How Does Social Security Benefits Work in My Estate Planning?
Social Security Benefits Agreement Concept

How Does Social Security Benefits Work in My Estate Planning?

A financial power of attorney (POA) is a critical element of an estate plan. This document makes certain that a person you named takes care of your finances, when you are unable. Part of managing your finances is coordinating your Social Security benefits—whether you already are getting them or will apply for them down the road.

However, what many people don’t realize, is that the Social Security Administration (SSA) doesn’t recognize POAs. Instead, as part of your estate plan, you need to contact the SSA and make an advance designation of a representative payee, according to Forbes’ article entitled “The Surprising But Essential Estate Planning Step For Social Security Benefits.”

This feature lets an individual select one or more people to manage their Social Security benefits. The SSA then, in most situations, must work with the named individual or individuals. You can designate up to three people as advance designees and list them in order of priority. If the first one isn’t available or is unable to perform the role, the SSA will move to the next one on your list.

A person who’s already getting benefits may name an advance designee at any point. Someone claiming benefits can name the designee during the claiming process. You can also change the designees at any time.

When you name a designee, the SSA will evaluate him or her and determine the person’s suitability to act on your behalf. Once he or she is accepted, a designee becomes the representative payee for your benefits. They will get the benefits on your behalf and are required to use the money to pay for your current needs.

A representative payee typically is an individual. However, it can also be a social service agency, a nursing home, or one of several other organizations recognized by the SSA to serve in this capacity.

If you don’t name designated appointees, the SSA will designate a representative payee on your behalf, if it feels you need help managing your money. Relatives or friends can apply to be a representative payee, or the SSA can choose a person. When a person becomes a designated payee, he or she is required to file an annual report with SSA as to how the benefits were spent.

Being a designated representative doesn’t give that person any legal authority over any other aspect of your finances or personal life. You still need the financial POA, so they can manage the rest of your finances.

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Reference: Forbes (April 17, 2020) “The Surprising But Essential Estate Planning Step For Social Security Benefits”

Some Counterintuitive Retirement Strategies

There are way too many people who choose to go with their gut, when planning for retirement. Investopedia’s recent article entitled “7 Counterintuitive Retirement Strategies” discusses some big misconceptions people commonly believe when it comes to retirement planning—along with the correct ways of thinking and approaches.

The first myth is that you should constantly be moving in and out of stocks, timing the market and that a buy-and-hold strategy is really a losing one. However, many studies have repeatedly shown that it is often less risky to hold stocks for longer periods. You know, it’s tough to find a 10-year period when the stock market had a negative return. Stocks and real estate are the two big asset classes that have outpaced inflation over time, and—even with a few bearish periods—they’ve slowly gone up in value and will likely continue to do the same. However, that doesn’t mean you can simply fund and forget. Periodically monitor your portfolio and its performance.

Another misconception is that if I don’t sell a losing position, then I don’t have a loss. That is just hogwash. You’re losing money in a declining stock or other security, despite the fact that don’t sell it. You won’t be able to claim a loss on your tax return, if you don’t actually divest. However, the difference between realized and recognized losses is only for taxes. Your actual loss is the same, no matter what is recognized on your tax return.

Myth Number Three is that you can just let your money managers handle it. While professional portfolio management is a good choice in many cases, you still need to be personally engaged in the management of your finances. You can assign market trading and day-to-decisions to a pro, but don’t leave the overall course of your finances totally with your broker or banker.

Next, don’t sell an investment and then buy it back again. Instead, just hold it. No, you can (and probably should) sell a depressed holding and declare a capital loss prior to year’s end to recognize a tax deduction. Why hold on? If the asset does recover, you could plunge in again. Buying an identical stock 30 days before or 30 days after the date of the sale of the original triggers the IRS’s wash sale rules. As a result, your capital loss claim will be void.

Another misconception is that my Social Security benefits will be enough to pay for my retirement years. This is not true. The average monthly Social Security payment for retirees was only $1,471 in June 2019. Benefits vary a lot, but your benefits were never designed to be more than 40% of your pre-retirement wages.

The next myth is that I should put all of my retirement money in totally secure income-oriented investments, especially after I retire. That is not necessarily true. Low-risk vehicles, of course, are more of a priority at this point in your life. However, most retirees should have at least some of their savings in growth and equities in some form, either through individual stocks or mutual funds.

The final misconception is that retirement is a long way away, and so I needn’t worry about it for a while. This is a very dangerous myth, because you’ll be poor and dependent on relatives if you don’t get this straightened out ASAP. It takes time for your investments to grow to what they’ll need to be to keep you through your retirement. Get going! Talk to your estate planning attorney for more information.

Reference: Investopedia (Oct. 21, 2019) “7 Counterintuitive Retirement Strategies”

Scammers Beef Up Efforts in a Crisis

As if the elderly didn’t have enough to endure, now comes word that scammers who typically prey on seniors are upping their game. Stating that Social Security offices around the country are closed, which is true, scammers are targeting seniors with letters threatening the suspension of their Social Security payments due to pandemic-related office closures.

It’s true that the offices across the country are closed, but Social Security employees are continuing to work, says the My Prime Time News article “Inspector General Warns Public About New Social Security Benefit Suspension Scam.”

What’s more, the Inspector General notes that the Social Security Administration (SSA) will not suspend or discontinue benefits because their offices are closed. The Inspector General has received reports that beneficiaries are receiving letters that advise them to call a phone number referenced in the letter.

Scammers then talk the callers into providing them with personal information or make arrangements for the seniors to send them retail gift cards, wire transfers, internet currency or even sending cash by mail. Otherwise, they tell the seniors that their benefits will be cut off until the office reopens.

Any communication that is received with that message, by mail, phone or email, is fraudulent and should be dismissed. Social Security will never:

  • Threaten with benefit suspension, arrest or legal action, if a fine or fee is not paid,
  • Promise a benefit increase or other help in return for direct payment,
  • Request or even accept payment by retail gift card, wire transfer, internet currency or prepaid debt card,
  • Demand secrecy about payments, or
  • Send letters or reports with personally identifiable information through the U.S. Mail.

Anyone who receives a letter, text, call or email that concerns an alleged problem with a Social Security number should not respond. The challenge is that the communications sometimes include a person’s Social Security number, or contains names, addresses or other information that is accurate. This is because scammers have purchased information illegally, not because the information is legitimate. Anyone receiving any communication from Social Security that demands immediate attention or threatens the end of benefits, should not respond directly to that communication.

Instead, report the scam to the Social Security Administration through its website. If you have any doubt about the validity of the letter or email, speak with a trusted friend, family member, or estate planning attorney. Don’t fall for it—especially during these tense times.

Reference: My Prime Time News (March 28, 2020) “Inspector General Warns Public About New Social Security Benefit Suspension Scam”

How Can I Fund A Special Needs Trust?

TapInto’s recent article entitled “Ways to Fund Special Needs Trusts” says that when sitting down to plan a special needs trust, one of the most urgent questions is, “When it comes to funding the trust, what are my options?”

There are four main ways to build up a third-party special needs trust. One way is to contribute personal assets, which in many cases come from immediate or extended family members. Another possible way to fund a special needs trust, is with permanent life insurance. In addition, the proceeds from a settlement or lawsuit can also make up the foundation of the trust assets. Finally, an inheritance can provide the financial bulwark to start and fund the special needs trust.

Families choosing the personal asset route may put a few thousand dollars of cash or other assets into the trust to start, with the intention that the initial investment will be augmented by later contributions from grandparents, siblings, or other relatives. Those subsequent contributions can be willed to the trust, or the trust may be named as a beneficiary of a retirement or investment account. It is vital that families use the services of an elder law or special trusts lawyer. Special needs trusts are very complicated, and if set up incorrectly, it can mean the loss of government program benefits.

If a special needs trust is started with life insurance, the trustor will name the trust as the beneficiary of the policy. When the trustor passes away, the policy’s death benefit is left, tax free, to the trust. When a lump-sum settlement or inheritance is invested within the trust, this can allow for the possibility of growth and compounding. With a worthy trustee in place, there is less chance of mismanagement, and the money may come out of the trust to support the beneficiary in a wise manner that doesn’t risk threatening government benefits.

In addition, a special needs trust can be funded with tangible, non-cash assets, such as real estate, securities, art or antiques. These assets (and others like them) can be left to the trustee of the special needs trust through a revocable living trust or will. Note that the objective of the trust is to provide the trust beneficiary with non-disqualifying cash and assets owned by the trust. As a result, these tangible assets will have to be sold or liquidated to meet that goal.

As mentioned above, you need to take care in the creation and administration of a special needs trust, which will entail the use of an experienced attorney who practices in this area and a trustee well-versed in the rules and regulations governing public assistance. Consequently, the resulting trust will be a product of close collaboration.

Reference: TapInto (February 2, 2020) “Ways to Fund Special Needs Trusts”

 

If You Plan to Retire This Year, Be Prepared

If you’re sure that you are going to leave the working world and start your retirement life in 2020, better not put in your notice at work until you’ve done your homework. The Motley Fool article “Retiring in 2020? 3 Things You Need to Know” covers three important steps.

If you were born in 1958, then this is the year you celebrate your 62nd birthday—which means you are eligible to collect Social Security. However, if you do, your benefits will be reduced as you have not yet reached your “Full Retirement Age” or FRA. People born in 1958 need to be 66 and eight months to reach that important milestone. At that point, you can collect your full benefit. Collect earlier, and your monthly benefit is reduced for the rest of your life.

Born in 1954 or earlier? Full retirement age for you is 66, if you were born between 1943 and 1954. If if you were born at the tail end of this range, then you can collect your full Social Security benefit this year. However, it still may pay to hold off on claiming benefits.

The longer you can delay tapping your Social Security benefits, the better. From the time you reach your FRA until age 70, your monthly benefit grows by about 8% each year. Few investments today have that kind of guaranteed yield. Some advisors recommend tapping retirement accounts first and delaying Social Security benefits as long as possible. It’s worth taking a closer look to see how this can be of benefit.

If you are planning to retire, but you’re not 65, you’ll need to find and pay for health insurance until you celebrate your 65th birthday. You can enroll in Medicare a few months before your 65th birthday, but if you’re 62, then you have a three-year health insurance gap. Private health insurance is extremely expensive, there’s no way around it. Before putting in that letter to HR that you’re retiring, get some real numbers on this cost. If your employer will consider having you work part-time so that you can maintain your employer-covered health insurance, it may be a good idea.

If you’re closer to age 65, then COBRA is a consideration, although it may still be expensive. Typically, COBRA allows you to retain your existing health coverage if you change jobs, or are fired, for a certain amount of time. However, you have to pay for the full cost of health coverage.

If your gap is only three months, then COBRA might make sense. However, if your gap is a year or more, then you need to be realistic about health coverage options. Pre-existing conditions and a limited marketplace for individual coverage may make this the reason you keep working until 65. You should also check the rules of going from COBRA to Medicare—they may not be the same as going from an employee plan to Medicare.

The more prepared you are for retirement, the more you’ll be able to relax and enjoy this new phase of your life. If these three points have made it clear that you’re not yet able to retire, understand that it is better to work a little longer to reach your eventual goal of retirement, then to find yourself struggling to pay bills and jeopardize a lifetime of savings because of unexpected expenses.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Dec. 28, 2019) “Retiring in 2020? 3 Things You Need to Know”

What Worries Retirees the Most?

Retirees don’t want to run out of money. However, homeowners over 62 who have considerable equity in their homes may want to look at a strategy that can minimize their money anxiety. A reverse mortgage will let them tap into home equity, by providing funds to keep them financially stable. Could the reverse mortgage payments take a bite out of their Social Security or Medicare benefits?

Motley Fool’s recent article asks, “Can a Reverse Mortgage Impact Your Social Security or Medicare Benefits?” The article explains that reverse mortgages, also called home equity conversion mortgages (HECM), were created in 1980 to help seniors stay solvent, while remaining in their homes.

You know that in a regular mortgage, you pay the bank monthly installments. However, with a reverse mortgage, the bank pays you. You take out money against the equity in your home, and the loan doesn’t come due until you sell the home, move out of it, or die. The amount you can get is based on a formula that takes into account your age, the equity in your home, its market value and the interest rate you’ll be paying. You can get your reverse mortgage funds as a lump sum, a monthly payment, or a line of credit.

There are some drawbacks to a reverse mortgage. This type of loan can have big fees, including origination fees, closing costs (similar to a regular mortgage) and mortgage insurance premiums.  These fees can usually be rolled into the loan. It will, however, increase the amount the bank is entitled to receive once the loan ends.

A reverse mortgage isn’t for you, if you want to leave your home to your family. Perhaps they can pay off the balance of your HECM once you die or move out, but that could be costly. If you want to sell it (perhaps to simplify the splitting up of that inheritance), the share your heirs will receive from the proceeds may not be as much as you’d anticipated. If you’re having a hard time keeping up with the day-to-day costs of running the house, a reverse mortgage may not be the best option. However, if you’re just looking to add to your retirement income for peace of mind, it’s a decent financial planning tool to consider.

The good news is that it has no impact on your Social Security benefits, because the program is not means-tested. Therefore, the amount of income you have won’t affect your monthly benefit when you file. As a result, you don’t need to take Social Security into account when you’re thinking about this type of loan.

Likewise, Medicare is a non-means-tested program. However, a reverse mortgage can have an impact on Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, because those are based on your current financial assets. If you’re receiving either of those, talk to an elder law attorney or estate planning attorney to discuss how a reverse mortgage might have an effect on your specific circumstances.

Reference: Motley Fool (November 1, 2019) “Can a Reverse Mortgage Impact Your Social Security or Medicare Benefits?”

Relocating for Retirement? What You Need to Know

Sometimes having too many choices can become overwhelming. Move closer to the grandchildren, or live in a college town? Escape cold weather, or move to a mountain village? With the freedom to move anywhere, you’ll need to do some serious homework. A recent article titled “Don’t Relocate in Retirement Without Answering These 5 Questions” from Nasdaq contains some wise and practical advice.

There are some regions that are more retirement-friendly than others. If you end up in the wrong place, it could hurt your retirement finances. Therefore, ask these questions first:

What are the state’s taxes like? If you are living on Social Security benefits, retirement savings and a pension, the amount of money you’ll actually receive will vary depending on the state. There are 37 states that don’t tax Social Security benefits, but there are 13 that do. There are also some states that do not tax distributions from retirement accounts. Learn the local rules first. If you currently live in a state with no income tax, don’t move to a state that may require a big tax check.

If you live in a high tax state and don’t have enough money saved for a comfortable retirement, then moving to a lower tax state will help stretch your budget.

Is there an estate or inheritance tax, and is that a concern for you? If leaving money to heirs doesn’t matter to you, this isn’t a big deal. However, if you want to pass on your assets, then find out what the state’s inheritance taxes are. In some states, there are no taxes until you reach a pretty large amount. However, in states with inheritance taxes, even a small estate may be taxed, with those who inherit sometimes owing money on even small transfers.

What’s the cost of living compared to where you live now? When you’re working, moving to a place with a higher cost of living is not as big a deal, since your wages (hopefully) increase with the relocation. However, if your cost of living goes up and your income remains fixed, that’s a problem. The last thing you want to do is move to a place where the cost of living is so high, that it decimates your retirement savings.

If you live somewhere with high taxes and high prices, moving to a lower cost of living area will help your money last longer, and could make your retirement much easier.

Is it walkable or do you need a car? Cars present two problems for aging adults. One, they are expensive to maintain and insure. Two, at a certain point along the aging process, it becomes time to give up the keys. If you live in a walkable community, you may be able to go from having two cars to having one car. You might even be able to get rid of both cars and do yourself a favor, by walking more. This also gives you far more independence, far later in life.

What’s healthcare like? Even people who are perfectly healthy in their 50s and 60s, may find themselves living with chronic conditions in their 70s and 80s. You want to live where first-class healthcare is available. Check to see what hospitals and doctors are in the area before moving. You should also find out if medical care providers accept Medicare. Consider the cost of a nursing home or home care in your potential new community. Some areas of the country have much higher costs than others.

Reference: Nasdaq (Aug. 9, 2019) “Don’t Relocate in Retirement Without Answering These 5 Questions,”

Retirement Planning: Where to Start?

While you may be thinking about retirement for a long time, with visions of tropical beaches or grand trips overseas, when the date starts to get closer, it’s time for some real analysis and planning, says limaohio.com’s recent article “What to consider when starting retirement.”

Start with a realistic assessment of your healthcare needs. At age 65, most people are eligible for Medicare. There are many different parts of Medicare, identified by letters, that are optional add-ons to expand coverage to serve more like the health insurance you have while working. Medicare is not directly charged to individuals, but the parts in which Medicare participants opt into, do require out of pocket payments.

Next, prepare a budget and cash-flow plan that reflects your current cash-flow situation and compare that to your expected cash-flow situation upon retirement. During retirement, income comes from several sources: part-time work, Social Security, distributions from retirement plans and earnings from investments or returns from investments.

As you get closer to retirement age, you can secure an estimate of your benefits from the Social Security Administration. This can be done by going to the government agency’s website and creating a “my Social Security” account, by calling the local office or sending a letter via mail. Note that the estimates are only estimates. Don’t depend on those being the final numbers.

Social Security benefits are based on the number of years you have worked and the amount of money that was contributed to Social Security over a lifetime. Many people mistakenly think that Social Security is a government managed retirement system, where there is a relationship between what gets paid and what is distributed. However, Social Security’s process of determining benefits is based on a formula.

Based on your birthdate, Social Security calculates the age at which you can receive the program’s maximum benefit. If you take benefits before that date, then the monthly amount will be smaller over your lifetime. The longer you can delay taking benefits after your Full Retirement Age (FRA), the larger the monthly payment will be.

Retirement accounts, like 401(k)s and IRAs, allow for withdrawals without penalty after age 59 ½. Unless the account is a Roth IRA, any amounts withdrawn will be subject to taxes. At age 70 ½, account owners are required to withdraw a certain amount from IRAs and 401(k)s, known as Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs).

All this information needs to be considered to plan for retirement, especially with the prospect of needing long-term care, including nursing home or in-home care. This usually involves planning to someday become eligible for Medicaid, if needed.

When you are preparing for retirement, it’s also a good time to make sure that your estate plan is in place. An estate plan that has not been reviewed in three or four years may only need a few tweaks, or it may need a complete overhaul. Speak with your estate planning attorney to make sure you’ve covered all of your retirement bases.

Reference: limaohio.com (Aug. 31, 2019) “What to consider when starting retirement.”

What’s Long Term Care About?

Many people are scared about the prospect of needing help in a long-term care setting, and they are right to be worried. For many people, a spouse or adult children will become the go-to caregivers, but not everyone will have that option, says Market Watch’s article “This is how much long-term care could cost you, and don’t expect Medicare to help.”

If that’s not worrisome enough, here are facts to consider:

  • More than a third of people will spend some time in a nursing home, where the median annual cost of a private room is well over $100,000, says Genworth’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey. Don’t expect those numbers to go down.
  • Four of ten people will opt for paid care at home, and the median annual cost of a home health aide is more than $50,000.
  • Half of people over 65 will eventually need some kind of long-term care costs, and about 15% of those will incur more than $250,000 in costs, according to a joint study conducted by Vanguard Research and Mercer Health and Benefits.

Medicare and even private health insurance don’t cover what are considered “custodial” expenses. That’s going to quickly wipe out the median retirement savings of most people: $126,000. With savings completely exhausted, people will find themselves qualifying for Medicaid, a government health program for the indigent that pays for about half of all nursing home and custodial care.

Those who live alone, have a chronic condition or are in poor health have a greater chance of needing long-term care. Women in particular are at risk, as they tend to outlive their husbands and may not have anyone available to provide them with unpaid care. If a husband’s illness wipes out the couple’s savings, the surviving spouse is at risk of spending their last years living on nothing but a Social Security benefit.

The best hedge against long-term care costs is to purchase a long-term care insurance policy, if you are eligible to purchase one. Wait too long, and you may not be able. One woman persuaded her parents to purchase a long-term insurance policy when her father was 68 and her mother was 54. Five years into the policy, her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The policy covered almost the entire cost of his 24-hour care in the final months of his life. Her mother lived to 94, so the investment in the policy was well worth it.

Everyone approaching retirement needs a plan for long-term care costs. That may be purchasing long-term care insurance, speaking with a qualified elder law attorney, or purchasing a hybrid life insurance product with long-term care benefits. If there is no insurance and one member of the couple is still alive, getting a reverse mortgage may be an option.

Reference: Market Watch (July 19, 2019) “This is how much long-term care could cost you, and don’t expect Medicare to help.”