Social Security Mistakes Can be Costly

Karen Dobson

Kay Dobson is 68, and it’s time to retire from her job as the jack of all trades at the Augusta Circle Elementary School in Greenville, South Carolina.

But she isn’t quite as ready for her June retirement as she could’ve been. She recently learned that an admitted unfamiliarity with Social Security’s arcane rules cost her about $31,000 for two years of foregone spousal benefits based on her husband’s earnings.

“I had not the vaguest idea that I would be eligible for that,” she said.

Dobson is hardly the first person to make a painful mistake like this. People have all kinds of misconceptions about Social Security, or they lack a basic understanding of how it works – that the government calculates benefits using their 35 highest years of earnings, that the size of the monthly checks depends on the age the benefits start, and that working women, like Dobson, are often entitled to a spousal benefit based on their husband’s work record and earnings.

Two years ago, Dobson could have applied for this benefit, because she’d reached her full retirement age – 66.  But since she didn’t know this at the time, Social Security recently sent her a check for $7,800 for only six months retroactively – typically the maximum period for retroactive spousal benefits.

Her $1,300 monthly checks are starting to come in now too.  When she turns 70, she’ll start collecting a larger benefit based on her own earnings from a long-time career in the school system.

This particular strategy – file for spousal benefits and delay your own – is now available only to people who turned 62 prior to Jan 2, 2016.  The unintended loophole was eliminated, because it subverted the original intent of the spousal benefit, which was designed with an eye to retired households with a low-earning or non-working spouse. (The spousal benefit, in and of itself, remains intact and can be a big help to older households in which a working wife earned less than her husband. If that’s the case, her Social Security benefit would be increased until it is equal to half of his full retirement benefit if she claims at or above her own full retirement age.)

The central point here is that ignorance of program rules can mean substantial losses for retirees.  For low- or middle-income retirees, the consequences can be especially dire since they’re already scraping by. …
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detective

‘Do I Have a Pension?’ Sleuths Can Find it

Diane Taylor

Betty Taylor is 74 and retired from a job she held for more than a decade filling Spiegel catalog orders and packing them up for shipping – she left in 1984. Diane Taylor, 70, was a packer and then a keypunch operator there between 1982 and 1995.

But the sisters, who live together in their late mother’s house on Chicago’s Southwest Side, couldn’t track down anyone who could confirm that their low-paying jobs entitled them to Spiegel pensions.

This is more common than one might think.

When a single employer or union has continued to maintain its pension plan over several decades, retiring workers know where to go to sign up for their benefits. But the sisters’ pensions got lost amid the confusion and paperwork shuffle around a series of mergers, bankruptcies, and name changes at Spiegel.

Betty Taylor

The confusion dates back to 1988, when the catalog company, which was founded by Joseph Spiegel after the Civil War, purchased Eddie Bauer. By 2003, Spiegel, loaded down with debt, was filing for bankruptcy protection and was subsequently acquired by the investors in Spiegel’s sole remaining asset, Eddie Bauer. The investors later transferred Spiegel’s pensions to Eddie Bauer’s corporate entity. In 2009, Eddie Bauer also went into bankruptcy, sending the pension funds to their final resting place: the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), which insures the pensions of failing companies.

Diane felt that a pension, if it existed, could really help out with her precarious finances. And she was pretty certain she remembered a pension from her years at Spiegel. So she started calling around.

“I got the runaround for four years,” she said. “I was persistent, and I was going to keep on until I had one foot in the grave,” Diane said. …Learn More

ATM machine

Retirees Get a 401k Withdrawal Headache

Different people, different strategies.

Myra Hindus and Jewell Jackson

Myra Hindus of Boston, semi-retired at 68, had her financial adviser estimate the 401(k) withdrawals necessary to support her $4,500 monthly budget, which the adviser also prescribed. But Hindus isn’t fully at ease about her finances, despite the professional advice, a paid-off mortgage, and a good bit more savings than most people have.

“It’s a bunch of guesswork,” said the former diversity administrator and consultant to major universities who hedges her bets by teaching college social work courses.

What overwhelms her are the many unknowns that will determine whether her money lasts as long as she does. What if her adviser is wrong? Or what if she lives well into her 90s – like her mother did? She’s also uncertain of the impact of her younger partner’s coming retirement, which isn’t sorted out yet.

“No one knows when you’re going to die so you can’t base it on that. We’re all in the stock market, and we don’t know what will happen to that,” she said.

Brian Jarvis and Connie O’Brien of Beavercreek, Ohio, also have advantages most baby boomers don’t: small pensions from their former employer, Northrop Grumman, and a mortgage paid off with their private-sector salaries. But they got lucky too. The odds that their withdrawal strategy would succeed improved a few months after they retired, in 2010, when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act.  The couple, who are too young for Medicare, no longer had to buy expensive private health insurance – access to the government health exchange drastically reduced the expense. …Learn More

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Credit Unions a Popular Antidote to Fraud

The 1980s featured bankrupt Texas savings and loans. Then, in the mid-2000s, Countrywide failed to clearly disclose to customers the spike in their subprime mortgage payments in year 3. In 2016, 5 million customers learned about their fabricated Wells Fargo accounts. And last year, Equifax breached 140 million customers’ privacy.

No wonder people are flocking to the friendly credit union in their church, labor union or workplace.

The widespread fraud reports making headlines with regularity have fed a perception that “fraud happens in the banking world and a lot of it goes unpunished,” said Mike Schenk, senior economist for the Credit Union National Association (CUNA).

“It’s not just Countrywide as an abstract concept. It’s that Countrywide put people into these toxic mortgages to make a buck.”  The 2008 stock market and housing crashes, fueled partly by the collapse of several subprime lenders, hammered this point home.

credit union table

CUNA has a bold marketing message: credit unions care more about their customers than impersonal banking behemoths. Schenk said he has the evidence to prove credit unions are benefiting from Wall Street’s financial shenanigans: membership increased an “astonishing” 4 percent in 2017, as the U.S. population grew less than 1 percent.

Of course, most banks aren’t bad guys, and they provide services that small credit unions can’t.  Banks frequently upgrade their technology – Bank of America’s ATMs are cutting edge. Large banks also have much larger networks of ATMs and branches, and they can service the large corporate accounts credit unions aren’t equipped to do.

So, what do credit unions do better?  Here are their three big advantages: …Learn More

Arcane but Shrewd Retirement Solution?

Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait of King Louis XIV, courtesy of the Getty Open Content Program

Tontines might be a nifty idea for retirement income. Too bad they haven’t been legal here for a century.

Tontine is a fancy word for betting on how long you’ll live – in a good way. Here’s the concept in a nutshell: many people pool their money in return for guaranteed regular payouts for life, similar to an annuity.

The people who live to, say 90, will receive ever-increasing financial payoffs, because the number of participants in the pool will invariably shrink over time.  The catch is that the investors who die young won’t receive as much income as the men and women who live the longest – but they won’t need the money either.

A new study by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) takes a close look at an idea that is tossed around among finance experts: modifying tontines to use them as a source of retirement income.

Some criticize them as a dubious investment, but they’ve stood the test of time. King Louis XIV of France was the first monarch to raise public funds using tontines, a 1650s creation of Italian financier Lorenzo Tonti. More than a century later, they caused financial hardship among middle-class investors, laying some of the groundwork for the French Revolution.

Tontines made it into American popular culture in the M*A*S*H* television show. Because Col. Potter was the last man standing among his World War I Army buddies, he got the only remaining bottle of brandy from a cache they’d found and drank while camped out in a French chateau. Tontines popped up again in an episode of The Simpsons: grandpa Abe Simpson and Mr. Burns fight over some valuable German paintings in a tontine their Army unit had created back in World War II.

Credit for the idea of a retirement tontine goes to a paper by two professors at York University in Toronto, Moshe A. Milevsky and Thomas S. Salisbury. In his new report, CRR researcher Gal Wettstein agrees that tontines might be a useful way to get regular retirement income – with modifications. …Learn More

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Boomers are Longing to Retire Overseas

Australia, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Spain, Portugal, Scotland, Ecuador, Belize, Nicaragua – our readers living all over the world, or planning to, shared their experiences in comments posted to a February blog, “The Ultimate Travel: Retiring Abroad.”

The article profiled a Houston couple on the verge of retiring who are systematically exploring cities that interest them in Panama and Costa Rica. Few blogs have elicited so many comments – no doubt because thoughts of retiring overseas are more fun than worrying about whether the 401(k) account has enough money in it.

The success of retiree Dennis Desmond and his wife’s relocation to Australia makes it hard to resist temptation. “The weather here is incredible, the people are fantastically friendly, and the scenery is wonderful,” Desmond said in his comment.

But the picture isn’t all roses. William Pederson wrote in his comment that he knows five couples who’ve moved overseas and returned stateside. “You get what you pay for,” he said.

Here’s more of the fun stuff, and a few downsides, from our readers: …Learn More

floating girl

Dreams of Retirement? Watch for Pitfalls

Early last year, a client who was a month away from retiring walked into Matthew Jackson’s office and asked him to manage his money. Then the client started pulling financial statements out of a folder and slid them across the desk.

“I’m excited for you,” Jackson recalled was his first reaction. “But let’s talk more about what you want to do with your money, rather than want you want to do for your money.”

The client “looked at me and then past me. In 4 or 5 seconds he said, ‘Matt I have no idea.’”

To prod others into weighing this critical question for themselves, Jackson wrote a book, “The Retirement Dreammaker: Master the Art of Retirement Abundance.”

And the dream maker is not Jackson – it’s you.

People facing impending retirement are about to hop on a wild ride that will take them from the emotional high of having the freedom to do whatever they like to an unfamiliar low: no job to give them purpose.  Because of that, Jackson is on a mission to warn baby boomers they need to really prepare emotionally for retirement, just as they should prepare financially. (A financial planner turned financial coach, Jackson’s new book also includes a financial chapter.)

“The ultimate freedom is the freedom to follow your purpose,” he said in an interview.

Jackson’s goal in trying to help people who don’t prepare emotionally is not simple but boils down to this: he does not “pump people up – rah-rah.” He prefers to warn of the six retirement pitfalls: …Learn More

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