Social Security Update – Couples Planning Just Got Tougher

In a previous Merriman Insight article, we wrote about the “free spousal” strategy for married couples. Shortly after that article was published, Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which was signed into law on November 2nd.  The Budget Act contained many provisions affecting Social Security. One such provision effectively ended the ability to employ the “free spousal” strategy after the 180 day transition period from the Act’s enactment date.

Many recent articles have been written about the new law changes, so we won’t reinvent the wheel here. Instead, we’d recommend this article for a detailed discussion of the changes. The main highlights are:

  • The new rules are not retroactive; anyone currently employing a “file and suspend” or “restricted application” strategy will continue to be grandfathered under the old rules, as well as those who “file and suspend” by April 30, 2016 or who plan to use a “restricted application” and are at least 62 by the end of 2015
  • Survivor benefits and claiming strategies are unaffected by the new rules
  • “File and suspend” claims initiated after April 30, 2016 will now suspend all benefits based on the claimant’s earnings record (including spousal, ex-spouses, and dependent benefits)
  • “File and suspend” claims initiated after April 30, 2016 will no longer allow the claimant to reinstate their benefits back to the original suspension date and receive a lump sum payment
  • “Restricted applications” for spousal-only benefits will no longer be available to those who are not at least 62 by the end of 2015

If you believe the new rules will impact your situation, we recommend contacting your financial advisor to review your options.

Merriman INSIGHT – Add Thousands to Your Lifetime Social Security Benefit

Shortly after the article below was published, Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which was signed into law on November 2nd. The Budget Act contained many provisions affecting Social Security. One such provision effectively ended the ability to employ the “free spousal” strategy after the 180 day transition period from the Act’s enactment date. Read the highlights of the new law changes here.

In helping our clients make smart decisions with their money, we often spend a lot of time on the subject of Social Security (SS). The rules are complex, but the decision of when and how to claim SS can have a big impact on the quality of life for most families. Thus, it’s a very important decision with long-term ramifications. The good news is your advisor can help you evaluate your options so you’re well positioned to make the best decision for your particular situation.

Evaluating all of the available claiming strategies for SS is beyond the scope of this article (and would bore most people to tears), so I’d like to focus on one particular strategy that I think has tremendous value: the “free spousal.” I’ll describe it using a real life example, although I rounded the numbers for simplicity.

“Henry” and “Wilma” are both 66. Henry is still working, and although he is qualified to claim SS benefits now, he decides to wait because they’re able to live comfortably on his salary alone. His benefits at age 66, which is full-retirement age (FRA) in this example, would be $2,700 per month, but delaying the benefits will earn him 8% more each year until age 70. By that time, his benefits would jump to around $3,600 per month.

Wilma is retired and has her own SS benefits. She’d receive $1,800 per month if she claims at FRA, but $2,400 if she waits until age 70. Since they don’t need the extra money right now, she also decides to wait.

Everything seems fine, right? They’ll receive their higher benefits at 70, which will maximize their monthly income for the rest of their lives. I’d wager that most people would be thrilled in this situation!

But they’re leaving free money on the table.

Henry should “file and suspend” his benefits at FRA. Then, Wilma should file a “restricted application” to claim her 50% spousal benefit against Henry’s earnings. By restricting her claim to just the spousal benefit, Wilma’s own benefits can continue to earn the delayed credits. At 70, they can both claim their own higher benefits, just like they had always planned to do. But by jumping through a few hoops, Wilma could receive a spousal benefit of $1,350 per month between ages 66 to 70 for free—that’s an extra $64,800 in their pockets over the four years—without impacting their original plan. Hence the term free spousal!

There are some important steps in this strategy that must be adhered to strictly. First, Henry must file and suspend his benefits before Wilma submits her application because Wilma cannot claim spousal benefits unless Henry has started his claim. The “suspend” part of this strategy allows Henry to continue earning the 8% per year delayed credits, even though he has now filed for benefits. Secondly, Wilma must clearly indicate that her claim is restricted only to the spousal benefit and not her own benefits based on her earnings history. Although she is entitled to both, she can only ever receive one at a time, and while her own benefits are higher than the spousal benefit ($1,800 at FRA instead of $1,350 for the spousal, in this example), if she elects to take her own now, she would lose out on the 8% annual increase.

If the strategy and steps above are a little confusing, that’s okay. The goal of this article isn’t to fully explain the free spousal strategy; instead, it illustrates one of the many planning opportunities your financial advisor can help you with that go beyond your investments. Maximizing your SS benefits can be complicated, but you have a wonderful resource at your disposal to help make this very important decision. We’re always available to help!

Social Security strategies for couples

iStock_000010373589SmallThere are countless articles online on strategies for maximizing your Social Security benefits. Married couples have far more options than singles, and the rules are complex. If you are married and eligible (or almost eligible) for Social Security, it is worth talking to a financial or tax professional to ensure you weigh all of your options. In the meantime, this article from Kiplinger provides a nice primer on two of those available strategies: File and Suspend and Restricting an Application. It’s worth a quick read so you can come prepared to speak intelligently with your advisor, and thereby maximize your probability of a successful outcome.

LTCi rate increases coming soon for single women

It’s no surprise that women tend to live longer than men. Therefore, it should be no surprise that women tend to need long-term care more often than men. In fact, Genworth Financial, a leading provider of long-term care insurance (LTCi), estimates that two-thirds of their benefits paid go to women. However, up until recently, insurers were not allowed to charge different rates based on gender. That may all change in April, when Genworth is allowed to restructure new policies to incorporate gender-distinct pricing, which may increase the rate for single women by as much as 40 percent. Genworth was the first carrier to win approval from state insurance commissions to raise rates on new policies for single women, but it is expected that other carriers will soon follow suit. Long-term care insurance will become much more expensive for this segment of the market.

What should you do? If you are a single woman considering LTCi, you should consider making a move soon. If you are unsure whether LTCi makes sense for you, talk to your financial advisor or a licensed insurance agent as soon as you can.

For more information on these upcoming changes to LTCi, see For Women, Reduced Access to Long-Term Care Insurance.

Tax provisions in the American Taxpayer Relief Act

The American Taxpayer Relief Act, passed by Congress on January 1, 2013, contains many far-reaching tax provisions. In addition to extending many tax items that had expired or were due to expire, the act also made permanent many provisions of previous tax acts. The tax features of this act are too numerous to list here, but the most comprehensive description of these changes I have found is this Journal of Accountancy article.

I highly recommend you read this article or consult a qualified tax professional to assess the impact of this act on your personal situation.