Seniors dodge fiscal cliff, await another

The tax deal struck by President Barack Obama, The tax deal struck by President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, and Congress last month to avert the "fiscal cliff" that would have shut down the government left most seniors unscathed. (Jan. 21, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Retirees have escaped the cliff, but there still might be some slippery slopes to navigate.

The tax deal struck by President Barack Obama and Congress last month to avert the "fiscal cliff" that would have shut down the government left most seniors unscathed. The deal's biggest effect is on wage earners, who were hit with a hike in the payroll tax. Since four out of five people 65 and older are retired, this is one tax most seniors will not feel.

"A lot of retirees were very worried about what could happen to taxes on capital gains and dividends," says Sandra Block, who as senior associate editor for Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine writes extensively on tax issues. In fact, the deal maintained the current capital gains tax rate of 15 percent for most taxpayers. The deal also made permanent the zero-percent tax rate on capital gains for lower-income taxpayers. "A lot of seniors are in that tax bracket," Block says. "That was a big tax break for them that was preserved."

The next fiscal fight that may have implications for seniors is the raising of the debt ceiling, or the nation's ability to borrow. If the ceiling isn't raised, the government would not be able to pay all its bills. Obama has warned that if Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling, Social Security checks and veterans' benefits will be delayed. The ceiling was expected to be reached later this month, but lawmakers voted to temporarily extend the government's borrowing ability until May.

When the debt ceiling fight resumes in April or May, entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid may be targeted for changes as Congress looks for ways to cut spending. One major change being discussed is raising the age of eligibility for Social Security. But even if that happens, seniors and older boomers probably do not need to worry. "I haven't heard anybody propose any changes that would affect people who are retired now or retiring in the near term," Block says. "Anything they do would be way off in the future."

When Congress voted in 1983 to raise the age for full Social Security benefits from 65 to 67, the changes didn't begin to take effect until 2000 and are still being phased in slowly. "Nobody who was close to retirement had to change their plans," Block says. He thinks Congress will do the same this time.

You also may be interested in: