Feb 24

The Best Way to Pay Off Federal Student Loans

By Saki Kurose | Financial Planning , Student Loan Planning

The Best Way to Pay Off Federal Student Loans

best way to pay off federal student loans

In my previous article about private student loans, I mentioned that students should consider taking out federal student loans before taking out any private loans.  

Federal student loans have protections and benefits that private student loans most likely won’t have Federal loans can be discharged if the borrower dies or becomes totally and permanently disabled. Also, borrowers may have access to Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plans and loan forgiveness programs.  

Income-Driven Repayment Plans

Sarah was an example from my previous article.  She is a physician making $250,000 a year and has a federal loan balance of $250,000 with a 6% interest rate.  Sarah learned that she could save a lot of money by privately refinancing her federal loans.  But are there any benefits for Sarah to keep her loans in the federal system?   

What if she is thinking about starting a family and possibly working part-time but does not know when that might happen?  She wants to pay off her debt as fast as she can but does not like the idea of having required payments of $2,776 a month on the federal 10-year Standard repayment plan or $2,413 a month after private refinancing when her income temporarily decreases for working part-time.  

By keeping her loans under the federal system, Sarah has some flexibility over the amount she must pay every month.  First, she can pay more than her minimum monthly payment in any repayment plan if she wants to pay her loans off faster.  She may also have the option to enroll in one of the Income-Driven Repayment plans and make much lower payments when and if her income decreases.

How are monthly payments calculated for the IDR plans?

Under the Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plans, the borrower’s required minimum monthly payment is calculated based on a portion of the borrower’s income.  The borrower may not be required to pay back the full amount of his/her loans. That is unlike the federal Standard repayment plan or private loans, which require the borrower to pay the principal and the interest of the loan in full over a specified term.  For example, if Sarah got married, had a child, and her income temporarily decreased to $150,000, she may qualify for one of the IDR plans, such as the Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE) repayment plan. Then her monthly minimum payment could be reduced to $978.

IDR and Public Service Loan Forgiveness 

To see how IDR plans and forgiveness programs work together, let’s look at another example.  Jimmy is a recent medical school graduate making $60,000 a year in a residency program with $250,000 of federal student loans.  He feels that it would be difficult to pay $2,776 every month in the 10-year Standard plan or $2,413 a month after refinancing.  He is wondering if he should apply for forbearance to suspend payments until he can afford the high payments as an attending physician, just as one of his classmates from medical school, Tom, has decided to do after graduation. 

Instead of applying for forbearance, Jimmy should consider enrolling in an IDR plan (and so should Tom). For example, in the Revised-Pay-As-You-Earn (REPAYE) repayment plan, he would be required to make monthly payments based on 10% of his income for a maximum of 25 years, and the remaining balance would be forgiven and taxed as income. If Jimmy’s loans are eligible for REPAYE, his monthly payment would start at $337, which would free up $2,439 a month compared to the Standard plan!  But why should Jimmy choose to make payments when he has the option to suspend payments using Medical Residency Forbearance?

It becomes apparent when you consider how forgiveness programs work.  To see how much money they could potentially save with one of the forgiveness programs, let’s say that both Jimmy and Tom will be working for a nonprofit or a government employer while they repay their loans, making them candidates for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).

Under the PSLF program, Jimmy would only make 120 payments in an IDR plan (REPAYE in his case) based on his income and get the remaining balance forgiven tax-free, which means that he should try to repay as little as possible.  Assuming that he gets his monthly payments calculated based on his resident salary of $60,000 for five years before he starts making $250,000, he can be done with his loan payments after ten years of payments totaling about $141,00!  Compared to the standard 10-year repayment plan in which he pays a total of $333,061, including principal and interest, he would save over $190,000 by pursuing PSLF.

medical resident's repayment options

Low IDR payments may be better than no payment

Because Jimmy started his PSLF-qualifying payments based on his lower salary as a resident, he gets his loans forgiven earlier and pays less in total compared to Tom, who chose forbearance and waited to enroll in an IDR plan and pursue PSLF until after residency.  Assuming that Tom had the same loans and circumstances as Jimmy but made all of his PSLF-qualifying payments based on a $250,000 salary, Tom would pay a total of around $263,000, which is over $121,000 more than what Jimmy paid in total.

IDR versus forbearance for PSLF

As you can see, it is important to explore your options if you have student loans (especially federal student loans) and have a strategy that aligns with your life and career plans .  It can save you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Perhaps more importantly, knowing that you have a plan and are in control of your debt can help you prepare for life events and give you peace of mind.  However, it is a complicated process full of traps. If you are not sure what to do with your student loans, schedule a free 15-minute student consultation with me here!

*A version of this article has also been published on Kiplinger.  Read it here.

 

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.

Dec 17

Joe Biden’s Student Loan Proposals

By Saki Kurose | Financial Planning , Student Loan Planning

Joe Biden’s Student Loan Plan: what he has proposed so far

Biden's student loan plan

When the CARES Act was passed in March, payments were suspended and the interest rate was temporarily set to 0% for federal student loans.  It was just announced that the student loan relief has been extended and is now set to expire on Jan. 31, 2021.  Will the president-elect, Joe Biden, extend the temporary relief?  No one knows.

While there is uncertainty about what will happen between now and Jan. 20, 2021, we have an idea of the long-term changes that might be coming to student loans when Biden takes office.

These proposals will have to be approved by Congress to become law, but here is a summary of what Biden has proposed so far with regards to student loans.

Cancellation of up to $10,000 per borrower

On March 22, 2020, Biden tweeted that he would cancel up to $10,000 for each borrower of federal student loans.  This cancellation was originally proposed by the Democrats to be included in the CARES Act.  It did not make it into the act, but it is possible that the Biden administration will include the $10,000 cancellation as part of a future stimulus package

Monthly payment capped at 5% of your income

The Biden Plan for Education Beyond High School includes changes to the current repayment and forgiveness programs for federal loans. Currently, borrowers in Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plans are required to pay 10%-20% of their income over the federal poverty line toward their student loans.  The Biden Plan would limit that to 5% of income over $25,000.  Also, there would be no monthly payments required and no interest accrual for individuals making less than $25,000 a year.

Automatic enrollment in IDR and student loan forgiveness

New and existing federal student loans will be automatically enrolled in the IDR plan.  Borrowers have the choice to opt-out.  This is a major change to the current complex system.  Under the current federal system, borrowers pick and enroll in one of many available plans, which can be confusing. According to the proposed plan, the remaining balance of the loan will also be forgiven automatically after 20 years of payments are made.  There would be no income tax on the forgiven amount in this new long-term forgiveness program.  

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Biden’s proposal suggests putting a cap on the amount of forgiveness a borrower can get in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.  Again, the enrollment in the PSLF is automatic for “individuals working in schools, government, and other non-profit settings”.  However, the amount of PSLF forgiveness is $10,000 of undergraduate or graduate debt for every year of qualifying service, for up to five years, which means that the maximum amount of forgiveness would be $50,000, in contrast to the unlimited amount under the current rules.  Although this may be bad news for borrowers who were hoping to get more than $50,000 forgiven tax-free, the proposed plan allows up to five years of prior national or community service to count towards PSLF.

Private Student Loan Discharge

It has generally been very difficult to get student loans discharged in bankruptcy.

Biden has promised to enact legislation from the Obama-Biden administration to permit the discharge of private student loans in bankruptcy. 

Tuition-free colleges and universities

The Biden Plan also includes ideas for reducing the need for some students to take out student loans in the first place.  The plan proposes making public colleges and universities tuition-free for all families with incomes below $125,000.  These tuition-free colleges and universities would include community colleges and state colleges and no private colleges, except for private Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) or Minority-Serving Institutions (MSI). Only tuition and related expenses would be free.  Students and their families would still pay for other expenses, such as room and board.  

Again, these plans will not become law unless approved by Congress. But it’s good to keep track of the changes in the law that may affect your student loans and repayment strategy.  Contact us if you need help coming up with a strategy!

A version of this article was also published on Kiplinger.  Read it here!

Nov 17

Private Student Loans: Should I Refinance a Federal Student Loan?

By Saki Kurose | Student Loan Planning

Private Student Loans: Should I Refinance a Federal Student Loan?

Private student loans should I refinance a federal student loan

As college costs continue to rise, the need for students and their parents to borrow money to get a college education has also increased. Americans now owe about $1.6 trillion in student debt, according to the Federal Reserve.

In general, there are two types of student loans: federal and private.  Federal student loans are issued by the government, whereas private student loans may come from different nonfederal lenders such as banks, schools, or credit unions.  

Are your student loans federal or private?  

Over the course of your studies, you may have taken out many loans.  Since your repayment strategy may depend on the type of loans you have, it is important to take an inventory of all your loans.  If you have federal loans, you can create an account on studentaid.gov and log in to see your federal loans.  To identify your private loans, you can get a free annual credit report from Equifax, Transunion, or Experian.  Since both federal and private education loans appear on your credit report, any education loans you see on the credit report that are not listed on studentaid.gov are private student loans. 

What are some examples of the terms you may see in private student loans?

The terms of private student loans are set by the lender and, therefore, may vary greatly.  The interest rate can be fixed or variable.  Also, although most lenders realize that students do not have the means to make payments, some may require repayment anyway while you are still in school.  Generally, private loans are more expensive than federal loans and may require the borrower to have a good credit record or a cosigner.  Having a cosigner may help reduce your interest rate, but you should watch out for the risks involved. For example, the promissory note may contain a provision that requires you to pay the entire balance in case of the cosigner’s death. 

Private loans are like any other type of traditional loans, such as a car loan or a mortgage. You need to be able to afford the monthly payments.  If you recently graduated from school, you may not have the financial means to make the payments.  Federal loans, on the other hand, may come with options for postponing or lowering your monthly payments. 

Therefore, if you are thinking about taking out student loans, it is generally better to apply for and exhaust all the federal student loan options before taking out private loans

When could it be better to have a private student loan?  

If you think you will have a stable job and are confident about your ability to make the required monthly payments, having a private loan with a lower interest rate could be beneficial.  If you originally took out federal loans, you can refinance the loans with a private lender and, if you can refinance at a lower interest rate, you may save a lot of money.  However, it is important to know that you cannot refinance your private loans into federal loans, which means that once you refinance your federal loans, you will permanently lose the benefits and options under the federal system that I will discuss in my next article.

Refinancing case study: Sarah, a physician

Let’s look at Sarah as an example. She is a physician making $250,000 a year and has a federal student loan balance of $250,000 with a 6% average interest rate*. Sarah has an excellent credit history and could take advantage of the historically low interest rates right now. She finds a private lender to refinance at 2.99%.  After refinancing, she would pay $2,413 a month for 10 years compared to $2,776 for the federal Standard 10-year repayment plan and save about $43,000 in total over the 10 years.  (*Note that the interest rate for some federal loans is 0% until December 31, 2020, so Sarah may want to take advantage of that and wait to refinance.)

Sarah likes the idea of saving $43,000. She feels comfortable about her ability to make the monthly payments of $2,413. That makes her a good candidate for private refinancing.  

However, is it possible that someone like Sarah could benefit from keeping her loans in the federal system?  In my next article, I will explain when and how Sarah and a medical resident, Jimmy, could benefit from keeping their federal loans. Spoiler: There are special protections and programs for federal student loan borrowers !

[A version of this article was also published on Kiplinger: With Private Loan Interest Rates So Low, Should You Refinance a Federal Student Loan?]
Nov 17

What’s The Best Retirement Plan for Business Owners?

By Jason Berube | Retirement Planning

What's The Best Retirement Plan for Business Owners?

What's the best retirement plan for business ownersWhat is the absolute LAST thing on the minds of most people when they start their own business?

Retirement planning!

If you own a small business or if you are self-employed, you may realize that your options are somewhat limited. You don’t have the convenience of an employer providing a retirement plan for you. It’s up to you to find a solution that suits your needs.

But don’t worry! Instead, consider these two solid retirement options for self-employed people: the Solo 401(k) plan and the “Mega” IRA, aka SEP-IRA.

But which one is best for you? Let’s look at the key differences between the two.

1. Maximum Allowable Contribution

Both options allow a maximum annual total contribution of $58,000 in 2021. But there are different restrictions on how you may contribute to each.

In 2020, the IRS limits your personal solo 401(k) contributions to $19,500. It also allows your business to make an employer contribution of up to 25% of your earned income for the year. The total of the two contributions cannot exceed $57,000 in 2020 or $58,000 in 2021. If you are 50 years old or older, you may put an additional $6,500 “catch-up” contribution into the plan. 

Let’s say your W-2 wages in 2021 are $154,000. You could max out your employee contribution ($19,500). Your business could contribute up to an additional $38,500 (25% of your W-2 earnings). And if you’re 50 years old or older, you could put in another $6,500 as a catch-up contribution. 

SEP-IRA stands for Simplified Employee Pension. It is an inexpensive vehicle for retirement savings and tax advantages for the right business model. From a tax-break standpoint, the SEP-IRA works very much like other retirement plans, except for the contribution limits. For the tax year 2021, the SEP-IRA contribution limit is $58,000 . It must be entirely in the form of an employer contribution, as opposed to an employee contribution: either up to 25% of wages or up to 20% of net adjusted self-employment income. If you earn at least $290,000 in 2021, you could max out your contribution to your SEP-IRA.

2. Setup Deadline

The deadline to open a Solo 401(k) is December 31 . But you don’t actually have to fund it until you file your taxes. That’s good news for procrastinators! 

A SEP-IRA can be opened and funded up to the tax filing deadlines. If you’re running behind, you may also file for an extension to file for taxes. This would give you more time to open, save, and fund the account.

3. Employees

Do you plan on hiring employees someday? If so, you may want to restrict when and how they may participate in your retirement plan. 

If you have a Solo 401(k), you may need to upgrade it to a regular 401(k) when you hire eligible employees. That’s because the Solo 401(k) only allows contributions for the business owner and spouse

Unlike the Solo 401(k), you can continue your SEP-IRA if you hire employees . However, you will need to contribute on behalf of your employees to their SEP-IRA account. 

It’s exciting to open your own business and be your own boss … and it’s a lot of work. Retirement planning is so important, but it may be the last thing on your mind. 

Let us help! We can work with you to figure out your best option based on your goals and how your business is set up. 

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

 

Sep 03

Should you cancel your LTC insurance?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Risk Management

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Should you cancel your LTC insurance?

Long Term Care (LTC) can be a stressful subject to discuss, especially when costs are addressed. The reality is that Long Term Care is expensive. According to Genworth, a prominent provider of Long Term Care insurance, the median national cost of a stay at an assisted living facility is $48,000 annually in 2018. The total cost, over someone’s lifetime, ends up being much larger depending on where and how long a person will be needing it.

For example, the median cost of assisted living in New Jersey in 2018 was $72,780, according to Genworth. If someone were to stay at an assisted living facility for three years, the cost would be in excess of $200,000. Nursing home care could be even more expensive.

Aside from overall unpleasantness, a key issue with planning for LTC is the uncertainty. 70% of Americans will need it. But how much, and for how long? LTC is often the most unpredictable expense of retirement, and the least planned for.

Even insurance companies have difficulty ascertaining the cost. Large insurance providers such as John Hancock have left the field and no longer offer LTC policies to the general public. Others, including Genworth and Mass Mutual, have been struggling with State Insurance Commissions to increase premiums. Recently, Genworth was approved to increase premiums by 58% in 22 States.

According to the Federal Government, Long Term Care is the range of services and support you will need to meet health and personal care needs over a long period of time when you are unable to provide it for yourself. LTC is not medical care, but rather assistance with the basic personal tasks of everyday life.

The fact is that most of us will require some form of long term care usually toward the latter part of our lives . Given the high probability, and the high level of expense, it is something that needs to be addressed in our financial and retirement plans.

We have plenty of statistics on how LTC affects us as a whole, but very few on how it will affect us individually. Are we going to be part of the 70%, or can we avoid it and be part of the 30%. We just don’t have a very good way to predict how much long term care we will need, when we will need it, and how much it will cost. This is precisely why long term care planning is necessary as part of normal financial or retirement planning.

Who Pays for Long Term Care?

People often assume that Medicare or Medigap (the supplemental coverage for Medicare), or even regular health insurance will cover the cost of their Long Term Care expense.

Unfortunately, that is incorrect. Medicare is set up to cover only direct medical expenses, such as doctor and hospital visits, tests, and medicine. When it comes to issues of old age care, Medicare is not involved.

In general, most people without a plan who need Long Term Care will pay for it out of their own assets. Once there is no money left, Medicaid will usually take over. This approach works best for people who have enough assets to cover the other foreseeable circumstances in their future.

However, planning for Medicaid to take over is a backup plan at best. However, it is good to know that it is there, should we need it.

How do I protect my assets from nursing homes?

A close alternative to spending your own money and then letting Medicaid take over is actually to plan for Medicaid to take over. That involves creating a trust in which to put your assets so they can be protected in the event that long term care is needed. When that happens, the assets remain safely in the trust, and Medicaid pays for your long term care. You should keep in mind that Medicaid is taxpayer-funded, and as with other government programs, it is periodically under stress for funding. In other words, it is not easy to predict with certainty that such a plan would work, especially if it is much in the future.

Long Term Care Insurance

For others, purchasing a long term care insurance policy may be a better alternative. In exchange for the premiums, the insurance company commits to pay the amount contracted for. Effectively, the policy covers a significant percentage of the uncertainty generated by long term care. That amount can vary to take into account your own circumstances.

Who needs Long Term Care Insurance?

Long Term Care Insurance can help to preserve assets for other goals, including for legacy . It can also help you determine the level of care that you would like when you have a need for long term care.

From a tax viewpoint, it is worth noting that some of the premiums for most standard LTC policies available today may be deductible from taxable income within the limits specified by the IRS, especially for business owners. Also, up to certain limits, benefits are not taxed as income. Take this favorable tax treatment as a sign that Uncle Sam would like to encourage you to be covered (and not use Medicaid)!

The challenge with LTC insurance is that insurance companies have miscalculated the premiums required to cover their costs. As a result, premium increases, including the one mentioned earlier from Genworth, have shocked pre-retirees and retirees alike, resulting in a considerable debate about whether to drop LTC insurance policies altogether.

The financial impact of premium increases is real. It is a painful hit on a sore subject. And as with any price increase like that, the impulse is just to cancel.

However, canceling would be a mistake for many people. The cost of LTC must be covered somehow, and if not through insurance, it is usually through your own assets. However, it does provide an opportunity to reconsider the issue with your financial planner. Most people affected by price increases bought their policy many years ago. It would be beneficial to re-analyze the LTC need and the benefits of the policy. You may find out that you are over-insured, or underinsured. And then you can figure out a way forward on how to right-size your coverage.

According to Tara Bernard at the New York Times analyzing your LTC coverage can even lead to a renegotiation of the policy, especially if you are reducing the benefits.

Long Term Care insurance helps pay for long term care expenses, helps preserve your assets and your legacy. Also, a portion of the premium is potentially tax-deductible. So why are so many people resistant to traditional Long Term Care insurance?

First, as we mentioned before, it is expensive. Although, it is worth noting that the cumulative cost of LTC insurance premiums usually is less than the cost of Long Term Care itself!
Second, the possibility that the insurance policy may not be used, as in the case of death happening suddenly, is enough to stop many people from acquiring Long Term Care insurance. In this paradigm, the thought of paying premiums for years, and not collecting a benefit would make the insurance a waste.

Don’t Waste the Premiums

To counter this objection, the insurance industry has created products that allow you to “not waste the premiums.” These products allow you to purchase an annuity or a life insurance policy with a special “rider” that allows their conversion to an LTC policy should the need arise.

These products allow you to get Long Term Care coverage if needed, and allow repurposing the funds in case the Long Term Care benefit is not used. The details of these products are beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, that these alternatives can provide a lot of flexibility, at a cost, in a financial plan. For people who have significant assets that are not needed for their retirement plan, these alternatives may be worth considering.

Should I cancel my LTC insurance?

Because of the increases in premiums that are sweeping the LTC insurance industry, many people are wondering if they should cancel their policies . There is no easy answer to that question. The increased cost can be burdensome. But the other side to this question is if you cancel your insurance because of the premium increase, how are you going to pay for your Long Term Care expenses when they occur?

The answer is different for everyone. Being a financial planner and number geek, I believe that the answer for many resides in comparing the costs and the benefits. For most people that will result in keeping your insurance. If you are not sure, schedule a call, and we can review.

LTC can be a significant expense. As such, it needs to be factored into your overall retirement plan. The four approaches discussed (pay out of assets, Medicaid planning, traditional long term care insurance, and “not waste the premium” alternatives) all offer different benefits and should be matched to the right circumstance and individual preference.

In my experience, most people find it liberating to include LTC in a retirement plan formally, and know what is planned and how much is planned for. It then leaves greater flexibility to focus on the fun aspects of life!

If you need to figure out which option works best for you, schedule a conversation with me today!

 

Check our other posts on Long Term Care:

Planning For Long Term Care

Long Term Care Considerations for Retirement Planning

Aug 30

Social Security

By Phil Bradford | Retirement Planning

Socail Security

Is Social Security Important

For most people, Social Security retirement benefits are a cornerstone of retirement income. Even for those who don’t rely solely on Social Security, it provides the foundation on which a financially happy retirement life is based.

Let us discuss some of its basic advantages for your post-retirement life along with clarifying a few things about Social Security.

Will waiting for more than 62 years help to receive more income?

You are usually entitled to receive Social Security retirement benefits at 62 years or older, if you have enough “work credits”. However, for your dependents, who are entitled to get benefits, it doesn’t fully depend on work credits.

A person needs to be a US citizen or a lawfully present person to claim the benefits. Coming back to the question, yes, waiting for a little more than 62 years can help you increase the percentage of monthly benefits you receive.

For example, if you wait till 63 years, you may receive about 8% more monthly benefits. Therefore, if you have other sources of income, it is wise to wait for a little longer even after your retirement for your to claim Social Security. The increased benefit that you get by delaying your Social Security claim can translate into significant additional income over your retirement life . You can maximize your monthly income if you wait till age 70 to collect your Social Security benefits.

Does Social Security help if the cost of living increases?

Many people are concerned about how to manage inflation post-retirement. Every year, the Social Security Administration decides how much to increase benefits because of Cost-of-Living increases.  The COLA or Cost-of-Living Adjustment has increased Social Security benefits by about 1.6% in January 2020. The maximum amount of your earnings that is subject to Social Security tax increased to about $137,700 for 2020 .

Can your Social Security income get suspended due to this pandemic?

It is a concern for many. But, the advantage of Social Security income is that your payments won’t be suspended due to the pandemic even if Social Security offices are closed to the public. The Inspector-General of the Social Security Administration has warned the public not to believe in such fraudulent letters or threats that Social Security income will get suspended.  The FTC also has warned people against believing similar frauds and Social Security scams related to the CoronaVirus pandemic. If required, you can communicate with your local Social Security Administration office over the telephone or fax to get the correct information.

Is Social Security just for your post-retirement life?

As you already know, Social Security income helps you with post-retirement income. Along with retirement benefits, you can get SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) protection and life insurance benefits.

According to the Social Security Administration,about 4.7% of people or their dependents claim Social Security disability benefits . The definition of Social Security itself states that it is a federal insurance scheme that provides benefits to pensioners as well as people who are disabled or unemployed.

However, to take advantage of disability benefits as well as unemployment benefits, you need to have worked for a certain number of years. The benefit amount is calculated on the basis of your pre-retirement paycheck and the age at which you’re claiming the benefit.

Also, as stated before, you may benefit from Social Security survivor benefits, too. How much benefit a survivor will receive depends on the age of the worker when he/she died along with his/her salary, along with the survivor’s age and relationship with the deceased person.

Of note, there are also Social Security spousal benefits. A person can get up to 50% of his or her spouse’s benefit at FRA or his/her own, whichever is higher.

In addition, divorced individuals may get Social Security retirement benefits on the basis of their ex-spouse’s record.

Is Social Security income taxable?

Depending on your other income, 0-85% of your Social Security retirement benefits may be taxable . In other words, 15%-100% may be tax-free.

Do you have to pay Social Security taxes even after retirement?

Unfortunately, income taxes still have to be paid in retirement. If you continue working past your Full Retirement Age or FRA, and have earned income, then you’ll have to pay Social Security taxes along with collecting your Social Security benefits. The additional taxes will help increase your monthly benefit depending on how much you had earned before and what amount you’re earning now.

You should note that if you collect Social Security before FRA and continue to work, your Social Security benefits will start at a lower level and may get reduced even more depending on your earned income. That is important because the lower level of benefits has a ripple effect throughout retirement. It may result in a significant reduction of your lifetime income. Hence, if you plan to work between 62 and your Full Retirement Age, there is an additional incentive to delay Social Security benefits.

Can your unpaid debt reduce your Social Security income?

Debt in retirement is a major concern for many people. However, usually, creditors or lenders can’t touch your Social Security payments. Therefore, your Social Security income will be untouched even if you have credit card debt or payday loan debt at retirement. But, certain debts, like federal debt, can reduce your Social Security payments. If you have unpaid federal taxes, the Treasury Department can levy a maximum of 15% of your Social Security benefit every month until the debt is paid off .

Therefore, it is advisable to repay your back taxes and other types of debts long before you reach Social Security retirement age. It is advisable not to resort to a payday loan because of its high-interest rates. However, if you’ve payday loans, it is better to repay them as soon as possible to avoid paying high interest. If your payday loans are legal, you can opt for payday loan debt consolidation or payday loan debt settlement to get rid of your debts. Also, try to repay your credit card debt as fast as possible so that you can save more every month towards a better financial future.

How can you increase your Social Security payments to the maximum?

Here are a few ways to maximize your Social Security income and secure your post-retirement life.

⦁    Try to work till 66 or 67 years to receive full payment. The longer you work, the greater your retirement benefit.

⦁    Try not to claim Social Security before 70 years of age. Delaying in claiming can help increase survivor’s benefits as well.

⦁    Increase your earnings as much as possible. In 2019, up to $132,900 were used to calculate your retirement payments. In 2020, it is $137,700.

⦁    Work for at least 35 years to get maximum Social Security benefits.

It should be clear now how important Social Security is for our post-retirement life. However, it is advisable not to rely only on Social Security income for your golden years. You should have other income streams post-retirement. If your company offers a 401(k) retirement account, then contribute into that account. You can also contribute into an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) to make your golden years financially secure.

 

This article may or may not reflect the views of Insight Financial Strategists.

Apr 28

8 Strategies For Financial Success

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

8 Strategies For Financial Success

8 Strategies for Financial SuccessIf you fail to plan, you plan to fail. That was the subject of a presentation I made at Sun Life Financial in Wellesley. This may sound like an old cliché, but it illustrates an essential aspect of personal finance: a financial plan is critical.

Regardless of age, marital status, or income, it is essential that you have a personal financial plan. Creating a strategy for financial success is easier than it sounds; you just need to know where to start. The eight financial management strategies below can serve as a roadmap for straightening out your finances and building a better financial future.

1. Develop a Budget

There are many reasons to create a budget. First, a budget builds the foundation for all your other financial actions . Second, it allows you to pinpoint problem areas and correct them. Third, you will learn to differentiate between your needs and your wants. Lastly, having a financial plan to cover expenses planned and laid out will give you peace of mind. Once done, be sure to stick with it!

2. Build an Emergency Fund

As part of your budget, you will also need to plan for an emergency fund. As current events remind us, we cannot anticipate the unexpected. We just know that the need for an emergency fund will come sooner or later . To cover yourself in case of an emergency (i.e., unemployment, injury, car repair, etc.), you need an emergency fund to cover three to six months of living expenses.
An emergency fund does not happen overnight. It needs to be part of your budget and financial plan. It also needs to be in a separate account, maybe a savings account. Or some in savings and some more in a CD. The bottom line is that it needs to be out of sight and out of mind so that it will be there when needed.

3. Stretch Your Dollars

Now that you know what you need and what you want, be resourceful and be strategic when you spend on what you want. For instance, re-evaluate your daily Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks habit, if you have one. Can it be weekly instead of daily? If you eat out for lunch every day, could you pack lunch some days? Do you need a full cable subscription?

4. Differentiate between Good Debt and Bad Debt

It is important to remember that not all debt is created equal. There is a significant distinction between good debt and bad debt. Good debt, such as a mortgage, typically comes with a low-interest rate, tax benefits, and supports an investment that grows in value. Bad debt, such as credit card debt, will burden you with high-interest rates, no tax benefits, and no hope for appreciation. Bad debt will actually reduce your standard of living. When looking at your financial plan, you want to make sure that you are keeping bad debts to a minimum. Now that I think of it, don’t keep bad debt to a minimum: make it go away.

5. Repay Your Debts

One of the most important steps to a successful financial plan is paying back your debts, especially the bad ones. Because debt will only increase if you do not actively work to pay it off. You should include a significant amount of money for debt repayment in your budget.
The fact is that paying off debt is a drag, and sometimes it is difficult to see the end of the tunnel. One way to accelerate the process of paying debt down is to pay strategically . When you pay more than your minimum payments, don’t spread it around all your debts. Concentrate your over-payment on a single debt, the one that’s closest to being paid off. It will make that payment go away faster. And when it’s gone, you can direct the liberated cash flow to the next one, and so on.

6. Know Your Credit Score

A high credit score will make it easier to get loans and credit cards with much more attractive interest rates . In turn, this will mean less money spent on interest payments and more money in your pocket. Take advantage of the free credit report that the credit companies must provide you free of charge annually. Make sure that there is no mistake in it.

7. Pay Yourself First

Set aside a portion of your paycheck each month to “pay yourself first” and invest in a savings or retirement account. Take advantage of the tax deferral option that comes with many retirement plans, such as 401(k) or IRAs. If you have just completed your budget, and you don’t know how to do it all, tax-deferred retirement accounts help you reduce taxes now . Also, think of the matching funds that many employers offer to contribute to your 401(k). They are actually part of your compensation. Don’t leave the match. Take it.
In my line of work, people often tell me that they will never retire. The reality is that everyone will retire someday. It is up to you to make sure that you have financial strategies for successful retirement.

8. Check Your Insurance Plans

Lastly, review your insurance coverage. Meet with your Certified Financial Planner professional and make sure that your policies match the goals in your financial plan. Insurance is a form of emergency fund planning . At times, you will have events that a regular emergency fund won’t be able to cover. Then you will be happy to have property or health or disability or long term care or even life insurance. 

If you have any questions or require additional assistance, contact a Certified Financial Planner. He or she can help you identify your goals and create a financial plan to meet them successfully.

Starting your financial plan is the easy step. The hard part is implementing and moving to the next step. Don’t do it alone, and let me know if I can help.

 

 

1 2 3 10