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Benefit Checks Are Accurate Q: I am 82 years old. My husband is 85. Based on a recent column you wrote about wives getting benefits from their husband's account, I think I am due more money from Social Security. How do I go about getting what is rightfully mine? A: I probably …Read more. Clarifying Widow's Benefits Q: In past columns, you have said that if a woman is 66 or older when her husband dies, her widow's benefit will equal what the husband was getting at the time of death. But when my husband died several months ago, I started getting slightly more …Read more. Full Retirement Age Going Up Q: You keep saying the full retirement age is 66. But as you know, many of us have to wait longer to get full Social Security benefits. For example, I was born in 1955 and I have to be 66 and 2 months. What I want to know is this: If I want to take …Read more. Examples Help Clarify Confusing Rules I've recently had several email exchanges with confused readers. The topics varied, but I found that the readers tended to be confused until I gave them an example. Here are a couple of examples of ... well ... my examples! Hank wrote to tell me …Read more.
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Sometimes Trying to Maximize Will Minimize Your Social Security

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I thought I was done, at least for a while, writing columns about Social Security maximizing strategies. But as I've pointed out in past columns, probably 80 percent of the emails I get from my readers have to do with this topic de jour of the baby boomer crowd. So, obviously, there is still a lot of interest, and even more so, a lot of confusion.

Before I get into the email that prompted today's column, I'm going to once again give a quick primer on the two primary strategies: "file and suspend" and "file and restrict." The first term is commonplace. The second is sometimes called "restrict the scope of an application."

And to understand the strategies, you first need to grasp some basic program policies. (These rules do not apply to widows and widowers.) The first policy says that any Social Security claim filed before age 66 is an unrestricted application. In other words, you must file for any and all benefits you are potentially due, both on your record and on a spouse's account. This usually means that you cannot file for reduced benefits on a spouse's Social Security record and then later file for full benefits on your own record. Conversely, you cannot file for reduced retirement benefits on your own record and later switch to full benefits on a spouse's record — unless your spouse is not yet getting Social Security at the time you apply for your own reduced retirement.

The second basic Social Security policy says that if you wait until your full-retirement age (66 for most people retiring now and in the near future), the first policy explained in the prior paragraph goes out the window. In other words, at age 66, you can file for one benefit and later — usually at age 70 — switch to higher benefits.

How you accomplish this almost always involves employing one of the aforementioned strategies: file and suspend or file and restrict. And that phrase, "employ one of the strategies," is one key to understanding the main point of this column: you can use one or the other strategy. You cannot use both.

The phrase "file and suspend" means that you file for benefits at age 66 and then immediately suspend your payments. You would do that for one of two reasons. The most common is when you have a spouse who is due little or no benefits on his or her own Social Security record. Your spouse can then file on your account and get monthly benefits even though your own payments are in suspense. Then at 70, you would unsuspend your benefits and get a 32 percent bonus added to your full monthly retirement rate.

If a spouse isn't in the picture but you plan to wait until 70 to get the bonus, you can still file at age 66 and suspend your benefits.

You would do that just in case something happens between age 66 and 70 and you decide to start your benefits before your 70th birthday. You would then have the choice of getting a prorated bonus added to your monthly checks, or claiming retroactive benefits to age 66 at the full-retirement rate.

The "file and restrict" strategy is used when you have a spouse already getting benefits. At age 66, you can file for benefits on your spouse's record (that's called restricting the scope of your application) and collect those benefits until age 70 when you would switch to 132 percent of your retirement rate.

What led to today's column is an email I got from a reader. Max said that he had filed and suspended at age 66 based on advice he got after attending a Social Security maximizing seminar put on by a local financial planner. Now he is 67 years old and his wife, Annie, is turning 62 — and she is filing for her own reduced retirement benefit. Max accompanied Annie to the Social Security office and told the clerk that now that his wife was going on Social Security, he wanted to stop his "file and suspend" strategy and engage the "file and restrict" plan. In other words, he wanted to file for husband's benefits on his wife's Social Security record. He was told he could not do that. His email to me asked if he got correct information — and if so, could I explain it.

He did get correct information. And maybe this explanation will help him and other readers understand what happened. When he filed and suspended at age 66, he did file for benefits. Or to put that more clearly, he completed a real Social Security application form, the same application form he would have filed had he wanted his benefits to begin effective with his 66th birthday.

On the other hand, when you "file and restrict," you are NOT filing an application for retirement benefits. You are, as the more appropriate term implies, restricting your application to spousal benefits only.

To put maybe a finer point on this explanation: Max cannot now turn around and restrict an application he had already filed more than a year earlier.

Because Max knew he had a wife who would be applying for her own Social Security benefits a little more than a year after he reached his full-retirement age, Max should never have filed and suspended at age 66. He should have waited until his wife filed for retirement benefits and then filed for husband's benefits on her account. Max would have received an amount equal to half of her age-66 rate (even though she took reduced benefits at 62) until age 70 before switching to 132 percent of his own.

Max had told me that Annie would be getting $1,680 at age 62. That means her age-66 rate is $2,250. Half of that is $1,125. So by jumping too quickly to "maximize" his Social Security by filing and suspending, Max will lose about $40,000 in spousal benefits between age 67 and 70.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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2 Comments | Post Comment
Great explanation. This can be a very confusing topic. You made it very understandable.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Donna Davis
Wed Mar 25, 2015 10:11 AM
Re: Donna Davis After getting married to a severaly disabled woman with very expensive monthly medications, something unbelievable happened. She went to the Social Security office to do the right thing to get her name changed. We received a letter in the mail today from them stating she will not be getting her SSI benefits ang they are terminating her Medicaid. I cant afford her medicines or doctor bills. We are now comptiplating getting divorced.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Ronald Gunter
Fri Mar 27, 2015 9:41 PM
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