Divorced? You may qualify for half of ex’s Social Security

Dear Liz: Many years ago I read about spousal benefits based on an ex-spouse’s Social Security earnings record. Is there a minimum length of time of the marriage to qualify? How do I apply for this benefit? I am within nine months of retirement.

Answer: You can qualify for Social Security spousal benefits based on an ex’s work record as long as:

•The marriage lasted 10 years or more.

•You are 62 or older and unmarried.

•Your ex-spouse is eligible to begin receiving his or her own Social Security benefit (even if he or she hasn’t applied yet).

•Your own benefit is less than the spousal benefit you would get based on his or her work record.

Any benefits you receive based on his or her record won’t affect what your ex receives, or what his or her current or other former spouses receive.

As with regular spousal benefits, the amount you get will be permanently discounted if you apply before you’ve reached your own full retirement age (which is currently 66 and will climb to 67 in a few years).

Save or pay debt? Do both

Dear Liz: I am a 67-year-old college instructor who plans to teach full time for at least eight more years. Last year I began collecting spousal benefits based on my ex-husband’s Social Security earnings record. Those benefits give me an extra $1,250 each month above my regular income. I have been using the money to pay down a home equity line of credit that I have on my condo. The credit line now has a balance of $29,000. I have about $200,000 in mutual funds and should have a small pension when I retire. (I went into teaching only a few years ago.) Would it be better for me to split the extra monthly $1,250 into investments as well as paying off my line of credit? The idea of having no loan on my condo appeals to me, but I wonder if I should try to invest in stocks and bonds instead.

Answer: Paying down debt is important, but opportunities to save in tax-advantaged retirement plans are typically more important. Fortunately, you probably have enough money to do both.

First investigate whether your college offers a 403(b) or other retirement program that offers a match. If it does, you should be contributing at least enough to that plan to get the full match.

Your next step is to explore an IRA. Since you’re covered by at least one retirement plan at work (your pension), you would be able to deduct a full IRA contribution only if your modified adjusted gross income as a single taxpayer is $59,000 or less in 2013. The ability to deduct a contribution phases out completely at $69,000.

If you can’t deduct your contribution, consider putting the money into a Roth IRA instead. Roth contributions aren’t deductible, but withdrawals in retirement are tax free. Having a bucket of tax-free money to draw upon in retirement can help you better manage your tax bill, which is why some investors opt to contribute to Roths even when they could get a deduction elsewhere.

People 50 and older can contribute up to $6,500 this year directly to a Roth if their income is under certain limits. (For singles, the limit for a full contribution is a modified adjusted gross income of $112,000 or less.) If your income is over the limit, you can contribute to a traditional IRA and then immediately convert the money into a Roth IRA, since there’s no income limit on conversions. (This is known as a “back door” Roth contribution.)

Since you’re so close to retirement, you don’t want to overdose on stocks, but you still need a significant amount of stock market exposure so that your money has a chance to offset future inflation. You might consider a balanced fund that invests 60% in stocks, 40% in bonds.

Once you’ve taken advantage of your retirement savings options, you can direct the rest of your Social Security benefit to paying off your home equity line. These credit lines typically have low but variable rates. Higher interest rates are likely in our future, so paying this line down over time is a prudent move.

How to claim SS now, and claim more later

Dear Liz: You recently wrote that people who start Social Security benefits before their full retirement age are locked in and can’t switch to a higher benefit later. You are indeed locked in to that reduced benefit, but by switching to a spousal benefit at age 66, for example, it is possible to receive a higher benefit. Getting correct information about this is tough. I’m a certified financial planner and I received three different answers from Social Security personnel. Search the FAQ on the ssa.gov site for “receiving full and reduced benefits.”

Answer: Thanks for that important clarification. The original letter referenced a technique that some married couples can use to significantly boost their overall benefit. The technique allows people to start spousal benefits — Social Security payments based on the work record of a husband or wife — while letting their own benefit grow, to be claimed later. But the option of switching from the spousal benefit to your own benefit is available only if you start spousal benefits at your own full retirement age (which is currently 66). People who start spousal benefits before full retirement age can’t later switch to their own benefit.

As you note, however, people who start with their own benefit may be able to switch to a spousal benefit later. Both their own benefit and their spousal benefit would be reduced because of the early start. Here’s how Social Security explains it:

“When you apply for reduced retirement benefits, we will check to see if you are eligible for both your own retirement benefits and for benefits as a spouse. If you are eligible for both, we always pay your own benefits first. If you are due additional benefits, you will get a combination of benefits equaling the higher spouse’s benefit. If you are not eligible for both because your spouse is not yet entitled, but you are due a higher amount when he or she starts receiving Social Security benefits, then the higher spouse’s benefit is payable to you when your spouse applies for retirement benefits. Remember, you cannot receive spouse’s benefits until your spouse files for retirement.”

Social Security claiming strategies can be complicated. The AARP has an excellent guide at http://bit.ly/153Quvh.

Using a Roth for college: hazards and benefits

Dear Liz: My husband and I have been putting 5% and 6%, respectively, into our 401(k) accounts to get our full company matches. We’re also maxing out our Roth IRAs.

The CPA who does our taxes recommended that we put more money into our 401(k)s even if that would mean putting less into our Roth IRAs. We’re also expecting our first child, and our CPA said he doesn’t like 529 plans.

What’s your opinion on us increasing our 401(k)s by the amount we’d intended to put into a 529, while still maxing out our Roths, and then using our Roth contributions (not earnings) to pay for our child’s college (assuming he goes on to higher education)?

Our CPA liked that idea, but I can’t find anything online that says anyone else is doing things this way. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a catch.

Answer: Other people are indeed doing this, and there’s a big catch: You’d be using money for college that may do you a lot more good in retirement.

Contributions to Roth IRAs are, as you know, not tax deductible, but you can withdraw your contributions at any time without paying taxes or penalties. In retirement, your gains can be withdrawn tax free. Having money in tax-free as well as taxable and tax-deferred accounts gives you greater ability to control your tax bill in retirement.

Also, unlike other retirement accounts, you’re not required to start distributions after age 70 1/2. If you don’t need the money, you can continue to let it grow tax free and leave the whole thing to your heirs, if you want.

That’s a lot of flexibility to give up, and sucking out your contributions early will stunt how much more the accounts can grow.

You’d also miss out on the chance to let future returns help increase your college fund.

Let’s say you contribute $11,000 a year to your Roths ($5,500 each, the current limit). If you withdraw all your contributions after 18 years, you’d have $198,000 (any investment gains would stay in the account to avoid early-withdrawal fees).

Impressive, yes, but if you’d invested that money instead in a 529 and got 6% average annual returns, you could have $339,000. At 8%, the total is $411,000. That may be far more than you need — or it may not be, if you have more than one child or want to help with graduate school. With elite colleges costing $60,000 a year now and likely much more in the future, you may want all the growth you can get.

You didn’t say why your CPA doesn’t like 529s, but they’re a pretty good way for most families to save for college. Withdrawals are tax free when used for higher education and there is a huge array of plans to choose from, since every state except Wyoming offers at least one of these programs and most have multiple investment options.

Clearly, this is complicated, and you probably should run it past a certified financial planner or a CPA who has the personal financial specialist designation. Your CPA may be a great guy, but unless he’s had training in financial planning, he may not be a great choice for comprehensive financial advice.

Early Social Security start precludes switching later

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you noted that someone who chooses to obtain Social Security at age 62 on her own account is unable to switch to her spouse’s account at age 66. Is this true for a spouse who is older than the husband? My husband is one year younger than me. If I chose to start Social Security at age 62 on my own benefits, would I be able to switch to his when he retires at age 66 (and I would be age 67 at the time)?

Answer: You’ve actually got it a bit backward. Someone who waits until her full retirement age to apply for Social Security has the choice of starting with a spousal benefit (typically half of what the spouse gets) and then switching to her own benefit later, usually at age 70 when it’s reached its maximum level.

This is often a recommended strategy with two high earners, since the one receiving spousal benefits can “graduate” to her own, higher benefit later. If the spouse receiving spousal benefits was a lower earner, her benefit might not be as big as her spousal benefit at age 70, so there would be no reason to switch.

If you start spousal benefits before your own full retirement age, however, you’re locked in. You can’t let your own benefit grow and switch to it later.

For a program meant to benefit ordinary Americans, Social Security can be mind-numbingly complex. Fortunately, you can find good calculators at the AARP and T. Rowe Price websites to help you sort through your options.

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How couples can maximize Social Security

Dear Liz: I will be 68 this summer and plan on working two more years. My wife retired in 2011 after turning 60. We would like to maximize our Social Security and are planning on having her take spousal benefits when I retire. When she turns 70, she can switch to her own benefit. How much of my benefit will she receive if she starts receiving it when she is 64 and I’m 70?

Answer: If your goal is to maximize your Social Security benefits as a couple, you should rethink having her apply before her full retirement age.

If she applies before she turns 66, she won’t have the choice of switching benefits later. The Social Security Administration will compare the benefit she has earned with her spousal benefit (basically half of your benefit, reduced by the fact that she is applying early). If her spousal benefit is larger, she will get her own benefit plus an amount of money to make up the difference between the two. What she won’t get is the option to let her benefit continue to grow so that she can switch to that larger check later. The option to switch is available only if she waits until her full retirement age to apply.

There are several good online calculators to help you compare your Social Security options, including ones at AARP and T. Rowe Price.

Social Security curtails “do over”

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you answered a question from someone who had started receiving Social Security benefits at 62. You mentioned the many advantages of delaying the start of Social Security checks until full retirement age but then said, “In your case, it’s too late for second thoughts anyway.”

Why didn’t you mention the option of repaying all the Social Security checks you’ve received and then restarting your benefit at a higher amount, based on your age? I first learned about that option from one of your columns a few years ago, and actually did it. It sure worked out great for me. Viewed as purchasing a fixed annuity in the amount I paid back, I’ve been getting about a 9.5% annual return. Thanks so much for alerting me to that option!

Answer: The payback option was indeed a good one for people who regretted starting their benefits early and who had the means to pay back everything they’d received from the program. This “do over” allowed them to lock in a higher benefit amount for themselves and for their surviving spouses. In essence, they were able to “invest” the money they paid back and get a higher return than they could get from any other safe investment.

Unfortunately, after the payback option started receiving a lot of publicity, the Social Security Administration decided in 2010 to end it. So it’s no longer possible to correct the mistake if you start benefits too early unless you do so within the first year after applying.

This just underscores why it’s so important to research and understand your options before you apply for Social Security. Good resources include the AARP website, which has an easy-to-use retirement planner, and the book “Social Security for Dummies” by Jonathan Peterson. Another resource is the “Maximize My Social Security” calculator developed by economist Laurence Kotlikoff at www.maximizemysocialsecurity.com. For $40, the calculator will allow you to play with different scenarios and show you which options will increase your lifetime benefits.

Why delaying Social Security can make sense

Dear Liz: Your comments about the benefits of delaying Social Security misled readers. While a cost-of-living increase was standard for many years, it no longer is. You might want to check back over the last 10 years to get details. In addition, a reader might interpret your points about the increased benefit at full retirement age versus the benefit amount at 62 as a promise for the future. Factors such as health and family longevity are also involved. Depending solely on one’s Social Security check for living expenses will most likely bring derisive laughs for those who unfortunately have to do just that.

Answer: Your comments are a good example of why it’s important to get a second opinion on Social Security benefits, because what we think we know about the program may not be true.

One of the best reasons for delaying Social Security is to claim a bigger benefit down the road, a benefit that has nothing to do with cost-of-living increases. “Retirement benefits increase by 6 2/3% each full year an individual waits between age 62 and 65,” said Patricia Raymond, regional communications director for the Social Security Administration. “For each additional year an individual delays benefits from age 65 until full retirement age, the benefit increases 5%.”

The full retirement age is now 66 and will increase to 67. Even if Social Security is restructured sometime in the future, it’s highly unlikely that the system would stop rewarding people for delaying retirement or that cost-of-living increases would be discontinued (although they may be reduced).

By the way, there have been only two years in the last 10 when there was no cost-of-living increase, as you can see at http://www.ssa.gov/cola/automatic-cola.htm. Increases have ranged from 1.7% this year to 5.8% in 2009. The average for the last decade was 2.56%. Whether these increases truly keep up with inflation is questionable, especially with increasing Medicare costs, but to say cost-of-living adjustments are no longer “standard” simply isn’t true.

Trying to decide when to take Social Security based on your current health or your family history of longevity is tricky, at best. Taking Social Security early might turn out to be a good decision if you die relatively early, or it could be a big mistake if you live longer than expected or you have a surviving spouse who may depend on your benefit. (Starting your retirement early would reduce not only your check but also the check a survivor would receive.)

The AARP website has a Social Security calculator that can help you understand the ramifications.

Obviously, some people have little choice but to apply for Social Security as soon as they’re eligible because they need the money. But delaying Social Security for a bigger benefit can be seen as a kind of longevity insurance for those who can afford to do so. Even people in poor health or who lack a family history of longevity might want to hedge against the possibility of outliving other assets, either for themselves or their spouses.

Ideally, no one would rely solely on Social Security benefits, but unfortunately many do. Social Security constitutes 90% or more of income for nearly half of single retirees and more than 1 in 5 married couples. For most people who receive Social Security, the checks represent half or more of their income. So it makes sense to learn how to maximize your benefits using information from reliable sources. In addition to the Social Security and AARP websites, you can learn more from the excellent primer “Social Security for Dummies” by Jonathan Peterson.

Waiting to take Social Security has hidden benefits

Dear Liz: When I was 62, I started Social Security and I’m currently saving half of my monthly benefit after taxes (about $750). My decision to take my benefits early was influenced by a financial columnist who suggested that if I started at 62 and invested half or more of it until I reached full retirement age, the lower early benefits would be matched by the investment returns by the time I’m 85. Is this advice still reasonable?

Answer: In today’s investing environment, it’s hard to match the guaranteed annual return you get from delaying Social Security benefits. You may do better investing in the stock market, but there isn’t an investment that can guarantee 6% returns right now, which is the approximate amount Social Security benefits increase annually between the earliest age you can take benefits (62) and your full retirement age (currently 66). The higher benefit you get by waiting is then increased by inflation adjustments each year, making it an even harder target to beat.

That’s not to say it can’t be done. In your case, it’s too late for second thoughts anyway. But most people are better off waiting, if they can afford to do so.

There are other good reasons to delay, even if you’re an investing genius. If you’re married, your spouse would be eligible for a survivor’s benefit should you die first. That benefit is equal to the Social Security check you’ve been getting. A bigger check could make it easier for him or her to make ends meet down the road.

Spouses who wait until full retirement age also have the option of taking spousal benefits first, and then switching to their own benefits later, after those benefits have had a few more years to grow. When you take benefits early, you lose the option to switch.

Even if you’re not married, you can look at Social Security as a form of longevity insurance. A larger benefit could be a big help if you live a long time and spend down your other assets.

Hopefully you understood all this before you put your retirement plan into motion. If you didn’t, then your situation could serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who’s trying to make decisions about retirement based solely on his or her own research. It’s vitally important to get a second opinion from a fee-only comprehensive financial planner. Even the most ardent do-it-yourselfer can miss important nuances when it comes to retirement, and those nuances can have a dramatic effect on your future quality of life.