Confusion reigns at many, if not most, local Social Security offices today. While advice from Social Security agents has always been problematic, things seem to have gotten much worse with the passage of the Bi-Partisan Budget Act last November, which changed two key claiming options.
First, the Act eliminates the file-and-suspend option as of April 29, 2016. This option has allowed one spouse to file for benefits at their full retirement age (currently 66) and then suspend those benefits, permitting them to earn delayed retirement credits of 8 percent per year. This allows the other spouse to claim spousal benefits.
The Act also eliminates the restricted application option for anyone born after 1953. This option has allowed a person to claim spousal (or ex-spousal) benefits at their full retirement age without also claiming their own retirement benefits, thereby letting those benefits grow at 8 percent per year.
These two options are often employed by couples. For example, a husband might file and suspend while the wife files a restricted application for spousal benefits. Combining these options allows both to earn delayed retirement credits up to age 70.
We have recommended these strategies to thousands of clients. Since the changes in the law a surprising number of clients have reported back that their efforts to implement our advice is stymied by an uninformed Social Security agent. All too often, an SSA agent erroneously tells an applicant that our recommendations are not possible.
While we have observed problems in the past, the changes in the claiming rules have clearly added to the confusion. And this confusion is compounded by the failure of the SSA to provide clear guidance to its agents or to the public as to how it will implement the new rules. (Some guidance has been offered here, but it is far from clear and not comprehensive.)
Here is just one example of the misinformation you might encounter at your local SSA office. A client of ours, Mike, is turning 66 in March; his wife, Jen, is turning 66 in September. He told an SSA agent that he wanted to file and suspend now (before the April 29 deadline) so that his wife could file a restricted application for spousal benefits in September. The SSA agent told him that he could file and suspend only if his wife simultaneously filed for spousal benefits. This claim is completely incorrect.
Anyone (even singles) receiving Social Security retirement benefits can suspend them, provided they have reached their full retirement age. There is no rule that requires a file-and-suspend action to be tied to a spouse’s claiming actions. So, the agent’s statement to our client was groundless, and it could have cost our client tens-of-thousands of dollars. Fortunately for him and his wife, he knew the agent was wrong so he pushed back and asked to speak with a supervisor who did understand the rules.
Here is the bottom line. If you plan to do anything other than the simplest filing for your own retirement benefits, you need to be prepared to educate the SSA agent sitting in front of you. How can you prepare yourself for the chaos you may encounter at your local SSA office?
One thing you can do is read about the file-and-suspend and restricted-application options under the new claiming rules. The SSA website should be place to start, but it presently contains no information about the new claiming rules. At a minimum, you can check out the useful information on our main website and elsewhere on this blog, especially this post.
Second, if you use a financial planner or CPA, you might turn to them for advice. The problem with this approach is that most financial planners and CPA’s do not know much about Social Security claiming rules.
Third, regardless of how your educate yourself, you need to be prepared to push back if you think you are being misinformed by an SSA agent. If necessary, ask to speak with a supervisor or a “technical expert.” One reliable way to push back is to have copies of the relevant Social Security rules that you can show a poorly trained and confused agent. Helpful information is available here.
Finally, you can avoid the confusion in your local SSA office by filing for retirement or spousal benefits on-line. Use the “Remarks” section of the application form to spell out anything unusual that you wish to do, such as file and suspend. An advantage of this approach is that you have an electronic record of your requests. If the SSA makes a mistake in awarding your benefits, you will have a record that will help you get things straightened out.