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Notes From the Fieldby Martin Weil

November 9, 2015

File and suspend SS couples claiming strategy to be phased out under new laws

For several years now, we (and many colleagues) have recommended an optimal Social Security claiming strategy for married couples where the older spouse “files and suspends” their own SS benefit at full retirement age (“FRA,” currently 66) and the younger spouse files for a spousal, not their own, benefit when they reach their own FRA. This approach allows each spouses’ own benefit to continue to increase for four more years until age 70 at c. 8% p.a., but provides a bonus for up to four years of spousal payments (1/2 the other spouse’s full benefit) to the younger spouse. For couples who do not have a pressing financial need for full benefits at age 66, this strategy has been shown to have the highest expected lifetime return.

No more. On November 2, the President signed into law changes to the regulations which eliminate this strategy forever. Critics in Congress had loudly complained that couples were taking unfair advantage of an unintended loophole in Social Security law changes that Congress enacted in 2000 in order to assist older workers forced to return to the workplace. What Congress giveth, Congress taketh away.

Going forward, the following couples will still be able to employ the strategy:

  • Couples who have already fully employed the strategy (one spouse has filed and suspended, the other claimed spousal benefits) will not be affected.
  • Couples where one spouse has already filed for benefits, or has filed and suspended, will not be affected so long as the other spouse was born in 1953 or before.
  • Any individual who will reach 66 years of age, and files and suspends, prior to April 30, 2016 will maintain the strategy for their spouse (born 1953 or before).

For everyone else:

  • The ability to file and suspend benefits will cease for everyone six months after the law was signed on November 2. Thus, starting May 2016, one spouse will have to fully claim their own benefit before a spouse can claim a spousal benefit.
  • However, either spouse, if born 1953 or before, will still retain the ability to file for spousal benefits and later switch to their own larger benefit at age 70, so long as their partner has filed for their benefit (or filed and suspended by the six month deadline, or about April 30, 2016.)
  • Anyone born after 1953 will have to choose either a spousal or their own benefit at the time of their initial SS claim and will not be able to switch benefits at a later time.
  • Divorced spouses born after 1954 who are not already receiving benefits also will have to choose spousal or their own benefit at the time of filing and will not have the option to switch at a later time.

This is my best grasp of these latest changes to the Social Security claiming regulations, pending any further modifications. For a another write up, see http://www.socialsecuritychoices.com/blog/

My prediction: Financial planners are going to be very busy this holiday season revisiting assumptions in their plans for those clients who will be affected by these changes.

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