An especially popular strategy for maximizing Social Security benefits is to utilize the file-and-suspend rules. These permit an individual to file for benefits but suspend them immediately, allowing delayed retirement credits to be earned while letting the spouse begin spousal benefits simultaneously. They can even be used to activate family benefits for young children.
Yet the file-and-suspend strategy is not just an effective planning tool for couples and families with minor children. Since benefits that have been suspended voluntarily can be reinstated later, even singles may wish to routinely file-and-suspend if they intend to delay anyway, as a way to hedge against a future change in circumstances.
At the same time, there are caveats to the file-and-suspend strategy, as well: Suspending will put all benefits on hold (which limits couples from crisscrossing spousal benefits by having each file and suspend); filing and suspending also triggers the onset of Medicare Part A benefits, making a client ineligible to make any more contributions to a health savings account.
UNDERSTANDING THE RULES
The basic concept of file-and-suspend is straightforward: A client files for retirement benefits (triggering all the rules that normally apply), but then suspends the benefits without receiving any payments (allowing the client to earn delayed retirement credits that increase the future benefit by 8% of the individual's primary insurance amount). The strategy's primary purpose: By filing for benefits, the client can render a spouse eligible for spousal benefits (only available once the primary worker has applied for retirement benefits), while still earning delayed retirement credits.
- Example 1: A 66-year-old man eligible for a $1,500-a-month benefit chooses to file-and-suspend, letting his 66-year-old wife begin a $750-a-month spousal benefit. The husband continues to accrue 8% a year delayed retirement credits on his monthly $1,500, which by age 70 rises to $1,980 a month, plus cost-of-living adjustments.
Notably, the ability to suspend benefits is available only to those who have reached full retirement age (66 years old for those born between 1943 and 1954; up to 67 for those born in 1960 or later). If benefits are filed early, the election generally cannot be undone (though clients can change their mind within 12 months of the first filing).
Even if benefits were filed early, they can still be suspended going forward once full retirement age is reached. This will not undo the reduction that applies for taking benefits early, though it can almost fully offset the original reduction as delayed retirement credits are earned.
- Example 2: A 66-year-old woman eligible for a $1,000 monthly benefit filed for benefits early at age 62, reducing benefits by 25% to $750 a month. If she now chooses to suspend benefits, she can begin to earn 8% a year delayed retirement credits for the next four years, ultimately increasing the benefit by 32%, back up to $990 a month. (Ongoing cost-of-living adjustments would also be applied along the way.)
While the file-and-suspend strategy is often explained as a loophole to maximize benefits, it actually was a provision added to the Social Security system in 2000, under the Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act, to allow for the associated planning strategies (especially for couples' benefits).
FILE-AND-SUSPEND FOR COUPLES
As noted in example 1, the primary purpose of the file-and-suspend strategy is for married couples to better coordinate the claiming of individual and spousal benefits - in particular, for one spouse to claim spousal benefits while the other continues to defer individual retirement benefits to accrue the credits. Otherwise, both members of the couple could face benefit delays. If the husband in example 1 had chosen to delay benefits without going through the file-and-suspend strategy, for instance, both he and his wife would have had to wait until he reached age 70 for retirement benefits.
File-and-suspend may be relevant even in situations where both spouses have their own benefits, but each wishes to delay. By adopting the file-and-suspend strategy, one spouse can claim benefits while both generate delayed retirement credits.
- Example 3: Both members of a couple are 66; the wife is eligible for $1,600 a month in benefits and the husband for $1,300 a month. Both are very healthy and wish to hedge against the risk that they could live well into their 90s, so both want to wait and earn delayed retirement credits. If the wife goes through the file-and-suspend process, then the husband can file a restricted application for just spousal benefits while delaying his own individual benefits. The husband gets $800 a month in spousal benefits based on his wife's record, then can switch to his own $1,300 monthly individual benefit in the future (and earn 8% a year in delayed retirement credits while he waits). And because she filed and suspended, she also earns 8% a year delayed retirement credits on her benefit.
Another benefit of the file-and-suspend rules is that by filing, the primary worker not only activates eligibility for a spouse to claim spousal benefits, but also for dependent benefits to be paid on behalf of minor children as well (albeit subject to the maximum family benefit limitations).
RULES FOR INDIVIDUALS
While the file-and-suspend rule primarily helps married couples, the strategy also allows individuals who started benefits early to change their mind, suspend benefits and begin to earn delayed retirement credits.
There is another file-and-suspend planning opportunity as well. Under Social Security rules, those who are full retirement age can file for retroactive benefits, but only as far back as six months (resulting in a lump-sum payment of prior benefits). An individual who is 66 1/2 can retroactively file for benefits back to age 66, receiving makeup payments for the prior six months; at age 68, the payments can only go back to age 67 1/2.
Yet if the individual files-and-suspends at full retirement age, a subsequent filing for retroactive benefits goes all the way back to the date of the file-and-suspend. Under Social Security rules, there's a difference between the standard filing for retroactive benefits and a request to reinstate voluntarily suspended benefits. To preserve flexibility, a client who plans to delay benefits may want to file-and-suspend rather than simply waiting.
- Example 4: A single 66-year-old woman is eligible for a $1,600 monthly retirement benefit. Because she's in good health, she plans to delay her benefits until 70 to earn delayed retirement credits. But at 68, her health takes a significant turn for the worse and she believes she may not live much longer. Realizing there's no longer a reason to delay her Social Security benefits, she applies immediately - and retroactively - but at best she can only get benefits going back to age 67 1/2.
If the same woman had filed and suspended at 66, then when she got the unfortunate health news, she would be able to reinstate her benefits all the way back to age 66 - giving her a lump-sum payment for 24 months, rather than just six.
Alternatively, if the woman stayed healthy after doing file-and-suspend, she could still delay her benefits to age 70.
CAVEATS TO THE STRATEGY
There are a few caveats to the strategy. First, remember that the request to suspend benefits will suspend all benefits, barring couples from crisscrossing spousal benefits.
The act of filing also makes the client eligible for Medicare Part A. In fact, because enrollment is automatic for anyone older than 65 who applies for Social Security benefits, clients can't opt out of Medicare Part A even if they want to.
Automatic enrollment in Medicare Part A isn't necessarily problematic - at worst, it's duplicated coverage, but doesn't have separate premiums or cost like Medicare Part B. However, it renders a client ineligible to contribute to a health savings account. For clients with a high-deductible health plan, file-and-suspend will render them ineligible to make new contributions.
Beyond these caveats, the file-and-suspend strategy provides a great deal of flexibility, a lot of opportunity to maximize Social Security benefits and the ability to hedge the risk of delaying benefits with the potential to reinstate the voluntarily suspended benefits in the future.
Michael Kitces, CFP, is a partner and director of research at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md., and publisher of the planning industry blog Nerd's Eye View. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelKitces.