It’s time to fix Social Security’s tax burden

People on Social Security need a tax break. The rest of us need to make sure they get it — for everyone’s sake.

When Congress made Social Security benefits taxable in 1983, lawmakers didn’t index the tax thresholds to inflation. They “forgot” inflation again when adding a second layer of taxation in 1993.

That means the proportion of recipients who have to pay federal income taxes on their benefits keeps increasing. Initially, only 1 in 10 Social Security recipients had to pay any federal tax. Now, it’s over half.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why this sneaky way of boosting taxes is unfair to those who have already paid their dues.

Q&A: Social Security benefits confusion

Dear Liz: In a past column, you discussed a potentially advantageous option for people who started Social Security early. You wrote that when they reached full retirement age, they could suspend their benefits and allow them to grow by earning delayed retirement credits. I am turning 66 this month and have been collecting Social Security benefits since age 62.

I went to a local Social Security field office to request the suspension but was told this option is not available. They couldn’t provide definitive documentation to support their statements but said that by starting benefits at 62 the option to suspend and earn delayed credits from 66 to age 70 doesn’t apply. Can you please clarify your comments and, if correct, suggest how I might be able to convince the representatives at the local office that it is still an option? I have been speaking to a supposed “expert” at the office, not the first person screening my request.

Answer: Unfortunately, the advice you get from local Social Security offices isn’t always accurate.

The representatives you talked to may be confusing benefit suspension with the so-called “file and suspend” option, which Congress eliminated a few years ago. With file and suspend, a higher wage earner could file an application for benefits and immediately suspend it. This allowed a married partner to start claiming spousal benefits while the higher earner’s benefit could continue to grow. Under current rules, partners can claim spousal benefits only if the primary earner is actually receiving retirement benefits.

For those not familiar with Social Security claiming strategies: It’s generally advantageous to wait as long as possible to apply for retirement benefits. The amount you can get grows at roughly 7% annually between age 62, which is the earliest you can apply, and your full retirement age, which is currently 66 but which will gradually rise to 67 for people born in 1960 and later. Between your full retirement age and age 70, you can earn so-called “delayed retirement credits” that further boost your check by 8% each year.

If you start early and realize you made a mistake, you can suspend your benefits at your full retirement age. Your checks will stop, but you don’t have to repay past benefits. And the amount you receive — although still reduced by your early start — can earn delayed retirement credits.

This probably isn’t a good option if you have other people drawing benefits based on your record, such as spouses or dependent children, because the suspension would stop their benefits as well.

Suspension also is different from the “do over” option that allows you to repay any benefits you’ve received and completely restart the clock on your benefits, as if you’d never started them. That option is allowed only in the first 12 months after your initial application.

Given that your local reps are confused, you should point them to the Social Security Administration’s web page on the matter.

It couldn’t be clearer. The first sentence reads: “If you have reached full retirement age, but are not yet age 70, you can ask us to suspend retirement benefit payments.” The page goes on to say your benefits will be automatically restarted at age 70, when those benefits max out, but you can restart at any time before that if you want.

How women who retire with their husbands often lose out

Women who retire when their husbands do may be giving up more wealth than they realize.

Married women overall are still in their peak earning years in their 50s and early 60s, while married men’s earnings are on the decline, says economist Nicole Maestas, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and the author of a recent study about couples’ income and retirement patterns.

As a result, married women typically sacrifice more Social Security wealth than married men when they retire early, says Maestas, who analyzed the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Survey of more than 20,000 people 50 and older.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why women should consider staying employed longer than their husbands.

Q&A: Waiting your way to better retirement benefits

Dear Liz: You recently wrote, “When you apply for Social Security now, you’re ‘deemed’ (considered by the Social Security Administration) to be applying for both your own benefit and any available spousal benefit. If a spousal benefit is larger, you’ll get that, and you can’t switch back to your own later.”

I turn 62 in August and recently visited the Social Security Administration to apply for benefits. I worked for 20 years and earned a benefit of $1,400 a month if I waited to apply at 66. Since I was applying at the earlier age of 62, my benefit is lowered to about $1,000 a month. Half of my husband’s benefit is $1,300 a month but I was told my only choices are to take $1,000 at the earlier age of 62 or wait another four years and take my full benefit at $1,400.

What makes me incensed is that had I not worked at all, I would be eligible to take the higher amount of $1,300 spousal benefit at 62. This makes no sense!

Answer: No, it doesn’t, and it may be because you’re misunderstanding what you were told.

Your spousal benefit is half of your husband’s benefit only if you wait until your own full retirement age, 66, to take it. Social Security benefits are reduced if you start early.

If his benefit is currently $2,600, your spousal benefit now would be about 35% of that, or $904. Since your own benefit reduced for an early start is $1,000, you would get the larger of the two checks, or $1,000. If you wait until your full retirement age, you’ll get a substantially larger check — and it will still be bigger than your spousal benefit.

Q&A: Waiting for Social Security pays off

Dear Liz: My husband (who will retire in January) just turned 67, but still wants to wait to collect Social Security until he turns 70 to maximize his benefit.

Should he apply for Social Security now, and immediately suspend benefits? Or, should he simply wait until he turns 70 years old to apply? Is there a difference?

Answer: There’s no need for your husband to file for benefits now. He will accrue delayed retirement credits for each month he delays filing, and those credits will add 8% a year to his benefit. Not only will that result in a larger check for him, but that could mean a larger survivor’s check for you should you outlive him.

Q&A: Reporting Social Security fraud

Dear Liz: You’ve written about Social Security survivor benefits and how after one spouse dies, the other gets only one check, which is supposed to be the larger of the two the couple previously received. I know a woman who is still collecting both her own and her deceased husband’s check. How is that possible?

Answer: That can happen if the death wasn’t properly reported to the Social Security Administration. Continuing to collect and cash the dead person’s checks is fraud. You can report it by calling Social Security’s fraud hotline at (800) 269-0271 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: In a recent article, you mentioned spousal benefits. If someone started her own Social Security benefit at 62, is there no way of drawing a spousal benefit at a later date?

Answer: When you apply for Social Security now, you’re “deemed” (considered by the Social Security Administration) to be applying for both your own benefit and any available spousal benefit. If a spousal benefit is larger, you’ll get that, and you can’t switch back to your own benefit later.

You may be able to switch from your own benefit to a spousal benefit, however. Let’s say that when you applied at 62, your spouse had not yet applied for his or her own benefit. When he or she does apply, you’ll be automatically switched to a spousal benefit if it’s larger than your own.

Before Congress changed the rules, it was possible for one spouse to “file and suspend” — file and immediately suspend an application for retirement benefits, which was enough to allow a spouse to collect a spousal benefit. Today, a spousal benefit is typically only available if the primary earner has started his or her own retirement benefits.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 3 questions to help grow your retirement savings. Also in the news: 7 annoying international travel fees you can shrink or skip, why waiting to file bankruptcy can hurt you, and 7 ways to retire without Social Security.

3 Questions to Help Grow Your Retirement Savings
Evaluating your current position.

7 Annoying International Travel Fees You Can Shrink or Skip
Leaving your more money for souvenirs.

Why Waiting to File Bankruptcy Can Hurt You
Making a bad situation worse.

7 Ways to Retire Without Social Security
Creating your own retirement income.

Q&A: When a Social Security spousal benefit goof is suspected

Dear Liz: A family member recently lost her spouse. His monthly Social Security check was $1,800 and hers is $750. I have two questions.

First, is my understanding correct that she is able to begin collecting his monthly amount instead of her own?

Second, instead of collecting Social Security based on her earnings history, was she eligible instead to have collected 50% of her husband’s monthly benefit? If so, she was entitled to $150 more than she’s been collecting. If this is accurate, is there any recourse for collecting the additional benefit from Social Security?

Answer: To answer your first question, yes, your relative will now receive a survivor’s benefit equal to what her husband was receiving. She will no longer receive her own benefit.

The answer to your second question is a bit more complicated. Your relative may have started benefits before her own full retirement age, which used to be 65 and is now 66. When people start benefits early, they receive a permanently reduced amount whether they’re receiving their own retirement benefit or a benefit based on a spouse’s earnings. It’s possible that her reduced retirement benefit was more than her reduced spousal benefit.

Another possibility is that she started benefits before her husband. To get spousal benefits, the primary earner typically needs to be receiving his or her own benefit. (There used to be a way around this, called “file and suspend,” that allowed the primary earner to file for benefits and then suspend the application. That no longer exists.)

If your relative started benefits before her husband, she may have been able to get a bump in her check once he applied, assuming her spousal benefit was worth more than her own retirement benefit. That bump in benefits is now automatic, but if she turned 62 before 2016, she would have had to apply to get the increase, says Mary Beth Franklin, a Social Security expert who writes for Investment News.

She wouldn’t be eligible to get all the missed benefits back at this point, but she could get up to six months’ worth.

Beware of hidden taxes in retirement

Your taxes in retirement may be a lot more complicated than taxes while you’re working.

Social Security checks may or may not be taxed, depending on your income. You’ll pay federal income taxes on most retirement plan withdrawals, but additional state taxes depend on where you live. Tax rates on investments can vary as well.

In my latest for the Associated Press, what to expect when you hit retirement age.