New Law Tightens Up Two Social Security Loopholes

New federal legislation signed on November 2, 2015 – the Bipartisan Budget Act – effectively ends two popular Social Security planning techniques: the "file-and-suspend" strategy and the "restricted application" strategy. However, some retirees still may benefit from one for a limited time.

Other basic rules affecting Social Security retirement benefits haven't changed. So if you're preparing to retire you'll still face important decisions about applying for benefits. In particular, you'll need to determine whether you want to apply for Social Security benefits early, at full retirement age (FRA), or later.

  • You're eligible for Social Security retirement benefits when you turn 62, but if you start then you'll receive less than if you delayed payments for a few years. At age 62, your benefit will be about 25% lower than it would have been if you waited until your FRA.
  • If you wait until FRA to apply for benefits, you will receive 100% of the benefits to which you're entitled. The FRA varies according to your date of birth. For those born before 1943, FRA is age 65. For those born from 1943 through 1954, FRA is age 66. It gradually increases until topping out at age 67 for those born after 1959.
  • Finally, you can delay the start of benefits past when you reach FRA, and that would increase your monthly payment. The longer you wait, up until you turn 70, the higher your benefit will be. (Delaying past 70 won't bump up your benefit, however.) If you were born in 1943 or later, your annual benefit amount will rise by 8% for each year beyond FRA that you wait to collect benefits.

Other special considerations may come into play for married couples. In a situation in which one spouse is entitled to a greater benefit than the other based on their respective earnings histories, the lower-earning spouse may claim "spousal benefits" providing a larger monthly payment. This wrinkle in the law for Social Security relates to these two loopholes closed by the new law:

1. File-and-suspend strategy. With this approach, the higher-earning spouse usually opts to apply for retirement benefits at FRA. That spouse then suspends payment of the benefits, as now allowed by Social Security rules, which can lead to greater future benefits. Typically, that higher-earning spouse would wait until age 70 before starting to receive benefits. In the meantime, the lower-earning spouse claims spousal benefits, which will be larger than he or she otherwise would have received.

Under the new law, the file-and-suspend strategy won't be available beginning April 30, 2016, six months from the date of enactment. If you suspend your benefits, your spouse won't be entitled to the higher spousal benefit. However, if you're already using file-and-suspend, you're "grandfathered in" under the new law.

2. Restricted application strategy. The new law also effectively ends the restricted application strategy, sometimes called "claim now, claim more later." Here, a spouse who is approaching FRA and is eligible for benefits on his or her own behalf and for spousal benefits files a restricted application to receive spousal benefits only. That spouse then waits until later—typically until age 70—to apply for benefits based on his or her own earnings record. This approach enables the spouse to build up more Social Security credits.

The new law eliminates the option of filing a restricted application for spousal benefits only. If you will turn age 62 after 2015, you must claim all of your benefits upon filing, based on whichever will give you a higher payment—your own earnings history or the spousal benefit. However, if you turned 62 before January 1, 2016, you still can use the restricted application strategy when you reach FRA.

The new law closes two loopholes that had been able to generate thousands of dollars in extra retirement benefits for some couples. But there still will be room for decisions that could boost your Social Security benefits. For example, it may be advantageous to delay benefits until you're past FRA, even without the file-and-suspend strategy. We would be glad to assist you in deciding how to proceed.

This article was written by a professional financial journalist for G.W. Sherwold and is not intended as legal or investment advice.

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