Q: My wife and I had an appointment with Social Security today—she is 72, and I just turned 62. I know my benefits will be reduced by filing early at 62 but doing so would enable my wife to collect spousal benefits. She didn’t work enough to qualify for her own benefits, so I figured this would be the best way to maximize our benefits. But it turns out that I earn too much to get any benefits myself and, because of this, my wife can’t get any benefits, either! Everything I researched indicated that I would only be hit with a reduction while she would receive the spousal benefits. This whole system is just too complicated to really understand. —Lou
A: Lou has run into Social Security’s Earnings Test. These rules may seem benign, but as he found out, there are hidden snags that can seriously derail your retirement dreams.
The Earnings Test applies to people who take benefits before what’s called Full Retirement Age. This is 66 for most people now and gradually rises to age 67 for people born in 1960 and later years.
If you take benefits before your FRA, they will be reduced if you continue to work and your wage earnings are above two thresholds in 2015—$15,720 or, in the year you reach FRA, $41,880. These amounts are adjusted upward each year as average wages rise.
If you earn more than $15,720, your Social Security retirement benefits are reduced by $1 for every $2 your wage income exceeds that limit. For the higher income test, the reduction is $1 in benefits for every $3 you earn above $41,880.
As Lou found out, his income is so far above $15,720 that he cannot receive any Social Security benefits whatsoever. In its consumer notices, Social Security emphasizes that benefits forfeited by the Earnings Test are not truly lost. When a person who takes early retirement benefits reaches FRA, the agency will automatically restore the lost income by permanently increasing his or her monthly payment to make up the difference.
Well, that’s better than nothing. And perhaps Lou would have settled for a lower, postponed benefit – claiming at 62 reduces your payout by 25% vs filing at FRA—if it meant his wife could begin receiving spousal benefits.
But she won’t.
There’s no mention of this in the agency’s online explanation of the effects of the Earnings Test. But the agency brochure, How Work Affects Your Benefits, includes this eye-opener:
So, not only does Lou earn too much money to get any benefits for himself, he also he earns too much money for his wife to qualify to receive any spousal benefits at all, as he discovered.
Lou doesn’t have any school-age children at home. But if he did, their benefits based on his earnings record would also be wiped out by the Earnings Test.
Here’s a sample provided by a Social Security spokesman that shows how the Earnings Test can affect family-member benefits.
Got that? In this example, the test cancels out benefits for part of the year. In Lou’s case, of course, the benefits are wiped out for the entire year.
Under the rules, Lou’s lost benefits would be restored when he reaches his FRA in four years, as I mentioned earlier. And his wife’s lost spousal benefits would be restored as well, when she is 76.
But Lou and his wife are better off waiting four years to file, or at least until his earnings no longer cancel out their benefits. At 66, he can file and suspend his benefits. This will entitle his wife to a full spousal benefit equal to half his retirement benefit. He then can defer his own benefit for up to four years, allowing it to increase by an inflation-adjusted 8% a year.
I feel for Lou, and I fully agree with him that the system is too complex for the vast majority of Americans to understand. At the very least, the family-wide impact of the Earnings Test should be prominently featured in all Social Security materials mentioning this rule.
Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of The New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and is working on a companion book about Medicare. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.