Dear Liz: I went to renew my IRA certificate of deposit and the bank officer suggested that I renew at the greater rate being offered for a five-year term (about 1.5% APR) rather than the lower rate for a one-year term (about 1% APR). She explained that since I am over 59 1/2, I can close the account at any time and roll it over to a new IRA should rates rise (for example to 1.75% in 15 months) with no penalty whatsoever. Is this true?
Answer: You don't have to close and reopen IRAs when a CD matures or you want to change investments. The IRA is the bucket that holds your investment, not the investment itself. You also should be skeptical about claims that you would pay no penalty for early withdrawal. Not only are such penalties the norm, but a Bankrate survey found 9 out of 10 banks won't just require you to forfeit the interest but will dip into your principal to pay the fees if necessary. The bank may offer a one-time opportunity to lock in a higher rate; if that's the case, you should get the details in writing as well as the penalties if you have to withdraw the money prematurely.
In fact, any time someone pitches you an investment for your retirement funds, you should ask a lot of questions and get every detail and promise in writing. If the pitch is coming from someone who will profit from your investment — which is often the case — you should consider running it past a neutral third party such as a fee-only planner.
By the way, the Federal Reserve has signaled that it's considering raising interest rates this year. That's no guarantee that it will, but locking up your money now is a gamble.
Strategies for Social Security spousal benefits
Dear Liz: I am 61 and going through a second divorce. Would I be able to start drawing my first husband's Social Security now or would I have to wait till I am 62 later this year? Also, could I draw off my second husband's work record, since he made more money? Which would benefit me more?
Answer: To qualify for spousal benefits as a divorced spouse, the marriage has to have lasted at least 10 years and your ex must qualify for Social Security retirement or disability benefits. The minimum age to qualify for retirement or spousal benefits is 62.
If your ex is 62 or older but hasn't applied for retirement benefits, you can receive spousal benefits if you have been divorced at least two years.
Even if you qualify to start benefits early, though, you probably should wait. When you apply for spousal benefits before your own full retirement age of 66, you're permanently locking yourself into a smaller payment (you'd get 35% of your ex's benefit, rather than 50%). You also lose the ability to switch to your own benefit later, even if it's larger.
When you apply early, Social Security forces you to apply for both your own benefit and the spousal benefit. You're given the larger of the two. If you wait until 66, you can file what's called a restricted application and get just the spousal benefit, retaining the option to change to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70.
Most people will live well past the "break even" point where they'll receive more by delaying Social Security than they would by starting early. More important, a bigger Social Security check also serves as a kind of longevity insurance. The longer you live, the more likely you are to outlive your other assets and end up relying on Social Security for most if not all of your income.
As a single woman, you're in greater danger of poverty than most retirees. You could wind up living for decades on an inadequate check if you're not careful about how you claim your benefit.
To find out the amounts you'd get from spousal benefits, call Social Security at (800) 772-1213. Also find out what your own benefit would be at 62, 66 and 70, for comparison purposes.
AARP and T. Rowe Price have free calculators that can help you make this decision. MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com offers a more sophisticated calculator for about $40.