Q&A: A surprise pension creates investment concerns

Dear Liz: Before my husband died, I encouraged him to find out if he had a pension. He worked for his company for more than 10 years and was vested, but he didn’t think he qualified. A few months after he died, I found an unopened letter stating he would receive a pension after he reached his retirement date. I contacted the benefit plan service center and submitted the required documents. I now have two options for receiving the money as his beneficiary: a lump sum or a single-life annuity that would pay a monthly benefit for my lifetime only. The lump sum could be rolled over into an eligible employer plan or traditional IRA, neither of which I have, or paid directly to me, in which case the whole amount is taxable. I am 65 and my only income is his Social Security survivor benefit and a small pension from my company when I retired. So what is the best thing for me to do?

Answer: Thank goodness you found that letter. It’s unfortunate your husband didn’t understand that “vested” meant qualified to receive a pension.

You don’t have to have an employer plan or an existing IRA to keep the lump sum from being taxed right away. You can open an IRA for the sole purpose of receiving the rollover. A bank or brokerage can help you set this up.

Any withdrawals would be taxed, but you wouldn’t be required to start taking withdrawals until you turn 70½. Even then, you would be required to withdraw only a small portion each year (a little less than 4% to start). You can always take more if you want.

Your income is low enough that taxes shouldn’t be driving your decision. Instead, consider whether you’d rather be able to tap the money at will or have more guaranteed income for the rest of your life.

If you don’t have other savings, you may want to have this pool of money standing by to use for emergencies and other spending. On the other hand, an annuity is money that you don’t have to manage and that you can’t outlive or lose to fraud, bad investments or bad decisions. If you have enough emergency savings, adding more guaranteed income could help you live a bit more comfortably.

Q&A: Triggering the windfall elimination provision

Dear Liz: After working and paying into Social Security for more than 40 years, I took a city job at age 60. This job does not pay into Social Security and will afford me a small pension upon retirement in a few years (I’m now 64). Will this pension amount be deducted from my Social Security payments?

Answer: Normally, people who get pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security face the “windfall elimination provision,” which can reduce any Social Security benefits they may have earned. If, however, you have 30 or more years of “substantial earnings” from a job that paid into Social Security, then this provision does not apply. The amount that counts as “substantial earnings” varies by year; in 2019, it’s $24,675.

Q&A: Pension payout planning

Dear Liz: My husband and I each receive a pension from the companies where we worked. If my husband dies first, will his company continue to pay me his pension and vice versa?

Answer: That depends on how you chose to receive your benefits. Typically people are offered a choice of payouts: a “single life” option that ends at the pensioner’s death, and “joint and survivor” options that continue payments after the pensioner dies. A 50% joint and survivor option would pay half the monthly amount after the pensioner’s death, while a 100% option would continue the payments without reduction.

The option that continues payments without reduction, however, often offers the smallest monthly payment to start. The “single life” option pays the largest monthly amount, but the fact that the payments end at the first death can leave the survivor in a bad way.

Q&A: Rules about a dead ex’s pension

Dear Liz: My ex-spouse passed away recently. She had a pension, and I got 25% of the monthly amount (we had a Qualified Domestic Relations Order to divide the pension). I am now the survivor, but I still get the same amount every month. Shouldn’t I be getting what she received?

Answer: Pensions for survivors don’t always increase when the primary worker dies, and sometimes they go away entirely.

That makes them different from Social Security, where a surviving spouse would get the larger of the two checks a couple received. A qualifying divorced spouse may also qualify to get a Social Security check equal to what the deceased was getting.

What happens to the pension probably depends on the details of your QDRO. Pension companies don’t always give survivors accurate information, so check with your lawyer to see what is supposed to happen according to your agreement.

Q&A: A surviving spouse gets a pension surprise

Dear Liz: I have a question about my late husband’s pension. He was with a company for 25 years and retired early with a defined benefit pension of about $3,700 per month. When he died four years ago, the pension stopped. The company said it was a “single life” pension, but when I tried to get records proving that, they said they had no records. Do you think I have any recourse to petition for some kind of pension? Should I find a lawyer and if so, what kind of lawyer handles this type of thing?

Answer: Traditional pensions typically give workers two options: a single life annuity, whose payments are higher but cease when the recipient dies, or a joint-and-survivor annuity that continues for a surviving spouse’s lifetime. When someone is married, the default option is supposed to be the joint-and-survivor annuity unless the spouse signs a waiver giving up rights to lifetime income. If the company can’t or won’t provide proof of such a waiver, then you’d be smart to get legal help to pursue the issue.

You may be able to get free legal assistance through the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Pension Counseling and Information Program, which currently serves 30 states. If you live in one of the states that isn’t served, you may be able to get help by visiting PensionHelp America, a site run by the nonprofit Pension Rights Center.

Q&A: Pension annuity beats lump sum

Dear Liz: I am 63, recently retired and have a choice. I can take a lump sum from my pension at age 65 or a monthly annuity. I am strongly leaning toward the lump sum. I know the pitfalls (I won’t be an aggressive investor, I don’t gamble, I won’t loan to family or friends, etc). My reasoning is that if my spouse and I both die before our early 80s, “they win.”

I do have relatives who live a long time, however. I am financially very careful and believe interest rates in five years will be several points higher and I can invest the lump sum conservatively and get a 5% to 7% return, and that will work for me.

Finally, I could take the monthly annuity now with no survivor benefit and at the same time buy term life insurance to cover my wife if I go. Am I missing anything significant in my favoring the lump sum?

Answer: Yes. Quite a bit.

Calculating break-even points can be an interesting math exercise, but you’re making assumptions about inflation rates and market returns, as well as life expectancies, that you can’t actually know in advance. A better approach might be to consider what could possibly go wrong. The answer: a lot.

Technically, you might do better investing the money than collecting the annuity, but there are so many ways you could wind up losing. You could pick the wrong investments, or the markets could turn south for an extended period. You could be defrauded or become the victim of an unethical advisor.

(Sure, you’ve got all your marbles now, but who says you’ll keep them? Even the smartest people can get fleeced, and any cognitive decline over the years could make you a sitting duck.)

The fact that you have longevity in your family is another big factor in favor of taking the annuity, because you can’t outlive the money. That should be a concern, in any case, because according to the Society of Actuaries there’s a 72% chance that one member of a couple will live to age 85 and a 45% chance that one will live to age 90.

If your spouse is a woman and not several years older than you, she’s likely to outlive you. Does she want to inherit the responsibility of managing this money?
Speaking of your spouse, get an independent, fee-only advisor’s opinion before you consider waiving the survivor’s benefit on any annuity.

A term life insurance policy may not last as long as you need it to, and will be expensive at your age. It will be vastly more expensive if you try to renew it down the road.
If you don’t or can’t renew it, your spouse could face a drastic drop in income at your death as one of your two Social Security checks goes away and the pension income stops. Surely, your partner deserves better than that.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How teachers can ace retirement without Social Security. Also in the news: Why credit cards are serving big restaurant rewards, making sure your spending personality matches your credit cards, and the one mistake that can cost millennials millions.

Teachers: Here’s How to Ace Retirement Without Social Security
It varies from state to state.

Why Credit Cards Are Serving Big Restaurant Rewards
Everyone has to eat.

Does your spending personality match your credit cards?
Make sure you’re earning rewards you’ll actually use.

This one mistake can cost millennials millions
Stop avoiding the stock market.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to responsibly handle an inheritance. Also in the news: 7 questions to ask before selling a stock, how to create your own pension, and why 35% of college seniors don’t know what their student loan repayments will be.

How to Responsibly Handle an Inheritance
Don’t run out and buy a sports car just yet.

Selling a Stock? Ask 7 Questions First
What you need to know.

How to Create Your Own Pension
Filling in the gap.

35% of college seniors don’t know what their student loan repayments will be
That’s an alarming number.

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: The confusing balancing act between government pensions and Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I am a public school teacher and plan to retire with 25 years of service. I had previously worked and paid into Social Security for about 20 years. My spouse has paid into Social Security for over 30 years. Will I be penalized because I have not paid Social Security taxes while I’ve been teaching? Should my wife die before me, will I get survivor benefits, or will the windfall elimination act take that away? It’s so confusing!

Answer: It is confusing, but you should understand that the rules about windfall elimination (along with a related provision, the government pension offset) are not designed to take away from you a benefit that others get. Rather, the rules are set up so that people who get government pensions — which are typically more generous than Social Security — don’t wind up with significantly more money from Social Security than those who paid into the system their entire working lives.

Here’s how that can happen. Social Security benefits are progressive, which means they’re designed to replace a higher percentage of a lower-earner’s income than that of a higher earner. If you don’t pay into the system for many years — because you’re in a job that provides a government pension instead — your annual earnings for Social Security would be reported as zeros in those years. Social Security is based on your 35 highest-earning years, so all those zeros would make it look like you earned a lower (often much lower) lifetime income than you actually did. Without any adjustments, you would wind up with a bigger check from Social Security than someone who earned the same income in the private sector and paid much more in Social Security taxes. It was that inequity that caused Congress to create the windfall elimination provision several decades ago.

People who earn government pensions also could wind up with significantly more money when a spouse dies. If a couple receives two Social Security checks, the survivor gets the larger of the two when a spouse dies. The household doesn’t continue to receive both checks. Without the government pension offset, someone like you would get both a pension and a full survivor’s check. Again, that could leave you significantly better off than someone who had paid more into the system.