Apparently in the President’s recent budget documentation there is a brief mention of a desire to curtail the availability of File and Suspend as an option for Social Security benefit filing.
The reason, it appears, is that the Obama administration views this option as one used only by high income folks to take advantage of the government with this valuable option.
The problem with that viewpoint is that it is used by folks of all income levels, and in fact if it is taken away this could cause some big problems for folks who can least afford to lose benefits. As if anyone can afford to lose benefits, right?
Here’s what happens with File and Suspend: a Social Security benefit recipient has a spouse and/or children that would be eligible for benefits based on his or her record when he or she files for benefits. If he or she happens to be at or older than Full Retirement Age (FRA, age 66 for folks born before 1955, up to age 67 for folks born in 1960), he or she can file and immediately suspend his or her own benefits, allowing his or her spouse or young children to receive benefits immediately. By suspending his or her own benefit, he or she will earn delayed retirement credits of 8% per year, which will later provide him or her with an enhanced retirement benefit.
This is exactly the same outcome for the spouse and dependents that would play out if the benefit recipient was to file and *not* suspend benefits – and actuarially the end result should be the same for the primary benefit recipient as well. Where use of File and Suspend makes a big difference is much later. In the event of the recipient’s untimely early death, the spouse will receive a much enhanced survivor benefit. And if the recipient lives a long, healthy life, he or she will enjoy the enhanced benefit as well.
I can’t see where this is an issue of higher income versus lower income, as has been reported. I believe that the File and Suspend option is being unfairly vilified without complete understanding. The fact that folks with higher incomes have been more likely to choose File and Suspend as an option shouldn’t be cause to eliminate the option for everyone. As I mentioned, actuarially this should have little or no effect.
The likely reason that higher income folks have been more likely to choose this option is because higher income folks are more likely to seek guidance when filing for Social Security benefits – but again, the word is getting out about this option and more folks are choosing it (once they talk the SSA folks into understanding it!).
As well, often folks with lower incomes and future Social Security benefits may not be in a position to delay receipt of benefits, making File and Suspend a good idea but not viable.
I hope that this gets dropped. Doing away with File and Suspend will have no beneficial impact on the future viability of the Social Security system, in my opinion. All this is likely to do is make a lot of software developers rewrite their software to remove this option. If looking for provisions to remove in order to make the system a bit more cost-effective, perhaps the restricted application should be considered. This one may actually cost the system a bit extra, but so few people even know about it that it’s unlikely.
The real answer is to either re-do the overall calculations, put in place more effective means testing, and/or change the tax structure, perhaps to include all earned income instead of the capped income as the system works now. Until we face these factors and make real changes, we’re likely to continue on the path to unsustainability within the Social Security system.