7 Ways for Women to Not Outlive Their Money

Once a month, my brass quintet goes to a retirement home/nursing home and plays a concert for the residents. Over the past 15 years, I’ve visited more than 100 locations in Dallas. They run the gamut from Ritz-Carlton levels of luxury to places that, well, aren’t very nice and don’t smell so great.

What all these places do have in common is this: 75 to 80 percent of their residents are women. Women outlive men, and in many marriages, the husband is older. Wives are outliving their husbands by a substantial number of years. While no one dreams of ending up in a nursing home, living alone at that age is even more lonely, unhealthy, and perilous.

For women who have seen their own mother, aunt, or other relative live to a grand old age, you know that there are many older women who are living in genuine poverty in America today. Husbands, you may not worry about your old age or what happens to you, but certainly you don’t wish to leave your wife in dire financial straits after you are gone.

Longevity risk – the risk of outliving your money – is a primary concern for many women investors. A good plan to address longevity begins decades earlier. Here are some of the best ways to make sure you don’t outlive your money.

1. Delay Social Security benefits. Social Security is guaranteed for life and it is often the only source of guaranteed income that will also keep up with inflation, through Cost of Living Adjustments. By waiting from age 62 to age 70, you will receive a 76% increase in your monthly Social Security benefit. For married couples, there is a survivorship benefit, so if the higher earning spouse can wait until 70, that benefit amount will effectively apply for both lives. Husbands: even if you are in poor health, delaying your SS benefit will provide a higher benefit for your wife if she should outlive you.Read more: Social Security: It Pays to Wait

2. Buy a Single Premium Immediate Annuity (SPIA) when you retire. This provides lifetime income. The more guaranteed income you have, the less likely you will run out of money to withdraw. While the implied rate of return is not terribly high on a SPIA, you could consider that purchase to be part of your allocation to bonds. Read more: How to Create Your Own Pension

3. Delay retirement until age 70. If you can work a few more years, you can significantly improve your retirement readiness. This gives you more years to save, for your money to grow, and it reduces the number of years you need withdrawals by a significant percentage. Read more: Stop Retiring Early, People!

4. Don’t need your RMDs? Look into a QLAC. A Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract is a deferred annuity that you purchase in your IRA. By delaying benefits (up to age 80), you get to grow your future income stream, while avoiding Required Minimum Distributions.Read more: Longevity Annuity

5. Invest for Growth. If you are 62 and retiring in four years, your time horizon is not four years, you are really investing for 30 or more years. If your goal is to not run out of money and to maintain your purchasing power, putting your nest egg into cash might be the worst possible choice. Being ultra-conservative is placing more importance on short-term volatility avoidance than on the long-term risk of longevity.

6. Don’t blow up your investments. Here’s what we suggest:

  • Don’t buy individual stocks. Don’t chase the hot fad, whether that is today’s star manager, sector or country fund, or cryptocurrency. Don’t get greedy.
  • No private investments. Yes, some are excellent, but the ones that end up being Ponzi schemes also sound excellent. Seniors are targets for fraudsters. (Like radio host Doc Gallagher arrested this month in Dallas for a $20 million Ponzi scheme.)
  • Determine a target asset allocation, such as 60% stocks and 40% bonds (“60/40”), and either stick with it, or follow the Rising Equity Glidepath.
  • Use Index funds or Index ETFs for your equity exposure. Keep it simple.- Get professional advice you can trust.

7. Consider Long-Term Care Insurance. Why would you want that? Today’s LTCI policies also offer home care coverage, which means it might actually be thing which saves you from having to move to an assisted living facility. These policies aren’t cheap: $3,000 to $5,000 a year for a couple at age 60, but if you consider that assisted living would easily be $5,000 a month down the road, it’s a policy more people should be considering. Contact me for more information and we can walk you through the process and offer independent quotes from multiple companies.

There is no magic bullet for longevity risk for women, but a combination of these strategies, along with saving and creating a substantial retirement nest egg, could mean you won’t have to worry about money for the rest of your life. The best time to start planning for your future is today.

When a 2% COLA Equals $0

Social Security provides Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) annually to recipients, based on changes to the Consumer Price Index. According to an article in Reuters this week, the Social Security COLA for 2018 should be around 2%. Social Security participants may be feeling like breaking out the Champagne and party hats, following a 0.3% raise for 2017 and a 0% COLA for 2016.

Unfortunately, and I hate to rain on your parade, the average Social Security participant will not see any of the 2% COLA in 2018. Why not? Because of increases in premiums for Medicare Part B. Most Social Security recipients begin Part B at age 65, and those premiums are automatically withheld from your Social Security payments.

Social Security has a nice benefit, called the “Hold Harmless” rule, which says that your Social Security payment can not drop because of an increase in Medicare costs. In 2016 and 2017 when Medicare costs went up, but Social Security payments did not, recipients did not see a decrease in their benefit amounts. Now, that’s going to catch up with them in 2018.

In 2015, Medicare Part B was $105/month and today premiums are $134. For a typical Social Security benefit of $1,300 a month, a 2% COLA (an increase of $26 a month) will be less than the increase for Part B, so recipients at this level and below will likely see no increase their net payments in 2018. While many didn’t have to pay the increases in Part B over the past two years, their 2018 COLA will be applied first to the changes in Medicare premiums.

I should add that the “Hold Harmless” rule does not apply if you are subject to Medicare’s Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount. If your income was above $85,000 single, or $170,000 married (two years ago), you would already pay higher premiums for Medicare and would be ineligible for the “Hold Harmless” provision. And if you had worked outside of Social Security, as a Teacher in Texas, for example, you were also ineligible for “Hold Harmless”.

The cost, length, and complexity of retirement has gone up considerably in the past generation. Not sure where to begin? Give me a call, we can help. Preparation begins with planning.

The Future of Social Security

It seems like the Internet Age has helped create a culture of instant gratification, short attention spans, and sound bites. There is less interest and patience for detailed discussions, long-form journalism, or acknowledging the complex trade-offs of decisions. We have moved into a post-factual world where the truth gets less airplay than spin. Politically, everything is black and white, right or wrong.

Frequently, I see people posting political comments or memes on Facebook about Social Security. These posts are meant to make the other party look like villains, but are often factually incorrect, incomplete, and short-sighted. I avoid getting sucked into these unproductive conversations, but many people could use a better understanding of the numbers and reality of our situation.

We should be having a real, adult conversation about Social Security. It is the future of not only retirement planning, but of our country’s prosperity and debt. I hope this primer below will make the case for why we need to reform Social Security and the challenges we face.

First, it is a myth that Social Security saves your contributions. Social Security is and always has been an entitlement program, like Welfare or Food Stamps. Current taxes are used to pay current benefits. The Social Security taxes you paid in 2015 were paid out to Social Security Beneficiaries in 2015. None of that money was saved for you.

Because of post-WWII demographics, there was for a very long time, a Social Security surplus. They took in more payroll taxes than they paid out in benefits. That annual surplus was invested in the Social Security Trust Fund, to pay a portion of future benefits. It was never the intent or expectation that the Trust Fund would cover all future expenses.

For decades, the Trust Fund saved this surplus. However, in the 1970’s politicians looked for a way to close the budget gap and decided to spend the Trust Fund and replace those assets with IOU’s in the form of Treasury Bonds.

Several years ago, the annual Social Security surplus disappeared and became negative. Today, there is a short-fall where current OASDI taxes are insufficient to cover benefits paid. The short-fall is presently being covered by the Trust Fund through cashing in their Treasury Bonds. This is where all the Facebookers get things wrong – Social Security does have an impact on the deficit. Benefits which are paid from the Trust Fund are now part of our national debt, as new bonds are issued to replace those cashed by the Trust Fund.

Once the Trust Fund reaches zero, the Social Security Administration will be able to cover only 77% of their promised benefits. Every year, the Social Security trustees project when this will occur, presently thought to be 2035. This is the date that Social Security will be insolvent, or “bankrupt”.

People say, But I paid into Social Security, I am OWED those benefits! Unfortunately, the Social Security System is broken and the numbers are simply not going to work. When the program began, there were 16 workers for every retiree. Today, there are 3 workers for every retiree, and that ratio is expected to continue to fall to 2 to 1, before the mid-century.

There are a couple of reasons why this has happened. Demographically, the Baby Boomer generation is enormous and there are thousands of people who are starting benefits every day for the next two decades. When Social Security began, the life expectancy at birth was only 65. Today, if you are already 65, the typical beneficiary will probably live another two decades. The retirement period being funded by Social Security has swelled from a couple of years to 20, 30, or more years because of our increasing longevity.

What originally worked in 1935 isn’t possible with today’s population. Every year, the Trustees tell Congress exactly how to fix Social Security. There are only two options: increase taxes or decrease benefits. There is no magic unicorn of preserving promised benefits and not raising taxes. That’s not how Math works. So when a politician promises that they will not lower benefits, they are either in favor of higher taxes or they are just blowing smoke. If they ignore the issue for long enough, it will become their successor’s problem.

Seniors vote and turn out better than any other age group. Politicians and candidates know this. The easiest attack in politics is to say that your opponent wants to “take away your Social Security check”. Up to this point, that war cry has silenced every politician who has proposed Social Security reform, including the bi-partisan Simpson-Bowles commission which came up with comprehensive solutions.

The present approach from politicians is the worst for America: kick the can down the road and let someone else fix it. Parties are too concerned with maintaining their seats over the next two years (or taking them back), to be willing to think longer-term than the next election cycle. The longer we wait to address the short-fall, the more drastic steps will be required.

Simpson-Bowles proposed increasing the Full Retirement Age from 67 to 69 over several decades. This would have had zero impact on current retirees and gave 20 years notice to future retirees. But even this small change brought the full opposition of the AARP, and ultimately none of the commission’s proposals were ever enacted.

Presently, workers and employers pay OASDI taxes on the first $127,200 of earnings (2017). Raising the income ceiling on Social Security taxes will not be sufficient to fully fund benefits, even if we were to eliminate it entirely. There will probably need to be some reduction in benefits if we are to avoid increasing taxes significantly on all workers. But that doesn’t mean that everyone will see their benefits plummet. Ways to reduce benefits include:

  • Increasing the Full Retirement Age gradually from 67 to 70
  • Changing how SS calculates cost of living adjustments (COLAs)
  • Means-testing benefits
  • Creating a cap on benefits, say to the first $75,000 in income
  • Adjusting mortality calculations for today’s increased longevity
  • Lowering the payout formulas and tying them to future increases in longevity

By the way, increasing immigration and the population of younger people would help retirement programs like Social Security. Look at a country like Japan, which has an even higher percentage of retirees than the US, to see the challenges of financially supporting a large segment of the population. The money that is spent on retirement programs, or to finance the debt of those programs, crowds out other government spending which might be better for economic development.

There is no quick fix or easy solution to save Social Security, but it’s time we expect more from our politicians. Fixing Social Security and Medicare will not be easy or painless, but we need to be thinking now about how we can preserve these programs and ensure their viability for younger workers and future generations. Become an informed voter and be on the lookout for when politicians are using issues as ammunition to lob at their opponents, rather than looking at solutions for America.

Social Security Planning: Marriage, Divorce, and Survivors

The Social Security Statement you receive is often incomplete if you are married, were married, or are a widow or widower. Your statement shows your own earnings history and a projection of your individual benefits, but never shows your eligible benefits as a spouse, ex-spouse, or survivor.

In general, when someone is eligible for more than one type of Social Security benefit, they will receive the larger benefit, not both. But how are you supposed to know if the spousal benefit is the larger option? Social Security is helpful with applying for benefits, but they don’t exactly go out of their way to let you know in advance about what benefits you might receive or when you should file for these benefits.

The rules for claiming spousal benefits, divorced spouse benefits, and survivor benefits are poorly understood by the public. And unfortunately, many financial advisors don’t understand these rules either, even though Social Security is the cornerstone of retirement planning for most Americans. Today we are giving you the basics of what you need to know. With this information, you may want to delay or accelerate benefits. The timing of when you take Social Security is a big decision, one which has a major impact on the total lifetime benefits you will receive.

1) Spousal Benefits. If you are married, you are eligible for a benefit based on your spouse’s earnings, once your spouse has filed to receive those benefits. If you are at Full Retirement Age (FRA) of 66 or 67, your spousal benefit is equal to 50% of your spouse’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). If you start benefits before your FRA, the benefit is reduced. You could start as early as age 62, which would provide a benefit of 32.5% of your spouse’s PIA. Calculate your benefit reduction here.

If your own benefit is already more than 50% of your spouse’s benefit, you would not receive an additional the spousal benefit. When you file for Social Security benefits, the administration will automatically calculate your eligibility for a spousal benefit and pay you whichever amount is higher. A quick check is to compare both spouse’s Social Security statements; if one of your benefits is more than double the other person’s benefit, you are a potential candidate for spousal benefits.

If your spouse is receiving benefits and you have a qualifying child under age 16 or who receives Social Security disability benefits, your spousal benefit is not reduced from the 50% level regardless of age.

Please note that spousal benefits are based on PIA and do not receive increases for Deferred Retirement Credits (DRCs), which occur after FRA until age 70. While the higher-earning spouse will receive DRCs for delaying his or her benefits past FRA, the spousal benefit does not increase. Furthermore, the spousal benefit does not increase after the spouse’s FRA; it is never more than one-half of the PIA. If you are going to receive a spousal benefit, do not wait past your age 66, doing so will not increase your benefit!

2) Divorced Spouse Benefits. If you were married for at least 10 years, you are eligible for a spousal benefit based on your ex-spouse’s earnings. You are eligible for this benefit if you are age 62 or older, unmarried, and your own benefit is less than the spousal benefit. A lot of divorced women, who may have spent years out of the workforce raising a family, are unaware of this benefit.

Unlike regular spousal benefits, your ex-spouse does not have to start receiving Social Security benefits for you to be eligible for a benefit as an ex-spouse, as long as you have been divorced for at least two years.The ex-spouse benefit has no impact on the former spouse or on their subsequent spouses. See Social Security: If You Are Divorced.

If you remarry, you are no longer eligible for a benefit from your first marriage, unless your second marriage also ends by divorce, death, or annulment.

A couple of hypothetical scenarios, below. Please note that the gender in these examples is irrelevant. It could be reversed. The same rules also apply for same-sex marriages now.

a) A man is married four times. The first marriage lasted 11 years, the second lasted 10 years, the third lasted 8 years, and his current (fourth) marriage started three years ago. The current spouse is eligible for a spousal benefit. The first two spouses are eligible for an ex-spouse benefit, but the third is not because that marriage lasted less than 10 years. A person can have multiple ex-spouses, and all marriages which lasted 10+ years qualify for an ex-spouse benefit!

b) A woman was married for 27 years to a high-wage earner, and they divorced years ago. She did not work outside of the home and does not have an earnings record to qualify for her own benefit. She is 66 and unmarried, so she would qualify for a benefit based on her ex-spouse’s record.

However, if she were to marry her current partner, she would no longer be eligible for her ex-spousal benefits. If the new spouse was not receiving benefits, she could not claim spousal benefits until he or she filed for benefits. Additionally, if the new partner is not a high wage earner, her “old” benefit based on the ex-spouse may be higher! Some retirees today are actually not remarrying because of the complexity it adds to their retirement and estate planning. And in some cases, there is an actual reduction in benefits by remarrying.

3) Survivor Benefits. If a spouse has already started their Social Security benefits and then passes away, the surviving spouse may continue to receive that amount or their own, whichever is higher. The survivor’s benefit can never be more than what they would receive if the spouse was still alive.

If the deceased spouse had not yet started benefits, the widow or widower can start survivor benefits as early as age 60, but this amount is reduced based on their age (See Chart). Widows or widowers who remarry after they reach age 60 do not have their survivorship eligibility withdrawn or reduced.

One way to look at the survivorship benefit: which ever spouse has the higher earnings history, that benefit will apply for both spouse’s lifetimes. The higher benefit is essentially a joint benefit. For this reason, it may make sense for the higher earner to delay until age 70 to maximize their benefit. If their spouse is younger, is in terrific health, and has a family history of substantial longevity, it may be profitable to think of the benefit in terms of joint lifetimes.

Additionally, Social Security offers a one-time $255 death benefit and also has benefits for survivors who are disabled or have children under age 16 or who are disabled.

The challenge for planning is that none of these three benefits – spousal, ex-spouse, or survivor – are indicated on your Social Security statement. So it is very easy to make a mistake and not apply for a benefit. I like for my clients to send me a copy of their Social Security statements, and I have to say that more than half of the clients I have met don’t understand how these benefits work, even if they are aware that they are eligible.

Social Security Administration: it’s time to fix your statements. You can do better.

Stop Retiring Early, People!

 

When I was 30, I set a goal of being able to retire at age 50. I’m still on track for that goal, but with my 44th birthday coming up next month, I now wonder what the hell was I thinking. I don’t want to retire. I get bored on a three-day weekend. I need to have mental activity, variety, and the sense of purpose and fulfillment that comes with work. So, no, I won’t be retiring at 50 even if I can.

Social Security: It Pays to Wait

Social Security is a cornerstone of retirement planning. Although financial planners spend considerable time thinking about portfolio construction and sustainable withdrawal strategies, nothing beats Social Security in terms of its lifetime guaranteed income and automatic inflation adjustments. Given the significance of Social Security in retirement, it’s remarkable how many people don’t do any numerical analysis about when to start benefits. There is a strong behavioral bias to start benefits early. In fact, 74% of beneficiaries begin benefits before their Full Retirement Age (66 for those born between 1943 and 1954).

2016 Contribution Limits and Medicare Information

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Inflation was almost non-existent in 2015 due to falling commodity prices. This means that for 2016, most of the IRS contribution limits to retirement accounts are unchanged. Zero inflation creates some unique problems for Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries, which we will explain.

If you are automatically contributing the maximum to your retirement plan, good for you! You need not make any changes for 2016. If your contributions are less than the amounts below, consider increasing your deposits in the new year.

2016 Contribution Limits
Roth and/or Traditional IRA: $5,500 ($6,500 if age 50 or over)
401(k), 403(b), 457: $18,000 ($24,000 if age 50 or over)
SIMPLE IRA: $12,500 ($15,500 if age 50 or over)
SEP IRA: 25% of eligible compensation, up to $53,000
Gift tax annual exclusion: $14,000 per person

Tax brackets and income phaseouts increase slightly for 2016, but there are no material changes. People are still getting used to the new Medicare surtaxes, which include a 3.8% tax on net investment income (unearned income), and a 0.9% tax on wages (earned income). The surtax is applied on income above $200,000 (single), or $250,000 (married filing jointly).

Capital gains tax remains at 15%, with two exceptions. Taxpayers in the 10% and 15% tax brackets pay 0% capital gains, and taxpayers in the 39.6% bracket pay a higher capital gains rate of 20%. For 2016, you will be in the 0% capital gains rate if your taxable income is below $37,650 (single) or $75,330 (married).

For Social Security recipients, the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for 2016 is 0%. We previously had a 0% COLA in 2010 and 2011, and it creates an interesting situation for Medicare participants. Medicare Part A is offered free to beneficiaries over age 65. Medicare Part B requires a monthly premium.

Part B premiums should be going up in 2016, but about 75% of Part B participants will see no change, thanks to Social Security’s “Hold Harmless” provisions. The “Hold Harmless” rule stipulates that if Medicare Part B costs increase faster than Social Security COLAs, beneficiaries will not have their SS benefits decline from the previous year. And since there is no COLA for 2016, any Medicare Part B premium increase would cause SS benefits to negative.

For the past three years, Part B premiums have remained at $104.90 per month. You are eligible for no increase under the “Hold Harmless” rule, if you are having your Part B payments deducted from your Social Security benefit AND you are not subject to increased Medicare premiums under the Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount (IRMAA).

For most Part B recipients, Medicare premiums are fixed. For higher income participants, IRMAA increases your premium, as follows for 2016:

MAGI $85,000 (single), $170,000 (married): $170.50
MAGI $107,000 (single), $214,000 (married): $243.60
MAGI $160,000 (single), $320,000 (married): $316.70
MAGI $214,000 (single), $428,000 (married): $389.80

If you fall into one of these income categories, above $85,000 (single) or $170,000 (married), you are ineligible for the “Hold Harmless” rule and will have to pay the premiums above, even if this causes your Social Security benefit to decline from 2015.

If you are delaying your Social Security benefits and pay your Part B premiums directly, you are also ineligible for the “Hold Harmless” rule. Finally, if you did not participate in Social Security, for example, teachers in Texas, you would also not be eligible for the “Hold Harmless” rule.

What Should You Expect from Social Security?

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The big surprise this week was that the new budget approved by Congress and signed by President Obama on Monday abolishes two popular Social Security strategies for married couples. The two strategies that are going away are:

1) File and Suspend. A spouse could file his or her application but immediately suspend receiving any benefits. This would enable the other spouse to be eligible for a spousal benefit, while the first spouse could continue to delay benefits to receive deferred retirement credits until age 70.

2) Restricted Application. Also called the “claim now, claim more later” strategy, this would allow a spouse to restrict their application to just their spousal benefit at age 66, while continuing to defer and grow their own benefit until age 70.

Both of these strategies were ways for married couples to access a smaller spousal benefit, while still deferring their primary benefits until age 70 for maximum growth. And now, these strategies will be gone in 6 months from today. It was estimated that these strategies could provide as much as $50,000 in additional benefits for married couples. Needless to say, people close to retirement who were planning on implementing these strategies feel disappointed and upset.

Some Baby Boomers have done a lousy job of saving for retirement and are going to be heavily reliant on Social Security. According to Fidelity Investments, the average 401(k) balance as of June 30 was $91,100 and their average IRA balance is $96,300. If an investor had both an average IRA and 401(k), they’d still have only $187,400. But those figures don’t tell the true depth of the problem facing our nation, because those “average balances” don’t count the 34% of all employees who have zero saved for retirement. For many retirees, savings or investments are not going to be a significant source of retirement income.

Looking at current beneficiaries, the Social Security Administration notes that 53% of married couples and 74% of single individuals receive at least 50% of their income from Social Security. For 47% of single beneficiaries, Social Security is at least 90% of their retirement income! As of June 2015, the average monthly benefit is only $1,335, so that should give you some idea of how little income many retirees have today.

Our country simply cannot afford to let Social Security fail, and yet the current approach is unsustainable. People think that Social Security is a pension or savings program, but it is not. It is an entitlement program where current taxes go to current beneficiaries. Back in the years when the ratio of contributors to retirees was 5 to 1, there was a surplus of taxes which was saved in the Social Security Trust Fund. Currently, there are only 2.8 workers per beneficiary and since 2010 Social Security benefits paid out have exceeded annual revenue into the program. By 2035, there will be only 2.1 workers per beneficiary, and this demographic change is the primary reason the system cannot work in its current form.

Today’s estimate is that the Trust Fund will be depleted by 2034. The Disability Trust Fund will be depleted next year, in 2016, at which time funds will have to shifted within Social Security to pay for Disability benefits not covered by payroll taxes.

The 2015 Trustees Report calculates that to fix Social Security for the next 75 years, the actuarial deficit is 2.68% of taxable payroll. This represents an unfunded obligation with a present value of $10.7 Trillion. Every year, the Trustee’s Report tells Congress the size of the shortfall, so Congress can take steps to either reduce benefits or raise taxes to correct the problem.

Unfortunately, changing Social Security has become a “hot potato” which no politician wants to touch. For those who have been brave enough to propose a solution, they are attacked with one-liner sound bites, accusing them of “trying to take away your Social Security benefits.” It is so disappointing that our elected officials cannot come together on a solution to ensure the solvency of our primary source of national retirement income.

It was surprising that the two Social Security claiming strategies were abolished so quickly and with such little opposition or discussion. This will save Social Security a small amount, but it’s doubtful this will make any material improvement in the program’s long-term viability.

For workers close to retirement, it seems unlikely that there will be any significant changes to the Social Security system as we know it today. The best thing you can do is to delay benefits from age 62 to age 70, which will result in a 76% increase in benefits. If you live a long time (to your late 80’s or longer), you will end up receiving greater lifetime benefits for having waited, and the guaranteed income from Social Security will decrease the “longevity risk” that you will deplete your portfolio over time.

For younger workers, I think it is highly probable that we will see the Full Retirement Age increase or a change in how the Cost of Living Adjustments are calculated. For high earners, I believe that you will see the current income cap of $118,500 increase significantly or be removed altogether. Another proposal is to apply a Social Security tax to unearned income, such as dividends and capital gains, to prevent business owners from shifting income away from wages in order to avoid taxes.

I think the strongest approach for investors will be to save aggressively so that your nest egg can be the primary source of your retirement income. Then you can consider any Social Security benefits as a bonus.

A Business Owner’s Guide to Social Security

Keyboard Hands

For many small business owners I meet, their business is their retirement plan. They expect that either they will be able to receive an income while handing off day-to-day management to an employee or they hope to sell the business and use the proceeds to fund their retirement. Both approaches carry a high degree of risk as the success of one business will make or break their retirement. As a financial planner, I want to help business owners achieve financial independence autonomous from their business.

Social Security plays a part in their retirement planning, but for most people covers only a portion of their expenses. While the Social Security Administration observes that 65% of participants receive more than half of their income from Social Security, the average Social Security benefit today is only $1294 a month and $648 for a spouse.

Five Social Security Considerations for Business Owners

For the sake of simplifying the points below, I am assuming that the business owner is the husband, but anyplace I use “he”, this could of course be “she”. Age 66 is the Full Retirement Age (FRA) for individuals born between 1943-1954, however, the FRA increases from 66 to 67 for individual born between 1955 and 1960.

1) Salary versus Distributions

While sole proprietorships generally pay self-employment tax on all earnings, business owners who have established as an entity such as a corporation or LLC may receive income from salary as well as distributions or dividends. Only salary is countable towards your Social Security benefit; other forms of entity income, such as distributions or dividends are not subject to Social Security taxes and therefore not used in determining your Social Security benefit amount. (Benefits are calculated based on your highest 35 years of income, inflation adjusted; the Social Security maximum wage base for 2014 was $117,000.)

Avoiding Social Security taxes (15.3%) is often a consideration in selecting an entity structure. For example, we may see an owner pay himself $50,000 in salary and take another $100,000 in distributions from the company profits, rather than taking all $150,000 as salary. At retirement, a business owner’s Social Security benefit amount is only based on their salary, so in the example above, his benefit amount will be less than a worker who received the full $150,000 as salary. I’m not suggesting that business owners should forgo these tax savings and take more income as salary, however, they should consult with their financial planner to estimate their Social Security benefits and create other vehicles to save and invest their tax savings to make up for the lower SS benefits they will receive as a result of taking a lower salary.

2) SS between 62 and FRA

Approximately half of SS participants start taking benefits immediately at age 62; 74% of current recipients are receiving a reduced benefit from starting before FRA. Starting at age 62 will cause a 25% reduction in benefits versus starting at age 66. While SSA will automatically recalculate your benefits if you continue to work while receiving benefits, the actuarial reduction (up to 25%) remains in place for life.

3) Survivor Benefits

Many people consider their own life expectancy in deciding when to start Social Security. The payback for deferring SS benefits from age 66 to 70 may take until age 79 or 80, depending on your estimate of COLAs. If the owner is concerned that they will not live past 79 or 80, they often take benefits at 66. However, there is an additional vital consideration which is survivorship benefits for your spouse.

A surviving spouse will receive the higher of their own benefit or the deceased spouse’s benefit. The higher earner’s benefit will end up being the benefit for both lives. Therefore, it often makes sense to maximize the higher earner’s benefit amount by delaying to age 70, especially if the spouse is younger and has a longer life expectancy. For each year you wait past age 66, you receive an 8% increase in benefits (delayed retirement credits or DRCs), which is a good return. When people take early benefits based solely on their own life expectancy, they fail to consider that their benefit also impacts their survivor’s benefit amount.

4) File and Suspend

One of the problems with delaying to age 70 is that the owner’s spouse will be unable to receive a spousal benefit until the owner files for his benefit. This is generally not an issue if the spouse has a substantial benefit based on her own earnings. If she does not, however, there is a solution to enable the spouse to receive her spousal benefit while the husband delays until age 70. In a “File and Suspend” strategy, the business owner files for benefits at age 66, to allow his spouse to receive her spousal benefit, (the full amount, provided she is also age 66 or higher). The owner then immediately suspends his benefit, which entitles him to earn the deferred retirement credits until age 70.

DRCs do not apply to the spousal benefit, so if the spousal benefit applies (spousal is higher than her own benefit, or she does not have a benefit based upon her own work record), she should not delay past age 66. That’s why it is essential to know if a spouse will receive their own benefit or a spousal benefit. The spouse should never delay past age 66 if receiving a spousal benefit – you’re losing years of benefits with no increase in amount.

To recap: File and Suspend works best when the spouse is the same age or older and has little or no earnings history on her own.

5) Claim Now, Claim More Later

For a business owner who is still working, but whose spouse has already filed for her own SS benefit, at his FRA, he can restrict his application to his spousal benefit and receive just a spousal benefit. This will allow him to still receive DRCs and delay his own benefits until age 70, while receiving a spousal benefit without penalty. That’s free money. (Note: this only works when spouse is already receiving benefits and he is at FRA. You cannot restrict an application to the spousal benefit prior to FRA.)

I can help you to compare different Social Security timing strategies to make the best decision for your situation. Before we get started, you will need to first download the current Social Security statements online at www.ssa.gov/myaccount/ for both yourself and your spouse. A Social Security statement never shows any spousal benefit amounts, and the calculators on the SSA website do not consider file and suspend strategies, so you cannot consider these scenarios without using other tools.

How to Maximize Your Social Security

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When should I start my Social Security benefits? I am asked this question frequently and find that many otherwise rational individuals don’t actually look at any data or analysis when making this important decision. As a financial planner, I have the tools to help you take a closer look at all your options to make an informed choice, rather than relying on heuristic biases. The first step, though, is to understand what happens when you start at age 62, 66, or 70. And that’s what today’s post aims to accomplish.

74% of Americans start their Social Security benefits early, before the Full Retirement Age (FRA) of 66 (for individuals born between 1943-1954). Starting at age 62 will result in a reduction in benefits to 75% of your primary insurance amount (PIA). If you wait past age 66, you will receive Delayed Retirement Credits (DRCs), equal to 8% a year, or a 32% increase for individuals who wait until age 70. Many of the individuals who wait until age 70 do so because they are still working. However, even for individuals who retire at age 62, it may make sense to delay benefits to age 66 or 70 and live off other sources of income, in order to receive a higher future Social Security benefit.

Delaying from age 62 to 70 offers a 76% increase in benefits. For example, someone with a PIA of $1000 a month would receive this amount at age 66, but would receive $750 at 62 or $1320 at 70. While COLAs or additional earnings will increase your benefits regardless of when you start, a 2% COLA is obviously going to produce a higher dollar increase if your benefit amount is $1320 rather than $750. So in nominal dollars, the difference between 62 and 70 typically exceeds 76%.

For single individuals, the decision is relatively straightforward. Social Security was designed so that a person with average life expectancy will receive the same benefits regardless of whether they start at age 62, 66, or 70. On an individual level, if your life expectancy is above average, you will receive greater total lifetime payments by delaying benefits until age 70. And if your life expectancy is below average, you will not have enough years of higher benefits to make up for the lost years, so you should start benefits earlier. The breakeven for delaying from age 66 to age 70 is between age 83 and 84. Delaying from 62 to 70 creates a breakeven between age 80 and 81.

Since 74% of recipients start benefits early, the behavioral bias is that people are underestimating their life expectancy. It should be 50% – half of us will live shorter than average and half will live longer. Unfortunately, many of the 74% will live longer than average and their choice means they will receive lower lifetime benefits than if they had delayed to age 66 or 70.

In addition to life expectancy, the other consideration for a single individual is if they have other sources of income. If he or she can get by with withdrawals of 4% or less from their portfolio from age 62 or 66 to age 70, then I would encourage them to delay the Social Security benefits.

Delaying benefits will reduce the future withdrawals required from their portfolio and increase the likelihood that their portfolio will be able to provide lifetime income. When I run Monte Carlo analyses for clients, those who fund a larger percentage of their needs from guaranteed payments like Social Security (or a Pension) have a greater probability of success than retirees who are more dependent on portfolio withdrawals. A larger Social Security benefit reduces the impact from poor potential outcomes in the stock and bond markets, or from an initial drop in the market, called Sequence of Returns Risk.

For married couples, the decision to delay benefits becomes more complex. Neither your Social Security statements nor the calculators on the SSA.gov website help with coordinating spousal benefits. Often, it may make sense to delay for one spouse but not for the other.

A general rule for couples is that you should consider maximizing the higher earning spouse’s SS benefit amount by delaying to age 70. The larger benefit will become the survivor’s benefit, so in effect, the higher earner can consider his or her benefit to be a joint and survivor benefit. And if the spouse is younger or has a high life expectancy, than delaying to age 70 for the higher earner may be an even better idea, in terms of actuarial odds.

Social Security is a good hedge for portfolio performance and an 8% guaranteed increase for delaying one year is a valuable benefit. I looked at quotes this month for immediate single-life annuities and for a 66-yr old male versus a 67-yr old, the rate increase was only 2.2%. Delaying from 66 to age 70 increased the annuity benefit by 12.2%. That gives you an idea of how exceptionally valuable the 8% annual increase is (or 32% for waiting four years), given the low interest rate environment we face today.

Aside from the principle of delaying the higher earning spouse, it is difficult to make other generalizations about delaying to age 70 as the details of a couple’s specific situation typically determine the best course of action. I use financial planning software to analyze your options and suggest an approach to coordinate your benefits into your overall financial plan. There are two tools which married couples might consider to provide some often-missed benefits as one or both defer to age 70.

The first tool is the ability to file and suspend. At full retirement age (66), you can file for benefits but immediately suspend the payments. This enables your spouse to be eligible to receive a spousal benefit, while you can continue to receive deferred credits for delaying to age 70. This is typically used if the spouse does not have any SS benefit based on their own earnings, or if the spouse’s individual benefit is less than the spousal benefit amount (half of the first spouse’s PIA, if the second spouse is at FRA).

If a spousal benefit applies, it is important to know that DRCs are not added to a spousal benefit. While the primary spouse will receive the 8% increase after age 66, the spousal benefit does not increase. So, if the spouse is the same age or older than the higher earning spouse, it is important to not delay the spousal benefit once both are age 66.

The second tool is a restricted application. At FRA, a spouse may restrict their application to receive only their spousal benefit amount and still earn Deferred Retirement Credits on their own benefit. Then they can switch to their own benefit at age 70. However, to receive any spousal benefit, the other spouse must be currently receiving benefits. This works if you want to delay from age 66 to 70 and if your spouse is already receiving benefits (or has filed and suspended).

These two tools provide a benefit from age 66-70 which many people miss. Both techniques will allow one spouse to defer their individual benefit to age 70 to maximize their payment amount (and potentially, the survivor’s benefit amount), while receiving an additional benefit for those four years. If you might benefit from either of those tools, don’t expect the Social Security Administration to tell you. And if you miss those benefits, you’ll lose free money that you can’t get later.