Visit us on LinkedinVisit us on LinkedinVisit us on Linkedin

Changes to Social Security – Primarily the file & suspend strategy

social-securityCongress is putting an end to two Social Security filing strategies that many couples have used to add tens of thousands of dollars to their retirement incomes. But there’s a six-month window in which couples who are at least 66 years old can take advantage of them, as well as a partial reprieve for some others.

The implications of the new Social Security rules became clearer Friday after the Senate passed the budget bill that includes the changes. The measure will become law after President Barack Obama signs it.

The strategies under fire—known as file-and-suspend and a restricted application for spousal benefits—have made it possible for both members of a couple who are 66 or older to delay claiming benefits based on their own earnings records while one pockets a so-called spousal benefit based on the other’s earnings.

To do this, one individual files for benefits and suspends them, while the other files a restricted application to collect only a spousal benefit—not his or her own earned benefit even if it would be higher. That way, both individuals can take advantage of delayed retirement credits, which increase their earned benefits by 6% to 8% for each year in which they defer claiming between the ages of 66 and 70—and one gets some income from Social Security in the meantime.

Combined, the strategies can boost lifetime retirement income by as much as $60,000 or more, says William Meyer, chief executive of SocialSecuritySolutions.com, a service that identifies Social Security claiming strategies likely to yield the highest amount over a beneficiary’s life span.

While the new law shuts down the two strategies, some people can still take advantage of them—provided they act fast. For those for whom the strategies will be off limits, meanwhile, claiming decisions may become less complicated but also less lucrative.

Here’s what you need to know:

A six-month window before new rules kick in.
Under the new law, individuals will still have the ability to suspend their benefits. But Social Security will no longer allow relatives to submit a new claim for spousal or dependent child benefits based on the earnings record of a worker who has suspended his or her own benefits. However, that provision won’t go into effect for six months from the date President Obama signs the budget bill.

As a result, if you are 66 or older now—or will turn 66 within the next six months—there might be an advantage in filing and immediately suspending your benefit. That would give a spouse who is also 66 or older the option to file a restricted application for only a spousal benefit and receive that benefit while both of you delay claiming on your own records. But both you and your spouse must act within the six-month window.

There’s a similar window for individuals at full retirement age who have children under age 18 or disabled adult children. Those who are 66 or older—or will turn 66 within the next six months—can file-and-suspend so their children can claim dependent benefits. Again, both parties need to take action within six months.

If you won’t turn 66 until after the six-month window closes, your relatives won’t receive a dime unless you are already receiving your benefits, says Web Phillips, senior legislative representative at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Some people get a break.
Families who are already using these strategies will be grandfathered. Their benefits will not be changed or interrupted due to the legislation, says Mr. Phillips.

Also, if you turned 62 this year or are older, you will still be able to file a restricted application for only a spousal benefit starting at age 66. This will allow you to receive a spousal benefit while you defer claiming your own benefit so that it can grow larger.

After file-and-suspend is phased out in six months, to take advantage of this, your spouse must already be claiming a benefit, said Michael Kitces, director of planning research at Pinnacle Advisory Group Inc. in Columbia, Md.

When married individuals apply for a retirement benefit other than with a restricted application, they are deemed to have filed for both their own earned benefit and a spousal benefit, and will receive whichever is higher, instead of having a choice to get one and switch to the other later.

Flexibility on retirement vs. survivor benefits remains.
Generally, widows and widowers won’t be affected by the new law, says Mr. Meyer. And individuals who are eligible for both earned and survivor benefits will continue to have a couple of claiming strategies open to them, making careful comparison worthwhile.

Starting at age 60, a survivor can take a reduced benefit based on his or her deceased spouse’s benefit—and then switch to his or her own benefit later if it is higher. Alternatively, the survivor can start with his or her own benefit as early as age 62 and then switch to a full survivor benefit at full retirement age.

One of these strategies is often better than simply sticking with one benefit or the other.

If you’re divorced.
The restricted-application changes also apply to people who are divorced.

Under current law, a divorced individual who is 66 or older and was married at least 10 years but is currently unmarried can claim a benefit based on the ex-spouse’s earnings record while allowing his or her own benefit to grow. A former spouse is generally entitled to file such a claim once an ex turns 62, says Mr. Phillips.

But under the new law, only those who turned 62 this year or are older will be able to file to do this when they turn 66. Younger divorced people will receive either their own earned benefit or a spousal benefit—whichever is higher—instead of having a choice to take one and switch to the other later. You must be unmarried to get a divorced spouse benefit.

The fate of one key difference in the rules for those who are divorced is unclear: Under current law, you can collect a benefit based on an ex’s work record even if he or she isn’t yet collecting a benefit, as long as the ex is at least 62. But due to the new rule on file-and-suspend, it’s unclear what would happen to a spousal benefit claim if an ex had suspended his or her benefit.

“This was likely not intended and will hopefully be fixed,” says Mr. Kitces.