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Older parents and retirement: What about child benefits?

Adult and child walk at sunset
Older parents facing retirement need to take the child benefit into account when deciding at what age to start claiming Social Security retirement benefits.
(Dreamstime / TNS)

Dear Liz: I am trying to decide whether to take Social Security at my full retirement age (66 years and four months) or wait and take it at 70. I am 64 and have two children, 13 and 11. My older child could get the child benefit for 24 months while my younger one would receive it for 41 months. Currently I am scheduled to receive about $2,600 a month at full retirement age or $3,500 at 70. My family maximum is $4,668 per month. I am having a hard time finding out what each dependent would earn monthly. Also, when my older child turns 18, does my younger child’s payment increase?

Answer: Starting Social Security earlier than age 70 means giving up the delayed retirement credits that otherwise would boost your checks for the rest of your life, and potentially those of a surviving spouse. As mentioned in an earlier column, though, child benefits complicate the math that typically favors waiting to claim Social Security.

Once you start your own Social Security benefit, each eligible child could get an amount up to 50% of your benefit. Eligible children are those who are unmarried and younger than 18, or under 19 if they’re still in high school, or 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.

There’s a maximum a family can receive based on one worker’s earning record, however. The family maximum is 150% to 180% of the worker’s benefit. If your family’s total benefit would exceed that maximum, the children’s checks would be reduced, but yours would stay the same.

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If you were receiving $2,600 a month, and your family maximum is $4,668, your children would split the remaining $2,068 and get $1,034 apiece. Once your older child is no longer eligible, your younger child’s benefit would increase to equal 50% of what you receive ($1,300, plus any cost of living adjustments).

If you were to start your benefit now, before your full retirement age, these checks would be subject to the earnings test that reduces the benefit by $1 for every $2 earned over a certain limit, which is $18,240 in 2020. The earnings test doesn’t apply after full retirement age.

Free Social Security claiming calculators typically don’t include child benefits as a variable, so you’d be wise to invest $20 to $50 in a more sophisticated calculator, such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions.

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Downside of unused credit cards

Dear Liz: In the past, you have recommended not canceling credit cards because doing so can hurt credit scores. Over the years, my husband has signed up for at least a dozen credit cards, eight of which we never use and have not used for as long as 10 years. He signed up for another card recently because it offered attractive cash rewards. Is having so many credit cards advisable and safe? Does it make us more vulnerable to identity theft? Without hurting our credit scores, may we discontinue the older cards we have stopped using? Is there any drawback to having multiple, perhaps dozens, of credit cards, especially if some are older and never used?

Answer: The biggest downside to having a bunch of unused credit cards is having to monitor all those accounts for fraudulent transactions, and perhaps paying unnecessary annual fees. The unused accounts add to the amount of available credit you have, which is a positive factor for credit scores.

If you’re concerned about identity theft, your best move would be to freeze your credit reports at all three bureaus. Such freezes are now free, and you can easily “thaw” the freeze temporarily if you want to apply for credit.

Credit freezes make it harder for criminals to open new accounts in your name. If a criminal uses one of your existing accounts, you’re typically protected. The vast majority of credit cards offer “zero liability,” which means you won’t be held responsible for fraudulent charges. Even without zero liability, federal law limits your liability to $50.

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If monitoring multiple accounts is too much hassle, though, then he should consider closing some of the cards. If he’s paying fees for cards he’s not using, another option is to ask the issuer for a “product change” to a card that doesn’t charge fees.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at AskLizWeston.com.


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