From time to time, I hear from people who have visited their local SSA office (or spoken with an SSA employee on the phone) to execute a legitimate Social Security strategy, only to have the SSA employee (incorrectly) tell them that they cannot do such a thing.
Generally, the best thing you can do in such a situation is to respectfully direct the SSA employee to an applicable reference in the Code of Federal Regulations or Program Operations Manual System (i.e., the SSA’s internal employee manual). What follows are a few such references that may be helpful in getting things moving in your favor.
File and Suspend
These days, most SSA employees are familiar with the ability to voluntarily “suspend” your benefits after filing for them. Every once in a while, however, a person will be told (incorrectly) that he cannot suspend his retirement benefit at full retirement age, simply because he started receiving that benefit prior to full retirement age. CFR 404.313 (in particular, the bolded sentence) indicates very explicitly that that’s not the case:
“You earn a [delayed retirement credit] for each month for which you are fully insured and eligible but do not receive an old-age benefit either because you do not apply for benefits or because you elect to voluntarily suspend your benefits to earn DRCs. Even if you were entitled to old-age benefits before full retirement age you may still earn DRCs for months during the period from full retirement age to age 70, if you voluntarily elect to suspend those benefits.”
Filing a Restricted Application
When you are eligible for two different benefits, but choose to apply for only one of them (in order to allow the other one to continue growing), you are making what is known as a “restricted application.” Some SSA employees, however, will tell you that if you file for one benefit, you are automatically forced (“deemed”) to file for the other benefit as well.
This rule about deemed filing comes from CFR 404.623, which answers the question, “Am I required to file for all benefits if I am eligible for old-age and husband’s or wife’s benefits?” The Code section is rather lengthy to quote in its entirety, but the relevant point is that it states that if you file for a retirement (i.e., “old-age”) benefit or spousal benefit prior to your full retirement age, you are automatically presumed to have filed for the other benefit as well.
The key things to note here (and to bring to the SSA employee’s attention) are that:
- This only applies when you file for something prior to FRA, and
- This doesn’t apply to widow/widower benefits at all. (That is, if you’re eligible for a retirement benefit and a widow/widower benefit, you can file a restricted application for one or the other — even prior to full retirement age.)
6-Month Retroactive Lump-Sum
If you file for your retirement benefit after full retirement age, you have the option to essentially backdate your application by up to 6 months. In such a case, you will receive a lump-sum for those 6 months of benefits, and your ongoing monthly benefit will be smaller, as if you’d claimed it 6 months earlier than you actually did.
The applicable reference here is CFR 404.621, starting with paragraph (a)(2), which states:
“If you file an application [...] you may receive benefits for up to 6 months immediately before the month in which your application is filed. Your benefits may begin with the first month in this 6-month period in which you meet all the requirements for entitlement.”
Important note: CFR 404.621 also states that you cannot backdate an application to a point earlier than your FRA.
Retroactive Lump-Sum to Date of Suspension
If you suspend your benefits at any point in time, you can essentially change your mind later (but prior to age 70), and ask to retroactively “unsuspend” your benefits. For example, you could file and suspend at your full retirement age of 66, then at age 69, after being diagnosed with a condition that makes your life expectancy much shorter than you previously thought, you could ask to a) have your benefits unsuspended and b) receive a lump-sum for the months between 66 and 69. Going forward, your benefit would then be calculated as if you had never suspended at all (i.e., you would not get the delayed retirement credits for delaying from 66 to 69).
The ability to change your mind with regard to a suspension of benefits comes from POMS GN 02409.130, which states that your effective month for reinstatement of benefits (after a voluntary suspension) can be, “the current month, a future month or any past month during the suspension period.”