Q. I have read that Social Security owns much of the Federal debt via bonds and securities. Are these securities used in the calculations of the health of the Social Security trust fund? Do they routinely 'cash out' the securities and purchase more?
Also, how much would it help the health of the Social Security Trust Fund if the payroll tax cap were completely removed, effectively raising taxes on the wealthy? ---J.F., by email
A. Yes, the Social Security Trustees figure the Trust Fund into all calculations of actuarial balance. Since the 1983 reforms excess employment tax revenue has been turned into Treasury obligations. Additional Treasury obligations are added to account for earned interest.
In 2015 Trust fund assets amounted to $2.8 trillion. The Trust fund balance will continue to grow until 2019, according to the trustees report, because of accrued interest. On a true cash basis, however, benefits paid have exceeded payroll tax revenue and taxation of benefits revenue for several years. Benefit payments alone will exceed payroll tax revenue in 2018.
Eliminating the wage base cap on the employment tax, now set at $118,000, would improve the financing of Social Security significantly, but it would also amount to a massive tax increase on upper-middle-income households, so raising the cap would not be a free lunch from the wealthy. That said, while only about 6 percent of all earners exceed the wage base cap, an increasing portion of all earnings is going to that 6 percent.
Q. I've read that as we get older, we should simplify our investments and accounts. My husband and I are in our early seventies, both retired. We have a comfortable retirement from Social Security and various IRA's. We are debt-free.
We also have 10 stocks with dividend reinvestment investment plans---DRIPS--- that my husband started about 15 years ago as "play money." We don't include them in our retirement planning. They total about $78,000 and range from $800 to $18,000 in value. We've not added to these since we retired. In the past we've donated stock from these accounts to our church or other organizations’ major fundraising efforts.
I'm thinking that at our age we need to reduce the number of these accounts. I don't want to have to manage them alone if necessary, and our children don't have the time or knowledge to do so later on. As we donate in the future, I would like to donate entire accounts, thereby gradually eliminating them, rather than donating partial amounts from certain accounts, but keeping them active. What is the best approach? ---H.W., Houston, Texas
A. There’s a good solution for this: open a charitable gift fund account with a firm that offers these accounts, such as Schwab or Fidelity. You’ll get all the benefits of having a charitable foundation, but without the paperwork.
Here’s how it would work for you. First, you’d open an account. Then you’d transfer your various stocks. You would avoid the capital gains tax on the gains in the stocks. You'd receive a tax deduction for the full value of the shares. It might be beneficial for you to donate some shares this year and some shares next year. This is a good thing to speak with your tax accountant about.
The charitable gift fund would sell the shares and you would need to make some simple choices about how the money would be invested. The choices would be mutual funds and you’d be able to choose managed or index funds.
After that, you can make gifts to the charities of your choice. Better still, the charity won’t be burdened with the expense of selling shares. You’ll also be able to make gifts in smaller amounts than is practical when gifting shares.
You don’t have to be rich to have a charitable gift fund: The minimum for opening an account at both Fidelity and Schwab is $5,000. Charitable gift funds are a great tool for managing your income taxes. And they have a side benefit for your charities: since the money has already been given to the fund, it’s easier to give to charities throughout the year. My wife and I have had such funds at both Fidelity and Schwab over the last 10 years. Both have worked flawlessly and easily.