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Can You Increase Your Social Security Benefits?

The desire to get the largest possible benefits from Social Security is a relatively new phenomenon. For decades, people received their monthly benefit check and that was it. However, in the late 1990s, a new law let seniors over age 66 work without any reduction in benefits, says the article “Social Security & You: Seniors obsess over ‘maximizing’ their Social Security” from Tuscon.com. The law led to loopholes that became known as “file and suspend” and “file and restrict.” In a nutshell, they allowed retirees to collect dependent spousal benefits on a spouse’s Social Security record, while delaying their own benefits until age 70.

Congress eventually realized that these loopholes violated the basic concept of the program. Benefits to spouses were always known as “dependent” benefits. To claim benefits as a spouse, you had to prove that you were financially dependent upon the other spouse to collect benefits on their record. However, the loophole let people who were the primary wage earner in the family claim benefits as a “dependent” of the other spouse. Five years ago, Congress closed that loophole.

More specifically, Congress closed the ability to file-and-suspend. It also put file-and-restrict on notice. If you turned 66 before January 2020, you could still wiggle through that loophole, and there are some people who are still eligible. That’s where the term “maximizing your benefits” originated.

Can you get a bigger Social Security check, if you don’t fit into the exception noted above? The only real strategy to maximizing your benefits is simply to wait. The equation is pretty simple. If you wait until your Full Retirement Age (FRA), you will receive 100% of your benefit rate. If you can wait until age 70, you’ll receive 132% of your benefit.

In some households, the higher income earner waits until age 70 to file for retirement, so that the surviving spouse will one day receive higher surviving spouse benefits.

But that’s not the best advice for everyone. If you or your spouse suffer from a chronic illness, it may not make sense to wait.

If you or your spouse have lost your jobs, as so many have because of the pandemic, then Social Security may be the safety net that you need, until you are able to return to some kind of paid employment.

There may be other reasons why you might need to take your benefits earlier, even earlier than your FRA. Some households start taking their Social Security benefits at age 62, as a way to augment other income.

If you don’t already have a “My Social Security” account set up on the Social Security Administration’s portal, now is the time to do so. The Social Security Administration stopped sending annual statements years ago, but you can go into your account and download the statements yourself and start planning for your future.

Reference: Tuscon.com (Feb. 10, 2021) “Social Security & You: Seniors obsess over ‘maximizing’ their Social Security”

taxes during retirement

Do I Have to Pay Taxes during Retirement?

Paying taxes when you aren’t working but are instead receiving income from a lifetime of working and Social Security is a harsh reality of retirement for many people. Figuring out how much of your income will be consumed by taxes is a tricky task, according to the article “What You Need to Know About Taxes and Your Retirement” from Next Avenue. Ignore it, and your finances will suffer.

Most households will pay about six percent of their retirement income in federal income tax, but that number varies greatly, depending upon the size of their retirement income. The lowest income groups may pay next to nothing, but as income rises, so do the taxes. Married couples with an average combined Social Security benefit of about $33,000, 401(k)/IRA balances of $180,790, and personal financial wealth of $87,000 could find themselves paying 10.5% to 20.9%.

Income taxes and health costs are most people’s biggest expenses in retirement. Income taxes are due on pensions and withdrawals from tax-deferred accounts, including traditional IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and similar retirement accounts. The same goes for tax-deferred annuities. Required minimum distributions must be taken starting at age 72.

Roth IRA and 401(k) distributions are tax free, since taxes are paid when the funds go into the accounts, not when they are withdrawn.

If you have investments in addition to your tax-deferred funds, like stocks or bond funds, you also pay taxes on the dividends and interest paid to you. If you sell them, you’ll likely need to pay any capital gains taxes.

Learning that a portion of your Social Security benefits are subject to federal income tax is a shocker to many retirees, but about 40% of recipients do pay taxes on their benefits. The higher your income, the more taxes you’ll need to pay.

There may also be state taxes on your Social Security benefits, depending on where you live.

However, here’s the biggest shocker–if you work part time, you may forfeit benefits, temporarily, if you claim before your Full Retirement Age, while you are working. Claiming before FRA means that your benefits are subject to earnings limits—the most you can make from work before triggering a benefit reduction.

Social Security withholds $1 in benefits for every $2 earned above the annual earnings limitation cap. If you reach your FRA after 2020, that’s $18,240. If you reach your FRA in 2020, the annual exemption amount is $48,600.

Pension, investment income and any government benefits, like unemployment compensation, don’t count towards earned income.

Benefits that are withheld will be returned to you once you hit FRA when Social Security bumps up your monthly benefit to make up for the withholding, but this takes place over time.

Reference: Next Avenue (Sep. 17, 2020) “What You Need to Know About Taxes and Your Retirement”

social security benefits

Social Security Benefits: Timing Is Everything

Not knowing when you will be eligible to receive all of the benefits earned through your work history can hurt a retirement plan, says a recent article from CNBC.com titled “Here’s what to you need to know about claiming Social Security retirement benefits.” Equally problematic? It is letting fears of the program running out of money before you can get your fair share influence your decision.

If you get the timing right and use a combination of your retirement savings and Social Security benefits in the right time and the right order, your money may last as much as seven years longer. However, remember that there are many rules about Social Security and retirement fund withdrawals. Here are three big blind spots to avoid:

Not knowing when to take full benefits.

Age 62 is when you are first eligible to take Social Security benefits. Many people start taking them at this age because they don’t know better or because they have no alternative. If you start taking benefits at age 62, your monthly benefits will be reduced.

There is a difference between eligibility and Full Retirement Age, or FRA. When you reach FRA, which is usually 66 or 67, depending upon your birth year, then you are entitled to 100% of the benefits based on your work record. If you can manage without taking Social Security benefits a few more years after your FRA, those benefits will continue to grow—about 8% a year.

Most Americans simply don’t know this fact. If you can wait it out, it’s worth doing so. If you can’t, you can’t. However, the longer you can wait until when you reach your full amount, the bigger the monthly check.

How many ways can you claim benefits?

This is where people make the biggest number of mistakes. There are many different ways to take Social Security benefits. People just don’t always know which one to choose. First, once you start receiving benefits, you have up to a year to withdraw your application. Let’s say you need to start benefits but then you find a job. You can stop taking benefits, but you have to repay all the benefits you and your family members received. This option is a one-time only event.

Another way to increase benefits if you start taking them early, is to suspend them from the time you reach your FRA until age 70. However, you have to live without the Social Security income for those years.

Expecting the worst scenarios for Social Security.

Social Security headlines come in waves, and they can be disconcerting. However, a knee-jerk reaction is to take benefits early because of fear is not a good move for the long term. There are a number of proposals now on Capitol Hill to strengthen the program. Benefits may be reduced, but they will not go away entirely.

Reference: CNBC.com (Aug. 24, 2020) “Here’s what to you need to know about claiming Social Security retirement benefits”

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