Q&A: Claiming an ex’s benefits

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question pertaining to divorced spousal Social Security benefits. Social Security told me years ago that I had to wait till my former husband died before receiving a part of his benefits. We divorced after a long-term marriage, and I remarried after age 60. Is this still true for remarried former spouses? My ex does collect Social Security, and I collect my small benefit (both of us started at full retirement age).

Answer: The information you received was correct. You can’t get spousal benefits from your ex’s work record if you’re married to someone else. You can, however, get survivor benefits if your ex dies, as long as you remarried after you turned 60.

Q&A: About the ex’s Social Security

Dear Liz: I’ve been divorced since 2004. My ex received half of all my pension funds and lives off that and his Social Security. I have not yet drawn Social Security, but I am retired. Am I eligible to receive part of his Social Security? How does that work?

Answer: Yes, if your marriage lasted at least 10 years. If you were born before Jan. 2, 1954, you also have the option of filing a “restricted application” for divorced spousal benefits while allowing your own benefit to continue growing.

Divorced spousal benefits, like regular spousal benefits, allow you to get an amount of up to half your ex’s benefit. The amount would be reduced if you start before your own full retirement age, which is currently 66 and rising to 67 for those born in 1960 and later. If you start at age 62, for example, you would get about one-third of his benefit, rather than half. (Your claim doesn’t take money away from him or any of his current or former spouses, in case you were concerned.)

Regular spousal benefits require that the primary worker has started his or her own retirement benefit. Divorced spousal benefits don’t have that requirement: You both just need to be at least 62. Also, the divorced benefit is based on the primary earner’s benefit at his or her full retirement age. With regular spousal benefits, the amount is typically based on what the primary earner actually receives, which could be less if the primary earner started benefits early.

If you were born on or after Jan. 2, 1954, you can’t file a restricted application. Instead, you’ll be deemed to be applying for both your own benefit and the divorced spousal benefit, and given the larger of the two amounts. You can’t switch to your own benefit later.

If your ex should die before you do, you also would be eligible for a divorced survivor benefit that is up to 100% of his. That has the unfortunate effect of making your ex worth more to you dead than alive.

Q&A: Social Security minors’ benefits

Dear Liz: One thing I rarely see mentioned in discussions of when to take Social Security is the benefit for minors who are still in school. I took my benefit at 62. Social Security called me and told me that my daughter was eligible as well. We collected over $60,000 by the time she graduated high school.

Answer: Child benefits can indeed change the math of Social Security claiming strategies.

To get a child benefit, the parent must be receiving Social Security retirement or disability benefits. The child must be unmarried and benefits stop at age 18, unless she is still in high school — in which case checks stop at graduation or two months after she turns 19, whichever comes first. Child benefits are available for those 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.

The child can receive up to half the parent’s benefit, although both benefits are subject to the earnings test if the parent started Social Security before his or her full retirement age. The earnings test reduces checks by $1 for every $2 the parent earns over a certain amount, which in 2019 was $17,640. Also, there’s a limit to how much a family can get based on one person’s work record. The family limit is 150% to 180% of the parent’s full benefit amount.

Many free Social Security claiming calculators don’t include child benefits as one of the variables they include, so if your child would be eligible it can make sense to pay $40 for a customized strategy from a more sophisticated calculator, such as the one at Maximize My Social Security.

Q&A: Don’t fall for Social Security phone scams

Dear Liz: I have just received a phone call advising me that my Social Security number “is about to be suspended” and that for help, I should call a certain number. Is this legitimate?

Answer: No. Your Social Security number can’t be locked or suspended or any of the other dire-sounding consequences these robo-callers threaten. If you did call the number, the scam artist on the other end would try to trick you into revealing personal information or convince you to wire money or buy gift cards, which they can quickly exchange (or “wash”) to erase their trails. People lost $10 million to these Social Security scams last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Q&A: Working after retirement

Dear Liz: My profession was one of the hardest hit by the Great Recession. I retired by default when I turned 62 in 2012. My Social Security payment was reduced because I started it early. I’ve found it necessary to return to the workforce part time to move beyond just surviving and have some discretionary funds. What does my employment mean for future Social Security payments?

Answer: You’re past your “full retirement age” of 66, so you no longer face the earnings test that can reduce your Social Security benefit by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain limit ($17,640 in 2019).

Sometimes returning to work — or continuing to work after you start receiving Social Security — can increase your benefit if you had some low- or no-wage years in your work history. Social Security uses your 35 highest-earning years to calculate your checks. The amounts are adjusted to reflect changes in average wages, which is somewhat similar to an inflation adjustment. If you should earn more this year than you did in one of those previous years, your current earnings would replace that year’s earnings in the calculation and could increase your check.

Another way to boost your benefit if you’ve reached full retirement age but are not yet 70 is to suspend it. That means going without checks for a while, but your benefit earns delayed retirement credits that can increase the amount by 2/3 of 1% each month, or 8% a year. It may not be practical for you to do this: You probably need the money, and you could be too close to 70 to get much benefit. But perhaps that’s not the case for someone else reading this.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What will long-term care cost you? Also in the news: Social Security myths, the best cities for first-time home buyers, and how to pay less to your credit card company.

What Will Long-Term Care Cost You?
Almost everyone will need it after 65.

Don’t Believe These Social Security Myths
Checking the facts.

These are the best cities for first-time home buyers
7 spots to look at.

Here’s how to pay less to your credit card company
Just pick up the phone.

Don’t believe these Social Security myths

Researchers tell us that most people would be better off waiting to claim Social Security benefits. Yet most people file early.

More than half apply for Social Security before they reach full retirement age, which is currently 66 and rising to 67 for people born in 1960 and later. More than 30% apply as soon as they can — at age 62. Only about one in 25 applicants waits until age 70, when monthly benefits max out.

Some people have little choice, of course. They may have no savings and no job. Others have better options than applying early, but don’t realize it.

In my latest for the Associated Press, the myths surrounding Social Security.

What will long-term care cost you?

Many people are frightened of long-term care costs — for good reason.

Most people over 65 eventually will need help with daily living tasks, such as bathing, eating or dressing. Men will need assistance for an average of 2.2 years, while women will need it for 3.7 years, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging.

In my latest for the Associated Press, the high cost of long-term care and why planning ahead is essential.

Q&A: Finding a financial planner

Dear Liz: Your column on delaying Social Security suggests using a certified financial planner on an hourly basis to review one’s retirement plans. I have struggled to find one who charges this way. They almost all want to control your money for a fee. The one I found after some effort charges $500 to $600 an hour. Please make some recommendations. I don’t mind if the CFP is not local. I just want someone who is certified, reputable, with a reasonable hourly fee.

Answer: There are a growing number of options for people who want “advice only” financial planning from a fee-only, fiduciary advisor:

XY Planning Network is a network of planners who offer flat monthly fees in addition to any other options, including hourly or assets-under-management fees. Monthly fees are typically $100 to $200, with some planners requiring an initial or setup fee of $1,000 to $2,000.

Garrett Planning Network represents planners willing to charge by the hour, although many also manage assets for a fee. Members are either certified financial planners, on track to get the designation or certified public accountants who have the personal financial specialist credential, which is similar to the CFP. Hourly fees typically range from $150 to $300, with a consultation on one topic such as Social Security-claiming strategies or a portfolio typically taking two or three hours. A comprehensive financial plan may require 20 hours or more.

Advice-Only Financial is a service started by financial blogger Harry Sit to connect people with fee-only advisors who just charge for advice and don’t accept asset management fees. Sit charges $200 to help people find fiduciary CFPs who are either local or willing to work remotely. The planners typically charge $100 to $400 an hour.

Another option for those who don’t have complex needs would be an accredited financial counselor or financial fitness coach. Those in private practice typically charge $100 to $150 an hour, although many work on a sliding scale, said Rebecca Wiggins, executive director of the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education.

Q&A: Bad Social Security math

Dear Liz: Regarding when to begin receiving Social Security payments: I would think that people should begin taking payments as early as possible if they can invest it rather than spend it, as a lot of money is “left on the table” between ages, say, 62 and 70. Your thoughts?

Answer: That argument was more compelling a few decades ago when you could get a 7% or 8% return on an FDIC-insured certificate of deposit. These days, there’s no investment that offers a guaranteed return as high as what you’d get from delaying the start of Social Security.

The “take it early and invest” approach also ignores the longevity insurance aspect of Social Security benefits. Most people face a real risk of outliving their savings, which could leave them relying on Social Security for most if not all of their income. Maximizing Social Security benefits by delaying your application can help you live more comfortably, should that happen.

Also, starting early can cause harm to whichever spouse survives the other. When one spouse dies, one of the two Social Security checks the couple was receiving will stop. The remaining spouse will get only the larger of the two checks, which is known as a survivor’s benefit. Maximizing that benefit can help ease the shock of going from two checks to one, so financial planners generally recommend that the higher earner in a couple delay his or her application if possible.