Medicare will play an important part in your retirement plan, but it can seem confusing at first. But it’s critical that you learn enough about Medicare to have a basic understanding of the different parts and how they work together.
What Is Medicare?
Medicare is the government-run health program for older or disabled individuals. There are several parts to Medicare, and each part covers different things. The four main parts are:
Social Security retirement benefits often make up a large portion of an individual’s retirement income. Throughout your lifetime, you can keep an eye on your projected retirement benefits on your annual Social Security statement or by looking at your online mySocialSecurity account (mySSA). It’s a great tool for making educated retirement planning decisions.
But what if your Social Security benefit’s estimate is incorrect by several hundred dollars per month?
This isn’t too far-fetched. For some people, it is wrong.
Even worse, they probably don’t know it is wrong. What an awful retirement surprise!
If you work for an employer who does not participate in Social Security but has their own pension instead, you probably know that your Social Security options can be complicated with tricky rules that only apply to teachers and other public servants. These rules include the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and the Government Pension Offset.
Individuals often look for a way to soften the impact of these rules. Time and again I hear individuals wondering if they can sidestep these rules by simply taking their pension in a lump sum. After all, in just about every reference to these rules, the Social Security Administration (SSA) says that the rules apply to individuals with a pension from work where no Social Security taxes were paid.
So…if there’s no a ‘pension’ being paid, do the rules still apply?
They do, but with a few exceptions. For certain individuals, taking a pension out in a lump sum can be a valid method of sidestepping these rules. If this interests you, read on. The rules for when and how are complicated, and you don’t want to mess this up.
In several states, most school districts do not participate in Social Security. Instead, they have their own pension plan to which they contribute. But over time, a few school districts in these states have adopted agreements with the Social Security Administration which allows them to participate in both Social Security AND their own pension plan.
Whenever I’m asked about how Social Security survivor benefits work, I have a simple answer:
At death of the first spouse, surviving spouses receive the higher of:
Their own monthly benefit, or
The monthly benefit of the deceased.
That’s the clean and straightforward answer, but it’s not quite that simple. Although Social Security survivor benefits really are pretty simple, every family is different. Unique situations and variables can introduce some complexity.
Have you ever tried to use a power of attorney for Social Security purposes? If you haven’t, save yourself the trouble. The Social Security Administration will not accept it.
After multiple clients experienced frustration at the Social Security office, I reached out to John Ross, an elder law attorney and co-host of our podcast (Big Picture Retirement) for an explanation and guidance on why powers of attorney (or POAs) don’t fly with the Administration.
Here’s what he told me.
There’s No Such Thing as a Social Security Power of Attorney
John Ross explained that there is no “Social Security Power of Attorney.” Powers of attorney are creations of state law and vary wildly from state to state, Ross added.
“Since the federal agencies like the SSA do not want to have to separately review POAs based on both the facts and circumstances of their creation and the various state laws that may be applicable, these agencies have taken the position that they will not accept a POA under any circumstances,” said Ross.
He explained that the Social Security Administration developed federal regulations related to incapacitated beneficiaries of federal programs and established criteria under who the agency will deal with. “Since federal law trumps state law,” he added, “there is nothing an agent under a power of attorney can do to alter this structure.”
How to Help Someone with Their Social Security When POAs Don’t Work
That’s reason for concern if you’re a friend or family member of someone who struggles to manage their Social Security 100% on their own. How do you help someone with their Social Security issues if the SSA won’t accept a POA?
Essentially, anyone who wants to assist someone receiving Social Security benefits who needs help will have two options:
Obtain a court appointment as the Social Security beneficiary’s guardian.
Apply to the SSA to become the representative payee for the Social Security benefits.
Let’s look at each option in more detail:
Option #1: Obtain a Court Appointment as Guardian
Warning: This is not your best option.
One way to approach the Social Security Administration is with a court-appointed guardianship. This is an expensive, time-consuming process — but agencies such as the SSA are required to deal with a beneficiary’s court appointed guardian.
First, you’ll have to hire an attorney to file a petition for a guardianship hearing. Depending on your state, this process could take a long time.
The court will have to examine expert findings, such as doctor’s statements, declare that the individual is incompetent, and appoint a guardian. The court then transfers the responsibility for managing all living arrangements, and medical decisions to the guardian.
Then, in many cases, the court will require the guardian to provide regular, detailed financial accounting reports to the court. In most cases, becoming a court-appointed guardian is a complicated, expensive solution.
There’s a much easier way to help someone who may need it:
Option #2: Become a Representative Payee
The second option is applying to become a representative payee. This program is specific to the Social Security Administration, and it allows an individual to manage the Social Security payments of a beneficiary who is incapable of managing his or her own Social Security.
Thankfully, this option is nowhere near as burdensome as applying for guardianship. This is the best solution! It is faster, free, and doesn’t come with all of the encumbrances of a court appointment.
The steps to becoming a representative payee is as follows:
Fill out (or least review) SSA 11 Request to be Selected as Payee form.
Here are the instructions that the Social Security gives to their technicians in deciding who the payee will be:
“Each payee application must be reviewed and evaluated individually to determine the best payee. All applicants must be carefully screened and considered before a selection is made to ensure that the beneficiary’s best interest is served. In determining the best payee choice, consider all factors, including the applicant’s relationship to the beneficiary, the applicant’s interest in the beneficiary’s well being and whether or not the applicant has custody of the beneficiary.”
Understanding Your Responsibility a a Representative Payee Report
The SSA requires that a representative payee file an annual accounting called the Representative Payee Report. This report details what you, as the representative payee, have done with the beneficiary’s funds during the previous year.
If you have kept accurate records of the beneficiary’s funds over the course of the year, the report will be very easy to fill out. Commingling funds, or not keeping accurate records of expenditures, can lead to an incredible headache when it comes time to file the report. And not filing the report at allcould lead to your removal as representative payee.
So who can become a representative payee? The Administration maintains a list of preferred individuals. This list is in their preferred order of representative selection.
Payee Preference List For Adults
When you determine that the beneficiary needs a representative payee, select the best payee available from this list of preferred applicants:
A spouse, parent or other relative with custody or who shows strong concern;
A legal guardian/conservator with custody or who shows strong concern;
A friend with custody;
A public or nonprofit agency or institution;
A Federal or State institution;
A statutory guardian
A voluntary conservator
A private, for-profit institution with custody and is licensed under State law;
A friend without custody, but who shows strong concern for the beneficiary’s well-being, including persons with power of attorney;
Anyone not listed above who is qualified and able to act as payee, and who is willing to do so;
An organization that charges a fee for its service.
Payee Preference Lists For Minor Children
When the beneficiary is a minor child, select the best payee available from this list of preferred applicants:
A natural or adoptive parent with custody;
A legal guardian;
A natural or adoptive parent without custody, but who shows strong concern;
A relative or stepparent with custody;
A close friend with custody and provides for the child’s needs;
A relative or close friend without custody, but who shows strong concern;
An authorized social agency or custodial institution; or
Anyone not listed above who shows strong concern for the child, is qualified, and able to act as payee, and who is willing to do so.
When you’re dealing with a relative or friend who can no longer manage their own financial matters, everyday activities are complicated. It would be really nice if the Social Security Administration would just accept a power of attorney. But since they won’t, being designated a Social Security Representative Payee is the simplest way to help with Social Security issues
That being said, if you’re dealing with Social Security benefits as a representative payee and feel overwhelmed, I know how difficult and isolated it can make you feel.
It can seem that no one understands your predicament and can’t give you the answer you need. What may help is to join my FREE Facebook members group. It’s very active and has some really smart people who love to answer any questions you may have about Social Security. From time to time I’ll even drop in to add my thoughts, too.
You should also consider joining the 100,000+ subscribers on myYouTube channel. For visual learners (as most of us are), this is where I break down the complex rules and help you figure out how to use them to your advantage.
One last thing that you don’t want to miss: Be sure to get your FREE copy of mySocial Security Cheat Sheet. This handy guide takes all of the most important rules from the massive Social Security website and condenses it all down to just one page.
Social Security benefits for children are a big deal. In January 2017, there were more than 4.2 million children receiving Social Security benefits because one or both of their parents are disabled, retired or deceased. These benefit payments to children total more than $2.6 billion every month.
Sadly, many children don’t get the benefits for which they are eligible. Most people don’t know about the qualifications and rules for this special benefit, so they don’t know to apply for the children in their lives.
A few years ago I saw a startling headline. It read, “Obama Administration Finalizes Social Security Gun Ban.” The sub-headline read, “On Monday the Obama administration finalized a Social Security gun ban that could prevent ‘tens of thousands’ of law-abiding elderly citizens from purchasing guns for self-defense.”
It didn’t take much browsing to find more headlines that were equally disturbing:
Obama’s Secret Plan To Block Seniors On Social Security From Owning Guns on Breitbart
SPREAD THIS: Obama Makes Huge Move to BAN Social Security Recipients From Owning Guns on Conservative Tribune
Obama to Ban Thousands of Senior Citizens from Owning Firearms on GunOwners.org
Since then I’ve seen headlines like these pop back up anytime there is a mass shooting.
With provocative headlines like these, it’s no wonder that I get lots of comments from worried retirees. Will seniors really be forced to surrender their firearms before they can receive Social Security payments?
As with many sensational headlines, this headline contains enough truth to keep it from being a flat out lie. However, that’s not the same as being accurate. Not even close.
Note: The Social Security earnings limit changes each year. The most current version of this article uses numbers for 2022.
At one of my first speaking engagements, I heard a great story from one of the attendees. Her experience provides us with one of the best examples I’ve ever heard of how much the Social Security income limit can catch you by surprise.
A few years earlier, she’d been at her bridge club when the topic turned to Social Security. As she and the other card players chatted about the best way to leverage Social Security Benefits, the consensus around the table seemed to be that filing at 62 was the smartest thing to do.
This lady, trusting the advice of some of her closest friends, did just that: She filed for benefits as soon as she turned 62.
She then told me she’d always wanted to buy a brand-new Toyota Camry. She figured that, once she started receiving Social Security income, it would be the perfect time to buy the car. She was still working, which meant her Social Security check would be extra income.
As she told the story to me, she bought the car and took out a car loan to do it. She planned to repay the loan using some of the income she expected to receive from her Social Security benefits since she filed for them.
Imagine her surprise, then, when a nasty letter from Social Security Administration showed up in her mailbox. The letter claimed she had been paid benefits that she was not eligible for!
The Social Security Administration not only asked her to pay the benefits back, but also informed her that future benefits would be suspended due to her income.
Now she had a new car and a car loan, without the Social Security benefits she planned to use to handle that monthly payment. What happened here?
Something that surprises more than just the poor Camry owner who approached me that day: the Social Security income limit.
What Is the Social Security Income Limit?
The earnings limit is also known as the income limit, or the earnings test. The official term is “earnings test,” but income limit and earnings limit are the terms that you’ll hear most often.
For our purposes, know that all these terms mean the same thing — and there are four quick facts about the Social Security income limit that you should know before we jump all the way into explaining the test or limit:
Be aware that we are talking about Social Security income limits for retirement benefits, not disability or SSI.
The earnings limit does not apply if you file for benefits at your full retirement age or beyond. These limits only apply to those who begin taking Social Security benefits before reaching full retirement age.
Not long ago, a viewer on my YouTube channel asked me to give her a good reason why we have the Social Security earnings limit. The comments that followed showed how many viewers shared the belief that the earnings limit is unfair and should be eliminated.
In my response, I explained that the rationale behind the entire program of Social Security was to create a safety net. The original intent of the Social security program was not to supplement retirement income, but to keep the elderly (most of whom lost any potential long-term wealth in the Great Depression) out of poverty.
I also added that today’s earnings limit is relatively generous compared to where the Social Security earnings limit began. The original Economic Security Bill (which is what the Social Security Act was originally called) President Roosevelt sent to Congress featured a very restrictive earnings limit.
That bill stated, “No person shall receive such old-age annuity unless . . . He is not employed by another in a gainful occupation.”
Whoa! This means that if you had even a single dollar in wages from a job, you could not collect a Social Security benefit at all.
Thankfully, the system we have in place today allows for individuals to have some earnings from work while they are receiving a Social Security benefit.
However, it’s very important to stay informed on the dollar amount of this limit because it changes every year.
For 2022, the Social Security earnings limit is $19,560. For every $2 you exceed that limit, $1 will be withheld in benefits.
The exception to this dollar limit is in the calendar year that you will reach full retirement age. For the period between January 1 and the month you attain full retirement age, the income limit increases to $51,960 (for 2022) without a reduction in benefits. For every $3 you exceed that limit, $1 will be withheld in benefits.
This means that if you have a birthday in July, you’ll have a 6 month period with an increased income limit before it’s dropped completely at your full retirement age. This increased limit and decreased withholding amount allow many individuals to retire at the beginning of the calendar year in which they attain full retirement age, rather than waiting until their actual birthdays.
Again, once you reach full retirement age, there is no reduction in benefits regardless of your income level.
A Real-Life Example of the Social Security Income Limit in Action
To put these numbers into context, let’s look at an example of how this might work in a real-life scenario:
Rosie is 64 years old. She started taking Social Security benefits as soon as she turned 62. Based on her birth year, her full retirement age is 66.
Right now, Rosie is eligible for $20,000 in Social Security benefits per year. She also worked during the year and made $29,560 in wages.
The question we want to understand is, how much was Rosie’s benefit reduced by working while on Social Security? To answer that, we first need to calculate how much Rosie was over the Social Security earnings limit for her age.
In 2021, Rosie filed for Social Security; she received her first check in January of 2022. Throughout the year she received $1,667 in benefits every month. Without knowing the rules, she also worked and earned $29,560 in wages.
With a Social Security earnings limit of $19,560, she was over by $10,000:
$29,560 Total Wages – the Social Security Income Limit of $19,560 = $10,000 Income in Excess Of Limit
Because this is a full calendar year during which Rosie is receiving benefits but is not yet full retirement age, the benefits reduction amount is $1 reduction for every $2 in excess wages. Since she was over the limit by $10,000, her benefits will be reduced by $5,000.
The benefit reduction calculation would appear as follows:
$10,000 Income in Excess of Limit x 50% ($1 reduction for every $2 over limit) equals a $5,000 Benefit Reduction
With a $5,000 benefits reduction for exceeding the income limits, Rosie’s $20,000 yearly Social Security benefit will be reduced to a $15,000 benefit for the year. In the following year she would attain her full retirement age and after her birthday, the limit would no longer apply.
How Does The Income Limit Affect Spousal, Survivor, or Children’s Benefits?
There are millions of individuals who receive benefits as an “auxiliary” of a retired or disabled worker. These auxiliary beneficiaries are also subject to the same earnings test.
See the chart below for more detail on how the limits are applied to each type of benefit.
Special Monthly Income Limit Rule for the First Year (or, Your Grace Year)
Many people who retire mid-year have already earned more income than the limit allows. This is why there is a special rule where the earnings limit switches from an annual limit to a monthly limit. (These monthly limits are 1/12 of the annual limit.)
This rule allows you to receive a check for any month you are considered “retired” by the SSA even if you have already exceeded the annual earnings limit.
That sounds straightforward enough — but the interpretation of “retired” as defined by the SSA can cause some confusion. Here’s what they mean by this term:
You are retired if your monthly earnings are 1/12 of the annual limit ($1,630 for 2022) or less and you did not perform substantial services in self-employment.
Essentially, you are considered retired unless you make more than the income limit. The rule for the year you reach full retirement age also applies when working with the monthly limit. In this calendar year for 2021, the limit is $4,330 (1/12 of $51,960).
It’s very important to remember that in the year following this first year, the monthly limit is no longer used and the earnings limit is based solely on your annual earnings limit.
How the Earnings Limit Is Applied
The most confusing part of the benefit reduction due to income is how it’s reflected in your monthly benefits deposits. Instead of taking out a little bit every month, the SSA will withhold several months of benefits at a time.
If you predict in advance that you will have excess earnings and report this to the Social Security Administration, they may take a few months of benefits before you actually earn the anticipated excess earnings.
For example, if your Social Security payment is $1,667 per month, and you expect to receive $29,560 in wages from your job, the Administration would calculate that you’ll be over your earnings limit by $10,000 and thus $5,000 in benefits should be withheld. So, they would withhold your benefit payment from January to March. In April, your checks would resume.
If you don’t report excess income before you earn it, then you have to report this information after the fact. You can do this when you file your income tax return, but the preferred method is to be proactive and call your local Social Security Administration office.
If you wait for the Social Security Administration to learn of your excess earnings via your tax return, there could be a significant gap between the time you earn the excess income and the time that they withhold your benefits. In most cases, it’s better to report the excess earnings quickly so the benefits reduction occurs closer to the time you actually earn that extra income.
Regardless of whether your benefits are withheld in advance or in arrears, benefits withholding can make budgeting and planning difficult, especially if you don’t understand the system. You may need to create a separate savings account to set some of those earnings aside to compensate for benefits withholding that will occur in the future.
What Kind of Income Counts as Earnings?
The Social Security income limit applies only to gross wages and net earnings from self-employment. All other income is exempt, including pensions, interest, annuities, IRA distributions and capital gains.
The term “wages” refers to your gross wages. This is the money that you earn before any deductions, including taxes, retirement contributions, or other deductions.
What to Do If Your Benefits Are Already Being Withheld
If you’re subject to the Social Security earnings limit, don’t wait for the SSA to start reducing the benefit you receive. Instead, I’d recommend voluntarily suspending benefits.
If you wait for the Social Security Administration to discover that you’ve earned too much working while receiving benefits, your risk of an overpayment notice is higher.
Either way, you aren’t missing payments that you’ll never get back. Your benefit amount will be recalculated at your full retirement age (or when you stop working) to reflect the months that benefits were withheld.
The best way to avoid the earnings limitation is to wait until full retirement age to file for benefits. If you can’t wait, make sure you have a clear understanding of how working impacts your Social Security benefits.
If you still have questions, you could leave a comment below, but what may be an even greater help is to join my FREE Facebook members group. It’s very active and has some really smart people who love to answer any questions you may have about Social Security. From time to time I’ll even drop in to add my thoughts, too.
You should also consider joining the 365,000+ subscribers on my YouTube channel! For visual learners (as most of us are), this is where I break down the complex rules and help you figure out how to use them to your advantage.
One last thing that you don’t want to miss: Be sure to get your FREE copy of my Social Security Cheat Sheet. This handy guide takes all of the most important rules from the massive Social Security website and condenses it all down to just one page.
Social Security credits are the building blocks that the Social Security Administration relies on to determine whether or not you qualify for one of its programs. In 2021, you receive one credit for each $1,470 of earnings, up to the maximum of four credits per year. The amount of earnings needed to earn a credit increases annually as average wage levels increase.
One stipulation is that your earnings must be subject to Social Security tax to count for a credit. In exchange for this tax, you are eligible for the following important benefits:
Social Security Retirement Benefits
Social Security Disability Benefits
Social Security Survivor Benefits
Each of these programs have different requirements for the number of credits to gain eligibility. Here’s a quick look at the eligibility for each.