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How I Actually Use Open Social Security

There are three factors that should be considered in the Social Security filing decision:

  • Actuarial math,
  • Longevity risk, and
  • Tax planning.

Open Social Security looks at factor #1. It takes the user’s inputs — including mortality assumptions — and determines the filing age(s) that would be expected provide the greatest present value (i.e., greatest spending power) over your lifetime(s). But that still leaves factors #2 and #3.

Here’s the wording from the calculator’s “about” page:

The calculator runs the math for each possible claiming age (or, if you’re married, each possible combination of claiming ages) and reports back, telling you which strategy is expected to provide the most total spendable dollars over your lifetime.

Please note that this calculator should not be the only analysis you do, as there are various factors that it does not consider, such as:

The fact that delaying benefits reduces longevity risk and therefore may be preferable even in some cases in which it is not the strategy that maximizes expected total spending, or

Tax planning reasons or other unrelated reasons why it might be better for you to file earlier or later than the calculator suggests.

In other words, the idea isn’t just to take the strategy that the calculator spits out and automatically use that strategy. Rather, the idea is to take the suggested strategy as a starting point, and then see if there’s any reason to adjust.

Longevity Risk

From a longevity risk point of view, delaying is usually the best decision. That’s simply because Social Security lasts your entire lifetime. So if you’re concerned about depleting your savings due to living a long time, delaying is usually wise from that point of view.

However, there are two cases in which that doesn’t apply.

Firstly, some people have essentially no longevity risk. That is, their desired level of spending relative to their accumulated assets is such that they simply aren’t going to run out of money, so a further reduction in longevity risk isn’t very meaningful.

And second, for some married couples (especially those in which one person is very ill or much older than the other), the longevity risk scenario that we’re concerned with isn’t actually the “both people live a long time” scenario but rather the scenario in which one specific person lives a long time. And in those cases, the strategy that best protects the person expected to live longer is usually not for both people to delay but rather for the lower earner to file early.

Tax Planning

Tax planning is always case-by-case, but it’s usually a point in favor of waiting to file, for two reasons.

Firstly, benefits are themselves tax-advantaged. So waiting to file has the effect of increasing your tax-advantaged income.

And second, waiting to file often gives you a longer window of time to take advantage of Roth conversions. (The most common time for Roth conversions to make sense is in the window of years after retiring but before Social Security and RMDs have begun.)

Accounting for All Factors

For most people, a reasonable approach is to look at the strategy suggested by the calculator, and then see how it compares to a strategy in which you wait somewhat longer (e.g., for married couples, a strategy in which both people wait to age 70 or a strategy in which the higher earner waits until age 70 and the lower earner begins their benefit in the same calendar year as the higher earner).

If a) the expected present value of that alternative strategy is, for example, just 1-2% lower than the expected present value of the suggested strategy and b) there’s a compelling reason to prefer the alternative strategy from a tax or longevity risk point of view, then it probably makes sense to use the alternative strategy.

Conversely, when the strategy that’s preferred from a tax or longevity risk point of view has a much lower expected present value than the strategy recommended by the calculator, then it often makes sense to go with the calculator’s recommendation.

Want to Learn More about Social Security? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."

Social Security Statement Discrepancies Regarding Delayed Retirement Credits

A reader writes in, asking:

“Historically, I have seen perfect agreement between my benefit statement on SSA.gov and the results calculated by the SSA’s AnyPIA software.  The latest statement, however, shows a deviation between benefit amounts for the years between FRA and age 70 and the corresponding benefit amounts calculated by the AnyPIA software. Specifically, the benefit amounts shown on the statement are smaller than those shown in AnyPIA.

If my recent statement is correct and there are real reasons for the different escalation for the years between PIA and age 70, it would be of interest to me and maybe your other readers as well?”

The difference has to do with the timing of delayed retirement credits being implemented. Delayed retirement credits (i.e., the benefit increases that you get from waiting beyond your full retirement age) become effective:

  • In January of the year following the year they were earned;
  • In the month of attainment of age 70; or
  • In the month of death, if we’re talking about a widow(er) receiving benefits on the work record of somebody who died after FRA without yet having filed.

What the new statements are showing is what your benefit would be immediately upon filing. They don’t mention that, for filing ages beyond FRA and before 70, there would be a benefit increase in the following January.

In other words, the amount shown on the statement is what you would receive for the duration of the calendar year in which you file. And in January of the following year it would increase to the amount that’s being shown by AnyPIA.

For example, imagine somebody with an April DoB and a full retirement age of 67. And let’s imagine that he files for his retirement benefit in October of the year after his FRA (so he’s filing at 68 and 6 months). We know that the increase per month of delay is 2/3 of 1% of your “primary insurance amount” (which works out to 8% of your PIA for a year of delay). And he has delayed for 18 months (1.5 years). So we might expect that his retirement benefit would be 112% of his PIA. But it isn’t. Not just yet, anyway.

Delayed retirement credits only become effective in January (unless you file at age 70, in which case they’re applicable immediately). So for right now, the only DRCs which have been made effective are the ones from the prior calendar year (i.e., from April-Dec of his full retirement age year). So his benefit will initially be credited with 9 DRCs. So his benefit from Oct-Dec of the year in which he files will be just 106% of his PIA. And then in the following January his benefit will be credited with the DRCs from his year of filing. So it will be increased to 112% of his PIA.

Some questions people often ask when they encounter this information for the first time are:

  • Why is the SSA doing this?
  • Do I ever get back the additional amounts for the months that weren’t initially credited with all the DRCs?
  • What implications does this have for filing decisions?

As far as why the SSA does this, it’s just because that’s how the law is written. Why the law is written that way, I really couldn’t say. (I do think though that the SSA’s new statements could be clearer about what they’re showing you.)

As far as whether you ever “get back” the benefit amounts from the months that weren’t initially credited with all of the DRCs, no, you don’t. There’s no lump-sum payment later to make up for it.

As far as what implications this has for filing decisions, the short answer is: almost none. With regard to this topic, the “best” filing month is January, because it would mean that any DRCs you have earned are made effective immediately. And with regard to this topic, the “worst” filing month is July, because if you file in July you’ll be “missing” 6 DRCs for 6 months. But even then, the total amount “missed” is just 24% of your PIA.

If we imagine a single male in average health with a PIA of $2,000, 24% of his PIA is $480. The expected present value of lifetime benefits for this person is somewhere in the ballpark of $340,000, per Open Social Security. $480 is just 0.14% of that PV. (And it would be an even smaller percentage for a woman, for anybody in better than average health, or for a married couple.) Point being, if you are considering two potential filing ages and a 0.14% change is enough to sway from one to the other, the takeaway is not “oh this one is actually better” but rather that they are equally good. That difference ($480) is going to be overwhelmed by the uncertainty of how long the person lives and whether filing 6 months earlier or later turns out to be better in that regard.

Want to Learn More about Social Security? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."

The Three Biggest Social Security Misconceptions

Many people’s mental model of Social Security spousal/survivor benefits works like this:

  1. Your spousal benefit is equal to half of your spouse’s retirement benefit.
  2. Your survivor benefit is equal to the amount your spouse was receiving as a retirement benefit prior to his/her death.
  3. If you file for a spousal benefit and a retirement benefit (or a survivor benefit and a retirement benefit), you get the greater of the two amounts.

Unfortunately, all three of those statements are wrong. They’re close enough, if you’re far from Social Security filing age and you just want a rough understanding of the system. But if you’re trying to do any planning with actual math, or if you’re trying to interact with the SSA, you need a more accurate understanding.

Let’s start with #3, because it is in my opinion the “wrongest.”

Here’s how it actually works: if you are entitled to (i.e., have already filed for) a retirement benefit of your own, and you then become eligible for (and file for) a spousal or survivor benefit, you continue to receive your own retirement benefit and you receive a spousal/survivor benefit in addition to that retirement benefit. If that sounds wrong or surprising to you, it’s because you have a misunderstanding about how spousal or survivor benefits are calculated.

How is a Spousal Benefit Calculated?

Your spousal benefit is initially calculated as half of your spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA). A person’s primary insurance amount is the monthly retirement benefit they would get if they filed exactly at full retirement age.

Note that your spousal benefit is not half of your spouse’s monthly retirement benefit. It’s half of their PIA. If your spouse files for their own retirement benefit before or after their full retirement age, they would receive a retirement benefit that is more or less than their PIA. But your spousal benefit is still half of their PIA, not half of what they’re actually getting.

Then, after that initial calculation, your spousal benefit can be reduced for a whole bunch of different things.

Firstly, if you are also receiving your own retirement benefit, your spousal benefit gets reduced by the greater of your own retirement benefit or your own PIA.

Second, if you file for your spousal benefit before your full retirement age, your spousal benefit will be reduced for early filing.

And then that spousal benefit could also be reduced by various other rules (e.g., the government pension offset if you have a government pension, the family maximum rules if a child is also receiving benefits on your spouse’s work record, or the earnings test if you or your spouse are younger than full retirement age and still working).

Example: Sandra’s PIA is $2,000. Her husband Mark’s PIA is $600. Mark files for his retirement benefit four years prior to his full retirement age, so he gets a retirement benefit equal to 75% of his PIA, or $450. Later, after Mark reaches his FRA, he becomes entitled to a spousal benefit as well (because Sandra has filed for her own retirement benefit).

Mark’s spousal benefit is calculated as half of Sandra’s PIA, minus the greater of his own PIA or his own retirement benefit. That is, $1,000 – $600 = $400.

So his total monthly benefit is $450 + $400 = $850.

A few big takeaways here:

  • He receives a retirement benefit and a spousal benefit.
  • His retirement benefit is still reduced for having filed early.
  • His spousal benefit is not half of Sandra’s retirement benefit.
  • His total monthly benefit is $150 less than half of Sandra’s PIA. That’s because he’s still receiving his retirement benefit, and that retirement benefit is still reduced by $150 due to early filing.

If Mark’s spousal benefit had begun prior to his full retirement age, it would have to be multiplied by the applicable reduction factor for early entitlement. For example if his spousal benefit also began four years prior to his FRA, it would be multiplied by 70%. So it would be ($1,000 – $600) * 0.7 = $280.

How is a Survivor Benefit Calculated?

If your spouse had filed for his/her own retirement benefit by the time he/she died, then your survivor benefit is initially calculated as the greater of:

  • The amount your deceased spouse was receiving at the time of his/her death, or
  • 82.5% of your deceased spouse’s PIA.

If your spouse had not filed yet for his/her own retirement benefit by the time he/she died, then your survivor benefit is initially calculated as:

  • Your deceased spouse’s PIA, if your spouse died prior to his/her full retirement age, or
  • The amount he/she would have received as a retirement benefit if he/she had filed on his/her date of death, if your spouse died after reaching his/her full retirement age.

And from that point, some reductions can apply.

Firstly, if you are also entitled to your own retirement benefit, your survivor benefit is reduced by the amount of your own retirement benefit. (Note that this is different than with a spousal benefit, where it’s reduced by the greater of your own retirement benefit or your own PIA.)

Next, if your benefit as a surviving spouse begins prior to FRA, it has to be multiplied by an applicable reduction factor (details here).

And again, various other reductions might be applicable (e.g., government pension offset, earnings test, family maximum).

Why Does This Matter?

Things that reduce your benefit as a spouse or survivor (e.g., government pension offset, family maximum, or earnings test when it is your spouse who has excess earnings) do not reduce your own retirement benefit. So it’s important to know what portion of your total monthly benefit is a retirement benefit and what portion is a spousal/survivor benefit. If you think that you “get the greater of the two amounts” you would think that your whole benefit is a spousal/survivor benefit and the whole thing would be subject to reduction. But that’s not the case.

It’s also important when interacting with the SSA. SSA employees are tasked with implementing and explaining a very complex system of rules, so yes, mistakes do sometimes happen. But in the overwhelming majority of cases in which I hear that the SSA has provided incorrect information, it turns out that the SSA employee provided information that was precisely correct — though insufficiently explained — and that correct information collided with a preexisting misconception in the person’s mind (usually one of the three above), and the person ends up hearing something different than what the SSA employee actually said. It’s like a Who’s On First scenario, though not so funny when there are actual consequences.

You can easily imagine how something like that can happen. Just take Mark from our example above. He’s currently receiving a retirement benefit of $450. And, before Sandra files for her retirement benefit, he calls the SSA to ask for details about his spousal benefit. And imagine that Mark has previously heard that 1) a spousal benefit is equal to half of your spouse’s benefit and 2) you get a spousal benefit or your own retirement benefit. So he’s anticipating a spousal benefit of something like $800-$1,000.

SSA employee: Your spousal benefit will be $400 per month.
Mark: Wait, what? It’s only $400 per month? I thought it was going to be more than that.
SSA: No, I’m sorry. It’s $400 per month.
Mark (now worried that not only is his benefit not going to increase, but it might even decrease from $450 to $400): Well can I just choose not to file for it then?
SSA: No, you will automatically be deemed to have filed for your benefit as a spouse as soon as Sandra files for her retirement benefit.

Everything the SSA employee said was correct. But they didn’t catch on to the underlying misconceptions that Mark has. So now Mark is freaking out because he had been anticipating a benefit increase, and he thinks he has just been told that his benefit is about to go down and there’s nothing he can do about it. But in reality, he will be getting a benefit increase. He’ll keep getting his $450 retirement benefit, plus the $400 spousal benefit.

Many experienced SSA employees are well versed in these misconceptions, and they’re skilled at noticing when a miscommunication is occurring and then guiding the applicant toward a proper understanding. But that doesn’t always happen. It’s important to understand the rules for yourself.

Want to Learn More about Social Security? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."

Social Security Made Simple: 2022 Edition

Just a brief announcement for today: the 2022 edition of Social Security Made Simple is now available (print version here and Kindle version here).

Relative to the prior (2019) edition, various figures have of course been updated.

And with this year’s large COLA, one of the questions I received repeatedly was whether a person has to have filed for their retirement benefit already in order to receive the COLA. So I’ve added an explanation that you get the annual cost-of-living adjustment beginning at age 62, regardless of whether you have filed for benefits.

There’s also a new example in the chapter on spousal benefits that illustrates another topic that has been a source of question for years: how is a person’s total monthly benefit calculated if they a) start their own retirement benefit early and then b) later start to receive a spousal benefit? (In short, the dollar-value reduction to your retirement benefit that was applied due to filing early continues to apply after your benefit as a spouse kicks in.)

For anybody who has not read the book, the outline is as follows:

Part One: Social Security Basics
1. Qualifying for Retirement Benefits
2. How Retirement Benefits Are Calculated
3. Spousal Benefits
4. Widow(er) Benefits
Part Two: Rules for Less Common Situations
5. Social Security for Divorced Spouses
6. Child Benefits
7. Social Security with a Pension
8. The Earnings Test
Part Three: Social Security Planning (When to Claim Benefits)
9. The Claiming Decision for Single People
10. When to Claim for Married Couples
11. The Restricted Application Strategy
12. Age Differences Between Spouses
13. Accounting for Investment Returns
Part Four: Other Related Planning Topics
14. Social Security and Asset Allocation
15. Checking Your Earnings Record
16. How Is Social Security Taxed?
17. Do-Over Options
Conclusion: Six Social Security Rules of Thumb
Appendix A: Widow(er) Benefit Math Details
Appendix B: Restricted Applications with Widow(er) Benefits
Appendix C: The File and Suspend Strategy

You can find the print version here and Kindle version here.

Want to Learn More about Social Security? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."

Social Security Planning Approaches: Insurance Approach vs. Maximizing Expected Outcome

When it comes to Social Security planning, people often take one of two approaches:

  • The insurance approach: Social Security is meant to be longevity insurance, so in order to get the most protection from it, I will delay until age 70.
  • The maximizing approach: I want to get the most total dollars (or present value of dollars) from Social Security over my lifetime, so I will file at whatever age results in the highest expected sum. (Note: this second approach is what calculators such as Open Social Security are doing — recommending the filing age(s) that maximize the expected present value of dollars collected.)

In short, most people should be accounting for both perspectives in their planning.

Taking only the maximizing approach fails to account for the fact that a reduction in risk is valuable. Waiting to file for Social Security generally reduces longevity risk, because it makes you less likely to deplete your savings in a live-a-long-time scenario, and it means that you would be left with a greater monthly income in the undesirable event that you do deplete your portfolio.

Conversely, taking only the insurance approach makes no sense either. Yes, Social Security does function as longevity insurance. And when you delay Social Security you are, essentially, buying more of that insurance. But just because a type of insurance is available doesn’t mean that you need it or that it’s a good deal. (I’m sure you can come up with several examples of this concept on your own.)

For some people, the risk reduction that comes from delaying Social Security isn’t really important, because they’ve already reached a point where their level of savings relative to their desired level of spending is such that there’s very little chance of running out of money, regardless of what decisions are made with regard to Social Security.

Similarly, for some couples (most especially, married couples in which one person is in very poor health or the higher earner is much older than the lower earner), having the spouse with the lower earnings history delay filing doesn’t necessarily even reduce risk. It makes the “we both live a long time” scenario better. But it makes the “one of us lives a long time” scenario worse. And for such couples, it’s that second scenario that’s far more likely.

“Delay until 70” happens to be a respectable rule of thumb for an unmarried person, because:

  1. It does happen to be a pretty good deal (not astonishingly good, but good) for most unmarried people, and
  2. If you choose to delay, then you die at an early age, it’s not as if you’ll be upset about having waited to file for your benefits.

But once we look at married couples, it’s more complicated because:

  1. It’s often not a good deal (for the lower earner to delay). In some cases (again, if one person is in very poor health or if the higher earner is much older than the lower earner), it can be quite a bad deal.
  2. And if you’re the lower earner and you choose to delay, then one spouse dies soon thereafter, the surviving spouse will still be alive and will be in a worse position as a result of you not having filed for benefits early.

Point being, Social Security planning should be treated much like any other personal financial planning topic in that:

  • It’s helpful to actually do an analysis that looks at your personal facts and circumstances, and
  • When performing that analysis, the evaluation of any particular strategy should account for both the effect that that particular strategy would have on the risk(s) to which you are exposed and the effect that that strategy would have on the expected (i.e., probable) outcome.

Want to Learn More about Social Security? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."

Does a 401(k) Rollover Count as a Pension for the Social Security Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP)?

A reader wrote in recently with the following story/question:

For the last several years of my wife’s work before retiring, she had worked for a government agency and no SS had been collected. However, she did have a 401(k) which she contributed to. I knew that she fell under the WEP/GPO provisions.

Subsequent to my wife retiring but before she applied for SS, we rolled her account into an IRA. Two different representatives from SSA told me that if we had not rolled it over, we would NOT have been subject to the WEP. We were allowed by my wife’s plan to keep our funds there and they actually had some very good investment choices. If I had known that and if it was true, I would never have moved the account. And if I understand correctly, the WEP would not come into play and we could have had a considerably higher benefit over the years until we had started to use it.

I had read that the WEP only comes into play when you receive a pension or a lump-sum retirement distribution from a job that was not covered by Social Security. I had taken “distribution” to mean cashing out the 401(k), not rolling it over into an IRA, but I am guessing from what the SSA is saying, that is not the case.

If we had known that we could “let it ride” in the 401(k) and delaying being subject to the WEP, I would have jumped at the chance. This would seem to be another way to significantly increase your benefit if you were in the right circumstances.

So I would appreciate your view of this. I am assuming I can’t do anything for myself, but hopefully for others.

The SSA employees are correct that a rollover does count as a payment/withdrawal from the plan. Therefore, if:

  1. The plan itself counts as a pension, and
  2. The payment counts as a pension payment from that plan…

…then the rollover would trigger the WEP.

And, you are correct that in some cases the effect of the WEP can be delayed as a result of delaying a rollover (and also delaying any other payments, including payments from a defined benefit plan, if any).

So those are the two questions we have to answer:

  1. Does the plan count as a pension at all?
  2. Does this particular payment count as a pension payment? (Sometimes the plan can count as a pension, but this individual payment does not count.)

Does the Plan Count as a Pension?

To determine whether the plan counts as a pension for the sake of triggering the windfall elimination provision, we first have to know whether the worker paid Social Security tax at the job in question. If so, then the plan will not trigger the WEP.

If the worker did not pay Social Security tax (i.e., the job was “noncovered employment”), then we need to know whether the plan includes employer contributions. If it does, then it’s a pension. If it does not include employer contributions, then it’s only a pension if it is the primary retirement plan.

Does the Payment Count as a Pension Payment?

A withdrawal of the employee’s contributions + interest will not count as a pension payment if the employee is not yet eligible to receive a pension and the employee forfeits all rights to the pension.

If the employee is already eligible for the pension, any payment from the plan will count as a pension. Or, if the payment included any amounts that were employer contributions, the payment will count as a pension — regardless of whether the employee is eligible to receive a pension.

What does it mean to be “eligible” for a pension? An individual becomes eligible for a pension the first month he or she meets all requirements for payment except stopping work and applying for the payment. The pension-paying agency, not the SSA, determines pension eligibility and entitlement.

So just to summarize/reiterate the key points here: in some cases a distribution (including a rollover) from a defined contribution plan such as a 401(k) can trigger the windfall elimination provision. And in such cases, delaying taking any distributions (including rollovers) might allow you to delay applicability of the WEP, thereby allowing you to receive a larger Social Security benefit for a period of time.

Want to Learn More about Social Security? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."
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