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.

Q&A: Don’t rush to collect Social Security

Dear Liz: I would like you to explain to us retirees why we should delay taking Social Security.

I have two tax preparers — and other people — who say delaying is a terrible idea. I’m in my 20th year of collecting Social Security, and I can assure you that people who delay are making a dreadful mistake. Please check this out!

Answer: Your tax preparers may have had a point 20 years ago, but a lot has changed since then, including life expectancies and prevailing interest rates. It’s unfortunate if your advisors haven’t kept up with copious research showing that delaying Social Security makes sense for most recipients.

One issue of particular interest to tax pros is the “tax torpedo.” That’s a sharp rise and then fall in the marginal tax rate caused by taxation of Social Security benefits. Researchers found the tax torpedo could nearly double the marginal tax rate for many middle-income families. People in the 22% federal tax bracket, for example, could see their marginal tax rate jump to 40% on a portion of their income.

Two decades ago, this would have been an issue for fewer taxpayers because most did not owe income tax on their Social Security benefits. Now more than half pay taxes on their benefits because Congress hasn’t updated certain income limits to reflect inflation.

The researchers found that delaying the start of benefits until age 70 and tapping retirement funds instead could reduce the tax torpedo’s effect. This approach not only maximizes Social Security benefits but also reduces the minimum amounts that must be distributed starting at age 70½. For more details, you can point your tax advisors to the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning.

The National Bureau of Economic Research also has numerous papers on Social Security-claiming strategies, including “Recent Changes in the Gains from Delaying Social Security,” “Leaving Big Money on the Table: Arbitrage Opportunities in Delaying Social Security,” “The Power of Working Longer” and “The Decision to Delay Social Security Benefits: Theory and Evidence.”

Q&A: Don’t fall for these common Social Security misconceptions

Dear Liz: I decided to start taking Social Security benefits this summer when I turned 62. My monthly benefit is $1,809. My wife turned 62 at the end of last year and started her benefit of $841 a month. I just accepted an unexpected job offer that will pay me more than $130,000 a year. I suspect I should consider suspending my benefit at this point and work as many years with this company as possible. If I choose to suspend my benefits now and allow my benefits to remain suspended until my full retirement age of 66 years six months, I will pass up benefits of $112,000 over the next 4.5 years. Granted that amount will be overshadowed by the additional new income and the opportunity to contribute to a 401(k), but is it out of the question to continue my current benefit and just pay the 85% tax on the Social Security we receive each year in addition to our other income?

Answer: Social Security is complicated, so it’s not surprising that so many people get the details wrong. Unfortunately, those details can have a huge effect on financial well-being in retirement. The difference between the best claiming decisions and the worst can total more than $250,000, researchers have found.

Let’s start with the detail you need most: You don’t have the option right now of suspending your benefit. Only people who have reached their full retirement age can suspend. You can, however, withdraw an application within the first 12 months. You will have to pay back all the money you’ve received from Social Security, but then it will be as if you’d never applied. Your benefit can continue to grow by 5% to 8% each year until you restart your benefits or turn 70, whichever comes first.

Withdrawing your application is a good idea because otherwise your new job will offset all of your Social Security benefit.

Because you started Social Security early, you are subject to the earnings test and your benefit will be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain limit, which in 2020 is $18,240. Your six-figure income would reduce your benefit to zero.

This earnings test disappears at full retirement age, and any money that was withheld because of it is added back into your benefit over time. In the meantime, however, you’ve given up the more valuable 5% to 8% growth in your benefit and reduced your survivor benefit as well.

Social Security taxation also works differently than what you’ve described. You never have to pay taxes equal to 85% of your benefit. If your income exceeds certain levels, then up to 85% of your benefit could be subject to taxation. (To illustrate, that means if you’re in the 10% federal tax bracket, you’d pay 10% on up to 85% of your benefit. It’s more complicated than that, but that may help you understand the difference between losing a huge chunk of your benefit and having to pay tax on a portion of it.)

Given all these complexities, it’s important for people to use a few Social Security claiming calculators before applying. Ideally, they also would consult a financial planner who’s been educated on Social Security claiming strategies.

Q&A: Finding income for widow and children

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from someone about Social Security survivor benefits for her grandchildren. The young father who died had been paid under the table, which meant his employment didn’t qualify the children for survivor benefits. It’s a long shot, but perhaps the young man filed his taxes as if he were self-employed, in which case his employment would count toward Social Security’s requirements. If no returns were filed, perhaps the family could consider preparing and filing the returns for the last several years. That could trigger a tax bill, but the cost probably would be outweighed by the potential benefits to these young children.

Answer: That’s certainly an option worth exploring with a CPA or tax attorney, especially if the father had a bank account or some other way to document the cash he received.

As mentioned in the previous column, Social Security survivor benefits can be paid to the children of qualified deceased workers until the kids turn 18 (or 19, if they are still in high school full time), but the worker needs to have paid into Social Security a certain length of time. The children’s mother also might be eligible for benefits, if she was married to the father. As a widow caring for the deceased person’s minor children, she would be entitled to benefits until the youngest child turned 16.

Q&A: Social Security doesn’t prevent working

Dear Liz: I have a friend who is in her early 70s and earns income from her own business but she said that she also collects Social Security. How is this possible? I thought that a person cannot earn income from a job or self-employment while also collecting Social Security. Am I wrong?

Answer: Quite wrong.

Nothing prevents people from working while receiving Social Security. If they’re receiving benefits before their full retirement age — which is currently 66 — their checks are subject to the earnings test. That test reduces the amount they receive by $1 for every $2 they earn over a certain limit, which in 2019 was $17,640.

Once people reach full retirement age, the earnings test goes away and they no longer have to worry about its effect on their checks.

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.