Those who had made the mistake of starting benefits early had the option of paying back all the money they’d received from Social Security. Then they could restart their checks at a higher rate that they would enjoy for the rest of their lives. For those who could afford it, this “do over” was similar to buying an annuity with a risk-free annual payout of 7% to 9%.
Social Security closed the loophole in 2010, and now you have only 12 months from the time you start benefits to pay back what you’ve received and hit the reset button. This limited do over could help those who make smaller mistakes, such as starting benefits right before their full retirement ages, but doesn’t represent the great investment deal that it used to.
But there’s another potential do over that people should know about, and it has to do with the “file and suspend” strategy.
This strategy is typically recommended for married couples. The first to reach full retirement age (currently 66, gradually increasing to 67) files for Social Security benefits but then immediately suspends the application. This move allows spouses to file for spousal benefits while leaving the older spouse’s benefit alone to grow.
If the younger spouses wait until their own full retirement age to begin spousal benefits, they’ll have the option of switching to their own benefit later, say at age 70 when it maxes out.
This strategy can add as much as $250,000 to the lifetime benefits a married couple can receive.
But the file-and-suspend strategy has other applications. It can be a kind of insurance policy for single people as well as married couples. Those who file and suspend can later change their mind and receive a lump-sum payout.
Let’s say you’re single and want to leave your benefit alone to continue growing at 8% a year until age 70. So you file and suspend at your full retirement age of 66. But if you should lose your job, run into financial problems or get a bad medical diagnosis, you can start your checks and request a lump-sum payout of your benefits back to the date you suspended.
Anyone who files-and-suspends so a spouse can get benefits could do the same thing, of course. For those who want to maximize their benefits but still give themselves a safety net in case of disaster, file and suspend can make a lot of sense.