Dear readers: Congress just killed the Social Security strategy known as "claim now, claim more later" that allowed married couples to boost their benefits by tens of thousands of dollars.
The changes, which were part of the budget deal signed into law last week, also eliminated the option of getting a lump-sum payout if you suspended an application for benefits and later changed your mind. Today's column will focus on those changes.
Dear Liz: My husband is 68 and drawing Social Security. I will be 62 in the spring and plan to retire. May I file for spousal benefits at 62 and delay filing for my benefits until my full retirement age of 66?
Even before Congress changed the rules, you would have had to wait until age 66 to file for a spousal benefit first if you wanted to switch to your own benefit later (typically when it maxes out at age 70).
When you apply for benefits before full retirement age, you are deemed to be applying for both spousal and your own benefits and essentially given the larger of the two. Only when you reached full retirement age did you have the option of filing a "restricted application" for spousal benefits only.
If you were just a few months older, you would still have that option.
Congress has eliminated restricted applications for people born after 1953.
People who are 62 and older before the end of this year will still be able to file a restricted application at 66 and get spousal benefits, but only if their partners are either receiving benefits or were able to "file and suspend" — to file an application and suspend it before May 1, 2016.
That's when the law's grace period ends, eliminating people's ability to file-and-suspend in order to trigger benefits for a spouse or child.
The potential payouts from using these two techniques, which together were called the "claim now, claim more later" strategy, were so great that advisors typically recommended that people tap their retirement accounts early if that was the only way they could delay their Social Security applications long enough to benefit.
Now that these strategies are off the table, people will need to take another look at their retirement strategies to see what makes sense.
In general, couples should try to maximize the larger of the two benefits they get, since that will be the amount the survivor has to live on.
Dear Liz: I am 65 years old and my wife is 63. We have enough savings so neither of us needs to start taking Social Security.
My plan is to file and suspend when my part-time job ends, which could happen starting a year from now. I believe my wife can file for spousal benefits then. Assuming we don't need the money but at the same time wish to maximize our benefits, what's the best way to proceed?
Answer: You may be one of the few couples who can still take advantage of the "claim now, claim more later" strategy, or at least the restricted application part.
If you'll turn 66 before May 1, you can file and then suspend your application. That will preserve your wife's ability to claim a spousal benefit when she turns 66 while allowing your own benefit to grow until it maxes out at age 70. Then she can switch to her own benefit at 70, if it's larger than her spousal benefit.
If you'll turn 66 after May 1, consider putting off your application until your wife turns 66. Once you start receiving benefits, she'll be able to file a restricted application for spousal benefits only and then switch to her own benefit at 70.
Another possibility is that you could be the spouse to file a restricted application, but your wife would need to start her benefits early, which could stunt the amount you get overall.
Consider using Social Security claiming strategy software to evaluate your options, but make sure it's been updated to reflect the recent changes.
At this point, most calculators seem to be using the old rules, although MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, one of the leading options, promises to be updated by Nov. 16.
Dear Liz: I'm single and was never married long enough to qualify for spousal benefits. This change doesn't affect me, right?
Answer: Wrong. File-and-suspend also could function as a kind of insurance policy for people, whether they were married or single.
Those who wanted to maximize their benefits could file and suspend their applications at full retirement age. If they later changed their minds, they could get a lump-sum payout back to the date of those applications.
But not for long. That option won't be available to people who haven't filed and suspended before May 1.
Questions may be sent to Liz Weston, 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.