The coronavirus pandemic is having a profound effect on the current U.S. economy, and it may have a detrimental effect on Social Security’s long-term financial situation. High unemployment rates mean Social Security shortfalls could begin earlier than projected.
Social Security retirement benefits are financed primarily through dedicated payroll taxes paid by workers and their employers, with employees and employers splitting the tax equally. This money is put into a trust fund that is used to pay retiree benefits. The most recent report from the trustees of the Social Security trust fund is that the fund’s balance will reach zero in 2035. This is because more people are retiring than are working, so the program is paying out more in benefits than it is taking in. Additionally, seniors are living longer, so they receive benefits for a longer period of time. Once the fund runs out of money, it does not mean that benefits stop altogether. Instead, retirees’ benefits would be cut, unless Congress acts in the interim. According to the trustees’ projections, the fund’s income would be sufficient to pay retirees 77 percent of their total benefit.
With unemployment at record levels due to the pandemic, fewer employers and employees are paying payroll taxes into the trust fund. In addition, more workers may claim benefits early because they lost their jobs. President Trump issued an executive order deferring payroll taxes until the end of the year as a form of economic relief, which could negatively affect Social Security and Medicare funds.
Some experts believe that the pandemic could move up the depletion of the trust fund by two years, to 2033, if the COVID-19 economic collapse causes payroll taxes to drop by 20 percent for two years. Other experts argue that it could have a greater effect and deplete the fund by 2029. However, as the Social Security Administration Chief Actuary morbidly noted to Congress, this pandemic different from most recessions: the increased applications for benefits will be partially offset by increased deaths among seniors who were receiving benefits.
It remains to be seen exactly how much the pandemic affects the Social Security trust fund, but the experts agree that as soon as the pandemic ends, Congress should take steps to shore up the fund.
A controversial policy that reduces the benefits of military spouses is on the way out. The so-called “widow’s tax” cuts assistance to surviving military spouses who qualify for benefits under two different military benefit programs.
The two programs are:
The Department of Defense’s Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), which allows a military retiree to contribute part of their benefit to ensure that family members receive an annuity of up to 55 percent of their retirement pay when they die.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), which awards around $15,000 a year to survivors of veterans or troops who die of service-related causes.
Under the current policy, even though SBP and DIC are different programs paid for by different federal agencies, spouses who are eligible for both benefits have their SBP payments offset by the DIC money the spouse receives. An estimated 65,000 families are affected by the offset, costing them thousands of dollars in benefits. Military families have been fighting to eliminate the widow’s tax for years, but have not had success until now.
Signed into law in December 2019, the bipartisan FY20 National Defense Authorization Act eliminates the widow’s tax in phases beginning in 2021. SBP recipients will receive one-third of the DIC offset amount in 2021 and two-thirds in 2022. In 2023, spouses can receive both benefits in full.
For more information about the change, click here.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment is skyrocketing. Seniors who lose their jobs may be tempted to claim Social Security benefits early, but should they, given the resulting reduction in future benefits? The answer depends on your situation, but you may be able to claim and not sacrifice much in terms of future benefits.
While you can claim Social Security benefits as early as age 62, the better financial decision is usually to wait to take benefits as long as you are able. If you take Social Security between age 62 and your full retirement age, your benefits will be permanently reduced to account for the longer period you will be paid. Individuals who file at age 62 this year will receive 72 percent of their full benefit. On the other hand, if you delay taking retirement beyond your full retirement age, depending on when you were born, your benefit will increase by 6 to 8 percent for every year that you delay, in addition to any cost of living increases. This extra income could be very welcome, especially if you live into your 80s or beyond.
Unfortunately, many seniors who lose their job due to the coronavirus pandemic may find it necessary to apply for benefits early, potentially losing hundreds of thousands in future benefits. Before rushing to apply for early retirement benefits, you should consider all of your options. If you are lucky enough to have substantial savings, it may make sense to spend your savings rather than take benefits early. You may also be able to apply for unemployment benefits to allow you to further delay taking benefits.
If you do not have any savings or unemployment benefits to fall back on, your only option may be to claim benefits. However, if you do claim early and then go back to work, you may have the ability to increase those benefits. If you are able to stop the benefits within 12 months of starting, you can withdraw the application, repay the benefits collected, and then still be eligible for the higher benefit amount at full retirement age or older. It is essentially a one-year interest-free loan.
If you take benefits early but are not able to stop the benefits within 12 months of starting, you can still suspend your benefits in order to earn higher benefits. For example, if you start collecting at age 62 but no longer need the income once you reach your full retirement age, you could suspend benefits until age 70. You won't get a complete do-over, but between your full retirement age and 70 you would earn delayed retirement credits, which would increase your ultimate benefit amount when you collect at age 70.
Whatever you decide, consider all of your options carefully and talk things over with your attorney before making any rash decisions.
For a New York Times article about taking benefits early, click here.
Seniors and retirees should know that they may be able to use online tax preparationsoftware free of charge. Most low- and middle-income Americans qualify for the free help, but do not take advantage of it. And all seniors are eligible for free counseling assistance from the IRS.
The tax preparation software industry has had a decades-long deal with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to make free versions of its software available to low- and middle-income individuals. However, a report by ProPublica in April 2019 revealed that the software companies were making it difficult for customers to find the free tax filing software, including going so far as to hide it from a Google search. According to the IRS’s Taxpayer Advocate Service, around 70 percent of taxpayers qualified for free filing, but only 1.6 percent used the free software in 2018. The IRS has now amended its agreement with the software industry to bar the companies from hiding the free products.
The IRS Free File website links to the available free products. Each company sets its own eligibility standards based on income, age, and state residency. As long as your adjusted gross income was $69,000 or less, you will find at least one free product to use. There are also two products that are in Spanish.
If you would rather not prepare your own tax return, seniors can use the IRS’s Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program. The TCE program is available to taxpayers who are 60 years old or older and specializes in answering questions about pensions and retirement plans.
President Trump has signed a spending bill that makes major changes to retirement plans. The new law is designed to provide more incentives to save for retirement, but it may require workers to rethink some of their planning.
The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act changes the law surrounding retirement plans in several ways:
Stretch IRAS. The biggest change eliminates “stretch” IRAs. Under current law, if you name anyone other than a spouse as the beneficiary of your IRA, the beneficiary can choose to take distributions over his or her lifetime and to pass what is left onto future generations (called the "stretch" option). The required minimum distributions are calculated based on the beneficiary’s life expectancy. This allows the money to grow tax-deferred over the course of the beneficiary’s life and to be passed on to his or her own beneficiaries. The SECURE Act requires beneficiaries of an IRA to withdraw all the money in the IRA within 10 years of the IRA holder’s death. In many cases, these withdrawals would take place during the beneficiary’s highest tax years, meaning that the elimination of the stretch IRA is effectively a tax increase on many Americans. This provision will apply to those who inherit IRAs starting on January 1, 2020.
Required minimum distributions. Under prior law, you have to begin taking distributions from your IRAs beginning when you reach age 70 ½. Under the new law, individuals who are not 70 ½ at the end of 2019 can now wait until age 72 to begin taking distributions.
Contributions. The new law allows workers to continue to contribute to an IRA after age 70 ½, which is the same as rules for 401(k)s and Roth IRAs.
Employers. The tax credit businesses get for starting a retirement plan is increased and the new law makes it easier for small businesses to join multiple-employer plans.
Annuities. The newly enacted legislation removes roadblocks that made employers wary of including annuities in 401(k) plans by eliminating some of the fiduciary requirements used to vet companies and products before they can be included in a plan.
Withdrawals. The new law allows an early withdrawal of up to $5,000 from a retirement account without a penalty in the event of the birth of a child or an adoption. Currently, there is a 10 percent penalty for early withdrawals in most circumstances.
Given these changes, workers need to immediately reevaluate their estate plans. Some people have used stretch IRAs as an estate planning tool to pass assets to their children and grandchildren. One way of doing this has been to name a trust as the IRA’s beneficiary, and these trusts may have to be reformed to conform to the new rules. If a stretch IRA is part of your estate plan, consult with your attorney to determine if you need to make changes.
When it comes to retirement planning, many Americans find themselves underprepared. A majority of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and Generation X’ers (born between 1965 and 1978) often end up without retirement savings or don’t have realistic expectations about post-retirement costs. According to the Insured Retirement Institute, only 25 percent of boomers are confident of having sufficient savings in retirement. If you are in your 50s and nearing retirement without substantial savings or a plan, don’t despair -- it is never too late to start planning.
Although every working professional should contribute towards retirement from their early days, for various reasons they often delay the process. If you are nearing your 50s without a post-retirement plan and see yourself working for another 10 to 15 years, this is an opportunity to plan judiciously and save for your retirement right away.
Here are five strategic steps for achieving the best retirement plan:
1. Set Specific and Practical Goals
Proper retirement planning begins with setting specific goals. Calculate your current income, total savings, and ongoing investments to understand how much you could save, and be sure to set realistic goals.
While providing for emergency expenses and paying off a mortgage can be your short-term and intermediate goals, saving up for retirement should be your long-term goal. An annual financial review is helpful in evaluating your past goals and understanding your earnings as well as liabilities.
2. Plan a Realistic Budget Focusing on Retirement
Review your monthly and yearly expenses and list the factors that are likely to remain constant for the next few years. Now allocate funds to each category in a way that will allow you to save more for your retirement.
According to financial experts, if you are saving for retirement after 50, it is best to contribute 30 percent of your salary towards this end. If you find that goal difficult to meet, look at your budget list and reduce optional expenses.
3. Pay Off Debts
Paying off debts early will help you meet your retirement budgets and ease the financial burden. According to an AARP report, 44 percent of Americans continue to pay for their home after they retire.
Clearing off outstanding debts, credit card bills, loans, and mortgages will make it much easier to prioritize retirement funds.
4. Invest in Retirement Plans
401(k)s, 403(b)s and IRAs are some of the retirement plans available in the U.S. While 401(k)s are one of the most popular plans, not all companies offer them and those that do have their own, often restrictive, investment rules. Then there are two types of IRAs: traditional and Roth IRAs.
To make the best choice among the many retirement plan options, it is essential to have a thorough understanding of IRA vs 401(k), Roth IRA vs 401(k) and other investment alternatives, as well as contribution limits.
5. Diversify Your Investments
Investment diversification will help keep you on a firm financial footing. Do not stash all your money in banks; instead, create an investment portfolio and explore your options.
It is important to diversify and distribute your money among multiple sectors. Considering the volatility of markets, diversification of your investment portfolio safeguards your capital and helps it grow.
It’s Time to Step Up a Gear
A concrete retirement plan with emphasis on savings is essential to ensure a comfortable and healthy post-retirement life. Saving for your retirement is the first priority and the sooner you start, the better your chances of achieving your retirement goals.
A new report finds that almost no retirees are making financially optimal decisions about when to take Social Security and are losing out on more than $100,000 per household in the process. The average Social Security recipient would receive 9 percent more income in retirement if they made the financially optimal decision.
When claiming Social Security, you have three options: You may begin taking benefits between age 62 and your full retirement age, you can wait until your full retirement age, or you can delay benefits and take them anytime up until you reach age 70. If you take Social Security between age 62 and your full retirement age, your benefits will be reduced to account for the longer period you will be paid. If you delay taking retirement, depending on when you were born, your eventual benefit will increase by 6 to 8 percent for every year that you delay, in addition to any cost-of-living increases.
The new report , conducted by United Income, an online investment management and financial planning firm, found that only 4 percent of retirees make the financially optimal decision about when to claim Social Security. Nearly all of the retirees not optimizing their benefits are claiming benefits too early. The study found that 57 percent of retirees would build more wealth if they waited to claim until age 70. However, currently more than 70 percent of retirees claim benefits before their full retirement age. Claiming before full retirement is the financially best option for only 6.5 percent of retirees, according to United Income.
The consequences of claiming Social Security too early can be big. The report found that collecting benefits at the wrong time causes retirees to collectively lose $3.4 trillion in potential income (an average of $111,000 per household). The report also estimates that elderly poverty could be cut in half if retirees claimed benefits at the financially optimal time.
One reason most people do not optimize Social Security is because waiting to collect benefits means their overall wealth may fall during their 60s and 70s. They also may not be aware that collecting benefits before full retirement age means that their benefits will be permanently reduced. According to the report’s authors, policy changes are necessary to get retirees to wait to claim benefits. The report recommends that early claiming be made the exception and reserved for those who have a demonstrable need to collect early. Another recommendation is to change the label on early retirement and call it the "minimum benefit age."