Q&A: Social Security lets you un-retire to avoid a benefit hit, but only once

Dear Liz: My wife recently retired at age 62 and will collect Social Security. But she has decided to return to work full time. I know she will collect less if she makes more than Social Security allows per month. If she eventually goes back to not working at all, can she go back to collecting the original amount?

Answer: Yes, but she’d be smart to reconsider her decision to start collecting Social Security early because she’s permanently reducing her benefit for little (if any) good reason.

The earnings test, which applies when people start Social Security early, takes away $1 of benefits for every $2 she earns over a certain limit, which is $16,920 in 2017. The earnings test will end when she reaches her full retirement age, which for people born in 1955 is 66 years and two months. Her check at that point would be what she originally received at 62, plus any cost of living increases.

But that original check is reduced by nearly 25% from what she would get at full retirement age, and the reduction lasts for the rest of her life. That’s a huge hit, and it should make her question the advisability of starting benefits early when so much could be taken away from her.

Fortunately, she has a little time to change her mind. Social Security allows applicants to withdraw their applications, allowing their benefit to continue growing, if they do so within 12 months of becoming entitled to benefits. People who withdraw their applications have to pay back any benefits that received in order to restart the clock.

This is a one-time do-over: Applications can be withdrawn only once in a lifetime and can’t be withdrawn after a year has passed. She can read more about this at the Social Security site, https://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/withdrawal.html.

Social Security benefits make up half or more of most people’s retirement income. Making smart decisions is essential if you want to avoid a lifetime of regret.

At a minimum, people should use a free claiming-strategies calculator, such as the one on the AARP site, to determine when and how to begin benefits. For $40, they can use more sophisticated planners such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com and SocialSecuritySolutions.com.

Another good option is to consult a fee-only financial planner familiar with Social Security claiming strategies to make sure they’re not making an irrevocable mistake.

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