Social Security Changes Part 1 – How Social Security Benefits Work

The Budget Act that Obama signed late last year eliminates a major Social Security claiming strategy currently available to retirees.

To understand what’s going to change, you should first know how Social Security benefits work. It’s a complicated system so I think the best way to understand it is by seeing it played out in an example:

Husband and Wife are both currently 66 years old.  Since they have reached their full retirement age, they can start collecting their Social Security benefits.  However, if they choose to delay taking their benefits, it will grow by 8% each year until they reach age 70 (that’s the latest you can delay till).

But let’s just say Husband decided to take the money now (at age 66) because he needs it to pay for expenses.  By him taking his benefit, he activates the spousal benefit, which now becomes available to Wife.  The spousal benefit equates to half of his benefit.  So if he is collecting $2,000/month, she gets to collect a spousal benefit on top of that of $1,000/month.

The nice thing about this is, if they don’t need more than that combined total of $3,000 a month right now, Wife can still delay taking her own personal Social Security benefit, letting it grow that 8% a year.  Once she turns 70, she will switch from taking a spousal benefit to taking her increased personal benefit.  (Unfortunately, you can’t take both.)

That was a very straightforward and simple example of how claiming Social Security benefits works.  There are, of course, a ton of other more complicated scenarios like if they were different ages, if they were divorced, if they were single instead of married, etc.  But, one thing at a time.

Next week, I will talk about the awesome claiming strategy some people have been using to increase their combined benefit even more.  And the week after that, I’ll explain how the Budget Act changes this strategy and which people are the exceptions to the rule.

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