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.
Here are the eight items that need your attention:
Beneficiary designations. When was the last time you checked these? Beneficiary designations are usually looked at when an account is opened, and often that’s the last time people see them. Look at beneficiary designations for tangible assets, like homes, cars or collectibles. Check legal documents, including bank accounts and insurance policies.
Digital asset designations. This is a relatively new area, but very important. Even if you don’t own any cryptocurrency, chances are good you have assets like photos, reward points, websites and more. Each social media platform has a different policy for how accounts are treated on the death of the owner. You’ll need an inventory and may want to use an online service for managing your digital assets after you die.
Trust funding. This is where many estate plans fall apart. Funding trusts often requires changing titles on bank accounts, homes and other assets into the name of the trust. Major purchases, like a boat or second home, also need to have their titling corrected, so they correspond to trusts.
Documents for adult children. When your children turn 18, they are legally adults and you do not have the legal right to get information or make decisions on their behalf. If you don’t have HIPAA releases, Power of Attorney, and other documents, you may find yourself unable to help in an emergency.
Keep up with life changes. Review your estate plan with an eye to changes in your life: births, deaths, marriages, divorces, big purchases, etc. If you haven’t met with your estate planning attorney or had a phone conversation in a few years, make an appointment now for a review.
Secure photos and memories. How many times have we watched dramatic images of fires, floods, and earthquakes in 2018? Videos, photos, family heirlooms, and artifacts and other irreplaceable items should be stored in some digital format, or in the cloud. If the family includes artists, take photos of paintings or sculptures so at least you have an image of the item should it be destroyed.
Discuss wishes with loved ones. One of the biggest challenges after someone passes, is knowing what they wanted to be done with personal possessions. If you have every Beatles album, unopened, what do you want to happen to your collection? Make inventories and then tell your family what you’d like to have happen with your possessions. You can create a “Legacy Letter” and put it down on paper. It’s not legally binding, but it will give your family some direction.
Prepare for incapacity. This is not everyone’s favorite task, but necessary. If you were conscious but not able to speak, what information would your family need? Work with your estate planning attorney to create the necessary legal documents, including medical directives, and tell your family members where they are located. Some families keep certain documents (like a Do Not Resuscitate or lists of medications) on the refrigerator, so that Emergency Responders can gain access to important medical information quickly in an emergency.
Yes, it’s a good-sized list of to-dos’, and you won’t get it all done in January. However, start in January 2019, so you and your loved ones enjoy the protection you need.
“You have reviewed multiple drafts of your Will, Trust, Living Will and Financial Power of Attorney, attended multiple meetings with your attorney, discussed the final distribution of your assets, selected your Executor and Trustee and finally executed your estate planning documents. So, you must be done, right?”
Putting your estate plan in place is a big first step in the process. However, it is only the first step for many people, according to this article “So You Think You’re Done with Your Estate Plan…” from the National Law Review. Here’s an excellent checklist of items that are commonly overlooked and that can undo all your good efforts.
Beneficiary Designations. These assets generally do not pass through the will, so the beneficiary named receives the asset, whether it’s proceeds from a life insurance policy or the entire contents of your investment accounts. These forms must be prepared and filed with the account custodian or the insurance company, so beneficiaries are properly identified. If you have not looked at these designations for more than a few years, it’s time to look at them again to make sure the ones you originally selected are still the ones you wish to receive your assets.
Trust Funding and Form of Ownership of Assets. You can easily wreck your entire plan by failing to fund trusts or retitle assets. If you’ve executed a Revocable Trust with probate avoidance in mind, for instance, and then fail to fund the trust, your beneficiaries will need to probate your assets. Assets owned jointly with rights of survivorship will not pass according to your will. If your estate plan was done with taxes in mind, you could put the entire plan at risk.
Talking with Family and Trusted Professionals. Having a plan no one in the family knows about, can lead to an estate disaster. Speak with family members, so they know you have an estate plan and who they should be in touch with when the time comes.
Accessibility of Estate Plan and Related Information. If your documents are locked up in a safe deposit box or an encrypted file or secure portal, no one will be able to access them. Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise you, as to the best way to ensure that paper and electronic documents are available to family and fiduciaries when needed. The same holds true for burial and health care instructions. Prepare a list with the contact information of your estate planning attorney, basic information about your assets and other information that will be needed by family and fiduciaries.
Keeping Up with Change. Tax laws change and lives change. If you have been divorced, had a serious illness, or any major change to your assets, you’ll need to speak with your estate planning attorney to see if any of those changes need to be incorporated into your estate plan.