Q&A: Why this widow can’t get her late husband’s Social Security benefit

Dear Liz: My husband passed away 10 years ago at age 66. I called then to see if I could collect Social Security, because he was receiving benefits when he died. Our daughter was still a minor, so she was able to collect survivor benefits until she turned 18. I was told I couldn’t collect benefits as I made too much money. (I asked what too much money was and they said around $14,000 annually.)

I am now thinking about retiring at age 66 or 67. I am a mid-career public school teacher, so I’ve been told the “windfall elimination provision” will wipe out my Social Security benefit. I had my own business and worked previously but am told I can’t receive the Social Security benefits that my husband earned, nor will I most likely receive much, if anything, from the Social Security contributions I made. My friends tell me this can’t possibly be right.

Answer: The information you received about Social Security was generally entirely correct.

Let’s start with the windfall elimination provision. If you receive a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security, any Social Security benefit you get may be reduced but not eliminated. You can read more about how the windfall elimination provision works and why it was created at the Social Security Administration website, www.ssa.gov.

A related provision, the government pension offset, can wipe out any spousal or survivor benefit you might have otherwise received.

Before those provisions were enacted, people who had generous government pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security could get the same or larger benefits than people who had paid into the system throughout their lives. Critics of the provisions, however, say they can leave some low-wage government workers worse off.

Another provision that can reduce or wipe out Social Security benefits is called the earnings test. Before full retirement age, which is currently 66, any Social Security check you receive would be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($17,640 in 2019). The amount was $14,100 from 2009 to 2011 and $14,640 in 2012, so that may have been why you remember the number $14,000.

So technically, you may have been eligible for a survivor’s benefit. Widows and widowers are eligible for survivor’s benefits starting at age 60, or age 50 if they’re disabled, or at any age if they’re caring for the dead person’s child who is under 16 or disabled. But it sounds as if any benefit you received would have been wiped out because of the earnings test.

Your situation is a perfect example of how complicated Social Security can get and how hard it can be to navigate the system without expert help. But even people with more straightforward situations can benefit from advice about how and when to file for benefits. Two of the better do-it-yourself options include Maximize My Social Security ($40) and Social Security Solutions ($19.95 for a basic version or $49.95 for one that allows you to compare scenarios). Or you can consult with a fee-only financial planner who has access to similar software and who can give you personalized advice.

Q&A: Don’t keep a mortgage just for the tax deduction

Dear Liz: Does the new tax law, with its increased standard deduction, change the calculus of maintaining my mortgage? I owe about $250,000 at 3.25% on a 30-year mortgage. I no longer itemize, so I don’t get the benefit of the tax deduction for the interest. My payments are about $1,500 a month, but I could easily pay it off.

Answer: It never made much sense to keep a mortgage just for the tax deduction. The tax savings offset only a portion of the interest you pay. (If you’re in a 33% combined state and federal tax bracket, for example, you’d get at most 33 cents back for every $1 in mortgage interest you paid.)

A more compelling reason to keep a mortgage would be if you were able to get a better return on your money by investing it, or if you didn’t want to have a big chunk of your wealth tied up in a single, illiquid asset.

Q&A: If long-term care insurance costs too much, you have a choice to make

Dear Liz: We were told to buy long-term care insurance early because waiting too long would make it more expensive and perhaps unavailable. I bought mine when I was 55. At the time, it was $2,400 a year. Unfortunately, the premiums just kept going up. I am now 77, and the premium this year was $4,470. The letter informing me of this increase said that next year it will go up 6% to $4,738, and 6% again the following year to $5,022. It’s very clear to me that buying the insurance early was definitely not an advantage. The insurer will obviously keep raising the premium at will. Since I am, like most people my age, on a fixed income, the time will come when I simply cannot afford these premiums. I will then lose the insurance plus all I have paid into it all these years. People should be told that the premiums will continue to rise, and that the time may come when the cost is beyond what anyone on a fixed income can afford.

Answer: Many people are in the same unfortunate situation. They purchased policies because they thought it was the prudent thing to do, only to face the possibility of losing coverage as premiums continued to rise.

Companies that offered long-term care insurance starting in the 1980s and 1990s discovered they didn’t price the coverage accurately. Far fewer people dropped their policies than expected, while the costs of long-term care increased more than anticipated. Many insurers stopped offering the coverage, and massive premium increases were the norm for a while.

Insurers can’t raise premiums “at will,” by the way. The increases must be approved by regulators, who weigh the effects on customers against the possibility an insurer might go under and be unable to pay anyone.

The companies still selling long-term care coverage now offer less generous policies that probably won’t require huge premium increases. Still, many financial planners advise their clients who are buying coverage now to expect their premiums to increase 50% to 100% over their lifetimes.

It’s important to keep in mind that insurance is not like an investment or a savings account. You don’t buy homeowners insurance hoping your house will burn down someday so that you can get your money back. You buy it to protect your finances against catastrophic loss. So it’s not as if you received nothing in return for your long-term care premiums: You were protected against a potentially catastrophic cost that — fortunately — didn’t happen.

That doesn’t mean you were wrong to expect your premiums to remain affordable. Given your current reality, though, you’ll need to decide if you want to risk dropping coverage entirely or if reducing coverage might be an option. Many people in your situation have opted for longer waiting periods, lower inflation adjustments or a reduced benefit period to keep premiums affordable.

Q&A: Should you pay off student loans or save for retirement? Both, and here’s why

Dear Liz: What are your recommendations for a recent dental school graduate, now practicing in California, who has about $250,000 of dental school loans to pay off but who also knows the importance of starting to save for retirement?

Answer: If you’re the graduate, congratulations. Your debt load is obviously significant, but so is your earning potential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median pay for dentists nationwide is more than $150,000 a year. The range in California is typically $154,712 to $202,602, according to Salary.com.

Ideally, you wouldn’t have borrowed more in total than you expected to earn your first year on the job. That would have made it possible to pay off the debt within 10 years without stinting on other goals. A more realistic plan now is to repay your loans over 20 years or so. That will lower your monthly payment to a more manageable level, although it will increase the total interest you pay. If you can’t afford to make the payments right now on a 20-year plan, investigate income-based repayment plans, such as Pay As You Earn (PAYE) or Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), for your federal student loans.

Like other graduates, you’d be wise to start saving for retirement now rather than waiting until your debt is gone. The longer you wait to start, the harder it is to catch up, and you’ll have missed all the tax breaks, company matches and tax-deferred compounding you could have earned.

Also be sure to buy long-term disability insurance, even though it may be expensive. Losing your livelihood would be catastrophic, since you would still owe the education debt, which typically can’t be erased in bankruptcy.

Q&A: Medicare has a prerequisite

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you mentioned that Medicare Part A is free, but that requires 40 quarters (or 10 years) of U.S. employment to qualify. There are, unfortunately, many of us with offshore employment who have found this out too late. Even if one has worked in a country with a tax treaty with the U.S. that allows you to transfer pension credits to Social Security, that will not allow you to qualify for Medicare. I think it would have been very helpful if I had known this about 10 years ago!

Answer: Medicare is typically premium-free, because the vast majority of people who get Medicare Part A either worked long enough to accrue the necessary quarters or have a spouse or ex-spouse who did. (Similar to Social Security, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years for divorced spouses to have access to Medicare based on an ex-spouse’s record.)

But of course there are exceptions, and you’re one of them. People who don’t accrue the necessary quarters typically can pay premiums to get Part A coverage if they are age 65 or older and a citizen or permanent resident of the United States. The standard monthly premium for Part A is $437 for people who paid Medicare taxes for less than 30 quarters and $240 for those with 30 to 39 quarters.

Q&A: Benefits’ disappearance is no accident

Dear Liz: You recently indicated that restricted applications for Social Security spousal benefits are no longer available to people born on or after Jan. 2, 1954. Who is responsible for this change, and when was that enacted? Is there any way it can be reversed?

Answer: Congress is unlikely to revive what was widely seen as a loophole that allowed some people to take spousal benefits while their own benefits continued to grow.

Congress changed the rules with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. As is typical with Social Security, the change didn’t affect people who were already at or near typical retirement age. So people who were 62 or older in 2015 are still allowed to file restricted applications when they reach their full retirement age of 66. They can collect spousal benefits while their own benefits accrue delayed retirement credits, as long as the other spouse is receiving his or her own retirement benefit. (Congress also ended “file and suspend,” which would have allowed one spouse to trigger benefits for the other without starting his or her own benefit.)

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: My wife plans to file for her Social Security benefit when she turns 66 in April 2020. I plan to file for my benefit at age 70 in July 2022. Can I file for a spousal benefit when my wife files in 2020? Can my wife claim a spousal benefit in 2022 when I file for my own benefit, assuming it is more than her own benefit? Will my wife’s spousal benefit increase like my benefit does between my ages of 66 to 70, or does it max out at my age 66?

Answer: Because you’ve reached your full retirement age of 66 and you were born before Jan. 2, 1954, you are still allowed to file a restricted application for spousal benefits once your wife applies for her own benefit. When your benefit maxes out at age 70, you would switch to your own because there’s no incentive to further delay.

Restricted applications are no longer available to people born later. Instead, when they apply for benefits they are deemed to be applying for both their own and any spousal benefit to which they might be entitled. They’re given the larger amount and typically can’t switch later.

One of the exceptions could apply in your case, however. Your wife won’t be able to take a spousal benefit when she applies because you won’t have started your benefit. Once you start, if her spousal benefit based on your work record is larger than what she’s receiving based on hers, she could switch.

Because only one spousal benefit is allowed per couple, you’ll want to investigate which could result in more money before you apply.

As for your last question: Spousal benefits don’t earn the delayed retirement credits that can increase a worker’s retirement benefits by 8% annually between full retirement age and 70. If your wife had started spousal benefits before her own full retirement age of 66, the amount would have been permanently reduced — she would receive less than 50% of the benefit you’d earned at your full retirement age. But she won’t get more than 50% if she starts them after her full retirement age.

Q&A: Mortgage payoff pros and cons

Dear Liz: Should we use a $350,000 inherited non-spousal Roth IRA to pay off our mortgage? We have $285,000 left on our mortgage and would like to retire within 10 years. This is our dream home, and we don’t think we can otherwise pay it off before retiring. We have $1.1 million in other retirement accounts, an emergency fund, a $40,000 pension, and no other debt. Our home is worth $900,000.

Answer: In general, paying off a mortgage before retirement makes a lot of sense. Doing so reduces the amount of money you need to take from retirement funds, which can help make those funds last longer.

Being mortgage-free is not a goal you should pursue at any cost, however. You could end up having too much money tied up in your house and not enough in savings or investments. Also, the inherited Roth has significant advantages. Although you must take minimum distributions from the account, those are tax free and can be based on your life expectancy, which means the bulk of the money can continue growing for quite some time.

Q&A: Here’s a primer on all those estate planning documents

Dear Liz: Our dad’s kidneys are failing. Our mother passed away awhile ago, so it’s just me and my sister. He has a will, and my sister is on his bank account, but how do we handle the house transfer? Do we need a living will? We don’t want it to go into probate. We are splitting everything equally.

Answer: Losing a parent is stressful, so it’s good that you have your father’s estate-planning document to guide you. If it was properly drawn, it will name an executor who will handle the details of settling his bills, paying his creditors and transferring his remaining assets to his heirs.

If the executor happens to be you or your sister, you’ll be able to hire an attorney to help you and pay for it out of the estate’s assets. Having an attorney can help make the process much smoother and help avoid potentially costly mistakes.

You asked about a living will, but that’s a document designed to communicate someone’s wishes regarding end-of-life medical care. Living trusts are the documents that can avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death.

In many states, including California, probate also can be avoided with a “transfer on death” deed. If your father is still able to make decisions, you might want to hire the attorney now to advise you about which document makes the most sense.

Q&A: Avoid this hidden risk to your retirement

Dear Liz: I have very low net worth and just inherited $500,000 from a cousin’s annuity. My net worth includes a $400,000 house with a $290,000 mortgage at 3.75%, IRA accounts of $65,000 and savings of $90,000. I also have a pension from which I receive $50,000 annually and from which our health insurance is paid. My husband is 72 and receives $6,000 annually from Social Security. I will turn 70 in a few months and will begin taking Social Security and tapping my IRAs. I have very little debt. What is the safest thing to do with this inheritance?

Answer: That depends on how you define “safe.”

Investments that don’t put your principal at risk typically offer returns that don’t beat inflation over time. That means your buying power is eroded. At 70, you may not think you need to worry much about inflation. But your life expectancy as a woman in the U.S. is 16.57 more years. About one-third of women your age will make it to age 90.

That doesn’t mean you have to take investment risk with this money by buying stocks, which are the one asset class that consistently outpaces inflation. But you’d be smart to have a fee-only financial planner take a look at your situation to make sure you’re investing appropriately, based on your goals.

And it’s your goal for this money that will help determine how to invest it. If you want the money to be readily available and safe from investment risk, then you could put it in an FDIC-insured, high-yield savings account paying 2% or so. Just make sure you don’t exceed FDIC limits, which typically cap insurance coverage at $250,000 per depositor, per bank. (You can stretch that coverage if you put the money in different “ownership categories,” such as individual, joint, retirement and trust accounts.) If you don’t expect to need the money for many years, investing at least some of it in bonds or stocks may be appropriate.

Also, a small reality check: Your net worth before the inheritance was $265,000, based on the figures you provided. That’s more than most people in your age bracket. Households headed by people ages 65 to 74 had a median net worth of about $224,000 in 2016, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances. That’s not to say you’re rich, but you do have more than most of your peers — especially now.