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Paying Income Tax on Social Security Benefits



Dear Savvy Senior,

Will I have to pay federal income taxes on my Social Security benefits when I retire?

Approaching Retirement


Dear Approaching,

Whether or not you’ll be required to pay federal income tax on your Social Security benefits will depend on your income and filing status. About 35 percent of Social Security recipients have total incomes high enough to trigger federal income tax on their benefits.


To figure out if your benefits will be taxable, you’ll need to add up all of your “provisional income,” which includes wages, taxable and non-taxable interest, dividends, pensions and taxable retirement-plan distributions, self-employment, and other taxable income, plus half your annual Social Security benefits, minus certain deductions used in figuring your adjusted gross income.


How To Calculate

To help you with the calculations, get a copy of IRS Publication 915 “Social Security and Equivalent Railroad Retirement Benefits,” which provides detailed instructions and worksheets. You can download it at or call the IRS at 800-829-3676 and ask them to mail you a free copy.


After you do the calculations, the IRS says that if you’re single and your total income from all of the listed sources is:

  • Less that $25,000, your Social Security will not be subject to federal income tax.
  • Between $25,000 and $34,000, up to 50 percent of your Social Security benefits will be taxed at your regular income-tax rate.
  • More than $34,000, up to 85 percent of your benefits will be taxed.


If you’re married and filing jointly and the total from all sources is:

  • Less that $32,000, your Social Security won’t be taxed.
  • Between $32,000 and $44,000, up to 50 percent of your Social Security benefits will be taxed.
  • More than $44,000, up to 85 percent of your benefits will be taxed.


If you’re married and file a separate return, you probably will pay taxes on your benefits.


To limit potential taxes on your benefits, you’ll need to be cautious when taking distributions from retirement accounts or other sources. In addition to triggering ordinary income tax, a distribution that significantly raises your gross income can bump the proportion of your Social Security benefits subject to taxes.


How to File

If you find that part of your Social Security benefits will be taxable, you’ll need to file using Form 1040 or Form 1040A. You cannot use Form 1040EZ. You also need to know that if you do owe taxes, you’ll need to make quarterly estimated tax payments to the IRS or you can choose to have it automatically withheld from your benefits.


To have it withheld, you’ll need to complete IRS Form W-4V, Voluntary Withholding Request (, and file it with your local Social Security office. You can choose to have 7 percent, 10 percent, 15 percent or 25 percent of your total benefit payment withheld. If you subsequently decide you don’t want the taxes withheld, you can file another W-4V to stop the withholding.


State Taxation

In addition to the federal government, 13 states – Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia – tax Social Security benefits to some extent too. If you live in one of these states, check with your state tax agency for details.


For questions on taxable Social Security benefits call the IRS help line at 800-829-1040, or visit an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center (see where you can get face-to-face help.


Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

 – Jim Miller, Parade Magazine

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Automatic Medicare Advantage Enrollment Causes Confusion



Dear Savvy Senior,

I’ll be 65 in a few months and I recently pre-enrolled in original Medicare. But last week, I received a member card in the mail for a Medicare Advantage plan that I did not enroll in. What’s going on? Medicare is so confusing with all the different choices, and now it seems like I’m getting automatically enrolled in a plan I didn’t even choose. Is this a scam?

New to Medicare

Dear New,

It’s not a scam, but it is a growing problem the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services needs to resolve. Here’s what you should know.

Automatic Enrollment?

When Americans first become eligible for Medicare – typically at age 65 – they can choose to enroll either in original Medicare, or they can opt for a Medicare Advantage plan, which is offered by private insurance companies. But some people, like yourself, are being enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan without your knowledge.

Here’s how it’s happening.

Before becoming eligible for Medicare, many people are covered by a commercial or a Medicaid health care plan run by a private health insurance company. These insurers often operate Medicare Advantage plans too.

Under a little-known rule authorized by the federal government, some insurers can shift their beneficiaries who are turning 65 to their own Medicare Advantage plan. It’s a process called “seamless conversion enrollment,” and all it requires is that the insurance company send a letter to the beneficiary explaining the new coverage, which takes effect unless the member opts out within 60 days.

The idea is to preserve continuity for those who want to stay with the same company. But some seniors are unaware that they’ve been signed up, in part due to the flood of mail they get around their 65th birthday from insurers marketing their Medicare plans. This makes it easy to miss a notice of seamless conversion or fail to understand the letter.

It can also have serious financial consequences. Medicare Advantage plans tend to be HMOs and PPOs with limited provider networks. If you unknowingly get enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan and receive treatment from a doctor who’s not in the network your medical bills may go uncovered.

Consumer advocate groups like the Medicare Rights Center is pushing for a change in the rules. They want it set up so beneficiaries must respond to the letter/invitation before they’re enrolled, versus having to opt out of automatic enrollment. In the meantime, here are some things you can do to protect yourself from unrequested Medicare enrollment.

Self Protection

Every one approaching age 65 should carefully read all mail received from your current health insurance provider. If you come across anything suggesting that the insurance company intends to enroll you in a Medicare Advantage plan that you do not wish to have, contact the insurer and decline to be enrolled.

Also, to be safe, about a month prior to Medicare eligibility, call your current insurer to confirm that you are not being automatically enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan.

If you are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan against your wishes, call Medicare at 800-633-4227. People in this situation have been allowed to convert to traditional Medicare without having to wait until the next open-enrollment period, or enroll in a different Medicare Advantage plan that they choose. It even might be possible to be retroactively enrolled in Medicare so that out-of-network expenses already incurred are covered.

If you need help with your Medicare enrollment, contact your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), which provides free one-on-one Medicare counseling in person or over the phone. For contact information visit, or call the eldercare locator at 800-677-1116.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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How Much Does a Funeral Cost?



Savvy Senior

How Much Does a Funeral Cost?

Dear Savvy Senior,

How much does an average funeral and body burial cost? I need to make funeral arrangements for my aunt, who’s terminally ill, and would like to have a cost idea going in so I can plan and budget appropriately.

The Executor

Dear Executor,

It definitely pays to know what charges to expect when pre-planning a funeral. Most people don’t have a clue, and can often be upsold thousands of dollars worth of extra services you may not want or need. Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect.

Funeral Prices

The first thing you need to be aware of is that funeral costs will vary considerably depending on your geographic location, the funeral home you choose and the funeral choices you make. With that said, here’s a breakdown of what an average funeral costs, nationwide, according to recent data from the National Funeral Directors Association.

Professional services fee: This is a basic non-declinable fee that covers the funeral provider’s time, expertise and overhead. $2,000

 Transfer of the remains: This is for picking up the body and taking it to the funeral home. $310

Embalming and body preparation: Embalming is usually mandatory for open-casket viewing, otherwise it’s not required unless the body is going to be transported across state lines. Embalming costs $695. Other body preparations, which includes hairdressing and cosmetics runs $250.

Funeral viewing and ceremony: If the viewing and funeral ceremony is at the funeral home, you’ll be charged for use of the chapel and any necessary staff. Costs: $420 for viewing, and $495 for funeral ceremony.

Metal casket: This is a big money maker for funeral homes, with markups of up to 300 percent over the wholesale price. $2,395.

 Funeral transportation: Use of hearse and driver $318 to transport the body to the cemetery. Use of a service car/van $143.

Memorial printed package: This includes printed programs and memorial guest book.  $155.

In addition to these costs, there are a number of other related expenses such as flowers for the funeral (around $200 to $400), the newspaper obituary fee ($100 to $600 or more), the clergy honorarium ($200 to $300) and extra copies of the death certificate ($5 to $35 per copy depending on the state).

And, a number of large cemetery costs like the plot or mausoleum fee, the vault or grave liner that’s required by most cemeteries, and the opening and closing of the grave, all of which average between $2,000 and $4,000; and the gravestone, which typically costs between $1,000 and $3,000.

All told, the average cost of a total funeral today is around $11,000 or more.

Ways to Save

If your aunt’s estate can’t afford this, there are ways to save. For starters, you should know that prices can vary significantly by funeral provider, so it’s wise to shop around.

If you need some help finding an affordable provider, your area funeral consumers alliance program may be able to refer you. See or call 802-865-8300 for contact information.

There are also free websites you can turn to, like that lets you compare prices, and that will provide estimates from local funeral homes based on what you want.

When evaluating funeral providers, be sure you get an itemized price list of services and products so you can accurately compare and choose what you want.

But, the most significant way to save on a funeral is to request a “direct burial” or “direct cremation.” With these options your aunt would be buried or cremated shortly after death, which skips the embalming and viewing. If she wants a memorial service you can have it at the graveside or at her place of worship without the body. These services usually run between $600 and $2,000, not counting cemetery charges.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.


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How and When to Apply for Social Security Retirement Benefits



Dear Savvy Senior,

What is the easiest way to apply for my Social Security retirement benefits, and how far in advance do I need to apply before I start collecting?

Approaching 62

Dear Approaching,

The Social Security Administration offers three different ways you can apply for your retirement and/or spouses benefits, depending on your preference and how much help you need. Here’s a rundown of the options, along with a list of information you’ll need to apply, and when to fill out the application.

How To Apply?

The easiest and most convenient way to apply for your Social Security benefits is to do it yourself online at It takes less than 15 minutes to complete the application, as long as you’ve gathered all of the required information and documentation (more on that at the bottom of the column).

If, however, you’d rather have a Social Security employee assist with the process, you can also apply by phone at 800-772-1213, or at your local Social Security office. If you apply in person, be sure to call ahead and schedule an appointment to cut your office wait time.

Whichever method you feel most comfortable using, your application will be reviewed and processed as soon as all necessary documentation and information is received. And, the Social Security Administration will notify you if it turns out you could qualify for higher benefits on your spouse’s record, or if other family members can receive benefits on your work record.

When To Apply?

While full retirement age is currently 66 (for those born between 1943 and 1954) you can start receiving your Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62 or as late as age 70, but the longer you wait the larger your monthly check. See to estimate your benefits.

Social Security recommends that you apply for retirement benefits three months before you want your payments to start. So if you want your benefits to begin as soon as you turn 62, you should apply at 61 years and nine months old.

It’s also worth noting that if you start receiving your Social Security retirement benefits before age 65, you will automatically be enrolled in Medicare Part A and Part B, and you’ll receive your Medicare card about three months before your 65th birthday. It will include instructions to return it if you have work coverage that qualifies you for late enrollment.

But if you decide to delay your retirement benefits, you’ll need to sign up just for Medicare at age 65, which you can also do at, over the phone at 800-772-1213 or through your local Social Security office.

If you do not sign up, in some circumstances your Medicare coverage may be delayed and cost more.

Need Information

In order to apply for Social Security benefits, you’ll need to be able to document some information about your identity and work history. So before applying, have the following information handy:

  • Your Social Security number.
  • Your birth certificate (original or certified).
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you were not born in the United States.
  • A copy of your U.S. military service papers if you had military service before 1968.
  • A copy of your W-2 forms and/or self-employment tax return for last year.
  • Your bank information (including your account number and the bank routing number) you want your benefits direct deposited to.

For a complete checklist of information you’ll need to complete your application, see

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.


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