February 2016 Newsletter

Changes to Social Security Claiming Strategies

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 included a section titled “Closure of Unintended Loopholes” that ends two Social Security claiming strategies that have become increasingly popular over the last several years. These two strategies, known as “file and suspend” and “restricted application” for a spousal benefit, have often been used to optimize Social Security income for married couples.
If you have not yet filed for Social Security, it’s important to understand how these new rules could affect your retirement strategy. Depending on your age, you may still be able to take advantage of the expiring claiming options.  The changes should not affect current Social Security beneficiaries and do not apply to survivor benefits.
File and suspend
Under the previous rules, an individual who had reached full retirement age could file for retired worker benefits–typically to enable a spouse to file for spousal benefits–and then suspend his or her benefit. By doing so, the individual would earn delayed retirement credits (up to 8% annually) and claim a higher worker benefit at a later date, up to age 70. Meanwhile, his or her spouse could be receiving spousal benefits. For some married couples, especially those with dual incomes, this strategy increased their total combined lifetime benefits.
Under the new rules, which are effective as of April 30, 2016, a worker who reaches full retirement age can still file and suspend, but no one can collect benefits on the worker’s earnings record during the suspension period. This strategy effectively ends the file-and-suspend strategy for couples and families. The new rules also mean that a worker cannot later request a retroactive lump-sum payment for the entire period during which benefits were suspended. (This previously available claiming option was helpful to someone who faced a change of circumstances, such as a serious illness.) Tip: If you are age 66 or older before the new rules take effect, you may still be able to take advantage of the combined file-and-suspend and spousal/dependent filing strategy.
Restricted application
Under the previous rules, a married person who had reached full retirement age could file a “restricted application” for spousal benefits after the other spouse had filed for Social Security worker benefits. This allowed the individual to collect spousal benefits while earning delayed retirement credits on his or her own work record. In combination with the file-and-suspend option, this enabled both spouses to earn delayed retirement credits while one spouse received a spousal benefit, a type of “double dipping” that was not intended by the original legislation.
Under the new rules, an individual eligible for both a spousal benefit and a worker benefit will be “deemed” to be filing for whichever benefit is higher and will not be able to change from one to the other later. Tip: If you reached age 62 before the end of December 2015, you are grandfathered under the old rules. If your spouse has filed for Social Security worker benefits, you can still file a restricted application for spouse-only benefits at full retirement age and claim your own worker benefit at a later date.
Basic Social Security claiming options remain unchanged. You can file for a permanently reduced benefit starting at age 62, receive your full benefit at full retirement age, or postpone filing for benefits and earn delayed retirement credits, up to age 70. Although some claiming options are going away, plenty of planning opportunities remain, and you may benefit from taking the time to make an informed decision about when to file for Social Security.

Quiz: Which Birthdays Are Financial Milestones?

When it comes to your finances, some birthdays are more important than others. Take this quiz to see if you can identify the ages that might trigger financial changes.
1. Eligibility for Medicare coverage begins at what age?
a. 62
b. 65
c. 66
2. A child can stay on a parent’s health insurance plan until what age?
a. 18
b. 21
c. 26
3. At this age individuals who are making contributions to a traditional or Roth IRA or an employer-sponsored retirement plan can begin making “catch-up” contributions.
a. 50
b. 55
c. 60
d. 66
4. This age is most often associated with drops in auto insurance premiums.
a. 18
b. 25
c. 40
d. 50
5. Individuals who have contributed enough to Social Security to qualify for retirement benefits become eligible to begin collecting reduced benefits starting at what age?
a. 62
b. 65
c. 66
d. 70
6. To obtain a credit card, applicants under this age must demonstrate an independent ability to make account payments or have a cosigner.
a. 16
b. 18
c. 21
1. b. 65. Medicare eligibility begins at age 65, although people with certain conditions or disabilities may be able to enroll at a younger age. You’ll be automatically enrolled in Medicare when you turn 65 if you’re already receiving Social Security benefits, or you can sign up on your own if you meet eligibility
2. c. 26. Under the Affordable Care Act, a child may retain his or her status as a dependent on a parent’s health insurance plan until age 26. If your child is covered by your employer-based plan, coverage will typically end during the month of your child’s 26th birthday. Check with the plan or your employer to find out exactly when coverage ends.
3. a. 50. If you’re 50 or older, you may be able to make contributions to your IRA or employer-sponsored retirement plan above the normal contribution limit. These “catch-up” contributions are designed to help you make up a retirement savings shortfall by bumping up the amount you can save in the years leading
up to retirement. If you participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, check plan rules–not all plans allow catch-up contributions.
4. b. 25. By age 25, drivers generally see their premiums decrease because, statistically, drivers younger than this age have higher accident rates. Gaining experience and maintaining a clean driving record should lead to lower premiums over time. However, there’s no age when auto insurance rates automatically drop because rates are based on many factors, including type of vehicle and claims history, and vary by state and insurer; each individual’s
situation is unique.
5. a. 62. You can begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62. However, your benefits will be reduced by as much as 30% below what you would have received if you had waited until your full retirement age (66 to 67, depending on your year of birth).
6. c. 21. As a result of the Credit Card Act of 2009, credit card companies cannot issue cards to those under age 21 unless they can show proof that they can repay the debt themselves or unless someone age 21 or older with the ability to make payments cosigns the credit card agreement.
What is the birthday rule?
The birthday rule may be used by health insurers to coordinate benefits when a dependent child is covered by the health plans of both parents and the parents are married or living together. The plan of the parent whose birthday falls earlier in the calendar year is generally the primary plan, providing benefits and paying claims first, and the plan of the other parent provides secondary coverage. If the parents share the same birthday, primary coverage is
provided by the plan that has covered one parent the longest. Source: National Association of Insurance Commissioners, naic.org

Financial Tips for Going Back to College at Any Age

You’re never too old to learn, but you might be wondering how you can meet your educational goals without breaking the bank. Believe it or not, there are ways to make college more affordable no matter what your age.
In your 20s
Perhaps you weren’t ready to go to college immediately after graduating from high school. You took time off to travel, work, raise children, or pursue a military career. But after getting some “real world” experience under your belt, you’ve decided now is the time to go back to college. Should you jump into a four-year bachelor’s program or a two-year associate’s degree? The answer may depend on what you want to study, how much time you have to devote to your studies, and how much you can afford. Keep in mind that federal financial aid eligibility is based on a student attending school on at least a half-time basis. Also bear in mind that the more time you spend in school, the higher the overall tuition bill and the more money you may need to borrow–and pay back. Certificate or vocational training programs may also be worth considering as viable alternatives to more traditional four- or two-year options. Usually, they are less expensive and can be a faster way to build a skill set needed to start your career. If you spent time in the military, you could be eligible for education benefits that may cover the cost of tuition/fees, housing, and books. To learn more about available benefits and eligibility requirements for military members, visit benefits.va.gov.
In your 30s, 40s, and 50s
The prospect of paying for college may seem impossible if you’re struggling to balance your family life, job, and finances. It might make sense, though, if you need or want to upgrade your job skills or change your career. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement benefits to help employees improve their skills or gain new skills. This can be a very valuable financial resource, so check with your human resources department to see if your company offers tuition benefits. However, employers typically require employees to remain at the company for a certain length of time after the benefits are paid, so make sure to check out the details. If you have a particularly hectic schedule, registering for night classes, online classes, or as a part-time student may be more convenient for you.
Nontraditional class times or virtual attendance can also be more cost-effective by eliminating additional expenses like the cost of commuting or housing that are associated with conventional enrollment. If you’re in your 50s, it may be worth looking into colleges supported by programs like the American Association of Community Colleges Plus 50 Initiative. This program provides funding to community colleges for the creation and expansion of campus programs that target individuals aged 50 and older who seek workforce training or preparation for a new career. To see colleges in your area that are associated with the initiative, visit plus50.aacc.nche.edu.
In your 60s and beyond
If you’re approaching retirement or already retired, you might be inspired to pursue a college degree or attend classes merely for educational enrichment. If so, you don’t necessarily have to tap into your retirement funds to pay for college. A growing number of state universities and community colleges offer a selection of tuition-free classes for older students. Other schools may offer reduced tuition based on your age. And if you don’t mind learning online, massive open online courses (MOOCs) could be a cost-effective option. MOOCs offer a wide variety of classes at little or no cost, allowing you to quench your thirst for more knowledge on a variety of topics at the time of your choosing.
Tips for all ages
Renting textbooks, registering for online courses, and applying for financial aid are examples of money-saving strategies that could help a college student at any age. Remember that most students are eligible for some form of financial aid, so you will want to fill out the federal government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine how much aid you might be eligible for. To learn how much aid you might receive, visit a college’s financial aid office, run a college’s net price calculator on its website, or visit fafsa.ed.gov. If you receive a smaller amount of financial aid than you hoped, research local, state, and national scholarships. Accomplishments you’ve made over the years from your nontraditional education path could help you qualify.


What are required minimum distributions (RMDs)?

Traditional IRAs and employer retirement plans such as 401(k)s and 403(b)s offer several tax advantages, including the ability to defer income taxes on both contributions and earnings until they’re distributed from the plan. But, unfortunately, you can’t keep your money in these retirement accounts forever. The law requires that you begin taking distributions, called “required minimum distributions” or RMDs, when you reach age 70½ (or in some cases, when you retire), whether you need the money or not. (Minimum distributions are not required from Roth IRAs during your lifetime.)
Your IRA trustee or custodian must either tell you the required amount each year or offer to calculate it for you. For an employer plan, the plan administrator will generally calculate the RMD. But you’re ultimately responsible for determining the correct amount. It’s easy to do. The IRS, in Publication 590-B, provides a chart called the Uniform Lifetime Table. In most cases, you simply find the distribution period for your age and then divide your account balance as of the end of the prior year by the distribution period to arrive at your RMD for the year.
For example, if you turn 76 in 2016, your distribution period under the Uniform Lifetime Table is 22 years. You divide your account balance as of December 31, 2015, by 22 to arrive at your RMD for 2016. The only exception is if you’re married and your spouse is more than 10 years younger than you. If this special situation applies, use IRS Table II (also found in Publication 590-B) instead of the Uniform Lifetime Table. Table II provides a distribution period that’s based on the joint life expectancy of you and your spouse. If you have multiple IRAs, an RMD is calculated separately for each IRA. However, you can withdraw the required amount from any of your IRAs. Inherited IRAs aren’t included with your own for this purpose. (Similar rules apply to Section 403(b) accounts.) If you participate in more than one employer retirement plan, your RMD is calculated separately for each plan and must be paid from that plan. Remember, you can always withdraw more than the required amount, but if you withdraw less you will be hit with a penalty tax equal to 50% of the amount you failed to withdraw.


Should I delay taking my first RMD?

Your first RMD from a traditional IRA and an employer retirement plan must be taken for the calendar year in which you turn 70-1/2. However, if you’re still working, you can delay RMDs from your current employer’s plan until the year you retire (but only if allowed by the plan and you are not a 5% owner).
In general, you must take your RMDs no later than December 31 of each calendar year to avoid a serious tax penalty equal to 50% of the amount you failed to withdraw. However, a special rule applies to your first RMD. You have the option of delaying your first distribution until April 1 of the following calendar year. You might delay taking your first distribution if you expect to be in a lower income tax bracket in the following year, perhaps because you’re no longer working or will have less income from other sources. However, if you wait until the following year to take your first distribution, your second distribution must be made on or by December 31 of that same year.
For example, assume you have a traditional IRA and you turn 70½ in 2016. You can take your first RMD during 2016 or you can delay it until April 1, 2017. If you choose to delay your distribution until 2017, you will have to take two required distributions in that year, one for 2016 and one for 2017. This is because your distribution for 2017 cannot be delayed until the following year. Receiving your first and second RMDs in the same year may not be in your best interest. Since this “double” distribution will increase your taxable income for the year, it will probably cause you to pay more in federal and state income taxes. It could even push you into a higher federal income tax bracket for the year. In addition, the increased income may result in the loss of certain tax exemptions and deductions that might otherwise be available to you. Obviously, the decision to delay your first required distribution can be important. Your tax professional can help you decide whether delaying the RMD makes sense for your personal tax situation.
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