Q&A: When to start spousal benefits?

Dear Liz: At what age do Social Security benefits stop for dependents? My child is 17 and is currently getting half of my Social Security amount. When her benefits stop, can I sign up my nonworking spouse to receive half of my benefits?

Answer: A minor child can receive up to half of a retirement-aged parent’s Social Security benefit. Child benefits typically end when the child turns 18, or up to 19 if the child is still a full-time high school student. If your child turns 18 during her senior year, for example, the benefits would stop when she graduates. If she turned 19 during her senior year, the benefits would end then.

Spousal benefits can begin as early as age 62, but the amount would be permanently reduced if started before the spouse’s full retirement age (which is 67 for people born in 1960 and later). Technically a spouse does not have to wait until child benefits stop before applying, but there is a limit to the total amount a family can receive based on one person’s work record. The amount varies from 150% to 180% of the worker’s full retirement benefit.

Q&A: Survivor benefits and marital status

Dear Liz: My boyfriend’s ex-wife passed away last year. Can he file for her Social Security benefits at age 48 even if she was remarried at time of her death?

Answer: The ex’s marital status doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not your boyfriend was married to her for at least 10 years.

If the marriage lasted at least that long, then your boyfriend would be eligible for survivor benefits at age 60, assuming he hasn’t remarried by then. If he is disabled, he could apply at age 50. And if he is caring for his ex-wife’s children who are under 16 or disabled, then he can apply at any age.

Recipients of survivor benefits can marry at age 60 or later without losing those benefits. (Note that this marriage clause applies only to survivor benefits. People receiving spousal benefits based on a living ex’s work record cannot remarry without losing those benefits.)

Q&A: About spousal and survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I am 82 and receive $786 from Social Security. My wife is 75 and receives $1,400 from Social Security. I believe you said that a lower beneficiary could get the same amount as the higher beneficiary. When I contacted Social Security, I was informed that my benefit needed to be less than half of my spouse’s in order to qualify. When I asked him where in the regulations I could find that information, he abruptly hung up. Was he right?

Answer: Yes. The only time you would get the same amount as your wife is if she died, and at that point you would get only the survivor benefit (one check for $1,400, instead of the two checks totaling $2,186 you receive now as a couple).

Survivor benefits are different from spousal benefits. Spousal benefits are what you might receive while your wife is alive. Spousal benefits can be as much as 50% of the higher earner’s “primary insurance amount,” or what she was entitled to at her full retirement age. If your retirement benefit is larger than that spousal benefit amount, you would get your own benefit rather than the spousal benefit.

The Social Security site has plenty of information on how benefits work as well as calculators to help you estimate your benefits. You can start by reading its publication titled “Retirement Benefits” at https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10035.pdf.

Q&A: Social Security and the tax torpedo

Dear Liz: People are typically advised to wait as long as possible (full retirement age or later) to take Social Security to maximize the benefit. If a couple has low expenses and substantial pensions, wouldn’t it make sense to take Social Security earlier, to preserve retirement funds to pass on to their heirs? Social Security payments stop upon death, whereas retirement accounts are passed on to heirs.

Answer:
If your primary concern is preserving an inheritance, maximizing your Social Security payments could help you reduce how much you have to withdraw from retirement funds in the long run.

Starting early also could make you more susceptible to what’s known as the tax torpedo, which is a sharp increase in marginal tax rates due to how Social Security is taxed when someone receives other income. People who only receive Social Security don’t face the torpedo, and higher-income people probably can’t avoid it, but middle-income people may be able to lessen the hit by delaying Social Security and drawing from their retirement funds instead.

One way to preserve assets for heirs is to convert traditional retirement accounts to Roth IRAs. This requires paying taxes on the conversions, but then you wouldn’t face required minimum distributions on the Roth accounts.

Calculating the best course can be difficult. You can pay $20 to $40 to use sophisticated claiming software such as Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security to model various options, or consider consulting with a fee-only advisor.

Q&A: Pensions and Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: My situation is similar to the former teacher who wrote about a pension impacting Social Security benefits. I started Social Security at 62. My wife’s government pension is from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. I’ll receive her pension if she should die before I do. If this occurs, how will my Social Security be impacted?

Answer: It won’t, because your situation is actually the reverse of the former teacher’s.

You paid a portion of each paycheck, currently 6.2%, into the Social Security system. The teacher (and your wife) did not, so their benefits are affected by rules designed to prevent people who didn’t pay into Social Security from getting more than those who did.

Q&A: Medicare and Social Security

Dear Liz: If my wife and I wait until we are 70 to collect Social Security but retired at our full retirement age of 66 and 2 months, would we still be able to get Medicare for those 3 years and 10 months before we reach 70?

Answer: You’re eligible for Medicare at age 65, which is typically when you should sign up. Delaying can incur penalties you’d have to pay for the rest of your life.

People receiving Social Security benefits at 65 are signed up automatically for Part A (hospital coverage) and Part B (which pays for doctor visits), with the Part B premiums deducted from their benefits. If you’re not already receiving Social Security, you’ll need to contact the Social Security office, which manages Medicare enrollment, to sign up and pay the Part B premiums.

Q&A: Why delaying Social Security is the smartest retirement play

Dear Liz: If someone delays applying for Social Security after their full retirement age, the common thought is that their benefit grows by 8% a year until the age of 70. It accrues by that much only if you continue to work, right? I was unceremoniously laid off during the pandemic and I am holding off as long as I can before applying. I will be 67 at the end of this month. But because I am not working, that 8% is not a reality, right?

Answer: Wrong. The 8% delayed retirement credits apply whether you’re working or not. Those credits will help you maximize the benefit you receive for the rest of your life and potentially the rest of your spouse’s life, if you are the higher earner in a marriage. This effect is so powerful that many financial planners recommend their clients tap other resources, such as retirement funds, if it allows them to put off claiming Social Security.

It may help to think of retiring as a separate event from claiming Social Security. Many people link the two, but you can work while claiming Social Security or retire but delay Social Security.

If you did continue to work, your benefit might be increased somewhat by the additional earnings. This typically happens if you had a low-earning year included in the 35 highest-earning years that Social Security uses to calculate your benefit. If you had earned more in 2020 than in one of those previous years, then your 2020 earnings would replace that past year’s earnings in the formula and boost your benefit.

The 8% delayed retirement credit probably will have a much bigger effect on what you ultimately get, though, so don’t fret about any missed opportunities. Just try to delay your application as long as you can.

Q&A: When to claim Social Security

Dear Liz: The common assumption seems to be that, in most cases, it’s a good idea to delay collecting Social Security because the longer you wait, the higher your monthly benefits will be. I will reach my full retirement age of 66 years and 2 months in July. According to the Social Security Administration website, my monthly benefit would get bumped up if I waited to start collecting until 66 years and 8 months, next February. The next bump wouldn’t be for another full year, at 67 years and 8 months. My current plan is to retire in March or April of next year. Is there any reason I shouldn’t start collecting my benefit as soon as I get to the 66 years and 2 months threshold?

Answer: It’s not clear what you were looking at, but your Social Security benefit earns delayed retirement credits every month you put off your application after your full retirement age. Those credits add up to 8% annually and increase your checks for the rest of your life.

Social Security can be complicated, and making the right claiming decision isn’t always easy, but your choice can have a huge impact on your future financial security. Please consult a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner before you retire so you can be confident you’re doing the right thing.

Q&A: Social Security and spousal benefits

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both 66 and have not yet filed for Social Security. I don’t plan on filing until I am 70. Is my wife able to file for her own retirement benefit now, which is much lower than mine? And then when I file at 70 years, can she switch to the spousal benefit rate, without any type of penalty?

Answer: Yes and yes. This is one of the few instances in which people can still switch from one benefit to the other.

If you had already applied, your wife’s retirement benefit would be compared to her spousal benefit and she would get the larger of the two amounts. Since you haven’t applied, however, no spousal benefit is available. Your wife could receive her own benefit and then switch to the larger spousal amount once you apply at 70, when your own benefit has maxed out.

Also, as long as your wife has reached her full retirement age (66 years and two months, if she was born in 1955), she won’t face the earnings test if she continues to work. That test otherwise reduces benefits by $1 for each $2 earned over a certain amount, which in 2021 is $18,960.

Q&A: Don’t rush to start collecting Social Security

Dear Liz: Having read your advice on Social Security numerous times, I’m having a heck of a time encouraging a friend who reached full retirement age last year to start collecting her benefits. She said her Social Security isn’t enough to live on and she needs to work two more years before collecting. She said if she waits to apply that it would increase her Social Security by $400 a month. I’ve informed her that she can both collect and continue to work without penalty because she has reached full retirement age. She also would still get an annual increase based on her earnings, in addition to the annual cost-of-living increase. She won’t let me know how much her Social Security would be now, and I haven’t asked, but I’ve told her this is extra money she could invest.

Answer: Are you sure you were reading this column?

Copious research shows that most people are better off waiting as long as possible to file for Social Security. Given life expectancies at 65, most who make it that far will live beyond the break-even age where the larger checks they’ll get will more than offset the smaller ones they pass up.

Waiting is particularly important for the higher earner in a couple, since that determines what the survivor gets to live on. Waiting is also important for single people, since they don’t have a partner’s income to help. Single women have an especially high risk of finishing their days in poverty, which means maximizing their Social Security is usually the right call.

Besides, there’s no risk-free investment that would guarantee her an 8% annual return. That’s what she’s getting by waiting to start her Social Security benefit (at least until age 70, when the benefit maxes out). She might be able to generate similar returns with stock market investments, but she also could lose her shirt.

Something else to consider: Benefits are based on our 35 highest-earning years. If she’s making more now than she did in one of those previous years, she could be boosting her benefit even more by continuing to work. People who took time off to raise families or who had a history of low wages or part-time work often see a bigger benefit by continuing to work as well as waiting to apply.