Q&A: Don’t rush to collect Social Security

Dear Liz: I would like you to explain to us retirees why we should delay taking Social Security.

I have two tax preparers — and other people — who say delaying is a terrible idea. I’m in my 20th year of collecting Social Security, and I can assure you that people who delay are making a dreadful mistake. Please check this out!

Answer: Your tax preparers may have had a point 20 years ago, but a lot has changed since then, including life expectancies and prevailing interest rates. It’s unfortunate if your advisors haven’t kept up with copious research showing that delaying Social Security makes sense for most recipients.

One issue of particular interest to tax pros is the “tax torpedo.” That’s a sharp rise and then fall in the marginal tax rate caused by taxation of Social Security benefits. Researchers found the tax torpedo could nearly double the marginal tax rate for many middle-income families. People in the 22% federal tax bracket, for example, could see their marginal tax rate jump to 40% on a portion of their income.

Two decades ago, this would have been an issue for fewer taxpayers because most did not owe income tax on their Social Security benefits. Now more than half pay taxes on their benefits because Congress hasn’t updated certain income limits to reflect inflation.

The researchers found that delaying the start of benefits until age 70 and tapping retirement funds instead could reduce the tax torpedo’s effect. This approach not only maximizes Social Security benefits but also reduces the minimum amounts that must be distributed starting at age 70½. For more details, you can point your tax advisors to the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning.

The National Bureau of Economic Research also has numerous papers on Social Security-claiming strategies, including “Recent Changes in the Gains from Delaying Social Security,” “Leaving Big Money on the Table: Arbitrage Opportunities in Delaying Social Security,” “The Power of Working Longer” and “The Decision to Delay Social Security Benefits: Theory and Evidence.”

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Comments

  1. Liz
    My question is if all your money is in a tax shelter annuity why not take ss early it seems that you would pay less taxes. Also upon death your family can inherit the savings. At 62 my wife and I receive $92,000 per year from ss and pensions.

    • Liz Weston says

      Because of the tax torpedo, there are situations where taking Social Security early can actually result in a higher tax bill than taking it later. But the most compelling reason to wait is the survivor benefit. When one member of a couple dies, one Social Security check goes away and the survivor has to get by on the larger of the two benefit. That why it’s so important for the higher earner to delay, because the higher earner’s benefit becomes the survivor benefit.