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Are You Clueless about Social Security?

If you haven’t a clue about Social Security, it’s vital that you learn, so you can be ready to grow and maximize your benefits.

Lake Geneva Regional News’ recent article entitled “35% of Near-Retirees Failed a Basic Social Security Quiz. Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know About It” provides several important things you should know:

Your benefits are determined by your top 35 years of earnings. The monthly benefit you get in retirement is based on your specific earnings during your 35 highest-paid years in the workforce. If you don’t work a full 35 years, you’ll have $0 factored into that equation for each year you’re missing an income. So, you can see how important it is to try to fill in those gaps. If you lost your job during the pandemic and are thinking about early retirement, check your earnings history before you do.

You’re only entitled to your full monthly benefit when you hit full retirement age. You can claim your monthly retirement benefit in full once you hit your full retirement age (FRA). However, many people don’t know what that age is. About a quarter (26%) of those aged 60 to 65 couldn’t correctly identify their FRA on the quiz. Your FRA is based on your year of birth.

You can claim Social Security as early as age 62 or wait until age 70 and grow your benefits in the process. However, you’ll need to know your FRA first.

You can collect Social Security, even if you never worked. If you are or were married to someone who’s entitled to Social Security, you may be eligible for spousal benefits that amount to 50% of what your current or ex-spouse collects.

MassMutual found that 30% of older Americans didn’t know that a person who’s divorced may be able to collect Social Security benefits based on a former spouse’s earnings history. Thus, it pays to read up on spousal benefits as retirement nears, even if you never held a job.

Being ill-informed about Social Security could make it more difficult to file at the right time and make the most of your Social Security income

Stay up to date on how Social Security benefits work, so you’re able to make wise choices for your retirement.

Reference: Lake Geneva Regional News (April 10, 2021) “35% of Near-Retirees Failed a Basic Social Security Quiz. Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know About It”

Does New COVID Relief Bill have an Impact on Seniors?

Money Talk News’ recent article entitled “6 Ways the New COVID-19 Relief Law Affects Retirees” provides a look at some of the changes retirees can expect from the new legislation.

  1. Stimulus payments for dependent adults. A first noticeable way in which the third round of stimulus payments is different from the first two is that dependents of all ages can qualify. Therefore, a household that supports a disabled senior will receive an additional $1,400 payment for that senior, if the household claims the person as a dependent on their federal income tax.
  2. Funding for ailing pension plans. The American Rescue Plan Act includes several terms concerning pension plans, one of which calls for the Treasury Department to transfer funds to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. so that certain financially troubled multiemployer pensions can continue to pay out full benefits. That will help more than one million Americans. The PBGC operates insurance programs for single-employer and multiemployer pensions.
  3. Eligibility for the earned income credit for 2021. One of several changes the legislation made to the earned income tax credit — which is for working taxpayers with low to moderate incomes — is striking the maximum age of 64 for the 2021 tax year. As a result, seniors who work may be eligible to claim the earned income credit, when they file their taxes in 2022. The usual eligibility requirements for the credit require you to have at least one qualifying child or, if you don’t have a qualifying child, you must be between 25 and 65.
  4. Higher taxes for some gig workers. However, this COVID-19 relief law isn’t all good news for all taxpayers. Retirees (and anyone else) who earn some extra money with gig work might face more taxes in the future. This will help offset the cost of the American Rescue Plan Act, generating an estimated $8.4 billion in additional tax revenue for the federal government through fiscal year 2031. Companies with gig workers may report more payments than in the past, so the IRS will have a better idea of who is earning income from gig-economy jobs. This change may come as a surprise for some who’ve underreported income in the past.
  5. Tax relief for forgiven student loans. Under the Act, student loan debt that’s forgiven in 2021 through 2025 can be excluded from the debtor’s gross income. That will shield the canceled debt from federal taxation. Prior to this, such canceled debt generally was considered taxable income by the IRS. This will apply to student loan debtors of all ages. However, that group includes a growing number of retirees, as 20% of all student loan debt — around $290 billion — is owed by people age 50 and older, according to a 2019 AARP report. That’s five times more since 2004.
  6. New or expanded tax credits for health premiums. Retirees who aren’t yet 65 and as a result don’t have Medicare health insurance, might benefit from tax credits in the Act that help eligible individuals with two other types of health insurance. The law creates a refundable, advanceable tax credit for COBRA continuation coverage premiums. It is for people who are eligible for COBRA from when the Act was signed into law (March 11) and Sept. 30, 2021.

Reference: Money Talk News (March 16, 2021) “6 Ways the New COVID-19 Relief Law Affects Retirees”

What are Most Costly Mistakes with Social Security?

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “5 Social Security Oversights That Could Cost You Thousands” says that these five Social Security mistakes could cost you thousands in your retirement.

  1. Claiming Social Security early while you’re still working. You can claim your Social Security retirement benefit as young as age 62, but your benefits will be permanently reduced when compared with the amount you would receive if you waited until your full retirement age. Social Security will also penalize you for continuing to work while collecting benefits, if you are younger than your full retirement age.
  2. Failing to claim Social Security by your 70th birthday. Once you hit age 62, your benefit increases the longer you wait to claim, until you reach 70. You don’t have to claim your benefit by your 70th birthday, but there is no more benefit for waiting at that point.
  3. Delaying past your full retirement age to claim Social Security spousal benefits. If you’re claiming Social Security benefits based on your own income record, it’s smart to wait past your full retirement age to start taking benefits. However, if you’re claiming based on your spouse’s benefits, there’s no benefit to delay beyond your full retirement age to claim. As a result, married couples of similar ages who have vastly different earned incomes have a dilemma: for you to claim spousal benefits, your spouse also has to have begun claiming benefits based on his or her own earnings record. This combination makes it less worthwhile for the primary breadwinner spouse to wait to collect benefits, if the spouse is expecting to take spousal benefits.
  4. Taxes on Social Security benefits are not adjusted for inflation. Originally, Social Security benefits weren’t taxed. However, in 1984, the government started taxing Social Security benefits once a person’s combined income reached $25,000. Even now, the income level where Social Security starts to get taxed is still at $25,000. Because there is no adjustment for inflation, this makes more of people’s Social Security income taxable. This easily costs even moderate-income retirees thousands of dollars of spendable income over the course of their retirements.
  5. “Tax free” income counts toward making Social Security taxable. Even traditionally tax-free sources of income, like the interest from in-state municipal bonds, is included in the calculations to see how much of your Social Security will be considered taxable. Therefore, seniors who own tax free municipal bonds as part of their retirement portfolio may be surprised to find that those bonds are what’s causing their Social Security to be taxed. Seniors who find themselves in that situation may want to reevaluate their choice to be invested in those tax-free municipal bonds.

Despite how simple Social Security may appear, these five situations show how mistakes can cost thousands of dollars.

Reference: Motley Fool (March 14, 2021) “5 Social Security Oversights That Could Cost You Thousands”

living longer

What are the Scariest Statistics for Retirement?

Think Advisor’s recent article entitled “11 Scariest Retirement Statistics: 2020” says that there is a lack of preparation, savings difficulty and general uncertainty that American retirees are facing. Here are those scary stats:

  1. Just a quarter of Americans are on a trajectory to maintain their lifestyles in retirement. The other 75% will need to work longer, move to lower-cost housing and cut spending to maintain their standard of living, largely due to the coronavirus downturn.
  2. The Social Security trust funds would be empty by 2023, without the payroll tax. While President Trump let employers temporarily defer the employee portion of payroll taxes, he said the deferred taxes could later be forgiven, or the cut made permanent. When he signed the order, he vowed to “terminate the tax,” if reelected. Republican lawmakers subsequently debuted a plan to fund any shortfalls from the Treasury.
  3. Social Security benefits will be decreased by 21% if the trust fund runs out. Congress will have to intercede, or it could happen 10 years from now, if not sooner.
  4. Those born in 1960 will have a big problem because of the complicated formula the Social Security Administration uses to calculate benefits. Pre-retirees born in 1960 will see a nearly 15% cut to their lifetime benefits from Social Security when it’s time to collect. If the pandemic suppresses the economy into 2022, those cuts will impact more pre-retirees. The impact to their Social Security benefits will also be permanent.
  5. The 2021 Social Security cost of living adjustment, or COLA, will be just 1.3%. Retirees should note that rising health care costs and a potential 6% increase in Medicare Part B premiums may absorb that benefit increase.
  6. More than 50% of Americans think the economy is worse now than in 2008, with 51% of Americans seeing the COVID slowdown as worse than the 2008 recession. A survey from Edelman Financial Engines also found that 26% had withdrawn money from retirement or savings for living expenses.
  7. About 60% of retirement savers have fallen behind, according to a TIAA study. Among these, 30% said it was directly due to the pandemic.
  8. Internet searches for “move out of the U.S.” have increased 16 times. International Living magazine says it had seen the jump in search traffic around the phrase since May. A total of 20% of respondents in a survey it conducted also said they wanted to move due to the pandemic. However, just 45% cited a desire to save money.
  9. Approximately 42% of investors sold stock, and most of them (88%) of them regretted it. In response to the drop in stocks in mid-March last year, 42% of investors in a survey by MagnifyMoney sold at least one stock and 24% sold all their holdings. About 69% of those who sold stock at the start of the pandemic greatly regretted it, and 19% said they were somewhat regretful.
  10. Roughly 80% of older Americans don’t understand retirement planning and don’t know the basics of how to successfully plan for a financially secure retirement, according to a study by The American College of Financial Services. The survey also found only 30% of respondents had a plan in place to fund long-term care needs, and just one in four actually had long-term care insurance.
  11. About 3 million workers may have been driven into early retirement due to the pandemic. From March to August of 2020, 2.8 million older workers might have been pushed out of their jobs prematurely, with economic turmoil and poor health making it hard for them to resume their careers elsewhere, according to by the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School. The report found that 38% of unemployed older adults stopped looking for work and left the workforce, and an additional 1.1 million were expected to do likewise.

Reference: Think Advisor (Oct. 30, 2020) “11 Scariest Retirement Statistics: 2020”

Do You Know These Social Security Surprises?

If you don’t understand how Social Security works, you may get caught off guard by some of Social Security’s rules and nuances, says Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “Don’t Let These 3 Social Security Surprises Ruin Your Retirement.” Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Taxes on benefits. Many assume that Social Security is not taxed, but it may be, depending on your provisional income. Your provisional income is calculated by taking your non-Social Security income plus 50% of your annual benefit payments. If that total is between $25,000 and $34,000 for a single or between $32,000 and $44,000 for a married couple filing jointly, you could be taxed on up to 50% of your benefits. Moreover, if your provisional income is more than $34,000 as a single tax filer, or $44,000 as a joint filer, you may be subject to taxes on up to 85% of your benefits. Typically, if Social Security is your sole retirement income source, you will avoid having your benefits taxed at the federal level. However, there are 13 states that tax Social Security.
  2. Withheld benefits when you still get a paycheck. When you hit your full retirement age (FRA), which is when you are entitled to collect your monthly Social Security benefit in full, you can earn as much money as you would like from a job, without having that income impact your benefit payments. However, if you work and collect benefits at the same time before reaching FRA, you may have some of your benefits withheld if you exceed the annual earnings test limit.

You can earn up to $18,960 in 2021 without losing any benefits. Above that threshold, you will have $1 in Social Security withheld for every $2 you earn. If you will be attaining FRA this year, the earnings test limit is higher, $50,520, and after that you will have $1 in Social Security withheld for every $3 you earn.

These withheld benefits are not lost permanently. They are added onto your monthly benefit once you reach FRA. However, claiming Social Security before FRA will also reduce your monthly benefit for life. Bear that in mind, if you are planning to continue working.

  1. Ultra-low cost-of-living adjustments. Social Security benefits are subject to a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), which is designed to help seniors keep up with inflation. However, in recent years, it has not. From 2002 to 2011, COLAs averaged 2.43%, but between 2012 and 2021, they averaged only 1.65%. As a result, many seniors on Social Security have had trouble paying their bills. COLAs are tied to fluctuations in the cost of goods and services, but this does not necessarily relate to seniors. Because of this, some lawmakers have been advocating for a better way of calculating them.

If you are planning to depend primarily on Social Security in retirement, be certain that you know the details of the program.

Reference: Motley Fool (Feb. 1, 2021) “Don’t Let These 3 Social Security Surprises Ruin Your Retirement”

Federal Court Decides for ‘Blue Water’ Navy Veterans

In November, the U.S. District Court for Northern California ruled in favor of thousands of “blue water” Navy veterans and their survivors, who argued that they’re being wrongly denied benefits as part of a deal reached by Congress last year.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “New court ruling could give thousands of Vietnam vets and survivors overdue disability payouts” reports that under that plan, the Department of Veterans Affairs was required to grant presumptive benefit status for chemical defoliant exposure to veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during that war.

Advocates for years had said that VA’s requirement of direct proof of exposure was hard to obtain, when it has been decades after veterans were in the service. However, more than 22,500 blue water veterans or survivors have received VA benefits payouts since the beginning of 2020.

The new law didn’t require VA officials to go back and review cases denied before 2020. Vets who reapplied for benefits could have their cases considered again, but advocates argue that all of the cases should be resurfaced and reviewed by the VA.

In an interview with Military Times, Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence said no decision has been made by VA and Department of Justice officials on an appeal. However, he did remark that the lawsuit was discussed as part of VA’s preparations for the new benefits processing at the start of this year.

If the decision stands — either upon further appeal or if the government opts to simply accept the latest ruling — Lawrence said he’s confident the VA can start reviewing those cases without any significant disruption to operations.

President Trump signed legislation granting presumptive status for disability benefits to about 90,000 Navy veterans who served in the seas around Vietnam during the war. This concludes a long battle to get disability benefits more quickly for up to 90,000 Navy veterans who served in Vietnam.

VA has already paid out about $700 million in retroactive benefits related to the “blue water” veterans benefits in 2020.

Reference: Military Times (Nov. 16, 2020) “New court ruling could give thousands of Vietnam vets and survivors overdue disability payouts”

delay claiming social security

Should I Delay in Claiming Social Security?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Waiting to File for Social Security Benefits Is Hard, but Payoff Is Sweet” asks you to imagine if, when you were a child, your mom baked your favorite pie and made you an offer. She could serve you a piece of pie right then and let you eat it. Alternatively, if you waited until after dinner, you’d get a bigger slice. Or, if you could wait until bedtime, your piece would be even larger. And not just that day, but for the rest of your life.

Every time you had pie for dessert, the size of your piece would be based on the decision you made that one day.

There are many justifications for taking the smaller piece of pie right away, when offered. Many people want to begin their retirement as soon as possible, and they want or need the Social Security income to do so. Some want to claim their benefits and invest the money to further grow their nest egg. Many people are concerned that the Social Security trust fund will be depleted before they get their share. Finally, there are some who just aren’t aware of how much bigger their monthly payment could be if they waited.

While you can get your benefits as early as 62, that choice, can mean a permanent reduction in benefits of up to 30% less than what you could receive by filing at your full retirement age (FRA). Retirees who file after their FRA receive a delayed retirement credit of 8% per year until they turn 70.

Admittedly, eight years (from 62 to 70) is a long time to wait to tap into this significant income stream. Most seniors would jump at the chance for more money, particularly as many baby boomers face these challenges that could put even the best-laid income plans to the test in retirement:

Longevity. The longer you live, the greater the chance that your savings will have to endure multiple financial storms, such as increased taxes, inflation and costly health care issues as you get older. The Social Security Administration estimates that the average 62-year-old woman born in 1958 can expect to live another 23½ years, and a man with the same birthdate can expect to live another 20⅔ years. That’s a long time to have to make your money last. However, if you maximize your Social Security benefits by earning delayed retirement credits, you’ll always have that guaranteed income.

Low interest rates. In the current low-interest environment, the return on “safe” investments, such as CDs, bonds, and money market accounts, won’t protect you from inflation. Thus, one of the best investments that retirees can make right now isn’t really an investment at all, but rather it’s growing their Social Security payments by delaying to take them.

Decline in employer pensions. The retirement savings system in the United States traditionally has been built on three pillars: Social Security, a workplace pension and individual savings. However, over the past two decades, many employers have stopped offering pensions. As a result, the full responsibility for retirement investing has been shifting to employees with defined contribution plans. However, 40.2% of older Americans now depend on Social Security alone for income in retirement. Only 6.8% receive income from a defined benefit pension, a defined contribution plan, and Social Security. Fidelity Investments also reports that the median 401(k) balance in the first half of 2019 was $62,000 for savers in the 60 to 69 age group.

Ask an elder law attorney who practices in Social Security matters to help you make some calculations to determine your “break-even” age, which is when you’d come out ahead by waiting instead of claiming early. If you haven’t already, sign up with the Social Security Administration to get an estimate of your retirement benefits at 62, 67, and 70, using their online benefits calculator.

If your objective is to land the biggest possible piece of pie — and you can manage it — waiting is the name of the game.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 21, 2020) “Waiting to File for Social Security Benefits Is Hard, but Payoff Is Sweet”