12/5/2012 6:15 PM ET|
A bigger Social Security check?
How and when you claim benefits can make a big difference in the benefits you'll collect in retirement. Here are several scenarios.
With nearly 10,000 people in the United States turning 65 every day for the next 20 or so years, it's not hard to imagine a new reality show called "Extreme Social Security Claiming Strategies and Tactics," especially in the wake of news that beneficiaries will be getting just a 1.7% increase in their benefit in 2013.
But what is real is this: There are a dozens of lesser known, often overlooked Social Security claiming strategies and tactics that are worth sticking in your back pocket, just in case there's an audition call.
And case in point No. 1 is what Bill Meyer refers to as "rat holes," the ages at which single retirees should never, ever, ever claim Social Security. Or at least not claim Social Security if they want to maximize the present value of their Social Security benefits.
Meyer, a co-author of "Social Security Strategies: How to Optimize Retirement Benefits," and the CEO of Social Security Solutions, an online consumer advice tool, says strategies for maximizing Social Security income are based on the pattern of reductions for those who apply for benefits before full retirement age (FRA) and on the retirement credits available for those who delay benefits.
"If the single retiree begins benefits at FRA, she (or he) receives his Primary Insurance Amount or (PIA)," Meyer wrote in a recent paper. "If she begins benefits before FRA then her benefits are decreased by 5/9% of PIA per month for the first 36 months plus 5/12% of PIA for each additional month. Delayed retirement credits are 2/3% per month for each month benefits are delayed from FRA to 70."
And, without going to deep into the weeds, that math causes what Meyer refers to as the "rat holes," those ages at which single retirees should not claim Social Security.
In essence, what happens is this: The total value of your stream of Social Security benefits -- the present value -- would be greater if you didn't claim at FRA or three years prior to FRA.
There are plenty more of these little-known and underused claiming strategies and tactics. Here's a look at some of them.
Benefits for minors and spouses
In a relatively rare instance when a worker claims Social Security and is married to someone who is taking care of a child under the age of 16 or taking care of a disabled child, that spouse can collect 50% of the benefits regardless of the spouse's age, said Lita Epstein, the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Social Security & Medicare." And if the worker dies, the spouse's benefit, even if the spouse is younger than 62, would increase to 75% as long as he or she is still caring for a child under the age of 16, she said.
In addition, Epstein said, unmarried children under the age of 18 (or up to 19 if they are attending elementary or secondary school full time) are eligible for benefits if their parent is retired, disabled or deceased. "An eligible child can be a biological child, an adopted child or a stepchild," she said. "And, a dependent grandchild can also qualify."
To be fair, there is a limit to the total amount a family can receive on a worker's benefit, Epstein said. And the limit varies depending on individual circumstances, but is around 150% to 180% of a worker's Social Security benefit. "If the total for dependent family members is greater than the family limit, the amount each family member receives is reduced proportionately," Epstein said. "The worker's benefit is not affected by this adjustment."
Dennis Heywood, the owner of Social Security Solutions, gave this example: If the wage earner's age 66 benefit is $2,000 per month, the family maximum benefit would be about $3,400. The wife and children would receive half of the $2,000 up to $3,400 per month total for the family. He would get $2,000 while the wife and children would split the $1,400.
Along the same lines, Heywood said, another strategy is for grandparents who adopt a grandchild. "The grandchild is eligible for child's benefits when the adoption is final," Heywood said.
Overlooked survivor benefits
Since the earliest age of retirement is 62, most people believe this applies to survivors as well, according to Donna Clements, a manager with Social Security and Medicare Services at Mercer in Louisville, Ky. "A surviving spouse can receive benefits at age 60 -- assuming there are no eligible children," said Clements. "This is two years earlier than for retirement and can be a major financial windfall, particularly if the surviving spouse did not work."
Another overlooked benefit in the case of survivor benefits: A surviving-divorced spouse qualifies for a benefit if the marriage lasted at least 10 years. "The benefit is the same as the current surviving spouse but is not included in the family maximum, unless the benefit is based on caring for the worker's eligible child."
Overlooked criteria for disability benefits
To receive disability benefits, Clements said, a worker needs to have earned a minimum number of credits based on birth year, with some credits earned in recent years. In 2012, one credit is received for each $1,130 earned in covered Social Security employment, up to a maximum of four credits per year, she noted. "For example, if you retired at age 50 with a company pension and then became disabled seven years later; you would not be able to receive Social Security disability benefits because you have not earned enough recent credits," Clements said. "You would need 20 credits within the last 10 years and this person would only have 12 credits."
Another one: "A nonworking spouse that becomes disabled is not eligible for disability benefits based on their spouse's work record," said Clements. "Workers are eligible if they have earned a minimum number of credits based on their own earnings from Social Security covered employment."
Multiple spouses, 1 worker
Epstein said another quirk is that more than one spouse can collect on a worker's benefits. "A divorced spouse who was married for 10 years or more is entitled to collect on an ex-spouse's benefit," she said. Of course, there's a catch: In most cases, you cannot be remarried.
Epstein said the earliest a spouse can collect on his or her former spouse's work record is the age of 62. "If the ex-spouse applies for benefits before his or her full retirement age, the benefits will be permanently reduced," she said. An ex-spouse may also be eligible for widow or widower's benefits.
Bottom line: "Someone who has been married to more than one person for at least 10 years, and is now unmarried or a widow or widower, can collect survivor's benefits on the ex-spouse who has the highest-earning work record," Epstein said. "Each person can only get one check."
So if there are multiple marriages, the person must pick which work record on which he or she wants to collect. Obviously, the choice should be the work record that yields the largest check. If a person remarries before the age of 60, he or she can't collect on an ex-spouse's record unless that second marriage also ends in divorce or the death of the second spouse. The one exception: A divorced spouse who is collecting disability benefits can remarry as early as age 50 and still collect survivor's benefits.
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File and suspend
If you are at your full retirement age, you can continue to work and suspend your benefit so your current spouse can collect a spouse's benefit and you can earn delayed retirement credits, said Clements. "The voluntary suspension is only for the months beginning after the month the request is made. A current spouse cannot claim a benefit on the worker's record until the worker has applied."
Andy Landis, of Seattle, the owner of Thinking Retirement and the author of "Social Security: The Inside Story, 2012 Edition," poses this question: Did you know you could apply for Social Security at 62 and draw four years of Social Security payments, then suspend your payments at age 66?
"A handful of people know you can apply at 66 and immediately suspend your payments, which allows your spouse to file on your record," he said. "But you can also suspend payments already in force, any time from age 66 to 70. Why? The win is that while suspended, your eventual payments are growing in the background at 8% per year."
Claim spouse's benefit now and worker's benefit later
It's not as quirky as other tactics, but it's well worth mentioning for those who might be unfamiliar with this one: If you are married and have attained full retirement age, you can claim a spouse's benefit and then switch to a benefit based on your own work record later, according to Clements. "This allows a person to collect a spouse's benefit now while earning DRCs up to age 70 on their own work record," she said. "People that are younger than FRA aren't allowed to do this."
She gave this example: A husband and wife are both at FRA, age 66, and have covered Social Security earnings. The husband's monthly benefit is $1,400, and the wife's monthly benefit is $1,000. The husband files for benefits. The wife can now claim a spouse's benefit of $700 (50% of her husband's benefit) and continue working and contributing toward her own Social Security benefit. At age 70 she files for her own retirement benefit that has earned DRCs and is $1,320 a month. Her spouse's benefit stops and her higher retirement benefit amount starts.
If parents have been receiving one-half support from a child for the 12 months prior to his or her retirement, they can receive a benefit on the child's account at age 62, according to Heywood. "Not too many of these (are) around anymore because most people have worked or are covered as a spouse for a higher benefit," Heywood said.
Though it happens rarely in reality, a variation on this quirk is this: A parent can collect on a child's work record if the child is deceased, said Epstein. "The parent would have to show they were dependent on the child," she said. "Once the dependent parent reaches the age of 62, he or she can apply for benefits on the child's work record if the child is deceased."
If you are already receiving Social Security retirement benefits, Clements said you can start your benefit over within 12 months of the first month of entitlement and limited to one withdrawal. "You can file a Request for Withdrawal of Application, or Social Security Form 521, and your benefits stop immediately when you file," she said. "The SSA will tell you how much you are required to pay back, including any family members that received benefits based on your work record. After your repayment, you would reapply for benefits. The advantages of doing this are your monthly benefit amount will be higher based on your current age, and the SSA does not charge interest on the repayment."
Gimmicks undermine Social Security
For the record, there are those who aren't so fond of claiming strategies that are gimmicks or abuses of the system. "I was always on the lookout for unique claiming strategies, in part because I'm fascinated by the financial aspect of claiming strategies, but also so I could suggest reforms if there was a strategy that seemed unfair and more of an abuse or gimmick," said Jason Fichtner, who is now a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and was formerly acting deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration.
Fichtner noted, for instance, that the SSA limited the ability to get an interest-free loan from the government via the so-called "do-over" strategy a few years ago, when he worked for the government.
What's more, Fichtner was quick to say that Social Security is intended to be "insurance," which is why it's called the "Old-Age and Survivors Insurance" program. "It was never intended to be the sole means for people to live off of in retirement," he said. "It's insurance against the possibility that you'll run out of saving by living too long."
Fichtner said there's a personal responsibility aspect to the program where individuals are supposed to have some personal saving. "Gimmicks that treat Social Security as a lottery where big bucks can be won not only negatively affect the solvency of the program but also undermine the societal support for Social Security."
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Here we go again. I am not a conspiracy-theorist by nature, but there almost seems to be a concerted effort going on these days to try to convince people not to take their SS the first chance they get. Don't suppose they want us to die before we collect a dime, do you?
This article is just a BROAD generalization and each person is unique.
What if you are 62 and your doctor tells you that you would be dead in a year--- it would be
really stupid to wait.
What if you are jobless and need the money at age 62 ?
What if your family history shows that nobody except you lived past age 60 ?
Use your brain people--- not some fool talking in broad generalities.
I have heard and known of immigrants whom have came to the United States by their children and/or relatives petition and are at the age of Social Security Administration Benefits. If it be Regular Social Security entitlements or Disability with Medicare and/or Medicaid.
I see and witness it daily. How fair can this be if they take others entitlements whom worked and earned the Benefits.
It is like balancing a checkbook. If 10 people pute into the program and 10 people whom never worked a day in their lives here in the United States take eligible persons entitlements. the Bank Account does not balance out and a lot take the money back to their Citizensship Country while Socoal Security Direct Deposit it in their their acount.
The government is now referring to our Social Security checks as a Federal Benefit Payment. This isn't a benefit it's earned income! Not only did we all contribute to Social Security but our employers did too. It totaled 15% of our income before taxes.If you averaged $30K per year over your working life, that's close to $180,000 invested in Social Security. If you calculate the future value of your monthly investment in social security ($375/month, including both your and your employers contributions) at a meager 1% interest rate compounded monthly, after 40 years of working you'd have more than $1.3+ million dollars saved! This is your personal investment. Upon retirement, if you took out only 3% per year, you'd receive $39,318 per year, or $3,277 per month. That's almost three times more than today's average Social Security benefit of $1,230 per month, according to the Social Security Administration.
And your retirement fund would last more than 33 years (until you're 98 if you retire at age 65)! I can only imagine how much better most average-income people could live in retirement if our government had just invested our money in low-risk interest-earning accounts. Instead, the folks in Washington pulled off a bigger Ponzi scheme than Bernie Madoff ever did. They took our money and used it elsewhere. They forgot that it was OUR money they were taking. They didn't have a referendum to ask us if we wanted to lend the money to them. And they didn't pay interest on the debt they assumed And recently, they have told us that the money won't support us for very much longer. But is it our fault they misused our investments? And now, to add insult to injury, they're calling it a benefit, as if we never worked to earn every penny of it. Just because they borrowed the money, doesn't mean that our investments were a charity! We have earned our right to Social Security and Medicare. Demand that our legislators bring some sense into our government
Find a way to keep Social Security and Medicare going, for the sake of that 92% of our population who need it. Then call it what it is: Our Earned Retirement Income.
No mention of WEP or GPO or both reducing ones payments! No mention of taxation of benefits! No mention of a lot of issues that can determine and will determine ones elibibility and payment amounts! So many laws have been passed since its first implementation that it is no longer a "workers" earned right. For those of you not yet receiving---just wait. Lots of surprises are awaiting. Usually NOT beneficial ones! Good luck. You will need it.
There needed to be a lot more explanation of this line in the article:
"The total value of your stream of Social Security benefits -- the present value -- would be greater if you didn't claim at FRA or three years prior to FRA."
First, did you mean "FRA or ANY of the three years prior to FRA"?
Second, did you take into account actuarial tables re: longevity? (Hard to imagine you did, since you didn't qualify whether you meant male or female.)
Third, did you take into account the "time value of money", that the earlier payments are worth more both because of later inflation and because they could have earned income.
I guess I'd just like to see the math. Then I could know if you really know what you're talking about.
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