Social Security Changes that Could Cost Your Family Tens or Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars, Unless…

Social Security Maximization after the 2015 Changes

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With virtually no warning, Congress and the President passed the budget eliminating my two favorite Social Security strategies – apply and suspend and claim now, claim more later. These two extremely advantageous strategies can account for additional benefits of tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime for married couples. The good news is that many people are grandfathered in so they can benefit from these two strategies if either they have already taken the appropriate actions or take those actions before April 30, 2016.

The World as We Knew It

Let’s assume the husband and wife were both 66 years old and the husband had the stronger earnings record.  Depending on a number of factors, I usually recommended that the husband apply for Social Security but suspend collection (that is, not collect anything) until age 70.

For every year that he waited between 66 and 70, he would get an 8% increase in his monthly benefits. Not only would his monthly benefits increase, survivor benefits would also increase.  At his death, the wife would be entitled to the higher of his benefit or her benefit. The fact that he waited until 70 to collect was good for both of them.

So, you may ask, what was the difference between the husband applying and suspending at 66 and doing nothing, just waiting until 70 to collect?  By applying for Social Security, even though the husband was suspending collection, the wife became entitled to apply for spousal benefits.  She would be able to collect half of what the husband was entitled to collect at age 66.  If he did not apply for Social Security at all, she would not have been allowed to take spousal benefits.

For many couples, the income stream from spousal benefits made it possible (or at least more palatable) for the spouse with the stronger earnings record to wait until 70 to collect.

The World Now

Once the new law becomes effective, spousal benefits will still be available, but only if the primary earner is actually collecting benefits.  He can suspend and get an 8% increase or he can collect his benefits and his spouse can collect spousal benefits.  He cannot suspend and get an 8% increase and have his spouse collect spousal benefits, as he could before the change in the law.  Once the new law becomes effective, there will be no reason to apply and suspend.  He should just wait until 70 to apply.  The change will be effective 180 days from the date the law passed.  For people who file and suspend after that date, no spousal benefits will be paid based on the suspended benefit, but if spousal benefits are already being paid based on a suspended benefit, the spousal benefits won’t be cut off.

One area I feel vindicated is that when I was giving the file and suspend advice, many clients said, gee, if they change the law, would it hurt me if I use the file and suspend strategy.  While I could never be certain, I told them that if they do change the law, they will probably “grandfather in” people who applied and suspended.  From what I can tell, that is exactly what happened thus vindicating my old advice.

The difference in cumulative benefits before and after the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 could easily be $15,000/year for four years or a difference to the couple of $60,000.

Another strategy that will be eliminated is called claim now, claim more later.  That was a strategy we sometimes recommended when the spouse with the stronger earnings record was the younger of the two spouses.  The spouse with the stronger earnings record applied for and collected only spousal benefits from 66 to 70, then began collecting his own benefits at 70.  For anyone turning 62 in 2016 or later, a restricted application for spousal benefits only will no longer be allowed.

These new rules also apply to divorced spouses. This COULD really hurt the stay-at-home mom that signed a divorce settlement expecting to receive spousal social security benefits when she reaches full retirement age.  Under the new regulations and assuming that they are close in age, if the ex-husband chooses to wait to apply for his own benefits until 70, the ex-wife is really going to suffer because she cannot claim spousal benefits until he is actually collecting his own benefit.  This is going to have to become part of divorce settlement negotiations in the future.  Either the husband will have to agree to collect benefits at his full retirement age or there should be some sort of a cash adjustment to make up for the lost income to the ex-wife. We expect more clarification on this issue and will update once we know more.