Q&A: Why it makes sense to play the Social Security waiting game

Dear Liz: I’m concerned that you don’t make it clear that in order for a Social Security benefit to grow, a person needs to keep working and earning the same income that they’ve been making. I’ve retired recently and am lucky enough to have a pension to live on. I talked to someone at the Social Security office recently. She recommended that I go ahead and start drawing my benefits now because there will be minimal growth for the next seven years if I’m not working. She says lots of people think that they should wait, no matter what. However, she says it doesn’t make sense if you’re not working. Even my personal financial advisor was recommending that I wait, but the person at the Social Security office convinced me otherwise. When you go on Social Security’s website to check your benefits, all the estimates are based on continued employment at your current salary. There’s no way to check and see what your estimates are if you are working less or not at all. I think it’s important to give the whole story.

Answer: Yes, it is, and you didn’t get the whole story — or even correct information — from the Social Security employee who convinced you to ignore your financial advisor.

Benefits grow by 5% to 7% each year you delay starting between age 62 and your full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67, depending on the year you were born. After your full retirement age, your benefit grows by 8% each year you delay until age 70, when it maxes out. That guaranteed growth happens regardless of whether you continue working or not.

You are correct that Social Security’s estimates of the dollar amount you’ll receive assume you will continue working until you apply, so it’s possible that your benefit will be somewhat lower when the agency actually calculates your first check. But that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from the delay — you just won’t benefit quite as much as they’re estimating.

If you want to get a better idea of what your benefit will look like without additional earnings, you can use an online tool like Social Security Solutions or MaximizeMySocialSecurity.

Your financial advisor probably has access to similar tools, as well as a wealth of research about the best claiming strategies that make it clear most people are better off delaying. Plus, your advisor knows the details of your personal financial situation.

The woman at the Social Security office did not. Even if she had her facts straight, she should not have been giving you advice about maximizing your benefits.

You may still have time to rectify this mistake. You can withdraw your application within 12 months and pay back the money you received to reset the clock on your benefits. If it’s been longer than 12 months, you can suspend your benefit once you reach your full retirement age and at least get the 8% delayed retirement credits for a few years.

Q&A: Missing refund update

Dear Liz: Thank you for including my previous email about a missing tax refund in your recent column. Just to update you, on Aug. 20 I checked the IRS “refund status” website and lo and behold, it showed they had received my mother’s paper return, processed it, and even approved the refund (with $3.59 interest no less)! The check is to be mailed on Aug. 27. So for those concerned about the delays: The IRS will indeed get to them eventually and, as you’ve previously advised, there is no need to call them and check. Their backlog is massive, so let’s keep them working on that.

Answer: Thanks for the update!

Q&A: IRA conversions and taxes

Dear Liz: You recently advised a reader that if their income was too high to contribute to a Roth IRA, they could still contribute to an IRA or any after-tax options in their 401(k). You didn’t mention a two-step Roth IRA — first making a nondeductible contribution to an IRA and then immediately converting that amount to a Roth. That way those people whose income is too high to contribute to a direct Roth IRA can still have a Roth IRA using the two-step process.

Answer: This is known as a backdoor Roth contribution, which takes advantage of the fact that the income limits that apply to Roth contributions don’t apply to Roth conversions. Conversions, however, typically incur tax bills and don’t make sense for everyone. If you have a substantial amount of pretax money in IRAs, the tax bill can be considerable. (The tax bill is figured using all your IRAs, by the way. You can’t get around it just by contributing to a separate IRA that you then convert.)

Incurring that tax bill could make sense if you expect to be in the same tax bracket in retirement, or in a higher one. If you’re young and a good saver, it’s a good bet that will be the case. Roth conversions also can be advisable later in life if your tax bracket could jump when you reach age 72 and have to start taking required minimum distributions from your retirement accounts.

If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement, however, you probably should forgo Roth conversions because you’ll pay more now in taxes than you would later.

Of course, if you have little or no pretax money in your IRA, then backdoor conversions get a lot more attractive because the tax bill would be minimal. Otherwise, you should seek out a Roth conversion calculator to get a better idea of whether a conversion might be the right choice.

Q&A: The ups and downs of reverse mortgages

Dear Liz: I have been a reverse mortgage specialist for the last 12 years and had some thoughts about the writer who complained that the $40,000 she initially borrowed had grown to a debt of $189,000, or more than her home was worth.

Using a compound interest calculator, it would take about 16.5 years for the debt to grow that large. The borrower would have lived in their home for all that time without making payments toward the debt, although they were still responsible for taxes, insurance and maintaining the property. They can stay in the home for as long as it’s their principal residence. Once they leave the home, the lender will sell the home and receive the difference between the sales price and the loan balance from the government insurance program that everyone with a reverse mortgage pays into. Otherwise, no lender would take out this loan for a potentially long term and risk losing money in the end. Maybe it was a good deal.

Answer: Possibly, but she regretted the decision anyway. She took out a reverse mortgage at a time of financial hardship and now wishes she hadn’t.

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People facing financial crises often develop tunnel vision and grab at solutions without thinking through the future costs of their decisions. (The excellent book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explains the science of why that happens.)

Advertising for these loans can gloss over the downsides, such as potentially not being able to tap your equity later, when you may need it more. Reverse mortgages can be a good solution for some seniors but certainly not all of them.

Q&A: A shutdown reality check

Dear Liz: Recently a reader asked about withdrawing money from an IRA to pay credit card debt. You mentioned the many ways that was a bad idea, including the fact that retirement money is protected in bankruptcy court. Liz, the writer had only $10,000 in credit card debt. Bankruptcy should be a last resort. A lifestyle change or picking up a second job would be a better route to knocking out the debt.

Answer: “Picking up a second job” — really? Most people will be lucky to hang on to the ones they have in the coming months.

No one suggested that this reader should file bankruptcy, but anyone considering taking money from a retirement plan to pay debt should understand this major drawback — especially now. Bankruptcy experts expect business and personal bankruptcy filings to soar because of the pandemic.

You might want to check your other assumptions, as well. People typically don’t wind up in bankruptcy court because they refused to cut out their lattes or didn’t work hard enough. They get sick or disabled, lose their health insurance, get divorced, have a breadwinner die — or get stuck in a pandemic. Those with higher incomes and more savings may be better able to weather financial setbacks, but few of us are truly immune from their effects.

Q&A: The value of waiting

Dear Liz: This is a follow-up question to one you recently answered about tapping 401(k)s in order to delay the start of Social Security. I am 63 and retired early with a good pension that fully covers my basic living expenses. Any additional money would only be “gravy” for vacations and travel. Would I be taxed the same if I start taking Social Security now vs. waiting? I could easily tap my 401(k) to put off applying for Social Security.

Answer: When it comes to Social Security, if you can wait, you probably should.

Many middle-income people who have retirement funds will pay higher taxes if they start their benefits early, according to researchers who studied the “tax torpedo,” which is a sharp increase and then decline in marginal tax rates caused by the way Social Security benefits are taxed. The researchers found that many could lessen its effects by delaying the start of Social Security and tapping retirement funds instead.

If you’re married and the primary earner, it’s especially important to delay as long as possible because your benefit determines the survivor benefit that one of you will receive after the other dies.

Q&A: Culture and parental advice

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from a parent who wanted to know how to fix a financial issue in an adult child’s marriage. Your advice was basically to butt out. I think that may depend on culture. What if your advice saved your child’s marriage? What if it prevented your child from going into bankruptcy? Would it be worth the uncomfortable conversation? In some cultures, the approach is to butt in and confront the issue; if it causes problems, well then you deal with that also.

Answer: There may well be a culture in which the interference of in-laws is gladly received, rather than merely tolerated. There may even be people who enjoy being the target of unsolicited advice. It’s hard for some of us to imagine, but it’s certainly possible.

It’s probably safer to assume that your counsel is unwelcome and annoying unless it’s been specifically requested — and often even then.

Q&A: Different approaches to marital finances

Dear Liz: Thank you for mentioning that many couples like to keep their finances entirely or mostly separate. Our solution was to create a joint bank account just for paying joint expenses, such as rent, food, entertainment together, vacations and so on. We each funded this account proportionately, based on our income (for example, the person earning 65% of the total income contributed 65% of the funds). Expenses, such as gifts to our separate children, entertainment on our own, car payments and all personal expenses were paid out of our own separate accounts. Each year at tax time, we’d revise the proportion of the joint account, if necessary, based on our separate tax return figures. It was so simple and tension-free. This was a second marriage for both of us, and we never had disagreements about money.

Answer: Congratulations for finding an approach that worked so well for both of you. As you demonstrate, there’s no one right way for couples to handle their money. Some prefer to have everything in joint accounts, others keep everything separate, and most are somewhere in between.

Q&A: An emergency kit document hack

Dear Liz: Thanks for answering my question about storing hard copies of financial services records for emergency preparedness. My wife and I finally reached a compromise: We printed out our account numbers, but we attached code names to them that only we would recognize. Now both of us are comfortable that even though someone might have our account numbers, they’ll never know which financial institution to contact.

Answer: That’s a terrific compromise that keeps your important financial information accessible to you but not to an identity thief.

Q&A: Required distributions and charity

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you mentioned that after age 70½, one can donate up to $100,000 to a charity directly from an IRA. Can one still take that as a charitable donation on income tax forms? If I have a required minimum distribution of $10,000, but make a $10,000 donation to a charity, does that take care of the required minimum distribution for that year?

Answer: The $10,000 charitable contribution would count as your required minimum distribution for the year and the money would not be included in your income, but you can’t also deduct the contribution. That would be double dipping.

As a refresher: Money doesn’t get to stay in retirement accounts forever. At some point, withdrawals must begin and those withdrawals are typically taxed as income. Congress recently changed the rules so that required minimum distributions now start at age 72 (they used to start at age 70½). But so-called qualified charitable distributions — donations made directly from a retirement account to charity — can still begin at 70½.

Before you make a qualified charitable distribution or any other withdrawal from a retirement account, consult with a tax pro to make sure you understand the rules that apply to your situation. Penalties for mistakes can be high, so it pays to get expert help.