How to Claim Social Security Survivor Benefits

The Social Security Administration sends survivor benefits to about 6 million Americans every month, directed to widows, widowers, and children who have experienced the loss of someone who has paid into the social security program. Read on to find out who is eligible to receive survivor benefits and how to collect them.

Who is Eligible to Receive Survivor Benefits?

If you were married to your spouse for at least nine months before their death, you are eligible for social security survivor benefits. (The one exception to this length-of-marriage stipulation is if you are caring for a child of the deceased who is under 16 years old). Children of the deceased who are under 18 years old may also receive survivor benefits, as can disabled children under the age of 22. Finally, parents, stepparents, or adoptive parents who are at least age 62 and were dependent upon the deceased could potentially qualify for survivor benefits.

When Can You Begin Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Surviving spouses can begin collecting survivor benefits as early as age 60, but this will result in only about 70% of the amount the survivor could get if they wait until their survivor full retirement age, which is 66 for people born between 1945-1956 and gradually increases to age 67 for those born in 1962 or later. There are some exceptions to this as well: if you are disabled, you may begin collecting survivor benefits at age 50; any surviving spouse can collect a one-time death benefit payment of $255 at any age; and as noted above, survivors who are caring for a child of the deceased who is under age 16 can collect at any age.

How to Claim Social Security Widow and Widower Benefits

First, the death needs to be reported, which is a task that most funeral homes include as part of their service as long as the social security number of the deceased is provided. Documents needed to apply for Social Security survivor benefits include:

  • Proof of death for the deceased in the form of a death certificate
  • Social Security number of the deceased
  • Social Security numbers of the survivor and any dependent children
  • Your birth certificate
  • Your marriage certificate
  • Most current W-2 forms of the deceased
  • Bank information for direct deposit

Once everything is submitted, you’ll be notified of your eligibility to receive survivor benefits.

How Much Will You Receive?

The amount you receive is determined by the deceased’s earnings and whether or not the deceased was collecting benefits (either full or reduced) at the time of death. The basic breakdown looks like this:

  • For couples who hadn’t started receiving benefits: it’s recommended for the highest earner of the two to wait until age 70 to begin Social Security benefits. This generates a larger monthly benefit amount that becomes the survivor benefit if and when the first spouse passes away.
  • If both spouses had already started claiming: the higher benefit amount becomes the survivor benefit while the lesser of the two benefit amounts will stop.
  • If the deceased spouse had already begun benefits, but the survivor had not:

The surviving spouse will need to decide when they will claim survivor benefits in a way that is likely to give them more lifetime income.

In addition to whether or not either spouse was already receiving Social Security benefits at the time of death, the actual dollar amount a survivor receives will depend on how much money the deceased spouse paid into Social Security over their lifetime.

How to Estimate Retirement Income Needs

Depending on where you are in life, trying to anticipate your financial needs in retirement and determining how exactly to get to that point could feel like a daunting task, or even a task that doesn’t need tackling yet. In fact, according to a study completed by The Alliance for Lifetime Income, only 28% of non-retired Americans have attempted to estimate their retirement income. Not as intimidating as it sounds, read on to learn how to estimate those needs.

Start with Your Current Income

If you’re living within your means and not depending on credit cards to maintain your lifestyle, using your paycheck as a benchmark is a sufficient starting point. This, of course, excludes contributions to a traditional 401(k) account as well as health insurance premiums that are deducted from your gross pay. A common and simple approach, then, is to set your desired annual retirement income at 60% to 90% of your current income. However, it doesn’t take a financial expert to note potential flaws with this approach. What if, for example, you plan to travel extensively during retirement? Planning for 60% to 90% of your current income might not be enough to fulfill your jet setting goals.

Forecast Retirement Expenses

Your annual retirement income should be more than enough to meet your daily living expenses. Keep in mind that the cost of living will increase over time, and insurance and health care could fluctuate. Having said that, some common retirement expenses to estimate include:

  • Food and clothing
  • Housing (mortgage, homeowners insurance, rent, property updates, repairs, etc.)
  • Utilities
  • Transportation (car payments, insurance, maintenance, gas, repairs, public transportation)
  • Insurance (medical, dental, life, etc.)
  • Health care costs not covered by insurance (deductibles, copayments, etc.)
  • Taxes
  • Debts and loans
  • Recreation such as travel, hobbies, and dining out

What to Do with Your Projected Retirement Income Needs?

A standard rule of thumb when talking about estimating retirement income needs is to have 25 times your anticipated annual expenses saved up by the time you retire. This is assuming you’re planning for a 30-year retirement. Theoretically, you could then withdraw 3% to 4% of your nest egg each year.

If you’re lacking additional sources of protected lifetime income, such as pensions or annuities, you may need to tap into savings in order to bridge the gap between social security checks and what you’ll need to live on. You could also buy a simple income annuity to cover part of that funding gap. These payments continue for life, thereby removing some of the guesswork of estimating retirement income needs and providing peace of mind.

What to Do If You Owe Taxes to the IRS

What happens when you file your taxes and discover that you owe money to the IRS? What are your options? What about when the amount owed is greater than you can afford at the moment? Luckily, there are several options for both scenarios.

Before we get into the different options for making payments to the IRS, remember that your payment has to be received by the IRS no later than the April 15th tax deadline, or be prepared for IRS-issued tax penalties and interest. This deadline applies to those who filed for a tax extension as well.

Below are the different payment options available to pay the IRS.

Automatic Withdraw

If you have the funds available when you file, you can have them automatically withdrawn from your bank account when you e-file and choose the e-pay option. This is available whether you use tax preparation software or an accounting professional to do your taxes.

Direct Pay

The IRS has a “Direct Pay” service through its website, where you can pay from your checking or savings account at no cost. In order to track your payment, use the “Look Up a Payment” tool on the website or enable email notifications.

Credit or Debit

The IRS provides three third-party payment processors on its website through which you can pay your balance using a credit or debit card either online or by phone. They do charge a small service fee, which may be tax-deductible, and your credit card company may charge a fee as well.

Check or Money Order

Make checks payable to the United States Treasury and include your social security number or employer identification number, phone number, related tax form or notice number, and the tax year in the memo field. Send your check with a Form 1040-V, which is a payment voucher found on the IRS website, but don’t paperclip or staple your check to the voucher. You’ll find the correct mailing address for your check on page two of Form 1040-V.

Pay in Person

If you want to be absolutely sure that your payment is getting to the IRS on time, you can pay in person at your local IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center, which can be located on the IRS website. You will need to schedule an appointment before you go.

Wire Service

Check with your bank to see if they offer same-day wire transfer payable to the IRS. Be sure to ask about cut-off times and fees for this service.

What if you don’t have the full amount now? Luckily, the IRS offers two installment plans – a short-term plan and a long-term plan – which you can apply for online with the Installment Agreement Request (Form 9465). Which plan you qualify for depends on how much you owe and your specific tax situation. There is an application fee, and once approved the IRS can void the agreement if you don’t stay on schedule with payments.

Another option is to request a temporary delay from the IRS. You might have to fill out a Collection Information Statement and provide transparent information on your personal finances, and penalties and interest will factor in until the amount is paid in full.

Finally, you can offer to settle for a smaller amount than what’s owed, but the IRS encourages taxpayers to consider all other options before submitting an offer to settle. If you decide to go this route, you will need to be current on your tax filings and not involved in an open bankruptcy proceeding. To determine if you qualify, the IRS will take into account your income, expenses, ability to pay, and asset equity.

Tax Season Madness: Last-Minute Tips

March Madness is upon us, and while that term often refers to college basketball, if you’re like the majority of Americans, it can also apply to tax season. The IRS tax deadline will be here before we know it, and while it might be late in the game to do much about lowering your tax bill or increasing your return, here are a few tips to help make your 2019 tax return as smooth, painless, and advantageous as possible.

Max out your traditional IRA

This is the easiest way to lower your tax bill after the end of the calendar year, and you can make contributions for the 2018 tax year until the April 15 tax deadline. Contributions top out at $5,500, or $6,500 for those 55 years and older, and it’s all deductible on your 2018 tax return. Contact me to see if this strategy will work for you.

Beware of common mistakes

It seems obvious, but common blunders include social security numbers with mixed-up digits, missing signatures, and bad bank account numbers. These mistakes could cost you, literally, so double and triple check your personal information.

To itemize or not to itemize?

Due to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which nearly doubled the standard deduction, itemizing deductions is now obsolete for millions of taxpayers. Unless your financial situation has changed drastically, if you didn’t itemize in the past, you won’t need to do it now. The standard deduction for 2018 is $24,000, so unless your itemizable deductions top that number, itemizing isn’t worth it.

Contribute to your HSA

HSA funds can essentially act as an addendum to your retirement savings because funds can be invested and carried over year after year.

Can’t pay? File anyway

If you owe the IRS money, your unpaid balance will result in a penalty of 0.5% of the unpaid balance per month or partial month. However, failure to file will cost you a lot more: a monthly penalty of 5% of the amount owed. So even if you can’t pay, file your return or request an extension. Read on to find out what to do when you can’t pay the full balance.

Set up an installment plan

The IRS might not have the best reputation, but the agency will work with taxpayers who show that they’re trying to pay their taxes. An installment plan allows you to make monthly payments up to 72 months until the balance is paid in full. This requires a setup fee, but it’s less if you arrange for direct debit from your bank account, and interest on your unpaid balance will still apply.

Request more time if necessary

You can file for an extension before April 15 with Form 4868 for automatic approval, which will give you until October 15 to file your tax return. Keep in mind this extension is just for filing and doesn’t include an extension for payment on taxes owed. If you don’t pay by April 15, your bill will be subject to interest and penalties. However, you can request a 120-day grace period from the IRS to come up with the payment, but you’ll still owe interest and other fees on the balance until it’s paid off.

Small Businesses Should Avoid These Common Startup Mistakes

With the overwhelming amount of pressure and decisions to make when starting a small business, stress can cause even savvy industry gurus to fall for common startup mistakes. In the best scenarios, mistakes will set you back a bit, but in worst-case scenarios, they can hurt your potential and outlook for long-term success. Below are common startup mistakes that can have a negative impact on your small business.

Miscalculating Startup Costs

The perils of starting a business with an insufficient budget, or an underestimated one, can be a shot in the foot before you even get running. Plan to have at least six months’ worth of income in the bank before officially cutting the ribbon to open your business. This will give you some time to get up and going, garner some clients, and generate invoices and payment.

Neglecting to create a marketing strategy

Most new businesses are going to have to put some brain power and cash behind a good marketing plan, and this should be done well in advance of turning on the lights for customers and clients. These plans should include online, offline, social media, and any other means of marketing to get the word out. Will marketing and social media be outsourced, will you handle it personally, or will you bring someone on board to solely handle this task?

Failing to be frugal

Whether through a bank loan, a generous loan from a relative, sales of your own assets, or years of saving your own money, you’re going to have some capital to spend on rent, equipment, products, employees, etc. Keep in mind that profits won’t roll in overnight. Spend your savings wisely, do your research, and make your money stretch.

Thinking you can be a one-man operation

Even if you’re a one-man or one-woman business in the beginning, you’ll need people in your corner. You’ll inevitably want to shoot around ideas with someone; you may need someone, even on a very part-time basis, just to handle invoices and office files; you’ll want feedback, advice, and even potential contacts. Consider if it makes sense for your business to create a board of advisors.

Clarifying the 199A Deduction

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently released a new document clarifying the new rules related to section 199A. If you’re unfamiliar with 199A, this section is a part of the tax code that references a new deduction of up to 20 percent of qualified domestic business income (QBI) for pass-through entities such as sole-proprietorships, partnerships, S-corporations, trusts, or estates.  This section is extremely intricate, but the newly released regulations have cleared up many of the questions raised by the original legislation.

Like many of the other provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the rules for 199A are effective for the tax year 2018. This particular deduction will go away unless further action is taken, expiring in 2025. This particular deduction allows business entities to take up to a 20% deduction of QBI. Qualifying for this particular deduction can be tricky as it is only for pass-through entities. Other information about your business (what kind of work you do, wages paid, etc.) may also preclude you from some or all of the deduction.

In order to be deemed a section 162 business that would qualify for the 199A deduction, you must be involved hands-on with the activity of your business on a consistent basis. Typically, if you think you’re running the business, you are most likely involved enough to be qualified. In regards to rental property, this gets a little more complicated. Under Revenue Procedure 2019-7, the IRS claims that rental property is a qualified business if 250 hours or more of rental services are provided for the year and separate books and records are kept for each rental. However, you can’t qualify and lose the deduction if you use the rental for yourself more than two weeks of the year. Matters get even more complicated when the IRS requires you to handle each business (even if operating under the same legal entity) separately with the ability to calculate a QBI for each individual business.

Furthermore, you must know the business owner’s taxable income. If the business owner’s income falls above the thresholds listed below, the next matter is determining whether the business is a specified service trade or business (SSTB).

Business Owner’s Income Thresholds

  • Single
  • 2018: $157,500 – $207,500
  • 2019: $160,700 – $210,700
  • Married Filing Jointly
  • 2018: $315,000 – $415,000
  • 2019: $321,450 – $421,450

Many questions around the 199A deduction that remain unanswered. In the foreseeable future, the 199A deduction will require professional attention as we adapt to the new tax laws. According to the IRS, 95 percent of business owners fall below the threshold amounts and don’t need to worry about the limitations of the deduction. As always, it is crucial to work with tax professionals, such as MKR CPAs, to ensure that your business isn’t missing out on important deductions and properly filing for your business’ needs.