Q&A: Working past 70

Dear Liz: If I continue to work after 70, will Social Security taxes still be deducted from my check? I understand my benefits will cap out at 70, so why would I need to still pay into the fund?

Answer: Because Social Security is insurance, not a bank account.

And it may not be true that your benefit maxes out at 70, if you continue to work. It’s true that delayed retirement credits no longer increase your benefit if you delay starting Social Security past age 70. But as long as you continue working, you’re potentially growing your benefit.

Your Social Security check is based on your 35 highest-earning years, adjusted for inflation. If you make more in a current year than you made in one of those previous highest-earning years, the current year will be substituted for the earlier one. That in turn can increase your benefit. This can happen at any age, including after you start benefits.

You might not see much increase, of course, or any increase at all if you’ve earned a high income for a long time. If you exceeded the maximum income limits subject to Social Security taxation every year for 35 years, your benefit wouldn’t increase with additional work. (In 2019, for example, the maximum income limit is $132,900; you don’t pay Social Security tax on earnings above that level, although you continue to pay Medicare tax.)

On the other hand, your benefits won’t be stopped once you collect as much from the system as you paid in. You will continue receiving benefits for as long as you live, even if that amount far exceeds what you’ve paid in taxes. That’s insurance worth paying for.

Q&A: This nurse needs a Social Security checkup. Here’s how to check yours

Dear Liz: I’m a certified nurse midwife who is salaried. When we are fully staffed, I work 55 hours a week on average. If we cover extra shifts, we are paid a lump sum rather than hourly. (If we were paid hourly, it would work out to far less than minimum wage.) We are paid twice a month, but my pay stub shows that I only work 70 hours per pay period. I work almost that many hours in a single week! When I work extra shifts, it is reported on my check under “miscellaneous” with the lump sum listed. I asked our administrators about this and they just told me it wasn’t a big deal, but I’m not convinced that’s true. Do the hours reported on my paycheck affect my Social Security income later? I just don’t want to lose out on Social Security benefits when I work my butt off!

Answer: The hours you work don’t affect your future Social Security benefit, but your earnings do. At least they should. Your employer is supposed to report your full salary to Social Security, and to deduct the appropriate amount of Social Security tax from your paychecks. If your pay is underreported, your future benefits could be shortchanged.

Here’s a quick way to check if your earnings are being reported properly. On your paycheck, there should be a line that says either “Social Security,” “OASDI” or “FICA.” If the line says Social Security or FICA, the amount listed should be 6.2% of the money you earned for the pay period, up to a maximum annual amount of $8,239.80 for 2019. (There’s a ceiling on the amount of wages subject to Social Security taxes, which this year is $132,900.)

Some employers don’t break out Social Security taxes from Medicare taxes, and include them both in a line for FICA, which stands for Federal Insurance Contributions Act. The FICA amount should be your Social Security tax (6.2% of your earnings up to $132,900) plus 1.45% for Medicare. (There’s no cap, so all earnings are subject to the Medicare tax.)

If the tax amounts shown don’t include that “miscellaneous” lump sum, please call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 to report the situation.

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: Medicare vs. spouse’s health plan

Dear Liz: I am planning to retire in a few months at 65. My husband, who is five years younger, works for a corporation that provides excellent health insurance. When I sign up for Medicare, will I still be able to stay on my husband’s health insurance? Which insurance will be listed first for coverage?

Answer: The rules are different depending on whether your husband’s insurance is considered a large employer plan or a small employer plan.

If the plan covers 20 or fewer employees, his employer can boot you off the plan or make it secondary to Medicare. If the plan covers more than 20 employees, though, the employer typically can’t treat you differently from younger employees and spouses and must allow you to stay on the plan, which would remain your primary insurance with Medicare as the secondary insurer.

Medicare penalties are another issue to consider. Medicare Part A, which covers hospital visits, is usually premium-free, but people generally pay premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, and Medicare Part D, which covers prescription drugs. If you don’t sign up for Medicare Part B and Part D when you’re first eligible, you could face permanent penalties that would raise your monthly premiums for life.

These penalties don’t apply if you put off signing up for Part B and Part D because you’re covered by a large employer health insurance plan from current employment, either yours or your spouse’s. Once that employment or coverage ends, though, you’ll need to sign up for Part B and Part D promptly or the penalties kick in.

Notice the use of the words “typically,” “normally” and “generally” in the paragraphs above. Medicare’s rules and exceptions can be tricky to navigate. Talk to the benefits manager at your husband’s company so you know where you stand, and what parts of Medicare to sign up for as you turn 65.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Buy a real car now before they become extinct. Also in the news: How Shea Couleé of ‘Drag Race’ fashions her finances, 8 credit card strategies, and 3 things to do when you get a salary increase.

Buy a Real Car Now Before They Become Extinct
Sedans are disappearing.

Money/Makers Q&A: How Shea Couleé of ‘Drag Race’ Fashions Her Finances
Drag isn’t cheap.

8 Credit Card Strategies — And Some Surprises, Too
Strategic uses to improve your life.

3 Things to Do When You Get a Salary Increase
Celebrate, then plan.

Q&A: Death doesn’t take a financial holiday. Here’s a cautionary tale

Dear Liz: My daughter has two children, ages 2 and 4. Recently the children’s father took his own life. He was 27. The job he worked as long as I knew him paid him in cash, so he didn’t pay into Social Security. Does this mean the children cannot receive survivor benefits from Social Security?

Answer: If the father never worked at a job that paid into Social Security, your grandchildren — and your daughter — won’t qualify for the survivor benefits they could have received had he been paid legally rather than under the table.

Their one hope is if he had a previous job that did pay into Social Security.

At 27, he would have needed at least six quarters of coverage to trigger survivor benefits, says Bill Meyer, founder of Social Security Solutions, a claiming strategies site.

The older a person is, the more quarters are needed to qualify for benefits, but no one needs more than 40 quarters. The amount of earnings required for a quarter of coverage is $1,360 in 2019. Once you earn $5,440, you’ve earned your four quarters for the year.

If the father had earned those six quarters, his death would trigger survivor benefits for his children that typically last until age 18 (or until 19, if they are still in high school full time). Your daughter also would be entitled to benefits until the younger child turned 16, because she’s caring for the deceased person’s minor children.

It’s possible this young man was paid under the table because he was not able to work legally in the U.S. If that’s the case, he and his family wouldn’t qualify for Social Security benefits even if payroll taxes had been deducted. If he opted for cash because he or his employer didn’t want to pay taxes, though, that was a choice that had expensive repercussions for the people he left behind.

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: Living trust viewing restrictions

Dear Liz: How in the world do I find out the details of my parents’ trust? My father recently died and my mother, who is 89, is not familiar with the details. My older sister is not responsive when I ask questions. She and I are the only children. My husband recently became disabled and it would be a comfort to know if we had any money coming from my parents. Can you give me any advice?

Answer: Presumably you’re asking about a living trust, which is designed to avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. Unlike wills, living trusts don’t have to be filed with the courts so you can’t go down to the county courthouse to look up the details.

Living trusts are revocable trusts, which means they can be changed. People other than the trust creators don’t typically have a right to see the trust until it becomes irrevocable.

In the past, part of a living trust often became irrevocable when one spouse died. Today, it’s more common for trusts to remain revocable until the surviving spouse dies.

To some extent, state law determines who gets to see a copy of the trust once it’s irrevocable. Typically beneficiaries have a right to see the trust, and in some states (including California) so do “heirs at law” — people who aren’t beneficiaries but who would have inherited under state law if there had been no trust or will.

Q&A: Weighing investment choices

Dear Liz: I felt your advice about using an inherited IRA to pay off a mortgage was spot on, but I would add one suggestion. The person could use their required minimum distribution (or a little extra) from the inherited IRA each year to pay down the principal on the mortgage. Then they could see what the remaining loan balance is when they are approaching retirement in 10 years.

Answer: That could be a good alternative if being debt free is more important than maximizing their returns. Using just the distributions to pay down the mortgage would allow the bulk of the money to continue earning tax-free returns as long as possible, while reducing the mortgage balance over time.

The letter writer might do better financially by investing the distributions, but using them to pay down the mortgage could get them closer to their desired goal of being mortgage free.

Q&A: Inherited Roth IRA distributions

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about whether someone should use a Roth IRA to pay off a mortgage. In your answer, you mentioned the requirement to take minimum distributions from the account. One of the huge advantages of a Roth, besides tax-free distributions, is that there are no required minimum withdrawals. Did I miss something?

Answer: You did. You missed the word “inherited.”

The letter writer was asking whether to use an inherited Roth IRA to pay off the mortgage. (Specifically, an inherited non-spousal Roth IRA.) Although the original Roth IRA owner was not required to take distributions, the heirs must. Money can’t be kept in tax-deferred retirement accounts indefinitely.