Spousal benefits – file and suspend

Q: My wife’s Social Security retirement will be much more than mine. If I start my own Social Security retirement before she starts hers, can I apply later as a husband on her record once she retires and applies for benefits?  

A: Yes, a husband or wife can start their own SSA retirement first and then look into spousal benefits when their wife or husband retires.  

Social Security benefits to a husband or wife are based on a comparison of the couples individual full retirement age (FRA) amounts, not their monthly retirement amounts. To learn about benefits to a husband or wife, including to a divorced spouse, go to the Retirement Planner section of the SSA website at www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/, and then to “how members of your family may qualify for benefits.”  

Age when starting Social Security is important. If younger than full retirement age (FRA) when filing for retirement, a person is considered to also be applying as wife or husband at the same time, assuming both members of the couple will then be receiving benefits. Her or his own retirement amount, reduced for age, is received first. If spousal benefits are payable they, also reduced for age, are added to equal the higher total amount.  

A different opportunity for spousal benefits exists if either husband or wife has reached full retirement age (FRA), especially if that person plans to continue working full-time past FRA. Generally, members of a person’s family can receive benefits on his or her record only when that person does. For an exception, see “If you or your spouse are full retirement age” in the spousal benefit section. If a person is at least FRA, and does not want to start Social Security retirement yet, an exception called “file and suspend” allows payment of spousal benefits on their record while the person delays the start his or her own Social Security retirement. Past FRA, delaying the start of your own retirement benefit lets the amount increase up to age 70 due to delayed retirement credits 

If this “file and suspend” idea is of interest, remember that the annual earnings test ends with the month you reach FRA so another option could be to file for your Social Security retirement while continuing to work. You would not gain delayed retirement credits but you would receive all your retirement and, if eligible as a spouse, your husband or wife would also receive through your record. Each of these ideas has advantages or disadvantages based on your personal situation.

 

Working? Retiring? Options if reaching full retirement age in 2015.

Do you reach your full retirement age (FRA) in 2015? Still working? Thinking about starting Social Security in 2015?

What are some options to consider?  

When to start Social Security benefits is always a popular topic during retirement seminars. In fact, there is no one overall best time that fits everyone. It is an individual decision. 

Last week I posted annual retirement earnings test information for 2015. Noted there, earnings test amounts vary based on whether you are younger than full retirement age (FRA) for the entire calendar year, reach FRA during the year, or are at least FRA. 

Today I am reviewing some options to consider for a person planning to work during 2015 and reaching full retirement age of 66 during 2015. FRA varies with year of birth. It is age 66 for those born from 1943 – 1954. 

If you reach full retirement age in 2015, receive Social Security and are still working, Social Security deducts $1.00 in benefits for every $3.00 you earn above $41,880. Earnings for the retirement test include only your own gross wages and net-income from self-employment. Beginning with the month you reach FRA, earnings no longer reduce your benefits.  

Assume our person, Happy Camper, expects to earn $41,000 in 2015, below the annual earnings test level for a person reaching full retirement age in 2015. Happy reaches FRA in May. 

One option: Since Happy will earn below his retirement test level, he can start Social Security retirement effective with January 2015 and receive benefits for all months of the year even though he continues working. On the plus side, this gets him more monthly benefits. On the negative, this results in a retirement benefit permanently reduced by 4 months with a reduction of 2.22 percent of his full retirement age amount. He gets 97.78 percent of his FRA amount.

Note: To learn percentages for this example, I used the “compute the effect of early or late retirement” calculator, one of the SSA Retirement Planner tools. This calculator uses the terms “normal retirement age” for FRA and “primary insurance amount” for the FRA amount. 

If Happy expects to earn more than the earnings test level of $41,880, this could still be a useful option for him. He would have to compare what he loses due to earnings (the $1.00 for every $3.00 noted above) to what he gains in payable benefits. 

Another option: Since Happy Camper is still working, he could start Social Security effective with May, when he reaches full retirement age. The earnings test ends at FRA so Happy could continue working and receive unreduced Social Security retirement from then on. On the plus side, he does not have any reduction in benefits. On the negative, he gives up the benefits payable in the above option. 

Yet another option:  If Happy Camper plans to work for some months (or longer) past FRA and then retire, he can defer his Social Security until he actually retires. On the plus side, each month of delay gains a small increase from delayed retirement credits. On the negative, Happy again gives up payable benefits.

On a monthly basis, delayed retirement credits increase benefits by 2/3 of 1 percent of the full retirement age amount, or 8 percent annually, up to age 70. Use the previously mentioned “compute the effect of early or late retirement” calculator to compute this.  

The retirement earnings test applies to the full calendar year with a special, one time, monthly earnings test available. The monthly test can apply when a person retires during the year, after already earning over applicable retirement earnings test amounts. It was not considered in the above options since Happy continued working through at least FRA. 

These examples are only to discuss some options involving the earnings test. For simplicity, factors such as the potential for family benefits through Happy Camper’s record were not added in. Social Security benefits are just one thing to consider in your retirement planning. For examples, Happy Camper’s taxable income varies with these options and his life expectancy could influence his decision.

What is best for you?

Annual retirement earnings test amounts for 2015

Q: In 2015, how much can I earn before my Social Security retirement is reduced? 

A: 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.

Three annual earnings levels exist, all based on your full retirement age (FRA). FRA depends on your year of birth. Learn yours here. 

Earnings test amounts for 2015 have changed from 2014. They are: 

  • If under full retirement age (FRA) for the entire calendar year, $1 in benefits will be deducted for each $2 earned above the 2015 limit of $15,720.
  • If you reach FRA in 2015, $1 in benefits will be deducted from each $3 earned above the 2015 limit of $41,880, but only for earnings before the month you reach FRA.
  • No earnings limit exists starting with the month you reach full retirement age.  

Are you starting Social Security retirement in 2015? People retiring mid-year may have already earned over the annual limit for their age. To allow the start of SSA retirement regardless of expected calendar year earnings, there is a special one-time rule based on monthly earnings. This applies for one year, usually the first year of retirement, and lets people receive Social Security for months that they are retired.  

For example, a person retiring in 2015, at least age 62 but younger than full retirement age the entire year, can receive retirement for months that gross wages do not exceed $1,310 even though calendar year earnings will be above retirement test amounts. Similar rules apply for self-employment.   

Consider the retirement earnings test before beginning Social Security. If your plans include working part-time, will those earnings reduce benefits for the year? Can you limit your earnings to stay below earnings test levels? Is retiring with part-time work your best option or should you continue working full time, without SSA benefits, for the immediate future? Keep in mind that Social Security retirement is permanently reduced if started when younger than FRA. 

Learn about the earnings test, including the special, one-time, monthly test, at www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/whileworking.htm. Examples of how the earnings test is applied are there. 

Reminder: Do you receive Social Security now? Do you expect to earn over your applicable earnings test amount in 2015? If so, provide your estimated earnings amount to SSA early in the year so that benefits can be adjusted in advance to avoid incorrect payment. You can change estimates as needed.

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

 

Compare your retirement plans with the online estimator

Q: The online Social Security Statement retirement estimates cannot be changed to consider different plans. Can I estimate my retirement amount using different earnings or ages? 

A: Yes. Estimate the effect of lower or higher future earnings, or retirement at different retirement ages, with the Retirement Estimator at www.socialsecurity.gov/estimator/.  

One of the Social Security retirement planning tools in the Retirement Planner section at www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/, the Estimator connects to your actual Social Security earnings record to provide personal retirement estimates at age 62, at your full retirement age (FRA), and at age 70. 

Just as on your Statement estimate, the initial Retirement Estimator reply assumes your most recent wages or self-employment earnings will continue into the future. Unlike the Statement, with the Estimator you can change the default reply to obtain estimates at different ages or with different future earnings amounts. 

Comparing multiple estimates for any given age based on the initial earnings level and then with lower or higher earnings provides an approximate result of different earnings on your future SSA retirement amount. With separate requests, you can estimate benefits based on either lower or higher earnings. Future earnings of more than one amount cannot be used in one estimate.

Your actual Social Security retirement monthly amount is based on your best 35 years of employment and your age, in months, compared to your full retirement age. The Retirement Estimator provides estimates at different ages. 

For estimates in specific months, other online tools are available in the Retirement Planner section, www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/. If your interest is only for months before your full retirement age (FRA), use the chart for your FRA. To consider months either before or after your FRA, go here.

You can use the Retirement Estimator if you are enrolled in Medicare, but not if you have applied for or receive SSA benefits. The Estimator reply does not show your personal information or earnings record. 

To view your Social Security Statement create a my Social Security account at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount/. Your Statement will also show your earnings record and family benefit estimates not available elsewhere.

 

 

Should Mom give me the money?

Q: I am 15 and receive Social Security, which goes to my Mom. Should she should give me the money? 

A: When a person younger than age 18 receives Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the payment is almost always sent to an adult on their behalf rather than directly to the child. This adult is called the representative payee and it is his or her responsibility to direct the management of the funds. 

Representative payees are also appointed for adults who are incapable of managing their benefits. Payees are often family members but can be different people or even an organization. 

In the booklet A Guide for Representative Payees, a new payee is instructed in how funds should be used and how funds not immediately needed should be held for the future. Payees are told about required reports to Social Security about the funds. Representative payee instructions go into detail about how funds are to be used.  

Should your Mom give you the money? Not directly but the funds must be used for you. Just handing the benefit money to you could mean that she was not exercising proper control of the funds in your best interest. 

A key representative payee responsibility is to know beneficiary needs so that the Social Security or SSI funds can be best used for the person’s care and well-being, in particular making sure that day-to-day food and shelter needs are met. Having basic needs of food, shelter and clothing met indicate benefits are used for you even if you do not directly handle the money.  

Social Security benefits for children might continue or end at age 18. If they continue past age 18, the child often starts to receive them directly, without having a representative payee. Consider asking your Mom to share or create a budget with you. This would show you how the funds are used while giving you practice in handling money.

Reporting possible Social Security fraud

Q: Someone I know receives Social Security disability and is working part-time. How can this be looked at without me providing my name? 

A: Social Security takes potential fraud very seriously. I will write about that in a moment but first will say a few words about this question of working and disability benefits. 

It is a wrong, but popular, assumption that people receiving disability benefits cannot have a job. 

In addition to non-medical requirements, Social Security disability or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability have a strict, work based, definition of disability and relatively few people found eligible eventually return to work at levels high enough to end benefits. Despite this, people receiving disability related benefits are encouraged by the Social Security Administration to return to work and many do on a limited basis. If you receive disability benefits and start to work, contact Social Security to report the work and learn the specific details you need to know. 

Rules are different for Social Security and SSI disability but both programs have multiple work incentives to help people return to work. Beneficiaries are required to report work activity. Social Security disability reporting requirements are here; SSI requirements here. 

Returning to the reporting fraud question, you are encouraged to do so through the Social Security Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The direct website of OIG is http://oig.ssa.gov/.  The OIG site is easily reached through the “contact us” links on the Social Security homepage, www.socialsecurity.gov. From the “contact us” page, click on “Report Fraud, Waste or Abuse.” 

The OIG website  has lots of information including some situations, with examples, that may be considered as fraud, waste or abuse against the Social Security administration. Several of these are:

1. Making false statements on claims: When people apply for Social Security Benefits, they state that all information they provide on the forms are true and correct to the best of their knowledge. If a person reports something they know is not true, it may be a crime

2. Concealing facts or events which affect eligibility for benefits: It may be considered fraud if a person makes a false statement on an application or does not tell SSA of certain facts that may affect benefits.

3. Misuse of benefits by a representative payee: When a person receiving benefits cannot handle their own financial affairs, Social Security appoints a relative, friend, or another individual or organization to handle their Social Security matters. This person or organization is called a Representative Payee and it may be a crime if a payee misuses these benefits.

4. Buying or selling counterfeit or legitimate Social Security cards.

This is not a complete list. 

To report a suspected fraud, follow the instructions here. You can do this online or in other ways. Note what information will be requested. You can remain anonymous, but that might limit an OIG investigation.

Importance of Social Security

Social Security benefits were never intended to provide your full retirement income. Under current law, if you have average earnings, your Social Security retirement benefits will replace about 40 percent of your pre-retirement earnings. The percentage is lower for people in the upper income brackets and higher for people with low incomes.

Despite this, 65 percent of SSA beneficiaries over age 65 received at least half of their income from Social Security in 2012.

To be more specific, in 2012, 87 percent of married couples and 86 percent of nonmarried persons aged 65 or older received Social Security benefits. Social Security was the major source of income (providing at least 50 percent of total income) for 52 percent of aged beneficiary couples and 74 percent of aged nonmarried beneficiaries.  

Social Security was 90 percent or more of income for 22 percent of aged beneficiary couples and 47 percent of aged nonmarried beneficiaries.

For the above chart, “An aged unit is a married couple living together or a nonmarried person, which also includes persons who are separated or married but not living together.”

Total income excludes withdrawals from savings and nonannuitized IRAs or 401(k) plans; it also excludes in-kind support, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) benefits and housing and energy assistance.

Source for this information is the publication Fast Facts & Figures About Social Security, 2014. The chart shown is from the section “Income of the Aged Population.”

Lots of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income information is in this publication. I think it is interesting. Perhaps you will too.

 

 

 

 

Average Social Security and SSI amounts in Sept. 2014

For September 2014, last month, following are three easily understood tables providing Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) information. These tables are online here

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a separate, low income program for the aged over 65, disabled or blind children, and disabled or blind adults that is administered by the Social Security Administration. Since SSI is completely different from Social Security, a person meeting the individual rules for each could become eligible for both programs. Income from Social Security reduces SSI amounts.

Learn more about Social Security and SSI at www.socialsecurity.gov. 

Table 1 shows the number of people, in thousands, receiving Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) divided by Social Security only, SSI only, and people receiving both. 

Table 2 shows Social Security benefit information for September 2014, separated by number of beneficiaries receiving specific types of benefits and the average dollar amount of those benefits. The number of beneficiaries is again shown in the thousands, with total benefits shown in the millions and average amounts in dollars.

The “notes” in table 1 explain differences in total Social Security beneficiaries shown between table 1 and table 2.

Social Security was never intended to provide full retirement income and this table emphasizes that fact. In September 2014, the average SSA retirement benefit, for the retiree only and excluding any family benefits, was $1,302.56.

Table 3 shows Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit information for September 2014, separated by number of recipients receiving specific types of benefits and the average dollar amount of those benefits. As above, the number of recipients are shown in the thousands, total benefits shown in the millions and average amounts in dollars.

In September 2014, the average SSI amount was $535.21.

These tables are online here in case you cannot read them clearly.

Social Security Announces 1.7 Percent Benefit Increase for 2015

Monthly Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for nearly 64 million Americans will increase 1.7 percent in 2015, the Social Security Administration announced today. 

The 1.7 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will begin with benefits that more than 58 million Social Security beneficiaries receive in January 2015. Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin on December 31, 2014. The Social Security Act ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as determined by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Some other changes that take effect in January of each year are based on the increase in average wages. Based on that increase, the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $118,500 from $117,000. Of the estimated 168 million workers who will pay Social Security taxes in 2015, about 10 million will pay higher taxes because of the increase in the taxable maximum.  

Information about Medicare changes for 2015 is available at www.medicare.gov 

The Social Security Act provides for how the COLA is calculated. To read more, please visit www.socialsecurity.gov/cola 

A fact sheet showing the effect of COLA related automatic changes for 2015 is here.

Using your SSA Statement

In previous posts, I have encouraged readers to create a personal my Social Security account at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount/. Whether or not you now receive Social Security monthly benefits, online services are there for use. To create a my Social Security account, you must be at least 18 years old, have an email address and a United States mailing address. There are no fees to do this. As of September 30, nearly 14.5 million people had opened their free my Social Security account. 

If not yet receiving ongoing benefits, the major tool available is your Social Security Statement.

Many people think only of retirement when Social Security is discussed, but, in fact, the program includes disability and survivors benefits too. Including family member benefits, retirement represents about 70 percent of national Social Security benefits, survivors about 11 percent, and disability about 19 percent.Nationally, about 18.3 percent of the entire United States population, including adults and children of all ages, receive monthly Social Security benefits. 

Of course, retirement is the desired Social Security benefit, but studies show that just over 1 in 4 of today’s 20 year-olds will become disabled before reaching age 67 and people die at all ages.   

For all of these possibilities, your Social Security Statement is a great family financial planning tool. After creating your my Social Security account, look at your Statement (sample here), especially your earnings record and estimated benefits sections, at least annually. 

Directly from your actual Social Security work record as reported by employers, your earnings record for many years is shown. This is the only place where you can see your personal earnings history. Future Social Security benefits on your record are based on your lifetime earnings. Review your record for accuracy. If there is an error, follow the correction instructions. 

Now look at the estimated benefits section. The Social Security website retirement planning section, contains tools to estimate retirement amounts but disability and survivors estimates, potentially to your children and other family members, are only on your Statement. Useful at all ages and especially for young families with dependent children, these current estimates can be a foundation for your other family financial planning. 

Creating your personal my Social Security account lets you access your Statement whenever desired. Starting for December birthdays, this past September the Social Security Administration resumed periodic mailings of paper Statements. Workers attaining ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, and 60 who are not receiving Social Security benefits and who are not registered for a my Social Security account will receive the Statement in the mail about 3 months before their birthday. After age 60, people will receive a Statement every year. The agency expects to send nearly 48 million Statements each year.