I recently came across a Facebook page dedicated to Social Security Administration retirees. I decided not to join it because one of its tenets was this: "Never criticize the work being done by current SSA employees." I really don't like writing columns that are critical of my former colleagues who work in local SSA field offices or telephone centers. But doggone it! I hear from readers every week who have been misled or misinformed by agency representatives. And I would be remiss if I didn't point out the errors and set the record straight. Here are a few examples from just this week's mailbag.
Q: I will be 66 in October. I continue to work and make about $140,000 per year. I wanted to start my Social Security in October. And you told me that I could do it. You said even though I make well over the $46,920 earnings limit, that limit no longer applies when I turn 66. So I went to my local Social Security office to file, and I was told by a nice young man that I am not due any benefits this year because I make too much money. He told me that I must wait until January 2020 to file, which is what I now plan to do. When I asked to see the rules in writing, he told me they cannot share that information, but he assured me that he was right. So I'm sorry, but you are giving out incorrect information. But still, I really wish I could see something in writing.
A: Well, I'll take your word for it that the SSA rep you talked to was a "nice young man." But sadly, he was not a well-informed young man. And I will show you something in writing that will prove that I am right and he is wrong. (And, by the way, shame on him for saying he could not share the written information with you. All Social Security rules and regulations are public knowledge. In fact, they are all published on SSA's website, https://www.socialsecurity.gov.)
And those rules clearly state that earnings penalties go away the month you turn 66. Beginning Oct. 1, you could make a million dollars per day, and you would still be due Social Security benefits.
I cut and pasted a section from SSA's website that explained the rules and sent it to this reader. It was too detailed to include in this short column, but it contained the following points verbatim:
"In the year you reach your full retirement age, we deduct $1 in benefits for every $3 you earn above a limit. In 2019, the limit on your earnings is $46,920, but we only count earnings before the month you reach your full retirement age.
"Beginning with the month you reach your full retirement age, your earnings no longer reduce your benefits, no matter how much you earn."
Q: I just got a letter from Social Security telling me I was overpaid because I made too much money last year. The letter said they were going to withhold my next several Social Security checks until they get all their money back. I immediately called SSA to explain that the excess money I made last year was accumulated vacation and sick pay I received after I retired. When I asked you about this last year at the time I retired, you told me this income wouldn't count against me. Well, the SSA phone rep told me that was wrong, and that I was overpaid and that the money would be withheld from my future checks. I asked if I had any recourse, and she said no. What can I do about this?
A: Shame on that SSA phone representative. At the very least, she should have offered you the opportunity to file a written appeal of the overpayment decision.
She should have also checked the rulebook. Or she simply could have looked at the agency's fact sheet. It is called "Special Payments After Retirement," and it includes this subtitle: "Learn how special payments for work done before retirement, such as bonuses, vacation pay, and commissions, do not count toward the Social Security earnings limit."
I mean, gosh, she didn't even have to read the fact sheet. The answer is right there in the title!
What you need to do is get back in touch with SSA. I suggest making a visit to your local Social Security office. Tell them you want to file an appeal of the overpayment decision. Bring along any proof you have that shows the extra money you made was, indeed, vacation and sick pay. And I believe SSA's rules say they will not withhold any of your upcoming Social Security checks until they make a decision on your appeal request.
Q: My wife took her Social Security benefits last year when she was 62. I am still working and I will be 66 in November. I wanted to file for spousal benefits on my wife's record and save my own until I am 70. I read about this strategy in your columns. But when I went to the Social Security office to do this, I was told that the "file and suspend" strategy was no longer available. I had brought along a copy of your column. He just glanced at it and handed it back to me saying, "I know the law and this knucklehead columnist obviously doesn't!" Is it true? Have the rules changed?
A: The guy you talked to is wrong. And this knucklehead columnist is right. The SSA clerk is mixing up his filing strategies.
It is true that the file and suspend strategy was eliminated a few years ago. (I won't bother explaining what it was because it's gone.) But you want to use the file and restrict strategy. And that is still around — at least for a couple more months.
Here is what the file and restrict strategy means: If you turn 66 before January 2020, you can file for spousal benefits at age 66, and then at 70, switch to your own retirement benefits and get a 32% bonus added to your monthly checks.
So march back into your local Social Security office and tell that representative you talked to that it turns out the "knucklehead" was right. If he still won't believe you, ask to speak to a supervisor.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] 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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