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Social Security Earnings Test

testWhen you’re receiving Social Security benefits before your Full Retirement Age (FRA, which is age 66 ranging up to age 67 for folks born in 1960 or later), there is an earnings test which can reduce or eliminate the benefit you are planning to receive.

If your earned income* is greater than $15,720 (2015 figure), for every $2 over this limit, $1 will be withheld from your Social Security benefit. So, for example, if you earn $20,000 in 2015, a total of $2,140 in benefits will be withheld – 50% of the over-earned amount of $4,280.

If you are receiving a Social Security benefit of $1,070 per month, this means that 2 months’ worth of benefits will be withheld. This can come as a surprise if you’ve been receiving the full benefit and the earnings test is applied at the beginning of the following year, when you don’t receive a check for two months.

After you reach FRA, you’ll get an adjustment to your benefit for the withheld checks. From our example, if you had two months’ worth of benefits withheld during the 3 years before the year you’ll reach FRA, you will receive credit for the months of withheld benefits. At FRA your benefit will be adjusted as if you had filed 6 months (3 years times 2 months) later than you actually filed. So if you originally filed at age 62, your benefit will be adjusted as if you filed at 62 years and 6 months, an increase of 2.5%.

In the year that you reach FRA (but before you actually turn 66) the earnings test is much more liberal: the limit is $41,880. Plus the rule is that for every $3 over the limit, $1 is withheld from your benefits. The rule is actually applied on a monthly basis, at the rate of $3,490 per month for partial years ($1,310 for the years before you reach FRA).

*So what earnings are counted? Only earnings from employment or self-employment are counted toward the earnings tests. There is a rather long list of income types that do not count toward the earnings test – here’s a brief rundown of non-counted earnings (only for Social Security earnings test, not for income taxation):

  • deferred income (based on services performed before becoming entitled to Social Security benefits)
  • court awards, including back-pay from an employer
  • disability insurance payments
  • pensions
  • retirement pay
  • real estate rental income (if not considered self-employment, i.e., the individual did not materially participate in the production of the income)
  • interest and dividends
  • capital gains
  • worker’s compensation or unemployment benefits
  • jury duty pay
  • reimbursed travel or moving expenses as an employee
  • royalties – only exempted in the year you will reach FRA, otherwise royalties are counted toward the earnings test

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