Secret Ways to Boost Your Social Security

Kiplinger

Four legal strategies for adding as much as $12,000 a year to your retirement income.

Some retirement decisions are irreversible. But many retirees will be happy to learn that choosing when to start collecting Social Security benefits is not one of them.

When John Rothenhoefer, 70, found out that he could increase his Social Security benefits by about $1,000 a month by taking advantage of a do-over strategy, he thought he'd struck gold. As it turns out, he might as well have won a mega lottery. Out of the 32 million retirees who collect Social Security benefits, Rothenhoefer was one of just 71 people this fiscal year to take advantage of an obscure option that lets you halt your current benefits, pay back all you have collected interest-free, and restart your benefits at a new, higher rate based on your current age.

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It's perfectly legal, says Mark Lassiter, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration. But don't expect the claims representatives at your local Social Security office or the employees who answer the agency's toll-free number (800-772-1213) to be familiar with the details. "Our service representatives can go an entire career and never encounter this situation," says Lassiter. He recommends that you download Form 521 ("Request for Withdrawal of Application") from the agency's Web site and visit your local office in person.

This strategy is just one of four little-publicized ways we uncovered to help you maximize your Social Security benefits. Each tactic applies to a specific situation; if one of them is yours, you could be in the money.

A "Sweet Deal"

For someone like Rothenhoefer, who had been collecting monthly checks for eight years, the price of repaying Social Security benefits can be steep -- $100,000 or more in some cases. But he thinks it's well worth it. Not only will his monthly check be about 75% larger than his previous benefit, but it will also increase with inflation each year for the rest of his life. And if John dies first, his wife, Charlotte, 67, will collect the same monthly amount as a survivor benefit for as long as she lives.

Here's how it works: Let's say you qualify for full benefits of $1,600 a month at your normal retirement age of 66, but you decide to begin collecting your benefits at 62. Your retirement benefits will be reduced by 25% for the rest of your life -- to $1,200 a month, in this example -- because you'll be collecting a smaller benefit for a longer period of time.

On the other hand, if you delay collecting benefits, you will receive an 8% credit for every year beyond your normal retirement age until you reach 70, when your maximum benefit will be 132% of what you would have received at age 66. In this example, you would receive about $2,100 a month at 70 -- a $900 difference.

Maybe you decided to collect benefits early out of fear that you wouldn't live long enough to collect the larger delayed benefit. But now that you've made it to 70, you may regret your decision and wish you were receiving a larger check.

In order to get one, you must first file Form 521 at your local Social Security office to request a withdrawal of your application for benefits. Your retirement benefits will stop almost immediately -- and if your husband or wife receives spousal benefits based on your work record, his or her benefits will stop, too. Then the Social Security Administration will send you a letter telling you how much you need to repay (including any spousal benefits). That process may take several weeks. Once you repay the benefits, you can reapply for new, higher payments based on your current age.

If, for example, you received $1,200 a month starting at age 62, plus annual cost-of-living adjustments through age 70, you would have to repay about $130,000. That's a lot of money, but for some people it's worth the price to get an additional $900 a month in retirement. By comparison, it would cost a 70-year-old man about $190,000 to buy an immediate annuity that would provide $900 a month initially, plus annual inflation adjustments and a 100% survivor benefit. That's 46% more expensive than "buying" a lifetime annuity from Social Security.

Rothenhoefer thinks it's a "sweet deal." He concedes the strategy could backfire if both he and his wife were to die before they recoup their investment, which will take about ten and a half years. Still, he says, "it's worth the gamble," particularly because his wife stands a good chance of living into her nineties, as her mother and grandmother did.

There's another financial downside: You may have to go without Social Security benefits for a few months while the agency sorts out how much you have to repay and you reapply for benefits. When your benefits stop, so do the automatic deductions that cover your Medicare premium. You'll have to pay the Part B premium yourself -- currently $96.40 a month for most retirees -- until your Social Security benefits resume.

Crunch the Numbers

Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff says repaying and reapplying for Social Security benefits is a "fantastic option" for some people. But it can involve a lot of number-crunching to determine whether it's the right decision for you. Kotlikoff offers case studies on his Web site, www.esplanner.com. For $149, you can access his sophisticated financial-planning software, which lets you create your own comprehensive retirement plan, including an analysis of the pros and cons of a decision to pay back your Social Security.

John Greaney, who started the Retire Early Web site, says that members of his online community were aware of the repayment strategy but treated it as an urban legend. When Greaney took the time to research it last summer, he realized that it was an even better deal than he had first thought. That's because when you repay your Social Security benefits, you can claim either an itemized deduction or a tax credit (whichever results in bigger savings to you) for the taxes you paid on your benefits in previous years. The calculations are complicated, but you can get all the details in IRS Publication 915, Social Security and Equivalent Railroad Retirement Benefits, at www.irs.gov.

The idea of boosting your Social Security benefits may be enticing, but you still have to figure out how to pay for it. Kotlikoff's case studies weigh the pros and cons of using other assets to repay the benefits. Greaney created a spreadsheet that assumes you collect benefits early, invest all the money, then repay the benefits with earnings to spare. The spreadsheet also factors in the tax refund.

But Rothenhoefer had another idea. With his mortgage paid off, he decided to take out a home-equity loan and use the extra income from the bigger monthly Social Security benefit to repay the loan. "I didn't have to touch my savings, and I'll get a tax deduction on the interest," says Rothenhoefer, who lives in Ellicott City, Md.

One word of caution: Although this strategy can work well if you are already collecting benefits and like the idea of starting over at a higher monthly rate, it's riskier to plan to collect reduced benefits now with the intention of repaying them later. For one thing, you might not live long enough to take advantage of the repayment strategy. In that case, your spouse would be left with a reduced survivor benefit. Plus, there's no guarantee that Congress won't tinker with the provision when it eventually turns its attention to Social Security reform.

Tactics for Couples

Two other income-boosting strategies give couples a way to maximize their Social Security benefits. A recent paper by the Center for Retirement Research recommends that the spouse who is eligible for lower benefits collect them early, while the higher-earning spouse delays taking benefits until they are worth more. Then, when the primary breadwinner dies, the spouse with the lower benefit will "step up" to a much higher survivor benefit as the smaller retirement payment drops off.

In the past, it wasn't always possible to implement such a strategy. For example, a wife with little or no work history would have to wait until her husband actually started collecting Social Security to apply for spousal benefits based on his work record, equal to half of his monthly check.

That's not the case anymore. The Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act of 2000 allows a worker to "file and suspend" Social Security benefits once he or she has reached full retirement age. Under this law, the higher-earning spouse (usually the husband) could file for benefits, allowing his wife to collect her share, and then suspend his own benefits while continuing to work and building a bigger payment for the future. This kind of planning works best for couples in which one spouse has substantially higher lifetime earnings than the other.

There's also a way for married couples with similar incomes to enhance their benefits. In that situation, once you reach your normal retirement age, you can apply just for spousal Social Security benefits and delay the start of your own, higher benefits.

Let's say, for instance, that a man and his wife are both 66 years old and each is entitled to retirement benefits of $1,500 a month. She decides to retire, but he wants to continue working. He can apply for spousal benefits based on her work record -- worth $750 a month in this case -- and delay claiming benefits based on his own work history until he reaches age 70. At that point, his check would be worth about $2,000 a month.

Take Care of the Kids

Older men who are widowers or divorced often get remarried to younger women, and it's not uncommon for them to start second families. So when these do-over dads start collecting Social Security benefits, they may still have minor children at home. More than 500,000 children currently receive monthly payments based on a parent's Social Security retirement benefits.

If you're in this situation, you can put aside the money for your kids -- you might even be able to get Uncle Sam to foot the bill for their college education. That's what one 67-year-old man in Austin, Tex., plans to do. Although he didn't want us to use his name, "Bill" was happy to share his story.

After the death of his first wife several years ago, Bill married a younger woman, and they're expecting their first child this year. When the baby is born, he or she will receive monthly Social Security checks worth up to half of Bill's benefit until the child reaches age 18.

Bill plans to stretch those benefits even further by depositing them in a state-sponsored 529 college-savings plan. By contributing to a 529, he'll be able to use the earnings and distributions tax-free to pay for tuition, books, fees and other qualified expenses. If the child received $500 a month, for example, and the account earned an average 5% annual return, the college fund would be worth about $175,000 in 18 years. Depending on where you live, you may also qualify for a state income-tax deduction on your 529 contribution.

Despite the Social Security system's long-term financial problems, you don't need to feel guilty about trying to maximize your benefits, says Mary Jane Yarrington, a policy analyst with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "These new strategies bring public attention to the fact that Social Security is truly valuable and that there are ways to make it even more worthwhile," Yarrington says.

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