Q&A: Social Security and the tax torpedo

Dear Liz: People are typically advised to wait as long as possible (full retirement age or later) to take Social Security to maximize the benefit. If a couple has low expenses and substantial pensions, wouldn’t it make sense to take Social Security earlier, to preserve retirement funds to pass on to their heirs? Social Security payments stop upon death, whereas retirement accounts are passed on to heirs.

If your primary concern is preserving an inheritance, maximizing your Social Security payments could help you reduce how much you have to withdraw from retirement funds in the long run.

Starting early also could make you more susceptible to what’s known as the tax torpedo, which is a sharp increase in marginal tax rates due to how Social Security is taxed when someone receives other income. People who only receive Social Security don’t face the torpedo, and higher-income people probably can’t avoid it, but middle-income people may be able to lessen the hit by delaying Social Security and drawing from their retirement funds instead.

One way to preserve assets for heirs is to convert traditional retirement accounts to Roth IRAs. This requires paying taxes on the conversions, but then you wouldn’t face required minimum distributions on the Roth accounts.

Calculating the best course can be difficult. You can pay $20 to $40 to use sophisticated claiming software such as Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security to model various options, or consider consulting with a fee-only advisor.