No one knows about a 2016 COLA yet

Articles guessing about a Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for next year are starting to appear.

No matter what you read or hear, no one knows 2016 COLA information yet and no one will know until approximately mid-October. Last year, Social Security announced 2015 COLA details on October 22, 2014.

COLAs for Social Security benefits are based on the percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) from the third quarter of the last year a COLA was determined to the third quarter of the current year.

The CPI-W is determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Department of Labor. By law, it is the official measure used by the Social Security Administration to calculate COLAs.

The third quarter of the year ends September 30. Until CPI-W information is available, any cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) amount mentioned for next year is a guess.

 

 

 

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, www.socialsecurity.gov/planners/retire/, 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.

Bad things only happen to other people

Of course you have heard the saying “Bad things only happen to other people.” However, we are all “other people” to everyone else.

This brings me to the reminder that Social Security is much more than retirement. Nationally, about 10 percent of SSA monthly benefits go to survivors of all ages due to a death in the family and about 19 percent go to disabled workers and their families.

You can obtain both survivor and disability estimates on your record by creating a personal, pin and password protected, my Social Security account at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount/ and viewing your Social Security Statement.

Hoping that you never need this information is different from planning in case you, or your family, do.

Learn more about Social Security disability and survivors benefits now. Make that information part of your family financial planning.

Then you can tell other people about them.

Social Security benefits by state and county

The annual publication “OASDI Beneficiaries by State and County” was recently released with information as of December 2014. OASDI is the Social Security retirement, survivors and disability benefits.

From the preface:

This annual publication focuses on the Social Security beneficiary population—people receiving Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) benefits—at the local level. It presents basic program data on the number and type of beneficiaries and the amount of benefits paid in each state and county. It also shows the numbers of men and women aged 65 or older receiving benefits. … “ 

As of December 2014, approximately 18.5 percent of the United States population received a monthly Social Security benefit with about 91 percent of people aged 65 or older receiving benefits.

How many people receive Social Security benefits in your state?

In your county?

How much money does that involve?

Find out here. For a specific state and county as of December 2014, click on the state information. Then scroll down to Table 4 to seen the number of beneficiaries in that state, with individual county data. Scroll down to Table 5 for the amount of benefits involved. Note that amounts are shown in thousands of dollars. 2014-SSA-state&county

When eligible as widow and retiree

Q: Does starting Social Security as a widow prevent me from receiving my own retirement?

A: No. If eligible for SSA survivors benefits as widow or widower and also eligible for your own retirement, you can start the smaller one first and switch to the higher later on. Based on age, survivors benefits can start as early as age 60 and retirement at age 62.

You can estimate Social Security retirement amounts online but estimated survivors benefits are not available online.

Get survivors estimates from your local SSA office and of your own retirement online at the SSA retirement planner, www.socialsecurity.gov/planners/retire/. To consider your options, my suggestion is to get estimates for each type of benefit at different ages.

Some options to consider are in the Social Security survivors planner section. The following is from the “if you are the worker’s widow or widower / how much would your benefit be?” pages.  

“If you receive benefits as a widow or widower or as a surviving divorced spouse, you can switch to your own retirement benefit as early as age 62. This assumes you are eligible for retirement benefits and your retirement rate is higher than your rate as a widow, widower or surviving divorced spouse.  

In many cases, a widow or widower can begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and then, at full retirement age, switch to the other benefit at an unreduced rate.” 

Having the option to start with the lower benefit and then switching to a higher one later is useful but what you decide is based on your personal situation. Many people choose the largest amount immediately available, even if a reduced amount, and do not switch benefit types.

More about Social Security survivors benefits is at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/survivors/.

survivorsplanner

 

Annual Trustees Report for 2015

Yesterday the Social Security Board of Trustees released its annual report for 2015 with the following news release.

The full 2015 Trustees Report is at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/TR/2015/

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015 – For Immediate Release

Social Security Board of Trustees: Trust Fund Reserve Gains One Year for Projected Depletion Date 

The Social Security Board of Trustees today released its annual report on the long-term financial status of the Social Security Trust Funds. The combined asset reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Funds are projected to become depleted in 2034, one year later than projected last year, with 79 percent of benefits payable at that time. The DI Trust Fund will become depleted in 2016, unchanged from last year’s estimate, with 81 percent of benefits still payable.

In the 2015 Annual Report to Congress, the Trustees announced:

  • The combined trust fund reserves are still growing and will continue to do so through 2019. Beginning with 2020, the cost of the program is projected to exceed income.
  • The projected point at which the combined trust fund reserves will become depleted, if Congress does not act before then, comes in 2034 – one year later than projected last year. At that time, there will be sufficient income coming in to pay 79 percent of scheduled benefits.
  • The projected actuarial deficit over the 75-year long-range period is 2.68 percent of taxable payroll — 0.20 percentage point smaller than in last year’s report.

While the projected depletion date of the combined OASDI trust funds gained a year, the Disability Insurance Trust Fund’s projected depletion year remains 2016. I agree with President Obama, we have to keep Social Security strong, protecting its future solvency. President Obama’s FY 2016 budget proposes to address this near-term Disability Insurance Trust Fund’s reserve depletion. By reallocating a portion of payroll taxes from Old Age Survivors to the Disability Trust Fund – as has been done many times in the past – would have no adverse effect on the solvency of the overall Social Security program,” said Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security.

We believe that Congress must take action to reallocate a portion of the payroll tax rate between the trust funds to avoid deep and abrupt cuts or delays in benefits for individuals with disabilities who paid into the system while they worked and now need the benefits they earned to support themselves and their families,” Colvin said.

Other highlights of the Trustees Report include:

  • Income including interest to the combined OASDI Trust Funds amounted to $884 billion in 2014. ($756 billion in net contributions, $30 billion from taxation of benefits, $98 billion in interest, and less than $1 billion in reimbursements from the General Fund of the Treasury—almost exclusively resulting from the 2012 payroll tax legislation)
  • Total expenditures from the combined OASDI Trust Funds amounted to $859 billion in 2014.
  • Non-interest income fell below program costs in 2010 for the first time since 1983. Program costs are projected to exceed non-interest income throughout the remainder of the 75-year period.
  • The asset reserves of the combined OASDI Trust Funds increased by $25 billion in 2014 to a total of $2.79 trillion.
  • During 2014, an estimated 166 million people had earnings covered by Social Security and paid payroll taxes.
  • Social Security paid benefits of $848 billion in calendar year 2014. There were about 59 million beneficiaries at the end of the calendar year.
  • The cost of $6.1 billion to administer the program in 2014 was a very low 0.7 percent of total expenditures.
  • The combined Trust Fund asset reserves earned interest at an effective annual rate of 3.6 percent in 2014.

The Board of Trustees comprises six members. Four serve by virtue of their positions with the federal government: Jacob J. Lew, Secretary of the Treasury and Managing Trustee; Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security; Sylvia M. Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services; and Thomas E. Perez, Secretary of Labor. The two public trustees are Charles P. Blahous, III and Robert D. Reischauer.

View the 2015 Trustees Report at www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/TR/2015/.

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Same-sex marriage update

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, holding that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in all states. As a result, more same-sex couples will be recognized as married for purposes of determining entitlement to Social Security benefits or eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments.

The Social Security Administration is working with the Department of Justice to analyze the decision and provide instructions for processing claims. Local offices are receiving updated instructions for different states on a flow basis.

Information for same-sex couples is on the Social Security website at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/people/same-sexcouples/.

A  direct link to this section is at the bottom of the SSA website homepagesame-sex website

Survivor benefits go to official widow or widower

Q: After the children were grown, my husband and I separated but remained married even though he was living with another woman for the last decade. He died recently. Can I receive Social Security benefits as his widow even though we have been apart for years?

A: If monthly Social Security survivor benefits are payable, they would be paid to you as the legal widow.

Since you were not living together, usually a one-time payment of $255 originally intended to help offset funeral costs would not be paid to you or the other woman.

Survivor benefits based on your age can begin as early as age 60. For younger widow or widowers with a severe disability, survivor benefits can begin as young as age 50. They are also payable at any age if eligible children are involved. More information is here.

Have you worked enough to be eligible for Social Security retirement on your own work record? If so, you have options to consider. For example, you can start the smaller benefit first at a reduced for age amount and switch to the larger one when you are older and past age reductions for the benefit involved. Discuss your options with a SSA representative.

When eligible for two different types of Social Security benefit, such as your own retirement and as a widow or widower, you receive up to the larger amount, not all of one plus all of the other.

Always contact Social Security about possible benefits when there is a death in the family. You cannot report a death or apply for survivors benefits online. Call the Social Security national toll-free number, 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) from 7:00am – 7:00pm local time or contact your local SSA office.

 

 

Are SSA amounts based on where you live?

Q: Do Social Security retirement amounts change based on what state you live in?

A: No. Your retirement amount is based on your personal work history over many years and your age when starting benefits, not on where you live. It will not change if you move to a different state.

Your best 35 years of work are key when your retirement benefit is computed. These best 35 years, often including years immediately before retirement but selected from your full work history, are weighted for inflation and used to compute your Social Security retirement amount as if you were full retirement age (FRA). If you do not have 35 years of work, zeros are added in to reach 35 years.

When your full retirement age amount is known, the specific amount for the month you are starting Social Security is determined by reducing or increasing the FRA amount, depending on if you are younger or older than FRA for the month when benefits start. Go to the SSA Retirement Planner section to estimate your own Social Security retirement amount.

Once receiving Social Security benefits, any cost-of-living increase is computed nationally based on changes in a consumer price index from one year to the next, not where you live.

In a related manner, benefits to you if disabled or survivors benefits to your family if you die are also based on your personal work history and not where you live.

Your Social Security work record is based on employer W-2 reports or your Schedule SE tax return if self-employed. Check it for accuracy by creating a personal my Social Security account at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount/ and viewing your SSA Statement.

Earnings for 2014 will not show on your record until approximately October 2015. It is very important for your future benefits that your work record be accurate. If it has an error, contact your local office to correct it.

Social Security and your other pensions – GPO

Pensions generally do not reduce the amount of your Social Security but a pension based on earnings not covered by Social Security can do so.

The previously mentioned Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) could affect the amount of your own Social Security retirement if you work for a federal, state or local government agency, a nonprofit organization or in another country and do not pay into Social Security.

What if you do not have enough Social Security covered employment to receive your own retirement benefit but you are eligible for Social Security benefits as a spouse or widow / widower? Then, if you will receive a pension from work not covered by Social Security, the Government Pension (GPO) will likely interest you.

Unlike the WEP, which involves a changed method of computing benefits, the Government Pension Offset (GPO) is a direct reduction of the SSA benefit amount as described on the SSA website, in part shown below. Some GPO exemptions apply. More about these exemptions are on the website.

From the website:

“If you receive a pension from a government job in which you did not pay Social Security taxes, some or all of your Social Security spouse’s, widow’s or widower’s benefit may be offset due to receipt of that pension. This offset is referred to as the Government Pension Offset, or GPO. 

The GPO will reduce the amount of your Social Security spouse’s, widow’s or widower’s benefits by two-thirds of the amount of your government pension. For example, if you receive a monthly civil service pension of $600, two-thirds of that, or $400, must be used to offset your Social Security spouse’s, widow’s or widower’s benefits. If you are eligible for a $500 spouse’s benefit, you will receive $100 per month from Social Security ($500 – $400 = $100).”  

Go here for more about the Government Pension Offset (GPO).

Just like the Windfall Elimination Provision, the Government Pension Offset is not new. Both date back to the Social Security Amendments of 1983, signed into law by President Reagan on April 20, 1983. Designed to resolve short-term funding problems faced at the time, that legislation made significant changes to the Social Security and Medicare programs.

GPO