All Posts by Chris Chen CFP

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Chris Chen CFP CDFA is the CEO and a Wealth Strategist with Insight Financial Strategists LLC in the Boston area. He specializes in retirement planning and divorce financial planning

May 24

Should you retire with a Mortgage?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Introduction

Transitioning to retirement while holding a mortgage isn’t ideal, yet it happens more often than most people think.

An analysis from Lending Tree reported in Forbes stated that 19% of seniors in the top 50 metropolitan areas had a mortgage. And according to the Congressional Research Service, the amount of mortgage debt held by senior households has increased more than 500% over the past three decades.  So, if you are transitioning to your golden years with a mortgage in tow, you are not alone. 

Most financial planners offer the standard advice that it is not financially prudent to enter retirement with mortgage debt or any other debt for that matter. That makes sense, of course. Debt creates an additional expense burden that must be satisfied and a liability that may eventually claim an asset to be liquidated.

However,  the data above shows that it is becoming increasingly difficult to retire without a mortgage. And there are situations where it makes sense. Debt provides leverage and options to achieve goals that might be difficult to reach otherwise. 

Could it make sense?

It may sound obvious, but it bears reminding that getting a loan means that you can preserve other assets for other purposes. And many times, that makes sense.

For example, if your assets are tied in an illiquid investment, you may need the cash to buy that vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard. We don’t have to think exotic to find illiquid investments in our portfolios. Most retirement accounts, including 401(k)s and IRAs, have a form of limited liquidity. Because they are taxed at distribution, there are limits to the size of the distribution that is advisable to take in any given year. Taking too much may result in more taxes than you are comfortable with. A mortgage on your primary residence may be a solution in this kind of scenario.  

Some also have their wealth tied in other illiquid investments such as real estate or private placements. A mortgage may allow you the flexibility to enjoy life without liquidating assets.   

It also depends on the age of the mortgage. A key motivation to pay off a mortgage is to save interest payments. That is especially true at the beginning of the life of a mortgage. Then, most of the payments go to interest instead of principal. However, because mortgages amortize over time, most of the interest in the later life of a mortgage goes to the principal, with a decreasing percentage going to interest. 

Interest and Principal - Mortgage and Retirement

This doesn’t mean that you cannot save interest payments by paying early; it just means that the amount that can be saved decreases with every payment. It may be less expensive to continue mortgage payments than paying early, depending on the financial situation.

Are There Other Benefits?

In most cases, mortgage interest is fixed. If you obtained your mortgage before the rate increases of the past half-year, it is a low interest. If your income is projected to increase, then the percentage that goes to mortgage payments will decrease. Over time, the mortgage becomes a smaller part of your budget. 

Keep Your Debt Under Control

However, there are criteria to observe. The first is that the debt payments should fit within your budget. If you have such debt, you should be able to pay it comfortably out of your retirement income. 

That can be confusing because people with retirement income continue to take from their retirement savings, such as Required Minimum Distributions. The key is to make sure with your Certified Financial Planner that it fits within the plan. 

Home equity loans (HELOC) may be different in a number of ways. The first is that there is often no amortization schedule, meaning that the HELOC will not get paid off unless you make a concerted effort.

When is it Acceptable to Retire With Mortgage Debt?

Few people plan to enter retirement with a mortgage. However, it happens. 

Parents may refinance a mortgage to fund college for their teenager. But unfortunately, with the rising cost of college and parents’ sense of responsibility, many Moms and Dads end up in that situation. 

People often move before retirement, buy a new house and end up with a mortgage. That could be due to downsizing or a move to a sunnier state. In this circumstance, people often have a plan for their accumulated equity. Some of that could go to pay other debt, such as student loans or PARENT PLUS loans. Or it could go to investment, maybe even a real estate investment such as a rental or vacation home. 

In some cases, some of the equity of the house that was just sold goes to helping to fund retirement at a faster clip, i.e., spending. There are so many things that we can do with money!

As a result, there are situations in which it is perfectly acceptable to retire with mortgage debt. The key consideration is to make sure that it fits within your overall financial plan. 

Potential Benefit

There may be a long-term benefit: with a fixed interest rate, your mortgage payments will remain fixed while inflation pushes your income and the value of your home upward.  

And in today’s inflationary environment, with inflation higher than mortgage interest rates, sometimes substantially, the value of a monthly mortgage payment decreases over time simply because money devalues due to inflation. 

In plain terms, this means it gradually becomes less expensive to pay a mortgage throughout retirement as long as that debt is locked in at a fixed rate and income rises.

Mortgage and Retirement

What Not to do in the Context of Retiring With Mortgage Debt

If you feel it is prudent to pay off your mortgage as you transition to retirement, take some time to review the pros and cons. 

If you pay off the mortgage early in its life, you could be saving a lot of interest payments. Although, as noted previously, a low mortgage interest rate in a high inflation environment may well pay for itself. 

Consider the Opportunity Cost of Paying off Your Mortgage

There can be a significant opportunity cost to paying off a mortgage early. It is even greater when paying off a mortgage that has aged for years or decades. For example, suppose you are collecting Social Security, pension payments, or other income adjusted for inflation, and there are no or few liquid post-tax assets. In that case, it might not make financial sense to pay off the entirety of the mortgage in one fell swoop. 

Doing so could leave you without an emergency fund or liquidity.  

How to decide?

When in doubt, run the numbers. Meet with a Certified Financial Planner to estimate the potential returns from investments or the cost to liquidate. Then, compare those anticipated returns with the interest that accumulates from holding your mortgage debt during retirement, paying the monthly minimum as you have for years or decades. If your investment returns are likely to outpace the money lost from the mortgage interest accumulation, it may be in your financial interest to use your financial nest egg to invest rather than pay off the balance of your mortgage, keeping in mind, of course, that there are no guarantees in investment.

Don’t let Emotions Override Logic

Like most homeowners, you are yearning to own your home outright and fire the bank as a co-owner. And if you are like most retirees, having a mortgage will make you uncomfortable.

You may also be tired of paying hundreds or thousands of dollars each month simply to have a roof over your head that you can call your own. 

However, it is a mistake to let mortgage debt, or any other money issue for that matter, become an overly emotional issue. But, unfortunately, it is also hard not to. 

Instead of paying a potentially steep financial price to eliminate your mortgage just ahead of retirement or soon after retiring, take the logical approach by meeting with your Certified Financial Planner. Your financial planner will delve into the nuances of your unique financial situation and then detail the advantages and disadvantages of holding the mortgage until its term ends or paying it off as you segue into retirement.

Feb 14

Do You Have To Pay Taxes in Retirement?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

Do You Have To Pay Taxes in Retirement?

 

Many people look forward to not having to pay income taxes in retirement. It is understandable that after a lifetime of paying taxes, retirees would feel that they deserve a break. 

Unfortunately, that is not generally how income taxes work! In this article, I categorize nine sources of income and their corresponding level of taxes. 

It may seem at times that taxes are hitting us from all directions.  However, a variety of tax rules can also give retirees, or ideally pre-retirees, opportunities to plan such that they can optimize their lifetime taxes, and avoid paying more than their fair share .

Social Security

For those filing as single with income below $25,000, or married filing jointly with income below $32,000, social security income is income tax-free. However, single filer retirees with income up to $34,000 or $44,000 for married filing jointly will find that 50% of their social security becomes taxable.  When income increases over $34,000 for single filers, or $44,000 for married filing jointly then 85% becomes taxable. 

So while it is correct that a portion of their social security income will be income tax-free, many retirees find that they will pay some taxes on their social security income

Retirement Accounts

Retirement accounts such as 401(k), 403(b), and IRAs are an important source of income for retirees.  Income from these accounts is taxed as ordinary income, as if it was being earned in a job, with tax rates ranging from 10% to 37% at the federal level. That is because the initial contribution to those accounts helped to reduce taxable income at the time.  That means that the money in these retirement accounts was never taxed. 

To complicate the matter, distributions from some accounts may be exempt from state taxes. For instance, 403(b) accounts earned in New Jersey are exempt from New Jersey state income taxes at distribution. Similarly, IRA distributions from accounts that were established by Massachusetts taxpayers are exempt from Massachusetts income taxes. These peculiarities vary from State to State. It’s important to verify how they may apply in your State rather than making an assumption.  

Pensions

Many retirees still receive pension income. Some of the more common ones include state, federal and military pensions. Although private pensions have been in decline for several decades now, many people continue to receive payments from these pensions.

Retirees are often surprised to find that their pension income is taxable as ordinary income at the federal level, just as other retirement account income. As with other retirement income sources, there may be exceptions for state taxes that vary from state to state and pension to pension.

Roth Accounts

Income from Roth accounts is not taxed in retirement.  That is because the initial contribution came from after-tax money. In other words, the income used to make the contribution was taxed on the full amount before the contribution was made. I like to say that “Roth accounts are not tax-free, they are just taxed differently“.

A key benefit of Roth accounts is that their distributions do not count toward high-income surcharges for Medicare Part B and Part D premiums. 

Retirees find that Roth accounts can be tremendously useful to optimize taxes in retirement by strategically combining income from Roth accounts with income from taxable accounts .

As a result, effective retirement planning should include considering saving in Traditional vs Roth accounts and strategically converting Traditional to Roth accounts, when appropriate.

Before jumping into making a Roth conversion, it is important to understand that the point of a Roth account contribution should not be to avoid taxes in retirement per se.  Instead, it should be to reduce lifetime taxes . It is possible that a badly timed Roth contribution would increase lifetime taxes, while also reducing retirement income taxes. A strategic plan is important to think through and implement. 

Municipal Bonds

Income received from municipal bonds is federal tax-free.  Like a Roth contribution, an investment in municipal bonds is made with after-tax money. If you own municipal bonds from the state of your residence, the interest is also state tax-free. However, if you own municipal bonds from states other than your residence, their interest is usually taxable at the state level.

People also wonder what happens when they sell their municipal bonds.  When that happens, the price of the bond can be higher or lower than the face value, known as a premium or a discount. When the price is at a premium, the difference between the premium and the face value can be taxed. That can often be an impediment to a sale as people don’t want to be taxed.  

Investments

When held for one year or longer, investments outside of retirement accounts are subject to long-term capital gains taxes. They can range from 0% to 23.8%, including potential Medicare surcharges.  In 2022, for a married couple filing jointly with taxable income up to $83,350, long-term capital gains are taxed at 0% federally ($41,675 for people filing as single).

Therefore investments can potentially be taxed less than other sources of income such as retirement accounts. Balancing distributions from investments in conjunction with Traditional retirement and Roth accounts can be a valuable tax optimization tool.

For people preparing to retire, it may make sense to divert investments from retirement accounts to brokerage accounts . Since taxes cannot be entirely avoided, it is about creating a strategy that optimizes investment vehicles to reduce lifetime taxes.

Annuities

Any income from annuities held inside qualified retirement accounts such as an IRA will be taxable as ordinary income in its entirety.

Income from annuities that are not held in qualified retirement accounts is partially taxable as ordinary income. The amount of the distribution that represents your original investment is considered tax-free as a return of capital. 

Therefore, the taxation of annuity income falls somewhat below that of the taxation of income from retirement accounts. 

Life Insurance

Loans from the cash value of an insurance policy are considered tax-free. That is because, like any loans, they are not considered income. That is a critical point made at the time that an insurance sale occurs.  It should be noted, however, that life insurance is an instance when the tax issues so dominate the sales discussion that they obscure the other costs of cash value life insurance. The loan from the policy is tax-free, but that in and of itself does not necessarily make life insurance cost-effective or appropriate for your needs.

Earned Income

Income earned in retirement is taxed as any other earned income before retirement. Some retirees continue to earn work income, from part-time jobs or from consulting gigs for example. That income is taxed as earned income as if they were not retired, including Social Security and Medicare. Unfortunately, there is no tax break for working in retirement!

The reality for most of us is that we will owe taxes in retirement. The multiplication of tax situations can make minimizing taxes difficult for a retiree.

The challenge is to plan our income situation strategically in order to minimize lifetime taxes. 

Fortunately, wealth planning done properly is a very feasible endeavor that may help you keep more of what you earned in your pockets!

Jan 20

What Financial Specialists Do You Need?

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning

Should you get a financial specialist to help with your divorce? Most people start their divorces looking for a mediator or a lawyer, not a financial planner so that can be a startling question.

Yet divorce is likely to be the largest financial transaction in a person’s life. Larger than buying a house. Larger than paying for graduate school. Larger than raising a child. While marriage may have been about love, now that the flame has been extinguished, divorce is about securing the future and rebuilding a financially successful life. That is why it is crucial to make sure that the division of assets and income is fair, meets your needs and that of your children, and allows you to thrive after the divorce.  

Divorce can be complicated to navigate, and for that, you most likely need a lawyer. They are trained to help you through this complicated legal process. However, divorce contains many intricate details that can have long-term consequences on your finances and are beyond the education and horizon of lawyers.

Lawyers are important, but…

There is no question that you need a lawyer’s professional experience and skills in navigating the choppy waters of what is essentially a legal process. There are many intricacies in the way that divorce gets handled across issues such as child support, asset division, alimony, inheritances, and trusts that need the steady hand of a skilled lawyer.

Lawyers bring you to the finish line; that’s what you pay them to do. However, people divorcing have other needs to help them move on afterward. They need to make sure that the division of assets and income allows them to pursue their goals and lead fulfilling lives. And because modern life has made professional work so intricate and specialized, you have to ensure that you get the right professional for the right job.

Divorce lawyers do try to protect their client’s interests. Nevertheless, few lawyers are financial experts. It’s not part of the curriculum in law school, and financial planning is not part of the practice of the average divorce lawyer.

Three Questions You Need to Answer

Dealing with the immediate, potential, and future financial consequences of a divorce is where a qualified financial analyst can best help. A financial expert can help your divorce by helping you answer three critical questions:

The first question is, where are you today financially? What are your assets and your liabilities? What is the joint marital income, and what are the ongoing expenses?

Surprisingly, many people can’t answer those questions precisely. As long as the bills are paid, and the checking account balance is over the minimum, many are too busy dealing with the other issues of life to pay attention.

Diane Pappas, a veteran Certified Divorce Financial Analyst in Gloucester, MA, observes: “A lot of times when I’m working with a couple…they won’t know what they have in retirement accounts, what kind of assets they have. Sometimes they don’t even know what kind of money they’re making. So they literally have to go look at their paycheck to know what they’re getting paid.”

It’s difficult enough to go through the planning process that is required in a divorce without knowing that basic information. If you don’t even know where you are today, how will you be able to cope with all the financial changes that will occur during the upcoming split? If you don’t know where you are today, how will you figure out where you are going and how to get there?

The second question is, where will you be the day after the divorce? After answering the first question, it’s essential to navigate your negotiations to a settlement that can help you move forward. A quick example is a decision about the marital home. Should you keep it? Should you sell it? Should you sell it LATER after the children graduate? Can you afford it? Similar questions can be asked about most other financial issues. Of course, that also applies to liabilities or the debt owed on credit cards, student loans, or the remaining mortgage balance. Then there is the potential challenge of making ends meet on less income.

The third question is, where will you be 5, 10, or even 15 years down the road after the divorce? That is the measure of a successful divorce negotiation and successful post-divorce financial planning. Ignoring this question is easy because of the immediacy and stress of more immediate issues. It’s easier just to let the process move forward, however slowly, and hope for the best outcome. But without a solid answer to this question, you will not be able to provide informed consent for this largest transaction in your lifetime.

In fact, the inability to answer this question may prevent you from closing an agreement because you may not have the confidence to move forward.

Deferral or procrastination during emotional stress is human nature, especially when you are unsure what questions to ask and how to analyze the data. That is where borrowing the expertise of a knowledgeable professional can pay off. Getting the best divorce-related financial advice early in the process will pay dividends down that long road beyond the day that the divorce becomes final.

Common Financial Specialists Used In a Divorce

Bringing a financial expert into the divorce process can make the difference between making an informed decision that gives you a path forward or having to pick up the pieces later. Financial experts and advisors can play a useful role in divorce financial planning. However, it can be challenging to determine which financial specialist to pick, as they come with many different stripes and colors. Some of the major categories include:

Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) often focus on taxes. Because one of the significant challenges of a divorce is to figure out the tax consequences, it is essential to have that expertise on board. In addition, CPAs will sometimes also work on forensic accounting to help find hidden assets.

Business valuators get involved when the divorce case includes the ownership of a business. Regardless of the involvement of each spouse, the business is likely to be one of the most valuable assets of the marriage, one that is exceedingly difficult to divide. Using a business valuator will allow the parties to put a number to the business and facilitate the negotiation.

Certified Financial Planners: CFPs focus on bringing the client from the present to the future, beyond the effective date of your divorce. In a divorce situation, they do so by helping to optimize a settlement offer to take care of the now and position for the future. Some of the focus areas can include retirement planning, risk management, and investments. CFPs can bridge the gap between the attorneys’ focus on getting you to the divorce finish line, and your need for solid post-divorce planning that will lead you to financial independence. It is a skill set that is frequently overlooked or missing during divorce negotiations.

Certified Value Builders (CVBs) are a less common specialty. They help business owners increase the value of their business, often a top priority for business owners fresh out of a divorce. When the business owner and the Certified Value Builder are successful, the business owner can shore up the rest of their finances.

Certified Divorce Financial Analysts: CDFAs are financial professionals who help couples, and their lawyers arrive at a fair divorce settlement. CDFAs straddle the expertise of the tax professional with that of the Certified Financial Planner. They use their knowledge of tax law, short- and long-term financial planning, and distribution of assets to help clients reach an optimal settlement.

CDFAs often have other qualifications. Actually, CPAs and lawyers sometimes have the CDFA. But most often, it is paired with the CFP designation. This combination of CFP and CDFA can help clients ensure that their future is well analyzed.

Let’s Recap

You most likely could use a financial specialist for your divorce. The stakes are too high not to. Disentangling and splitting assets requires far more expertise than what a lawyer is trained in. Anyone involved in a divorce really should be able to answer the three basic questions of divorce: where are you financially now? Where will you be the day after the divorce? And where will you be 15 years after the divorce?

Being able to answer these questions, especially the last one, is often beyond the scope of what lawyers do. Yet the answers are critical to making sure that you know what you are getting to and how you will be financially successful after the divorce.

There are many kinds of financial experts running the gamut from tax accountants to business valuators. Many may be needed for some aspects of your divorce. But the most valuable divorce financial professionals may be the CFP/CDFA combination. They have the training and orientation to bring you to the next level: financial success after divorce.

 

Oct 26

Seven Year End Wealth Opportunities

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

As we come close to the end of the year, you still have time to make a few smart financial moves.

Maybe because of the year-end deadline, many year-end planning opportunities seem to be tax-related. However, tax moves should be made within the context of your overall long-term financial and investment plan. Hence, make sure to check in with your financial and tax advisors.

Here are seven important areas to focus your efforts on to help you make the best of the rest of your financial year.

1. Harvest your Tax Losses

As of October 22, the S&P500 is up 21%, and the Dow Jones is up 16% for the year. Unfortunately, some stocks and mutual funds are still posting a loss for the year. Therefore, it is likely that some items in your portfolio show up in red when you check the “unrealized gains and losses” column in your brokerage statement.

You could still make lemonade out of these lemons by harvesting your losses for tax purposes. It is worth remembering that the IRS individual deduction for capital losses is limited to $3,000 for 2021. In other words, if you don’t offset your losers with your winners, you may end up with a tax loss carryforward that could only be used in future years. This is not an ideal scenario!

You can also offset your losses against your gains. For example, suppose you sell some losers and accumulate $10,000 in losses. You could then also sell some winners. Then, if the gains in your winners add up to $10,000, you would have offset your gains with your losses, and you will not owe capital gain taxes on that combined trade!

Bear in mind that Wealth Strategy is not all about taxes! Tax-loss harvesting could be a great opportunity to help you rebalance your portfolio with a reduced tax impact. Beware though of the wash sale rule: if you buy back your sold positions within 30 days, you will have negated the benefit. 

2. Review your Investment Planning

Tax-loss harvesting can be used effectively for short-term advantage. However, it also provides the opportunity to focus on more fundamental issues. So, in the first place, why did you buy these securities that you just sold? At one time, they probably played an important role in your investment strategy. And now, with the cash from the sale, it’s important to be mindful when reinvesting.

You may be tempted to wait for a while to see how the market evolves. We may have been spoiled into complacency with the bull run we experienced since the Great Recession. However, we should not forget that volatility does happen.

It’s almost impossible to predict accurately when the next bear market will start if it hasn’t already. And after more than eighteen months of strong gains, it is time to reassess if you and your portfolio are positioned for a potential downturn. 

You will want to ensure that your portfolio risk is aligned with your goals and that your asset allocation is aligned with your risk target. Reach out to your Wealth Strategist to review.

3. Review your Retirement Planning

There is still time to top out your retirement account! In 2021, you can contribute up to $19,500 from your salary, including employer match, to a standard defined contribution plan such as 401(k), TSP, 403(b), or 457, subject to the terms and conditions of your plan. And if you happen to be 50 years old or older, you can contribute an additional $6,500 for this year.

If you have under contributed to your plan, there may still be time! You have until December 31 to boost your retirement planning by topping off your 2021 contributions. This will also have the benefit of reducing your 2021 taxable income if you contribute to a Traditional plan.

As an alternative, you could contribute to a Roth account if your employer offers that plan option. 

Many employers offer a Roth in their employee retirement plans. If yours does not, schedule a chat with your HR department!

Many people think of the Roth account as tax-free. However, you should bear in mind that although Roth accounts are popularly designated as “tax-free,” they are merely taxed differently since you would be contributing after-tax funds. Double-check with a Certified Financial Planner professional to determine whether choosing to defer some of your salaries on a pretax basis or post-tax to a Roth account better fits your situation.

4. Roth Conversions

Our current tax environment is especially favorable to Roth conversions. With the current TCJA law, income tax rates will be going back up in 2026. Therefore, Roth conversions could cost less in current taxes until then. Of course, Congress could vote for tax rates to go up before the end of the year. There is even the possibility that Congress will remove the ability to do a Roth conversion after 2021.

To do a Roth conversion, you withdraw money from a Traditional tax-deferred retirement account, pay income taxes on the distribution, and move the assets into a Roth account. Then the assets can grow and be distributed tax-free, provided certain other requirements are met. If you think that your tax bracket will be higher in the future than it is now, you could benefit from a Roth conversion.

5. Choosing your Health Plan 

With health insurance re-enrollment season, the annual ritual of choosing a health insurance plan is with us. With health insurance getting ever more expensive, this could be one of your more important short-term financial decisions. 

Your first decision is to decide whether to subscribe to a high deductible option or stick with a traditional plan with a “low” deductible. The high deductible option will have a cheaper premium. However, if you have a lot of health issues, it may end up costing you more. High deductible plans allow access to Health Savings Accounts (HSA).

The HSA is a special instrument. With it, you can contribute money before taxes to pay for qualified healthcare expenses tax-free. Balances in HSAs can be carried forward to future years. They can also be invested to allow for potential earnings growth. This last feature is exciting to wealth managers because, in the right situation, clients could end up saving a lot of money.

If you choose a high deductible plan, you should plan to fund your HSA to the maximum. Many employers will contribute as well to encourage their employees to pick that option. If you choose a low deductible plan instead, make sure to fund your Flexible Spending Account. FSAs are used to pay for medical expenses on a pretax basis. The unspent amount cannot be rolled over to future years, unlike HSAs.

6. Plan your RMDs

Don’t forget to take your Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) if you are past 70. The penalty for not taking your RMD is a steep 50%. Your first minimum distribution must be withdrawn by April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn 70 ½, and by December 31 for each year after.

Perhaps you don’t need the RMD? Then you may want to redirect the money to another cause. For example, you could fund a grandchild’s 529 tax-advantaged educational account. Contributions are post-tax, but growth and distributions are tax-free so long as they are used to pay for education.

7. Charitable Donations

You could also plan for a Qualified Charitable Distribution from the IRA. That distribution must go directly from the IRA to a charity. Unlike a normal RMD, it is excluded from taxable income and may count towards your RMD under certain conditions

Charitable donations can also help reduce taxable income and provide financial planning benefits. However, the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) has made it more complicated. A significant result of the TCJA is that standard deductions for 2021 are $12,550 for individuals and $25,100 for joint filers. In practice, it means that the first $12,550 or $25,100 of deductible items have no tax benefits. 

For example, if a married couple filing jointly (MFJ) pays $8,000 in real estate taxes and $5,000 in state income taxes for a total of $13,000 of deductions, they are better off taking the standard $25,100 deduction. The first $12,100 that they donate to charity would not yield a tax benefit. One way to go around this new situation is to bundle your donations in a given year. Another possibility, within certain limits, is to give directly from an IRA.

As an example, if you plan to give in 2021 as well as 2022, bundling your donations and giving just in 2021 could result in a deduction and the accompanying reduced tax. 

If your thinking wheels are turning after reading this article, check in with your Wealth Strategist or financial planner: there may be other techniques that you could or should do before the end of the year!

 

May 14

Should Your Spouse Join You in a Divorce Workshop?

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Should Your Spouse Join You in a Divorce Workshop?

Should Your Spouse Join You in a Divorce Workshop? As a Financial Planner, I participate in many different types of workshops, including divorce. Pandemic obliging, these days they are usually webinars.   Divorce is no exception. Should you suggest to your spouse that they should join you in a divorce workshop? Or do you want to keep the information that you got in a divorce workshop to yourself?

As a Certified Financial Planner, I often answer complicated questions with “it depends.” However, for this question, I will just say, “Heck, yes, bring him or her along”! I recently recommended to a divorce workshop attendee that she come back to other workshops and bring her husband along. As it happens,  they are still talking, and my workshops are still Zooming. So, she might be able to get him there. The primary benefit of bringing your spouse to a divorce workshop is that you will start to get him on the same level of understanding about divorce issues.

The first step is understanding that divorce is emotionally difficult to negotiate for both sides. It is even more challenging if the two sides start from different vantage points. Just remember how you felt the last time you dealt with someone with a completely different perspective.  For example, think of the last time you tried to persuade your toddler to eat his or her vegetables. You and your spouse cannot have all your questions answered in one workshop or a dozen. Divorce is way too complex for that. But you will both learn something. And most importantly, you will both hear the same information and may learn the same thing. And that can form the basis for a productive negotiation and path forward.

If you and your spouse do go to the same divorce workshop, take it a step further and ask the questions on the points you disagree about. At the workshop, you will get a neutral expert opinion that may be helpful. Is it about planning for retirement with a lot fewer assets? Or whether you should keep your inheritance as separate property? The challenge of introducing the “D” word to the kids? The difficulties of comparing pensions to other assets? The potential for a creative solution? It doesn’t matter what the areas of disagreement are. You will both hear the same answer and have a starting point to move forward.

In war, you want to keep to yourself all the advantages that you can. Divorce may be war, but it is different in at least one respect: it pays to make sure that your spouse is as informed as you are because that reduces your legal bills and gets you closer to the finish line. Heck, it is also worth it to find out that your position might be wrong. That too can form the basis for moving on. You should note that what you hear in a divorce workshop can be great information, but it is not “advice.” Because every situation is unique, you will have to go back to a professional for objective advice. However, all journeys start with one step forward. Getting on the same page can be that important first step.

Apr 14

How You Can Plan to Pay for Long Term Care

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

How You Can Plan to Pay for Long Term Care

Introduction

You need a plan to pay for Long Term Care (LTC). About 70% of us will end up needing LTC, making it a high probability event with a potentially large and uncertain cost. For many of us, LTC may well end up as the single most significant expense of our retirement.

Aware of the potential impact of the cost of LTC, Jill wanted to know if she should purchase a long-term care insurance policy or put her assets in a Medicaid trust. She reasoned that with the first option, the insurance policy would cover her costs up to the coverage limit. However, Jill balked at the cost of the policy. With the Medicaid trust option, all of her expenses would be potentially paid for by Medicaid, but she would have to put all of her assets into an irrevocable trust. She found that unattractive as well.

Fiduciary Advice

Caught between two unattractive options, Jill decided that she needed clarity so she could make a decision based on facts and not emotions. She thought she would check in with a fiduciary fee-only Certified Financial Planner professional. Jill found a planner easily enough. She was a little shocked at the cost of a consultation. She was not used to paying directly for financial advice. For example, she never paid her insurance sales representative, Jason, any money, at least directly. After taking a big breath, she agreed to the cost, scheduled a Zoom consultation, and asked her daughter Kim to join.

LTC is unpredictable

Oddly, she was comforted when her planner confirmed that it is difficult to predict the cost of LTC. First, it was not certain that she would need it: about 30% of us end up not needing it. Because Long Term Care can range anywhere from a few hours of home care a day to years in an assisted living facility or a nursing home, it was not easy to calculate how much it might eventually cost. 

After thinking a little, Kim suggested that Jill needed to understand what her resources were. Jill owned her own home with about $600,000 in equity using the Zillow valuation as a benchmark. She also had somewhat over $900,000 in retirement assets and other financial assets worth about $150,000. Jill had always thought that if she did not have LTCi, she would have to use her assets to pay for the cost. She was concerned that there would not be enough and that she may not be able to leave anything for Kim and her brother. Kim rolled her eyes slightly.

The planner pointed out that Jill was making a reasonable income. That took her by surprise because somehow, it had escaped her mind that her resources also included her income. Jill received about $35,000 annually in Social Security and $25,000 from the QDRO of her ex-husband’s pension. Also, she had her own pension that paid about $10,000. In total, she had a little over $70,000 in income. Realizing that, Jill smiled.  

What about the house?

It dawned on Jill that if she had to move into assisted living, many of her current expenses would go away. That would liberate cash flow to pay for the assisted living facility costs. She realized suddenly that she might also be able to sell her house, cut the related expenses, and use the proceeds. Kim confirmed that she and her brother would not want to keep the house after Jill passed away. 

Jill thought about how she might feel about selling the house. She remembered that her aunt went to assisted living, thinking that she would need the house to come back to. Jill knew that she might change her mind and, like her aunt, refuse to sell. But for now, it was an assumption she was willing to make.

Jill could afford LTC

Based on her current income, she could afford to move into assisted living at current rates. Not that she wanted to!

The planner also pointed out that Jill’s income and costs would likely diverge because of inflation, with expenses growing faster than income. Although Social Security has an annual Cost of Living Adjustment, Jill’s pensions did not. At the same time, the cost of assisted living regularly increases, sometimes faster than inflation. However, at first blush, it looked like she could pull through when the time came.

Kim asked how to deal with the increasing cost of living and whether it made sense to continue Jill’s very conservative investment allocation. Excellent question! The planner explained that Jill’s money needed to continue working for her. If she kept it too conservative, her nest egg would lose ground against inflation. To address her safety concerns, Jill would need to differentiate between money that she would need in the relatively short term and money that she would not need for a while. Jill could keep the first pot in a conservative allocation to insulate it from market fluctuations. She could reach for more return with the second pot, thus balancing the need for safety and growth.

The planner made a point to insist that this was all preliminary, that he needed to go fire up his spreadsheets to give Jill a more definite answer. However, Jill and Kim were excited because they could see that Jill could probably afford long-term care, leave something for her children, and maybe even spend a little more on herself. Kim was relieved because she could feel the fear of her expected financial burden dissipate.  

Jill and Kim came back a week later to see what their planner had cooked up. He showed them potential cost projections depending on how long Jill might need long-term care. He showed them a range of projections that would capture many of the possibilities. They decided together the range of options that would make Jill feel comfortable.

He also showed them how changing her investment plan would allow her to be secure and potentially increase her assets, thereby aligning better with her Life Plan. Jill felt a little concerned. She asked what if all these projections and assumptions were wrong and all the money went “poof.” However, being one step removed from her Mom’s emotions, Kim saw the logic. 

Finally, the planner suggested that Jill should consider purchasing a hybrid life insurance policy that would convert into a long-term care policy if needed. Should the need arise, the insurance policy could serve as a cushion and cover some long-term care costs. If not required, Kim and her brother would benefit from a death benefit free of income tax. The thought of a “death benefit” made Kim a little uncomfortable. However, Jill felt better about using some insurance in her plan. The planner reminded them that he would not get a commission if Jill purchased the policy as a fee-only fiduciary.

Jill trusted the planner. She was grateful for the clarity that he provided. Most importantly, Jill felt more confident about the future. She decided to take the weekend to think about it. 

On the following Monday, Jill called the planner and asked if he would continue planning for her. She wanted her modified investment plan implemented. Jill knew that it had to be updated regularly and that she would need help with that. She also needed help aligning her taxes and estate plan to her new perspective. Jill was pleased that her new financial plan fitted better with her Life Plan. 

Mar 23

Should you value your pension?

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

Should You Value Your Pension?

Jill came to our office for post-divorce financial planning. At 60 years young with two grown children, she wanted to know whether she would make it through retirement without running out of assets. A former stay-at-home Mom and current yoga instructor, Jill did not have a professional career. Her work-life consisted of a series of part-time jobs scheduled around her children’s. 

Jill traded her interest in her ex-husband Jack’s 401(k) for half of a brokerage account, her IRA, and the marital home. Their lawyers decided that Jack’s 401(k) should be discounted by 25%. That would account for the fact that the 401(k)’s pretax assets would be taxed by Uncle Sam and her State tax authority upon distribution.

Adjustments to the Value of a 401k

That sounds reasonable on the surface. But was a 25% discount appropriate for Jill? After making some retirement income projections, it became clear that Jill would likely always be in a lower federal tax bracket than 25%. Had Jill consulted a Divorce Financial Planner at the time of her divorce, he or she would probably have advised against agreeing to a 25% discount to the value of the 401(k).

Jill and Jack also agreed that she would keep half of her interest in Jack’s defined-benefit pension that he earned as a pediatrician with a large hospital. When they agreed to divide the pension, Jack was unclear about the value of the pension. He thought that it was probably “not worth much anyway.” Neither lawyer disagreed.

This highlights how vital it is to seek advice from the right divorce professional for the right issues: lawyers for legal matters and Divorce Financial Planners for financial questions. When mediators and divorce lawyers team up with divorce financial planners, the additional expense often pays for itself.

What About the Pension? 

After some research, I found that Jill would end up receiving a little over $33,000 a year from the QDRO of Jack’s pension. This is significant for a retiree with a projected spending requirement of less than $5,000 a month!

Since Jack and Jill planned to retire in the same year, she would be able to start receiving her payments at the same time as Jack. Also, Jack had agreed to select a distribution option with a survivor’s benefit for Jill. 

That would allow her to continue receiving payments when Jack passed away. Jill was aware that women tend to outlive men. So, she was relieved that the survivor benefit was there.  

Each defined-benefit pension has its own rules. Each pension division should be evaluated individually.

The Value of Pension Division Analysis

A defined-benefit pension such as Jack’s does not have an easily assessable value in the same way as an IRA or a 401(k). Pension statements don’t come with a dollar value. A pension promises to pay the employee a certain amount of money in retirement based on a specific formula. For the pension to be fairly considered in the overall asset division, a professional must value it.

In her case, Jill’s share of the pension was 50% of the marital portion. Was it the best outcome for Jill? It is hard to re-assess a case after the fact. However, had she and Jack known the value of the pension, they might have decided for a different division that may have better served their respective interests. Jill may have decided that she wanted more of the 401(k), and Jack could have decided that he wanted to keep more of the pension. Or possibly Jill may have considered taking a lump-sum buyout of her claim to Jack’s pension. Whatever the case, Jill and Jack would have had the explicit information to decide consciously rather than taking the default path.

The news that Jack’s QDRO’d defined benefit pension had value was serendipity for Jill. Increasing her projected retirement income with the pension payments meaningfully increased her chances to live through retirement without running out of assets. But it is possible that a better understanding of the pension division and other financial issues at the time of divorce could have resulted in an even more favorable outcome for Jill.

Feb 19

What is Bitcoin, exactly?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Investment Planning

What is Bitcoin, exactly?

BitcoinWhat is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a cryptographic protocol operating on a peer-to-peer network created in 2009. This protocol is utilized in the form of a currency, allowing for direct transactions between individuals. To put it more simply, Bitcoin is an anonymous digital currency, which circumvents financial intermediaries in transactions.

Four key Bitcoin considerations:

1. How are Bitcoins created? 

Bitcoins are created through a process called “mining.” Fundamentally, Bitcoin is founded upon an algorithm, i.e., a mathematical formula, which regulates the speed at which Bitcoin can be “mined” or created and how it can be used or transferred. Practically, a computer program works to solve an equation. Once the computer solves the equation, a certain number of Bitcoins is generated. The time it takes to solve an equation gets progressively longer, requiring more resources and leading to diminishing returns as the cap of 21 million Bitcoins approaches (i.e., there is no additional money supply).

2. How does Bitcoin work?

[inlinetweet prefix="RT @boston_planner" tweeter="" suffix="#financialinsight #bitcoin #crypto"]Bitcoins have two encryption keys: one public and one private. The public key has a similar role to an account number, and the private one has a similar function to a PIN. Anyone can see the public one, and the private one is stored in a “wallet” on the user’s computer or mobile device. These wallets store multiple Bitcoin addresses created at the users’ discretion. To undertake a transaction, the user would simply give (whether directly or through a Bitcoin client) their private key, which can then be matched to the public key to confirm the transaction’s legitimacy. Transactions are recorded in a public ledger in what is called “blockchains.”

Bitcoin price evolution

Bitcoin from September 2020 to February 19, 2021

3. Why do people use Bitcoin? 

Bitcoin is used for its comparative advantages over other forms of currency and transaction methods. One major attraction of Bitcoin is that it is comparatively anonymous. That has drawn criticism from certain sectors (i.e., the US government). Websites, most infamously Silk Road (which was closed by the FBI in October 2013), can use Bitcoin as a safe currency when dealing with illegal transactions (e.g., drugs, arms). There are continuing concerns that as Bitcoin becomes more liquid and, volumes start increasing, it will become a target for money-launderers. Other comparative advantages that stand out are simply the fact that it is digital – giving it greater flexibility of usage – and freedom from conventional political pressure or externalities. This second point derives from Bitcoin’s decentralization, making market influences by a central bank (e.g., printing money) or a government (e.g., the expansion of the money supply) irrelevant. Furthermore, at least from the financial side, the greatest attraction is that Bitcoin is essentially frictionless: there are virtually no transaction fees, making cross-border transactions a principal driver of future growth and monetization.
Today, Bitcoin continues to have limited usage. Many services allow individuals to obtain Bitcoins through an intermediary or directly on the market. While large retailers do not accept Bitcoin, there are several services for the purchase of gift cards, for example, providing an indirect method of accessing the retail market. Other websites and small-scale retailers also offer goods and services that can be paid with bitcoin. Notably, it is possible to buy Bitcoin directly through Robin Hood.

4. Every Bitcoin has two sides. 

Bitcoin suffers from a number of problems, many of which mirror the currency’s positives. The most significant concern people have and the largest hurdle for Bitcoin and digital currencies, in general, is the lack of regulation and consumer protection. Simply put, what people don’t know, they don’t trust. While government and central bank actions can be debated, these institutions provide the authority to back currencies. Similarly, fees for companies such as MasterCard are used to ensure users. The result of the lack of regulation, among other reasons, is a volatile and relatively illiquid currency. Consumer confidence would go a long way to solving many of Bitcoin’s problems, with regulation, a potential platform, market penetration, and less speculation key factors in controlling this.
From a technical perspective, digital currencies and especially Bitcoin have encountered difficulties of scalability and monetization, with deflation a potential concern given the technical limit of 21 million Bitcoins. While perhaps merely growing pains, the currency has not gained any meaningful traction concerning scale and monetization, unlike its price growth as demonstrated in the graph above. Significantly, the pricing of bitcoin in the graph above is in dollars.

(This post is based on research work by Patrick Chen.  Insight Financial Strategists LLC does not provide Bitcoin advice or services).

Dec 21

7 Year-End Tax-Planning Strategies to Implement Now

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

7 Year-End Tax-Planning Strategies

We often review our tax situation at the end of the year because it is important! However, making a tax plan and carrying out this strategy may prove to be more critical than ever to your finances. 2020 is a historic year due to the pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, massive stimulus, and the presidential election settling into an administration change.

Good year-end tax planning has always been important, but never more so than now, when the administration change may cause changes with the Tax Code in the next several months .

Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail

You can potentially increase your tax savings (and minimize the federal income tax) in 2020 with the following six tax tips.

1. Review your IRA and 401(k) contributions

If you are not maxed out, consider contributing more. Many are expecting that taxes may go up in 2021 with the Biden administration. The Biden-Harris campaign took great pain to specify that the increased taxes they were planning were targeted to high earners. They emphasized that they were planning to spare lower earners. However, pundits have largely decided that we should expect increased taxes across the board. Of course, this is very hard to predict. 

However, if you believe that taxes will go up, you may want to consider contributing to a Roth IRA or 401(k) instead of a Traditional IRA or 401(k) to lock in long-term tax savings.

2. Take advantage of coronavirus -related distributions and waived RMDs in 2020

Under the CARES Act, people under 59½ who are “qualified individuals” may take up to $100,000 of coronavirus-related distributions (CRDs) from retirement plans. CRDs are exempt from the 10% early distribution penalty, and there is the option to spread the resulting taxable income over a three-year period.

The CARES Act passed earlier in 2020 waived RMDs for this year. The waiver applies to RMDs from retirement accounts, including IRAs, company plans, inherited IRAs, inherited Roth IRAs, and plan beneficiaries. If you have taken your RMDs already, you can still repay them if they are otherwise eligible for a rollover, which means that repayments must be made within 60 days of the distribution and are subject to the once-per-year rollover rule.  

However, if you happen to be a “qualified individual,” you don’t need to be concerned about the 60-day repayment deadline since you have three years to redeposit the distribution. However, for some people, it may make sense to take distributions anyway to take advantage of lower tax brackets and to maximize the value of the lower tax bracket in light of the expected increases. Any part of these tax savings not used will be lost forever, so you or your Certified Financial Planner professional or tax planner should perform an analysis to decide what makes the most sense for you.

3. Consider a Qualified Charitable Distribution 

Before the end of the year, you may want to consider a Qualified Charitable Distribution or QCD . This technique remains a significant tax break for charitably inclined IRA owners who are at least age 70½. They are eligible to transfer up to $100,000 directly to a charity from their IRA. QCDs can help to offset RMDs by lowering the IRA balance. They can also help to reduce taxable income (even though RMDs are waived for 2020). 

4. Charitable Contributions

Per the CARES Act, people can benefit from the $300 above-the-line charitable deduction for the 2020 tax year . By and large, charitable contributions lost much of their tax appeal in previous tax changes. However, the CARES Act opens up this opportunity for 2020.

5. Perform Roth conversions before December 31

If you have been hesitant to convert traditional IRAs or pre-tax 401(k) to Roth accounts, 2020 may be the year to make it happen finally. Even though people will be paying taxes on the conversion now, we are still in a low tax environment with the expectation that tax rates will increase. Besides, some people may have a lower 2020 taxable income because of income lost from the pandemic or reduced because of the waived RMDs. For them, a Roth conversion could be a silver lining in the pandemic cloud.

Because RMDs cannot be converted in a typical year, 2020 presents a one-time opportunity to optimize lifetime taxes. Perform this conversion before December 31 so that they will count towards the 2020 tax year.

Do you believe instead that your tax rate is likely to decrease? Then a Roth conversion would be increasing your lifetime taxes. So, don’t convert.

Sure or not, have a conversation with your Certified Financial Planner professional to help figure out your long term strategy.

6. Utilize the net unrealized appreciation strategy

For people who happen to have highly appreciated company stock within their 401(k), Net Unrealized Appreciation (NUA) can be a lucrative tax-planning tool. NUA allows an individual to transfer company stock out of the 401(k) and pay ordinary income tax on the value of the shares at the time of purchase (not the total value of the shares). The difference between the stock’s cost basis and the market value —the NUA— isn’t taxable until the shares are eventually sold. Then, they can be taxed at the lower long-term capital gains rates. 

Although the NUA strategy can be enticing, please remember that not counting a few exceptions, the employee’s entire retirement account should basically be emptied within one calendar year. Hence, to use this strategy, make sure that the lump sum distribution happens before December 31.

7. Reduce Estate taxes

If you are subject to a federal estate tax, gifting in your lifetime can be less expensive than distributing at your death because, within certain limits, gifts are tax-exclusive, whereas inheritances are tax-inclusive. The IRS allows a maximum of $15,000 for annual exclusion gifts per recipient and per donor. Therefore, a couple can give up to $30,000 to an individual or $60,000 to another couple (2 gifts of $15,000 per recipient or per donor). You can make these gifts to anyone every year tax-free, even if the exemption is used up. Also, the gifts do not reduce the gift-estate exemption.

Also, gifts for direct payments for tuition and medical expenses for loved ones are unlimited and tax-free. There is no limit for these gifts, and they can be made for anyone. They too do not reduce the lifetime gift/estate exemption. 

Lastly, the IRS has stated that there will be no claw back to the lifetime gift tax exemption ($11,580,000 per individual in 2020) if these exemptions are used this year, even if it is later reduced, as it is expected to be after Joe Biden is inaugurated as President. Therefore, you may want to use the lifetime exemption now or possibly lose it.

Failing to plan is planning to fail!

For many, these tax strategies could be a silver lining in an otherwise dreadful year. It is widely assumed that the new administration will push for higher taxes. So reviewing your tax situation is essential. 

Make a plan and take action that will make a difference.

Oct 22

How Can Divorced Women Claim Social Security?

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Retirement Planning

How Can Divorced Women Claim Social Security?

Photo by Matthew Bennett on UnsplashWhen the Social Security Act passed in 1935, it included benefits for workers, but not for their spouses. At the time, women who did not work outside of the home could not qualify for Social Security retirement benefits. A sweeping series of amendments enacted in 1939 extended Social Security to spouses and minor children. Wives who had not earned a social security retirement benefit or whose retirement benefit was less than 50% of their husbands qualified for the first time.

Catching up with a changing society, another reform extended Social Security retirement benefits to divorced wives in the cases when the divorce happened after a marriage longer than 20 years. The word “spouse” replaced the word “wife” in the 1970s, allowing husbands to collect retirement benefits on their ex-wives record.

Later, the length of marriage required to qualify for benefits after a divorce was reduced to 10 years. When SCOTUS legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, survivor and divorce benefits extended to same-sex couples.

This short history of Social Security shows how it has evolved over time. Ex-wives and ex-husbands can now all receive retirement benefits based on an ex’s work record. However, qualifying conditions must be met.

The rules can be confusing and difficult to keep track of, especially for those who have had more than one marriage and divorce or those whose ex-spouse has died. 

Benefits for Divorced People

When a divorced spouse claims their benefit at full retirement age or later, they will qualify to receive 50% of their ex-spouse’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) , so long as they have not remarried before 60 years of age and do not qualify on their own record.

Let us take the case of Jack and Jill, who are divorced. Jack’s PIA is $2,800. In this example, Jill does not qualify for a retirement benefit on her own record. She files for her divorced-spouse benefit at her full retirement age of 66. She will qualify to receive 50% of Jim’s Primary Insurance Amount, $1,400, as her divorced-spouse benefit.

The earlier you claim your benefits, the less you will get, consistent with other Social Security benefits. Conversely, you will receive more if you claim when you are older. To maximize Social Security benefits, you will need to delay them until 70 years of age.

However, divorced people who claim on their ex-spouse’s record will not get more if they delay their benefits until 70 years of age . They maximize them at full retirement age, 66 to 67, depending on the year of birth.

It’s worth noting that when Jill’s own benefit is more than 50% of Jack’s, she will receive her Social Security retirement. She will not receive her benefit amount as well as 50% of Jack’s!

Sometimes people wonder how their age difference with their ex-spouse can affect their benefits. The good news is that the ex-spouse’s age when they claim is not relevant. As long as Jill claims at full retirement age, she will receive her maximum benefit independently of the timing of Jack’s claim.

Who Qualifies?

A person who claims his or her benefits based on a former spouse’s record must be single at the time. So unfair, you say? If Jill, in our example, has remarried, generally she could get 50% of Jack’s benefits, or her own, if her own is greater than 50% of their Jack’s.

Jack may be married or unmarried. It makes no difference. If Jack happens to be (re)married, Jill and the current wife could both get the 50% benefit from Jack’s record. For that matter, they can both get upgraded to the full benefit at full retirement age.

Suppose Jill, who receives the 50% benefit, remarries. In that case, her 50% benefit from Jack’s record stops, unless Jill’s new spouse also gets a divorced spouse benefit. That’s except if the remarriage occurs after age 60.

A marriage must have lasted for ten years or longer to claim Social Security retirement benefits on an ex-spouse’s record . Because of that requirement, sometimes people who think of divorce will delay until ten years of marriage are achieved. For example, if you’ve been married 9.5 years, it may be worth it to wait another six months.

Sometimes people are not sure when they actually got divorced. People often mark their court appearance date as the divorce date. In most states, however, the real divorce date is later than the court appearance. For example, in Massachusetts, it is 90 or 120 days later, depending on the type of filing.

More Marriages and Divorces

People sometimes ask: what if you had two or more ten-year marriages?

Then, it can become complicated. Those who have divorced more than once from marriages of ten years or longer can choose the higher of the two divorced-spouse benefits, so long as they are currently unmarried.

For example, let’s suppose that Sheryl was married to Patrick for 20 years and John for 12. Sheryl has now divorced for the second time and has remained single for more than two years since her last divorce from John.

Patrick’s PIA is $2,600, and John’s PIA is $2,400. Let’s suppose again that Sheryl doesn’t qualify for a retirement benefit based on her own record. However, she is at full retirement age (66 or 67, depending on the birth year).

When Sheryl files, she can receive half of Patrick’s PIA because it is higher than John’s. And, no, she cannot get both Patrick’s and John’s retirement benefits!

If Sheryl divorced less than two years before, she must wait until her last ex, Patrick, in this case, has filed for his benefit. The worker on whose record the retirement benefit is claimed, Patrick, must have reached 62 years of age.

If they divorced more than two years before, Patrick’s filing status is irrelevant to Sheryl’s claim. Unless Sheryl tells him, Patrick will never know if his ex has claimed.

Let’s go over the case of Mike and Marie. They were married for more than ten years and divorced for more than two. Mike and Marie are both 62 years old. She has not remarried. Because she is single, Marie qualifies for a divorced-spouse retirement benefit based on Mike’s record, whether or not Mike has filed. It’s worth keeping in mind that the earlier someone claims, the less they get!

If Mike has passed away, Marie receives a divorced-spouse survivor benefit based on Mike’s record, if she is currently unmarried or, if remarried, remarried after age 60.

In addition, Marie’s benefit will be 100% of Mike’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), the amount that Mike would have received at full retirement age (66 or 67). In the case of Mike dying, Marie’s retirement benefits are capped to full retirement age.

What if the same two people have married, divorced, remarried, and divorced again? In that case, the length of the two marriages can be added together (including the time in between) to reach the ten years qualifying minimum. That is if the second marriage (the remarriage) happens before the end of the calendar year following the divorce!!

We can make sense of this chaos. Say Mike and Marie were married seven years from May 2002 to August 2009. They remarried in December 2010 and re-divorced in November 2013, for three years. The total for the two marriages is ten years. Mike and Marie meet the 10-year requirement because their second marriage happened before the end of the calendar year after the first divorce. If instead Mike and Marie had remarried in January 2011, the ten-year clock would have been reset to zero. 

Pension Repercussions

What if Jill, the person applying for the divorced-spouse retirement benefit, also worked for an employer not participating in the Social Security system? For example, many state and municipal governments are exempt from the Social Security system. If Jill worked for a local government, she could qualify for a pension from her employer. Then, her divorced-spouse Social Security benefit would be reduced by 2/3 of the amount of her pension because of the Government Pension Offset rule. Depending on the size of her pension, Jill’s Social Security benefit may be zero.

How would that work? Jill currently receives a $3,000 monthly pension from a police department in Texas. She has divorced from Jack after a marriage that was longer than ten years. Jack’s PIA is $2,800. Jill’s divorced-spouse benefit of $1,400 would be reduced by $2,000 (2/3 of $3,000), which reduces the benefit amount to zero.

If Jack dies, Jill becomes eligible for a divorced-spouse survivor benefit. After the GPO reduction she will receive $800 ($2,800 – $2,000 equals $800).

Suppose the spouse with benefit also qualifies for a pension from an entity that doesn’t pay into social security. In that case, the Windfall Elimination Program kicks in. That reduces the spouse with benefit’s payments, and the ex-spouse’s benefit adjusts downward as well.

How To Claim

To claim a divorced spouse retirement benefit, you need the name and Social Security number of your ex-spouse. You should also have the divorce decree. If you don’t have it, you could retrieve the ex’s Social Security number on an old document, such as a tax return.

When you don’t have the ex’s Social Security number, you may need more information, such as his birth date and previous addresses. In this case, the Social Security Administration won’t make the process easy. 

 

Check our other article on Social Security by Phil Bradford

 

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