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.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to vanquish 5 common financial fears. Also in the news: Will you get what Social Security promises, how to save money online with these sneaky tricks, and 10 better money habits to start now.

Vanquish 5 Common Financial Fears
Time to put these fears to rest.

Will You Get What Social Security Promises?
Making smarter decisions about claiming your benefit.

Save Money Online Shopping With These Sneaky Tricks
Thinking beyond coupons.

10 Better Money Habits to Start Now
The right habits can boost your savings.

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.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Will you get what Social Security promises. Also in the news: 3 things to do when you get a salary increase, 4 winter wellness experiences you can book with points, and using teen debit cards to teach your kids real-world lessons about money.

Will You Get What Social Security Promises?
Your estimate may not always be accurate.

3 Things to Do When You Get a Salary Increase
Making the most of it.

4 Winter Wellness Experiences You Can Book With Points
Making the winter months tolerable.

Teen debit cards: A real-world way to teach your kids about money
Real-world responsibility.

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: 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: 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: 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.