives you wiggle room once you’ve retired — or the option to retire earlier if it turns out you need less.

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Dear Liz: My partner passed away a little more than a year ago. I inherited his 401(k) and life insurance. I opened an IRA in which to place the amount of the 401(k), but the company told me that after a year (which is now), I have to withdraw the money over five years. Is that really required? I’d like to be able to have it on hand in case of an emergency but at the same time save it for our 2-year-old son’s college education.

Answer: Since you weren’t married, you don’t have the option of treating this inherited account as your own. That would have allowed you to delay withdrawals until after you turned 70 1/2 , if you wanted.

The fact that this is a non-spouse inherited IRA, however, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bound by the five-year rule. That rule requires the IRA be distributed by Dec. 31 of the fifth year following the year of the original retirement account owner’s death. You may also have the option of beginning distributions based on your life expectancy. That would allow the bulk of the money to remain in the IRA, continuing to earn tax-deferred returns, and is usually a better choice.

Whether you have this second option depends on the terms of the IRA and the original 401(k) plan.

“It is important to check the IRA terms rather than rely on oral statements since the five-year option may be pushed when it is not required,” said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America. “It is also important to make a determination on the availability on the life-expectancy rule in the year after death since distributions must start under the life-expectancy rule in that year. Waiting too long could force one into the five-year rule by default.”

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