My Comments: If you have not yet signed up to receive your Social Security benefits, you would be well served to better understand the rules associated with Social Security. Believe me, it’s confusing to experts like me, much less someone with an aversion to thinking about money. Here’s a start to your journey.
Kristin Wong, June 1, 2016
Social Security is already a hot-button issue, and recent changes have people really freaking out about it, which makes it tough to get past the outrage and just navigate the facts. Here’s what you should know about the changes.
If you’re not familiar with how Social Security works, it’s okay—the program is complicated and frequently misunderstood, but the basics of taking benefits are simple to follow. Last year, the government signed the Bipartisan Budget Act into law, and the bill included some changes to the rules for collecting Social Security benefits. Those changes recently went into effect, and they axed some smart strategies that helped people maximize their benefits.
If you retire after your full retirement age, you usually get 8 percent more until age 70. In other words, the longer you wait, the higher your payment. The SSA refers to this as delayed retirement credits. Up until recently, married couples used a couple of “loopholes” in the rules to get even more out of these delayed credits. The new changes closed the loopholes and eliminate these strategies.
You Can No Longer “File and Suspend” to Activate Benefits for a Spouse
Known as the “file and suspend” strategy, the loophole allowed married couples to delay one spouse’s benefit while the other spouse received a payout on that same benefit. It’s a little confusing, I know, but here’s how it worked in practice.
Basically, one spouse (usually the one who earned more money) would file for Social Security once they reached their full retirement age. Once they filed, Spouse #2 would then file for a spousal benefit, usually half of the full benefit. Spouse #1 would then suspend the benefit, postponing their own payout and letting their benefit grow 8% every year.
In other words, they file, take the spousal benefit, then suspend. Meanwhile, Spouse #2 gets a check every month, but the main benefit earns interest. You get the best of both worlds.
With the new rules, which took effect May 1st, this is no longer an option for most of us. According to the SSA:
… if you take your retirement benefit and then ask (on or after April 30, 2016) to suspend it to earn delayed retirement credits, your spouse or dependents generally won’t be able to receive benefits on your Social Security record during the suspension. You also won’t be able to receive spouse benefits on anyone else’s record during that time.
When you suspend benefits, you can no longer receive spousal benefits. The new rules don’t apply to people born before April 30, 1950, however. This gives recent retirees a chance to take advantage of the strategy they may have been counting on for income.
No More “Restricted Applications” to Collect Benefits While Sitting On Future Payouts
Along with “file and suspend,” some used a strategy called “restricted applications” to optimize their benefits. Going back to the previous example, this allowed Spouse #2 to receive spousal benefits while delaying their own Social Security benefits, which are separate. This way, both spouses could enjoy the annual 8% increase and still get paid every month.
Not anymore, though. The new rule, which applies to anyone born after 1954, eliminates restricted applications and forces you to take both benefits at the same time. Here’s how the Social Security Administration puts it:
if you are eligible for benefits both as a retiree and as a spouse (or divorced spouse), you must start both benefits at the same time. This “deemed filing” used to apply only before the full retirement age, which is currently 66. Now it applies at any age up to 70, if you turned 62 after January 1, 2016.
So if you apply for one benefit, whether it’s a spousal benefit or your own Social Security payout, you apply for both. Sounds fair enough, but here’s the kicker: you basically only get the higher benefit. The Motley Fool explains:
…that person won’t have the option to collect spousal benefits if his or her own benefit amount is higher. That person will therefore be left with a choice: Start taking benefits and lose out on the 8% annual increase for delaying, or hold off on taking benefits to capitalize on those delayed retirement credits and forego Social Security income in the interim.
That’s not exactly how the SSA puts it, but that’s the gist of what happens and why so many people are up in arms about the changes. Couples could lose out on hundreds or even thousands of dollars every month.
Even though the “Social Security Crisis” is overblown, it’s probably fair to assume that the rules are meant to maintain Social Security funds.
What Hasn’t Changed
People have strong opinions about Social Security. Many of the articles covering the changes seem to imply there’s been a huge overhaul that eliminates basic perks. This isn’t the case—spousal benefits and suspended benefits haven’t been eliminated or even reduced. However, the rules have changed to close some the loopholes that allowed people to really take advantage of those perks. Those changes could make a big difference for a lot of retirees (or soon-to-be retirees).
The most important takeaway, though, is that delayed retirement credits still exist. You still get an annual increase if you delay your Social Security benefits past your full retirement age. And this perk is the backbone for most Social Security withdrawal strategies. In other words, it’s still possible to strategize your benefits and get more out of them.
Your own approach to collecting Social Security depends on your own situation: how much you earn in retirement, when you plan to stop working, how much your living expenses are and so on. The Motley Fool suggests one common strategy, though:
If you want to take advantage of those delayed retirement credits but can’t wait that long to start receiving Social Security income, assuming both spouses worked, you could have one spouse (ideally, the higher wage earner) hold off on taking benefits while the other claims them earlier. This way, you get some income when you need it while allowing the higher wage earner’s benefits to grow.
The SSA also has a handful of calculators that can help you get an idea of what your own benefit amount will be, depending on when you take it and how much you earn.