Using 2015 earnings for 2016 retirement benefits

Q: I am working through December and have completed my Social Security online application to start retirement in 2016. Will 2015 earnings be used to determine my retirement amount?

A: Your best 35 earning years, adjusted for inflation, are used to compute your SSA retirement amount. Assuming your 2015 earnings are one of these best 35 years, they will be used.

Employers report employee earnings to Social Security annually with W-2 information. Since the employer deadline for providing W-2’s to Social Security is the last day of February (longer if filing electronically), your 2015 earnings will not be immediately available. This is not a problem.

No matter how many years a person has been receiving Social Security benefits, retirement amounts are automatically recomputed every year when new earnings are posted to his or her work record. If new earnings increase benefits, the new amount is retroactive to the start of a year. Reviews generally occur in the fall, after most W-2’s for the prior year are posted to individual work records. This means your 2015 earnings will be on your work record in the fall of 2016, with any resulting benefit increase received retroactively to January 2016.

Especially for people working part-time after retirement, new earnings do not guarantee an increase in monthly Social Security benefits. For an increase, new earnings would have to be better than one of the 35 years already used and increase your overall average earnings.

While emphasizing that all new work is automatically reviewed for a benefit increase, you can make this occur faster by providing a copy of your W-2 to your local Social Security office and requesting a review. Either way, it all comes out the same.

Did you know? Employers can electronically transmit W-2 data to Social Security through SSA Business Services Online (BSO) In addition to reducing paperwork, the filing deadline is extended to March 31 when filing W-2 data electronically. Firms providing payroll services need only register once to transmit W-2 date for all clients. Learn more or register for this free service at

Spousal child-in-care benefits

Q: I recently reached age 62 and start early Social Security in January. I will also receive dependent benefits for our 17-year-old son who is in high school and lives at home. Can my wife receive Social Security on my record now because our son will? She is in her 50’s and working.

A: Based on the information provided, the answer here is no but the question helps showcase a type of spousal benefit that many people are not aware of.

When discussing potential Social Security spousal benefits to either husband or wife, most people think only of a spouse also at least early retirement age of 62. Another variation of spousal benefits is possible to your spouse of any age when a child is receiving Social Security through your work record.

Potential spousal benefits because children are receiving benefits are mentioned in the publication Benefits for Children and in the Retirement Benefits booklet (page 10) which states “However, if your spouse is taking care of a child who is under age 16, or disabled, and gets Social Security benefits on your record, your spouse gets full benefits, regardless of age.”

Since this type of spousal benefit is possible because there is an eligible child under the age of 16 or disabled receiving benefits, the age of the spouse is not a factor for eligibility or amount.

When working full time, many parents who might otherwise be entitled to this type of spousal benefit choose not to file for it. This is because the annual earnings test applies to them and expected earnings could negate any SSA potentially payable. Earnings test amounts for 2016 will be the same as in 2015.

Note that the child receiving benefits must be under age 16 or eligible because of disability. Since the child referred to in the above question is already age 17 with no mention of being disabled, benefits to him would not make his mother eligible for benefits.

When payable, amounts for this benefit are based on the retiree’s full retirement age (FRA) amount, not his or her actual monthly Social Security amount. Child and spouse each receive the same monthly amount of up to one-half of the retiree’s FRA amount. If payable, these spousal benefits are not reduced for age. Estimate your FRA amount with the Retirement Estimator tool in the SSA Retirement Planner or by viewing your SSA Statement through your my Social Security account.

Although this question referred to Social Security retirement benefits, the same type of spousal benefit is available if a worker receives Social Security disability benefits, with an eligible child as above.

If the worker is deceased, Social Security survivors benefits could be payable to a widow or widower of any age if an eligible child younger than age 16 or disabled received benefits.

Another important item is related to this original question. If you receive Social Security benefits for someone else, you are that person’s representative payee and responsible for accounting to Social Security about how benefits are used. As payee, the father in this question is responsible for making any necessary reports concerning his son’s eligibility to Social Security. A booklet about being a representative payee is here.



Retirement earnings test amounts for 2016

Q: Is the amount I can earn in 2016 before my Social Security retirement is reduced known yet?

A: Yes. The 2016 amounts will be the same as for 2015. They are not changing.

The annual retirement earnings test concerns how your own employment earnings in a year affect your Social Security in that year. The earnings test includes only your personal gross wages or net self-employment for the full calendar year. Your other income or income of a spouse is not applicable.

As of today, the “Getting Benefits While Working” page of the Social Security Retirement Planner shows only 2015, but the same information will apply for 2016.

Changes to annual earnings test amounts are related to cost-of-living adjustments (COLA). Since there will not be a 2016 COLA change (press release here),  amounts earnable in 2016 before Social Security retirement or survivors benefits are reduced will not change either. Read this in COLA information here, which states:

 “Will the retirement earnings test exempt amounts change in 2016?

No. The earnings limit for workers who are younger than “full” retirement age (age 66 for people born in 1943 through 1954) will remain $15,720. (We deduct $1 from benefits for each $2 earned over $15,720.)  

The earnings limit for people turning 66 in 2016 will stay at $41,880. (We deduct $1 from benefits for each $3 earned over $41,880 until the month the worker turns age 66.) There is no limit on earnings for workers who are “full” retirement age or older for the entire year.”

The earnings test does not apply to people receiving Social Security benefits due to their own disability. If receiving due to disability, contact Social Security before working.


One-time monthly earnings test rule


Q: I plan to retire in September at age 63. If I have earned over $17,000 so far this year, can I still start Social Security when I retire?

A: Yes, a person can receive Social Security when they retire even if having high earnings up to retirement.

This question is about the annual earnings test, also known as the retirement test.

Gross wages or net self-employment above earnings limits in a year can reduce Social Security payable during the year. The amounts vary based on your age compared to full retirement age (FRA), which is age 66 for birth years 1943 – 1954. Earnings limits end with the month you reach FRA. For a person younger than FRA all year, the 2015 earnings limit before benefit reduction is $15,720.

People retire all during the year and many have earned over annual earnings limits before then. For them, a one-time special earnings limit rule lets Social Security be paid for months of actual retirement even if calendar year earnings are high.

Earnings test information for 2016 should be available during October.

Including earnings test amounts, lots of SSA retirement planning information is on the Social Security website,, in the Retirement Benefits section and especially in the Retirement Planner area at

Different calculators are in the Retirement Planner section for your use. One of these is an “earnings test calculator” to help you see how your earnings may affect your benefit payments if you are currently working and are eligible for retirement or survivors benefits this year.


Receiving Social Security? Is your earnings estimate accurate?

Q: I am 64, work part-time and receive Social Security retirement. In 2015, I will earn more than expected. Should I update my earnings estimate with Social Security?

A: You probably should but it depends on what your original estimate was and what your current estimate is.

Gross wages or net self-employment earnings in a year can reduce benefits for the year until full retirement age (FRA). If expecting earnings over the 2015 limits for your age, update your earnings estimate now.

At age 64, which is younger than your FRA, the 2015 earnings limit is $15,720. Earnings over this will reduce benefits. Lower earnings will not.

If your current 2015 earnings estimate is over $15,720, you should definitely contact Social Security and update your estimate. On the other hand, if you originally expected to earn $10,000, but will actually earn $14,000, an updated estimate is not needed because both amounts are less than the $15,720 limit for 2015 and neither would reduce benefits payable this year.

Earnings test amounts vary based on your age compared to your full retirement age. Details about 2015 earnings limits for different ages are in the SSA retirement planner section,, and in publication 05-10069, How Work Affects Your Benefits, also in that section. Pensions and other non-employment income do not count for the earnings test.

If younger than full retirement age for all or part of the year, keeping your estimated calendar year earnings current with Social Security is important if you expect to earn over the earnings limit. This is especially so if your original estimate was below the limit and you will actually earn over it. You can update your estimate anytime during the year.

If you will earn more than originally estimated, and the amount is above your earnings test limit, updating your estimate now can prevent or reduce the chance of your being incorrectly paid and needing to refund money to Social Security.

If you originally expected to earn above your 2015 earnings test amount limit, but will really earn less, updating your estimate now can release any withheld benefits to you faster.

If your final earnings this year are over the annual limit for your age, report actual 2015 amounts directly to Social Security when you get your W-2 form, or if self-employed when you complete your taxes. This is different from tax filings.

The earnings test can apply to anyone younger than full retirement age if receiving Social Security benefits that are not based on their own disability. Separate rules apply to people receiving benefits because of their own disability. If working, they should contact Social Security for information.

Earnings test information for 2016 should be available during October.

See “What You Need To Know When You Get Retirement or Survivors Benefits” for other things to report. Call Social Security nationally at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY-1-800-325-0778) or contact your local office to report changes including your earnings estimate.

How many people pay into Social Security?

Last week I wrote about how to correct a work record that was missing some employment earnings.

It is important for your personal record to be correctly posted. In addition to helping fund current Social Security benefits, your earnings are used to compute your future retirement amount.

Through W-2 reporting and self-employment tax information, the Social Security Administration works with the earnings information of almost everyone employed in the country.

How many people is this?

The Research, Evaluation and Statistics component of the Social Security Administration released the publication “Earnings and Employment Data for Workers Covered Under Social Security or Medicare, 2012” in June.

From the Preface:

This report presents 2012 earnings and employment data by state and county for persons covered under the Social Security and Medicare programs.

The data show, by sex and age, the number of wage and salary workers and self-employed persons, the amount of their taxable earnings, and the amount they paid in Social Security and Medicare contributions.

From the Highlights section:

Social Security

  • In 2012, 161.7 million workers had earnings taxable under the Social Security program. About 143.0 million had only wages, 11.2 million had only self-employment income, and 7.5 million had both.
  • Social Security taxable earnings totaled $5.712 trillion, which includes earnings up to the taxable maximum of $110,100.
  • Social Security taxes totaled about $708 billion. 


  • In 2012, 165.6 million workers had earnings taxable under the Medicare program. About 146.1 million had only wages, 10.9 million had only self-employment income, and 8.6 million had both.
  • Medicare taxable earnings totaled $7.133 trillion.
  • Medicare taxes totaled about $207 billion.

The “Earnings and Employment Data for Workers Covered Under Social Security or Medicare, 2012” publication is available in pdf and html versions.



Correcting your work record

Q: I work part-time as an employee for a business and receive a W-2 for those wages plus I have separate self-employment earnings that I pay taxes on when filing my taxes each year. Only the W-2 wages appear on my most recent Social Security Statement. Since I have been paying self-employment taxes, shouldn’t they be on my Social Security number earnings history as well? How do I fix this?

A: Most people who pay into Social Security work for an employer. Their employer deducts Social Security taxes from their paycheck, matches that contribution, sends taxes to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and reports wages to Social Security. If registered for SSA Business Services, employers can verify employee Social Security numbers online and report W-2 wage information electronically.

Self-employed people must report their earnings and pay their taxes directly to IRS. If self-employed, you report your earnings for Social Security when you file your federal income tax return. If your net earnings are $400 or more in a year, you must report your earnings on Schedule SE, in addition to the other tax forms you must file.

All employment earnings for a year are usually posted to your personal work record near the end of October of the following year so your total 2014 employment earnings should be posted to your record approximately the end of October 2015. This applies whether or not a person receives monthly Social Security benefits. When already receiving benefits, new earnings are automatically reviewed to see if they will increase the amount.

If earlier years are not correctly posted, your local Social Security office can help correct your record. Evidence generally needed includes proof of the earnings, such as a W-2 and 1099. For self-employment, tax return information including tax form Schedule SE and proof of tax payment is also needed.

If you received your Social Security Statement by mail, know that you can get a copy of it anytime at your convenience by creating a personal, pin and password protected, my Social Security account. More about doing this is at

Working and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

On April 23, I posted about returning to work when receiving Social Security disability. Special rules called work incentives make it possible for people with disabilities, whether receiving Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), to work and still receive monthly payments and Medicare or Medicaid.

Returning to the topic, today I will mention one of the work incentives when receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Since SSI is very different from Social Security, the work incentives are different too. SSI involves cash assistance payments to aged, blind and disabled people (including children under age 18) who have limited income and resources. The Federal government pays for SSI from general tax revenues, not Social Security money.

If receiving both Social Security and SSI, you need to follow the separate rules for each program. To discuss your own benefits, speak to a Social Security representative.

Always report a return to work. This is very important. Also report related changes including stopping the work. 

A very basic Supplemental Security Income (SSI) work incentive is the exclusion of some employment income when figuring out the amount of a monthly SSI payment.

When working, the first $65 of earnings received in a month do not count, plus one-half of the remaining earnings. This means that less than one-half of your earnings are counted against your SSI payment amount.

For an example of how this works, use gross wages of $165 received in a month. Not counting the first $65 dollars leaves $100 remaining. Then, not counting an additional one-half of this $100 remaining amount leaves only $50 to reduce the overall SSI amount. In this example of the earned income exclusion work incentive, of the received $165 wages in the month, $115 is not used to lower benefits.

People receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) usually report their earnings on a monthly basis to keep benefit amounts accurate.  Discuss how to do this when reporting a return to work.

Referring to the post of April 23, when a person receiving SSI returns to work, the Social Security trial work period (TWP) or concept of substantial gainful activity (SGA) do not apply. To restate, if you receive both Social Security and SSI, you need to follow the separate rules for each program.

Only one SSI work incentive was mentioned today. Many other work incentives can apply. To discuss your own benefits, speak to a Social Security representative.


When to report work for the annual earnings test

Q: I retired last year, started Social Security, and expect to work part-time this year on a fill-in basis. If I reach the retirement earning limit amount for the year, is it my responsibility to notify Social Security? Are benefits reduced for work immediately or resolved at years’ end. I am 63.

A: Yes, it is your responsibility to contact Social Security. Report your estimated earnings for the calendar year as soon as you think your earnings will exceed the annual limit for your age. You can provide updated estimates during the year as needed for changes up or down.

Providing an estimated earnings amount to Social Security is needed when you expect to earn more than your earnings limit amount during the calendar year. For example, at age 63 in 2015, you are under full retirement age (FRA) for the entire year and must provide an estimate if expected gross wage earnings will exceed $15,720. An estimate is not needed when annual earnings are expected to below the earnings limit.

Adjustments based on your estimated earnings will take place as soon as possible in order to avoid having you incorrectly paid. The usual suggestion to people expecting to earn over the annual limit for their age is to provide an estimate as accurate as possible, but to the high side.

Later, when you receive your W-2 form at the end of the year, report your actual earnings for the year directly to Social Security. Based on your actual earnings, final adjustments are made to either send you benefits due or to withhold those incorrectly paid.

A list of your various Social Security reporting responsibilities is in the booklet, What You Need to Know When You Get Retirement Or Survivors Benefits, available online. Work activity is a topic discussed over several pages of the booklet and an excerpt from page 17 includes:

“Your earnings estimate and your benefits

We adjusted your benefits this year based on the earnings you told us you expected to receive this year.

If other family members get benefits on your record, your earnings may affect the total family benefits. But, if you get benefits as a family member, your earnings affect only your benefits.”   

“Revising your earnings estimate

When you work, you should save your pay stubs. If during the year, you see your earnings will be different from what you estimated, you should call us to revise the estimate. This will help us pay you the correct amount of Social Security benefits.”  

More about working while receiving Social Security retirement or survivors benefits is here.

Social Security disability work incentives

Q: I receive Social Security disability and want to return to work. What will this do to my benefits?

A: For specific information about your own benefits, contact Social Security and speak with a representative.

In general, special rules called work incentives make it possible for people with disabilities receiving Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to work and still receive monthly payments and Medicare or Medicaid.

Remember that Social Security, including disability (SSDI), and SSI are different programs, with different work incentives for returning to work.

Always report a return to work. This is very important. Also report related changes including stopping the work.

For Social Security disability, a main work incentive is the trial work period (TWP).

The trial work period allows you to test your ability to work for at least 9 months. During a trial work period, you receive full disability benefit regardless of how much you earn as long as your work activity has been reported and you continue to have a disabling impairment. The 9 months does not need to be consecutive and your trial work period will last until you accumulate 9 months within a rolling 60-month period. Certain other rules apply. In 2015, gross monthly earnings of $780 or more will usually count as a month toward the TWP.

After a trail work period is completed, your work activity will be reviewed to see if you earnings are considered substantial gainful activity (SGA) . Exceptions apply but, in general, in 2015 monthly gross earnings of at least $1,090 are considered SGA for a person who is not blind and $1,820 for a person who is blind. Ongoing ability to work at a substantial gainful activity level can result in benefits being stopped.

If this occurs, you have an extended period of disability (EPE).

This means that if your disability benefits stop after successfully completing the trial work period and ongoing work at the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level, your Social Security disability benefits can be automatically reinstated without a new application for any months in which your earnings drop below the SGA level.

This reinstatement period lasts for 36 consecutive months following the end of the trial work period. You must continue to have a disabling medical impairment in addition to having earnings below the SGA level for that month.

Continuation of Medicare.

Of major importance, even if cash benefits end, for most beneficiaries existing Medicare coverage continues through the EPE and beyond.

Most persons with disabilities who work will continue to receive at least 93 consecutive months of Hospital Insurance (Part A); Supplemental Medical Insurance (Part B), if enrolled; and Prescription Drug coverage (Part D), if enrolled, after the 9-month Trial Work Period (TWP).

You do not pay a premium for Part A. Although cash benefits may cease due to work, you have the assurance of continued health insurance. (93 months is 7 years and 9 months.)

This is not a complete list of work incentives for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI). There are different work incentives for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). More general information is here.

Again, for details about your own benefits, speak to a Social Security representative.