7 Social Security Rules Everyone Should Know by Now

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Social Security is not a well-understood program. In fact, a 2019 survey found that people age 50 and old thought they could get their full Social Security benefit at age 63, on average. That’s way, way wrong.

The confusion’s a shame, given how many of us will need this money badly in old age. Around 21% of couples collecting Social Security benefits and about 45% of those who are unmarried rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income.

It’s a shame, too, because knowing the rules puts the most money possible in your monthly benefit checks.

The following are a few key rules for Social Security.

1. Your benefit is based on your 35 highest-earning years

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Social Security calculates your monthly checks with a formula that uses your 35 best-earning years — that is, the 35 years during which your income was highest. If your earnings record doesn’t include 35 years, missing years are replaced with zeros, lowering your potential benefit.

So, it’s worth staying in the workforce at least 35 years if you can. The more peak-earning years in your formula, the bigger your monthly benefit checks can be.

Check your earnings record once yearly to confirm that the Social Security Administration has recorded your earnings correctly so you get credit for all your earnings. Do this by logging into or signing up for your online Social Security account.

2. Your benefit might be taxed

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Are you surprised to learn that your Social Security income may be taxed? About half of retirees pay federal taxes on their income from the program.

As we detail in “5 Ways to Avoid Taxes on Social Security Income,” up to 85% of your benefits could be considered taxable income by Uncle Sam.

That’s not all. Many states also tax at least some residents’ Social Security income. If you’re looking forward to a low-tax retirement, consider these 26 states that do not tax benefits.

3. You can claim benefits as early as 62

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The earliest age at which you can start receiving Social Security benefits is 62 for most people, and 60 for those who claim survivor’s benefits.

The largest share of Americans — about 35% of men and nearly 40% of women — claim at age 62.

If that’s your plan, understand that claiming early carries a penalty, one you’ll pay by receiving smaller monthly checks for the rest of your life. Check your online Social Security account to compare what you’d receive in monthly checks at age 62 with what you’d get from waiting until you are older.

Despite all that, there are circumstances when you have few choices — you need the money to live, for instance, or you don’t expect a long life — and claiming early makes sense.

4. Your full benefit amount is tied to your full retirement age

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“Full retirement age,” or FRA, is a technical term in the context of Social Security. It refers to the age at which you are eligible to receive the full amount of your monthly benefit — meaning without any penalty applied for claiming early, or any bonus applied for delaying claiming.

In other words, claiming benefits before reaching full retirement age means your monthly benefit will be reduced — by as much as 30%. Claiming after you reach FRA means your monthly benefit will be increased by as much as 8% for each year you wait past FRA to claim, up until age 70.

So, what exactly is your full retirement age? That depends on the year you were born, but for most people it’s between age 66 and 67.

5. Your spouse’s work history can help you, too

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Understanding your options can really pay off with Social Security. For example, if your spouse or ex-spouse earned more money than you, it may be better for you to claim spousal benefits — which are based on your spouse’s or ex’s earnings record — instead of claiming based on your own work history.

If you’ve been a stay-at-home spouse, or earned low wages or didn’t work for very many years, you may be able to receive up to half the amount of your spouse’s or ex-spouse’s monthly benefit. (In the case of an ex, you generally must have been married to the person for at least 10 years, as well as meet other conditions, to claim spousal benefits based on that person’s earnings record.)

It’s one more case where doing research and planning your Social Security claiming strategy is an investment in your future.

Social Security Choices, a Money Talks News partner, can assess and give you a personalized report about your claiming options. Use coupon code “moneytalks” to get a $10 discount.

6. When you claim won’t affect your total payment

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As you now know, starting benefits at age 62 makes your monthly checks smaller than if you’d waited. But whether you start early (and get smaller checks) or later (with bigger checks), you should receive about the same total payout over the course of your retirement.

The Social Security system was designed to work that way — “actuarially neutral” is the technical term.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a powerful reason to wait — ideally, even to age 70 if you can. If Social Security is going to be a big part of your retirement income, the bigger checks you’ll get from waiting will be valuable to your quality of life in old age.

7. You may be able to collect survivor’s benefits even after remarrying

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The rules for remarriage and survivor’s benefits sometimes throw people off, probably because your age when you remarry is a big part of the equation.

Survivor’s benefits let a widow or widower collect up to 100% of the late spouse’s Social Security benefit amount. You generally can claim this type of benefit as early as age 60, but the benefit will be reduced if you claim it before reaching your full retirement age. (Social Security’s pamphlet “Survivors Benefits” has details).

But what if you remarry? Again, that depends on the age at which you remarry. The Social Security Administration explains:

“Usually, you can’t get widow’s or widower’s benefits if you remarry before age 60 (or age 50 if you’re disabled). But remarriage after age 60 (or age 50 if you’re disabled) won’t prevent you from getting benefit payments based on your former spouse’s work. And at age 62 or older, you can get benefits on your new spouse’s work, if those benefits would be higher.”

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Source: moneytalksnews.com

A Guide to Estate Planning for Second Marriages

A Guide to Estate Planning for Second Marriages – SmartAsset

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Getting married for a second time following a divorce or the death of your first spouse can feel like a fresh start. But it’s important to consider how joining your life with someone else’s may impact your financial plan, including how you manage your estate. What is fair in a second marriage and estate planning? It can be a difficult question to answer, especially when you or your new spouse are bringing children into the marriage or you plan to have children together at some point. Understanding some of the key financial issues surrounding a second marriage can help with reshaping your estate plan. So can consulting a financial advisor, especially one experienced in estate planning for second marriages.

Key Estate Planning Considerations for Second Marriages

Remarriage can bring up a number of important questions for estate planning. Both spouses should be aware of what the central issues are when updating individual estate plans or creating a new joint one.

Here are some of the most important questions to ask for estate planning in a second marriage:

  • What assets will be left to each of your children?
  • Do you plan to have additional children together and if so, what assets will be preserved for them?
  • Which assets will you each continue to hold individually?
  • Are there any assets that will be retitled in both of your names, such as a first home, vacation home or bank accounts?
  • Are either of you bringing any debts into the marriage or will you incur new debts after the marriage?
  • Do each of you have a will in place that needs to be updated?
  • Or will you establish a new joint will?
  • Besides a will, what other estate planning tools may be necessary, i.e. a trust, advance healthcare directive or power of attorney?
  • Will you continue working with your current financial advisors or choose a new advisor to help you manage your financial plan together?

Asking these kinds of questions can help you each get a sense of the other’s perspective on estate planning. Ideally, you should be having these types of discussions before the marriage takes place to minimize potential conflicts later. This can also help you decide if a prenuptial agreement may be necessary to protect your individual financial interests. But if you’ve already remarried, it may be a good idea to have this discussion sooner, rather than later.

At the same time, it can also help to complete an inventory of your assets and liabilities so you both know what you’re bringing into the marriage. This can help with managing the distribution side of your estate plan later as well as planning for how any debts may need to be handled should one of you pass away.

Estate Planning for Second Marriages With Children

Having kids can add a wrinkle to your estate planning efforts when you’re getting remarried. For example, you may wish to leave certain assets to your children while your new spouse may want your assets to be equally distributed among his or her children as well as yours. Or there may be questions over who would assume control over assets on behalf of minor children should one of you die.

When there are children in the picture, it’s important to consider any provisions you’ve already made for them in a will or trust and how that might affect any assets your spouse stands to inherit. You may need to update your will or set up a separate marital trust, for example, to ensure that your spouse receives the share of your assets you wish them to have while still preserving your children’s inheritance. Provisions may also need to be made for any children you plan to have if you’re still relatively young when a second marriage occurs.

It’s important to consider the age of your children when deciding what is fair in a second marriage and estate planning. If you have adult children, for example, it could make sense to gift some of their inheritance to them during your lifetime. But if you have minor children, you and your new spouse would need to decide who should be in charge of managing their inheritance on their behalf if one of you dies prematurely.

Check Beneficiary Designations

Assets that already have a named beneficiary may need to be updated if you’re remarrying. For example, if you named your previous spouse as beneficiary to your 401(k), individual retirement account or life insurance policy, you’d likely want to change the beneficiary to your new spouse or to a trust you’ve set up so that your former spouse can’t collect on those assets.

You should also consider other assets, such as bank accounts or real estate, should be titled. Adding your new spouse to your home as a joint tenant with right of survivorship may seem like the right move for keeping things simple in your estate plan. But doing so means that if something happens to you, your spouse will automatically assume full ownership of the home. They could then do with it as they wish, regardless of what you might have specified in a will or trust.

Look for Gaps in Your Estate Plan

When deciding what is fair in a second marriage and estate planning, consider where the gaps might exist that could leave your assets in jeopardy. Not having a will, for example, could be problematic if you pass away. Without a will, your state’s inheritance laws would be applied – not your wishes. That means your assets may not go to your children or other heirs as you’d like them to.

A trust can also be a useful tool in estate planning for passing on assets to your spouse or children as well as managing estate and inheritance taxes. If either of you are bringing considerable assets into a second marriage or you want to minimize the potential for conflicts over asset distribution later, setting up one or more trusts could be a good idea. Talking to an estate planning attorney can help you decide whether a trust is necessary and if so, which type of trust to set up.

Also, consider whether you have sufficient life insurance coverage to provide for the surviving spouse and any children associated with the marriage. Both spouses in a second marriage may need to have life insurance coverage, particularly if one person is the primary breadwinner while the other is the primary caregiver for children. Checking your existing life insurance policies and talking to your insurance agent can help you determine whether what you have is enough or if more coverage is necessary.

Finally, think about what you may need in terms of end-of-life planning. Long-term care insurance, for instance, can help pay for nursing home costs so that your spouse or either of your children aren’t left in the lurch financially. An advance healthcare directive and a power of attorney can ensure that your wishes are carried out in end-of-life situations where you’re unable to make financial or medical care decisions on your own behalf.

The Bottom Line

Deciding what’s fair in a second marriage and estate planning can be tricky and it’s important to get the conversation started early. Understanding what the biggest challenges of estate planning in a second marriage are can help you work together to shape a plan that you can both be satisfied with. And if you have adult children, it’s important to keep them in the loop so they understand how a second marriage may impact their inheritance.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about the implications of a second marriage and what it might mean for your portfolio. You and your spouse may choose to maintain your current advisors or find a new advisor to work with together. In either case, finding the right professional to work with doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can offer personalized recommendations for professional advisors in your local area, in just minutes. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • Trusts can be a useful estate planning tool for couples, including those who are getting married for a second time. A marital trust, for example, goes into effect when the first spouse dies. This can be helpful for passing assets on to a surviving spouse while minimizing estate taxes. You may want to create this type of trust, along with a second living trust set up specifically for your children, to manage assets more efficiently while also protecting them from creditors.

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Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She’s worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, CreditCards.com and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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