Annual retirement test background

How much can I earn and still receive Social Security” has always been a popular topic for questions. The retirement earnings test, also called the annual earnings test, describes how your own employment earnings from gross wages or net self-employment income can reduce Social Security payments to you during the year.

Details about the retirement test for 2014 are in the Social Security retirement planner section and are only indirectly today’s topic.

Today, retirement test restrictions end with the month a person reaches full retirement age (FRA). Starting with the month you reach full retirement age, you can get your benefits with no limit on your earnings. This is a relatively recent change, only taking place in 2000. The retirement test still applies to beneficiaries not yet FRA.

The final version of the Social Security Act of 1935 contained retirement test language, stating that “Whenever the Board finds that any qualified individual has received wages with respect to regular employment after he attained the age of sixty-five, the old-age benefit payable to such individual shall be reduced, for each calendar month in any part of which such regular employment occurred, by an amount equal to one month’s benefit.” Recall that at this time, age 65 was the Social Security retirement age since reduced benefits did not yet exist.

Starting with the 1950 Amendments, the retirement earnings test ended at age 75. From that point on, it was established that the retirement test need not always apply. 

Over years, additional changes were made to the retirement test ending age as well as allowing partial payment depending on how much one earned. Until the 1960 Amendments, earnings over exempt amounts stopped benefits completely with the full benefit withheld when limits were exceeded.

When I started with Social Security, the retirement test applied until age 72. Several years later it eventually went to age 70 as part of the 1977 Amendments. You can read the legislative history of the retirement earnings test here.

So, when did the retirement earnings test end for people at full retirement age?

In his 1999 State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton stated that the Social Security retirement test should be eliminated. Legislation to do this received unanimous support in both houses of Congress and, on April 7, 2000, “The Senior Citizens’ Freedom to Work Act of 2000″ was signed into law, eliminating the retirement earnings test for beneficiaries at or above full retirement age (FRA) (also called normal retirement age). It still applies to beneficiaries not yet FRA. Remarks of President Clinton during the signing statement are here. In those remarks, President Clinton also introduced the Social Security online retirement planner.

Retirees are used to it now, but ending the annual retirement test at FRA was a historic change in the Social Security retirement program. As noted earlier, from the beginning of Social Security in 1935, retirement benefits had been conditional on the requirement that the beneficiary be substantially retired. For those who have reached full retirement age, “The Senior Citizens’ Freedom to Work Act of 2000″ effectively repealed this requirement.

Retirement test information for 2014 is here.

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