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Social Security Wage Base Set for 2015

Photo courtesy of Ryan Tauss on

Photo courtesy of Ryan Tauss on

The Social Security Administration has set the maximum taxable wage base for 2015 at $118,500. This represents an increase of $1,500 over the 2014 wage base of $117,000, an increase of 1.28%.

Social Security COLA for 2015 Set at 1.7%

The Social Security Administration announced today that the annual automatic Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) for Social Security benefits in 2015 will be 1.7%. This is comparable to the 1.5% COLA for 2014, and is the 5th time in the past six years that the adjustment has been less than 2%. Look for more articles in the near future with details on earnings limits, bend points, and other factors affected by the COLA.

The Benefits of Financial Planning

If you’re wondering about whether or not you need to do some financial planning, either on your own, using resources on the internet, or by hiring a financial planner, you might want to know what the benefits of financial planning are.

From my perspective of many years providing financial planning and advice to folks, there are three primary benefits of financial planning: Organization, Efficiency, and Discipline. We’ll talk about each of these in order.

gears can help with organization in financial planningOrganization

One of the most important benefits of financial planning is ORGANIZATION. Statistics tell us that fewer than 25% of Americans know their financial net worth. In addition, (prepare to be astounded) the average individual’s credit card debt is over $8,000. Think about that for a moment…

Keep reading…

New For 2014 Taxes: Health Premium Tax Credit

premium tax credit could be used for drugsWe knew when Obamacare went into place that there would be new requirements for income tax filing, and one of the first to deal with is the health premium tax credit. This will require the use of a new form, Form 8962.

Health Premium Tax Credit

For this tax credit you will need to reconcile your advance credits that you have received in the form of reduced subsidized healthcare premiums.

When you signed up for health insurance through the ACA marketplace you had the opportunity to receive advance credit, depending upon your income, which reduced your premiums. When the tax year has been completed, you need to compare your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) to the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) to ensure that your MAGI is between 100% and 400% of the FPL.

If your MAGI is greater than 400% (4 times) the FPL, you are not eligible for the premium tax credit. If you have received advance premium tax credit, you’ll need to pay it back. If it’s less than 400% of the FPL, you are eligible, but you’ll have to run the calculations to determine if you’ve received the appropriate amount of advance credit, too much, or too little.

Obviously if you have received too much credit, just the same as if your MAGI was greater than 400% of the FPL, you have to pay back the excess credit you’ve received. If you have received too little credit, this will reduce your other tax payable or increase your refund for the tax year.

These differences could occur if you’ve had a change in your circumstances during the tax year – change in family size, increase or decrease in family income, marriage, divorce, change of address, or change in employment status (gaining or losing eligibility employer-sponsored health coverage).

Understand Deemed Filing to Avoid a Surprise in Your SS Strategy

deemed filing?There’s nothing worse than feeling as if you have your Social Security filing strategy all lined out, when a rule like deemed filing rears its ugly head to throw your strategy off track.

Here’s an example: Steve and his wife Edie are ages 66 and 61 respectively. The plan is for Steve to file for his Social Security benefit now (at his Full Retirement Age), and for Edie to file for her own benefit when she reaches age 62. Then Edie will wait until she reaches Full Retirement Age of 66 to file for the Spousal Benefit based on Steve’s record, which will increase her benefit by $500 at that time.

Oops! Deemed filing will apply to Edie when she files for her own benefit at age 62, which will eliminate her chance to wait until filing for the Spousal Benefit. This will effectively reduce her total monthly benefit from the expected $875 per month down to $725. It may not seem like a lot, but $1,500 per year is still significant, and it could be considerably more depending upon the circumstances.

How does deemed filing work?

If you are under Full Retirement Age (FRA) when you file for your own benefits you are “deemed” to have filed for all benefits that you are eligible for. In our example above, since Steve had already filed for his own retirement benefit, Edie is eligible for the Spousal Benefit based upon Steve’s record as soon as she reaches age 62.

So when she plans to file for her own benefit early at age 62, she is deemed to have filed for all benefits that she is eligible for – her own benefit and the Spousal Benefit. This effectively eliminates her opportunity to delay filing for the Spousal Benefit. If she goes ahead with the filing at that age she will receive both benefits at a reduced rate for the rest of her life.

What could be done differently?

There are two things that could have been done differently in the example, although given the circumstances these two options may not be very helpful:

1. Steve could delay his own filing until some time after Edie files. This would delay his filing until at least his age 67, increasing his benefit by 8% per year of delay, and would allow Edie to receive her own benefit while delaying the Spousal Benefit until her FRA. The downside is that Steve would not receive a benefit between now and whenever he files. This could be a problem for the couple in terms of cash flow.

2. Steve could still file now for his benefit, and then Edie could delay filing for her own benefit until her Full Retirement Age. This would increase Edie’s overall benefit to be equal to half of Steve’s FRA benefit, but the downside is that Edie would go four years with no benefit received. Again, this might cause a problem with cash flow.

A Couple More Gotchas

As with many Social Security rules there are many facets about deemed filing to consider. The first additional “gotcha” is that this works the same way if Edie had tried filing for the Spousal Benefit alone (instead of her own benefit) when she is still under Full Retirement Age. You probably already knew this because you fully understand all of the rules about filing a Restricted Application. You can’t file a Restricted Application if you’re under FRA, right?

The other “gotcha” is that deemed filing also applies to folks who are divorced and eligible for benefits based on an ex-spouse’s record. What’s different about divorcee treatment is in the way that eligibility occurs. A divorcee becomes eligible for a Spousal Benefit without regard to the ex-spouse’s filing – only the ex’s age is important, so long as there has been at least tw0 years since the divorce was finalized.

So, if Steve and Edie were divorced (after a 10-year marriage or longer) and were divorced for at least two years when Edie reaches age 62, it doesn’t matter if Steve has already filed or not. By virtue of the fact that two years has passed since the divorce and Edie is age 62, she is automatically eligible for a Spousal Benefit. So if she files for her own benefit at any time before she reaches FRA, deemed filing will apply and she will be deemed to have filed for the Spousal Benefit as well.

Yoda Would Suggest a Low-Cost Index

Use the low-cost index, Luke

“Use the low-cost index, Luke…”

Recently a colleague told me that he’d “give that a try”. I responded (tongue in cheek of course) “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”  In case you don’t recognize it, that’s a line that Yoda gives to Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars “Empire Strikes Back” movie. Yoda was pointing out to Luke that if he simply “tries” to undertake the action, he will not succeed. I think it shows that Yoda would also suggest a low-cost index mutual fund for investing.

If you think back to the excellent article that Sterling wrote a few weeks ago, “Not All Index Funds are Created Equal”, Sterling used a particular load mutual fund as an example. The objective of the fund (paraphrasing here):

Seeks to match the performance of the benchmark…

Let’s analyze that objective. The “benchmark” in question is an index, in particular the S&P 500 index. And the term “seeks” can be interpreted as “tries”. So the fund tries to match the performance of the S&P 500 index. It is the act of “trying” that causes costs to go up. All that “trying” by the fund manager(s) costs money after all – there are yachts to buy don’t you know?

So anyhow, if our objective as investors is to match the performance of the benchmark, why not invest in the benchmark via a low-cost index fund rather than in a fund that wastes a lot of effort (and money) “trying” to match the benchmark?

I think Yoda would heartily approve.

Ten Essential Tips for a Bright Financial Future

  1. bright financial futureSee a lawyer and make a Will. If you have a Will make sure it is current and valid in your home state. Make sure that you and your spouse have reviewed each other’s Will – ensuring that both of your wishes will be carried out. Provide for guardianship of minor children, and education and maintenance trusts. If you have divorced and remarried, make sure that your retirement account beneficiary designations are up-to-date reflecting your current situation.
  2. Pay off your credit cards. Forty percent of Americans carry an account balance on their credit cards or other personal credit – this is not good for your financial future. Create a systematic plan to pay down your balances. Don’t fall into the “0% balance transfer game” as it will hurt your FICO score. Credit scores matter not only to credit card companies but to insurance companies and future employers as well; you can avoid an unpleasant increase in your insurance rates by managing your credit wisely.
  3. Buy term life insurance equal to 6-8 times your annual income. This is primarily true for younger folks who have financial obligations to cover with future income. Most consumers don’t need a permanent policy (such as whole life or universal life). Also consider purchasing disability insurance; think of it as “paycheck insurance.” Stay-at-home spouses need life insurance, too! Note: Each family’s needs are different. Some families have a need for other kinds of life insurance, so you should review your situation carefully with an insurance professional (preferably two or more) before making decisions in this area.
  4. Build a 3 to 6 month emergency fund. This helps you to keep from having to charge up your credit cards when life’s emergencies strike. In the interim, before you’ve built up your fund, you can establish a home equity line of credit before you need it – this can take the place of part of your emergency fund.
  5. Don’t count on Social Security too much. Since the projections show that in the future the most that can be paid out for Social Security obligations is around 77%, you should adjust what you expect to receive – especially if you are age 50 or younger. Make up for this by funding your IRA each and every year. If you don’t fund these accounts annually, you lose the opportunity to increase your tax-deferred savings. Fund a Roth IRA over a traditional IRA if you qualify.
  6. If offered, contribute to your 401(k), 403(b) or other employer-sponsored saving plan. Just the same as with your IRA, if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity to defer funds into these savings vehicles, you lose the opportunity. In addition, if you don’t participate in the plan, you lose the chance to receive the matching funds from your employer.
  7. Use your company’s flex spending plan to leverage tax advantages. If you don’t use your flex plan annually, you lose the opportunity – and the tax advantages – for that year.
  8. Buy a home if you can afford it. Maintain it properly. Build equity in your property. You’ll have much more to show for your money spent than a box full of rental receipts! This is also about more than your financial future – studies show that home ownership adds to peace of mind and improved quality of life.
  9. Use broad market stock index funds to reduce risk and minimize costs. Indexes are a simple way to diversify, and they can have very low costs but you have to pay attention to make sure you’re getting a low-cost index. Diversification reduces risk of single securities (see #10) and reducing costs is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall investment results. If you have limited options, for example in your 401(k) plan, make sure that you diversify across a broad spectrum of options.
  10. Don’t over-weight in any one security, especially your employer’s stock. As a rule of thumb, keep exposure to any single stock to less than 5% of your overall portfolio. If you over-expose to a single stock and that company goes bankrupt, you’ve lost a significant portion of your portfolio. It can happen easily, history is littered with good companies that went bad.

Minimize taxes by adjusting your portfolio

minimize taxesSince the markets have had some downturns lately, now could be a good time to make some adjustments to your portfolio, rebalancing and the like, that may help to minimize taxes. In doing so you can possibly get a bit of advantage in your tax bill from a loss you’ve experienced in your investments.

If you have taxable accounts, that is, accounts that are not tax-deferred (like IRAs or 401(k) plans) when you sell your investments there is capital gains treatment on your gains and losses. If you have losses and gains in your taxable account, when you realize these losses and gains by selling the holdings, your losses are subtracted from the gains, and if the result is positive (net gains), these gains are taxed at the preferable long-term capital gains rates. I say this is preferable as the rate is less, often much less, than ordinary income tax rates.

Keep reading…

IRS Notice 2014-54: Will This Clarify NUA Basis Allocation?

ole-dog-300x245Recently the IRS issued a Notice, 2014-54, which details some information regarding the allocation of pre-tax funds from a qualified plan (such as a 401(k) plan) into a Roth IRA. This is a clarification of a question that has been on the minds of folks in the financial services industry for some time, and it’s a good result. Now the question becomes: does this help to clarify NUA basis allocation strategies?

If you’d like additional detail on Notice 2014-54, you can find the actual text of the Notice by clicking this link.

What I find interesting about this Notice is that this is the first time that the IRS has used this interpretation of the rules referenced specifically in IRC Section 402(c)(2), which is the code section I’ve referenced before regarding allocation of basis for Net Unrealized Appreciation (NUA) treatment for employer stock. (See more information in this most recent article NUA Allocation Twist – Not as Easy as it Looks.) The problem (outlined in the article) has been that plan administrators are unwilling to attempt applying the allocation of basis in an NUA transaction because there has never been any guidance from the IRS on such an allocation of basis. Notice 2014-54 may be the first step toward such guidance.

I’ve sent queries to the best minds I know in the retirement plan law universe to get additional insights into this concept – and as yet have not received a confirmation either way. I think this is a step in the right direction, but don’t get too excited yet.

I’ll keep you posted.

File & Suspend and Restricted Application are NOT Equal

spousal beneWe’ve discussed the Social Security filing options of File & Suspend and Restricted Application many times before, but it seems that folks continue to confuse these two options. It’s easy to see why: one (File & Suspend) can be used to enable the other (Restricted Application). Also, neither option is available until the individual is at least at Full Retirement Age (FRA). It’s important to know the difference between File & Suspend and Restricted Application though – primarily because if you confuse the two when talking to the Social Security folks, you’ll have a much different outcome than you expected and hoped for.

Let’s start by defining each option.  Keep reading…

Paper Social Security Statements are Back

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley

— Robert Burns
To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough

Photo courtesy of Sylwia Bartyzel on

Photo courtesy of Sylwia Bartyzel on

As with many great ideas, in practice the concept of exclusive electronic delivery of Social Security benefit statements seems to have gone “agley”. Apparently a very small percentage of folks actually took advantage of the online version of these statements (primarily my client base, I’m guessing). As a result of this and apparent feedback from customers, advocates and Congress, Social Security is resuming the physical delivery of paper Social Security Statements.

The new delivery schedule will be based upon the age of the potential Social Security benefit recipient, with statements being sent automatically 3 months before your 25th, 30th, 35th, 40th, 45th, 50th, 55th, and 60th birthdays. You will only receive this statement if you are not currently receiving Social Security benefits AND if you have not registered with a mySocialSecurity account (the online statement portal).

You can still receive a Social Security statement from the online system at any time, as often as you wish. This is accomplished by going to the address Just keep in mind that you will not receive a mailed paper Social Security statement thereafter once you’ve signed up. Online is the only method that you will be able to receive this statement once you’ve signed up, or once you’ve begun to receive benefits from Social Security.

Five-Step Reallocation

Since there’s been an appreciable run-up in stocks over the recent past, now may be a good time to reallocate your investment allocations in your retirement plans and other accounts. You’ve probably heard of reallocation before – but what does it really mean?

Reallocating is the process of changing your current mix of investments to a different mix. It could be that you’ve changed your risk assessment and wish to have more stock and fewer bonds, vice versa, or your investments have grown in some categories from your original allocation and you need to get the mix back to where you started.

At any rate, reallocation is a relatively simple operation, and research tells us that it is important to reallocate regularly, such as on an annual basis. Below are five steps that you can use for a simple reallocation in your accounts.

Reallocation in Five Steps

1) Reallocating, sometimes referred to as “rebalancing”, requires taking a look at your overall investment portfolio. You need to bring together all of your different investment and savings account statements and review the allocation, comparing to your goal allocation. You might put this information on a spreadsheet on your computer, or just on a sheet of notebook paper.

For some people, this could take quite a while – if you have several bank accounts, retirement plans, maybe a brokerage account or two, and then some savings bonds, for example, it can take quite a while to pull all of this together. This may be one reason why folks don’t bother with reallocation. Believe me, it’s worth every minute of effort! Without reallocation, some components of your investment assets can become too large of a part of your investments, changing the risk structure of the portfolio.

So anyway, go ahead and pull all of the account information together.

2) Once you’ve done this, break down your overall retirement portfolio into three categories – cash, bonds, and stocks. For our purposes, you should consider bond mutual funds, individual bonds, and preferred stocks in the “bonds” category. Likewise, consider individual stocks and stock mutual funds in the “stocks” category. Real estate or other non-stock and non-bond investments should be considered as a fourth category, if you have any those.

100% berry allocation

Photo courtesy of Glen Carrie on

3) Now that you have the categories split up, add up each category of items separately, and divide that amount by the overall total. This will give you your current ratio.

4) The next step is a little more difficult. It requires you to think about what kind of “split” you’d like for your investments. For each individual, this split will be a little different. There are rules of thumb that you could use, but in the end, this split is a personal decision for you to make. Generally speaking the more that you have allocated to stocks, the more risky your portfolio is. So, a 60% stock/40% bond portfolio is more risky than a 50% stock/50% bond portfolio, generally speaking.

Some of the factors that you need to consider are your age, the number of years until retirement, your health, and the same factors for your spouse. In addition, consider your children’s education expenses, as these often cut in to the amounts available for your retirement.

Bear in mind that this split ratio will be a number that will change as time passes. For example, a person at age 25 may have a ratio of 90% stocks, 5% real estate, and 5% bonds. When this person reaches age 40, they might wish to have a lower-risk exposure, so they have changed their ratio to 70% stocks, 20% real estate, and 10% bonds. As this example individual nears retirement age, say around age 55, the ratio might adjust to 50% stocks, 20% real estate, and 30% bonds. (Note: these ratios are only for example and are not a recommendation. As stated earlier, each individual should determine the appropriate ratio for his or her own personal situation.)

A cash allocation is for those funds that you have a short-term need for. You might have college expenses to be paid from this fund, or perhaps you’re in retirement and need to money for living expenses. This money that is earmarked for use within say, five years, should not be exposed to the stock and bond market risk like your other long-term funds.

5) Once you’ve determined the ratio that works best for you, compare it to the real ratio that we calculated in step 3 above. All you have left to finish your re-allocation is to adjust your current holdings to match the ideal ratio that you’ve come up with for yourself.

Most retirement plan websites have a facility or toolset that allows you to do this re-allocation quite simply. If that’s not the case for your plan, simply determine which of your holdings that you need to buy and/or sell in order to make your allocation match the ratio that you’ve decided upon for yourself.

Note: If you have a mix of tax-deferred accounts and taxable (non-IRA accounts), you’ll want to be careful if you’re selling any positions in the taxable accounts as this can generate capital gains taxation depending upon your circumstances. This can be a nasty surprise come tax time if you’re not careful about it. Try to offset capital gains with capital losses in other holdings or accounts, or perform any sales of appreciated holdings within your tax-deferred accounts alone.

And you’re done! That was actually pretty painless, wasn’t it? This process will be much easier next time around (it should be done once a year, by the way) since you’ve already gone through it once. You’re on your way to financial independence, believe it or not!

If you’re finding this a little more complicated than you feel you can work out on your own, hire a financial advisor to assist you with the task. A fee-only financial advisor will assist you with this kind of task without trying to sell you investments. If you need some assistance in reallocating your investment account, especially if it’s your employer-sponsored retirement account, a fee-only advisor is your best bet.

7 Questions About Divorcee Social Security Benefits

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Santiago on

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Santiago on

Included in the myriad of questions that I regularly receive from readers are questions about how a divorced person can collect benefits based upon his or her ex-spouse’s Social Security record.

For a divorcee (as with many married couples) sometimes the ex’s benefits represent the lion’s share of the couple’s SS record. Because of this, many divorcees are very interested in knowing what benefits are available to them, and when.

In addition, even when the divorced spouse in question is not the higher earner there are questions about benefits that can be quite difficult to find answers for.

Keep reading…

IRS provides advice for avoiding phone scams

Photo courtesy of Thomas Lefebvre on

Photo courtesy of Thomas Lefebvre on

There has been a rash of phone scams going on this year – scammers posing as IRS agents that is. I haven’t personally received any of the calls, but I’ve had calls from several clients who have gotten these calls.

They can be very disconcerting, to say the least. In the typical phone scam, the caller contacts you out of the blue, and seems to have information about your home address, or bank, or other somewhat personal information. They then tell you that you owe a pile of taxes and you have to pay up now or the local police will be on the way to see you. They will readily take your credit or debit card information right now, over the phone.

The flip side is that they’ll say you have a refund coming and will ask for your bank account information so that they can transfer it to you, right away!

Keep reading…

16 Ways to Withdraw Money From Your 401k Without Penalty

Photo courtesy of Lucas Theis on

Photo courtesy of Lucas Theis on

When you have a 401k plan and hard times befall you, you may wonder if there is a way to get your hands on the money. In some cases you can get to the funds for a hardship withdrawal, but if you’re under age 59½ you will likely owe the 10% early withdrawal penalty. (The term 401k is used throughout this article, but these options apply to all qualified plans, including 403b, 457, etc.)

Generally it’s difficult to withdraw money from your 401k, that’s part of the value of a 401k plan – a sort of forced discipline that requires you to leave your savings alone until retirement or face some significant penalties. Many 401k plans have options available to get your hands on the money, but most have substantial qualifications that are tough to meet.

The list below is not all-inclusive, and each 401k plan administrator may have different restrictions or may not allow the option at all.

Keep reading…

8 Questions: Social Security Survivor Benefits

Photo courtesy of Patrik Goethe on

Photo courtesy of Patrik Goethe on

In this previous article we addressed some of the most common questions about Social Security Spousal Benefits. Keeping with the theme of developing FAQ sheets, today I’ll go through some of the most common questions about Social Security Survivor Benefits.

Survivor Benefits are available when a Social Security recipient passes away and leaves surviving dependents – spouse, children, and other dependent family members.

Keep reading…

10 questions: Social Security Spousal Benefits

Photo courtesy of Dan Ruswick on

Photo courtesy of Dan Ruswick on

I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a live interactive event with Yahoo! Finance, where folks were able to ask virtually any question they wished. We received and responded to over 200 questions – they’re all on Facebook on the Yahoo! Finance page (click the link to go to the page). One recurring theme played out over and over: Social Security Spousal Benefits are not understood by a vast number of folks.

Naturally I find this to be disturbing.  Social Security Spousal Benefits often represent a large part of the total benefits available to a couple.  This benefit is even more important for many divorced spouses, as it might represent the only benefits available to many divorcees. Understanding this benefit is very important, as SSA staff often isn’t fully-conversant in the options that you have available.

Keep reading…

Social Security Wage Base Projected for 2015

Update 10/22/2014: The wage base has been set for 2015. See the article Social Security Wage Base Set for 2015.

According to the Social Security Administration trustees, the Social Security wage base for 2015 is projected to be $119,100.  This represents an increase of $2,100 from the 2014 wage base of $117,000.

This is an increase of 1.79% – and won’t be finalized until October when the other increases for Social Security amounts are announced. This is a relatively small increase when compared to recent annual increases we’ve seen.  The previous 3 years’ increases have averaged 3.09%.

This is different from the COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment), which has increased an average of 2.27% in the past three years. The 2014 COLA (applicable to 2015 benefits and other figures) will be released later in the year, typically in October.

RMD Avoidance Scheme: Birthdate Makes All The Difference

Photo courtesy of Lizzy Gadd on

Photo courtesy of Lizzy Gadd on

As you may recall from this previous article, it is possible to use a rollover into an active 401(k) plan as an RMD avoidance scheme. Of course, this will only work as long as you’re employed by the employer sponsoring the 401(k) plan and you’re not a 5% or greater owner of the company. In addition, the rollover must be done in a timely fashion, prior to the year that you will reach age 70 1/2 in order to avoid RMD.

An example of where timing worked against a taxpayer (at least temporarily) recently came to me via the ol’ mailbag: Keep reading…

File For Part B Medicare – COBRA Isn’t Enough

Photo courtesy of Lukasz Szmigiel on

Photo courtesy of Lukasz Szmigiel on

For most folks, when you reach age 65 and have ceased regular work, filing for Medicare Parts A & B is an automatic thing. If you don’t file during the 3 months before or after your 65th birthday, you may have penalties to pay. This applies even if you have recently been laid off of work and are covered for health insurance under a COBRA plan. Part A carries no cost if you’re fully covered (40 quarters of coverage), but Part B requires a monthly premium.

When laid off from an employer who has provided health insurance coverage to you while employed, you have the option of continuing the health coverage for a period of time, up to two years. This continuation of coverage is called COBRA, named for the law that put it into place (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act). You have to file in a timely manner for Medicare – COBRA coverage doesn’t remove that requirement.Keep reading…