What to Do after a Family Member Dies – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Consumer Reports’ article, titled “What to Do When a Loved One Dies,” outlines some good advice to keep a loved one’s death from becoming even more painful.

Immediately

Here is what you and your family should do right away:

  1. Obtain a legal pronouncement of death. If a doctor is not present, and the individual dies at home under hospice care, call the hospice nurse. He or she can declare the death and help facilitate the transport of the body. If the person dies at home unexpectedly without hospice care, call 911. If the person has a DNR or do-not-resuscitate document, show it to the first responders.
  2. Make the arrangements for transportation of the body. If no autopsy is required, the body can be released to a mortuary or crematorium.
  3. Notify the person’s physician or the county coroner.
  4. Notify family and friends.
  5. Make arrangements for the care of dependents and pets.
  6. Contact the person’s employer (if applicable). Ask for information concerning benefits and any pay due, as well as if there was a life-insurance policy through the company.

Within a Few Days After Death

After some of the dust has settled, and you are able to think clearly and make some bigger decisions, address the following:

  1. Arrange for funeral and burial or cremation. See if the individual had a prepaid burial plan. Take a friend or family member with you to the mortuary. You should also prepare an obituary.
  2. Determine if there are burial benefits. If the person was in the military or was a member of a fraternal or religious group, contact that organization because it may have burial benefits or conduct funeral services. A local VFW or American Legion may provide an honor guard, if requested.
  3. Secure the home. Make sure there is security or someone to keep an eye on the individual’s home. Have the phone forwarded, collect mail, throw food out, water plants and keep minimal heat on to keep pipes from freezing in a colder climate’s winter months.

Up to 10 Days After Death

Here is the next set of items to do in the 10 days after a loved one passes:

  1. Get copies of the death certificate. These are usually obtained from the funeral home. Get multiple copies because you will need them for banks, government agencies and insurance companies.
  2. Present the will to the appropriate government office for probate.
  3. Contact the following:
  • An experienced estate planning attorney;
  • Banks;
  • The life insurance company;
  • The Social Security Administration;
  • Agency providing pension services, to stop monthly checks and get claim forms;
  • Utility companies, to change or stop service;
  • The U.S. Postal Service;
  • The IRS, credit-reporting agencies and the DMV to prevent identity theft; and
  • Social media companies to memorialize or remove an account.

Reference: Consumer Reports (Jan. 5, 2021) “What to Do When a Loved One Dies”

 

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SECURE Act has Changed Special Needs Planning – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The SECURE Act eliminated the life expectancy payout for inherited IRAs for most people, but it also preserved the life expectancy option for five classes of eligible beneficiaries, referred to as “EDBs” in a recent article from Morningstar.com titled “Providing for Disabled Beneficiaries After the SECURE Act.” Two categories that are considered EDBs are disabled individuals and chronically ill individuals. Estate planning needs to be structured to take advantage of this option.

The first step is to determine if the individual would be considered disabled or chronically ill within the specific definition of the SECURE Act, which uses almost the same definition as that used by the Social Security Administration to determine eligibility for SS disability benefits.

A person is deemed to be “chronically ill” if they are unable to perform at least two activities of daily living or if they require substantial supervision because of cognitive impairment. A licensed healthcare practitioner certifies this status, typically used when a person enters a nursing home and files a long-term health insurance claim.

However, if the disabled or ill person receives any kind of medical care, subsidized housing or benefits under Medicaid or any government programs that are means-tested, an inheritance will disqualify them from receiving these benefits. They will typically need to spend down the inheritance (or have a court authorized trust created to hold the inheritance), which is likely not what the IRA owner had in mind.

Typically, a family member wishing to leave an inheritance to a disabled person leaves the inheritance to a Supplemental Needs Trust or SNT. This allows the individual to continue to receive benefits but can pay for things not covered by the programs, like eyeglasses, dental care, or vacations. However, does the SNT receive the same life expectancy payout treatment as an IRA?

Thanks to a special provision in the SECURE Act that applies only to the disabled and the chronically ill, a SNT that pays nothing to anyone other than the EDB can use the life expectancy payout. The SECURE Act calls this trust an “Applicable Multi-Beneficiary Trust,” or AMBT.

For other types of EDB, like a surviving spouse, the individual must be named either as the sole beneficiary or, if a trust is used, must be the sole beneficiary of a conduit trust to qualify for the life expectancy payout. Under a conduit trust, all distributions from the inherited IRA or other retirement plan must be paid out to the individual more or less as received during their lifetime. However, the SECURE Act removes that requirement for trusts created for the disabled or chronically ill.

However, not all of the SECURE Act’s impact on special needs planning is smooth sailing. The AMBT must provide that nothing may be paid from the trust to anyone but the disabled individual while they are living. What if the required minimum distribution from the inheritance is higher than what the beneficiary needs for any given year? Let us say the trustee must withdraw an RMD of $60,000, but the disabled person’s needs are only $20,000? The trust is left with $40,000 of gross income, and there is nowhere for the balance of the gross income to go.

In the past, SNTs included a provision that allowed the trustee to pass excess income to other family members and deduct the amount as distributable net income, shifting the tax liability to family members who might be in a lower tax bracket than the trust.

Special Needs Planning under the SECURE Act has raised this and other issues, which can be addressed by an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Morningstar.com (Dec. 9, 2020) “Providing for Disabled Beneficiaries After the SECURE Act”

 

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How to Benefit from a Roth IRA and Social Security – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

When originally created, Social Security was designed to prevent the elderly and infirm from sinking into dire poverty. When most working Americans enjoyed a pension from their employer, Social Security was an additional source of income and made for a comfortable retirement. However, with an average monthly benefit just over $1,500 and few pensions, today’s Social Security is not enough money for most Americans to maintain a middle-class standard of living, says the article “3 Reasons a Roth IRA Is a Perfect Supplement to Social Security” from Tuscon.com. It is important to plan for additional income streams and one to consider is the Roth IRA.

Roth IRAs can be funded at any age. Many seniors today are continuing to work to generate income or to continue a fulfilling life. Their earnings can be put into a Roth IRA, regardless of age. If you are still working but do not need the paycheck, that is a perfect way to fund the Roth IRA.

Withdrawals from a Roth won’t trigger taxes on Social Security benefits. If your only income is Social Security, you probably will not have to worry about federal taxes. However, if you are working while you are collecting benefits, once your earnings reach a certain level, those benefits will be taxed.

To calculate taxes on Social Security benefits, you will need to determine your provisional income, which is the non-Social Security income plus half of your early benefit. If you earn between $25,000 and $44,000 as a single tax filer or between $32,000 and $44,000 as a married couple, you could be taxed as much as 50% of your Social Security benefits. If your single income goes past $34,000 and married income goes past $44,000, you could be taxed on up to 85% of your benefits.

If you put money into a Roth IRA, withdrawals do not count towards your provisional income. That could leave you with more money from Social Security.

A Roth IRA is flexible. The Roth IRA is the only tax-advantaged retirement savings plan that does not impose Required Minimum Distributions or RMDs. That is because you have already paid taxes when funds went into the account. However, the flexibility is worth it. You can leave the money in the account for as long as you want, so savings continue to grow tax-free. You can also leave money to your heirs.

While you do not have to put your savings into a Roth IRA, doing so throughout your career—or starting at any age—will give you benefits throughout retirement.

Reference: Tuscon.com (Oct. 5, 2020) “3 Reasons a Roth IRA Is a Perfect Supplement to Social Security”

 

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The Wrong Power of Attorney Could Lead to a Bad Outcome – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

There are two different types of advance directives, and they have very different purposes, as explained in the article that asks “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?” from Next Avenue. Less than a third of retirees have a financial power of attorney, according to a study done by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Most people do not even understand what these documents do, which is critically important, especially during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Two types of Durable Power of Attorney for Finance. The power of attorney for finance can be “springing” or “immediate.” The Durable POA refers to the fact that this POA will endure after you have lost mental or physical capacity, whether the condition is permanent or temporary. It lists when the powers are to be granted to the person of your choosing and the power ends upon your death.

The “immediate” Durable POA is effective the moment you sign the document. The “springing” Durable POA does not become effective, unless two physicians examine you and both determine that you cannot manage independently anymore. In the case of the “springing” POA, the person you name cannot do anything on your behalf without two doctors providing letters saying you lack legal capacity.

You might prefer the springing document because you are concerned that the person you have named to be your agent might take advantage of you. They could legally go to your bank and add their name to your accounts without your permission or even awareness. Some people decide to name their spouse as their immediate agent, and if anything happens to the spouse, the successor agents are the ones who need to get doctors’ letters. If you need doctors’ letters before the person you name can help you, ask your estate planning attorney for guidance.

The type of impairment that requires the use of a POA for finance can happen unexpectedly. It could include you and your spouse at the same time. If you were both exposed to Covid-19 and became sick, or if you were both in a serious car accident, this kind of planning would be helpful for your family.

It is also important to choose the right person to be your POA. Ask yourself this question: If you gave this person your checkbook and asked them to pay your bills on time for a few months, would you expect that they would be able to do the job without any issues? If you feel any sense of incompetence or even mistrust, you should consider another person to be your representative.

If you should recover from your incapacity, your POA is required to turn everything back to you when you ask. If you are concerned this person will not do this, you need to consider another person.

Broad powers are granted by a Durable POA. They allow your representative to buy property on your behalf and sell your property, including your home, manage your debt and Social Security benefits, file tax returns and handle any assets not named in a trust, such as your retirement accounts.

The executor of your will, your trustee, and Durable POA are often the same person. They have the responsibility to manage all of your assets, so they need to know where all of your important records can be found. They need to know that you have given them this role and you need to be sure they are prepared and willing to accept the responsibilities involved.

Your advance directive documents are only as good as the individuals you name to implement them. Family members or trusted friends who have no experience managing money or assets may not be the right choice. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you to make a good decision.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 5, 2020) “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?”

 

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Social Security and Medicare and the Impact on Retiree Taxes – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A 70% increase in Medicare premiums to $559 was a complete surprise to a woman who became a single taxpayer when her husband died. She felt like she was being punished for being a widow, she said in a recent article titled “Retirees, Beware These Tax Torpedoes” from Barron’s. With a 2018 modified adjusted gross income of $163,414, a combination of required minimum distributions, Social Security and her husband’s pensions, she went from being in the third-highest Medicare bracket into the second highest Medicare bracket. All it took was $414 dollars to exceed the $163,000 limit.

This is not the only tax trap awaiting unwary retirees. Lower- and middle-income taxpayers get hit by what is commonly referred to as “tax torpedoes,” as rising income during retirement triggers new taxes. That includes Social Security income, which is taxed after reaching a certain limit. The resulting marginal tax rate—as high as 40.8%—is made worse by a Medicare surtax of 0.9% on couples with taxable income exceeding $250,000. Capital gains taxes also increase, as income rises.

It may be too late to make changes for this tax-filing year, even with a three-month extension to July 15. However, there are a few steps that retirees can take to avoid or minimize these taxes for next year. The simplest one: delay spending from one year to the next and be extra careful about taking funds from after-tax accounts.

What hurts most is if you are on the borderline of a bracket. Just one wrong move, like selling a stock or taking a distribution, puts you into the next bracket. You need to plan carefully.

One thing that will not be a concern for 2020 taxes: required minimum distributions. While many retirees get pushed into tax traps because of taking large RMDs, the emergency legislation passed in response to the coronavirus crisis (the CARES Act) eliminated RMDs for this year.

However, the RMDs will be back in 2021, so now is a good time to start thinking about how to avoid any of the typical tax torpedoes. RMDs used to start at age 70½; the SECURE Act changed that to 72.

If you do not need the money from an RMD in 2021, one workaround is to take it as a qualified charitable distribution. That avoids triggering higher taxes or higher future Medicare premiums. The administrator of the tax-deferred account needs to be instructed to make a donation directly to a charity.

An even better strategy: take steps long before Medicare income limits or tax torpedoes hit. If you can, live on after-tax savings, Roth IRA accounts or inherited money. Spend that money first, before tapping into tax-deferred accounts. You can then take advantage of being in a lower tax bracket to convert money from tax-deferred money to convert to Roth IRAs.

Another story of a tax hit that was avoided: a man with an income of about $80,000 prepared to take $4,000 from a tax-deferred account for a vacation. The couple’s normal top tax bracket was 12%, but they hit the income limit on Social Security taxes. The $4,000 in additional income would have caused $3,400 in Social Security income to be taxed, making his marginal tax rate 22.2% instead of 12%. With the help of a good advisor, the couple instead took $3,000 from a Roth IRA and sold a stock position for $1,000, where there were practically no capital gains generated.

Incomes at all levels can be hit by these tax and Medicare torpedoes. A skilled advisor can help protect your retirement and Social Security funds.

Reference: Barron’s (July 6, 2020) “Retirees, Beware These Tax Torpedoes”

 

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Possible Pitfalls for Special Needs Planning for Parents – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Public benefits for disabled individuals include health care, supplemental income, and resources, like day programs and other vital services. Some benefits are based on the individual’s disability status, but others are “needs tested,” where eligibility is determined based on financial resources, as explained in the article “Planning for loved ones with special needs” from NWTimes.com.

Needs testing” is something that parents must address as part of special needs planning, in concert with their own estate planning. This ensures that the individual’s government benefits will continue, while their family has the comfort of knowing that after the parents die, their child may have access to resources to cover additional costs and maintain a quality of life they may not otherwise have.

Families must be very careful to make informed planning decisions, otherwise their loved ones may lose the benefits they rely upon.

A variety of special planning tools may be used, and the importance of skilled help from an elder law estate planning attorney cannot be overstated.

One family received a “re-determination” letter from the Social Security Administration. This is the process whereby the SSA scrutinizes a person’s eligibility for benefits, based on their possible access to other non-governmental resources. Once the process begins, the potential exists for a disabled person to lose benefits or be required to pay back benefits if they were deemed to have wrongfully received them.

In this case, a woman who lived in California, engaged in a periodic phone call with California Medicaid. California is known for aggressively pursuing on-going benefits eligibility. The woman mentioned a trust that had been created as a result of estate planning done by her late father. The brief mention was enough to spark an in-depth review of planning. The SSA requested no less than 15 different items, including estate documents, account history and a review of all disbursements for the last two years.

The process has created a tremendous amount of stress for the woman and for her family. The re-determination will also create expenses, as the attorney who drafted the original trust in Indiana, where the father lived, will need to work with a special needs attorney in California, who is knowledgeable about the process in the state.

Similar to estate planning, the special needs process required by Medicaid and the SSA is a constantly evolving process, and not a “one-and-done” transaction. Special needs and estate planning documents created as recently as three or four years ago should be reviewed.

Reference: NWTimes.com (June 21, 2020) “Planning for loved ones with special needs”

 

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What Must Be Done when a Loved One Dies? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

When a member of a family dies, it falls to the people left behind to pick up the pieces. Someone has to find out if the person left a last will, get the bills paid, stop Social Security or other automatic payments and file final tax returns. This is a hard time, but these tasks are among many that need to be done, according to the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider.

This year, more families than usual are faced with the challenge of taking care of the business of a loved one’s life while grieving a loss. When death comes suddenly, there is not always time to prepare.

The first step is to determine who will be in charge. If there is a will, then it contains the name of the person selected to be the executor. When a married person dies, usually the surviving spouse has been named as the executor. Otherwise, the family will need to work together to pick one person, usually the one who lives closest to the person who died. That person may need to keep an eye on the house and obtain documents, so proximity is a plus. In a perfect world, the person would have an estate plan, so these decisions would have been made in advance.

Do not procrastinate. It is hard, but time is an issue. After the funeral and mourning period, it is time to get to work. Obtain death certificates, and make sure to get enough certified copies—most people get ten or twelve. They will be needed for banks, brokerage houses and utility service providers. You will also need death certificates for taking control of some digital assets, like the person’s Facebook page.

The first agency to notify is Social Security. If there are other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those organizations also need to be notified. Contact banks, insurance companie, and financial advisors.

Get the person’s credit cards into your possession and call the credit card companies immediately. Fraud on the deceased is common. Scammers look at death notices and then go onto the dark web to find the person’s Social Security number, credit card and other personal identification info. The sooner the cards are shut down, the better.

Physical assets need to be secured. Locks on a house may be changed to prevent relatives or strangers from walking into the house and taking out property. Remove any possessions that are of value, both sentimental or financial. You should also take a complete inventory of what is in the house. Take pictures of everything and be prepared to keep the house well-maintained. If there are tenants or housemates, make arrangements to get them out of the house as soon as possible.

Accounts with beneficiaries are distributed directly to those beneficiaries, like payable-on-death (POD) accounts, 401(k)s, joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy. The executor’s role is to notify the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds to beneficiaries.

The executor must also file a final tax return. The final federal tax return is due on April 15 of the year after death. Any taxes that were not filed for any prior years, also need to be completed.

This is a big job, which is made harder by grief. Your estate planning attorney may have some suggestions for who might be qualified to help you. An attorney or a fiduciary will take a fee, either based on an hourly rate for services performed or a percentage of the entire value of the estate. If no one in the family is able to manage the tasks, it may be worth the investment.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

 

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Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

This year, more families than usual are finding themselves grappling with the challenge of managing the affairs of a loved one who has died. Handling these tasks while mourning is hard, and often families do not have time to prepare, says the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider. The following are some tips to help get through this difficult time.

Someone has to be in charge. If there is a will, there should be a person named who is responsible for administering the estate, usually called the executor or personal representative. If there is no will, it will be best if one person has the necessary skills to take the lead.

When one member of a married couple dies, the surviving spouse is the usual choice. Otherwise, a family member who lives closest to the deceased is the next best choice. That person will need to get documents from the local court and take care of the residence until it is sold. Being physically nearby can make many tasks easier.

It is always better if these decisions are made before the person dies. Wills should be kept up to date, as should power of attorney documents, trusts and advance directives. When naming an executor or trustee, let them know what you are asking of them. For instance, do not name someone who hates pets and children to be your children’s guardian or be responsible for your beloved dogs when you die.

Don’t delay. Grief is a powerful emotion, especially if the death was unexpected. It may be hard to get through the regular tasks of your day, never mind the additional work of managing an estate. However, there are risks to delaying, including becoming a target of scammers.

Get more death certificates than seems necessary. Make your life easier by getting at least a dozen certified copies, so you do not have to keep going back to the source. Banks, brokerage houses, phone companies, utilities, credit card companies, etc., will all want to see the death certificate. While there are instances where a copy will be accepted, in many cases you will need an original, with a raised seal. In fact, in some states it is a crime to photocopy a death certificate.

Who to notify? The first call needs to be to the Social Security Administration. You may also want to send an email. If Social Security benefits continue to be paid, returning the money can turn into a time-consuming ordeal. If there are any other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those institutions need to be notified. The same is true when it comes to insurance companies, banks and credit card companies. Fraud on the credit cards of the deceased is quite common. When a notice of death is published, criminals look for the person’s credit card and Social Security numbers on the dark web. Act fast to prevent fraud.

Protect the physical property. Secure the home right away. Are there plants to be watered or pets that need care? Take pictures, create an inventory and consider changing locks. Take any valuables out of the house and place in a secure location. If the house is going to be empty, make sure to take care of the property to avoid any deterioration.

Paying the bills. Depending on the person’s level of organization, you will have to identify where the money is and if anything is being paid automatically. Old tax returns can be helpful to identify income sources. Figure out what accounts need payment, like utilities.

Some accounts are distributed directly to beneficiaries, like transfer-on-death accounts like 401(k)s, IRAs and life insurance policies. Joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy will pass directly to the joint owner. The executor’s role is to inform the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds.

File tax returns. You will have to do the final taxes, due on April 15 of the year after death. If taxes were not filed for any prior years, the executor has to do those as well.

Consider getting help. An estate planning lawyer can help with the administration of an estate, if it becomes overwhelming. Regardless of who handles this process, expect the tasks to take anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the complexity of the estate.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

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Would an Early Retirement and Early Social Security Be Smart? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

For older employees who are laid off as a result of the pandemic, the idea of an early retirement and taking Social Security benefits early may seem like the best or only way forward. However, cautions Forbes in the article “Should You Take Social Security Earlier Than Planned If You’re Laid Off Due to COVID-19?,” this could be a big mistake with long-term repercussions.

In the recession that began in 2008, there were very few jobs for older workers. As a result, many had no choice but to take Social Security early. The problem is that taking benefits early means a smaller benefit.

In 2009, one year after the market took a nosedive, as many as 42.4 percent of 62-year-olds signed up for Social Security benefits. By comparison, in 2008, the number of 62-year-olds who took Social Security benefits was 37.6 percent.

You can start taking Social Security early and then stop it later. However, there are other options for those who are strapped for cash.

There is a new tool from the IRS that allows taxpayers to update their direct deposit information to get their stimulus payment faster and track when to expect it. There is also a separate tool for non-tax filers.

Apply for unemployment insurance. Yes, the online system is coping with huge demand, so it is going to take more than a little effort and patience. However, unemployment insurance is there for this very same purpose. Part of the economic stimulus package extends benefits to gig workers, freelancers and the self-employed, who are not usually eligible for unemployment.

Consider asking a family member for a loan, or a gift. Any individual is allowed to give someone else up to $15,000 a year with no tax consequences. Gifts that are larger require a gift tax return, but no tax is due. The amount is simply counted against the amount that any one person can give tax free during their lifetime. That amount is now over $11 million. By law, you can accept a loan from a family member up to $10,000 with no paperwork. After that amount, you will need a written loan agreement that states that interest will be charged – at least the minimum AFR—Applicable Federal Rate. An estate planning attorney can help you with this.

Tap retirement accounts—gently. The stimulus package eases the rules around retirement account loans and withdrawals for people who have been impacted by the COVID-19 downturn. The ten percent penalty for early withdrawals before age 59½ has been waived for 2020.

If you must take Social Security, you can do so starting at age 62. In normal times, the advice is to tap retirement accounts before taking Social Security, so that your benefits can continue to grow. The return on Social Security continues to be higher than equities, so this is still good advice.

Reference: Forbes (April 15, 2020) “Should You Take Social Security Earlier Than Planned If You’re Laid Off Due to COVID-19?”

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What are the Blind Spots in Social Security? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The SimplyWise survey also found that there are five areas that are especially confusing to people. Only one in 300 of those who took a five-question quiz answered all the questions correctly, reports Think Advisor in the article entitled “5 Common Blind Spots on Social Security.”

Here are some Social Security questions that might be relevant and not knowing the answers could cost you thousands of dollars a year in income.

  1. What age do I claim to maximize my monthly earned Social Security benefit? The age is 70, although 62 years is when an individual can first make a claim. However, your benefits grow each year you wait—up to age 70. According to SimplyWise, only 42% of quiz takers got this answer right.
  2. What is the earliest age non-disabled people can get survivor benefits? A mere 9% answered this correctly. It is age 60. Many think it is age 62, the age people can begin claiming Social Security.That is correct for earned benefits and spousal benefits.
  3. Is a current spouse required to be getting Social Security benefits, for the other spouse to qualify for spousal benefits? Yes. Just 20% of respondents got this answer correct. It is important to understand that if both spouses are claiming Social Security, one can either receive their own benefit or 50% of their spouse’s amount, whichever is more.
  4. Is a divorced spouse able to get survivor benefits? Yes, and just 38% of people got this answer right. The criteria is somewhat different than for married people. The marriage must have lasted at least 10 years, and there are certain rules that apply to remarrying. However, divorced spouses can collect survivor benefits under a deceased ex-spouse.
  5. Can divorced spouses get spousal benefits? Yes, and 67% got this answer correct. Divorced spouses who were married for at least 10 years and have not remarried can claim spousal benefits.

Reference: Think Advisor (Feb. 13, 2020) “5 Common Blind Spots on Social Security”

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