Congress closes some Social Security loopholes

February 1, 2016

A financial question that surfaces frequently, usually from physicians ages 55 years and older, is: “When and how should my spouse and I take our Social Security benefits?” These types of questions recently got complicated with the recent passage of new legislation by the U.S. Congress.

A financial question that surfaces frequently, usually from physicians ages 55 years and older, is: “When and how should my spouse and I take our Social Security benefits?” Unfortunately, the answers to these types of questions recently became complicated.

Because of legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in November 2015, the clock is now ticking–which is expected to shut doors for many individuals. This topic will be addressed in more detail later in the year. However, this column will attempt to simplify a complex topic. Just remember to explore the options thoroughly. 

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The first point is that individuals ages 70 or older–or those who will be 70 in 2016–will not be impacted by this legislation. Anyone 66 years or over but not yet 70 should re-evaluate their current strategies for claiming Social Security benefits before April 30, 2016.   

Congress outlined these changes to Social Security as “closing unintended loopholes” in order to protect the solvency of the Social Security System. The new law will eliminate a small number of claiming strategies that could have resulted in cumulatively higher benefits for some people under the old law. 

Filing a restricted application

Under the old law, individuals who had reached full retirement age were given an option to apply for one benefit and retain the ability to switch to another at a later date. For example, it was possible to claim only a benefit based on one’s spouse’s earnings, and later claim a retirement benefit based on their own earnings.

Under the new law, individuals can’t restrict their application to the benefit they want. Instead, individuals must take the highest available benefit. The new rules apply to individuals who were not age 62 by the end of 2015.  Individuals ages 62 and over are “grandfathered” and they can still apply the old rules when they reach full retirement age.

File and suspend

 

File and suspend

Americans can still file for benefits, suspend taking them, and earn delayed retirement credits for a higher benefit later. But under the new law, a spouse will not be able to collect benefits based on one’s earnings record while suspending their own benefit.

There is a short window of opportunity here. If an individual has reached full retirement age, or will reach it by April 30, 2016, then he/she can still take advantage of the “old” rules by filing and suspending benefits––but he/she must take advantage of the rule by April 30, 2016.

Lump-sum reinstatement

Under the “old” rules, individuals who chose to file and suspend could later change their mind and retroactively recover the unpaid amounts during suspension. This is no longer possible under the new rules. Individuals can retain their ability to retroactively recover benefits, but they must reach full retirement age, file for benefits, and suspend them by April 30, 2016.

What should you do now?

If individuals filed a restricted application, or chose to file and suspend, before the new law was enacted, they can continue to enjoy the benefits of the claiming strategies under the “old” rules.  Even if you are already receiving benefits, individuals have an opportunity to re-evaluate whether suspension could be a benefit. 

The recent budget compromise may have shut the door on some popular claiming strategies, but many other planning opportunities still exist.  Knowing one’s options and correctly claiming benefits could result in tens of thousands of additional dollars over a lifetime. 

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The Social Security Administration is a stickler for punctuality. Therefore, if it is applicable to an individual’s situation, he/she may want to avoid being locked out, as it could have significant implications to one’s retirement lifestyle. 

As part of the partnership with Ophthalmology Times, it is our pleasure to offer, at no cost, a robust software analysis that can help one analyze many of the Social Security benefit scenarios available.

It is prudent for spouses to discuss possible retirement dates and to begin planning ahead just when and how to take their Social Security benefits to maximize their future income.

John J., John S, and Traudy F. Grande, CFPs, are the editors of the Money Matters column. They are owners and principals of Grande Financial Services Inc., Oakhurst, NJ, (website: www.grandefs.com) and registered principals of Wells Fargo & Co., member of SIPC. The Grandes advise physicians across the country on a diverse range of investment and financial matters. Readers may submit their financial questions to them at john.s.grande@wfafinet.com