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  • Archive for January, 2008

    Maximizing Social Security benefits as a couple

    Thursday, January 24th, 2008

    Some Baby Boomers may plan to claim Social Security benefits as soon as they are eligible. However, wives may be disadvantaged if their husbands choose to file for social security at age 62. An article in USA Today encourages married men to consider delaying social security benefits in order to ensure financial security for their wives later in life. This article brings up several important points that couples should consider before filing for social security. First, women on average earn less than men over the course of their lifetime, meaning lower retirement benefits. Second, women are likely to outlive their spouses. Third, if one spouse dies then the surviving spouse can choose to receive the benefits of the deceased. This enables a woman to receive her husband’s higher benefit in the case of his death. While it is tempting to claim social security benefits as soon as possible, men should consider the well-being of their wives before filing immediately. To learn more, read the following.

    Husbands should consider delaying Social Security benefits
    USA Today, January 15, 2008

    Here’s some advice for married men who will turn 62 this year: If you want to make up for all the times you came home with beer on your breath, left your socks on the bathroom floor or gave your wife a DustBuster for Valentine’s Day, hold off on filing for your Social Security benefits.

    Many men who are eager to retire may chafe at this suggestion. This year, the oldest baby boomers are turning 62, making them eligible for Social Security. About half of those boomers are expected to claim their benefits as soon as they’re eligible, even though that means a permanent 25% reduction in benefits.
    Retirement experts warn that this strategy could result in significantly lower benefits for boomers who live for a long time. Maybe that’s a risk you’re willing to take. But if you’re the primary breadwinner, claiming benefits early could also jeopardize your spouse’s financial security.

    Here’s why: If one member of a married couple dies, the surviving spouse can continue to receive her own Social Security benefit, or 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit, whichever is more. If your wife earned less over her lifetime than you did, and she outlives you, she’ll start receiving your benefits. If you file at 62, she’ll inherit a reduced amount of benefits for the rest of her life, says Ron Gebhardtsbauer, senior pension fellow at the American Academy of Actuaries.
    Most “break-even” calculators don’t address survivor benefits, says James Mahaney, retirement specialist for Prudential Financial. Suppose, for example, that a break-even calculator shows that your break-even age is 77 (you can find a break-even calculator at Based on your benefits alone, that would suggest that you should delay filing if you think you’ll live past 77, and file early if you think you’ll die before then.
    But that calculation doesn’t address what happens if your wife outlives you. And there’s a good chance that will happen. According to the American Academy of Actuaries, the average 62-year-old man will live an additional 21.9 years, while the average 62-year-old woman will live 25.5 more years.

    A women’s issue
    Some women are the primary breadwinners, of course, but in the majority of couples, husbands retire with higher lifetime earnings than their wives. Women are more likely to leave the workplace to care for children or elderly parents. Median wages for women continue to lag behind wages for men. Women are also more likely than men to become widowed — and not only because they typically live longer. Most married women are younger than their husbands.

    More than 40% of elderly women depend on Social Security for more than 90% of their income, compared with 28% of elderly men, according to the American Academy of Actuaries. More than 20% of unmarried women over 65 are poor, but only 5% of married couples over 65 are poor.

    Given the high rate of poverty among elderly women, the tendency among married men to claim benefits early “is a major social problem,” according to a recent research paper by the Center for Retirement Research.
    “Most older women have major reductions in their standard of living when their husbands die,” says Steven Sass, associate director for research at the center.

    A 1999 Center for Retirement Research study found a dramatic difference in incomes for widows over 90, based on when their husbands claimed Social Security benefits.
    When their husbands claimed benefits at their full retirement age or later, the widows’ average benefits were 19% above the federal poverty level. But when their husbands claimed benefits before they reached full retirement age, the average benefits for widows were 1% below the poverty line.
    Break-even calculators encourage retirees to regard the timing of their benefits as a gamble, which is a “terrible way to think,” Sass says. Instead, retirees should view Social Security as an insurance policy. By delaying benefits, Sass says, husbands can reduce the risk that their widows will spend their final years in poverty.

    An early start?
    While married men should delay claiming Social Security benefits, married women might receive higher lifetime benefits by filing for Social Security at 62, Gebhardtsbauer says, because these women don’t get locked into a reduced benefit. If they outlive their husbands, they can “trade up” to their husbands’ higher Social Security payout, he says. (If the wife dies first, the lower benefit will die with her.)
    But to get the most from their combined benefits, husbands should wait to file. “When you make your retirement plans, you’ve got to consider how you’re going to have a good stable income for you and your spouse for the rest of your lives,” Sass says. For married men, he says, delaying Social Security “is by far the best thing you can do.”

    Baby Boomers begin drawing from Social Security; Economists say the real problem is Medicare

    Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

    Social Security has become a favorite talking point for politicians as the Baby Boom generation begins to retire. For most people, the decision about when to take benefits has more to do with personal financial housekeeping than politics, but it’s important to stay informed. As the primaries come to an end and the general election gets into full swing, the Democratic and Republican nominees will undoubtedly continue the Social Security squabble. As with other hot-button political issues, it can be difficult to separate the facts from the rhetoric. A story from NPR’s John Ydstie on today’s Morning Edition does just that. His interviews with Social Security Administration officials and economist Henry Aaron are worth hearing (and not included in the excerpt from NPR’s website below). Listen to the full story here.

    Morning Edition, January 2, 2008 · For decades politicians, pundits and scholars have been warning about the looming retirement of America’s baby boom generation and its impact on Social Security.

    Well, the baby boom’s retirement is not just looming anymore …. It’s here.

    This year, the first of the baby boomers will turn 62 years old and become eligible to claim Social Security retirement benefits. The Social Security Administration projects that about a million of those first baby boomers, people born in 1946, will take the early retirement option even though their monthly checks will be 25 percent lower than if they waited until they are 66, their normal retirement age.

    In all, there are nearly 80 million baby boomers, Americans born between 1946 and 1964. They’ve had a big impact on American culture and they’ll have a big impact on Social Security’s finances. That’s because they had a lower fertility rate than their parents and grandparents. Baby boom females had, on average just under two children, down from over three children per woman in previous generations.

    That “baby bust” means there will be fewer workers paying into the Social Security system to support each retiree. Instead of three workers per retiree, there’ll be just two.

    As a result, in 2017 the payroll taxes flowing into the Social Security system won’t be enough to cover promised benefits. But the system will remain solvent because the Social Security Trust Fund will be able to cover the shortfall until 2041.

    Then, if nothing is done to shore up the system, payroll taxes will cover just 75 percent of promised benefits. To bring the system back into financial balance the Congress and president will have to agree on tax increases or benefit cuts, or both. If they decided to just raise taxes to solve the problem they could make the system solvent for the next 75 years by boosting the payroll tax 1 percentage point for workers and 1 percentage point for employers. These are all numbers from the Social Security Trustees annual report for 2007.

    Despite the often overheated rhetoric about Social Security, it’s financial problems could be easily solved by modest tax increases and benefit cuts.

    An even bigger problem facing the country is the rising cost of medical care. As a result, the projected cost of Medicare and Medicaid will jump more than seven times faster than the cost of Social Security over the next four decades.


    About Us

    WISER is a nonprofit organization that works to help women, educators and policymakers understand the important issues surrounding women's retirement income. WISER creates a variety of consumer publications including fact sheets, booklets and a quarterly newsletter that explain in easy-to-understand language the complex issues surrounding Social Security, divorce, pay equity, pensions, savings and investments, banking, home-ownership, long-term care and disability insurance.

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