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Retirement Category

How the “earnings test” works

Aug 06, 2012 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: Hi. I learned the hard way about taking early Social Security benefits. I kept working and wound up losing $1 of Social Security benefits for every $2 I earned over a certain low threshold. Do I get this money back at some point or is it a penalty?

 Answer: It’s considered a penalty, but you also get the money back. This so-called “earnings test” is one of several ways the Social Security system tries to discourage people from taking benefits early. The threshold for exempt earnings in 2012 is $14,640. After that point, your Social Security checks will be reduced $1 for every $2 you earn until you reach full retirement age. Once you reach that age, your checks will be increased to reflect the withheld amounts.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: My sister and I are in the middle of distributing our parents’ estate. The beneficiary of the estate is a trust. Part of the estate consists of a traditional IRA, which will be split between my sister and me. The problem is that because the IRA will be distributed from the trust and is considered a non-spouse distribution, I’m told that we’ll have to pay taxes on the entire distribution. It’s a good chunk of change. I’m almost 60. Is there any way that I can roll the IRA into my own and take minimum distributions? I’d rather not pay the tax all upfront.

Answer: That’s understandable, since it’s typically much better to stretch distributions out as long as possible so that the money can continue to grow (and you can replace one big tax bill with smaller ones as you take distributions).

Unfortunately, the way your parents structured their estate ties your hands, although perhaps not to the extent you’ve been told.

It appears from your question that the IRA either failed to name a beneficiary or named the estate as the beneficiary, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for tax research firm CCH.

“Assuming that is the case, since estates do not have life expectancies, the IRA cannot be distributed over a beneficiary life expectancy as it could have been had an individual been named the IRA beneficiary,” Luscombe said. “Instead, it must be distributed under the terms of the IRA document over a period that cannot exceed five years.”

The exception is if the IRA owner before dying had already reached the age of 701/2 and begun distributions, Luscombe said. In that case, distributions can continue to the estate over the IRA owner’s life expectancy. If the IRA owner was quite elderly when he or she died, this might not give you much time to stretch out the distributions, but it probably would be better than paying all the taxes at once.

Another exception, which doesn’t appear to apply in your case, is if the IRA named the trust as the beneficiary. If that were true, “it is possible that the distributions could be based on the life expectancy of the oldest trust beneficiary,” Luscombe noted.

As you can see, this is a complicated area of estate planning and taxation. Getting good advice about how to name beneficiaries for your accounts can save your heirs a lot of money.

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Dear Liz: My spouse started collecting Social Security in 2002 at age 63. I am 59, and not working, so my future benefits are unlikely to increase very much, even if I wait until age 70. If he dies before I do, will I get same amount he would be collecting at that time? If I collect Social Security at 62, would Social Security combine our records to calculate my benefit? In other words, should I try to wait or just start collecting at 62?

Answer: Your presumption that your benefit wouldn’t increase much by waiting is incorrect. Even if you aren’t working now, your benefit amount will grow the longer you can wait to apply. That’s true whether you ultimately get benefits based on your own work record or your husband’s.

When you apply, the Social Security Administration will compare your earned benefit with your spousal benefit and give you the larger of the two. Your spousal benefit starts at half of what your husband’s benefit would have been at full retirement age. That amount is reduced significantly if you apply for benefits before your own full retirement age (which is 66 for you, although it rises to 67 for anyone born after 1959).

Also, if you apply for spousal benefits before your full retirement age, you wouldn’t have the option of switching to your own benefit later, even if your benefit grows to a larger amount than what you’re receiving based on your husband’s record.

When your husband dies, you can switch to survivor’s benefits, which equal what he was receiving. Since he started benefits early, however, his checks have been permanently reduced to reflect that early retirement. In other words, if he had waited longer to retire, you would have been entitled to a larger survivor’s benefit.

The Social Security system is designed to reward people for delaying retirement, which is why it often makes sense to do so.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: Our advisor recommended that we convert our rollover IRA to an annuity. We are having difficulty researching this. Any suggestions?

Answer: Unless your advisor is a complete numskull, he probably didn’t mean you should cash out your IRA to invest in an annuity. That would incur a big, unnecessary tax bill.

The idea he’s trying to promote is to sell the investments within your IRA, which wouldn’t trigger taxes, and invest the proceeds in an annuity.

The devil is in the details — specifically, what type of annuity he’s suggesting. If he wants you to buy a variable deferred annuity, you should probably find another advisor or at least get a second opinion. The primary benefit of a variable annuity is tax deferral, which you’ve already got with your IRA. The insurance companies that provide variable annuities, which are basically mutual fund-type investments inside an insurance wrapper, tout other benefits, including locking in a certain payout. Those benefits come at the cost of higher expenses, which is why you want a neutral party — someone who doesn’t earn a commission on the sale — to review it.

If he’s suggesting you buy a fixed annuity, which typically provides you a payout for life, you still should get that second opinion. A fixed annuity creates a kind of pension for you, with checks that last as long as you do. There are downsides to consider, though. Typically, once you invest the money, you can’t get it back. Also, today’s low interest rates mean you’re not going to get as much money in those monthly checks as you would if rates were higher. Some financial planners suggest their clients put off investing in fixed annuities until that happens, or at least spread out their purchases over time in hopes of locking in more favorable rates.

You can hire a fee-only financial planner who works by the hour to review your options. You can get referrals to such planners from Garrett Planning Network, http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Categories : Insurance, Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: I am 63 and divorced after being married over 10 years. I was told by our local Social Security office that I need my ex’s Social Security number in order to find out whether spousal benefits based on his record would be more than benefits based on my own record. I have his full name and date of birth, but I would rather not ask him for his Social Security number. If I do really need that, do you have any suggestions? Would some other type of information suffice?

Answer: The information you received from your local Social Security office is incorrect. You do not need your ex’s Social Security number to apply for spousal benefits, said Jonathan Peterson, AARP executive communications director and author of “Social Security for Dummies.” The more identifying information you can provide, the better, but the Social Security Administration can track down his records without it.

That said, you might want to dig around in your old files to see whether you can find a joint tax return, which will certainly have his number, or an old health insurance card, which might.

Spousal benefits are available to divorced people as long as they were married at least 10 years, are 62 or older and are currently not married.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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How spousal benefits work

Jun 11, 2012 | | Comments (2)

Dear Liz: My wife has never worked outside the home and therefore has no Social Security credits. My understanding is that as a nonworking spouse, she is entitled to 50% of my benefit, assuming she is 66 years old and I have started receiving benefits. Is that correct?

Answer: You’ve got the right general idea. But spousal benefits are available to working spouses as well, your wife has the right to start benefits earlier (at a discounted rate) and you don’t have to actually receive checks for her to get this benefit.

Your wife is eligible for a spousal benefit based on your “primary insurance amount.” That’s the amount you would receive at your normal retirement age, no matter whether you’ve actually attained that age or started benefits. Normal retirement age is currently 66, but it will rise to 67 for people born after 1959. If she waits until her own full retirement age to start benefits, then she can qualify for a benefit equal to half your primary insurance amount. If she starts earlier, the benefit is permanently reduced.

If your wife had worked and qualified for her own retirement benefit, the Social Security Administration would give her whichever benefit paid the most — her own, or a portion of yours.

Because you’re still married, your wife wouldn’t be able to start spousal benefits until you’ve claimed your own benefit. However, if you’ve reached your full retirement age, you have the option to “file and suspend.” That means you’d file for benefits but immediately suspend your claim. That way, your benefit could continue to grow while she could begin receiving her payments.

If you were divorced but had been married at least 10 years, she could begin her benefits without waiting for you to file for your own. That exception was put into place so people wouldn’t have to seek their exes’ cooperation to get benefits.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Is a 3% withdrawal rate too conservative?

May 14, 2012 | | Comments Comments Off

Question: In a recent column you repeat advice I have often read that withdrawing about 3% of my investment capital will reduce the chances of my running out of money in retirement. But that doesn’t make sense to me. I have been retired for over 19 years and I have sufficient data now to extrapolate that I could live for 100 more years with so meager a drawdown because, through good and bad times, my earnings after inflation and taxes always exceed 3%. If I am missing something, I must be extraordinarily lucky because it hasn’t hurt me yet, and at age 77 I think it unlikely to do so in my remaining years. Can you explain this discrepancy between my experience and the consequences of your advice?

Answer: Sure. You got extraordinarily lucky.

You retired during a massive bull market, which is the best possible scenario for someone who hopes to live off investments. You were drawing from an expanding pool of money. Your stocks probably were growing at an astonishing clip of 20% or more a year for several years. Although later market downturns probably affected your portfolio, those initial years of good returns kept you comfortably ahead of the game.

Contrast that with someone who retires into a bear market. She’s drawing from a shrinking pool of money as her investments swoon. The money she takes out can’t participate in the inevitable rebound, so she loses out on those gains as well. All that dramatically increases the risks that she’ll run out of money before she runs out of breath.

It’s the first five years of retirement that are crucial, according to analyses by mutual fund company T. Rowe Price, which has done extensive research on sustainable withdrawal rates. Bad markets and losses in the first five years after withdrawals begin significantly increase the chances that a person will run out of money during a 30-year retirement.

Some advisors contend that a 3% initial withdrawal rate, adjusted each subsequent year for inflation, is too conservative. If you retire into a long-lasting bull market, it may well be. But none of us knows what the future holds, which is why so many advisors stick with the 3%-to-4% rule.

Categories : Investing, Q&A, Retirement
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What’s a “safe” withdrawal rate?

May 07, 2012 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: After working all out for 28 years in a small business, I have put away $2.6 million in stocks, bonds and some cash. (I am a reasonably smart investor.) I’m 58 and want to be done at 60. I’m not tired of my business, just tired of working. How much do you think I could draw out and not get myself into trouble? I’m in great health, so I could last 30 more years. Our house is paid off, and my wife gets about $40,000 a year from a nice pension. Any ideas?

Answer: Financial planners typically recommend an initial withdrawal rate of 3% to 4% of your portfolio. With $2.6 million, your first year’s withdrawal would be $78,000 to $104,000. The idea is that you could adjust the withdrawal upward by the inflation rate each year and still be reasonably confident you won’t run out of money after 30 years.

Some studies indicate you can start with a higher withdrawal rate, as long as you’re willing to cut back in bad markets.

There is still some risk of going broke, though, even with a 3% withdrawal rate. Particularly poor stock market returns at the beginning of your retirement, for example, could increase the chances your nest egg will give out before you do.

This is an issue you really should discuss with a fee-only financial planner who can review your investments and your spending to make personalized recommendations. (You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors or the Garrett Planning Network.) If you’ve chosen especially risky stocks or have too much of your portfolio in bonds, for example, your retirement plan could fail even if you choose a conservative initial withdrawal rate.

You’ll also want to talk about how you’re going to get health insurance, and how much it’s likely to cost. If you’ve been arranging coverage through your business, you might face some sticker shock when you have to buy a policy on your own. But it’s essential to have this coverage, since you won’t qualify for Medicare until you’re 65.

If you’re not tired of your business, you might consider phasing in retirement, if that’s possible in your situation. That would mean starting to take some long breaks to travel or pursue the interests you plan to indulge in retirement. Delaying retirement even a few years can dramatically increase the chances your nest egg will last.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Don’t start Social Security too soon

May 01, 2012 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I am 66-1/2 and eligible to collect my full Social Security benefit now. I am in good health and assume I will live into my 80s. I am still working and don’t need the extra money. Is it better to put off taking my benefit so that it will grow 8% with Uncle Sam, tax free and guaranteed, or should I take the money now, pay taxes on it and invest it? Politically speaking, I think I should take it, but my gut says let it grow. What do you think? Is there a program available to demonstrate the differences?

Answer: Far too many people grab their Social Security checks too early, locking themselves into lower payments for the rest of their lives. Some do so in the mistaken belief that their benefits, or Social Security itself, will go away or be dramatically altered if they don’t “lock in” their checks. It’s true that Congress needs to change the Social Security program if it is to meet all its future obligations. But lawmakers are far more likely to change benefits for young people than they are to mess with promised benefits for people close to retirement age.

As you’ve noted, when left untouched benefits grow about 8% a year, which is a strong incentive to delay filing. You’d be hard-pressed to find an investment with that kind of guaranteed annual return, let alone one that would offer that yield plus enough extra return to offset the taxes you’d pay on those benefits if you took them earlier.

The Social Security site has a benefit estimator that can show you the effects of claiming your benefit at various ages. You’ll find it at http://www.ssa.gov/estimator.

AARP also has an excellent retirement calculator that can help you plan various scenarios using not just Social Security but all of your retirement benefits. It’s at http://www.aarp.org/work/retirement-planning/retirement_calculator.

Finally, you should check out mutual fund company T. Rowe Price’s information about “practice retirement” at troweprice.com/practice, which details the benefits of continuing to work through your 60s while saving less for retirement. The growth in Social Security benefits and retirement accounts is so great during that decade that it often more than offsets a sharp reduction in savings, which would mean you’d have more money to spend on vacations and other fun pursuits even before you retire.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Windfall in your 50s? Don’t blow it

Mar 26, 2012 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I am 56 and will be receiving $175,000 from the sale of a home I inherited. I do not know what to do with this money. I have been underemployed or unemployed for six years, have no retirement savings and am terrified this money will get chipped away for day-to-day expenses so that I’ll have nothing to show for it. Should I invest? If so, what is relatively safe? Should I try to buy another house as an investment?

Answer: You’re right to worry about wasting this windfall, because that’s what often happens. A few thousand dollars here, a few thousand dollars there, and suddenly what once seemed like a vast amount of money is gone.

First, you need to talk to a tax pro to make sure there won’t be a tax bill from your home sale. Then you need to use a small portion of your inheritance to hire a fee-only financial planner who can review your situation and suggest some options. You can get referrals for fee-only planners who charge by the hour from the Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

You’re closing in quickly on retirement age, and you should know that typically Social Security doesn’t pay much. The average check is around $1,000 a month. This windfall can’t make up for all the years you didn’t save, but it could help you live a little better in retirement if properly invested.

You should read a good book on investing, such as Kathy Kristof’s “Investing 101,” so you can better understand the relationship between risk and reward. It’s understandable that you want to keep your money safe, but investments that promise no loss of principal don’t yield very much. In other words, keeping your money safe means it won’t be able to grow, which in turn means your buying power will be eroded over time.

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