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Having Job Jitters?

Here's what you need to know about layoffs and furloughs—just in case.

man with umbrella

— John-Francis Bourke/Getty Images

1. I’m still working, but if I lose my job I’ll need my savings to pay my bills. Should I stop putting money into my 401(k), which has tanked?

A. If you think you may lose your job, and you have less than three months’ worth of your gross income in a savings account (e.g., less than $15,000 in savings if you earn $60,000 annually), you should consider stopping your 401(k) contributions, says David Hefty, a certified financial planner and CEO of Cornerstone Wealth Management in Auburn, Ind. But make sure you stash away the extra money that would have gone toward your contribution. If you already have three months’ worth of savings, then you should continue your 401(k) contributions and take advantage of any employer match.

2. My company has required its employees to take time off, without pay, to cut costs. Can I get unemployment benefits to cover the loss of compensation due to this furlough?

A. In most cases, employees required to take a furlough may be eligible for unemployment benefits. Check with your local unemployment agency in advance to see whether you qualify, since benefit eligibility varies by state.

3. Will I have to pay tax on my unemployment compensation?

A. Yes. Unemployment compensation is taxable on federal and most state tax returns. When you apply for unemployment benefits, you can choose whether to have federal and/or state income taxes automatically taken out of your benefits. Federal income taxes are withheld at a 10 percent rate; state tax rates vary. If you chose not to have taxes taken out, you may find that you owe money come next April. However, there is some relief under the new economic stimulus package: Unemployment benefits up to $2,400 will be tax-free.

4. Can I collect both unemployment insurance and severance pay from my company?

A. Since labor laws vary from state to state, the answer depends on where you live. In most cases, you cannot collect severance pay and unemployment benefits for the same weeks. But your unemployment benefit year will be extended by the number of weeks for which you received severance pay.

Moreover, the government’s economic stimulus plan that passed earlier this month has raised weekly jobless benefits by $25 for the rest of this year. It also extended unemployment benefits to 33 weeks from the standard 26 weeks offered by most states, and to as much as 59 weeks in states hardest-hit by job losses.

5. Will my unemployment benefits be affected by my pension payout or my Social Security benefit?

A. If you got laid off by your current employer and you’re drawing a pension from a previous job, your unemployment benefits eligibility should not be affected, says Mark Steber, vice president of tax resources for Jackson Hewitt Tax Service in Sarasota, Fla. However, the amount of benefits awarded may be affected by other income coming in. The same is true for Social Security benefits. Eligibility and benefit amounts are based on state rules, so you should check with your state unemployment office to see how your benefits would be altered.

6. I’m thinking about taking my Social Security benefit early. Is this wise?

A. It depends on your financial circumstances and on whether you can live comfortably without taking your benefit, says Frank Jaffe, a certified financial planner with Access Wealth Planning in Roseland, N.J. Here’s how taking your benefit early compares with waiting until your full retirement age or later: At 62, you would collect about 75 percent of your full retirement pay. At 66, you would be eligible for your full benefit amount. If you waited until age 70, your benefit would be about 32 percent higher. So a monthly benefit of $750 at age 62 would grow to $1,000 at full retirement age and climb to $1,320 at age 70.

Something else to consider: If you think you’ll live into your 90s, it pays to wait until 70 to take your benefit. Not only will you come out ahead in the payout, Jaffe says, but you may well exhaust your other assets and need the higher benefit amount to pick up the slack.

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