Social Security Tips and Traps

Sue Stevens, CFA, CFP, CPA

No matter what age you are now, you probably think about Social Security benefits as they relate to your retirement planning. If you are younger, you may choose to run retirement projections with reduced or no benefits. For those of you who are middle-age to retirement-age, Social Security will probably be a piece of your retirement picture.

Lots of questions arise about Social Security as individuals go through many of life's changes including divorce, phasing into retirement, or dealing with the death of a spouse. Use these tips and traps to educate yourself about your options.

--When you get your annual estimate of Social Security benefits, check to make sure your earnings history is accurate. Everyone age 25 and older should be receiving an annual statement. If you suspect something is wrong, contact your local Social Security office to correct any inaccuracies.

--If both spouses work, each is entitled to a benefit based on his or her own earnings history. However, the spouse with lower benefits is entitled to the greater of 50% of his or her spouse's benefit or his or her own benefit.

--If you did an analysis showing that taking lower benefits at age 62 broke even with waiting to take higher benefits at age 65, that break-even age would be approximately 78. So, if you think you'll live past age 78, you may want to wait until full retirement age to start taking benefits. Of course, no one knows just how long they'll live, so look at your family health history and your own health situation to make a realistic guess.

--You can choose direct deposits at your bank for your Social Security benefits and never have to worry about a check getting lost in the mail.

--If your spouse has a pension from his or her former employer that will pay over his or her life only, delay taking Social Security so you'll get the maximum benefit for your own lifetime.

--If you are divorced and your ex-spouse has remarried, both you and the new spouse can collect benefits based on the ex-spouse's earnings history provided you were married at least 10 years and you apply for benefits after age 62.

--If you are still working late in life, delay taking benefits until age 70. Social Security will pay a premium above the full benefit if you wait until age 70 to take benefits. Click here to see "The Impact of When You Start Taking Benefits."

--If you are a widow or widower, you can start taking Social Security benefits as early as age 60. But you may want to consider starting them later so that you'll get a larger benefit.

--Even though Medicare starts at age 65 (assuming you're eligible), full Social Security benefits start later for those people born after 1938. Click here to see "Age Requirements for Full Benefits."

--If you choose to wait to take benefits until after age 65, don't forget to apply for Medicare about three months before you turn age 65.

--Not everyone is eligible for Social Security benefits. You need to have 40 credits. You can earn four credits a year, so basically you have to have your own earnings history for 10 years, although it doesn't have to be consecutive years.

--If your income is more than $25,000 single (or $32,000 married filing jointly) and you're receiving Social Security benefits, you'll pay income tax on 50% of your Social Security benefits. However, if your income is more than $34,000 (single) or $44,000 (married filing jointly), you may have to pay income tax on 85% of your benefit. See IRS Publication 915 for more on how to calculate the tax on your benefits.

--If you take Social Security early at age 62, you'll not only limit your own benefit, but those of your spouse, too (assuming both of you are eligible using one spouse's earnings history).

--If you are working, are younger than full retirement age, are earning more than $12,480 (2006), and are taking Social Security benefits, you'll actually lose $1 for every $2 you earn above $12,480. In the year when you reach your full retirement age, you'll lose $1 for every $3 you earn above $33,240 (2006). At full retirement age, you can work and not lose any of your benefits (although if you keep working to age 70, you'll get even higher benefits).

--If you are divorced and receiving benefits based on your ex-spouse's earnings history, your benefits stop if you remarry.

--If you go to prison, your benefits stop (although your dependents can collect their benefits).

--You can continue to collect Social Security benefits even if you retire abroad unless you live in Cuba or North Korea. You may also not be able to receive benefits if you are in Cambodia, Vietnam, or countries from the former Soviet Union (although some exceptions may apply).

Social Security was never intended to cover all of your retirement needs. But it can play an important role in your retirement income, and it's to your benefit to understand the rules.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Morningstar Practical Finance.

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