MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Max Out Social Security Benefits for Your Family

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. Does the family maximum benefit (FMB) apply only to one spouse’s individual’s work history or to both spouses in a family? That is, assume two high-earning spouses both delay claiming a benefit till, say, 70. Would the FMB rules limit their overall family benefits? Or does the FMB include just the overall family benefits derived from the earnings record of one particular worker? —Steve

A: Kudos to Steve for not only knowing about the family maximum benefit but having the savvy to ask how it applies to two-earner households. The short answer here is that Social Security tends to favor, not penalize, two-earner households in terms of their FMBs.

To get everyone else up to speed, the FMB limits the amount of Social Security benefits that can be paid on a person’s earnings record to family members—a spouse, survivors, children, even parents. (Benefits paid to a divorced spouse do not fall under the FMB rules.) The amount may include your individual retirement benefit plus any auxiliary benefits (payouts to those family members) that are based on that earnings record.

Fair warning: the FMB is far from user-friendly. Few Social Security rules are as mind-bendingly complex as the FMB and its cousin, the combined family maximum (CFM). And Social Security has a lot of complex rules. Unfortunately, you need to do your homework to claim all the family benefits you are entitled to receive.

To address Steve’s question, these FMB calculations may be based on the combined earnings records of both spouses. More about this in a bit, but first, here are the basics for an individual beneficiary.

The ABCs of the FMB

The FMB usually ranges from 150% to 187% of what’s called the worker’s primary insurance amount (PIA). This is the retirement benefit a person would be entitled to receive at his or her full retirement age. Even if you wait until 70 to claim your benefit, it won’t increase the FMB based on your earnings record.

Now, I try to explain Social Security’s rules as simply as possible—but there are times when the system’s complexity needs to be seen to be believed. So, here is the four-part formula used in 2015 to determine the FMB for an individual worker:

(a) 150% of the first $1,056 of the worker’s PIA, plus

(b) 272% of the worker’s PIA over $1,056 through $1,524, plus

(c) 134% of the worker’s PIA over $1,524 through $1,987, plus

(d) 175% of the worker’s PIA over $1,987.

Let’s use these rules for determining the FMB of a worker with a PIA of $2,000. It will be $3,500, which equals (a) $1,584 plus (b) $1,273 plus (c) $620 plus (d) $23. The difference between $3,500 and $2,000 is $1,500—that’s the amount of auxiliary benefits that can go to your family. Got that?

And here’s a key point that trips up many people: Even if the worker claimed Social Security early, which means his benefits were lower than the value of his PIA, it would not change the $1,500 limit on auxiliary benefits. However, when the worker dies, the entire $3,500, which includes the PIA amount, becomes available in auxiliary benefits.

It’s quite common for family claims to exceed the FMB cap. When this happens, anyone claiming on his record (except the worker) would see their benefits proportionately reduced until the total no longer exceeded the FMB. If, say, those claimed auxiliary benefits actually totaled $3,000, or double the allowable $1,500, all auxiliary beneficiaries would see their benefits cut in half.

How CFM Can Boosts Benefits

Enter the combined family maximum (CFM). This formula can substantially increase auxiliary benefits to dependents of married couples who both have work records—typically multiple children of retired or deceased beneficiaries.

The children can be up to 19 years old if they are still in elementary or secondary school (and older if they are disabled and became so before age 22). Because each child is eligible for a benefit of 50% or even 75% percent of a parent’s work PIA, even having only two qualifying auxiliary beneficiaries—say a spouse and a child, or two children—can bring the FMB into play.

But with the CFM, the FMBs of each earner in the household can be combined to effectively raise the benefits to children that might otherwise would be limited by the FMB of just one parent. Under its rules, Social Security is charged with determining the claiming situation that produces the most cumulative benefits to all auxiliary beneficiaries.

Using our earlier example, let’s assume we now have two workers, each with PIAs of $2,000 and FMB’s of $3,500. A qualifying child would still be limited to a benefit linked to the FMB of a single parent. But the CFM used to determine the size of the family’s benefits “pool” has now doubled to $7,000 a month, permitting total auxiliary benefits of up to $3,000.

Well, they would have totaled this much—except there’s another Social Security rule that puts a cap on the CFM. For 2015, that cap is $4,912. Subtracting one of the $2,000 PIAs from this amount leaves us with up to $2,912 in auxiliary benefits for this family. That’s not $3,000 but almost.

So it’s quite possible that three, four, or possibly more children would get their full child benefits in this household. Even if they totaled 200% of one parent’s FMB, they would add up to a smaller percentage of the household’s CFM, and either wouldn’t trigger benefit reductions, or at least much small ones.

And if eligible children live in a household where one or both of their parents also has a divorced or deceased spouse, even more work records can come into play. This is complicated stuff, as borne out in some thought-twisting illustrations provided by the agency.

Before moving ahead with family benefit claims, I recommend making a face-to-face appointment at your local Social Security office. Bring printouts of your own earnings records, which you can obtain by opening an online account for each person whose earnings record is involved. I’d also print out the contents of the Social Security rules, which are linked in today’s answer, or at the very least, write down their web addresses so the Social Security representative can access them.

Good luck!

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of The New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and a research fellow at the Center for Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: Why Social Security Rules Are Making Inequality Worse

MONEY identity theft

These Are the Only Data Breaches You Really Need to Worry About

social security card breaking up into bits and floating away
Yasu+Junko—Prop Styling by Shane Klein

Every day seems to bring news of another hack that compromises your personal data. While you can't afford to get complacent, you don't need to panic about every leak. Here's how to know when to worry and what action to take.

At this point, you can bet a hacker has made off with some of your personal information. The number of data breaches hit an all-time high in 2014, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. An estimated 86 million records—including credit card and debit card numbers—were compromised, with Kmart, Home Depot, and Staples among the companies that saw the greatest data spillage.

Perhaps the worst scare yet, however, came in early 2015, when health insurer Anthem reported that hackers accessed its customers’ Social Security numbers—pure gold to an ID thief. “This one is a nightmare,” says Ed Mierzwinski of advocacy group U.S. PIRG.

But you may be too weary to heed the wake-up call. Almost a third of Americans who receive breach notifications ignore them, privacy research group Ponemon Institute has found. While you can’t panic over every breach, you also can’t afford to get complacent. How much to worry and what action to take depend on what data you learn have been compromised.

YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER

How much to worry: A lot. A fraudster could apply for credit in your name, and you could spend years repairing your records, says Paul Stephens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

What to do: Check your credit reports ASAP for unusual activity. You’re entitled to one free copy per year from each of the credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion) via AnnualCreditReport.com. At minimum place a free 90-day fraud alert with one of the bureaus, which will inform the other two. This alert tells lenders to confirm your identity before extending credit.

A better move: Freeze your credit, preventing anyone from getting loans in your name. On the downside, you’ll pay up to $10 per credit bureau to place a freeze and up to $12 per bureau to lift it when you apply for new credit. A hassle, yes, and costly. “But for someone worried about ID theft, it’s the best $30 you can spend,” Stephens says.

A PASSWORD

How much to worry: Depends on what kind of site was hacked and whether you reuse passwords (61% of people do, identity protection firm CSID found).

What to do: Ideally, you’d change your password on the breached site and all others on which you used the same code. But if the idea of that much work leaves you paralyzed, the least you need to do is change codes for the most critical accounts (like email and financial sites), says Joseph Bonneau, technology fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And where it’s an option, set up two-factor authentication, which requires you to input an additional piece of information to log in. That will make it harder for hackers to break into your account next time a password is compromised.

YOUR CREDIT CARD NUMBER

How much to worry: Very little. When criminals steal just a credit card number, you’re not liable for any fraudulent charges, notes Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center. With a debit number, you’re not liable for unauthorized charges you report within 60 days of getting your statement, and often banks will make you whole even if you don’t report until later. (The laws are different when a card itself is stolen, but, again, many issuers have zero-liability policies.)

What to do: Simply read your statements carefully, says U.S. PIRG’s Mierzwinski. Call the issuer if you see charges you don’t recognize, he says, “though usually your bank calls you first.” Don’t assume credit monitoring—which many breached businesses offer to customers for free—will do the job for you, Wu says. The services only tell you when a lender checks your credit, not when charges are run up on an existing account.

OTHER PERSONAL INFORMATION

How much to worry: Very little. Criminals can’t commit ID theft with just your name, birth date, or email—though they may try to “phish” for more info by posing as legitimate businesses.

What to do: Stay vigilant. Avoid clicking on links in emails. And when a financial institution calls, hang up and call back. Better to seem rude than get rooked.

 

MONEY Social Security

Why 6.5 Million Social Security Numbers Shouldn’t Exist

Social Security cards
Lane Erickson—Alamy

There are 6.5 million Social Security numbers assigned to people born before June 16, 1901, that have no date of death on record. Only 13 are alive.

An audit of the Social Security Administration found that about 6.5 million Social Security numbers assigned to people who would be 112 years old (and are likely deceased) did not have a date of death on their records. Thousands of these numbers may have been used to commit identity theft or another form of fraud.

The purpose of this audit from the Office of the Inspector General was to assess whether the Social Security Administration had an adequate system for adding death information to the SSA’s Numerical Identification System (aka Numident) for “numberholders who exceeded maximum reasonable life expectancies and were likely deceased,” the report reads. The answer: No, it does not.

The Audit Details

Here’s how the report outlined the problem: While the Social Security Administration may have information indicating a numberholder is deceased — like record of a death benefit having been claimed or a date of death in SSA payment records — the lack of a date of death in the Numident creates a significant information gap. Many federal agencies rely on the Death Master File to know whether a numberholder is dead, but if a numberholder’s date of death is not noted in Numident, it doesn’t appear on the Death Master File.

Almost all of the 6.5 million records without a date of death were not receiving payments from the SSA at the time of the audit, indicating they were deceased. Of the 266 numberholders receiving payments, just 13 were actually 112 years or older, and various record discrepancies explain the remaining benefits payments.

People use Social Security numbers for much more than receiving Social Security benefits. They are used to secure employment, apply for credit and file taxes, potentially claiming a tax refund. To look into potential abuse, the auditors compared the 6.5 million Social Security numbers against the SSA’s Earnings Suspense File (a database of earnings tax forms where the names don’t match the Social Security numbers) and the E-Verify System, which is used to validate whether a numberholder is authorized to work in the U.S.

The result of those cross-checks was significant: SSA transferred $3.1 billion in wages from 66,920 of the numberholders to the Earnings Suspense File from tax years 2006 through 2011. Between fiscal years 2008 and 2011, “SSA received 4,024 E-Verify inquiries using the SSNs of 3,873 numberholders born before June 16, 1901,” the audit report says.

What It Means

The report indicates that, if death dates were systematically entered into Numident, therefore included on the Death Master File, tens of thousands of instances of Social Security number abuse or fraud could possibly be prevented.

Auditors made four recommendations to the Social Security Administration, two of which the administration agreed to. SSA will explore options and ramifications of implementing an automated process to update Numident records on numberholders, and it has agreed to complete this analysis by the end of fiscal 2015 (Sept. 30). SSA disagreed with recommendations that it use old payment record information to update Numident, saying it could result in inaccurate death information in the Death Master File and would require too much time and resources.

Identity theft after death is a legitimate concern for families of the deceased, particularly in the time immediately following a death, when accounts remain open and taxes have yet to be filed in the the person’s name. For this reason, it can be helpful to plan ahead and leave instructions in your will, listing your financial accounts and designating someone to handle them quickly following your death, minimizing the amount of time a potential identity thief has to misuse your information.

If you’re worried about the theft or misuse of your own Social Security number, you should monitor your credit regularly for new-account fraud. You can get free annual credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com and you can check two of your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Social Security

Why Social Security Benefit Rules Are Making Inequality Worse

Laurence Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University.
Jodi Hilton—The New York Times/Redux Laurence Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University

Benefit rules are so complex that a new book on claiming strategies has become a best-seller. Here’s how to get it right.

If you find Social Security rules bewildering, don’t feel too bad; so do Social Security experts. As Boston University economics professor Larry Kotlikoff points out, the 2,728 Social Security rules, if you print them out, are longer than the federal tax code. Little wonder his new book explaining to how to max out Social Security benefits—Get What’s Yours, co-authored with MONEY contributor Philip Moeller and PBS journalist Paul Solman—landed on the New York Times and Amazon best-seller lists. Kotlikoff recently spoke to MONEY about the program’s shortcomings and the best way to claim benefits.

Q: Why are Social Security rules so maddeningly complicated?

A: The system was designed decades ago by older white males who may have had their own interests somewhat at heart. In any case, it awards benefits unfairly. Single people are at a disadvantage to married couples, who have more types of benefits available to them. Married couples with two earners are at a disadvantage to those with one earner. The disabled are also treated unfairly.

Worse, whether you get all the benefits you are entitled to is a random process. It all depends on whether you understand the complex system, and you get the right information from customer representatives, who aren’t well trained. Americans are leaving billions on the table as a result. But higher-income people are better able to take advantage of Social Security’s claiming options. This worsens economic inequality.

Q: You’re an advocate for entitlement reform, yet you’re also encouraging Americans to max out their benefits. Isn’t that contradictory?

A: I want to expose inequities wherever they are. I’ve written about the nation’s generational inequities [“The Coming Generational Storm“], and the expropriation of money that should go to our kids because of the ballooning costs of these programs. But Social Security rules are a disgrace and unfair to people of all ages. No one should get more benefits just because they know the rules.

Q: Given the program’s funding problems, should younger Americans count on Social Security?

A: The system is 33% unfunded, according to the last trustees’ report. So somebody has to pay to fix it. My co-authors and I don’t agree on how to fix things—there’s a debate about solutions in the book. I explain my preferred solution at the Purple Social Security Plan.

Still, I think people 55 and older will get their full benefits. It’s too difficult politically to change their treatment. Younger people will likely receive something, but they’ll probably pay for it with higher taxes.

Q: What is the biggest mistake people make when they claim?

A: For many households, the problem is claiming benefits too early. If you wait to claim till age 70, you can increase your benefits by 76%, compared with starting at age 62, the earliest age you can claim. By delaying, you have an opportunity to tap a source of guaranteed inflation-proof income at an incredibly low price. That said, many people can’t afford to wait, since they have no other means of support.

Q: Many financial planners recommend claiming based on your “break-even” age—how long it will take for higher benefits claimed at a later age to exceed what you’d get by claiming early at 62.

A: This is a fundamental misunderstanding. People mistakenly look at Social Security as an investment, and they try to figure out the break-even point, when they’ll make their money back. They don’t understand the economics of working longer, or how to value the extra income you get by waiting.

Social Security is insurance—an inexpensive, safe payout—not an investment. You don’t look at your homeowners’ insurance on a break-even basis. You look at the worst-case scenario, which is your house burned down, you have no place to live, and the insurance is there when you need it. The worst-case scenario here is living to 100 and running out of money well before then.

Q: Have you figured out your own Social Security claiming strategy?

In my case, it’s relatively straightforward—I can just look at my own book, and I don’t need to use my claiming software (MaximizeMySocialSecurity). I’m 64, and I’m older than my ex-wife and my fiancée. They’ll both be able to claim spousal benefits on my earnings record. I’m going to wait till age 70, and then collect my benefit.

Read next: The 3 Secrets to Maxing Out Social Security Spousal Benefits

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Collect Child Support from an Ex’s Social Security Benefits

Ask the Expert - Family Finance illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “Can I collect unpaid child support from my ex-husband’s Social Security?” — Carol

A: That depends on the kind of benefit your ex receives. If it’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you’re out of luck. But if he collects any other type of benefit, you can get the money you’re owed.

Because SSI is considered a welfare benefit—rather than an earned Social Security benefit like retirement, disability, or survivor benefits, which individuals pay into over their lifetimes—the federal government does not allow this income to be garnished for child support payments, says Vicki Turetsky, commissioner for the Office of Child Support Enforcement.

For other Social Security benefits, however, if your ex is collecting and is either not paying child support or owes back support, you can request that your local Social Security office garnish those benefits. (In certain circumstances, you can also make a claim if an application for Social Security is pending).

In order for the agency to do this, you’ll need to send an income withholding order issued by a judge. So you must go to court and prove that your ex has failed to fulfill his child support obligations.

If your children are still minors, you can apply for child support services offered by the state. The typical application fee is $25. This service will walk you through the legal process and is the “inexpensive route” to getting those child support funds, says Turetsky.

If your children are fully grown, you will need to hire a private attorney to help you go through the process—unless you applied for child support services when your children were minors, in which case you may be able to use the services.

Once your local Social Security office has this order, it will enter the data about your case into their database and begin withholding the child support payment, or a percentage of the total back child support that’s owed, from your ex’s benefit payments. If no benefit payments are being made, the garnishment order will remain on file, and those deductions will resume if he begins collecting again.

Under federal law, the Social Security agency can only withhold up to 65% of your ex’s monthly benefit. It may be less depending on your state law and whether your ex is supporting another child or spouse. “The government also has the authority to take your ex’s entire bank account; however, some states look at the overall financial circumstances of the noncustodial parent,” says Turetsky. “This may be the only money he has to survive on.”

If you cannot collect sufficient payments from your ex-spouse’s Social Security benefits, your state’s child support enforcement office may be able to help you get the funds you’re owed by withholding the amount from state or federal tax returns also.

TIME Social Security

Flawed Social Security Data Says 6.5 Million in U.S. Reach Age 112

Social Security I.D. Cards
Duckycards—Getty Images Social Security Cards

In reality, there are only 42 people that old worldwide

(WASHINGTON D.C.) — Americans are getting older, but not this old: Social Security records show that 6.5 million people in the U.S. have reached the ripe old age of 112.

In reality, only few could possibly be alive. As of last fall, there were only 42 people known to be that old in the entire world.

But Social Security does not have death records for millions of these people, with the oldest born in 1869, according to a report by the agency’s inspector general.

Only 13 of the people are still getting Social Security benefits, the report said. But for others, their Social Security numbers are still active, so a number could be used to report wages, open bank accounts, obtain credit cards or claim fraudulent tax refunds.

“That is a real problem,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “When you have a fake Social Security number, that’s what allows you to fraudulently do all kinds things, claim things like the earned income tax credit or other tax benefits.”

Johnson is chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which plans a hearing Monday on problems with death records maintained by the Social Security Administration.

The agency said it is working to improve the accuracy of its death records. But it would be costly and time-consuming to update 6.5 million files that were generated decades ago, when the agency used paper records, said Sean Brune, a senior adviser to the agency’s deputy commissioner for budget, finance, quality and management.

“The records in this review are extremely old, decades-old, and unreliable,” Brune said.

The internal watchdog’s report does not document any fraudulent or improper payments to people using these Social Security numbers. But it raises red flags that it could be happening.

For example, nearly 67,000 of the Social Security numbers were used to report more than $3 billion in wages, tips and self-employment income from 2006 to 2011, according to the report. One Social Security number was used 613 different times. An additional 194 numbers were used at least 50 times each.

People in the country illegally often use fake or stolen Social Security numbers to get jobs and report wages, as do other people who do not want to be found by the government. Thieves use stolen Social Security numbers to claim fraudulent tax refunds.

The IRS estimated it paid out $5.8 billion in fraudulent tax refunds in 2013 because of identity theft. The head of the Justice Department’s tax division described how it’s done at a recent congressional hearing.

“The plan is frighteningly simple — steal Social Security numbers, file tax returns showing a false refund claim, and then have the refunds electronically deposited or sent to an address where the offender can access the refund checks,” said acting Assistant Attorney General Caroline Ciraolo.

In some cases, she said, false tax returns are filed using Social Security numbers of deceased taxpayers or others who are not required to file.

The Social Security Administration generates a list of dead people to help public agencies and private companies know when Social Security numbers are no longer valid for use. The list is called the Death Master File, which includes the name, Social Security number, date of birth and date of death for people who have died.

The list is widely used by employers, financial firms, credit reporting agencies and security firms. Federal agencies and state and local governments rely on it to police benefit payments.

But none of the 6.5 million people cited by the inspector general’s report was on the list. The audit analyzed records as of 2013, looking for people with birth dates before 1901.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, and the first old-age monthly benefit check was paid in 1940.

Many of the people cited in the inspector general’s report never received benefits, though they were assigned Social Security numbers so spouses and children could receive them, presumably after they died.

The agency says it has corrected death information in more than 200,000 records. But fixing the entire list would be costly and time-consuming because Social Security needs proof that a person is dead to add them to the death list, said Brune, the agency official.

Brune noted that the inspector general’s report did not verify that any of the 6.5 million people are actually dead. Instead, the report assumed they are dead because of their advanced age.

“We can’t post information to our records based on presumption,” Brune said. “We post information to our records based on evidence, and in this case it would be evidence of a death certificate.”

“Some of those records may not even exist,” Brune added.

Nearly all the Social Security numbers are from paper records generated before the agency started using electronic records in 1972, Brune said. Many of the records contain errors, with multiple birthdates and bits of information about different family members.

“We did transcribe paper records into the electronic system and over time that information’s been purified,” Brune said.

“But our focus right now is to make sure our data is as accurate and complete as it can be for our current program purpose,” said Brune. “Right now, we’re focused on making sure we’re paying beneficiaries properly, and that’s how we’re investing our resources at this time.”

MONEY Ask the Expert

The 3 Secrets to Maxing out Social Security Spousal Benefits

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My wife was born in 1950 and will be 65 this year; I was born in 1953 and will be 62. As I have earned more in my lifetime, my Social Security benefit is estimated to be larger than hers at full retirement age. But her spousal benefit would be less than half of her individual retirement benefit. When the younger spouse has a higher estimated benefit, what are some strategies to explore? —Jack

A: If there’s one set of rules worth understanding, it’s spousal benefits. Every year, couples leave literally billions of dollars on the table because they make the wrong claiming choices. Here are three secrets to getting this claim right, and how they apply to your situation:

1. To get spousal benefits, the primary earner must file for retirement benefits first. Spousal benefits can equal as much as half of the amount the person would receive in individual Social Security benefits at full retirement age (FRA). For anyone born in 1943 through 1954, FRA is 66; it will gradually rise to 67 for people born in 1960 or later.

2. If you file for a spousal benefit before your FRA, you will end up with a smaller amount. You can file as early as age 62 but if you do, you will be hit with benefit reductions. Retirement benefits will rise each month they are deferred between FRA and age 70. Spousal benefits peak at FRA, so there is no reason to defer claiming them past that point.

An early filing will also trigger a Social Security provision called deeming—this means the agency considers you to be filing both for your individual retirement benefit and you spousal benefit. You will be paid an amount roughly equal to the greater of the two benefits. But you lose the opportunity to get increases for delayed claiming on your individual benefits. This is a bad deal.

3. Use a file-and-suspend strategy. If both spouses defer claiming until FRA, the higher-earning spouse can file and suspend benefits then. This way, the lower-earning spouse can file for spousal benefits, allowing his or her individual retirement benefit to grow due to delayed retirement credits. Then you can each file for maximum retirement benefits at age 70.

So what’s the right approach for you? If you both defer filing, you can file and suspend your benefit at age 66. This will enable your spouse, who will have turned 69, to file for her maximum spousal benefit. Meanwhile, she can continue to allow her individual benefit to grow due to delayed credits up to age 70

Alternatively, your wife can file and suspend at 69, allowing you to file for your maximum spousal benefit at 66 and collect it for four years, while deferring your own retirement benefit until 70. Even though you are the higher earner. this strategy seems likely to maximize your family’s total benefits.

There’s another advantage to waiting until 70: if you die before your wife, she will receive a widow’s benefit that will equal your maximum retirement benefit. (She can only collect the greater of her retirement or widow’s benefit.)

Of course, choosing the best spousal claiming strategy for a couple depends on many factors, including relative ages, finances and health. This is something married partners need to talk about.

Best of luck!

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is the co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and a research fellow at the Center for Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: New Rules for Making Your Money Last in Retirement

MONEY Ask the Expert

When Investment Growth, Income, and Safety Are All Priorities

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’m 64 and retired. My wife is 54 and still working, but I’m asking her to join me in retirement. We have about $1 million in savings, with about half in an IRA and the rest in CDs. How can try I try to preserve the principal, generate about $2,000 in monthly income until I collect Social Security at age 70, and somehow double my investment? — Rajen in Iowa

A: The first thing you need to ask yourself is what’s really more important: Growth, income, or safety? You say you want to preserve your principal – and your large cash position suggests that you are risk averse – but you also say you want to double your investment.

“Why do you need to double your investment?” asks Larry Rosenthal, a certified financial planner and president of Rosenthal Wealth Management Group in Manassas, VA. “Everybody likes the idea of doubling their investment, but there’s a high cost if it doesn’t work out.”

Given that you’re already retired, doubling your investment is a tall order. You probably don’t have that kind of time. At a 5% annual return, it would take you more than 14 years, and that’s without tapping your funds for income along the way. Nor can you afford to take on too much additional risk.

Either way, you do need to rethink how you have your assets allocated.

A 50% cash position is likely far too much, especially with interest rates as low as they are. “You’re effectively earning a negative return,” factoring in inflation, says Rosenthal.

And while cash is a great buffer for down markets, the value is lost in the extreme: The portion of your portfolio that is invested in longer-term assets such as stocks and bonds needs to do double duty to earn the same overall return.

If generating growth and income are both priorities, “look at shifting some of that cash into dividend paying stocks, a bond ladder, an annuity, or possibly a combination of the three,” says Rosenthal, who gives the critical caveat that the decision of how to invest some of this cash will depend on how your IRA money is invested.

Meanwhile, you should take a closer look at the pros and cons of claiming Social Security at full retirement age, which is 66 in your case, or waiting until you’re 70 years old.

The current conventional wisdom is to hold off taking Social Security as long as possible in order to maximize the monthly benefit. While that advice still holds true for many people, you need to look at the specifics of your situation – as well as that of your wife. The best way to know is to run the numbers, which you can do at Social Security Timing or AARP.

The tradeoff of waiting to claim your benefit, says Rosenthal, is spending down more of your savings for six years. You may in fact do better by keeping that money invested.

What’s more, “if you die, you can pass along your savings,” adds Rosenthal. But you don’t have that type of flexibility with Social Security benefits.

MONEY Social Security

The Taxing Problem With Working Longer

Earning money after you start collecting Social Security can be a tax headache.

The question of when and how to file for Social Security is a tough one for many retirees—I regularly field questions on the topic. Recently a reader wrote to say he’d like to draw Social Security benefits at age 66 yet keep working until 75. What are the tax implications?

When you continue to work and draw Social Security, your benefits are reduced temporarily if you’re 65 or younger and your outside income exceeds certain levels. After 65, these reductions do not apply. You may, however, owe taxes on your Social Security income.

How Earnings Can Hurt

Not all of your Social Security income is taxable. Social Security uses a measure it calls “combined income” to determine how much of your benefit is taxable, and it can be tricky to understand.

To determine your combined income, take your adjusted gross income (check last year’s tax return), then add any nontaxable interest income and half of your Social Security benefit. (If you haven’t started claiming, you can get a projection online by setting up an account at ssa.gov.)

If the total is less than $25,000 ($32,000 on joint tax returns), you owe no income taxes on your Social Security benefits. If the total is between $25,000 and $34,000 ($32,000 and $44,000 on joint returns), you may have to pay taxes on half of your Social Security that’s over that threshold. Above that, 85% of your benefits may be taxable—the top rate.

Here’s how that could play out. Take a retiree in the 15% federal tax bracket who is taxed on 50% of his Social Security. When he earns another $1,000, his so-called combined income rises by that much too, subjecting another $500 of Social Security income to taxes. So the tax bill on that $1,000 won’t be $150 (15% of $1,000) but $225 (15% of $1,500), for an effective rate of 22.5%.

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MONEY

Your Workarounds

Beefing up your tax-free holdings, especially Roth IRAs, can mean money coming in that won’t trigger more taxable Social Security income. (Working less lowers your tax bill too, but you’re usually better off earning the money.)

If you can live on just your salary, deferring Social Security until age 70 also helps. Your taxes should be lower while you wait. And delaying benefits will increase your monthly Social Security payments by 8% a year (plus annual inflation adjustments).

Hedging Your Bets

Single retirees should think about one other option: filing for and suspending Social Security benefits at age 66. By doing so you will be able to request a lump-sum payment for all the suspended benefits
anytime until age 70.

Even the best of plans can change, so that payment could come in handy if you face an emergency cash crunch. But there’s a downside: Once you request a lump sum, your payout will be valued as if you took benefits at 66, as will your regular monthly benefit going forward.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” was published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

MONEY Social Security

How to Max Out Your Social Security Checks

Understanding how Social Security computes benefits for full-time workers past the age of 60 may make you feel better about working into your later years.

One of the most common misconceptions I hear about Social Security is that it makes no sense to work in your later years—and keep forking over payroll taxes—because your benefits won’t rise.

For full-time workers, this is absolutely not true. Social Security uses very favorable rules for measuring wages for people age 60 and older who are still working. And older workers are a big and growing army: More than 8.2 million persons age 65 or older were in the labor force last month, up from 4.7 million 10 years earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Of course, one of the main reasons people are staying on the job is because they need the money. Their retirement prospects may be bleak to boot. So understanding these Social Security rules is more important than ever.

Social Security bases your benefits on the top 35 years of your covered earnings. As used here, “covered” means wages on which you’ve paid FICA (Federal Insurance Contribution Act) taxes. There is an annual cap on wages subject to these taxes, but it goes up each year to reflect the past year’s increase in national wages. In 2015, the cap is $118,500.

Each year, Social Security indexes your wage earnings, adjusting them to reflect the impact of wage inflation. It uses these indexed wage amounts to determine your top 35 years of earnings.

This way, people get fair credit for all of their past earnings years. Otherwise, a 66-year-old who earned most of his wages 30 years ago would receive less in benefits than a 66-year-old whose earnings occurred in more recent years.

Wage indexing stops at age 60. This is a big deal. The reasons aren’t important here—what is important is that your post-60 earnings are not indexed and thus flow directly into your earnings record in their unadjusted, or nominal, form.

Because wages have increased in this country nearly every year since 1950, the odds are very good that someone who keeps working full-time past age 60 will earn enough money to represent a new “top 35 year.”

This is automatically the case for high earners whose wages exceed the annual cap. As the cap rises, so will the amount of their covered earnings, automatically becoming a new top-35 year. But even lower-earning individuals face good odds of having their post-60 earnings become new top-35 years.

When this happens, Social Security will automatically recompute not only your retirement benefits but the benefits of anyone else—a present or former spouse, young children, and even your parents—that are linked to your earnings record. And it will do this for every year in which your unadjusted earnings are large enough to become one of your top 35 earnings years.

Having said this, I share the frustration that many older workers express for continuing to fork over payroll taxes even after they’ve reached their maximum Social Security benefits. Paying something for nothing is no fun, and in this case it’s not right.

My solution, which maybe has just a constituency of me, would be to cut payroll taxes for workers who are at least 70 years old—and to cut them for their employers as well. This will still bring new taxes into Social Security, but it also will recognize the reality that these workers largely have already paid for their Social Security benefits.

Giving their employers a break will also create needed incentives to encourage hiring and retaining older workers. Right now, many employers balk at doing do, citing higher health care and perhaps retraining costs for older employees. Yet the need for this and other “aging America” changes is becoming clearer with each passing day.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health, and co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

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