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.

Q&A: Avoiding Medicare sign-up penalties

Dear Liz: Someone recently asked you if signing up for Medicare is mandatory. Your answer implied no, one does not have to sign up at 65. However, it is my understanding that if a person does not enroll when first eligible, they will be hit with large penalties on their Medicare premiums if they sign up later. Am I missing something?

Answer: Not at all. That answer was too short and should have mentioned the potentially large, permanent penalties most people face if they fail to sign up for Medicare Part B and Part D on time.

To review: Medicare is the government-run healthcare system for people 65 and older. Part A, which covers hospital care, is free. Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, and Part D, which covers prescriptions, typically require people to pay premiums. Many people also buy Medigap policies to cover what Medicare doesn’t, or opt for Medicare Part C. Part C, also known as Medicare Advantage, is an all-in-one option that includes everything covered by Part A and Part B and may include other benefits.

There’s a seven-month initial enrollment period that includes the month you turn 65 as well as the three months before and three months after.

People who don’t sign up when they’re first eligible for Part B usually face a penalty that increases their monthly cost by 10% of the standard premium for each full 12-month period they delay. For Part D, the penalty is 1% of the “national base beneficiary premium” ($33.19 in 2019) times the number of full months the person was uncovered.

People who fail to enroll on time also could be stuck without insurance for several months because they may have to wait until the general enrollment period (Jan. 1 to March 31) to enroll.

People typically can avoid these penalties if they have qualifying healthcare coverage through a union or an employer (their own or a spouse’s). When that coverage ends, though, they must sign up within eight months or face the penalties. Also, they might not avoid the penalties if their employer-provided coverage becomes secondary to Medicare at 65, which can happen if the company employs fewer than 20 workers. Anyone counting on union or employer coverage to avoid penalties should check with the company’s human resources department and with Medicare to make sure they’re covered.

The original letter writer had no income to pay Medicare premiums, so the answer also should have included the information that Medicaid — the government healthcare program for the poor — might help pay the premiums. People in this situation should contact the Medicaid office in their state. (Medicaid is known as Medi-Cal in California.)

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 6 types of conventional loans all home buyers should know. Also in the news: How your credit score can save you money, why you need to verify your Equifax settlement claim, and why you need to be careful when deciding to claim Social Security based on break-even calculations.

6 Types of Conventional Loans All Home Buyers Should Know
All the details.

SmartMoney podcast: ‘How Can My Credit Score Save Me Money?’
Answers to real-world money questions.

If You Asked for $125 from the Equifax Settlement, You Need to Verify Your Claim
Check your email.

Deciding when to claim Social Security based on break-even calculations? Be careful

Q&A: Signing up for Medicare

Dear Liz: Is it mandatory to sign up for Medicare at age 65, and how is it paid for? I’m 64, don’t have any assets and I’m not working (I’m living with a friend for free). I’d like to wait until 70 to collect Social Security. Is that possible? Someone just told me that I have to sign up for Medicare, and to pay for it, I have to sign up for Social Security. Is that true?

Answer: No.

You’re not required to get Medicare at 65. You should, however, at least sign up for Medicare Part A. Part A is the portion of Medicare that’s free and covers hospital visits. You sign up for Medicare through Social Security, either online or in a Social Security office, but you don’t have to start your Social Security benefit to do so.

The other parts of Medicare — Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, and Part D, which covers prescription drugs — require paying premiums, but you can pay those without signing up for Social Security. Some people are confused about this, because most people who get Medicare have those premiums deducted from their Social Security checks. But that’s not required.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I’m confused by Social Security benefits for divorced spouses, which you’ve written about recently. I was told that because I remarried (after age 60), I have to wait until my ex-husband died before receiving a part of his benefits. Is this still true for remarried ex-spouses? My ex does collect Social Security and I collect my small benefit (both of us started at full retirement age).

Answer: Yes. Divorced spousal benefits would be available only if you are currently unmarried. Survivor benefits, on the other hand, could still be available if you remarried at 60 or older.

Spousal and divorced spousal benefits can be up to 50% of the worker’s benefit, while survivor and divorced survivor benefits can be up to 100%.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How student loan fees work and what they cost. Also in the news: Making renting work for your financial goals, what millennials get wrong about Social Security, and does the new Apple credit card live up to the hype?

How Student Loan Fees Work and What They Cost
Origination fees can be costly.

Make Renting Work for Your Financial Goals
It could help you buy your dream home down the line.

What Millennials Get Wrong About Social Security
Time for some mythbusting.

Does the new Apple Card live up to all the hype?
Reviews are mixed.