Q&A: A tricky Social Security plan

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you described the difference between withdrawal and suspension of Social Security benefits. I am 64 and want to take Social Security for two months to get out from under a few one-time bills. I’ll then withdraw my application and pay back the money. Do I understand that I’d have 12 months to pay back the funds? Is this something that can be done every 12 months? I see it as an interest-free short-term loan. Of course this only works if the money is paid back.

Answer: The answer to both your questions is no. You’re allowed to withdraw an application only once, and it must be in the 12 months after you start benefits. Once you submit your withdrawal request, you have 60 days to change your mind. If you decide to proceed, you must pay back all the money you’ve received from the Social Security Administration, including any other benefits based on your work record such as spousal or child benefits, plus any money that was withheld to pay Medicare premiums or taxes. In other words, you have a two-month window to pay back the funds, not 12 months.

If you can’t come up with the cash, you’d be stuck with a permanently reduced benefit. You could later opt to suspend your benefit once you’ve reached your full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67. (If you were born in 1956, it’s 66 years and four months.) At that point, your reduced benefit could earn delayed retirement credits that could increase your checks by 8% for each year until the amount maxes out at age 70.

There are a few situations in which starting early and then suspending can make sound financial sense, but a short-term cash need is not typically one of them.

Q&A: How to keep tax benefits when renting out your primary residence

Dear Liz: If my wife and I sell our primary residence of 12 years, I understand we can exclude up to $500,000 in home sale profits from taxes. But if we rent it for a year or two, then sell, have we lost that tax break by converting it to income property?

Answer: As long as you lived in the property at least two of the five years before the sale, you can use the home sale exclusion that allows each owner to protect $250,000 of profits from taxation.

You would pay capital gains rates on profits above that amount, but a big home sale profit could have other tax implications.

If you’re covered by Medicare, for example, profits above the exclusion amounts could temporarily increase your monthly premiums. This is because the income-related monthly adjustment amount, which is added to premiums when modified adjusted gross income exceeds $87,000 for singles or $174,000 for married couples.

If you might be affected, you’d be smart to consult a tax professional to see if there’s a way to structure the sale to reduce these effects.

Also, renting property has its own set of tax rules, making it even more important to have a tax pro who can assist you.

Q&A: Your retirement plans require lots of decisions. Get help

Dear Liz: We are a working couple in our late 50s. We live a comfortable lifestyle, have no mortgage, no debt, and we enjoy our careers. Through luck and diligence we have built a sizable net worth of $4.5 million (37% equity in our primary residence, 37% IRAs, 25% taxable equities). The investments are being managed by a family member. We plan to wait as long as possible before taking Social Security but would like to quit working within the next five years. As we look to retirement, we are undecided about where we’d like to live. We could stay in our current large house in Los Angeles, or we could move to a just-as-expensive nearby beach town and opt for a much smaller condominium.

I’d like to purchase the condo before retirement (paying cash, as we are debt-averse at this stage of our lives). This plan could improve our current lifestyle by providing a weekend retreat. Once retired, we might then have the luxury of deciding which home to keep and which to sell.

However, my partner is rightfully concerned about having too much exposure to real estate and missing out on the portfolio growth we’ve enjoyed by staying in the stock market as long as we have. What should we do?

Answer: It’s not a bad idea to test drive your planned retirement community before you give up your current home. But your partner is right to be concerned about having too much money tied up in real estate. Most people need to keep a substantial portion of their portfolios in stocks even in retirement. Plus, any money you pull from your investments could incur a rather substantial tax bill.

One solution could be to purchase the condo using a mortgage. Interest rates are quite low, and it sounds like your finances are in good-enough shape to pass the extra scrutiny lenders often give second-home purchases. If you eventually decide to sell your current home, the proceeds could be used to pay off the loan.

This would be a good time to hire a comprehensive financial planner who can help you figure out how this next phase of your life will work. The planner also could help you with all the other retirement issues you’ll face, such as picking a Medicare supplement plan, managing required minimum distributions and paying for long-term care.

You can get referrals to fee-only planners from a number of organizations, including the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the Garrett Planning Network, the XY Planning Network and the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners.

Q&A: This retiree got a big surprise: taxes

Dear Liz: I’m 76 and retired. During the decades I worked, I contributed to my IRA yearly using my tax refund or having money deducted from my paycheck. No one told me I would have to pay taxes on this when I turned 70. For the past six years, I have been required to withdraw a certain percentage of this IRA money and pay taxes on it. Is there ever going to be an end to this? Do I have to keep paying taxes on the same money every year? And what about when I pass away, do my children have to keep paying?

Answer: Ever heard the expression, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”?

You got tax deductions on the money you contributed to your IRA over the years, and the earnings were allowed to grow tax deferred. Those tax breaks are designed to encourage people to save, but eventually Uncle Sam wants his cut.

Also, you aren’t “paying taxes on the same money every year,” because the money you withdraw has never been taxed. Plus, you’re required to take out only a small portion of your IRA each year starting at 70½. The required minimum distribution starts at 3.65% and creeps up a bit every year, but even at age 100 it’s only 15.87% of the total. You can leave the bulk of your IRA alone so it can continue to grow and bequeath the balance to your children.

Your heirs won’t get the money tax free. They typically will be required to make withdrawals to empty the account within 10 years and pay income taxes on those withdrawals. Previously, they were allowed to spread required minimum distributions over their own lifetimes. Congress recently changed that to require faster payouts because the intent of IRA deductions was to encourage saving for retirement, not transfer large sums to heirs.

The Roth IRA is an exception to the above rules. There’s no tax deduction when you contribute the money, but the money can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement or left alone — there are no required minimum distributions. Your children would be required to start distributions, but wouldn’t owe taxes on those withdrawals.

Q&A: Credit scores measure Dad’s accounts, too

Dear Liz: I recently added myself onto my 95-year-old father’s two credit card accounts as an authorized user. I am his agent under a power of attorney and handle his finances. I noticed that after being added to those accounts, my credit scores increased. When he passes on, I plan to close those accounts. Will my credit score be negatively affected?

Answer: Possibly. Closing accounts doesn’t help your scores and may hurt them. Scoring formulas are sensitive to the amount of credit you have versus how much you’re using. Closing an account shrinks your available credit, and the formulas don’t like that.

If you have good scores and plenty of other open accounts, though, the damage from closing these accounts probably will be minor and short-lived.

Q&A: When to claim a survivor benefit

Dear Liz: As a widower who just turned 60, what are the pros and cons of starting my survivor benefit now? My wife passed away at 55, after 20 years of marriage. My lifetime earnings are higher than hers. I am in good health and have not remarried (though I’m open to doing so). Finances are not an issue. I’m debating how long to continue to work. It seems my best Social Security approach is to claim the survivor benefit now, then later (perhaps at age 67 or 70) claim my own benefit. Your thoughts, please?

Answer: If you start any Social Security benefit before your own full retirement age, you will be subject to the earnings test that reduces your checks by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain limit ($18,240 in 2020). So if you continue to work, it’s often best to delay starting benefits.

Your full retirement age is 66 years and 10 months if you were born in 1959. (It’s 67 for people born in 1960 and later.) Once you reach full retirement age, the earnings test disappears. You could collect the survivor benefit and leave your own alone to grow. Once your benefit maxes out at age 70, you could switch.

Q&A: How deposit insurance limits work

Dear Liz: My parents, who are in their 80s, just moved and are about to sell their former home. Their net gain from the sale will be approximately $400,000. I am advocating they put this money in a high-yield savings account as capital preservation is key. I know an individual account is insured by the FDIC for up to $250,000. But if we set it up so they are joint account holders, would the FDIC insurance limit on that one account rise to $500,000?

Answer: Yes. The FDIC insures up to $250,000 per depositor, per institution and per ownership category. Ownership categories include single accounts, joint accounts, certain retirement accounts such as IRAs, revocable trust accounts and irrevocable trust accounts, among others. Each depositor in a joint savings account is covered up to $250,000, so a couple would have $500,000 of coverage.

Q&A:Getting bum info from Social Security

Dear Liz: After taking Social Security early at 62, I have called, written and visited in person asking to have my benefit suspended so it can earn delayed retirement credits. Nothing has worked. Social Security representatives say I cannot change anything after the first 12 months.

I turn 66 this month and wanted to get this done.

Answer: The employees you’re talking to are confusing benefit suspension with application withdrawal.

As you know, Social Security benefits grow by 5% to 8% each year you delay between 62 and 70. Starting early can be an expensive mistake that permanently reduces the amount you receive over your lifetime.

There are two potential ways to fix the mistake. One is a withdrawal, where you rescind your application and pay back the money you’ve received. Withdrawals are a “do over” that resets the clock entirely on your benefit so that it’s as if you never applied. Withdrawals are only allowed in the first 12 months after your application.

A suspension, on the other hand, is when you ask Social Security to halt your benefit so that it can earn delayed retirement credits. You don’t have to pay any money back, but you also don’t get to reset the clock. Instead, the benefit you’re currently receiving is allowed to earn delayed retirement credits. You can only suspend your benefit once you’ve reached full retirement age. If you were born between 1943 and 1954, your full retirement age is 66.

Social Security explains how suspension works online in the retirement section. You might want to print that out and take it with you to the Social Security office. If someone again tries to tell you that suspension isn’t allowed, ask to speak to a manager. This is your right, and it could make a big difference in providing you a more comfortable retirement.

Q&A: Here’s why one donation of $1,000 beats 10 donations of $100

Dear Liz: I want to support about 10 charities and nonprofits but have a limited budget of $1,000. I’ve been dividing it among those charities, but would I have a bigger impact contributing the full amount to just one?

Answer: Absolutely, for a number of reasons.

Each charity spends a certain amount to process your donation. The smaller the donation, the more of it is eaten up by these costs. If it costs $5 to process a donation, for example, the costs represent 5% of each $100 donation. If $1,000 went to one charity, just one fee would be incurred and it would represent just 0.5% of the total.

Any donation you give can trigger more appeals from the charity, so you’re potentially incurring 10 times the junk mail.

Wise donors also research charities using services such as GuideStar or Charity Navigator to make sure the bulk of their contributions go to the cause, rather than to executive salaries, fundraising and overhead. Monitoring 10 charities is a lot more work than keeping track of one or two.

You might also consider making monthly contributions, rather than waiting until the end of the year, since that helps charities budget. A direct debit from your checking account is often the best way to set this up, because using a credit card incurs transaction fees that reduce your contribution.

Q&A: Social Security for a child

Dear Liz: I will be 65 next year and have an 8-year-old son. I have been told by various people that I can receive an extra Social Security allowance for him until he is 18. These same people also said it would reduce my benefit permanently. Is that correct?

Answer: Yes, plus your benefit would be subject to the Social Security earnings test if you continue to work. The earnings test applies when you start Social Security before your full retirement age, which is 66 and 2 months, and could temporarily reduce or even eliminate your benefit.

The earnings test disappears at full retirement age, which is why it’s usually good to wait until then to apply if you continue to work. Most people benefit from delaying the start of Social Security even longer, but your situation may be one of the exceptions because the child benefit can be a valuable, if temporary, addition to the family finances.

A child can receive up to half the parent’s full retirement benefit, typically until the child turns 18. (Benefits can continue as late as age 19 if the child is still in high school.) The parent must apply for his or her own benefit to trigger a child benefit. Also, there’s a limit to how much a family can receive based on one worker’s earnings record. This family maximum varies but can be from 150% to 180% of the parent’s full benefit amount.

Free Social Security claiming calculators typically aren’t set up to handle the possibility of child benefits, so you may want to use one of the paid versions such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions to determine your best course.