Q&A: Resetting the Social Security clock

Dear Liz: I read that you can pay Social Security back the payments you’ve received in order to “reset the clock” and get a larger benefit. Is that true or did I misunderstand the article? My husband started two years ago to claim Social Security benefits at age 67, but if he had waited until he was 70, of course the checks would have been higher for all future payments. Can he pay back to the Social Security administration the amounts already paid to him in order to now claim the higher rate as if he had delayed receiving monthly payments?

Answer: It’s not just his own checks that could have been higher. If he was the higher earner, then the survivor benefit that one of you will receive when the other dies would also have been higher.

Unfortunately, the “do over” option is now only available in the first twelve months after someone begins receiving benefits. People who change their minds during that period can withdraw their Social Security applications, pay back the money they received and then restart their benefits later, when the amounts they get would be larger.

For more information, check out Social Security’s page “If You Change Your Mind” (www.ssa.gov has all sorts of information). After the first year, people can’t withdraw their applications.

Your husband still has the option of suspending his benefit, however. He wouldn’t be able to completely reset the clock, but he also wouldn’t have to pay back all the benefits he received. Instead, every month he waited to restart his checks would increase his benefit by two-thirds of 1% each month (or a total of 8% a year) until he reached age 70, when the benefit would max out.

Social Security representatives have been known to falsely tell people that this option no longer exists, but it’s still available to anyone who has reached full retirement age, which is currently 66.