The Biggest Social Security Blunders in Retirement

Fox News’ recent article entitled “These mistakes will take a huge bite out of your Social Security income” shares what we should and shouldn’t do.

  1. Not working a full 35 years. Your Social Security benefits are calculated based on your wages during your 35 highest-paid years of work. However, for each year you don’t have an income on record, you’ll have a $0 factored into your personal equation. That’s going to mean a lower monthly benefit. Therefore, to avoid this, be sure you put in a full 35 years in the workforce. It may actually help boost your benefit, by avoiding those dreaded $0 years. It will also potentially factor higher wages into your calculation.

Many people earn more money later in their careers. If your earnings are now at their highest, and you work another year to make it a full 35, you may be adding a salary that’s far more than what you earned 30 years before (even though your previous wages will be adjusted for inflation when determining what monthly benefit you get).

  1. Not delaying until your full retirement age to file. You won’t be entitled to collect all of your benefits until you reach full retirement age (FRA). Your FRA will depend on your year of birth, and if you were born in 1960 or later, it’s 67. Born in 1959 or before? It’s 66, or 66 and a number of months.

You can file for Social Security as early as age 62, but for each month you sign up prior to your FRA, your benefits are reduced on a permanent basis. That’s bad news if you don’t have a lot of money in retirement savings and need those benefits to ensure that you’re able to make ends meet in retirement.

  1. Delaying benefits beyond age 70. Just as you get the option to sign up for Social Security before FRA, you can also delay benefits past FRA and boost them by 8% a year in the process. But don’t postpone your filing too long! When you hit age 70, you stop accruing the delayed retirement credits that increase your benefits. Therefore, delaying beyond that point could mean missing out on income.
  2. Retire in a state that taxes your benefits. Social Security benefits may be taxed on the federal level, if your earnings exceed a certain threshold. However, some states also tax Social Security. These 13 states tax benefits to some degree: CO, CT. KS, MN, MO, MT, NE, NM, ND, RI, UT, VT, and WV. Some states have lower earner exemptions.

Don’t slash your Social Security income and struggle in retirement because of these mistakes.

Avoid these mistakes to be certain that you get as much money from Social Security as you’re entitled.

Reference: Fox News (Sep. 14, 2020) “These mistakes will take a huge bite out of your Social Security income’

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Social Security Benefits: Timing Is Everything

Not knowing when you will be eligible to receive all of the benefits earned through your work history can hurt a retirement plan, says a recent article from CNBC.com titled “Here’s what to you need to know about claiming Social Security retirement benefits.” Equally problematic? It is letting fears of the program running out of money before you can get your fair share influence your decision.

If you get the timing right and use a combination of your retirement savings and Social Security benefits in the right time and the right order, your money may last as much as seven years longer. However, remember that there are many rules about Social Security and retirement fund withdrawals. Here are three big blind spots to avoid:

Not knowing when to take full benefits.

Age 62 is when you are first eligible to take Social Security benefits. Many people start taking them at this age because they don’t know better or because they have no alternative. If you start taking benefits at age 62, your monthly benefits will be reduced.

There is a difference between eligibility and Full Retirement Age, or FRA. When you reach FRA, which is usually 66 or 67, depending upon your birth year, then you are entitled to 100% of the benefits based on your work record. If you can manage without taking Social Security benefits a few more years after your FRA, those benefits will continue to grow—about 8% a year.

Most Americans simply don’t know this fact. If you can wait it out, it’s worth doing so. If you can’t, you can’t. However, the longer you can wait until when you reach your full amount, the bigger the monthly check.

How many ways can you claim benefits?

This is where people make the biggest number of mistakes. There are many different ways to take Social Security benefits. People just don’t always know which one to choose. First, once you start receiving benefits, you have up to a year to withdraw your application. Let’s say you need to start benefits but then you find a job. You can stop taking benefits, but you have to repay all the benefits you and your family members received. This option is a one-time only event.

Another way to increase benefits if you start taking them early, is to suspend them from the time you reach your FRA until age 70. However, you have to live without the Social Security income for those years.

Expecting the worst scenarios for Social Security.

Social Security headlines come in waves, and they can be disconcerting. However, a knee-jerk reaction is to take benefits early because of fear is not a good move for the long term. There are a number of proposals now on Capitol Hill to strengthen the program. Benefits may be reduced, but they will not go away entirely.

Reference: CNBC.com (Aug. 24, 2020) “Here’s what to you need to know about claiming Social Security retirement benefits”

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What are the Important Medicare Deadlines?

Here are the important dates for Medicare enrollment:

  • You can initially enroll in Medicare during the seven-month period that begins three months before you turn 65.
  • If you continue to work past 65, sign up for Medicare within eight months of leaving the job or group health plan or penalties apply.
  • The six-month Medicare Supplement Insurance enrollment period starts when you’re 65 or older and enrolled in Medicare Part B.
  • You can make changes to your Medicare coverage during the annual open enrollment period, from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7.
  • Medicare Advantage Plan participants can move to another plan from January 1 to March 31 each year.

Yahoo News’ recent article entitled “Medicare Enrollment Deadlines You Shouldn’t Miss” takes a look at when you need to sign up for Medicare and the penalties that can be imposed for late enrollment.

Medicare Parts A and B Deadline. Individuals who are getting Social Security benefits, may be automatically enrolled in Parts A and B, and coverage starts the month they turn 65. However, those who haven’t claimed Social Security must proactively enroll in Medicare. You can first sign up for Medicare Part A hospital insurance and Medicare Part B medical insurance during the seven months that starts three months before the month you turn 65. Your coverage can start as soon as the first day of the month you turn 65, or the first day of the prior month, if your birthday falls on the first of the month. If you fail to enroll in Medicare during the initial enrollment period, you can sign up during the general enrollment period between January 1 and March 31 each year for coverage that will begin July 1. Note that you might be charged a late enrollment penalty when your benefit begins. Monthly Part B premiums increase by 10% for each 12-month period you delay signing up for Medicare, after becoming eligible for benefits.

If you or your spouse are still working after age 65 for an employer that provides group health insurance, you must enroll in Medicare within eight months of leaving the job or the coverage ending to avoid the penalty.

Medicare Part D Deadline. Part D prescription drug coverage has the same initial enrollment period of the seven months around your 65th birthday as Medicare Parts A and B, but the penalty is different. It’s calculated by multiplying 1% of the “national base beneficiary premium” ($32.74 in 2020) by the number of months you didn’t have prescription drug coverage after Medicare eligibility and rounding to the nearest 10 cents. That’s added to the Medicare Part D plan that you choose each year. As the national base beneficiary premium increases, your penalty also goes up.

Medicare Supplement Insurance Plan Deadline. These plans can be used to pay for some of Medicare’s cost-sharing requirements and some services that traditional Medicare doesn’t cover. The enrollment period is different than the other parts of Medicare. It is a six-month period that starts when you’re 65 or older and enrolled in Medicare Part B. During this open enrollment period, private health insurance companies must sell you a Medicare Supplement Insurance plan, regardless of your health conditions. After this enrollment period, insurance companies can use medical underwriting to decide how much to charge for the policy and can even reject you. If you miss the open enrollment period, you’re no longer guaranteed the ability to buy a Medicare Supplement Insurance plan without underwriting, or you could be charged significantly more, if you have any health conditions.

Medicare Open Enrollment Deadline. You can make changes to your Medicare coverage during the annual open enrollment period from October 15 to December 7. During this period, you can move to a new Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, join a Medicare Advantage Plan, or stop a Medicare Advantage Plan and return to original Medicare. Changes take effect on January 1 of the following year.

Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Deadline. Participants can move to another plan or drop their Medicare Advantage Plan and return to original Medicare, including purchasing a Medicare Part D plan, from January 1 to March 31 each year. You can only make one change each year during this period, and the new plan will begin on the first of the month after your request is received.

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Reference: Yahoo News (July 27, 2020) “Medicare Enrollment Deadlines You Shouldn’t Miss”

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?”