The end to file-and-suspend: Sorry about that

shutterstock_101159917In June, I wrote a column predicting that Congress eventually would do away with “file and suspend” and other Social Security claiming strategies that the Obama Administration had labeled as “aggressive.” I thought it would take years for lawmakers to act. But the end was closer than many of us thought.

The budget deal quickly moving through Congress would eliminate new file-and-suspend applications 180 days after the bill is signed into law, according to the Fiscal Times. That change could shave as much as $50,000 off the lifetime benefits of couples who were planning to use the strategy to maximize their benefits, according to Laurence Kotlikoff, co-author of the book “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Our Your Social Security.”

If you don’t know, file-and-suspend was created in 2000 as a way to encourage people to keep working. Before that time, primary earners had to apply for their own retirement benefits before their spouses could apply for spousal benefits. With file-and-suspend, primary earners could put off actually receiving their Social Security, allowing their checks to grow, while still allowing their partners to get spousal benefits.

Spousal benefits were created with low- or non-earning spouses in mind, but financial advisors soon discovered file-and-suspend was also a good way to maximize benefits for two high-earning spouses. One could collect “free money” in the form of a spousal benefit before switching to his or her own benefit when it maxed out at age 70.

The growing popularity of the strategy pretty much doomed it. Five years ago, the Center for Retirement Research has estimated that file-and-suspend could cost as much as $9.5 billion each year. The more advisors learned about it, and the more people like me wrote about it, the more strain we were putting on an already troubled system.


Q&A: File and suspend strategy for Social Security

Dear Liz: You recently wrote an interesting piece regarding the “file and suspend” strategy for Social Security benefits. I liked the possibility of getting a lump sum if I should need the money downstream.

But when I checked with Social Security, I was told that the lump sum maximum was six months of suspended payments. Am I missing something? My understanding was that I could collect all the suspended payments if need be. Is there a specific code I could reference to our Social Security office to clear this matter up?

Answer: You’re not missing something. The Social Security representative you talked to is confusing retroactive benefits with the reinstatement of benefits that were voluntarily suspended.

When you file for benefits after your full retirement age (currently 66), the maximum lump sum you can get is six months’ of missed benefits.

When you “file and suspend” your application at or after full retirement age, however, you can end the suspension at any time and get a lump sum for all the benefits you missed.

Unfortunately, the misinformation you received isn’t unusual.

Financial planners around the country have reported running into Social Security reps who insist that only six months’ of benefits are available to people who file and suspend, which isn’t true.

The procedure is outlined in the Social Security Administration’s “Program Operations Manual System” under GN 02409.130 Voluntary Suspension Reinstatement

It’s also described in plain English on Social Security’s site: “If you change your mind and want the payments to start before age 70, just tell us when you want your benefits reinstated (orally or in writing). Your request may include benefits for any months when your payments were suspended.”

The ability to file and suspend, then change your mind, is an important protection for those who understand the important role Social Security plays as longevity insurance.

The smartest course is often to let your benefit grow to its maximum amount, taking advantage of the “delayed retirement credits” that increase your benefit 8% annually between your full retirement age (currently 66) and age 70.

If you should later find yourself in need of the money, you can get a lump sum payout for the missed benefits back to the day you filed and suspended, if you want.

But opting for the lump payment means you lose your delayed retirement credits for that period. In other words, if you ask for a lump sum dating back to your initial filing, your monthly benefit is reset to the smaller amount you would have gotten then.

Q&A: Filing and Suspending Social Security

Dear Liz: I was told by a staff person at our Social Security office that because I am seven years older than my husband (he is 58, I am 65), the “file and suspend” wouldn’t work for me and that because I am waiting until 70 to claim benefits, it was a non-issue.

Is that correct? How does the “lump sum” option figure into the equation? How quickly would I have to file and suspend not to be penalized for the process?

Answer: The “file and suspend” option allows you to file for your Social Security benefit and then immediately suspend that application.

The suspension means your benefit continues to earn delayed retirement credits that boost the amount of your checks 8% each year until age 70, when your benefit reaches its maximum. The file and suspend option is available only once you’ve reached your full retirement age (which is currently 66 but which is rising to 67 for those born in 1960 or later).

There are two main reasons to file and suspend. The first is to allow your spouse to claim spousal benefits based on your work record. The second is to give you the option to change your mind.

If you file and suspend, then discover you need the money, you can either start benefits at the larger amount you’ve earned with delayed retirement credits, or give up those credits and instead receive a lump sum payment of benefits back to the date you suspended your application.

There’s no reason for you to file and suspend for spousal benefits since your husband would have to be 62 before he could file for those checks. By that time, as the Social Security representative points out, you’ll be close to age 70, when you plan to start your benefit anyway.

You could still file and suspend as an insurance strategy — in case you need the money later. If that’s your plan, then doing so at your full retirement age of 66 would give you the option of requesting the largest possible lump sum if you do change your mind.

Decisions about when to start Social Security benefits and how to coordinate benefits when you’re married (or divorced, or widowed) can be extremely complex.

Please read the information the AARP provides on its site about maximizing Social Security benefits and consider using one of the available calculators to explore your options. AARP and T. Rowe Price have free calculators, and you can find more sophisticated options for $40 at sites including and

Q&A: “File and suspend” Social Security

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing about the “file and suspend” option that allows you to delay taking Social Security while still reserving the ability to get a lump sum if you later change your mind.

If I file and suspend but choose not to take a lump sum before my benefit maxes out at 70, what happens to those funds? What happens to those funds if I die before 70?

Answer: Remember that Social Security is a pay-as-you-go program. The Social Security taxes you pay aren’t piled up in some kind of account, waiting for you to retire. Your taxes pay current retirees’ benefits, just as future workers’ taxes will pay yours.

When you delay starting Social Security, you’re rewarded with a potentially larger check each year you put off claiming until age 70. Your benefit grows by about 7% each year between age 62 and your full retirement age, which is currently 66.

Between full retirement age and 70, your benefit grows at 8% each year in what’s called “delayed retirement credits.”

If you file and suspend at your full retirement age, then change your mind, you can get a lump sum equal to all those checks you passed up since you filed. However, you lose the 8% delayed retirement credits you could have otherwise claimed.

Your benefit is reset to the lower amount you would have received at full retirement age, and that’s the benefit on which all future cost-of-living calculations would be made.

Should you die after filing and suspending, your surviving spouse would be able to benefit from those delayed retirement credits. His survivor’s benefit would be equal to what you could have claimed as of the date of your death.

Q&A: “File and suspend”

Dear Liz: You recently encouraged a reader to listen to his financial advisor, who wanted him to file for his Social Security benefit at his full retirement age of 66 but then suspend the application until his benefit maxes out at age 70.

Another good feature of this “file and suspend” maneuver is the ability to ask for all the unpaid benefits in a single lump sum in the event one develops a terminal illness or needs funds for some other exigent circumstance, such as long-term care. The potential lump sum “back pay” can be a pretty good insurance policy while waiting for age 70.

Answer: Thanks for highlighting this important feature. Many people who are on the fence about delaying Social Security don’t understand that their decision is reversible — as long as they wait until their full retirement age to file.

At that point, they have the option to file and suspend. If they later change their minds, they can request a lump sum for all the benefits back to the date they filed.

They lose any “delayed retirement credits” from waiting — in other words, their benefit is reset to what it would have been had it started at full retirement age — but they get a big chunk of cash when they may need it most.

People who file before their full retirement age, which is currently 66 and rising to 67 for people born in 1960 and later, don’t have the option to file and suspend.

A Social Security “do over” you should consider

Delete "MISTAKE"For years Social Security had a loophole that allowed people to hit “reset” on their benefits.

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.


Waiting to take Social Security has hidden benefits

Dear Liz: When I was 62, I started Social Security and I’m currently saving half of my monthly benefit after taxes (about $750). My decision to take my benefits early was influenced by a financial columnist who suggested that if I started at 62 and invested half or more of it until I reached full retirement age, the lower early benefits would be matched by the investment returns by the time I’m 85. Is this advice still reasonable?

Answer: In today’s investing environment, it’s hard to match the guaranteed annual return you get from delaying Social Security benefits. You may do better investing in the stock market, but there isn’t an investment that can guarantee 6% returns right now, which is the approximate amount Social Security benefits increase annually between the earliest age you can take benefits (62) and your full retirement age (currently 66). The higher benefit you get by waiting is then increased by inflation adjustments each year, making it an even harder target to beat.

That’s not to say it can’t be done. In your case, it’s too late for second thoughts anyway. But most people are better off waiting, if they can afford to do so.

There are other good reasons to delay, even if you’re an investing genius. If you’re married, your spouse would be eligible for a survivor’s benefit should you die first. That benefit is equal to the Social Security check you’ve been getting. A bigger check could make it easier for him or her to make ends meet down the road.

Spouses who wait until full retirement age also have the option of taking spousal benefits first, and then switching to their own benefits later, after those benefits have had a few more years to grow. When you take benefits early, you lose the option to switch.

Even if you’re not married, you can look at Social Security as a form of longevity insurance. A larger benefit could be a big help if you live a long time and spend down your other assets.

Hopefully you understood all this before you put your retirement plan into motion. If you didn’t, then your situation could serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who’s trying to make decisions about retirement based solely on his or her own research. It’s vitally important to get a second opinion from a fee-only comprehensive financial planner. Even the most ardent do-it-yourselfer can miss important nuances when it comes to retirement, and those nuances can have a dramatic effect on your future quality of life.

Delaying Social Security increases your options

Dear Liz: I’m confused by your answer about the “file and suspend” strategy for boosting Social Security benefits. You wrote that the higher-earning, younger spouse in this case had to wait until her full retirement age if she wanted to use this strategy to let her husband claim a spousal benefit while her own benefit continued to grow.

I was told by a financial planner and thought I had confirmed on the Social Security website that once I am 62 and my spouse is 66 (his full retirement age), I can file for and suspend my benefits, allowing him to claim my spousal benefit.

Answer: You’re confusing two different strategies. If your husband waits until his full retirement age to apply for benefits, he has the option of receiving a spousal benefit and allowing his own benefit to continue growing. But he can receive the spousal benefit only if you’ve applied to receive your own benefits.

If you’re younger than your full retirement age, you don’t have the option to “file and suspend” — in other words, to apply for your benefit and then suspend your claim so your husband can get benefits while yours continue to grow.

“The strategy of filing for retirement and suspending the retirement benefits to allow your spouse to collect is only available after full retirement age,” Social Security Administration spokesman Lowell Kepke said.