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Topic: Social Security

COVID-19’s Impact on Social Security

By Chris Stein M.S., CFP® | October 16, 2020

A reader would like to know about how COVID-19 will impact his Social Security benefits.

“I was planning to retire in the next twelve months. I was born in 1960, so I turned 60 this year. I plan to delay my Social Security benefit until age 70. Each year, I use Social Security’s calculator to estimate my benefit at 70 if my earnings end in 2020. The estimate has been pretty consistent for many years. I recently read an article that said because I was born in 1960, I should expect my Social Security benefit to suffer a permanent 13% reduction because of Coronavirus’s economic effects and how the Social Security benefit is calculated. It has to do with the Average Wage Index (AWI). Is this really possible, and is it actually going to happen? How you would adjust the estimated Social Security benefit for a client that turns 60 this year. Should I just lop off 13% from my calculations?”

Anyone born in 1960 is probably listening very closely. And I don’t blame you.

You asked if COVID-19 could cause a reduction in Social Security benefits. Yes, it can because of the way those benefits are calculated. Those calculations use your Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME). AIME attempts to approximate a lifetime of earnings using today’s wage levels as a benchmark.

By “indexed,” we mean adjusted for inflation, specifically wage inflation, not price inflation. The Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) that Social Security beneficiaries get most years are based on prices: the Consumer Price Index or CPI. A lot of people mix those two up.

The AIME calculation indexes your past earnings and adjusts them for wage inflation. It ensures that your benefit accruals keep up with inflation and general pay increases during your working life. For wage inflation, they use the Average Wage Index (AWI). They take all of the people who filed W-2s for income from a job at any time in one year (say 2020). That gives them the total number of wage-earners. Then they take the total amount of wages that were paid that year, and they calculate the average wage for 2020. They’ve done the same for 2019, 2018, and back to when they started doing this.

The wage inflation statistic is used to adjust all of your earnings. It also adjusts the “bend points” used in calculating your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). We’ve gone into great detail elsewhere on how Social Security benefits are calculated. But, briefly, bend points are where you have replaced 90%, 32% or 15% of different portions of your AIME.

For this discussion, to understand how someone’s benefits could be vulnerable, if there is an AWI decline – negative growth in wages for 2020 – that will affect your AMIE calculation, which, in turn, will also affect your PIA.

Some of the calculations I’ve seen are predicting a 13% permanent reduction. So, you’re thinking, why is this only happening to people born in 1960?

First, it’s a one-year blip called a “notch” year, something unique that happens one year that affects only people born in one (or two) years. People born afterward will likely not feel a permanent impact because wages are likely to bounce back in subsequent years (2021, 2022 and 2023, for example), and the increase will compensate for the short-term loss. If you were born before 1960 or after 1960, you wouldn’t notice the event because the impact gets smoothed out.

But 1960 is going to take a permanent hit. And why is it permanent? Because in 2020, people born in 1960 are 60 years old. That’s the last year of your wages that are indexed for inflation. So, depending on if you are retired, any wages you may or may not have next year (when you’re 61) will not be adjusted. That means the bounce-back that you might have gotten– that the economy might see in wages in 2021 – you will not get if you were born in 1960.

I am not as concerned as those waving big red flags on the internet to get you to click and read their articles. That’s because Congress hasn’t weighed in on this – and they can fix this. There are lots of things they could do.

For example, Congress can cause a single-year adjustment to how the wage index adjustment is calculated. They can also have Social Security ignore the wage index adjustment for 2020, calling it an anomaly. Or Congress could say, “Let’s calculate the AWI for 2020 based only on the first quarter. Just look at January, February and March.” That would solve this essentially.

This issue is getting more and more attention, so, hopefully, some conversations are happening on Capitol Hill to solve it. The real consumer protection advocates are likely bouncing around some ideas about how to avoid this.

I’d put this issue in the “unfair” category because it’s merely due to how a calculation is made. But it’s not the first time. Something similar happened in 2008-2009, but the impact was only 1.51%, so no action was taken.

[FYI: Source for 2009 stat: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ebauer/2020/06/24/social-security-explainer-how-are-average-wages-calculatedand-how-that-affects-your-benefits/#56b69f164752]

But here’s why 2020 is such an issue. As we said, the calculation totals up all employment income reported for the year and divides it by all the workers who worked at some point during the year. The number of people working in early 2020 was high; each person will get a W-2 and be counted as workers. If they only worked in the first quarter, though, their wages for the year will be super low.

So, the numerator (the total wages paid in the economy) will be a lot lower than usual. Yet the denominator (the ‘divided by’ number of workers) is still going to be full-sized. And the Social Security calculation was never designed to accommodate something like this. That’s the fundamental issue.

Why do I think Congress will step in? Because a lot of people were born in 1960 – in fact, about 4.25 million. And this situation is genuinely unfair to them specifically and represents significant financial harm. I don’t have a crystal ball, but we’ve seen Washington make some pandemic-related allowances recently in situations that were far less unfair.

[FYI: Source for population: https://www.infoplease.com/us/population/live-births-and-birth-rates-year]

Enough complaints from constituents would make a difference. Start writing to your congresspeople now: Senators and House Representatives. Say, “Hey, take care of this.” Or call them. Get your friends and family to call them, too. Put pressure on them to fix it.

There is often action on Capitol Hill that we don’t hear about while it’s in process. We are monitoring the situation closely. If we learn of anything new, we will bring it up immediately.

A Closer Look at Social Security Taxation

By Jo Madonna, E.A. | August 16, 2019

A Closer Look at Social Security Taxation: The Importance of the Combined Income Calculation

If you’re concerned about whether – or how – your Social Security benefits will be taxed, you’re either already over 62 and living with monthly Social Security deposits into your bank account, or working on your retirement planning for when they do start arriving.

Even though we know Social Security alone is insufficient to support us in retirement, for many it still forms a consequential part of their spending plan as they move from active to passive income generation. If Social Security benefits are going to be taxed, it’s important to know so in advance.

Many assume that Social Security benefits are free of taxes, but they are wrong. Although IRS rules do provide some protection when taxing Social Security benefits, the more additional sources of taxable income you have, the more your Social Security benefits will be taxed. That income could come from wages, self-employment efforts, dividends, required distributions and any other income that you will have to report to the IRS.

Each January, the IRS will send you a Form SSA-1099, or Social Security Benefit Statement, that shows how much you received in benefits in the prior year. If you don’t receive a Form SSA-1099, a replacement is available online through your My Social Security account.

This is the information you will use, along with your other income information, to determine if you have to pay tax on your Social Security benefits or not.

Using the Combined Income Calculation

social security taxation








The first step to knowing if any of your Social Security benefit is taxable is to use a special IRS calculation called the “Combined Income Calculation.” That calculation is: adjusted gross income + nontaxable interest + ½ of your Social Security benefits.

Your adjusted gross income
+ Nontaxable interest
+ ½ of your Social Security benefits
= Your “combined income

For example, if you have $30,000 in wages, $5,000 in tax-free interest from bonds and $22,000 in Social Security benefits, $46,000 is the Combined Income number that you will use to determine if any of your Social Security benefits will be taxable.

Base Limits for Taxes Owed

You will never pay tax on more than 85 percent of your Social Security benefits. If and how much you pay depends on your filing status and two specific Combined Income ranges. The amount will be calculated on a sliding scale that is based on your income.

  • The base limits that put single filing taxpayers into taxation calculation are:
    • $25,000-$34,000, which will put up to 50% of Social Security into taxation.
    • Above $34,000, which will put up to 85% of Social Security into taxation.
  • The base limits that put married filing joint taxpayers into taxation calculation are:
    • $32,000-$44,000, which will put up to 50% of Social Security into taxation.
    • Above $44,000, which will put up to 85% of Social Security into taxation. 

Calculating the Impact on Taxable Income

If your Combined Income puts you in one of the ranges where up to 50 percent of your Social Security benefits are taxable, the exact amount you enter as taxable income (on your Form 1040) will be the lower of either (a) half of your annual Social Security benefits, or (b) half of the difference between your Combined Income and the ‘IRS base amount’ ($25,000 or $32,000, depending on how you are filing).

For example, as a single filer who received $19,000 in Social Security benefits last year, half of that would be $9,500. If your Combined Income was $33,000, the relevant ‘IRS base amount’ would be $25,000. The difference between your Combined Income ($33,000) and the ‘IRS base amount’ ($25,000) would be $8,000. You would enter $8,000 as the taxable amount on your Form 1040 because it is lower than half of your Social Security benefits last year ($9,500).

Our earlier example gave us a Combined Income figure of $46,000. Whether filing as a single taxpayer or married filing joint taxpayer, that figure put up to 85 percent of the Social Security benefits into taxation. Here calculations become far more complicated, and the IRS offers further explanations and a worksheet to help: worksheet to calculate Social Security tax liability.

What About State Taxes on Benefits?

So far we have only looked at Federal income taxes. Are Social Security benefits taxed at the state level as well? If we are calculating the net cash available for spending or for our retirement planning, we would need to know.

Thirteen states tax Social Security benefits as income. Check for details if you live in Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont or West Virginia.

The Impact on Retirement Planning

Smart Social Security strategies are only one element of your retirement planning, but one worth developing since it becomes part of the guaranteed lifetime income you will want available for the rest of your days. As experts in Social Security and Tax Planning, we would welcome the opportunity to help you plan yours.

Trickle-Down Taxes

By Justin Fundalinski, MBA | July 15, 2016


We have all heard about trickle-down economics – in its most basic sense it argues that over time tax breaks for large corporations and investors (the wealthy) will stimulate economic growth as they will be able spend more money in the economy rather than on taxes. Well, I have decided to coin a new term called trickle-down taxes – in its most basic sense I argue that tax law changes can get overwhelming bi-partisan support if they are presented to look like a tax on the wealthy, however over time because of how the tax is designed it slowly drags in and affects large proportions of the middle class.  In this month’s newsletter I will give a historical example of how this has occurred with Social Security taxation and a more contemporary example of how this is occurring with Medicare Premiums.

Social Security Example:

First, some history

In 1983 amendments were passed and Social Security first became taxable in 1984.  These changes were branded by Ronald Reagan, Alan Greenspan, and a bi-partisan congress as a way to shore up Social Security so that it would exist in the future.  Then in 1993, during massive budget reconciliation, Vice President Al Gore cast the deciding vote for a deadlocked congress (50/50) to bring Social Security taxation laws to their current state and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  This change was directly branded to affect only “higher income” beneficiaries.

Second, some cynicism

What really was not brought to directly to the public’s attention were the sneaky little details of these tax law changes that would over time effect more and more people than the “higher income” beneficiaries it was branded to affect.

Last month I went into a lot of detail about how Social Security income is currently taxed.  I discussed specifically how Social Security taxation gets phased as a comparison of “Provisional Income” to a “Base Amount” and an “Adjusted Base Amount.” Typically, when tax rules are phased in/out they are based off a figure made up in the law (i.e. Roth IRA contribution limits) and this figure is usually adjusted for inflation every year so that as inflation affects income levels the tax impact does not grow year over year. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Base Amount and the Adjusted Base Amount, these figures are not adjusted for inflation.  They remain the same indefinitely!

Third, some numbers behind my cynicism

Let’s just look at the Base Amount (which was established in the 1983 amendment) and Adjusted Base Amount (which was established in the 1993 budget reconciliation).  In 1983 any married couple that had Provisional Income greater than $32,000 would have their taxable Social Security income phased in up to a maximum of 50%.  Had this figure been adjusted for inflation like most tax phase in/outs, it would have grown to over $72,000(assuming an average 2.5% inflation rate for simplicity)! But no, currently in 2016 the Base Amount still sits at $32,000! So, this year and all future years, any married retirees that have Provisional Income greater than $32,000 gets affected by this tax.  This very concept also applies to the Adjusted Base Amount.

You can see how these law changes seemingly only affected high income retirees when they were established, but now in 2016 they affect more and more of the middle class.  Given more time, I am sure that nearly everybody with a Social Security benefit will be affected.

Medicare Example:

Back in October 2015’s newsletter I spoke extensively about Medicare premiums.  To sum it up, there are five different Medicare premium levels and they are based on the income levels of the Medicare recipient.  The first bracket is the most common and the majority of people fall into this category. However, if someone earns too much income in a year they are forced into what is called an “Income Related Premium” and must pay higher Medicare premiums.

Historically, these Medicare brackets have been adjusted for inflation and would grow proportionately as income naturally would grow. However, these brackets became “frozen” under the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) and are intended to remain frozen only until 2019 (I’m not a betting man, but I would put money on it that 2019 is a hopeful dream).  So what are the affects?  Well, as income grows and the brackets remain frozen, more and more people are forced into higher Medicare premiums. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, it is estimated that between 2013 and 2019 the percentage of Medicare beneficiaries that must pay income related premiums will nearly double from 4.6% to 8.3%.

Imagine what will happen if these brackets remain “frozen” indefinitely.  More and more people will be forced to pay Income Related Premiums. It seems like only high income earners are affected by this effective tax on Medicare premiums right now, but give it some time and it will begin to look eerily similar to what happened with Social Security taxation.

Trickle-Down Taxes:

As you can see from the Social Security and Medicare examples above, if a tax law is designed in a way that it disregards the effects of inflation on income, over time the tax will trickle-down from high income earners/retirees to the majority of the population. Trickle-down taxes are essentially a way to increase taxes every year without having to publicly announce an income tax hike.

In a stretch for irony, one might find it entertaining that my concept of trickle-down taxes is first evidenced in 1983 under a supply-side economic policy under President Reagan (AKA “Reaganomics”).  Supply-side economics is essentially trickle-down economics.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact us at the office.

Taxation of Social Security Benefits

By Justin Fundalinski, MBA | June 22, 2016

Taxation Social Security

There has been a lot of talk around the office and with clients about taxation of Social Security benefits. Since we are talking about taxation, we are talking about Internal Revenue Code (IRC), and we all know that the IRS likes to make things a clear cut as possible**[1].  In this week’s news article I attempt to break the concept down for one main reason; taxation of Social Security is overly complicated but it’s very important that retirees have a minimum knowledge of it so they can understand some advanced tax and financial planning strategies that revolve around Social Security taxation . In future articles I will explain some of these planning strategies.

The Summary

Up to 85% of Social Security is taxable.  Keyword “taxable”; the amount of your Social Security that will be included as income which will then be taxed at your applicable tax rate.  Something to understand here is even if someone’s taxable Social Security is at the maximum of 85%, Social Security income still has tax preference because the remainder 15% is not taxed at all.

There are thresholds that the IRS has set that phases in how taxable Social Security is:

  • If Provisional Income (defined below) is less than the first threshold Social Security is not taxed at all.
  • If Provisional Income is less than the second threshold 50% of Social Security could be taxable.
  • If Provisional Income is greater than the second threshold 85% of Social Security could be taxable.

Of course, finding out how much Social Security is taxable is made easy with a short 18 step form provided by the IRS**.  If you took the time and went line by line on the form you would likely come up with the correct taxable amount, but you was also have no idea as to why that figure is correct (and if you don’t know why its correct, you don’t know how you can strategize around it!)

The Calculation

This is my attempt to break down the 18 steps into a few concepts to help you understand how taxable Social Security is really calculated. I warn you, this reading gets a little technical!

First, “Provisional Income” must be determined.  This is fairly easy and can be done by adding up the following:

  • Half of the Social Security benefits received
  • All other taxable income (i.e. pension, wages, annuity, IRA[2] and 401k distributions, etc.)
  • All tax exempt interest (i.e. municipal bond interest) and other excluded income.

For example, if George received $20,000 in Social Security benefits, withdrew $21,000 from his traditional IRA, and received interest of $1,000 from a municipal bond holding, he would have provisional income of $32,000 ($10,000 + $21,000 + $1,000)

Second, a comparison needs to be made between Provision Income, the “Base Amount” and the “Adjusted Base Amount.” This comparison will then guide you on how the calculation is made. Things start getting a little wonky here, but below you find it explained in the most comprehendible manner that I could come up with.  Let’s start with some figures on what the Base Amounts and Adjusted Base Amounts are and then we can apply some concepts on what they represent.

Filing Status Base Amount Adjusted Base Amount
Single  $ 25,000  $ 34,000
Married Filing Jointly  $ 32,000  $ 44,000
Married Filing Separately (lived apart)  $ 25,000  $ 34,000
Married Filing Separately (lived together)  $ 0  $ 0


How It Basically Works

Provisional Income Less Than Base Amount

If provisional income is less than the Base Amount then no Social Security benefits are taxable.

This is fairly simple to understand. If half of your Social Security plus all of your other income is less than the Base amount that corresponds with your filing status then you won’t owe any taxes on your Social Security.

Provisional Income Between Base Amount and Adjusted Base Amount

If provisional income is between the Base Amount and the Adjusted Base Amount then 50% of the Provisional Income that is in excess of the Base amount is taxable and this amount cannot exceed 50% of the Social Security benefits received. For example:

If George – a single taxpayer – had $32,000 of provisional income then he would be above his Base Amount by $7,000 ($32,000-$25,000) but less than his Adjusted Base Amount.

If his Social Security benefit was $20,000 (as we talked about earlier) then no more than $10,000 (half of the $20k benefit) could be taxable.

Since 50% of the excess provisional income over the base amount ($3,500 – Half of $7,000) is less than $10,000 he would have to include $3,500 of his Social Security benefits as taxable income. Had half of the excess provisional income been greater than $10,000 the taxable Social Security would have been capped at $10,000.

Provisional Income Greater Than Adjusted Base Amount

If provisional income is greater than the Adjusted Base Amount – well… things get ugly. Just remember the highest percentage of Social Security benefits that are taxable is 85%. If you want to understand the nitty gritty then read the example below:

Assume George – our single taxpayer – still has the same Social Security benefit but now has $62,000 of provisional income (maybe he took an extra $30,000 out of his IRA to buy a new car).

First, we need to find out 50% of the difference between the Adjusted Base Amount and the Base amount. In his case this figure is $4,500 (50% of $34k minus $25k).

Second, we need to find out what 85% of the amount of excess provisional income is over the Adjusted Base Amount. In his case this figure is $23,800 (85% of $62k minus $34k).

Third, we need to add these figures together to get a tentative taxable amount and see if it is greater than 85% of his Social Security benefits. Tentative taxable amount is $4,500 + $23,800 = $28,300. 85% of his Social Security benefits is $17,000 (85% of$ 20k), so he would have to include $17,000 of his Social Security benefits as taxable income.  If his tentative taxable amount was less than $17,000 then he would have been able to use the lesser amount.

Congratulations on making it through the convoluted path of Social Security taxation.  It took me many times to make sense of it all so if the concepts are still unclear you are not alone.  However, if you are interested in learning more about this or wondering how you can optimize the taxation of your Social Security benefits please feel free to reach out to the office.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact us at the office.

[1] ** Indicates attempts at overt sarcasm.

[2] Note that ROTH distributions are generally excluded from this.

Secure Income Options – Social Security vs Annuity

By Justin Fundalinski, MBA | February 15, 2016

Secure IncomeAs many of our readers know, we are advocates of ensuring there is enough secure income[1] to fully cover a retiree’s required expenses[2].  The reasoning behind this concept is that in a “worst-case” scenario in which a retiree’s assets become depleted  (due to overspending, poor market performance, extended longevity, etc.), they are able to maintain a reasonable standard of living that is maintained by the monthly income generated from there secure income sources. That is, with enough secure income a retiree can rely on the safety and security of their secure income sources just as they relied on the safety and security of their paycheck while they were in the working force.  Unfortunately, generating enough secure income can be a difficult task and it requires hard decisions early on in retirement.  Most often, one of the key recommendations that we make currently is to delay Social Security.  Recently, we were asked to defend that recommendation against turning on Social Security income at Full Retirement Age (age 66 in this case) and supplementing it with annuity income to offset any income difference that an earlier Social Security claim would create.  This month’s article is an overview of this case and our defense!

The Options:

  1. Claim Social Security at age 70 and begin collecting approximately $40,700 annually of inflation adjusted[3]
  2. Claim Social Security at age 66 and begin collecting approximately $28,200 annually of inflation adjusted income. To offset the income gap from claiming early, approximately $8,700 annual inflation adjusted annuity income is purchased.[4]

The Primary Costs:

  1. The cost of delaying Social Security in this case is the forgone income that could be generated from claiming Social Security early as well as the income generated from the annuity. The four years of lost income adds up to $147,400 (adjusted for inflation).  This $147,400 is the cost of delaying Social Security.
  1. The cost of turning Social Security on early and purchasing the annuity is rather easy to calculate. It is the premium of the annuity. In this particular case a 66 year old Colorado female was quoted a premium of $188,500.  This $188,500 is the cost of turning on Social Security on early.

When you look at the costs it seems like delaying Social Security is a clear winner as it is about $40,000 less expensive than purchasing an annuity.  However, we recognize that this is a hard concept to follow so think about it like this; at age 66 this person could do one of two things:

  1. They could take $147,000 (maybe a bit more to cover the inflation adjustments) and place it in a bank. Each month they can take out the amount that Social Security and the annuity would pay them.  By age 70 this account would run out and their Social Security would turn on for the equivalent amounts being withdrawn.
  2. Or, they could turn their Social Security on and take $188,500 and buy an annuity.

The end income result is essentially the same. The question is would you rather give $147,000 to the bank so you can pay yourself or give $188,500 to an annuity company?

The Secondary Costs:

Social Security is a unique income source when you consider how it is taxed.  Unfortunately, to explain in detail how Social Security is taxed would take a lot more time than I can dedicate in this article. However, to sum it up, depending on the amount of Social Security and other income sources that one receives, the amount of Social Security income that actually gets taxed ranges between 0% and 85% (that is, a maximum of 85 cents out of every Social Security dollar received could be taxed at one’s marginal income tax rate) .  A better way to think about it is the more taxable income someone has on top of Social Security the more Social Security income that will be taxed.

What I am getting at here is, the more income that is generated by Social Security as opposed to other taxable sources the less taxes one will likely pay.  So, depending on what type of asset is used to purchase an annuity can make a substantial tax impact.  Considering we are dealing with retirees who generally have the majority of their assets in Traditional IRAs or 401(k)s any annuity income purchased with these “qualified” assets would be subject to ordinary income taxes and would likely increase the amount of Social Security that is taxable.

Another side effect that could occur if more income becomes subject to taxation is that an individual could be pushed into a higher marginal tax bracket.  Depending on what tax bracket they are in this could not only cause taxes on income to be higher, but is could also cause taxes on capital gains to increase. 

The Tertiary Costs:

The fact is that retirement is an emotional hurdle. We get it!  Some people just feel better once their secure income is turned on and they are receiving a check every month for the rest of their life. Our only stance on the emotional cost of waiting longer to turn Social Security on is this:  It’s the retiree’s choice in the end, our job is only to explain the financial costs of the different options out there.  We are not in the business of telling retiree’s how to feel.

A key takeaway from this article is that not all retiree’s secure income needs are the same so this is not an overarching discussion regarding the best way to file for Social Security.  Also, Social Security income is not calculated based off of current interest rates like the annuity income is. In the future when interest rates are higher, it may very well make more sense to supplement Social Security income with annuity income as opposed to delaying Social Security.  For more information regarding this topic please view our February 2015 article regarding this very topic.


A Fixed Annuity is a long-term financial product designed largely for asset accumulation and retirement needs. Fixed Annuities generally contain fees and charges which include, but are not limited to, surrender charges, administrative fees and for optional contract riders and benefits. Withdrawals and death benefits are subject to income tax. If withdrawals and other distributions are received prior to age 59 ½, a 10% penalty may apply. Fixed Annuities typically carry surrender charges for several years that may be assessed against withdrawals. Certain Fixed Annuity product features, offered by some Fixed Annuity companies, such as stepped up death benefit, a bonus credit and a guaranteed minimum income benefit, carry added fees. If you are investing in a Fixed Annuity through a tax-advantaged plan such as an IRA, you will get no added tax advantage. Under these circumstances you should only consider buying a Fixed Annuity if it makes sense because of the Fixed Annuities other features, such as lifetime income payments and death benefit protection. All guarantees of a Fixed Annuity are backed by the claims paying ability of the issuing insurer.


[1] Our definition of Secure Income is an income stream that (1) is predetermined and known; there is no ambiguity with how much income you will receive throughout your retirement; (2) your income can never be cut, it can only increase and (3) the income is not backed by your assets alone, it is backed by a third party

[2] A Required Expenses is an expense if you don’t cover you will suffer an economic, financial or medical hardship. Required Expenses by their very definition are difficult to cut or reduce and must be fully covered until mortality with inflation adjusted guaranteed income.

[3] Note that we cannot predict what the inflation adjustments will be, but for the sake of this analysis we have assumed an average COLA (cost of living adjustment) of 2.5%

[4] You might be saying to yourself, “Now wait a minute – $28,200 plus $8,700 does not add up to $40,700.”  You are right and you are wrong!  Remember that this income is being turned on at age 66 and is adjusted for inflation.  Remember, we want this income to match the income that could be generated at age 70 from Social Security.  Four years after this inflation adjusted Social Security and Annuity income is turned on it is combined income of about $40,700.

Child-In-Care Spousal Benefit

By Justin Fundalinski, MBA | January 15, 2016

Child-in-care spousal benefit

Between our Social Security blog, our Radio Show/podcast, and conversations in the office, we have discussed Social Security benefits for spouses an innumerable amount of times. However, there is an offshoot of spousal benefits that we have not covered in much detail; that is, Child-In-Care Spousal Benefits.  Really, it’s the same spousal benefit we know and love but the qualifier to receive the benefit and the calculation of the benefit amount is what makes it special.  In this month’s post I am going to briefly cover some of the details around this “special” spousal benefit.

What is the Child-In-Care Spousal Benefit?

As I mentioned in the introduction the Child-In-Care Spousal Benefit is no different than the standard benefit for spouses, however it has few caveats that make it a very unique filing option.  Remember, when a worker files for Retirement Benefits (based off of their own earnings record), the worker’s spouse could be eligible for a Spousal Benefit based off of the worker’s earnings.  Keyword “could.”  More often than not, what makes the spouse eligible is they are at least age 62.  However, there is another qualifier that entitles the spouse to benefits; that being they have a child who is under the age of 16 in his/her care.

How much is the Child-In-Care Spousal Benefit?                                                

The interesting part about Child-In-Care Spousal Benefits is that it deviates substantially from how “normal” Spousal Benefits are calculated.

Keep in mind the “normal” calculations in a Full Retirement Age scenario for a spouse.  Once a worker files for their retirement benefit their spouse is eligible for a maximum of half of the workers Full Retirement Age benefit amount (a.k.a. Primary Insurance Amount).  However, if the spouse claims before their own Full Retirement Age (anywhere between 62 and Full Retirement Age) they are subject to a permanent reduction of their benefit.

On the contrary, when a spouse has a child-in-care that is under the age of 16 the calculation is much simpler.  No matter when the spouse claims he/she will receive half of the worker’s Full Retirement Age benefit (Primary Insurance Amount). That is, there are no reductions.  Also, note that a spouse with a child-in-care can claim their benefit at any age as long as the worker has filed for their retirement benefit and the child is under age 16.  However, as with every aspect of Social Security there is a twist.  The benefit amount is subject to a family maximum and considering all of the family benefits involved in a case like this there will be a child or children that is/are eligible for a benefit of their own. So the actual amount paid to the spouse and child(ren) will be limited by this family maximum and they will split the benefit proportionally.  (Keep in mind the child(ren) is/are a minors, so any benefit paid to the child(ren)will actually be paid a parent and must be spent for the benefit of the child(ren).

Unique About the Benefit

What is very unique about the Child-In-Care Spousal Benefit is that an early claim will not reduce the “normal” Spousal Benefit.  For instance, consider a 66 year retiree, a 62 year old spouse, and their 13 year old child.  The retiree can turn on their Retirement Benefits and the spouse can turn on his/her Child-In-Care Spousal Benefits (remember the child gets a benefit too- but we are not focusing on that in this article).The spouse will receive Child-In-Care Spousal benefit for the next 3 years (until the year the child turns 17), at which point he/she will be 66 and eligible to turn on their “normal” Spousal Benefit without any reduction to it.

What are the trade offs?

The tradeoffs between the standard claiming early and claiming later strategies is not as clear in regards to Child-In-Care Spousal Benefits (as well as Children’s Benefits) and needs to be weighed on a case by case basis. A case can be made for a worker/retiree to turn their own benefits on early to allow the spouse and child to claim some family benefits for a longer period of time. However, a case can also be made for the worker to delay at least to Full Retirement Age or even age 70 depending on what type of income security is needed in the later years of life.  There is no doubt that having a child-in-care creates a very unique case where claiming early may quite possibly be a better option.

As always, if you have any questions please feel free to contact us at the office.


Social Security Tradeoffs

By Justin Fundalinski, MBA | December 15, 2015

Social Security Tradeoffs

It’s Not Just About Your Finances

In financial planning, the best advice is sometimes counterintuitive or difficult to conceptualize.  Social Security tradeoffs and the merits of delaying Social Security for a higher benefit have been iterated over and over, but there should always be a discussion beyond the complicated financial projections that focuses on preferences, opinions, and tradeoffs. Specifically, there are a few key topics that will help a retiree decide what is best (beyond a financial projection) when it comes to claiming Social Security/funding your retirement lifestyle. The key items to discuss are the tradeoffs of generating a higher Social Security benefit, your opinions and family history in regards to longevity, and one’s personal feelings regarding the possibility and effects of outliving their assets.

The Tradeoffs:

The most substantial tradeoff for generating a higher Social Security benefit is the fact that a retiree will have to spend from their assets early in retirement. Because these large withdrawals are in the beginning of retirement a significant portion of the assets (the portion that is spent) will never have the opportunity to grow as an investment; thus putting a handicap on the overall lifetime value of the portfolio.  However, there are some tradeoffs that benefit this handicapped portfolio over the long run. Those tradeoffs are that a retiree will have to spend less from their portfolio once a higher Social Security benefit is turned on, that Social Security income is backed by the Federal Government (unlike an investment portfolio), and that Social Security income is taxed differently than other sources of income creating a smaller tax burden.

There are clearly many variables that come into play that will ultimately decide whether or not delaying Social Security was the best decision in regards to a retiree’s portfolio value and most of those variables become more important as longevity becomes a factor.


When it comes to longevity hindsight is always 20/20, but hindsight doesn’t help when a decision has to be made now that will affect the rest of one’s life.  As alluded to above, a retiree’s opinion on how long they expect to live plays an important role when deciding the best methods to fund retirement. Longevity will decide whether or not a late Social Security claiming strategy would indeed pay off not only when considering total Social Security income received, but also when you look at total taxes paid, retirement account drawdown rates, and the retiree’s perception/reality of financial security.  The math is fairly straightforward when it comes to estimating most of these considerations and an analysis can certainly help explain how much longevity is needed for one strategy to trump the other.  However, there is one key item that cannot be projected – that being the retiree’s perception and the reality of financial security.

Security If One Outlives Their Assets:

The key reason why delaying Social Security is often recommended is simple; to generate guaranteed income that is on par with expenses that cannot be cut.  If there is enough income to ensure that a basic standard of living is guaranteed, retirees have the freedom to spend their assets in a manner that they choose opposed to a manner that is dictated by the performance of equity and fixed income markets. With the appropriate amount of guaranteed income (often referred to as Secure Income at the office) the freedom to spend assets as one chooses and to override the risk of becoming destitute becomes a real possibility.  However, without sufficient guaranteed income the potentials of poor market performance or overspending assets can wreak havoc on the later years of retirement.  The key point being made here is that when one perceives and has the reality of a certain level of financial security no matter how quickly they spenddown their assets, it is more likely that they will be able to enjoy their retirement rather than worry about their retirement and every dollar they spend.

The Million Dollar Question:

Are the upfront tradeoffs on portfolio value worth the perception and reality of a certain level of financial security?  Hopefully you and your retirement plan have considered this.


Congress Threw Your Social Security Claiming Strategies In the Trash!

By Justin Fundalinski, MBA | November 15, 2015


Social Security claiming strategies

The new budget law with bipartisan approval by Congress has effectively dismantled Social Security claiming strategies that retirees  and financial planners have come to rely on to generate steady and secure income throughout retirement.   Unfortunately, these changes will unequivocally impact those who have planned their retirement around certain expectations that Social Security claiming options would be available.   This article is meant to inform how the budget bill has reformed “restricted applications” and “file and suspend” claiming strategies as well as describe who may be impacted by this.

Restricted Applications:

Prior to the new law taking affect, Social Security claimants who are Full Retirement Age (ages 66-67) or later could choose to “restrict” their claim to only Spousal Benefits.   This restriction would allow them to claim their Spousal Benefit and delay claiming their Retirement Benefit until age 70. The late claiming of Retirement Benefits allowed the claimant to accrue “Delayed Retirement Credits” and enhance their Retirement Benefit by 8% per year.  Since a claimant could claim a smaller Spousal Benefit for several years and enhance their Retirement Benefit, this strategy was often coined the “Claim Now, Claim More Later” strategy.   See the timeline below for a simplified understanding of this strategy.


Social security restricted application prior



This simple strategy that allowed substantial growth of a Retirement Benefit is now off the table for anyone who is not 62 by December 31st, 2015[1].  The new law essentially extends what Social Security calls “deeming.”  Prior to the law, any claimant who filed for their benefit before Full Retirement Age was deemed (or forced) to claim the highest benefit available to them.  Basically, Social Security would turn on all of the benefits that the claimant is entitled to, cut a check to the claimant for the highest benefit available at the time, and disallow the opportunity to delay Retirement Benefits for further growth.  The new law now extends this concept beyond Full Retirement Age and applies it at all times for Spousal and Retirement Benefits.  This effectively eliminates the opportunity to “Claim Now, Claim More Later.”

It is imperative to note that that these changes do not include Widow’s Benefits, and that widows and widowers can continue to restrict their claim to Widow’s Benefits and delay claiming their Retirement Benefits. On the other hand Divorced Spousal Benefits are impacted by the bill, and the same new rules will apply regarding restricted applications. That is, if one is not age 62 on or before December 31st, 2015 they will not be able to restrict their claim to only Divorced Spousal Benefits and allow their own Retirement Benefit to grow.

See the timeline below for a better understanding of these changes.

Social Security restricted application after

File and Suspend:

Under current Social Security rules, once a claimant reaches Full Retirement Age they are able to file for their benefits, and at any time prior to age 70 they can suspend the payment of their benefit.  The reason someone would want to do this is because they have effectively filed for Social Security benefits which “unlocks” the opportunity for specific members of the family to claim a benefit using the earnings record of this person  (for example, someone can only claim their Spousal Benefits if their spouse has already filed for Social Security benefits .  At the same time, the suspension of benefits allows the claimant to earn the Delayed Retirement Credits of 8% per year.  Essentially, this strategy opens the door for someone to file a restricted application for Spousal Benefits without affecting the Retirement Benefits of the other spouse and allows for the accrual of Delayed Retirement Credits.

This strategy is especially helpful for couples in which one spouse had higher earnings throughout their lifetime than the other.  This is because it allows the higher earner to delay their claim, earn the Delayed Retirement Credits, collect a higher benefit while they are alive, and pass on the higher benefit as a Widow’s benefit when they decease.  See the timeline below for more details.

Social Security file and suspend prior



The new law has changed how benefits are “unlocked” for those who can claim on somebody else’s earning record.  Suspending benefits is still possible, however it is no longer the act of filing for benefits that unlocks this opportunity; rather, it is the act of receiving the benefit that does. In other words, suspending a Retirement Benefit also suspends benefits for those that can claim based on someone else’s earnings record.  In order for a higher earner to open up the door for their spouse to claim Spousal Benefits they would have to claim and receive the benefit, forfeit the Delayed Retirement Credits, collect a lower benefit throughout retirement, and pass on this lower benefit as a Widow’s benefit when they decease.  The claiming strategies and benefits around filing and suspending Social Security benefits have been erased.

May Also Apply to Divorced Individuals

Notably, this change may also apply to divorced individuals who are claiming on their ex-spouses earnings record. While we don’t expect this to be true, it is not clear in the bill how they will treat divorced spouse benefits in a file and suspend scenario. The final answer to this is pending and will likely be determined based on how Social Security interprets the new law.

Fortunately, the bill was amended from its original draft to allow those who have already filed and suspended or those that file and suspend within 180 days of this bill’s enactment to be grandfathered into the old set of rules.   While it is a fast timeframe for this rule to take place, it at least does not ruin the filing strategies that people already implemented.

Other Noteworthy Items:

  • Prior to the new budget law, any claimant that filed and suspended their benefit could choose to receive a lump sum payout of the benefits that they suspended and resume their benefit schedule as if they filed at Full Retirement Age. For example, this strategy may have been utilized by a single recipient who decided to file and suspend their benefits with the intent to earn Delayed Retirement Credits, but also give them the opportunity to back out and receive a lump sum of the “missed payments” if the money was need or wanted (as may be in the case of a diagnosis of a terminal illness).  Lump sum payments from suspended benefits are longer an option.
  • More often than not, restricted benefits are used in conjunction with a file and suspend strategy. So, while the changes that are being made to restricted benefits have a longer time frame for enactment compared to that of the changes made to filing and suspending benefits, many of the reasons for taking a restricted claim will be off the table anyways.
  • Finally, there are still many reasons to include Social Security planning with income planning and with the recent changes it is even more important now than ever. Total household income drawn from Social Security is likely to be lower because the benefits of waiting are not as great as they used to be. Notably, Social Security income for survivors may be greatly impacted because file the file and suspend strategies that significantly increased a survivor’s income will be less appealing.  Other income or assets need to be in place to fill this gap and active income planning may help retirees overcome the changes in Social Security claiming rules.

As always, if you have any questions please feel free to contact us at the office.







[1] By definition, those with a birthdate of January 1st,1954 (or those who turn 62 on January 1st,2016) are age 62 as of December 31st, 2015 in the eyes of Social Security.

Social Security Is a Better Deal Than You Think

By Justin Fundalinski, MBA | February 15, 2015

Social SecurityFor quite some time now there has been a movement afoot to “privatize” Social Security. The argument for privatization promotes the view that individuals would be able to generate far greater lifetime income if they did not have to contribute to Social Security. The premise is based on the belief that if workers were allowed to direct what would have been their Social Security contributions into their own investment account (perhaps a 401(k) or similar tax qualified retirement account) they could later use that money to buy a stream of guaranteed income through an income annuity and generate far greater lifetime income than currently offered through Social Security. Unfortunately, the privatization argument tends to ignore the critical difference in how Social Security calculates your lifetime stream of guaranteed income and how a private insurance company prices guaranteeing a retiree a lifetime stream of income.

This movement to privatize Social Security seems to grow in popularity when equity returns are strong. Unfortunately, concentrating solely on equity returns ignores the other half of the equation. Once you retire, current investment returns are meaningless to your cost of a guaranteed income stream. Far more important to that cost are current interest rates (more on that later).

Absent from the privatization argument is the critical difference of how Social Security calculates your lifetime stream of guaranteed income compared to how a private insurance company prices the cost of guaranteeing a retiree a lifetime stream of income. This dichotomy recently became abundantly clear when a new retiree asked us to help him calculate his retirement budget. Unique to his situation was a lack of any Social Security benefits or employer pension.  For the majority of his working years he did not contribute to the Social Security system because his employer had opted out of the program back when the government allowed certain employers to do so.  Instead, his employer allowed this person to direct what would have been contributed to Social Security into a retirement account. The employer matched the contributions and over his working years the account grew to an enviable value of more than a million dollars.

In this article we will share with you the difficulty in generating a lifetime stream of guaranteed income in today’s low interest rate environment.

Social Security VS Private Annuity – Benefit Calculations

We consider Social Security benefits and lifetime income payments from a Single Premium Immediate Annuity[1] to be “secure income.”[2]  Where they differ is how each payer determines the amount of income you will receive for the rest of your life. When you retire, the Social Security Administration bases your benefits on an index of your highest 35 years of earnings. Current interest rates have no bearing on how much your Social Security benefit will be.

On the other hand, an insurance company providing a retiree a lifetime stream of guaranteed income via an income annuity couldn’t care less how much that retiree earned while working!  Instead the insurance company will base the majority of the cost of that retiree’s income benefit on how much they think they can earn in the bond market based on current interest rates. The lower interest rates are at the time of purchase the more it will cost to buy a lifetime stream of guaranteed income.

Since 2008, interest rates have been at historic lows – and therein lies the problem for the retiree in this story.

How Much Secure Income Do You Need?

The cornerstone of our retirement planning philosophy revolves around a simple concept. Retirees should put in place an income plan that will cover 100% of their “required expenses”[3]  with a lifetime stream of inflation-adjusted guaranteed income.  The retiree in our story needs $55,000 a year of inflation-adjusted guaranteed income throughout his retirement. Normally such an amount isn’t difficult to generate because most working people have a modest amount of “secure income” such as Social Security benefits and/or employer sponsored pension income.  A retiree need only cover the difference (if any) between their secure income and their required expenses with an income annuity.  But as we mentioned before, the retiree in our story was not eligible for any Social Security or pension benefits. He now needs to use his retirement savings to buy an income annuity to cover his entire required expenses.

Pricing a Lifetime Stream of Secure Income

We helped the retiree in our story solicit quotes from insurance companies asking how much he would need to pay to buy a lifetime stream of guaranteed income for him and his wife (both are in their early 60s) beginning at $55,000 and increasing by CPI annually until mortality.  The results shocked us.  The quotes provide by various insurance companies varied between $1.3 to just over $1.5 million to secure this income stream! These quotes were more than the retiree had!

The retiree in our story had fallen victim to the Federal Reserve’s efforts to stimulate economic growth by lowering interest rates to historic levels since 2008. Had interest rates been at levels last seen just a decade ago, the cost of purchasing his lifetime income would have been significantly less. In all likelihood, his Single Premium Immediate Annuity would have cost less than half of his total portfolio.

How Much Social Security Could the Retiree Have Received?

Adding to the retiree’s difficulty was his lack of any Social Security or pension income. We cannot calculate with complete certainty what the retiree in our story would have received in Social Security benefits had his employer not opted out of the system. Nonetheless, we can come close in an estimation based on his historical earnings.  At age 66 (Full Retirement Age) this retiree would have had Social Security Retirement benefits of approximately $30,888/year.  His wife (who remained at home caring for the family and therefore did not pay into the Social Security system) would have been eligible for a spousal benefit of $15,444 at her age 66. All total the retiree in our story most likely would have been eligible for a combined Social Security benefit of $46,332/year beginning at age 66.  Furthermore, with a little planning they could have “optimized” their benefits via several claiming strategies and increased their annual Social Security benefit to $56,216 by age 70.  Whether the retiree claimed at age 66, or optimized his benefit at age 70, it is our contention that their Social Security income would have covered most, if not all, of their required expenses at the beginning of their retirement. This would have then allowed them to now use their retirement savings to fund their desired expenses[4].

So What’s Better?

When we look at all this information we have to ask a pointed question. What’s better…?

  • Having an enviable 401(k) that is valued over a million dollars without any Social Security benefit and the option to buy a secure stream of income.
  • Or, having a modest 401(k) with secure income provided by Social Security to cover required expenses.

Because our retirement planning philosophy centers on helping people cover 100% of required expenses with any combination of secure income (pension, Social Security, or income annuity) we are not biased on how the income is generated from as long as it is secure.  So the short answer to the question is – It depends where the secure income is coming from and what current interest rates are.

To be able to secure sufficient guaranteed lifetime income for our retiree in the current low interest rate environment, we demonstrated that it would cost significantly more than our retiree had saved.  Had interest rates not been at historic lows, or had the retiree been a participant in the Social Security program this would have been a very different story.

We have always liked Social Security. We specialize in helping people optimize their benefits and receive as much from the program as possible. Because Social Security bases your income benefit on your historic earnings and not current interest rates it can insulate you from the risk of retiring in a low interest rate environment. We admit Social Security is complex, it’s confusing, and it’s severely underfunded. But it remains a superb social insurance program and in our opinion a much better deal than many people realize.

[1] A Single Premium Immediate Annuity is often referred to as a “personal pension”. In exchange for a lump sum of money an insurance company will provide you a lifetime stream of guaranteed income. If you live long enough and receive all your money back payments will continue for the rest of your life. Structured properly, they will also pay your beneficiary any money not returned to you should you pass away before receiving all your money back.

[2] Our definition of Secure Income is an income stream that (1) is predetermined and known; there is no ambiguity with how much income you will receive throughout your retirement; (2) your income can never be cut, it can only increase and (3) the income is not backed by your assets alone, it is backed by a third party

[3] A Required Expense is an expense if you don’t cover you will suffer an economic, financial or medical hardship. Required Expenses by their very definition are difficult to cut or reduce and must be fully covered until mortality with inflation adjusted guaranteed income.

[4] A Desired Expense is an expense if you don’t cover you will suffer an emotional hardship. Desired Expenses by their very definition are easy to cut or reduce and therefore can be covered during retirement from your investment and savings. When market conditions are good you an increase your desired expenditures. When market conditions are bad you can cut them.