Social Security

Disappointing News from Social Security for 2020

The annual Cost of Living Adjustment, aka COLA, for 2020, is a smidge of an increase: 1.6%. That’s only slightly more than half of the 2.8% COLA for 2019. For the average beneficiary that means about $23.50 more per month, says the Globe Gazette’s article “Disappointed in Your Social Security Raise? 3 Steps to Take.” It’s a lot like getting a tiny raise that doesn’t budge the budget needle at all. Remember, there’s also going to be an increase in Medicare Part B, which is expected to rise by $8.80. That puts a raise of just $14.70 per month in benefits, once New Year’s Day passes.

News from Social Security
News of the meager increase in the 2020 COLA from Social Security is disappointing.

The problem is, healthcare costs are continuing to climb. That puts seniors in a bind, especially those who count on Social Security for the bulk of their retirement income. Is there anything you can do to beef up your income despite this bad news from Social Security?

Review and revise your budget. You needed a budget when you were working, and you really need one in retirement. If you are using up all your available income every month, it may be time to make some changes. Maybe it’s finally time to clear out the big sprawling ranch and downside to a two-bedroom condo. Going from a two-car household to a one-car family could net considerable savings. If you eat most of your meals out at restaurants, consider trimming those outings to cut spending.

Work part-time. You may have a lot of time on your hands, as a retired person. Getting a part-time job during retirement has a number of benefits. One, you have less free time to spend money, two, you have income and three, you have more social interactions during working hours. There’s also no need to accept a job that you wouldn’t want. Maybe you are great at baking and can turn that into a side business, or dog walking or crafting. Pet-sitting and babysitting are in demand.

Move somewhere less expensive. The cost of living varies greatly from state to state. Look for states that don’t tax Social Security and that offer a lower cost of living and a relatively low income tax rate. However, check your Medicare benefits. Medicare Advantage and Part D plans vary from state to state. If you have supplemental insurance through Medigap, the cost of your plan may change.

If so much of your retirement income budget is based on Social Security, be prepared to make some changes. You can stretch those benefits and, at the same time, lessen your stress.

Reference: Globe Gazette (October 14, 2019) “Disappointed in Your Social Security Raise? 3 Steps to Take”

Prior Planning is Always a Better Alternative

None of us knows what kind of unexpected surprises will occur in our lives. We’d like to believe they will all be happy events, like winning the big Power Ball jackpot. However, unpleasant things like illness or a flood or fire often occur. We never think it will happen to us, says The Dalles Chronicle’s article “Prepare now for emergencies.” Unfortunately, these things do happen, and when they do, being prepared can make all the difference between a stressful situation and a really awful situation that could have been made, well, less awful.

For starters, have you met with an estate planning attorney to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes a last will and testament, a financial power of attorney and a health care power of attorney? The will concerns distribution of your possessions and property, the power of attorney gives a trusted person the ability to take financial and legal actions on your behalf, in the event that you become incapacitated and the medical power of attorney allows someone to make health care decisions for you, also if you become incapacitated. There are also many other tools that an estate planning attorney can help you with, such as a Special Needs Trust, if your family includes a family member with special needs, or other trusts, if they are needed.

Next, your emergency preparations should include having important documents assembled in a notebook, on a memory stick and/or a safe location. Imagine there was an emergency evacuation and you had to leave your home immediately. What documents would you need? Here’s a checklist:

  • Contact information for family members, doctors, attorneys, dentist, insurance broker, financial advisor.
  • Cash, so if ATMs are not working, you will have cash on hand.
  • Identification documents, including originals of your birth certificate, marriage license, divorce papers, passport, Social Security card, health insurance cards (or Medicare or Medicaid cards).
  • A video of your home and all of your possessions on your mobile phone. Consider emailing it to a family member or friend who lives in a different location.
  • Insurance policies for home, auto, disability, long-term care, etc. Include contact information for either 800-numbers or your local agent, if you need to file a claim.
  • A copy of recent financial statements for credit cards, banks, brokerage firms, retirement accounts, car loans, mortgage and similar types of accounts.
  • Copies of the last three years of tax returns. If you work with a CPA, they should have them on a secure portal, but a hard copy will be useful to have.
  • Legal documents for your estate plan, including the will, power of attorney and health care power of attorney, as described above.
  • Other legal documents, including car registration, car title and property deed to your home.

These documents should all be organized in a folder that is placed in your home where you and your spouse know where it is and can grab it on your way out the door.

One more item that should be noted in this digital age: if you use a laptop or tablet that contains websites that you use frequently for personal finance, investments, etc., be mindful of its location in the house, so you can grab it and a charger cable quickly. If you have passwords for accounts—and most of us do—you should print them out and include them in your file folder for easy access. You can almost always re-set a password, but how much easier will rebuilding your life be if you have them on hand?

If you do ever face a catastrophic emergency, having these materials will save you hours of time and stress.

Reference: The Dalles Chronicle (July 16, 2019) “Prepare now for emergencies”

What Happens to Social Security when a Spouse Dies?

Mary is right to be concerned. She is worried about what will happen with their Social Security checks when her spouse dies, who she needs to notify at their bank, how to obtain death certificates and how complicated it will be for her to obtain widow’s benefits. Many answers are provided in the article “Social Security and You: What to do when a loved one dies” from Tuscon.com.

What happens to Social Security after a spouse dies
Trying to figure out what happens to Social Security after a spouse dies can be complicated.

First, what happens to the Social Security monthly benefits? Social Security benefits are always one month behind. The check you receive in March, for example, is the benefit payment for February.

Second, Social Security benefits are not prorated. If you took benefits at age 66, and actually turned 66 on September 28, you would get a check for the whole month of September, even though you were only 66 for three days of the month.

On the other hand, if your spouse dies on January 28, you would not be due the proceeds of that January Social Security check, even though he or she was alive for 28 days of the month.

Therefore, when a spouse dies, the social security monies for that month might have to be returned. The computer-matching systems linking the government agencies and banks may make this unnecessary, if the benefits are not issued. Or, if the benefits were issued, the Treasury Department may simply interrupt the payment and return it to the government, before it reaches a bank account.

There may be a twist, depending upon the date of the decedent’s passing. Let’s say that Henry dies on April 3. Because he lived throughout the entire month of March, that means the benefits for March are due, and that is paid in April. Once again, it depends upon the date and it is likely that even if the check is not issued or sent back, it will eventually be reissued. More on that later.

Obtaining death certificates is usually handled by the funeral director, or the city, county or state bureaus of vital statistics. You will need more than one original death certificate for use with banks, investments, etc. The Social Security office may or may not need one, as they may receive proof of death from other sources, including the funeral home.

A claim for widow’s or widower’s benefits must be made in person. You can call the Social Security Administrator’s 800 number or contact your local Social Security office to make an appointment. What you need to do, will depend upon the kind of benefits you had received before your spouse died.

If you had only received a spousal benefit as a non-working spouse and you are over full retirement age, then you receive whatever your spouse was receiving at the time of his or her death. If you were getting your own retirement benefits, then you have to file for widow’s benefits. It’s not too complicated, but you’ll need a copy of your marriage certificate.

Widow’s benefits will begin effective on the month of your spouse’s death. If your spouse dies on June 28, then you will be due widow’s benefits for the entire month of June, even if you were only a widow for three days of the month. Following the example above, where the proceeds of a check were withdrawn, those proceeds will be sent to your account. Finally, no matter what type of claim you file, you will also receive a one-time $255 death benefit.

For more on this topic and how to make sure your wishes are carried out and your assets are protected after you pass away visit the Mastry Law website.

Reference: Tuscon.com (March 13, 2019) “Social Security and You: What to do when a loved one dies”

Suggested Key Terms: Social Security, Benefits, Widow, Widower, Full Retirement Age, Death Certificate

Celebrated Your 50th Birthday? Here’s What You Need to Do Next

The 50s are the time of life when your kids are starting to become more independent and may have moved out. If that’s true, you may have a little more disposable income. That presents a good opportunity to ramp up your retirement savings, advises Sioux City Journal in the article “In Your 50s? Do These 3 Things to Plan for Your Retirement.”

Unfortunately, many people who turn 50 start thinking now is the time to retire early, go on extravagant vacations or buy themselves big ticket items that they’ve always wanted. A better approach: consider this a time to make the most of your income, keep saving for retirement and stay on a steady course.

Use the catch-up options available to you. The federal government knows that many people don’t have the means or the motivation to save for retirement until later in their careers. That’s why there are several provisions in the tax laws that let you catch up, once you reach 50.

  • You can put away an additional $1,000 above the annual contribution limit to an IRA.
  • You can add $6,000 in annual contribution to 401(k)s and similar employer-sponsored plans after age 50.
  • Once you pass your 55th birthday, you can make an additional $1,000 annual contribution to health savings accounts.

If you’ve got the cash to spare, these are great opportunities.

Educate yourself about Social Security. Many people rely on Social Security for their retirement, while others use it as a safety net. You’ll want to start learning about the rules.

When you take your first benefits has an impact on how much you’ll receive over your lifetime. Yes, you can start at age 62, but the difference in the amount you’ll get at 62 versus 70 is substantial. If you plan to keep working indefinitely, maximizing earnings is the best way to boost your Social Security benefits.

Get access to savings in the early years of retirement. If you can afford to retire in your 50s, know when you can tap your retirement savings. If you’ve used regular taxable accounts to invest your savings, it won’t matter when you make withdrawals. However, if your money is locked up in 401(k)s, SEPs, IRAs and other tax favored accounts, you’ll need to know the rules. Penalties for taking withdrawals before the specified age, can take a big bite out of your retirement accounts.

It is hard to think about working every day for another 15 or 20 years, once you’ve celebrated your 50th birthday.  However, keeping these three key ideas in mind as you plan for the future will help put you in the best financial state possible.

Another post-50th birthday task? Meet with an estate planning attorney and make sure you have a will, Power of Attorney and other legal documents to protect yourself and your loved ones in case something unexpected should happen.

Reference: Sioux City Journal (Aug. 25, 2018) “In Your 50s? Do These 3 Things to Plan for Your Retirement”

Countdown to Retirement with Three Simple Questions

To help plan for retirement, it helps to move from asking global questions, like “Can I afford to retire?” to more specific questions, like “What’s my monthly cost of living right now?”

Sometimes retirement planning is so overwhelming that people just shrug their shoulders and hope that things work out. That’s a terrible way to plan for the last two or even three decades of your life. Plus, says Motley Fool in a recent article titled “Don't Even Think About Retiring Until You Can Answer These 3 Questions,” if you can’t answer three basic questions, maybe you’re not ready to start thinking about retirement.

MP900384841Can you believe that just 38% of Americans say they have a long-term financial plan, according to a recent survey? Let’s look at three important planning questions.

When to claim Social Security. Many people think that retirement and claiming Social Security benefits occur at the same time. However, they don't have to. You could elect to retire at age 60 but wait to claim your benefits until you reach 65. Remember that the amount of money you get in benefits is linked to the age at which you start claiming them. Age 62 is the earliest you can claim Social Security. However, if you do, your benefits will be reduced by up to 30% of what they could be. For every month you wait, you'll receive slightly more with each check up to age 70. Your full retirement age (FRA) is the age when you’ll get 100% of the benefits to which you’re entitled. Waiting can have its advantages, but there's no single right answer for when you should start claiming. It all depends on your personal circumstances.

Will your retirement savings last? Take a look at how far your savings will last during retirement. To determine how far your money will go, calculate the amount you'll need each year to get by during retirement. With a number in mind, you'll be able to better determine how long your current savings will last. You might realize that you need more than you anticipated, especially if you're going to be spending several decades in retirement.

Paying for healthcare costs. Healthcare costs are one of the largest expenses in retirement. Know that the average retiree spends about $4,300 per year on out-of-pocket healthcare expenses. A total of two-thirds of that is spent on premiums. It’s important to understand that Medicare will help cover many healthcare expenses you'll face, but it doesn't cover everything.

Circumstances often dictate when people retire; they lose a job in their mid to late 60s or illness prevents them from working. However, even when that is the case, understanding where you are from a financial perspective can help make your retirement work in your favor.

Reference: Motley Fool (October 9, 2018) “Don't Even Think About Retiring Until You Can Answer These 3 Questions”

Another Facet of Social Security to Learn: The Earnings Test

If it seems like every time you start to understand Social Security, there’s something else to learn, you’re right. However, this is an important part of your retirement income, so it’s important to understand.

The Social Security earnings test is a way that the agency determines the limit of the amount of money individuals who have not yet reached full retirement age (FRA) can earn, while they are collecting Social Security retirement benefits.

Social securityFor 2018, for every $2 that a worker who has not yet reached FRA earns over the annual threshold limit of $17,040, Social Security will withhold $1 from your benefits.

The Social Security benefit threshold rises significantly (to $45,360 in 2018) in the year you attain your full retirement age (FRA). At that point, one dollar will be withheld for every three dollars you earn over that threshold. The earnings limit is effective the first of the year and indexed annually.

Investopedia’s recent article, “How the Social Security Earnings Test Works,” says that everyone getting Social Security benefits prior to their full retirement age is subject to the earnings test—even widows and widowers receiving survivor benefits and minor children receiving benefits on a deceased parent’s record, if the child earns more than the annual limit. If a minor child is receiving benefits based on a parent’s work history and the parent is still living and under full retirement age, the earnings test for the child’s benefit will be subject to the amount earned by the parent.

Let’s look at how the earnings limit is applied. In the first year you claim Social Security prior to your full retirement age, you’re subject to a monthly earnings test beginning the month you start receiving benefits ($17,040 ÷ 12, or $1,420 per month in 2018). As a result, you can earn as much as you want prior to the month you startyour benefits.

In subsequent years, until the year you reach FRA, you’re subject to an annual earnings limit each year after the first year, until the year you reach your full retirement age. At the start of each year, you’ll be asked to estimate how much you plan to earn. If your estimated earnings are less than the annual limit for that year, there won’t be any Social Security benefits withheld.

The earnings limit in the year when you reach your full retirement age is much higher ($45,360 in 2018). This is a monthlyearnings limit ($45,360 ÷ 12 or $3,780 per month), if it’s the first year you are claiming benefits, but an annualearnings limit if it’s the second or subsequent year you’re not receiving benefits.

The annual gross earnings, as reported on your W-2, are used. Therefore, contributing to a 401(k) or similar retirement plan to reduce earnings subject to state and federal income taxes won’t impact your earnings for the earnings test. However, payments received “on account of retirement,” like a severance package, aren’t subject to the earnings test.

Remember that the earnings of your spouse may be considered, when applying the earnings test for your benefits. If you’re claiming benefits based on your currentspouse’s work record, and your spouse is under FRA and continues to work, his or her earnings are considered when applying the earnings test for your benefits (even if you’ve already attained FRA). However, if you’re claiming benefits on an ex-spouse’srecord, only your current earnings and age are used when applying the earnings test.

Self-employed people have to work fewer than 45 hours per month in their business, otherwise benefits claimed prior to FRA will be withheld, no matter how much they earn.

When the Social Security Administration (SSA) determines you have or will exceed the earnings test based on the estimated earnings you give them, they’ll calculate the amount to withhold and begin doing so immediately. They’ll withhold payment of full benefit checks, until they receive the full amount overpaid, then they’ll go back to remitting your monthly benefit.

Depending on how much you will earn, it does sometimes make sense to apply for Social Security before your FRA, even if you might be subjected to the earnings test. For instance, a widow or widower with one income who needs the additional income might file for benefits earlier than they had anticipated. You’ll want to understand all of your options, before making the decision to file.

Reference: Investopedia (September 18, 2018) “How the Social Security Earnings Test Works”

More Information Equals A Better Outcome in Retirement Planning

Most people who work for a living dream of retirement. However, for many workers, the idea of retirement comes with its own worries. Will there be enough money? Will I be healthy enough to enjoy it?

Money and health are the two biggest worries about retirement. There are other unknowns: where will we live? How long will we be able to travel? What’s all this about paying estimated taxes, and how does Medicare work? Getting prepared for retirement will be less stressful, says the article “3 Ways to Approach Retirement More Confidently,” from The Motley Fool, if you follow these steps:

MP900398819Start with a budget. The chances are that you don’t know how much money you spend every month. You’re working, money comes in and it goes out. However, if you know how much money you are spending, and what you are spending it on, you’ll be able to have a handle on how much money you’ll need for retirement. You’ll also be able to see where your discretionary dollars are going and make a conscious decision, as to whether those are dollars that should be going into long-term savings for your retirement.

Remember that while some expenses may go down—like commuting—others will stay the same. You won’t be going to the office every day, but you will want to enjoy yourself. What will your leisure and entertainment activities be, and how much will they cost? How will you handle health care costs?  You should also remember that there will be quarterly taxes to be paid.

The more information you can pull together about your spending, savings and unavoidable costs like taxes and health care, the better you’ll be able to plan for this next phase of your life.

How much income will your retirement accounts provide? We tend to focus on how much we need to save, but we should really focus on how much income our retirement savings will generate. How much will your IRA or 401(k) provide on a monthly basis?

Let’s say you’ve saved $500,000 in time for retirement. If you use an annual 4% withdrawal rate, which is the going rule these days, you’ll only have $20,000 a year generated for annual income. If you add Social Security to that amount, you may find that it’s not enough to enjoy the lifestyle you’ve anticipated for retirement. You may find that part-time employment can fill the gap, or you may need to work for a few more years.

Be smart about Social Security. Despite your years of saving, you will likely come to rely on Social Security to pay some of your bills. The smarter you are about your filing strategy, the better positioned you’ll be to maximize your Social Security benefits. If you wait until your Full Retirement Age, you’ll get the full monthly benefit you’re entitled to. If you can hold off claiming your benefits until age 70, you’ll max out as the monthly benefits increase every year you delay claiming.

One of your key resources as you move towards your retirement years will be your estate planning attorney. The process of creating an estate plan will also answer some of your questions about what retirement will bring and planning for aging now will give you a lot more confidence about enjoying your early years of retirement.

Reference:The Motley Fool(September 23, 2018) “3 Ways to Approach Retirement More Confidently.”

How Taking Social Security at 62 Makes Sense in Some Tax Brackets

If you’re living on your retirement savings, while waiting to start taking Social Security benefits to full retirement age or even age 70, you might be costing yourself thousands in taxes.

It’s annoying. There’s no way around it. You’ve worked your whole life, and paid taxes on those earnings. Now you have to pay taxes on your Social Security benefits. However, depending on your asset level, you may want to start getting those benefits earlier, says this article from Kiplinger, “Why Wealthy People May Want to Take Social Security at 62.”

MP900446480There are many good reasons to wait and take Social Security at full retirement age to get the full benefit amount. In waiting longer to file, the benefit can grow 8% a year from full retirement age to age 70.  However, this one-size-fits-all advice may not be appropriate for everyone, especially for the wealthy.

The issue is that everyone wants to up their benefits on the front end. However, if there is no plan to boost those dollars on the back end, by keeping more of your Social Security dollars for yourself instead paying taxes, it’s not worth it. For many seniors, by the time they see they’re going to be giving up to 20% to 30% of their Social Security away in taxes, it’s too late.

Of course, conventional wisdom says that, if possible, you should wait and claim bigger Social Security benefits at age 70. That’s something high earners in many instances can do, but there are an increasing number of couples who’d be better off filing at age 62, and using that income to preserve and build their nest egg.

Look at this example: say that a husband was retiring at age 62. Without his regular paycheck, he and his wife were both about to find themselves in the lowest tax bracket they had been in since their first jobs: the 10% bracket. The question for them, like many Americans, is whether to tap into their IRA and 401(k) in retirement. These are typically the most significant accounts in terms of amounts saved through the working years. If this couple didn’t start Social Security at age 62, they’d need to withdraw heavily from pretax retirement accounts. Based on the monthly distribution rate needed to maintain their budget, those dollars (which are taxed at current income tax rates) would immediately place them into a higher tax bracket (perhaps the 22% bracket under 2018 tax rates).

 However, if they take their Social Security payments at age 62, the monthly distribution amounts needed from their retirement savings accounts would be much less. This couple doesn’t want to drain their retirement accounts early in retirement, because it can mean lost opportunities for compounded growth of assets over a 20-to-30-year retirement. If the couple were to take their Social Security at age 62—while in a 10% tax bracket from age 62 to 70—the amount of tax they’d pay on those Social Security benefits would be minimal, maybe even zero.

Talk with your estate planning attorney, who has a clear picture of your tax situation in retirement and has likely designed your estate plan to minimize taxes. Make sure that your plan for when to take Social Security benefits makes sense from a tax perspective.

Reference: Kiplinger (September 7, 2018) “Why Wealthy People May Want to Take Social Security at 62”

Single Parents Need to Plan and Balance for Financial Stability

In addition to naming a guardian in a will, there are five other critical financial moves.

Without the security of a spouse’s income, single parents must balance their children’s needs with their own retirement savings goals.

MP900448410Single parents who have to say no to their children over and over again, struggle with wanting to say yes when money is tight and there’s no room in the budget for the latest fashions or games.  However, the last thing a single parent wants to do is convey a lack of financial discipline. A financial plan can help a single parent stay on track.

CNBC’s recent article, “Five financial essentials for single parents,” says that when single parents try to satisfy their kids, it can lead to a severe unintended consequence: placing their children ahead of their own retirement needs.

In addition to naming a guardian in a will, there are five other critical financial moves.

  1. Set up an emergency cushion. A solid emergency fund is the initial step. You should have three to nine months' expenses in that fund. Don’t forget to add whatever costs the kids have each month, like sports and activity fees, school lunches, clothing, and school supplies.
  2. Check on the right amount of insurance.Life insurance can help your family cope financially without your income. Your income could be lost through illness, so consider disability insurance. If you own a home, purchase flood insurance.
  3. Create definitive savings goals. You most likely have things that you'd like to do for your family, such as purchase a home, pay for college or plan a special vacation. Each of these will be on a different timeline. Divide this into near-, medium-, and long-term savings goals. Your near-term goals will happen within five years. The way in which you invest these three silos of money is based upon your unique time horizon. If you have decades before you retire or need to pay tuition for a newborn, you can take on more risk. Examine your allocation among these accounts and review them once a year, to see if the amounts you're putting in each—and the investment strategies—still match your goals.
  4. Have a set savings percentage. There's no set number that works for everyone. There are recommendations to save at least 6% or 9% of your income, but it’s not always possible. If you can only save $30 a month, do it and be glad! Just creating a positive habit of saving is important. Even if you save as little $10 a month, do it with the notion that you'll increase the amount, when your finances permit. A good rule of thumb is to put away 10% of your gross, not take-home, pay and as you get raises, increase your savings rate. Developing that disciplined habit of saving can help you accomplish many of your financial goals.
  5. Make your retirement plan. With your savings and Social Security, achieving a 50% replacement of income may be enough for people with modest salaries. However, a person who earns $100,000 will be more likely to want 85 to 90% of income. Therefore, they’ll have to save more. In sum, the more you have, the more you’ll need to save to be able to spend the same amount of money and live the same way in retirement.

For those lucky enough to work at a company with a retirement plan, contribute as much as you can, especially if your employer offers a match to your IRA contribution. If your company does not have any kind of retirement savings plan in place, the next best thing is to set up your own IRA and have money taken from your paycheck automatically. How much you save is up to you, but saving something is better than nothing.

Reference: CNBC (August 20, 2018)“Five financial essentials for single parents”

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