Q&A: What’s better, collecting Social Security early or blowing through retirement savings?

Dear Liz: I am married and six months away from my full retirement age, which is 66. I have not filed yet. My wife started collecting Social Security at 62 but does not get very much. We are both in excellent health and have longevity in the genes. We don’t own a home. I have around $960,000 in diversified investments. I take out around $7,000 to $8,000 a month to meet my monthly expenses. Fortunately, the markets have been good, helping my portfolio, but I am not counting on that to continue at the same pace.

Doesn’t it make more sense to be taking less money out each month by starting Social Security now? I know I would receive less money than waiting until 66 or later, but between my check and the spousal benefit my wife could get, I would reduce my annual living expense withdrawals from my account by close to 50%. This would give my portfolio more opportunity to grow, since I will not be taking out so much every month.

I wish I could cut my expenses or could earn more income but cannot at this point. I am shooting for not taking more than 5% a year out of the portfolio going forward.

Answer: You’re right that something needs to change, because your withdrawal rate is way too high.

You’re currently consuming between 8.75% and 10% of your portfolio annually. Financial planners traditionally considered 4% to be a sustainable withdrawal rate. Any higher and you run significant risks of running out of money.

Some financial planning researchers now think the optimum withdrawal rate should be closer to 3%, especially for people like you with longevity in their genes. Chances are good that one or both of you will make it into your 90s, which means your portfolio may need to last three decades or more.

So even if you start Social Security now, you’ll need to reduce your expenses or earn more money to get your withdrawals down to a sustainable level.

Generally, it’s a good idea for the higher earner in a couple to put off filing as long as possible. The surviving spouse will have to get by on one Social Security check, instead of two, and it will be the larger of the two checks the couple received. Maximizing that check is important as longevity insurance, since the longer people live, the more likely they are to run through their other assets. Your check will grow 8% each year you can delay past 66, and that’s a guaranteed return you can’t match anywhere else. In many cases, financial planners will suggest tapping retirement funds if necessary to delay filing.

But every situation is unique. Your smartest move would be to consult a fee-only financial planner who can review your individual situation and give you personalized advice.

Q&A: How Social Security survivor benefits work

Dear Liz: Will my wife, after I’m gone, be able to claim one half of my Social Security benefits because she is the surviving spouse? I am concerned and confused, because her monthly Social Security benefit is much larger than mine. Does that affect this aspect of the available benefit?

Answer: If by “gone” you mean “dead,” then no, that’s not how survivor benefits work.

When one member of a married couple dies, the surviving spouse does not continue to get two benefit checks. The survivor is given the larger of the couple’s two benefits. If she’s already receiving much more than you, then she will continue taking her own benefit and your checks will end.

The “one half” benefit is the spousal benefit, which is paid out while the primary earner is still alive. Typically when married people apply for Social Security, the retirement benefit they earned is compared with their spousal benefit, which is up to one half of what the other spouse has earned. (The amounts are reduced if the person applies for benefits before his or her own full retirement age.) The applicants get the larger of the two checks.

Spousal benefits also are available to divorced spouses, if the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

Q&A: Credit freezes complicate setting up online Social Security accounts

Dear Liz: You’ve recently written about protecting ourselves by establishing online Social Security accounts. Social Security prevents me (or anyone else) from creating an online account because I have credit freezes in place. As I understand the process, Social Security uses the credit bureaus to verify my identity. With a freeze, there’s no identity verification. In other words, in order to set up a fraudulent online account, someone besides me would have to unfreeze my credit report first. Is that correct?

Answer: Pretty much. Another way to establish an online account is to go into a local Social Security office with proper identification. But most hackers are unlikely to take the trouble to do either.

You may still want to create an online account to monitor your Social Security earnings record and promptly correct any mistakes or spot employment fraud (someone using your number to get work).

You could make a trip to a Social Security office or temporarily lift your freeze with the bureau that’s providing identity verification services. Currently, that bureau is Equifax — and yes, that’s the bureau that suffered the massive database breach that started this discussion.

Q&A: Here’s a way to fight Social Security fraud

Dear Liz: To make us less likely to become victims of fraudulent activity, years ago I froze our credit bureau files. I assume the Social Security Administration could be hacked as well. Can those files be frozen?

Answer: No, but you can create an online account to track and monitor your Social Security records — and it’s probably a good idea to do so. Fraudsters are creating such accounts and using them to divert benefits onto prepaid debit cards. If you created yours first, this fraud will be harder to pull off. If someone has already created an account in your name, you can find out and start the process of taking back your identity. The place to set up your account is www.ssa.gov/myaccount.

Q&A: Starting Social Security benefits early will cost you

Dear Liz: I started getting Social Security at age 62. I would have only gotten $327 a month based on my work history, but they gave me $666 based on my husband’s work history. He gets $1,966 but your article said I should get half. Should I be receiving more?

Answer: Probably not.

Your spousal benefit would have been half of your husband’s “primary benefit amount” only if you’d waited until your own full retirement age to apply. Because you started several years early at 62, your check was reduced by 30%.

His primary benefit amount is what he would have received if he started benefits at his own full retirement age. Full retirement age is currently 66 and will rise to 67 for people born in 1960 and later.

Q&A: When waiting to take Social Security doesn’t make sense

Dear Liz: I receive $2,400 per month in Social Security. My wife, who turned 66 in early April, was told by the Social Security Administration that her retirement benefit will be about $800. Can I get spousal benefits for her of $1,200, less what her Social Security amount will be? My problem is that she wants to wait to get her maximum amount of Social Security. Could she start spousal benefits now or does she have to wait until age 70?

Answer: Waiting would be pointless. Even though she would boost her retirement benefit by 8% each year, or a total of 32% by age 70, she still would receive less than if she just signed up for spousal benefits now.

Because she has reached her full retirement age of 66, her spousal benefit would equal 50% of what you’re receiving. (Technically, she will receive her own benefit plus an additional amount that brings her up to 50% of your benefit.)

Delayed retirement credits, which increase retirement benefits between full retirement age and age 70, don’t compound but increase benefits by two-thirds of 1% each month. There are no delayed retirement credits for spousal benefits, but spousal benefits are reduced when people start them before their own full retirement age.

Q&A: Social Security lets you un-retire to avoid a benefit hit, but only once

Dear Liz: My wife recently retired at age 62 and will collect Social Security. But she has decided to return to work full time. I know she will collect less if she makes more than Social Security allows per month. If she eventually goes back to not working at all, can she go back to collecting the original amount?

Answer: Yes, but she’d be smart to reconsider her decision to start collecting Social Security early because she’s permanently reducing her benefit for little (if any) good reason.

The earnings test, which applies when people start Social Security early, takes away $1 of benefits for every $2 she earns over a certain limit, which is $16,920 in 2017. The earnings test will end when she reaches her full retirement age, which for people born in 1955 is 66 years and two months. Her check at that point would be what she originally received at 62, plus any cost of living increases.

But that original check is reduced by nearly 25% from what she would get at full retirement age, and the reduction lasts for the rest of her life. That’s a huge hit, and it should make her question the advisability of starting benefits early when so much could be taken away from her.

Fortunately, she has a little time to change her mind. Social Security allows applicants to withdraw their applications, allowing their benefit to continue growing, if they do so within 12 months of becoming entitled to benefits. People who withdraw their applications have to pay back any benefits that received in order to restart the clock.

This is a one-time do-over: Applications can be withdrawn only once in a lifetime and can’t be withdrawn after a year has passed. She can read more about this at the Social Security site, https://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/withdrawal.html.

Social Security benefits make up half or more of most people’s retirement income. Making smart decisions is essential if you want to avoid a lifetime of regret.

At a minimum, people should use a free claiming-strategies calculator, such as the one on the AARP site, to determine when and how to begin benefits. For $40, they can use more sophisticated planners such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com and SocialSecuritySolutions.com.

Another good option is to consult a fee-only financial planner familiar with Social Security claiming strategies to make sure they’re not making an irrevocable mistake.

Q&A: Social Security benefits for spouses can pump up household income

Dear Liz: I have a friend who has a selfish, controlling husband. When talking with her recently, she told me she got only $300 a month from Social Security based on her work history while her husband gets $1,800. I told her she should be getting $900, half of his monthly amount, as a spousal benefit. I guess he thought if she got more it would reduce his check. I told her the $900 would be in addition to the $1,800 he gets.

She has been collecting her smaller benefit for seven or eight years. Does she have any recourse? I doubt he would take her to the Social Security office but maybe her daughter would.

Answer: It sounds like the husband’s greed has cost this household tens of thousands of dollars in lost benefits.

Spousal benefits (and divorced spousal benefits) do not reduce the primary worker’s check. This benefit, as you correctly told your friend, is available in addition to what her husband gets. Spousal and divorced spousal benefits can be up to half of the primary worker’s benefit. The amount that spouses and divorced spouses get is reduced if they start benefits before their own full retirement ages.

Your friend can’t get back the years of benefits she missed out on, but she should ask the Social Security Administration to switch her to the larger benefit. She can contact the administration at 1-800-772-1213.

The death of a student loan co-signer could have financial ramifications for the borrower. (Colleen Riemer / For The Times)

Q&A: When a government pension doesn’t reduce Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I have contributed to Social Security for 40 years and have no government pension. My husband selected a reduced teacher’s pension so I would receive that same amount should he predecease me. Will my Social Security be reduced in this scenario?

Answer: No. The provisions that may reduce Social Security payments such as the government pension offset and the windfall elimination provision apply only to the person receiving the pension, not the spouse. If he dies first, your income would remain the same. If you die first, his survivor’s benefit from Social Security could be reduced or eliminated.

Q&A: Understanding Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I am 62. My friend (also 62) is considering when to take Social Security. She understands, from reading a finance book, that Social Security payments change only at 62, 66 and 70. She thinks if you don’t start at 62 when your benefit is, for example, $1,000, that it will stay $1,000 until age 66 when it bumps up to $1,400, or whatever. I thought that each month you delay would increase the payment you would receive. So if you get $1,000 at 62, you would get $1,005 at 62 and one month, $1,011 at 62 and two months, and so on. The Social Security site seems to support me. Can you clear this up for us?

Answer: You are correct. Your friend either misunderstood what she read or was unfortunate enough to find an author who didn’t know how Social Security works.

There are three important ages with Social Security: 62, the earliest you can begin retirement or spousal benefits; your full retirement age, which is currently 66 and rising to 67 for people born in 1960 and later; and 70, when your benefit maxes out.

Full retirement age is an important inflection point. Instead of having your checks reduced for an early start, you can begin earning delayed retirement credits that can boost your benefit by two-thirds of 1% each month, or 8% per year.

Full retirement age also marks the point at which Social Security benefits no longer are reduced if a recipient continues to work. Prior to full retirement age, benefits are reduced by $1 for every $2 earned over a certain limit ($16,920 in 2017). Also, those who started Social Security early have the option of suspending their benefits at full retirement age to allow them to begin growing again by earning delayed retirement credits. Those who suspend benefits can restart them at any time. Otherwise, suspended benefits will automatically restart at age 70.