Some retirement decisions are irreversible. But many will be happy to learn that choosing when to start collecting Social Security benefits is not.
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.
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 (www.ssa.gov) 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 (www.retireearlyhomepage.com), 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.