Q&A: Social Security benefits for children

Dear Liz: My husband was 51 when our last child was born, meaning that our son was only 15 when my husband turned 66. Because I was working full time and we had sufficient income, we adhered to the traditional advice of delaying my husband’s Social Security payment. However, when he filed this past year at age 69, we learned that our son is eligible to receive a considerable monthly amount. Fortunately, the Social Security office was able to backdate my husband’s application for six months, but nevertheless we lost out on several thousand dollars by not filing when my husband was 66. Although his monthly payout would have been lower, the accumulated difference would have been considerable with our son’s payment. Therefore, although most retiring people do not have minor children, I believe that all financial advisors should be aware of this option and that those parents should plan carefully to maximize their payout.

Answer: More than 4 million children receive Social Security benefits because their parents are disabled or deceased or have reached retirement age. A child can receive up to half the parent’s disability or retirement check. If the parent dies, a child’s survivor benefit can be up to 75% of the parent’s basic benefit. (There’s a limit to how much a family can receive, though, which ranges from 150% to 180% of the parent’s check.) Benefits typically stop at age 18, although they can continue until two months past the child’s 19th birthday if the child is still in high school. Benefits can continue indefinitely if the child is disabled.

Children’s benefits can be subject to the same earnings test that reduces Social Security retirement checks if the parent claims early and continues working. So it often makes sense to wait to start benefits until the parent is full retirement age, currently 66, when the earnings test no longer applies. You’re right that delaying beyond that age may not make sense when the child is young enough to receive benefits, since they can considerably boost a family’s total benefit.

Having minor children at retirement age definitely complicates the calculation of when to take benefits. Many free Social Security claiming calculators don’t let you include minor children in your calculation, so if you’re in this situation it can be worth paying $40 to get a customized claiming strategy from calculators such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

Q&A: Car for a 16-year old

Dear Liz: My son is almost 16 and has his heart set on a used luxury convertible. We have found a few that are priced at about $23,000 with about 50,000 miles. We are debating whether this is the right choice for him. The type he wants is not overpowered (it has a six-cylinder engine), has many safety features and gets decent gas mileage. He has worked hard since he was 8 in our business and has saved about half the money needed. (He invests his money and almost never spends it.) I know that if he had a nice car like this, he wouldn’t be getting the message that he is entitled to it. But is it just too much for a 16-year-old? He goes to a private high school in an affluent area, so he has seen parents buy their kids expensive luxury cars that get wrecked and then replaced only to be destroyed again. He can see that’s not the way to go. He is an excellent driver as well.

Answer: He may be an excellent driver while you’re in the car, but you have no idea yet how he’ll do once he’s turned loose with a license.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the death rate for males ages 16 to 19 is twice that of females the same age. Per mile driven, teenagers are almost three times more likely than other drivers to be involved in a fatal crash. And the presence of male teen passengers increases the likelihood of risky driving behavior. Even the most responsible kid can get goaded into doing stupid things. (In fact, goading each other into doing stupid things is a defining trait of adolescence.)

This is why safety factors are key when considering cars for new drivers. Convertibles overall are safer than they used to be, but many lack some of the protective features that are more common in sedans, such as side curtain or “head protection” air bags that deploy from overhead. Some convertibles have an automatic roll bar that pops up when sensors detect an imminent crash or rollover, but most don’t.

In general, safety advocates recommend bigger, heavier vehicles with lots of safety features for teen drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety maintains a list of good, affordable used cars for new drivers that includes coupes, sedans, wagons, SUVs, minivans and even a few pickups — but not convertibles.

Give your son a few years of practice driving a big, dumb, uncool, underpowered vehicle. You’ll raise the odds that he’ll have many, many years ahead of him to drive the car of his dreams.

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Advisors to women: Don’t quit

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But advising them to quit working is short sighted, two Certified Financial Planners suggest in the most recent issue of the Journal of Financial Planning.

Jerry A. Miccolis and Marina Goodman note in “Advising Married Women on Investing–in Themselves” (may be restricted to FPA member access only) that child care costs usually drop when the kids enter school while the mother’s income typically rises over time. Stopping out, meanwhile, often leads to lower lifetime earnings. The authors suggest women view those early years, when they’re working for not much financial gain, as an investment in their future–sort of an extended internship, if you will. They write:

“[W]ork experience leads to career advancement, which could have a quantum-level impact on her financial future. Say a woman spends five years working while getting no financial benefit due to taxes and child care costs. Her youngest then enters school and suddenly child care costs plummet. After five years of experience, she may get promoted and now her income may be $75,000. If, instead, she was just starting out at that point, she would be earning $50,000. (We’re ignoring inflation in this simple example—it would, of course, merely magnify the effects.) The difference is not $25,000. It is more like being an entire professional level higher for the next 30 years. Over the course of a career it can be the difference between middle management and eventually being in the C-suite.”

The authors note that “A woman’s ability to earn a decent salary is the most comprehensive insurance policy she can have.” Staying employed, even part time, and keeping up any professional credentials can help her family if her partner loses a job, becomes disabled or suffers a business setback. It can also be an insurance policy for her in the far greater risk of divorce:

“Even among upper-income families, many women would still experience a significant decline in lifestyle upon divorce, especially if they have no means of supporting themselves. The risk that a woman will get divorced is greater than the sum of the risks of her husband’s premature death, disability, or just about any other financial catastrophe all put together.”

This information may be most relevant for the kinds of women financial planners are most likely to advise: college-educated women with careers, rather than jobs. The price for stopping out may be less if you’re in a low-wage, low-skilled job rather than one where significant financial advances are possible. But any parent contemplating time away from work should be looking at the longer term financial picture, and those who choose to stay home should make sure they have significant savings to help offset their greater financial vulnerability.

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