Social Security Claiming Options Reduced for Couples

How Will the 2016 Changes in Retirement Benefits Impact You?

Blank Social Security checks.
Blank Social Security checks. William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

The BiPartisan Budget Act of 2015 was signed into law by President Barack Obama on November 2, 2015. While the “core benefits” of Social Security will continue to remain the same there were some important rule changes that will soon be eliminated that had previously allowed some couples to maximize their benefits. 

It is not too late for some people to use these strategies because certain grandfathering provisions are in place for these recent changes.

  Therefore, if you are approaching age 62 or 66 it is important to be aware of these new rules because there is a limited window of time available to make an informed decision.  It is important to recognize that the calculations of worker, spousal, and survivor benefits will still remain exactly the same. However, the new rules no longer allow individuals to claim a spousal benefit before the other spouse actually begins to receive benefits.  Restricted application options are also going away eliminating the claim then switch strategy. Also going away in 2016 is the lump sum option for people suspending benefits at age 66.

Here is a summary of the primary changes to Social Security benefits for 2016:

Restricted Application Option for Couples Disappears in 2016. What this means is that married couples will no longer be able to claim benefits twice. In the past people were able to first collect spousal benefits and then later switch to Social Security payments based on their own work history.

This strategy often results in increased benefits because they claimed it at an older age. However, with the new rules workers turning 62 in 2016 or later will no longer be able to use the “claim now, claim more later” strategy.

For any individuals who were not 62 or older on or before January 1, 2016 the restricted application is no longer available.

When you apply for Social Security benefits you will receive the larger of your own benefit or a spousal benefit if eligible.  This is called deemed filing.

It is important to note that the restricted application strategy is still a viable option for widows or widowers. As a result a widow or widower can restrict the application to only this benefit, allowing their own benefit to continue to accrue delayed retirement credits. They could then switch to their own benefit at age 70 if it would be larger than the original widow or widower’s benefit.

Stricter Rules Exist for File and Suspend Methods.  The “file and suspend” method is a retirement income planning strategy which allows the higher earner to file and then suspend benefits so their spouse could then collect a spousal benefit. This strategy involves one spouse filing for Social Security upon reaching full retirement age (currently 66) then immediately suspending benefits. This technique allowed the other spouse to claim a spousal benefit while their deferred Social Security benefit increased until age 70. Then, once the higher earner reached at 70 they would unsuspend and claim the higher amount at age 70.

Effective May 1, 2016 suspending your payments will also suspend payments for anyone else receiving payments based on your work.

If you were planning on using the file and suspend strategy you still have some to implement your plan. The final day to use the “file and suspend method” to file a voluntary suspension under the old rules will be Friday April 29, 2016. 

Keep in mind there will be no impact on couples who already voluntary suspended and have a spouse claiming a spousal.  

The Lump-Sum Payment Option Goes Away May 1, 2016.  Previously once you reached full retirement age for benefits (currently 66 for people born between1943-1954) you could opt to suspend benefits and either collect more income later or receive a lump sum for back benefits. The new budget laws removed this lump sum option and as a result the retroactive benefit checks are no longer an option once the May 1, 2016 deadline arrives.

Social Security Benefits Did Not Increase in 2016. In a separate press release, the Social Security Administration announced that benefits will not automatically increase in 2016 as there was no increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI-W) from the third quarter of 2014 to the third quarter of 2015.

  This is only the third time there have been no benefit increases over the past 40 years. No cost of living adjustments for benefits also leaves the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax at $118,500 for 2016.

See 2016 Social Security Changes

Social Security is only one part of a comprehensive retirement income strategy. Regardless of how near or far your planned retirement date may be it is important to stay on top of these recent changes.

For more information on Social Security’s impact on your retirement visit Social Security and Retirement Planning or go directly to the Social Security Administration to obtain an estimate of your future benefits.