Dear Liz: I retired in 2013 at 55. I purchased an annuity, which will pay $1,000 a month for life for me and my wife as well. That starts in February 2020. My retirement fund, meanwhile, was rolled into an IRA and I’m withdrawing about 10% of that annually. The balance is about $650,000.
My advisor wants me to start my Social Security at age 62. I would receive $1,800 a month and could reduce my withdrawal rate to 4%. I’ve also been told, however, that it would be better to wait until my full retirement age (66 and 6 months) or 70, when my benefit maxes out. At full retirement age, my monthly benefit would be about $2,500, and at 70, it would be $3,000.
I’m not sure what to do. My wife will be retiring next year and her monthly pension will be about $3,700. We still owe on our house and have other debt as well. What’s my best option?
Answer: There’s a lot of research showing that single people and “primary earners” — the higher wage earner in a married couple — are better off delaying the start of their Social Security benefits. (The article “Understanding Social Security Claiming Decisions Using Survey Evidence” in the November 2018 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning does a good job of summarizing the research.)
Longer life expectancies mean most people will live beyond the “break even” point at which the larger benefit more than makes up for the checks they pass up in the early years. These larger checks are a kind of longevity insurance, as well. The longer you live, the more likely you will have spent your other resources and wind up depending on your Social Security income to live.
Having the primary earner delay is especially important for married couples because at the first death the number of checks the household receives will drop from two to one. Because the survivor receives the larger of the two checks, it’s usually wise to make that check as large as possible.
The benefits of delay are so substantial — one study shows that the sustainable standard of living is 30% higher for people who start at 66 rather than 62 — that advisors often recommend tapping other resources, including retirement funds, if it enables people to put off starting their checks.
Your situation may be a bit different, though because you mention that your wife has a pension. If the pension is from a job that did not pay into Social Security, it would affect her ability to receive survivor’s benefits from the Social Security system. Something known as the government pension offset would reduce her survivor check by two-thirds of the amount of her pension, which could eliminate her survivor benefit entirely. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t be as crucial for you to delay.
Given how much is at stake, though, you might want to get a second opinion from another advisor who can review the specifics of your situation.
Figuring homes’ adjusted basis
Dear Liz: In your response to a question about the adjusted basis of a residence after the death of a spouse, you state that the surviving spouse may add to the adjusted basis "any commissions or fees paid to purchase the property and the cost of improvements." Your example adds $150,000 in "improvements over the years" to the $850,000 value of the home at the time of the spouse's death in 1992. Wouldn't those improvements (and other costs) have to be made after the date of the spouse's death, since otherwise they would already be included in determining the value of the home at the date of death?
Answer: Good point. If the surviving spouse lives in a community property state, only improvements that happened after the date of the first spouse’s death would increase the basis, because both halves of the property get a step up to the current fair market value when one spouse dies. In other states, only the deceased spouse’s half of the property would get the step up. The surviving spouse can add his or her half of the improvements made before the death, and anything done after the death, to the tax basis to determine home sale profits.