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.

401(k) Management: Prepare to Live Golden in Your Retirement Years

“Set it and forget it” is a common approach when it comes to a workplace 401(k), yet it likely will play a substantial role in the financial security of your future. Consistently contributing to your 401(k), and learning how to manage it, will set you on the course to living golden in your retirement years. Below are some tips to help you make the most of your workplace 401(k).

Contribute to the Match

Employers often match contributions up to a certain point, which means you’re getting free money for participating in the program. You should contribute at least up to this point. Beyond this, a typical rule of thumb is to add about 15% to your 401(k) plan each year, including company contributions (i.e. if your company matches 3%, plan to contribute 12%).

Boost Your Investment Savvy

Expense Ratio? Risk Tolerance? Whether you’re going it alone or recruiting the help of a financial professional, you need to have a basic knowledge of investing. Before filing away the information sent to you by your plan, be sure to read through it and look up any terms you don’t understand.

Get Help with Account Management

Of course, having a basic understanding of investment terms will take you only so far. If your investment knowledge is shaky, it might be worth it to recruit the help of a professional. Some 401(k) plans even offer free advice from a professional, or they will provide model portfolios to follow.

Save with a Target Date Fund

The simplest approach to a 401(k) plan is to allocate savings to the target date fund with the date that corresponds to the year closest to the year you reach age 65. With this low maintenance approach, the fund automatically adjusts as you get closer to retirement.

Learn to Rebalance

If you’re not partaking in the target date fund, you will need to perform routine maintenance on your 401(k), which is what “rebalancing” means. Provided you have a mix of stocks and bonds, you will have to buy and sell assets as they move up or down in value. Generally, participants have the option to automatically rebalance through your plan’s website, typically with a quarterly or annual rebalancing.

Rethink Withdrawals

Though you may be able to take a loan from your 401(k), they usually have to be paid back within five years, with interest. The risks of borrowing from your 401(k) come when you lose your job or change employers, because the loan will be due almost immediately. If you can’t repay the loan, you’ll be taxed and burdened with a 10% penalty for early withdrawal. Not to mention, by taking out a loan on your 401(k), you are shortchanging your retirement savings in a way that could be extremely difficult to catch up.

Mix It Up

Your 401(k) should be only one prong in your retirement plan. Your home and other assets, funds from a side hustle, and other investment accounts like an IRA might be additional prongs that make a complete picture of your financial future. Spreading your assets over multiple income streams will yield better returns, so if you switch jobs at some point, consider whether rolling your 401(k) into your new employer’s plan makes the most sense for your situation, or if you should put those funds into an IRA, which may give your more investment options.

How the SECURE Act Could Affect Your Retirement

The House of Representatives recently voted to approve the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement or SECURE Act, which would expand access to retirement savings programs for part-time workers and people employed by small business owners.

If the SECURE Act Passes…

If the bill passes the Senate, which it’s expected to do, it will be placed on President Trump’s desk. If signed into law, the SECURE Act would implement the most significant changes to retirement plans since 2006.

The bill aims to entice non-savers to participate in workplace retirement programs, such as a 401(k), so some of the provisions include:

  • Raising the age that American workers must start withdrawing from retirement savings, known as the required minimum distribution age, from 70 ½ to 72. This is to reflect the fact that more Americans are working longer, and in this vein, the bill also stipulates more years for people to contribute to retirement accounts.
  • Increasing tax incentives for small business employers to offer retirement plans by increasing the tax credit for new plans from the current cap of $500 to $5,000, or $5,500 for plans that automatically enroll new workers.
  • Allowing part-time workers to participate in 401(k) plans. The current minimum requirement for part-time employees is 1,000 hours in a 12-month period, but the SECURE Act would amend this requirement to 500 hours, effective January 2021. However, this isn’t mandatory, so it would be at the discretion of the employer.

The SECURE Act would also permit parents to withdraw up to $5,000 from retirement accounts penalty-free within a year of birth or adoption for qualified expenses. Parents could also withdraw up to $10,000 from 529 plans to repay student loans.

What Does the Federal Reserve Say?

According to the Federal Reserve’s annual study, only 36% of Americans feel that their retirement savings are on track, while 25% of Americans have no retirement savings to speak of. Part of this is due to the fact that, because of the cost and complexity of putting retirement savings plans in place, many small businesses don’t offer such plans to their employees. The SECURE Act aims to incentivize small business owners to offer retirement plans by making it easier for small businesses to implement multi-employer retirement plans—where two or more employers join together to offer a plan. This would potentially give small businesses access to lower cost plans with better investment options, thereby possibly giving millions more workers an opportunity to save at work.

In short, this legislation is important because it would remove some barriers that have kept American workers from saving for retirement, specifically through employer-provided plans and incentives. If you have questions or would like to talk about how the information in this article may impact you personally, please reach out to me at sreed@mkrcpas.com and we’ll schedule a time to talk.

How to Stop the Paycheck to Paycheck Cycle

According to a 2017 study from Career Builder, nearly 78% percent of people live paycheck to paycheck, with little to no money left over after financial obligations are paid. This means that nearly 8 out of 10 workers may not be able to handle even a $500 emergency. Here’s how to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.

Build a Budget

Yes, this tired old budget thing is rearing its head again, but every financial plan needs to start here. You simply must know where your money is going. Start by creating a simple spreadsheet in Google Docs, which can be shared if you have dual contributors to your household income. If you’re ready for something a bit more sophisticated, Mint.com is a great online tool for budgeting. It will even send you notices and alerts, creating a more personal budgeting experience.

In order to know where your money is going, you need to also track your spending. Document every single purchase for two to four weeks. You’ll be surprised at how seemingly insignificant purchases can quickly add up. Typically, this exercise helps consumers to be more mindful of how they’re spending.

Establish and Emergency Fund

If you approach saving by promising to set aside whatever’s leftover after your financial obligations are paid, you’ll never make a dent in creating an emergency fund, let alone heftier savings goals. Funds intended for saving should come before any other spending. Aim to initially save the equivalent of one month’s paycheck.

Quick fix: put saving on autopilot. If your company offers a 401(k) plan, make sure you’re participating in it. You can also set up an automatic transfer on paydays to have some money automatically transferred from your checking account into a savings account.

Pay Down Debt

Nothing perpetuates the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle like having debt looming over your head. Control and monitor your spending by discontinuing the use of credit cards until you’ve paid them off. To streamline this process, you can consolidate your debt by transferring all your credit onto one card. While you’re focused on paying off debt, avoid taking out any kind of loan. If you can chip away at your debt while simultaneously building up an emergency fund, you can use that fund to pay for any unexpected expenses that may crop up instead of relying on credit cards.

Examine Your Lifestyle

Sometimes fixing the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle is as simple as taking a hard look at your lifestyle and making adjustments where necessary. Is your monthly car payment too high? Does your monthly mortgage payment exceed 28% of your monthly gross income? Are you paying for subscriptions or memberships you don’t use? You get the idea. Examine your monthly costs and find ways to scale back.

Stop Treating Raises and Bonuses as Fun Money

If you’re stuck in the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, upticks in earnings such as raises, bonuses, and tax returns should be stashed away in savings, not spent on wants and splurges. Likewise, you shouldn’t rely on bonuses as part of your budget. These earnings should be used to increase your emergency savings or retirement funds.

If you have questions or would like to talk about how the information in this article may impact you personally, please reach out to me at jmiller@mkrcpas.com and we’ll schedule a time to talk.

Anyone Can Save More for Retirement: Here’s How

You don’t need a high-bracket income when it comes to saving more for retirement. What you need, regardless of income level, is discipline. The following tips can help average workers save more and build the kind of wealth that will support them after leaving the workforce.

Automate the Process

A lot of employers offer the option of diverting a percentage of your paycheck directly into your 401(k) account. This takes the guesswork and mental energy out of saving for retirement and puts the process on autopilot. And employers will often match your contribution up to a certain percentage.

Contribute to an IRA

If you don’t have access to an employer-sponsored account, or want something in addition to your 401(k) account, you might think about opening an individual retirement account. You can contribute up to $6,000 per year ($7,000 for those 50 years and older) to an IRA. Keep in mind, while single employees are able to contribute the maximum to a 401(k) and an IRA in the same year, married couples may have some limitations if both participate in a work-sponsored plan. The rules may also be slightly different for a Roth IRA account.

Be Resourceful

Part-time gigs and side hustles are more popular than ever thanks to the internet and smart phones. If you’re diligent with saving the earnings from a secondary income, it can grow over time. You can also use the funds from side gigs to pay off debt, which will open up your budget to allocate more for retirement savings. For example, bringing in an extra $100 a week equals out to $5,200 a year. From selling your possessions on eBay or Facebook Marketplace to offering a service such as dog walking, car detailing, or tutoring, the possibilities of earning extra income are dependent upon your time, talents, and abilities, but the monetary results have real potential to make an impact on your financial future.

Take Control

According to a 2016 study by U.S. Bank, nearly three out of five American families don’t utilize a budget, but a planned budget can cut down on excessive spending and keep your finances in check on a weekly or monthly basis. Impulse buys (no matter how large or small), add up, as do regular dinners out, pressure to keep up with the Joneses, and unforeseen expenses that crop up here and there. Without a budget and a plan for dealing with the unexpected, it won’t take long for your financial grip to unhitch, sometimes leading to seemingly unsurmountable debt. And debt has the power to undermine your retirement savings potential, either temporarily or for much longer.

With free online budgeting plans, myriad ways to earn some extra income, and a commitment to saving, almost anyone can make saving for retirement an attainable goal.