The two biggest changes will be to the “file and suspend” strategy and the ability to file a “restricted application”. The loss of these two strategies will affect many Americans’ retirement plans as they were relying on these strategies to boost their retirement income. People who were relying on the additional income from these strategies will need to re-evaluate their retirement plan to determine if they can still retire at their goal date or if they will have to work longer to replace the lost income.
File and Suspend
The biggest change is to the “file and suspend” strategy.
First a little background on the strategy… In order for spouses to collect the spousal benefit, the other spouse must have already filed for benefits. Often times the higher earning spouse is not yet ready to receive benefits though, so in the past he got around this by filing for benefits and then immediately suspending them. This allowed his spouse to start receiving spousal benefits while he delayed his own benefit (usually to age 70). The benefit of this strategy was that the higher earner could continue to earn accrued benefits (at a rate of 8% per year) on his own benefit while allowing his spouse to start receiving a spousal benefit on his earnings record.
Under the new law, spousal benefits are no longer payable while the other spouse’s benefits are under suspension. In other words, spousal benefits can only be collected if the other spouse is actually receiving his benefits. The husband can no longer file and suspend his benefits; he must actually be receiving them for his spouse to collect spousal benefits.
In previous versions of the budget deal, anyone receiving spousal benefits based on a suspended benefit would have had their benefits terminated within six months if the other spouse didn’t reinstate his benefits. Thankfully the bill was changed so that people already receiving spousal benefits on a suspended benefit will not lose their benefits; however, this strategy will not be available going forward.
Another benefit of suspending benefits was the ability to request a retroactive lump sum for the amount that the person would have received if he/she had not suspended her benefits. This benefit has also been eliminated under the new budget deal.
In effect, the only reason to do a voluntary suspension under the new law is if you take Social Security benefits early and you later decide that you made a mistake and want to delay your benefits.
In that case, you will still be able to suspend your benefits, but only after you have reached your full retirement age, and your spouse and other dependents will not be able to claim benefits while your benefit is under suspension.
The other strategy that has been eliminated is the ability to file a restricted application for spousal benefits only.
Under the old law a spouse who was eligible for both a spousal benefit and her own benefit could choose to receive the spousal benefit only (at her full retirement age) and delay her own benefit to age 70. This was the best of both worlds as it allowed her to delay her own benefit to the maximum amount while still collecting a benefit at her full retirement age (the spousal benefit, which is half of her spouse’s primary insurance amount). This strategy was called the restricted application.
Unfortunately, under the new law this will no longer be allowed. If you apply for benefits you will be considered to have “deemed” to have filed for your own benefits. The only way you would receive the spousal benefit instead of your own is if the spousal benefit is higher than the benefit you would receive based on your own earnings record.
The impact of this change is that spouses will either have to start claiming their own benefits early or they will delay to age 70 but they won’t be able to receive a spousal benefit between full retirement age and age 70.
The changes above apply to retirement and spousal benefits only, they do not apply to survivor benefits. Widows who choose to receive survivor benefits can still elect to delay their own benefits to full retirement age or later to receive the delayed credits.
Time-Line: When Will the Changes Take Place
File and Suspend:
The key date for the file and suspend strategy is May 1, 2016.
If you have already filed and suspended, this bill will not affect you. Your spouse can still collect spousal benefits even though your own benefits are suspended.
If you have not yet filed and suspended benefits (but are eligible to do so), you can still file and suspend before May 1, 2016 and your spouse will still be able to collect spousal benefits.
If you turn age 66 within six months after the law is enacted (the law was officially signed on Monday 11/2/15 so you must reach age 66 by May 1, 2016), you can still file and suspend benefits allowing your spouse and dependents to receive benefits on your earnings record.
After May 1, 2016 no one will be able to collect benefits on another person’s earnings record unless they are actually receiving benefits. If someone has filed and suspended their benefits, then no other benefits will be paid on that account.
The only reason someone will want to file and suspend benefits after May 1, 2016 is to correct a mistake. For example, if you retired at 64 and immediately started receiving Social Security but then decided that may not have been the best idea, you can still suspend your benefits once you reach your full retirement age. However, no one will be able to receive benefits on your earnings record while your own benefits are suspended.
The key age/date for the restricted application is people who will be age 62 or older by the end of 2015. Basically, people born before January 1, 1954 will be grandfathered in for the restricted application strategy.
Here is the time-line for the restricted application elimination: If you are already receiving spousal benefits then you can continue to receive those benefits, they will not be taken away from you.
If you will be age 62 by the end of 2015, then you may still file a restricted application to claim spousal benefits only when you reach age 66. However, the person who’s earnings you are claiming benefits on must either be collecting benefits when you apply or they must have filed and suspended their benefits within the time-line above. Divorced spouses who are age 62 by the end of 2015 can collect spousal benefits at age 66 even if their ex-spouse is not yet claiming benefits (as long as they are at least age 62).
Anyone younger than age 62 at the end of 2015 will not be allowed to claim spousal benefits only going forward. This will primarily affect people who have benefits based on their own earnings record that are higher than the spousal benefit would be. In the past, you could elect to take the spousal benefit only, even if it was lower than your own benefit, and delay your own benefit until age 70. Now when you apply for benefits, you will only be awarded the spousal benefit if the amount is greater than your own benefit would be.
The purpose of the changes above was to “close several loopholes in Social Security’s rules about deemed filing, dual entitlement and benefit suspension in order to prevent individuals from obtaining larger benefits than Congress intended.”
Unfortunately this reform will affect more than the top 1% that Congress was supposedly targeting. Millions of middle income Americans use these strategies to improve their qualify of life during retirement, including divorced women who will likely be hit the hardest.
Reform measures of this magnitude usually take years to happen. These changes took place over just a few days and will be implemented quickly, leaving very little planning time for the people who will be impacted.