Category: Surviving Spouse

Be Cautious when Buying Funeral Services

Be Cautious when Buying Funeral Services

Planning a funeral is stressful. It is important to be cautious when buying funeral services. People usually don’t buy funeral services frequently, so they’re unfamiliar with the process. Add to this the fact that they’re typically bereaved and stressed, which can affect decision-making, explains Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, an advocacy group. In addition, people tend to associate their love for the dead person with the amount of money they spend on the funeral, says The Seattle Times’ recent article entitled “When shopping for funeral services, be wary.”

“Grieving people really are the perfect customer to upsell,” Slocum said.

The digital age has also made it easier to contact grieving customers. Federal authorities recently charged the operator of two online cremation brokerages of fraud. The operator misled clients and even withheld remains to force bereaved families to pay inflated prices.

The Justice Department, on behalf of the Federal Trade Commission, sued Funeral & Cremation Group of North America and Legacy Cremation Services, which operates under several names and the companies’ principal, Anthony Joseph Damiano. The companies, according to a civil complaint, sell their funeral services through the websites Legacy Cremation Services and Heritage Cremation Provider.

These companies pretend to be local funeral homes offering low-cost cremation services. Their websites use search engines that make it look like consumers are dealing with a nearby business. However, they really act as middlemen, offering services and setting prices with customers, then arranging with unaffiliated funeral homes to perform cremations.

The lawsuit complaint says these companies offered lower prices for cremation services than they ultimately required customers to pay and arranged services at locations that were farther than advertised, forcing customers to travel long distances for viewings and to obtain remains.

“In some instances when consumers contest defendants’ charges,” the complaint said, the companies “threaten not to return or actually refuse to return” remains until customers pay up.

Mr. Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance recommends contacting several providers — in advance, if possible, so you can look at the options without pressure. And ask for the location of the cremation center and request a visit. Also note that cremation sites in the U.S. are frequently not located in the same place as the funeral home and may not be designed for consumer tours.

Note that the FTC’s Funeral Rule predates the internet and doesn’t require online price disclosure. Likewise, most states don’t require this either.

It is wise to be cautious when buying funeral services. Last year during the pandemic, the government issued a warning about fraud related to the funeral benefits. They said FEMA had reports of people receiving calls from strangers offering to help them “register” for benefits. If you would like to learn more about planning for a funeral, and other related topics, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Seattle Times (May 15, 2022) “When shopping for funeral services, be wary”

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Best Uses of Life Insurance Benefits

Best Uses of Life Insurance Benefits

The loss of a spouse is an extremely stressful event. It comes with many emotions that can be overwhelming for the bereaved. Hopefully, life insurance is one thing that was put in place to allow those remaining to process their loss without fretting over their finances. But what are the best uses of life insurance benefits, says Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What Is the Best Way for a Widow to Use Life Insurance Proceeds?”

Life insurance death benefits can be paid within 30 days after you submit a claim. To do this, you need a certified death certificate, which is generally issued in less than a week by the funeral home. You should also order plenty of copies (about 15) for closing accounts.

The best use of the money is different for each widow and her unique situation.

Funeral Costs. Use life insurance money to cover these costs to decrease your financial strain.

Ongoing Expenses. When your spouse dies, living expenses do not stop. Your income is frequently reduced. In fact, after the death of a spouse, household income generally declines by about 40% due to changes in Social Security benefits, spouse’s retirement income and earnings. The death benefit from a life insurance policy can help provide the funds you need to help cover your mortgage, car payment, utilities, food, clothing and health care premiums.

Debts. You are generally not personally responsible for paying off the debts of your husband, provided they are in his name alone. When an estate does not have enough funds to pay all the debts, any gifts that were supposed to be paid out to beneficiaries will most likely be reduced. Note that you may be responsible for certain types of debt, such as debt that is jointly owned or a loan that you have co-signed. Talk to an experienced elder law attorney to understand the laws of your state, so that you know where you stand concerning all debts.

Create an Emergency Fund. Life insurance can help build a liquid emergency fund, which should cover three to six months of expenses.

Supplement Your Retirement. When a woman loses her spouse, she becomes much more vulnerable to poverty. To retire, a person typically needs 80% of their preretirement income to live comfortably.

Education. If you are a young widow, the life insurance proceeds can be used to pay for going back to school to augment your earning abilities. These funds could also cover the cost of college for your children. However, you should only save for college educational costs after your retirement savings is secure.

It is up to beneficiary to decide the best uses of life insurance benefits going forward. It is a good idea to consult an estate planning and probate attorney to make sure you have a full grasp of the benefits provided. If you would like to learn more about life insurance and estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 17, 2021) “What Is the Best Way for a Widow to Use Life Insurance Proceeds?”

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There are the New IRA Distribution Rules

There are the New IRA Distribution Rules

The IRS recently announced there are new IRA distribution rules in the works. Many of the proposed distribution rules, which will be subject to further action in late spring, depend upon whether or not the original IRA owner died before or after the applicable required beginning date for distributions. As explained in the article “The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Issues Proposed Minimum Distribution Rules” from The National Law Review, the age changed as a result of the SECURE Act, to 72.

Spousal Beneficiaries. If the spouse of the deceased IRA owner is the sole designated beneficiary and elects not to rollover the distribution, the surviving spouse may take RMDs over the deceased’s life expectancy. However, if the owner died before their required beginning date and the spouse is the sole beneficiary, the spouse may opt to delay distributions until the end of the calendar year in which the owner would have turned 72.

If the decedent died after turning 72, the annual distributions are required for all subsequent years and the spouse may take distributions over the longer remaining life expectancy.

Minor Children Beneficiaries. If the beneficiary of the IRA is a minor child, under age 21, annual distributions are required using the minor child’s life expectancy. When the minor turns 21, they must take annual distributions and the account must be fully distributed ten years after the child’s 21st birthday.

Adult Children Beneficiaries. If the account owner dies after their required beginning date (age 72), an adult child who is a beneficiary must take annual distributions based on the beneficiary’s life expectancy. The account must be completely emptied within ten years of the original IRA owner’s death.

This applies only to adult children who are beneficiaries and are not disabled or chronically ill. Disabled or chronically ill adult children fall into a different category under the SECURE Act, with different distribution rules.

Special Rules for Roth IRAs. The benefits of Roth IRA accounts remain. There are no minimum distributions from a Roth IRA while the account owner is still living. After the death of the Roth IRA owner, the required minimum distribution rules apply to the Roth IRA, as if the Roth IRA owner died before their required beginning date.

If the sole beneficiary is the Roth IRA owner’s surviving spouse, the surviving spouse may delay distribution until the decedent would have attained their beginning distribution date.

Now that there are new IRA distribution rules to consider, speak with your estate planning attorney to determine if you need to update your estate plan. There are strategies to protect heirs from the significant tax liabilities these changes may create. If you would like to read more about IRAs and other retirement accounts, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The National Law Review (March 25, 2022) “The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Issues Proposed Minimum Distribution Rules”

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Bypass Trust gives Flexibility in managing Taxes

Bypass Trust gives Flexibility in managing Taxes

A bypass trust gives more flexibility in managing taxes. A bypass trust removes a designated portion of an IRA or 401(k) proceeds from the surviving spouse’s taxable estate, while also achieving several tax benefits, according to a recent article titled “New Purposes for ‘Bypass’ Trusts in Estate Planning” from Financial Advisor.

Portability became law in 2013, when Congress permanently passed the portability election for assets passing outright to the surviving spouse when the first spouse dies. This allows the survivor to benefit from the unused federal estate tax exemption of the deceased spouse, thereby claiming two estate tax exemptions. Why would a couple need a bypass trust in their estate plan?

  • The portability election does not remove appreciation in the value of the ported assets from the surviving spouse’s taxable estate. A bypass trust removes all appreciation.
  • The portability election does not apply if the surviving spouse remarries, and the new spouse predeceases the surviving spouse. Remarriage does not impact a bypass trust.
  • The portability election does not apply to federal generation skipping transfer taxes. The amount could be subject to a federal transfer tax in the heir’s estates, including any appreciation in value.
  • If the decedent had debts or liability issues, ported assets do not have the protection against claims and lawsuits offered by a bypass trust.
  • The first spouse to die loses the ability to determine where the ported assets go after the death of the surviving spouse. This is particularly important when there are children from multiple marriages and parents want to ensure their children receive an inheritance.

This strategy should be reviewed in light of the SECURE Act 10-year maximum payout rule, since the outright payment of IRA and 401(k) plan proceeds to a surviving spouse is entitled to spousal rollover treatment and generally a greater income tax deferral.

Bypass trusts are also subject to the highest federal income tax rate at levels of gross income of as low as $13,550, and they do not qualify for income tax basis step-up at the death of the surviving spouse.

However, the use of IRC Section 678 in creating the bypass trust can eliminate the high trust income tax rates and the minimum exemption, also under Section 678, so the trust is not taxed the way a surviving spouse would be. There is also the potential to include a conditional general testamentary power of appointment in the trust, which can sometimes result in income tax basis step-up for all or a portion of the appreciated assets in the trust upon the death of the surviving spouse.

A bypass trust gives more flexibility in managing taxes. Every estate planning situation is unique, and these decisions should only be made after consideration of the size of the IRA or 401(k) plan, the tax situation of the surviving spouse and the tax situation of the heirs. An experienced estate planning attorney is needed to review each situation to determine whether or not a bypass trust is the best option for the couple and the family. If you would like to learn more about bypass trusts, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Feb. 1, 2022) “New Purposes for ‘Bypass’ Trusts in Estate Planning”

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Naming beneficiaries is vital to your planning

Naming Beneficiaries is Vital to Your Planning

Naming beneficiaries is vital to your planning. For the loved ones of people who neglect to update the beneficiaries on their estate plan and assets with the option of naming beneficiaries, the cost in time, money and emotional stress is quite high, says the recent article “Five Mistakes To Avoid When Naming Beneficiaries” from The Chattanoogan.

The biggest mistake is failing to name a beneficiary on all of your accounts, including retirement, investment and bank accounts as well as insurance policies. What happens if you fail to name a beneficiary? Assets in the accounts and proceeds from life insurance policies will automatically become part of your estate.

Any planning you’ve done with your estate planning attorney to avoid probate will be undercut by having all of these assets go through probate. Beneficiaries may not see their inheritance for months, versus receiving access to the assets much sooner. It’s even worse for retirement accounts like IRAs. Any ability your heir might have had to withdraw assets over time will be lost.

Next is forgetting to name a contingency beneficiary. Most people name their spouse, an adult child, or a sibling as their primary beneficiary. However, if the primary beneficiary should predecease you and there is no contingency beneficiary, it is as if you didn’t have a beneficiary at all.

Having a contingency beneficiary has another benefit: the primary beneficiary has the option to execute a qualified disclaimer, so some assets may be passed along to the next-in-line heir. Let’s say your spouse doesn’t need the money or doesn’t want to take it because of tax implications. Someone else in the family can more easily receive the assets.

Naming beneficiaries without taking care to use their proper legal name or identify the person with specificity has led to more surprises than you can imagine. If there are three generations of Geoffrey Paddingtons in the family and the only name on the document is Geoffrey Paddington, who will receive the inheritance? Use the person’s full name, their relationship to you (“child,” “cousin,” etc.) and if the document requires a Social Security number for identification, use it.

When was the last time you reviewed beneficiary documents? The only time many people look at these documents is when they open the account, start a new job, or buy an insurance policy. Every few years, around the same time you review your estate plan, you should gather all of your financial and insurance documents and make sure the same people named two decades ago are still the ones you want to receive your assets on death.

Finally, talk with loved ones about your legacy and your wishes. Let them know that an estate plan exists and you’ve given time and thought to what you want to happen when you die. There’s no need to give exact amounts. However, a bird’s eye view of your plan will help establish expectations.

Naming beneficiaries in your estate planning is vital to a sound plan. If naming beneficiaries is challenging because of a complex situation, your estate planning attorney will be able to help as a sounding board or with estate planning strategies to accomplish your goals. If you would like to learn more about beneficiary designations, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: The Chattanoogan (Dec. 6, 2021) “Five Mistakes To Avoid When Naming Beneficiaries”

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how to file taxes after your spouse dies

How to file Taxes after your Spouse Dies

Losing a spouse is crushing blow for anyone. A question that quickly comes up is how to file taxes after your spouse dies? About two-thirds of surviving spouses are women. While some are able to avoid major mistakes, taxes are a source of frustration, rife with potential problems. Deadlines are especially challenging, according to the article “The Death of a Spouse is Hard. Taxes Makes It Harder” from The Wall Street Journal.

The combination of emotional upheaval and needing to make complex decisions is overwhelming. Some widows need cash and are forced to sell the family home within two years to get an exemption of $500,000 on the sale proceeds. If you miss the deadline, the exemption shrinks to $250,000.

Others will convert traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs in the year their spouse dies, to capture lowered taxes on the conversion.

However, in all cases, spouses need to check withholding or estimated taxes, especially if the spouse who died was the one who made payments to the IRS. Underpayment penalties add up fast.

Here are some key things to watch for:

Filing an estate tax return. The current estate and gift-tax exemption is $11.7 million per person, so most people don’t need to pay federal estate tax. Executors don’t need to file a return if the decedent’s estate is below exemption levels. However, they should. Here’s why: filing an estate tax return will allow the surviving spouse to have the partner’s unused exemption and add it to their own. Claiming the unused exemption could have larger implications in the future when exemptions change.

Estate taxes are normally due nine months after the date of death. The IRS allows executors to claim the unused exemption for the spouse up to two years after the date of death, but the estate tax must be filed within the time period.

The year a spouse dies is the last year a couple may file jointly. Afterwards, the survivor files as a single person or if there are dependent children, as a surviving widow or widower. Be careful about the shift from joint to single filer. The surviving spouse’s tax rate may stay the same or rise when their income drops. There’s an expression for this, as it occurs so often: the widow’s penalty.

Surviving spouses may roll over inherited retirement accounts into their own names. However, if there is a significant age difference, this may not be the best strategy. New widows and widowers should consider their options carefully.

Filers must send the IRS 90% of their total tax for the year by December 31. This amount is often divided unequally between spouses. If the partner who died paid most of the withholding for estimated taxes, the survivor may need to make changes or risk underpayment penalties when taxes are paid in April. This is especially likely to occur if the spouse died early in the year. Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney who can help you file taxes after your spouse dies. If you would like to learn more about probate, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 29, 2021) “The Death of a Spouse is Hard. Taxes Makes It Harder”

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Trusts and wills have some key differences

Trusts and Wills have some Key Differences

Trusts and wills are two different ways to distribute and control your assets after your death. Trusts and wills have some key differences. Family trusts and wills are both worthwhile estate planning tools that can make sure your assets are protected and will pass to heirs the way you intended, says MSN’s recent article entitled “Family Trusts vs. Wills: What Are the Differences Between These Estate-Planning Options?”

This article tells you what you need to know about the differences between family trusts and wills to help you avoid estate planning mistakes.

Remember that without a will, the state probate laws will determine what happens to your assets. It may or may not be what you want. In contrast, a will lets you state to whom you want to distribute your assets.

Note that a trust permits the grantor (the person making the trust) to do what he or she wants with the assets. A trust also avoids probate.

A family trust is a wise choice for those who want to provide for the management of their assets if they become incapacitated, people interested in keeping information about their assets and who inherits those assets private and those who have a significant number of assets or a large estate. Here are some other situations in which a family trust would be appropriate to use:

  • Asset protection from creditors and divorce
  • For disabled beneficiaries who need to qualify for government benefits
  • For tax-planning; and
  • For cost and time efficiency over a lengthy probate process.

Everyone should have a will. It’s a way to leave bequests, nominate guardians for a minor child and an executor.

If you have a family trust, you still need a will. There may be some assets not owned by the trust, such as vehicles and other personal property. There may also be payments due you at your death. Those assets must go through probate, if not arranged to avoid probate.

Once that process is complete, the assets are distributed to the family trust and are governed by its provisions. This is what is known as a “pour-over will” because the assets “pour over” to the family trust.

Trusts and wills have some key differences, so it is important to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss the estate planning options available for you and your situation.

If you would like to read more about the differences between wills and trusts, and which is right for you, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: MSN (Aug. 27, 2021) “Family Trusts vs. Wills: What Are the Differences Between These Estate-Planning Options?”

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Managing financial issues after death of a spouse

Managing Financial issues after Death of Spouse

Managing financial issues that arise after the death of a spouse range from the simple—figuring out how to access online bill payment for utilities—to the complex—understanding estate and inheritance taxes. The first year after the death of a spouse is a time when surviving spouses are often fragile and vulnerable. It’s not the time to make any major financial or life decisions, says the article “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse” from Yahoo! Finance.

Tax implications following the death of a spouse. A drop in household income often means the surviving spouse needs to withdraw money from retirement accounts. While taxes may be lowered because of the drop in income, withdrawals from IRAs and 401(k)s that are not Roth accounts are taxable. However, less income might mean that the surviving spouse’s income is low enough to qualify for certain tax deductions or credits that otherwise they would not be eligible for.

Surviving spouses eventually have a different filing status. As long as the surviving spouse has not remarried in the year of death of their spouse, they are permitted to file a federal joint tax return. This may be an option for two more years, if there is a dependent child. However, after that, taxes must be filed as a single taxpayer, which means tax rates are not as favorable as they are for a couple filing jointly. The standard deduction is also lowered for a single person.

If the spouse inherits a traditional IRA, the surviving spouse may elect to be designated as the account owner, roll funds into their own retirement account, or be treated as a beneficiary. Which option is chosen will impact both the required minimum distribution (RMD) and the surviving spouse’s taxable income. If the spouse decides to become the designated owner of the original account or rolls the account into their own IRA, they may take RMDs based on their own life expectancy. If they chose the beneficiary route, RMDs are based on the life expectancy of the deceased spouse. Most people opt to roll the IRA into their own IRA or transfer it into an account in their own name.

The surviving spouse receives a stepped-up basis in other inherited property. If the assets are held jointly between spouses, there’s a step up in one half of the basis. However, if the asset was owned solely by the deceased spouse, the step up is 100%. In community property states, the total fair market value of property, including the portion that belongs to the surviving spouse, becomes the basis for the entire property, if at least half of its value is included in the deceased spouse’s gross estate. Your estate planning attorney will help prepare for this beforehand, or help you navigate this issue after the death of a spouse.

It should be noted there is a special rule that helps surviving spouses who wish to sell their home. Up to $250,000 of gain from the sale of a principal residence is tax-free, if certain conditions are met. The exemption increases to $500,000 for married couples filing a joint return, but a surviving spouse who has not remarried may still claim the $500,000 exemption, if the home is sold within two years of the spouses’ passing.

There is an unlimited marital deduction in addition to the current $11.7 million estate tax exemption. If the deceased’s estate is not near that amount, the surviving spouse should file form 706 to elect portability of their deceased spouse’s unused exemption. This protects the surviving spouse if the exemption is lowered, which may happen in the near future. If you don’t file in a timely manner, you’ll lose this exemption, so don’t neglect this task. Managing financial issues after the death of your spouse can be overwhelming. Work closely with an experienced estate planning attorney who is familiar with complex financial issues related to probate.

If you would like to read more about issues related to probate, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (July 16, 2021) “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse”

 

take care when transferring house to children

Selling a Home after the Death of a Parent

The first thing you’ll need to know about selling a home after the death of a parent, is how your parents held title, or owned, the home, begins the recent article “Home ownership after the death of a spouse” from nwi.com. In most cases, the home is owned by a couple as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship” or as “tenants by the entirety.” The latter is less common.

Tenancy by the entirety is a form of ownership available only to married people in a limited number of states and offers several advantages to the owners. It creates an ownership interest where the spouses own property jointly and not as individuals. It also creates the rights of survivorship, so that the surviving spouse owns the property by law when the first spouse dies.

Joint tenancy with rights of survivorship is similar to tenants by the entirety, in that they both convey rights of survivorship. However, joint tenancy does not treat the owners as a single unit. If you own entireties property with a spouse, you may not transfer your interest without your spouse’s permission because you own it as a unit.

In joint tenants, if one of the tenants want to transfer their interest in the property, he or she may do so at any time—and do not need the permission of the other tenant. This has led to some sticky situations, which is why tenants by the entirety is preferred in many situations.

If your parents own their home as tenants by the entireties or as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, the surviving spouse owns the home as a matter of law, and legally, ownership begins at the moment that first spouse dies.

Different states record this change of ownership differently, so you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney in your community (or the state where your parents lived, if it was different than where you live).

To notify the recorder’s office of the death, some state laws require the submission of a surviving spouse affidavit, which puts the recorder and the community on notice that one of the owners has died and the survivor now owns the home individually. Here again, an estate planning attorney will know the laws that apply in your situation.

There was a time when people recorded a death certificate, but this does not occur often. The affidavit makes a number of recitals that are important, and the recorded document proves the change of title.

In most cases, there is no need for a new deed, since the surviving spouse owns the property at the time of death, and the affidavit itself demonstrates proof of the transfer of title in lieu of a deed. If you are selling a home after the death of a parent, be sure to know how the home was deeded and what steps you will need to take. If you would like to learn more about probate and managing property after the death of a loved one, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: nwi.com (March 14, 2021) “Home ownership after the death of a spouse”

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Maximize Your Social Security Benefits

The desire to maximize your Social Security benefits is a relatively new phenomenon. For decades, people received their monthly benefit check and that was it. However, in the late 1990s, a new law let seniors over age 66 work without any reduction in benefits, says the article “Social Security & You: Seniors obsess over ‘maximizing’ their Social Security” from Tuscon.com. The law led to loopholes that became known as “file and suspend” and “file and restrict.” In a nutshell, they allowed retirees to collect dependent spousal benefits on a spouse’s Social Security record, while delaying their own benefits until age 70.

Congress eventually realized that these loopholes violated the basic concept of the program. Benefits to spouses were always known as “dependent” benefits. To claim benefits as a spouse, you had to prove that you were financially dependent upon the other spouse to collect benefits on their record. However, the loophole let people who were the primary wage earner in the family claim benefits as a “dependent” of the other spouse. Five years ago, Congress closed that loophole.

More specifically, Congress closed the ability to file-and-suspend. It also put file-and-restrict on notice. If you turned 66 before January 2020, you could still wiggle through that loophole, and there are some people who are still eligible. That’s where the term “maximizing your Social Security benefits” originated.

Can you get a bigger Social Security check, if you don’t fit into the exception noted above? The only real strategy to maximize your social security benefits is simply to wait. The equation is pretty simple. If you wait until your Full Retirement Age (FRA), you will receive 100% of your benefit rate. If you can wait until age 70, you’ll receive 132% of your benefit.

In some households, the higher income earner waits until age 70 to file for retirement, so that the surviving spouse will one day receive higher surviving spouse benefits.

But that’s not the best advice for everyone. If you or your spouse suffer from a chronic illness, it may not make sense to wait.

If you or your spouse have lost your jobs, as so many have because of the pandemic, then Social Security may be the safety net that you need, until you are able to return to some kind of paid employment.

There may be other reasons why you might need to take your benefits earlier, even earlier than your FRA. Some households start taking their Social Security benefits at age 62, as a way to augment other income.

If you don’t already have a “My Social Security” account set up on the Social Security Administration’s portal, now is the time to do so. The Social Security Administration stopped sending annual statements years ago, but you can go into your account and download the statements yourself and start planning for your future. There are ways to maximize your Social Security benefits, but you will need to take advantage now. Work with your financial advisor and estate planning attorney to see if you qualify.

If you would like to learn more about Social Security benefits, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Tuscon.com (Feb. 10, 2021) “Social Security & You: Seniors obsess over ‘maximizing’ their Social Security”

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Information in our blogs is very general in nature and should not be acted upon without first consulting with an attorney. Please feel free to contact Texas Trust Law to schedule a complimentary consultation.
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