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Divorcee Social Security Benefits

divorcee social securityThe below article is an excerpt from my new book Social Security for the Suddenly Single. This focused book is all about divorcee Social Security retirement and survivor benefits, and it’s available on Amazon. The book was written to address the lack of information about divorcee Social Security. You’ll find everything you need to know about divorcee Social Security retirement and survivor benefits within.

Divorcee Benefits Matrix

Below you will find a matrix that describes the various divorcee Social Security benefits you may have available to you.

To use this matrix, start at 1, choosing your birth year. Then move to 2 and choose the age you wish to learn about available benefits. Now choose your length of marriage (3), and your ex-spouse’s status (living or deceased) – 4. Lastly, choose the appropriate column for 5, whether or not you have a Child in Care under age 16.

Case: Bernadette

As an example, Bernadette was married to Robby for 17 years. Robby is still living, age 62, 2 years older than Bernadette. Robby has not begun collecting benefits at this point. The couple has no children, and they have been divorced for one year.

Bernadette is wondering about the earliest benefits she can receive from Social Security. She starts in column 1 with “Any Birth Year”, and then reviews the second column. At her present age of 60, she sees that while Robby is still living she is not eligible for any benefits.

So she looks to the next row in the Age column (2) – indicating age 62 to FRA. Since her Step 3 value is that the Marriage lasted 10 years or longer, Bernadette next checks step 4 – Robby is still living, and not presently collecting benefits. However, by the time Bernadette reaches age 62, it will have been two years since the divorce. Because of this, Bernadette sees that she is (between the ages of 62 and her FRA) eligible for the larger of the reduced Spousal Benefit or her own reduced benefit.

Bernadette would also like to estimate what her benefit would be if she waits until her FRA or later to apply for benefits. Knowing what she knows from the previous exercise, she would just move down the table to the appropriate Step 1 value. Her birth year is 1957 so she chooses the row “1954 or later”. This indicates that Bernadette will be eligible for the larger of her own benefit or the Spousal benefit – neither benefit is reduced since this estimate is assuming she’s either at or older than FRA.

Lastly, Bernadette would like to check on what benefits she might be eligible for upon Robby’s death. Moving to the right on the matrix to the set of columns indicating the ex-spouse is deceased, and since there is no Child in Care, Bernadette can review the various Survivor Benefit options that are available at various ages for her. At her present age (60) she would be eligible for a reduced Survivor Benefit if Robby were to die. At any age from 62 to FRA, she would be eligible for her choice of the reduced Survivor Benefit or her own reduced benefit. At or older than FRA, she has the same choice available, but neither benefit is reduced once she’s reached FRA or older.

divorcee social security


Creditor Protection for Retirement Plan Assets

In this day and age with bankruptcies on the rise, quite often this question comes up:  are my retirement plan assets protected from a creditor? And of course, there are two ways you can take this – are the assets protected from a creditor of my employer; and are the assets protected from my personal creditors?


Employer Creditors

Your vested qualified retirement plans (401(k), 403(b), etc.) are always protected from creditors, in the event that your company should declare bankruptcy. Vested retirement plans are your property (*upon distribution), not the property of the employer.  The same is true for vested traditional qualified pension plans.  However, with certain nonqualified retirement plans and non-vested plans or funds, there is a strong possibility that these assets could be accessed by your employer’s creditor in the event of a bankruptcy of the company.

The nonqualified plans are often called executive compensation, rabbi trust, deferred compensation, or supplemental retirement savings (among many other terms).  The key here is that these accounts are “non-qualified”, and as such are not protected by the ERISA law.  These accounts are very often open to access by creditors, so be aware of this if you’re a participant in such an account.  Check with your HR department if you’re unsure if your retirement account(s) are qualified (and thus protected by ERISA) or not.

IRAs, being individual accounts totally separate from your employer (unless you’re self-employed) are not considered in any way to be assets of your employer.  If you are self-employed and are not incorporated in some fashion, depending upon your state law, some of your IRA assets could be at risk, depending upon the state that you live in, and the balance of the account (see below).

Personal Creditors

In general, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA) provides that both traditional and Roth IRAs derived from contributions are protected from creditors up to $1 million.  This protection only applies to bankruptcy, not to other judgments, and as such state law applies for all other situations. For example, your IRA is not protected against a judgment in the case of divorce, an IRS lien, or a criminal judgment against you.  The level of creditor protection varies widely by state.  For more up-to-date information on the protection within your state, click this link.  Rollover (including trustee-to-trustee transfer) amounts from employer plans, SEP or SIMPLE IRAs  maintain the original account’s ERISA protection from creditors.

There are cases, as illustrated recently in a case that was decided in 2007, where an inherited IRA with a revocable trust as the beneficiary became available to the decedent’s creditors.  This case was in the state of Kansas, so other states may have differing laws, this was just an example.  The way to resolve or avoid this is to use an irrevocable see-through trust as the beneficiary and use discretionary and spendthrift clauses within the trust as protection.  Otherwise, naming an individual (or individuals) as the IRA beneficiary(s) would avoid this problem as well.

Further problems develop in the inherited IRA spectrum due to the fact that most state courts do not consider an inherited IRA to be a “retirement account”, since the owner (the beneficiary of the decedent) is currently receiving an income from the account.  This is important because retirement accounts are specifically protected from creditors (due to BAPCPA).


Even though the IRA has somewhat fewer protections against creditors versus the employer plans, if you’ve left the employer this shouldn’t be the reason to leave funds in the old account.  An IRA account can be considerably more flexible, easier to access, and (likely) lower in cost overall. Rolled-over funds maintain ERISA protection, as well.

Photo by Hryck.

7 Mistakes With Stretch IRAs

exercise-stretch-discuss-by-filtranThe stretch IRA, when implemented properly, can be a great vehicle for transferring wealth to your heirs. Using this method, you pass along the tax-deferred status of the account until it is withdrawn, which may be much later.  The problem is that there are some very specific rules that must be followed in order to achieve the stretch IRA – and if you screw it up, there’s definitely not a do over in most of these cases.

Ground Rules

First, let’s run through the specifics that make up a stretch IRA.  When an IRA account owner dies, the beneficiary(s) are eligible to re-title (or transfer) the account(s) as inherited IRAs in the name of the deceased owner. At that point the beneficiary(s) must begin taking Required Minimum Distributions based upon the beneficiary’s age. This is much better (tax-wise) than having to take the entire sum all at once and pay tax on it, or the onerous five-year distribution rule that can come into effect if things aren’t done properly. (more on the specifics of the Stretch IRA can be found in this article.)

Keep in mind that these stretch IRA rules apply to both Traditional and Roth IRAs – because, even though Roth IRA owners are not subject to RMD, their beneficiaries are.

7 Mistakes

Here are some of the common mistakes that can be made when attempting to stretch an IRA:

  1. Not properly titling the account – There’s no remedy to this one, the account has to be titled as “John Doe IRA (Deceased January 1, 2009) FBO Janie Brown” or something very similar. If the account is set up in the name of a non-spouse beneficiary, the funds would be immediately taxable and the IRA would be distributed – all tax deferral is lost.
  2. Doing a “rollover” – While it may seem like a simple question of semantics, there is a technical difference between a direct trustee-to-trustee transfer and a rollover.  The trustee-to-trustee transfer is, as the name implies, a transfer directly between one trustee and another – the account owner never has possession of the funds. On the other hand, a rollover is when the beneficiary receives a payment made out in his own name, which he then deposits into an IRA.  A rollover is disallowed in attempting to set up a stretch IRA – you must always do a direct trustee-to-trustee transfer.
  3. Neglecting timely transfer – Sometimes estates can be tied up for years getting everything sorted out.  IRAs and 401(k) plans should not have this problem, as generally there is a specific beneficiary or beneficiaries designated on the account documentation. If the beneficiary is named on the account docs, the transfer to the beneficiary occurs outside of the testate process – no need to wait on the courts.  It is critical that the funds are transferred into a properly titled account before the end of the year following the year of the deceased owner’s death – otherwise the stretch IRA option is lost, and the funds will have to be paid out via the five year rule.
  4. Failing to take RMD for year of death – If the IRA owner dies after his Required Beginning Date (usually the year he reaches age 70½), a Required Minimum Distribution must be taken for the year of his death. This RMD cannot be included in a transfer to an inherited IRA, it must be received by the beneficiary (or estate) in cash.  This one can cause some hiccups, but in general can be resolved if caught in a timely fashion. If the RMD for the year of death was not taken in a timely manner, the beneficiary should take the distribution in the name of the decedent and pay the applicable penalties for excess accumulation.  If the amount is transferred to the inherited IRA and isn’t caught quickly, it could negate the stretch IRA altogether, potentially causing big tax headaches.
  5. Missing or neglecting RMD payments – If the beneficiary forgets to take the Required Minimum Distribution payment in a timely fashion, technically the five-year rule could kick in, requiring that the entire balance is paid out within five years rather than the beneficiary’s lifetime.  However, it is possible to recover from this mistake, according to the outcome of a Private Letter Ruling (PLR 200811028, 3/14/2008).  What happened in this case was that the beneficiary neglected to take two years’ worth of RMD, and then corrected her mistake in the third year, taking all three years’ worth of RMD, followed by paying the penalty (50%) on the missed two years.  The IRS ruled in this case that the failure to make these distributions in a timely fashion did not require that the five year rule apply.  Since she maintained the appropriate distributions, caught up on the “misses” and paid the penalties, she is allowed to continue stretching the IRA over her lifetime. Interestingly, this particular PLR is the first place where the stretch IRA was determined as the default rather than the five-year rule, breaking ground for this to be the case across the board, unless the plan’s provisions require the five-year rule.
  6. Not properly designating the beneficiary(s) on the account – IRS regulations state that the beneficiary must be identifiable in order to be eligible for the stretch IRA provision.  This means naming an individual or individuals as specific beneficiaries on the account forms, or designating a proper see through trust (with specific beneficiaries named) as the beneficiary.  The account form cannot have something ambiguous like “as stated in will” – since this does not name an identifiable beneficiary.  In addition, if the original IRA beneficiary is a trust and any beneficiary of the trust is not a person, then the stretch IRA provision is lost for all beneficiaries.
  7. Transferring the balance to a trust – if a qualified see-through trust is the beneficiary of the IRA, the balance of the funds in the IRA are NOT transferred to the trust. Rather, the IRA is transferred directly to a properly-titled inherited IRA, and then RMDs are taken from the inherited IRA and paid to the trust.  According to the trust’s provisions, the payments are then made to the trust beneficiary(s).  If the payments are simply passed through the trust to the trust beneficiary(s), then each beneficiary will be responsible for any tax on the distribution.  If the funds are accumulated in the trust, they are taxable to the trust as ordinary income.

Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list, but rather a sampling of the more common errors that folks make when attempting to set up a stretch IRA. Done properly, this arrangement can turn an IRA of a sizeable amount in your lifetime into a very significant legacy to your heirs.  Proper setup is very important – get a professional to help you with it if you are confused by how this works!

Photo by filtran

Tough Love on Saving for Retirement (for Millennials)

Periodically, I read articles that appear antithetical to the premise of paying yourself first and saving as much as you can, as early as you can to have enough saved for retirement. In the last few weeks, I’ve read two articles – one saying that traditional retirement savings for millennials is useless, and the other saying that it was ok that you’re not saving enough for retirement. Both articles mention their collective disdain for the recent tweet by Jean Chatzky saying that by the time you’re 30, you should aim to have 1x your salary saved, 3x at 40 and so on.

I happen to agree with Ms. Chatzky. In fact, you should aim to have more if possible. In my opinion, both articles disagreeing with Ms. Chatzky (as well as the replies to her tweet) seemed befitting of excuses – which are easier to agree to, and may encourage readers to not be proactive when it comes to their retirement saving.

Many of the excuses in the articles (and sarcastic replies to Ms. Chatzky’s tweets) mentioned skipping lattes, avocado toast, and how hard it can be to save given the costs of living, annual salary, when a person starts saving, and underemployment. And of course, there was the ominous student loan argument.

While I agree that all the above will impact your ability to save, I still feel that it’s very possible to have 1x or more of your annual income saved by 30 or before. It really boils down to priorities.

Think of it this way. If you tell yourself you can’t do something, or that something is too hard to accomplish, what does your mind do? It shuts down. In other words, when you give yourself excuses, it’s easy to believe them. However, by changing your words and asking yourself how could you accomplish something (saving more, for example) you automatically force your mind to think about a solution. You become proactive – not passive.

While I don’t disagree with all of what the articles say (saving what you can, getting rid of debt), they do seem to contradict themselves by saying on the one hand the traditional advice won’t work, but on the other hand to save early and often – which is as traditional as it gets.

In my opinion, sometimes people need tough love. It may rub them the wrong way, but too often articles like these pander to folks looking for excuses, instead of telling them the hard truth. At the risk of stepping on some toes, here are my thoughts.

  • Pay yourself first. Treat your retirement savings as the first bill you pay each month. Live off the rest. Then cut out what you can’t afford (such as dining out).
  • Save a minimum of 15-25% of your gross income. More if you can. Prioritize.
  • The little things add up and yes, they do matter. Avocado toast and lattes do make an impact. For example, at $5 per day, that’s $1,825 per year. If you invest that at 5% over 30 years that’s over $121,000 saved. The same calculations can be done with car payments, TV, phone, dining out, and other “little things”.
  • Underemployed? Get another job. Get a different job. Work two jobs to earn more, save more, and pay down debt. Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim towards it.
  • Cost of living high? Live somewhere else. Downsize. Reduce your living expenses.
  • Remember, you chose your education (and the debt that came with it), career, where to live, and how to spend your money. You have the choice to change it if you’re unhappy.
  • Stop making excuses. Stop believing what you read by individuals who tell you it’s ok if you’re not saving or that saving advice isn’t for you (likely because they themselves cannot manage their money). These principles are timeless, and they work (ask your parents and grandparents who did it making much, much less).
  • Start asking yourself how you can save and or earn more. Write down the ideas that come to your mind.
  • Take action. The best laid plans are useless unless you act. Be proactive and take responsibility for your retirement savings. Because no one else will.

Ultimately, you have the choice if you want to save more for retirement. Find a way that works for you and keep at it. It’s really a matter of how you approach it. You’re not a victim; you can choose to be in control.

A SIMPLE Kind of Plan

The SIMPLE Plan is a type of retirement account for small businesses that is simpler (ah hah!) to administer and more portable than the 401(k) plans that are more appopriate for larger businesses.  SIMPLE is an acronym (probably a backronym, more likely) which stands for Savings Incentive Match PLan for Employees.

A simple kind of planA SIMPLE typically is based on an IRA-type account, but could be based on a 401(k) plan. What we’ll cover here is the IRA-type of SIMPLE plan.  The difference (with the 401(k)-type) is that there are more restrictions on employer activities, and less room for error (as can be the case with 401(k) plans).

A SIMPLE Kind of Plan

Much like a regular 401(k) plan, a SIMPLE Plan is an agreement between the employer and employee where the employee agrees to a salary deferral.  This deferral effectively reduces the employee’s taxable take home pay, and the employer then contributes the deferred amount into the SIMPLE IRA account on behalf of the employee.  These contributions must be made to a SIMPLE IRA account, not a Traditional IRA.

To be eligible for a SIMPLE Plan, the employee must have received at least $5,000 in compensation during any two years (need not be consecutive) prior to the current tax year, and can reasonably expect to receive at least $5,000 in compensation in the current tax year (calendar year).  For the purposes of the SIMPLE Plan, a self-employed individual would be considered an employee if she received earned income as described (at least $5,000).

Also, certain classes of employees can be excluded from participation, such as union members subject to collective bargaining, or nonresident aliens who have received no compensation from US sources. The employer can have no more than 100 employees who are in the class that are allowed to participate in the SIMPLE plan.

No eligible employee may “opt out” of participation – however, eligible employees are not required to defer salary into the plan. This just means that they would have no deferral contributions or company matching contributions to the plan while they choose not to defer. Nonelective contributions by the employer would still be added to the account, regardless of whether the eligible employee defers salary for that year.

Types of Contributions

There are three different types of contributions that can be made to a SIMPLE Plan – salary deferrals, employer matches, and nonelective contributions.

Salary Deferrals are much the same as 401(k) salary deferrals.  The employee decides to defer a percentage of his salary, which reduces his taxable take-home pay, and the deferral is contributed to a SIMPLE IRA on his behalf.

Employer Matches are also similar to the same activity in a 401(k) plan.  The employer elects to match the employee contributions, dollar-for-dollar, up to 3% of the employee’s salary, although this amount can be less.  (see Limits below for additional information)

Nonelective Contributions – in some cases, the employer may decide to make contributions on behalf of ALL eligible employees, rather than only for those that are participating in the SIMPLE Plan.  In this case, the employer has opted for making the Nonelective Contributions instead of Employer Matching Contributions.  These Nonelective Contributions are for 2% of employee salary.


For Employer Matching contributions, the employer has some leeway in making the contributions for a particular tax year, but there are quite a few restrictions on how this leeway can be applied:

  • as described above, in general the matching contribution must be dollar-for-dollar up to 3% of the employee’s deferral for the year; however –
  • the matching contribution can be reduced to as little as 1% (or any amount between 1% and 3%) for a tax year as long as the amount is not reduced below 3% for more than two out of five tax years (including the current tax year) and the employees are informed in a timely fashion of the reduction in match.
  • the Nonelective Contribution of 2% can be substituted for the Employer Matching Contribution for any given year as long as employees are notified.

Contributions (for 2016-2018) are limited to $12,500 in employee deferrals, plus a catch up provision of $3,000 if the employee is age 50 or older during the tax year. (These figures are subject to annual adjustment due to inflation.)

Employer matches are limited to the amount the employee defers, up to 3%.

Note that SIMPLE deferral is counted toward the overall 401(k) limit ($18,000 for 2017; $18,500 for 2018; $24,000 and $24,500 respectively if over age 50) in deferrals for the tax year.  If an employee is subject to more than one retirement plan, this limit applies to all deferrals to 401(k)’s and SIMPLE plans for the tax year.


There are a few additional things of interest regarding rollovers and the SIMPLE plan that must be pointed out:

  • After you’ve had the SIMPLE IRA open for 2 or more years, you are allowed to rollover other IRA funds into a SIMPLE IRA. Before that, you are not allowed to rollover IRA or other accounts (besides another SIMPLE IRA) into your SIMPLE IRA.
  • In order to rollover amounts from your SIMPLE IRA into a Traditional IRA, the account must have been in existence for at least two years; otherwise your only option for a rollover is into another SIMPLE IRA (which then inherits the earlier SIMPLE IRAs starting date for rollover purposes).
  • The same two-year rule applies to Converting a SIMPLE IRA to a Roth IRA. There is no SIMPLE Roth IRA.
  • Early distributions (not subject to any of the exceptions) that occur during the first two years of the account’s existence are subject to a 25% additional penalty (instead of the usual 10% penalty for other IRA accounts).

Other than those restrictions, all of the other distribution rules apply to SIMPLE IRAs that apply to Traditional IRAs:  distributions are taxable as ordinary income; with some exceptions, qualified distributions can not begin until age 59½; rollovers and trustee-to-trustee transfers are allowed as non-taxable events (subject to the two year rule above); conversions to Roth IRAs are allowed without penalty (subject to the two-year rule); and early distributions not subject to exception are subject to an additional 10% penalty (25% in the first two years as described above).

(* a hodgepodge of additional stuff)

Contest for today:  The first person to leave a comment that explains why I used the particular picture above for this article will receive a pound of our delicious virtual back-bacon.  Extra points if you can mention something unique about that particular picture, as well.  Best of luck to all participants! (Canadians are welcome to guess this time as well!) :-)

Photo by Thomas Hill

A Caregiving Guide for Clients and Advisors

Today’s post has a link to a paper on caregiving. Both clients and financial advisors may find the information beneficial to identify, and manage the stress of caregiving for a loved one needing long-term care. Your comments and feedback are welcome.

Download the paper here – Managing the Stress of Caregiving – BFP

Social Security Terms

social security termsAs you learn about Social Security and your possible benefits, there are several unique Social Security terms that you should understand. Below is a list and brief definitions of the most important of these Social Security terms.

Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (abbreviated as AIME) – this is the average of the highest 35 years of your lifetime earnings, indexed to inflation. Each year’s earnings is indexed based on when you reach age 60, and the highest 35 years are averaged. This average is divided by 12, to result in the monthly average. The AIME is used to determine your PIA. Your AIME can increase after age 62 if you’re continuing to work and earn in excess of some of your earlier indexed earnings amounts.

Bend Points – these two amounts are determined for each individual based upon the year that you will reach age 62. The Bend Points are applied to your AIME to calculate the PIA.

Delayed Retirement Credits (DRCs) – when you delay filing for benefits after your FRA, you accrue credits for the delay, known as a DRCs. You earn DRCs for delaying your filing for Social Security benefits after your FRA up to age 70 at maximum. No DRCs are earned after you reach age 70. Presently this delay credit is equal to 2/3% for each month of delay, or a total of 8% for each year of delay. These credits are accumulative – meaning that if you delay for 3 years your DRCs are 24%.

Full Retirement Age (FRA) – this is the age at which your Social Security benefit is equal to your PIA. The age is 66 for folks born between 1946 and 1954. FRA increases by 2 months for each birth year after 1954, up to a (current) maximum of 67 for those born in 1960 or later. For each month before this age that you file for benefits, your benefit will be reduced from the PIA amount; for each month after this age that you delay filing, your benefit is increased from the PIA amount.

Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) – Using the AIME, three amounts (bound by Bend Points) are applied to the average. The amount of your AIME up to the first Bend Point is multiplied by 90%; the amount of your AIME from the first Bend Point to the second Bend Point is multiplied by 32%; and the amount above the second Bend Point up to your total AIME is multiplied by 15%. These three amounts are added together to result in your PIA.

Social Security Changes for 2018

In 2018, there will be some slight changes to Social Security. For individuals receiving benefits, there will be a cost of living (COLA) increase of 2 percent. While 2 percent may not seem like a lot, it certainly does help. Additionally, it’s better than nothing. That is, Social Security remains one of the few retirement vehicles available with a COLA. Many defined benefit pensions (if an individual is lucky to have one) do not have COLA increases. Their payments remain fixed for the retiree’s lifetime.

Individuals still working will see the wage base subject to the OASDI tax of 6.2 percent increase from $127,200 for 2017 to $128,700 for 2018. As always, the Medicare tax of 1.45 percent remains on an unlimited amount of wages, with an additional .9 percent tax added for those with incomes above $200,000 (single) or $250,000 (MFJ).

For individuals receiving benefits yet continuing to work, the annual income thresholds have increased for the temporary reductions in benefits. For those under full retirement age (FRA) the annual income threshold rises to $17,040 for 2018. This means that while receiving benefits in early retirement, for every $2 of income above this threshold, benefits are reduced $1. The threshold increases in the year an individual reaches FRA to $45,360. These thresholds are annual, but the calculation is done monthly per individual.

It should also be noted that once an individual reaches full retirement age, these temporary reductions stop, and the benefit is recalculated. In other words, once and individual reaches FRA, he or she can earn as much as they want, and not have their benefit reduced. It should also be mentioned that temporary reductions are in addition to permanent reductions that occur when benefits are taken before FRA.

Finally, should it make sense for their situation, individuals may consider delaying their benefits after FRA. This allows an individual to receive a two-thirds of 1 percent monthly increase, or 8 percent annually, on their primary insurance amount (PIA). So not only does Social Security have a COLA, it also allows those who delay a permanent increase in their benefit, up to 8 percent annually (until age 70), with an inflation adjustment.

Social Security Bend Points Explained

i love deep blue by JennyHuangBend points are the portions of your average income (Average Indexed Monthly Earnings – AIME) in specific dollar amounts that are indexed each year, based upon an obscure table called the Average Wage Index (AWI) Series.  They’re called bend points because they represent points on a graph of your AIME graphed by inclusion in calculating the PIA. The points on the graph “bend” as the rate of inclusion changes.

If you’re interested in how Bend Points are used, you can see the article on Primary Insurance Amount, or PIA.  Here, however, we’ll go over how Bend Points are calculated each year.  To understand this calculation, you need to go back to 1979, the year of the Three Mile Island disaster, the introduction of the compact disc and the Iranian hostage crisis.  According to the AWI Series, in 1979 the Social Security Administration placed the AWI figure for 1977 at $9,779.44 – AWI figures are always two years in arrears, so for example, the AWI figure used to determine the 2018 bend points is from 2016.

With the AWI figure for 1977, it was determined that the first bend point for 1979 would be set at $180, and the second bend point at $1,085.  I’m not sure how these first figures were calculated – it’s safe to assume that they are part of an indexing formula set forth quite a while ago.  At any rate, now that we know these two numbers, we can jump back to 2016’s AWI Series figure, which is $48,664.73.  It all becomes a matter of a formula now:

Current year’s AWI Series divided by 1977’s AWI figure, times the bend points for 1979 equals your current year bend points

So here is the math for 2018’s bend points:

$48,664.73 / $9779.44 = 4.9762

4.9762 * $180 = $895.72, which is rounded up to $896 – the first bend point

4.9762 * $1,085 = $5,399.17, rounded down to $5,399 – the second bend point

And that’s all there is to it.  Hope this helps you understand the bend points a little better.

Photo by JennyHuang


big-cedar-tree-tiny-girl-by-woodleywonderworksFor IRA contributions, the concept is simple:  a certain amount may be contributed to the account each year, dependent upon the type of IRA and your MAGI (Modified Adjusted Gross Income).  But what if you find out that you are ineligible to contribute to a Roth IRA due to the MAGI limitation?  How about if you made contributions to a Trad IRA and, upon filing your taxes found out it would be in your best interest to put those funds in your Roth instead?  Enter the Recharacterizing.

Recharacterization of IRA Contributions

This is a relatively simple process, but, as with most things, the Code makes it seem like rocket surgery.  Essentially, if you make a contribution to one type of IRA and then decide that you’d rather have it in the other type of IRA, you can affect this recharacterization by:

  • notifying both trustees (the original IRA and the second IRA) of the transfer
  • requesting a trustee-to-trustee transfer
  • include in the transfer any net income attributable to the contributions being recharacterized
  • report the recharacterization on your tax return for the year (Form 8606)
  • treat the contribution to the second IRA as if made on the date of the contribution to the first IRA (in other words, as if you had done it the right way the first time)
  • if the first IRA was a Traditional IRA, you are not allowed a deduction for that contribution for the tax year (obviously, since it wasn’t left there)
  • All of this has to happen before the due date of your tax return, plus 6 months – for most calendar-year taxpayers this is October 15. (see Footnote below  for additional info)

Wrinkles with recharacterizing

Now, if you thought that was way too many steps to get something really simple accomplished, look at the following examples of additional confusion to add to the mix:

Conversion by Rollover from Traditional IRA (TIRA) to a Roth IRA (RIRA)… if you’re converting funds from your TIRA to a RIRA and the transfer occurs within two tax years (but still within the allowed 60 days)  you would treat the activity as having been completed before the end of the first tax year if you needed to later recharacterize the conversion.

Rollovers… if you’ve already made a tax-free transfer of the funds, in general those funds are not eligible to be recharacterized.

Recharacterizing Excess Contributions… since excess contributions must be removed prior to filing that tax return for the applicable tax year, any recharacterization of those amounts would have to be accomplished strictly by the due date of the return – no extra 6 months in this case.

Recharacterizing SEP or SIMPLE funds… if you’ve converted funds from a SEP-IRA or a SIMPLE IRA to a Roth IRA and wish to recharacterize those funds, they must go back to the type of IRA that they came from, either a SEP or a SIMPLE, and not a Traditional IRA.  But these can be new accounts if the old account was closed.

Mistaken Rollover to SEP or SIMPLE… if you mistakenly made a rollover transfer of Traditional IRA funds to a SEP or SIMPLE (which is not allowed), you can recharacterize those amounts back into a Traditional IRA.

Employer Contributions… it is not allowed to recharacterize employer contributions to a SEP or SIMPLE plan as contributions to another type of plan.

NOT a Rollover… when considering the “once a year” restriction on rollover transfers, recharacterization is not counted as a rollover, so roll away!

No Reconversions (within limits)… if you converted from a TIRA to a RIRA and the recharacterized the conversion, you cannot then re-convert those funds to the RIRA again in the same tax year, or within 30 days of the recharacterization (if after the end of the tax year).

Decedent… the election to recharacterize can be made on behalf of a deceased IRA owner by the executor, administrator, or other person responsible for the decedent’s final tax return.

So as you can see, there are lots of ways to complicate the process, but in general the act of recharacterization is pretty simple, as long as you follow the rules and pay attention to the dates.

Footnote: In this one case, the IRS allows additional time for completing the recharacterization activity even if you have not completed it by the prescribed dates.  There are some specific things that have to be accomplished in order to receive this extra time:

  • your return must have been filed on time
  • you must have done the following within 6 months of your filing date:
    • notify the trustees of the intent to recharacterize
    • provide trustees with all necessary information
    • request the transfer

Once complete, you must amend the return, write “Filed pursuant to section 301.9100-2” on the return, and refile with the recharacterization noted.  File the return at the same address as your original return.

Photo bywoodleywonderworks

Determining Your MAGI

Magi by Brian Whelan

There are income limits for contributing to an IRA (traditional and Roth), and below are links by filing status to illustrate the income limits in the situation where you are or are not covered by an employer-provided retirement plan, given your filing status.  This, along with your filing status and your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) is an important factor in setting the limits for TIRAs, as there is the issue of deductibility at stake.

In order to fully understand the limitations, you also need to understand what makes up your Modified AGI (MAGI).  The MAGI is calculated as follows:

  1. Start with your Adjusted Gross Income (line 22, Form 1040A, or line 38, Form 1040).
  2. Add back in your IRA deduction amount (line 17 on Form 1040A or line 32 on Form 1040)
  3. Add back in your student loan interest (line 18 on Form 1040A or line 33 on Form 1040)
  4. Add back in any tuition and fees deductions from (line 19 on Form 1040A or line 34 on Form 1040)
  5. Add any domestic production activities from line 35 on Form 1040 (there is no line for this on 1040A)
  6. Add back any foreign earned income exclusions from line 18 of Form 2555EZ or line 45 of Form 2555.
  7. Add back any foreign housing deduction from line 50 of Form 2555
  8. Add back any excluded qualified savings bond interest shown on line 3, Schedule 1, Form 1040A, or line 3, Schedule B, Form 1040 (from line 14, Form 8815)
  9. Add back in any excluded employer-provided adoption benefits shown on line 30, Form 8839.

The total of these nine items listed above make up your Modified Adjusted Gross Income, or MAGI.

Remember Your RMD

It’s getting close to the end of the year and that means many individuals need to take their required minimum distributions (RMDs). It also means that there will be individuals who must begin taking their required minimum distributions as they will have reached the magic age of 70 ½.

For those already taking RMDs, check with your advisor or asset custodian and find out the amount you need to take and how you can receive payments. In most cases, RMDs can be taken in an annual amount, or monthly via check or direct deposit. The specific RMD amount is based on the account balance as of December 31st the previous year and your age. You can use the RMD calculator found here to get an idea of your RMD amount.

Additionally, be sure to account for any taxes you might owe. For 401k type plans, 20 percent will be withheld for taxes automatically. For IRAs, you must decide how much you want withheld, if any at all. Naturally, taxes don’t apply to qualified Roth 401k or Roth IRA plans.

However, RMDs are still required from Roth 401k, 403b and 457 plans. This is not the case for Roth IRAs – which do not have RMDs at age 70 ½. Many individuals will do a qualified trustee-to-trustee transfer (rollover) from their Roth 401k to their Roth IRA to avoid RMDs.

For those beginning their first RMDs, they have until April 1st the year following the year they turned 70 ½ to take their RMD. While this delay is only allowed in this special circumstance, individuals need to be aware that if they choose to delay until April 1st of the following year, they’ll need to take two RMDs in that year.

For example, Rob turns 70 ½ in March of 2017. Rob can wait until April 1st, 2018 to take his 2017 RMD. However, since Rob waited until 2018 to take his 2017 distribution, he’ll have to take his 2017 and 2018 distributions in the same year – 2018. This can have adverse tax consequences for Rob if he’s taking taxable RMDs. Depending on the amount, it could put Rob in a higher tax bracket, increase his AGI, and lower his chances to qualify for other tax deductions or credits tied to AGI.

Finally, even though you must take an RMD, it doesn’t mean you must spend it. Many individuals will reinvest the money, give to charity, or use the money to fund other opportunities – like college savings for their grandchildren. Just remember, you cannot reinvest your RMD into your 401k, IRA, or any other plan requiring “earned income” for contributions. RMDs are not considered earned income. However, the money can simply be invested in a non-qualified investment account.

Your 401k and IRA in 2018

Recently, the IRS just announced the contribution limits for 401k plans (including 403b and 457 plans) as well as IRAs. Additionally, the IRS also announced changes to the income phase-outs for traditional IRA deductibility and Roth IRA eligibility.

Let’s start with the 401k plans. For 2018, the IRS increased the contribution limits to $18,500, up $500 from $18,000 last year. The catch-up contribution for those age 50 or over remains unchanged at $6,000. $500 may not seem like much, but think of it this way – you get to give yourself a $500 raise!

For those interested in maxing out their 401k plans in 2018, here’s the breakdown depending on whether you’re paid monthly, 24 weeks per year or 26 weeks per year. If you’re paid monthly, the contribution is $1,541.66. This brings you just eight cents under the $18,500 max annually. If you’re paid 24 weeks per year, then the amount per paycheck is $770.83. If paid every 26 weeks, it’s about $711.53. For those over age 50 the breakdown is $2,041.66, $1,020.83, and $942.30 respectively.

Since contribution limits for IRAs remains unchanged, the maximum monthly amount is $458.33 (if saving monthly) and $541.66 for those age 50 and over. Of course, if you can save the $5,500 or $6,500 all at once at the beginning of the year, that’s ideal. If not, just max it out however you can.

Deductible IRA contributions phase-outs have changed as well. For single individuals covered by a workplace retirement plan, the income phase-out is $63,000 to $73,000. Married couples filing jointly, where the IRA contributor is covered by a workplace plan, the income phase-out is $101,000 to $121,000. For married couples filing jointly, here the IRA contributor is not covered by a workplace plan but their spouse is, the income phase-out is $189,000 to $199,000.

Finally, Roth IRA eligibility phase-outs have changed as well. For single (and head of household) individuals, the income phase-out is $120,000 to $135,000. For married filing jointly couples, the income phase-out is $189,000 to $199,000.

Ideally, a single individual (under age 50) with a 401k and IRA could save $24,000 annually if maxing out both. Married couples in the same situation could save $48,000. If over age 50, an individual could save $31,000 and a married couple could save $62,000 by maxing out both their 401k and IRA.

Remember Your RMD

Photo by sraskie

It’s getting close to the end of the year and that means many individuals need to take their required minimum distributions (RMDs). It also means that there will be individuals who must begin taking their required minimum distributions as they will have reached the magic age of 70 ½.

For those already taking RMDs, check with your advisor or asset custodian and find out the amount you need to take and how you can receive payments. In most cases, RMDs can be taken in an annual amount, or monthly via check or direct deposit. The specific RMD amount is based on the account balance as of December 31st the previous year and your age. You can use the RMD calculator found here to get an idea of your RMD amount.

Additionally, be sure to account for any taxes you might owe. For 401k type plans, 20 percent will be withheld for taxes automatically. For IRAs, you must decide how much you want withheld, if any at all. Naturally, taxes don’t apply to qualified Roth 401k or Roth IRA plans.

However, RMDs are still required from Roth 401k, 403b and 457 plans. This is not the case for Roth IRAs – which do not have RMDs at age 70 ½. Many individuals will do a qualified trustee-to-trustee transfer (rollover) from their Roth 401k to their Roth IRA to avoid RMDs.

For those beginning their first RMDs, they have until April 1st the year following the year they turned 70 ½ to take their RMD. While this delay is only allowed in this special circumstance, individuals need to be aware that if they choose to delay until April 1st of the following year, they’ll need to take two RMDs in that year.

For example, Rob turns 70 ½ in March of 2017. Rob can wait until April 1st, 2018 to take his 2017 RMD. However, since Rob waited until 2018 to take his 2017 distribution, he’ll have to take his 2017 and 2018 distributions in the same year – 2018. This can have adverse tax consequences for Rob if he’s taking taxable RMDs. Depending on the amount, it could put Rob in a higher tax bracket, increase his AGI, and lower his chances to qualify for other tax deductions or credits tied to AGI.

Finally, even though you must take an RMD, it doesn’t mean you must spend it. Many individuals will reinvest the money, give to charity, or use the money to fund other opportunities – like college savings for their grandchildren. Just remember, you cannot reinvest your RMD into your 401k, IRA, or any other plan requiring “earned income” for contributions. RMDs are not considered earned income. However, the money can simply be invested in a non-qualified investment account.

IRA Distribution Pro-Rata Rule

rata-tree-by-grahamanddairneIt is important to understand the Pro-Rata rule for IRAs – which comes into play when you have both deductible and after-tax contributions in your Traditional IRA account. As you take distributions from the account, each distribution is treated as partly taxable and partly non-taxable, in proportion of the after-tax contributions related to the overall account balance.

So How Does The Pro-Rata Rule Work?

For an example, let’s say you have a Traditional IRA (TIRA) with a balance of $100,000.  Over the years you made both deductible and after-tax contributions to this account… and your after-tax contributions amount to $25,000.  It’s not necessary to know the amount of the deductible contributions (for this exercise), just the after-tax contributions.

For this tax year, you’ve chosen to take distribution of $10,000 from your TIRA.  When  you prepare your tax return next year, you’ll include $7,500 in ordinary income, excluding the $2,500 which is the proportionate amount of your distribution representing your after-tax contributions.  In this example, one dollar out of every four is considered return of your after-tax contributions.

That’s pretty simple, right?  So why is this deemed worthy of a whole blog post?  Hold your horses, I’m about to tell you…

Why This Is Worthy Of A Whole Blog Post?

This is especially important when planning your Roth IRA conversions, among other distributions.  When you do a conversion, this is essentially a distribution from your TIRA, and as such you are liable for ordinary income tax on the taxable portion of your distribution.

This is one of the reasons that well-meaning financial advisors often recommend that, if you’re going to make non-deductible contributions to a TIRA with the intent to convert the account to a RIRA, you should make them to a completely separate account.  This way, (presumably) the only portion that would be taxable at the distribution (conversion) would the be the growth of the funds, such as capital appreciation and dividends.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. The pro-rata rule takes into account the balance and makeup of ALL of your Traditional IRA accounts, not just the one that you’re taking a distribution from.

For example, Joe has $50,000 in one Traditional IRA account (from only pre-tax contributions). Joe’s income is too high for him to make Roth IRA contributions or deductible Traditional IRA contributions. He’s heard of the “back-door Roth IRA contribution” strategy, and would like to put this into play for his situation. Joe opens a new Traditional IRA and contributes $5,500 to the account. This contribution is non-deductible to Joe.

Now, following the back-door strategy, Joe converts his entire new IRA over to a Roth IRA. He thinks he has done this with no tax. But the problem is in the way the pro-rata rule works. Joe must pay tax on his conversion in proportion to the total of all of his IRA account balances, less the portion that is after-tax.

Adding his two IRAs together, he has a total of $55,500 in IRAs before the conversion. Of this, only 9.9% is after-tax contributions ($5,500 divided by $55,500). So of his converted $5,500, he must pay tax on $4,954.95 (90.1%). Plus, he still has $4,954.95 of non-deductible contributions that he must continue to keep track of as he makes future distributions from the account.

This can cause a lot of headache since there may be many years between the initial contribution and final distribution from the account. For each year that you have non-deductible contributions in your IRAs, you should track these contributions via IRS Form 8606, even if you have not taken any distributions for the year. This will keep your records up-to-date for when you do take distributions later on.

But I want to only convert the after-tax portion!

There is still a way to convert only the after-tax amounts to a Roth IRA, but there are some restrictions as well.

If you have access to a 401(k) plan or other employer-sponsored retirement plan (other than an IRA) that will accept rollover amounts (you’ll have to check this with your plan sponsor, some do not accept rollovers), you may be allowed to rollover the amount from your IRA that represents everything but your after-tax contributions.  Make sure you don’t accidentally rollover the post-tax (nondeductible) contributions, because that’s not allowed and you could get into dutch with the IRS and your 401k administrator if you do. However, if you can rollover everything but the non-deductible contributions, then you can convert the remainder amounts to your Roth IRA without a taxable event.  Pretty cool, huh?

It’s important to note that this only works for 401(k), 403(b) and other employer-sponsored retirement plans. You can’t rollover the excess above the non-deducted contributions to another IRA – you’d still be in the same boat as before.

All of these transactions can carry significant tax penalties if you make a mistake, so you need to be doubly sure that you’re doing it right before you make a move.  There are no “do overs” for these transactions (well, not without jumping through hoops or other places that you don’t want to consider).  Consult your tax advisor to make sure you’re doing it correctly if you’re not sure.

Photo by GrahamAndDairne

Can I Retire Early?

Many individuals at some point in their life and career wonder if they can retire early. First, retiring early is relative to the individual. That is, retiring early for one person may mean retiring at age 55. To another, it may mean retiring at age 30.

When teaching, I’ll ask my students what the “retirement age” is. Answers range from 65 to 70. Inevitably, I will get asked the question, “How much money do you need to retire?” And the answer is the crux of this article.

Whether an individual wants to retire can be based on several factors such as money saved, age, job satisfaction, and health. For example, an individual may never want to “retire” if they love their job, or if they find fulfilment and purpose while at work.

For some individuals, the choice to retire isn’t a choice. They must continue to work to cover expenses, health care, etc. Sometimes these individuals work until they physically cannot do so any longer.  Their only retirement is Social Security.

Back to the crux. The answer I tell my students (and clients) is that how much you need to retire is a function of how much you need to spend in retirement. For example, I have seen clients needing only $38,000 annually to cover expenses and live comfortably in retirement, and half of that amount was covered by Social Security. Meaning, the clients only needed to cover $19,000 of annual expenses themselves. Based on their portfolio, they had more than enough. For other clients, their need hovered around $250,000 annually. And sadly, their portfolio would last less than 10 years.

In other words, some will be comfortable retiring with $500,000 saved, and others may find $5,000,000 will not be enough.

To retire “early” is relative to what early means for the individual and how much money they feel they would need to live on in retirement. For young individuals reading this article, it means saving a lot of money while they’re young, to reap the benefits of not working later, should you choose. For older individuals, it may mean saving much more, and perhaps cutting expenses to achieve their retirement goal. And still for others, it may mean continuing to work, since they love what they do and have no intentions to retire.

The choice is yours.

Paying Down Student Debt Early To Save More Later

When most kids enter college, they never imagined they would be leaving school four or five years later carrying a mountain of debt. They certainly couldn’t know how it would impact their lives, with many struggling, paying down student debt, while living paycheck to paycheck. The average student loan debt for today’s college graduates is $37,000, which will cost them more than $27,000 in interest costs over the life of the loan. That’s $27,000 that won’t be going towards buying a house or starting a family or retirement. You go to college to expand your opportunities, only to have them stunted by ongoing debt payments.

The High Cost of Student Loans

The problem with carrying student loan debt is that the interest costs mount up over the length of the loan, which can run 20 or 25 years depending on the type of loan. Making the minimum payment on loan allows the interest to continue to grow on the balance, much like compounding interest in reverse. If you can lower the interest rate to reduce the monthly interest cost, you could accelerate the principal payments which will reduce your interest costs, allowing you to pay the loan off sooner.

For example, if original balance on your student loans was $37,000 with an average interest rate of 5.5 percent, your monthly payment would be $227 of which $169 is your initial interest cost. Five years into your loan, your balance is $33,000 and your interest cost is around $151 out of your $227 payment and you have 20 years left on the loan.

Slashing Your Interest Costs

If you took your loans to a private lender and refinanced them at a rate of 3.5 percent for 15 years, your monthly payment would increase to $235 but your interest costs are reduced by almost 40 percent. Most of your money would be going towards principal. If you were able to increase your monthly payment to $260 a month, you would pay the loan off almost two years earlier.

The bottom line is you save nearly $18,000 in total interest costs and you have your life back.

How Does Student Loan Refinancing Work?

Refinancing student loans can only be done through private lenders. Borrowers with very good credit can qualify for low rates currently around 3 percent. If you don’t have great credit, you can apply for a loan with a cosigner who does. You will still be the primary borrower responsible for making the payments, but, the cosigner will be on the hook if you don’t.  Some lenders offer a cosigner release once the primary borrower makes 12 to 24 months of on time payments.

Loan terms vary from lender to lender but most offer terms of 10 to 15 years. Most lenders offer variable loan rates, which means your rate can start out really low, but, if interest rates rise, your loan rate can increase. However, an increasing number of lenders are starting to offer fixed rate loans.

Shopping around at banks that offer student loan refinancing as well as alternative, online lenders, is critical for comparing loan rates and finding loans with the lowest costs. The more competitive lenders don’t charge origination or application fees.

What You Need to Know Before Refinancing Your Federal Loans

Before taking the plunge into refinancing your federal loans, there is a downside you should consider. Once you convert your federal student loans into a private student loan, you no longer have access to certain protections. For instance, if you run into a financial hardship and are unable to afford the full payment on your private loan, you won’t be able to turn to one of the income-based repayment options that are available with your federal student loans. Income-based repayment options are great when you run into financial trouble; but, they will also increase your interest costs over the life of the loan. Most private lenders don’t offer any repayment options, though a few offer a temporary, graduated-payment option.

Along with the loss of repayment options, you will also lose the loan forgiveness opportunity that comes with them. Also, most private lenders don’t offer deferment or forbearance in the event of a significant financial hardship.

Should You or Shouldn’t You Refinance Your Student Loans

The thing to consider is, if you think you might need any of those protections sometime in the future, you may not be a candidate for accelerating your loan payoff anyway. If your primary objective is to lower your monthly payment to make it more affordable, you should consider one of the income-based repayment plans. However, if your objective is to lower your interest costs so you could pay down your loan more quickly, you would need to be able to commit to paying the full monthly payment and more if you can afford it.

If you have the certainty of steady employment with regular salary increases, you can and should consider refinancing your student loans. It would be important to make it a part of a long-term strategy to become totally debt free. If you can commit the resources, there is nothing stopping you from paying down student debt in less than 10 years.

By Patty Moore, blogger @WorkMomLife on Twitter!

5 No-No’s for IRA Investing

prohibition-facts-by-sarahdeerIt is generally well-known that in an IRA account you have a wide range of investment choices. These choices are typically only limited by the custodian’s available investment options.  However, there are specific prohibited transactions that cannot be accomplished with IRA funds. Often these prohibited transactions can cause your IRA to be disqualified, which can result in significant tax and penalty, along with loss of the tax-favored status of the funds.

What’s Not Allowed for IRA Accounts?

  1. Self-Dealing.  You are not allowed, within your IRA, to make investments in property which benefits you or another disqualified person.  A disqualified person includes your fiduciary advisor and any member of your family, whether an ancestor, spouse, lineal descendant (child) or spouse of a lineal descendant.  It is important to note that this limit applies to both present and future use of a property. So if you purchased a condo and rented it out exclusively for several years and then decided to convert it to personal use, this act would disqualify the investment and potentially classify it as a distribution, to be taxed and penalized (with interest) retroactively.
  2. Borrowing.  You are not allowed to borrow funds from your IRA account.  Likewise, you are not allowed to put up your IRA account as collateral for a loan.
  3. Selling.  You are not allowed to personally sell property that you own outside of the IRA, to your IRA account.
  4. Collectibles.  The single class of investments that you may not invest in with your IRA account is collectibles.  This includes art, antiques, gems, coins, and alcoholic beverages, among other items.  There is an exception to the coin prohibition, in that you are allowed to invest in one, one-half, one-quarter, or one-tenth ounce U.S. gold coins, or one-ounce silver coins minted by the United States Treasury Department with your IRA funds (if your custodian allows). You can also invest in certain platinum coins and certain gold, silver, palladium, and platinum bullion.
  5. Unreasonable Management Costs.  It is prohibited to pay an exorbitant amount to an advisor to manage your account.  This is due to the fact that it IS an allowed transaction to pay your advisor, tax-free, from your IRA specifically for managing the account.  If the amount is deemed unreasonable (e.g., obviously for services above and beyond managing the IRA account), this transaction is prohibited. An example of this is if you have both IRA and non-IRA funds with your advisor, but you pay the advisor’s entire fee strictly from your IRA account. Unless the non-IRA funds are an inconsequential amount, the fee paid from the IRA will be deemed exorbitant to the size of the IRA account.
  6. (bonus!) Life Insurance. You may not purchase life insurance contracts with your IRA account funds. This is a strict prohibition.

Beyond these transactions, IRAs have a pretty wide scope of available investment options. As I indicated before, your options are mostly limited by the custodian’s available investments.  In cases where the IRA funds are to be used for more unique investments, such as individual real estate transactions or gold bullion, a special custodian is often required.  These transactions can be very difficult to complete and manage over time and maintain the tax-qualified status.  If you’re interested in such a transaction, there is more information available in the article Where to Establish Your IRA Account.

How to Navigate the Equifax Hack

If you’re among the 143 million people who may have been compromised by the Equifax hack, you may be wondering what steps you can take to protect yourself in what is now the greatest data breach in history. Below are steps to take to see if you’ve been affected and what you can do to move forward with the (hopefully) least financial impact to you and your credit.

  • Go to and follow the instructions to see if your data may have been part of the compromise. If so, you’re allowed to sign up for free identity theft protection and monitoring for up to one year. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones whose data hasn’t been compromised, you’re still allowed to sign up for the service.
  • Check your credit reports. Go to and request your free credit report from the three major bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. Regardless of the recent hack, you’re allowed (and should) do this annually to monitor your credit and the information being supplied to the bureaus. Additionally, it allows you to see if unauthorized credit inquiries are being made on your credit.
  • Consider a credit freeze. Freezing your credit (often for a fee) locks your credit at each bureau and requires a unique PIN in order to gain access to your file.
  • How to place a credit freeze. According to the Federal Trade Commission, to place a credit freeze you will need to go to the three bureaus and give your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, along with some other information as directed. You may also be required to pay a small fee for implementation.
  • Direct links to the bureaus and their respective freeze pages can be found by accessing:
  • Consider signing up for identity theft protection through your home insurance carrier. Generally, for a small annual additional charge, you can have this coverage added which will help pay for the costs of fixing an identity theft should it happen to you.
  • Visit the three bureaus and see what additional information or free services they offer.

Equifax –

TransUnion –

Experian –

  • Set up a fraud alert. Contact the three bureaus above and request a fraud alert be put on your account. These last for 90 days but can be renewed.
  • Keep an eye on your tax return. Do your best to file early for your 2017 taxes. Once you get all of your information, try to file your taxes as soon as you can to avoid having a fraudulent return filed on your behalf.
  • Try to relax. As one of the individuals who may have been affected, I keep telling myself that there’s only so much I can do, and this too, shall pass. It’s easier said than done, but at the very least, you can do the best you can to be proactive moving forward.
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