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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Supersize Your Social Security

Life doesn't allow many do overs, especially when it comes to financial planning. Most of us simply save and invest as best we can and hope that in retirement we run out of time before we run out of money.

Until recently, financial planners tended to treat Social Security benefits as the arthritic component of a retirement plan: a predictable, if feeble, income stream with limited range of motion.

But between ages 62 and 70, you can bust three surprising Social Security dance moves -- the reset, the file and suspend, and the restricted application -- which can significantly expand your planning options and supersize your benefits.

1. The Reset

The reset, or do over, feature gives some flexibility to taxpayers who may have lived to regret taking a reduced benefit at age 62 instead of their full benefit at age 65 or 66, or the bonus amount by delaying retirement until age 70.

It allows you to reset your benefit amount by essentially coming out of retirement by filing Social Security Form 521, or a "Request for Withdrawal of Application," repaying all Social Security benefits received to date with no interest or adjustment for inflation, then reapplying at your current age. You can do it only once, and it is irreversible.

Once the Social Security Administration approves your request, which is almost automatic, you collect at the stepped-up amount for as long as you can fog a mirror. One added plus: Your spouse thereafter may collect spousal or survivor benefits based on your stepped-up benefit rather than your meager early-retirement amount.

2. The File and Suspend

File and suspend allows married taxpayers who retire at different ages to collect optimal benefits. Here's how it works:

Let's say Jack has reached his full retirement age of 66 but plans to work until 70 to collect his delayed retirement credits, which can increase his full benefit amount by 32 percent. Let's also say Jill, his nonworking spouse, just turned 62. He can file for Social Security benefits but request an immediate suspension of his benefits, which allows Jill to then apply for her Social Security at his benefit level, without locking him into a lower payment for life. He won't receive any checks and will continue to accrue delayed retirement credits for himself.

His wife can then apply for benefits on his record and begin receiving checks at a higher amount than she would have received on her own employment record.

With a little planning and saving, Jack later may decide to reset at age 70, which would increase not only his own lifetime benefit but Jill's spousal and survivor benefit.

3. The Restricted Application

Let's juggle our Jack-and-Jill equation a bit. Jack is still 66 and wants to work until he's 70. Now let's say Jill is also 66 and looking to retire, but her career has earned her a full benefit on her own record. So she won't be drawing on Jack's record. In this case, Jack would not file for Social Security but would instead do what is called "restricting an application" to Jill's benefits only.

What does that do? It allows Jack to file as spouse on Jill's record and earn half of her full benefit while still racking up delayed retirement credits of his own. That means if Jill earns $1,000 a month, Jack will receive $500 a month on her record while he continues working, increasing their family benefit amount 50 percent.

When Jack retires at 70, his delayed credits will bring a higher benefit amount, which would mean a higher survivor benefit for Jill should she outlive Jack.
Social Security Administration spokesman Mark Lassiter admits there's nothing terribly new about these program features. The reset has been around as an escape clause since the dawn of the program for people who wanted or needed to return to work, while file and suspend was enacted in 2000 as part of the Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act.

What is new is their use as planning tools in retirement strategies.

"We've probably only heard of that in the past year or so," Lassiter says. "The thinking used to be, take (Social Security) early, get it while you can, and if you don't need it, sock it away and let it draw interest. But now, people are looking at it as a lifetime annuity with cost-of-living adjustments built in. It's a much more complicated decision now."

Should you plan to reset?

There is consensus that the spousal features of file and suspend and restricted application are sound, prudent and worthy of including in any retirement plan.

But opinions vary as to the wisdom of planning to take a reduced benefit at 62 and then repay and reset the benefit amount at a more advantageous age.

Laurence Kotlikoff, a professor of economics at Boston University and the co-author of "Spend 'Til the End," says such a strategy makes perfect sense if, as he espouses, you plan for the worst-case scenario of living to 100 rather than to some actuarial target in the upper 70s. What's more, if inflation takes off, as now seems likely, it would make the repay and reset strategy even sweeter because you would be repaying in ever-less-valuable dollars.

"My guess is there are probably 8 to 10 million people (from the) ages (of) 65 to 71 that could benefit from this," he says.

"If you started collecting at 62 and you're now 70, you can probably raise your benefit immediately by about 65 percent. That's a big increase if you're going to live to 100," Kotlikoff says.

But James Mahaney, vice president of Prudential Retirement, begs to differ. He points out a number of problems with resetting as a strategy at the time of early retirement. The taxpayer may not have the money to repay when the time comes because of medical or other emergencies. He may die before resetting, thereby leaving the spouse with a meager survival benefit.

Or the person may die shortly after repaying, in essence forfeiting eight years of benefits. A marriage or divorce also could affect the outcome, Mahaney says.

"I don't like it at all, mainly because it's going to encourage people to take their Social Security benefits at 62," he says.

Then there's the health issue: How can you predict at 62 what you'll feel like at 70?

"Age 77 or so tends to be the break-even age" to recoup your repayment, he says. "If I have poor health at 70, I'm probably not going to do it (reset)."

Lassiter says Social Security does not have a dog in this hunt. "We don't, in any way, try to influence people to take it early or late. We consider that a very personal decision," he says.

Nor has he seen a stampede to reset. Last year, a whopping 167 taxpayers who were at full retirement age or older withdrew from retirement for various reasons, not just to immediately reset.

He says that while including features such as reset in retirement strategies comes with some risk, it's a problem many retirees would love to have.

"For most people, Social Security is 40 percent of their income; once they retire, they need that Social Security check to continue to pay their bills," he says. "They're not necessarily in a position to do this."