When to Take 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.  Others are concerned about health and whether they will receive Social Security for very long. 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.

Continuing to work.  Many seniors are continuing to work  well past traditional retirement ages to make ends meet.  Taking Social Security while still working may result in devastating tax losses.  It may make sense to delay Social Security until completely retired.

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.  You may also consider speaking with a financial advisor who can evaluate opportunities to earn greater income with money in hand with earlier Social Security.

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”

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How Do I Stop COVID-19 from Eating Up My Retirement?

Covid-19 has complicated retirement planning.
Covid-19 has complicated retirement planning.

COVID-19, as well as the efforts taken to slow the spread of the disease, have caused financial and health crises throughout the country, especially for seniors. As a result, financial and other life decisions for seniors and those planning for retirement are much more complicated than they were just a few months ago.

The USA TODAY recently published an article entitled “What you can do if coronavirus is threatening your retirement” that examined some of the challenges and opportunities people should consider as they move into retirement, especially during the current pandemic.

Decrease your 401(k) contributions. As you hit 50, you’re able to make catch-up contributions to your 401(k) and IRA accounts. For 2020, you can contribute up to $6,500 annually to a 401(k) and, if you’re over 50, up to $1,000 above the $6,000 annual limit to either a traditional or Roth IRA. You might look at reducing your contributions. If you have credit card debt or a car loan, paying that off that before retiring might be more important than building your nest egg. When you retire, your savings would be your main source of income.

Take some money out of your IRA. You can withdraw funds from either an IRA or a 401(k) at age 59½. If you’re still working, and your employer has a 401(k), you can continue to contribute to it as long as you are eligible. However, you must start withdrawing funds when you reach 72. You can’t continue contributing to a traditional IRA once you reach that age, but that’s not the case with Roth IRAs. The longer you can leave your savings untouched (or keep adding to them), the more you will have when you retire.

Think about your wheels. Ask yourself if you really, really need a new or fairly new car at all. If yes, notice that the down payment on a lease is typically lower and so are the monthly payments. After the lease term is up (usually three years), you can get a lease on a new car and do it again. Know that it takes about five years to pay off a new car loan and you will be driving it payment-free for 10 or more years, if you keep it for 15 years. Therefore, buying an affordable vehicle may be a better choice.

Take your Social Security now. When you turn 62, you can start collecting Social Security retirement benefits. You’ll get another opportunity at age 65 or later (depending on your birth year) and at 70, you’re required to take it. In 2020, if you begin collecting benefits at age 62, the maximum monthly payment is $2,265; at 65 or later, the monthly benefit is $3,011; and at age 70, the maximum benefit is $3,790. Usually, you’d want to wait as long as you can to take the benefit, because your monthly income will be higher when you need it most (i.e., when you’re older).

Look into a reverse mortgage. They often get a bad rap, but there are situations when it may make sense. If your home is your largest asset, and you need cash and have no other way to get it, a reverse mortgage may be your best option. However, to get one, your mortgage must be paid off (or nearly so).

Downsize. Consider selling your home and buying smaller digs. By downsizing, you might be able to pay cash for a smaller home and use the rest of the proceeds from the sale of your old house to pay off other debt.

Other Ideas. You can also lessen your debt load, plan to keep your current car a few years loner and plan to work a year or two longer. A few other ideas are to join AARP, trim your household expenses, see if you can cut your cellphone bill, take advantage of senior discounts and pre-plan your funeral.

For more information on Covid-19 and retirement planning see https://www.galliganmanning.com/should-you-cut-retirement-savings-efforts-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic/

Reference: USA TODAY (April 13, 2020) “What you can do if coronavirus is threatening your retirement”

 

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What Exactly Is the Estate Tax?

Most people ignore the estate tax due to its high exemptions, but as some candidates may lower the exemption, it is good to familiarize yourself with it.

In the U.S., we treat the estate tax and gift tax as a single tax system with unified limits and tax rates—but it is not very well understood by many people.  Plus, the estate tax exemption is currently as high as it’s ever been, so many people ignore it assuming it doesn’t and never will apply to them.

However, the estate and gift tax has always been a political football, so it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with it in an election year.  The Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?” gives us an overview of the U.S. estate and gift tax, including what assets are included, tax rates and exemptions in 2020.  As an overriding point, this blog covers federal estate and gift tax.  Some states have their own estate, gift and/or inheritance tax (tax on all transfers to beneficiaries at a lower rate) which may work differently then the federal tax.

The U.S. estate tax only impacts the wealthiest households. Let’s look at why that’s the case. Americans can exempt a certain amount of assets from their taxable estate—the lifetime exemption. This amount is modified every year to keep pace with inflation and according to policy modifications. This year, the lifetime exemption is $11.58 million per person. Therefore, if you’re married, you and your spouse can collectively exclude twice this amount from taxation ($23.16 million). To say it another way, if you’re single and die in 2020 with assets worth a total of $13 million, just $1.42 million of your estate would be taxable.

However, most Americans don’t have more than $11.58 million worth of assets when they pass away. This is why the tax only impacts the wealthiest households in the country. It is estimated that less than 0.1% of all estates are taxable. Therefore, 99.9% of us don’t owe any federal estate taxes whatsoever at death. You should also be aware that the lifetime exemption includes taxable gifts as well. If you give $1 million to your children, for example, that counts toward your lifetime exemption. As a result, the amount of assets that could be excluded from estate taxes would be then decreased by this amount at your death.

You don’t have to pay any estate or gift tax until after your death, or until you’ve used up your entire lifetime exemption. However, if you give any major gifts throughout the year, you might have to file a gift tax return with the IRS to monitor your giving. There’s also an annual gift exclusion that lets you give up to $15,000 in gifts each year without touching your lifetime exemption. There are two key points to remember:

  • The exclusion amount is per recipient. Therefore, you can give $15,000 to as many people as you want every year, and they don’t even need to be a relative; and
  • The exclusion is per donor. This means that you and your spouse (if applicable) can give $15,000 apiece to as many people as you want. If you give $30,000 to your child to help her buy their first home and you’re married, you can consider half of the gift from each spouse.

The annual gift exclusion might be an effective way for you to reduce or even eliminate estate tax liability. The tax rate is effectively 40% on all taxable estate assets.

It is also worth noting that a lot of clients want to give away assets during their life time through annual gift exclusions because they are worried about the estate tax.  However, with such a high exemption, it is often better to keep assets in your estate.  This is because generally appreciable assets in your estate receive a “step-up” in basis at your death.  This point is outside the scope of this blog, but see here for why keeping assets in your estate is probably a good thing.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/higher-estate-tax-exemption-means-you-could-save-income-taxes-by-updating-your-estate-plan/

Finally, the following kinds of assets aren’t considered part of your taxable estate:

  • Anything left to a surviving spouse, called “the unlimited marital deduction”;
  • Any amount of money or property you leave to a charity;
  • Gifts you’ve given that are less than the annual exclusion for the year in which they were given; and
  • Some types of trust assets.

Some candidates seeks to greatly lower the estate and gift tax exemption, which may lead to many more taxable estates.  If you are concerned about this tax, or are after the election, please contact our office to discuss how the estate and gift tax impacts you.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Jan. 25, 2020) “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?”

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