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Social Security Explained 09.07.2021

Imagine you are offered a job, and you are counting on it to provide income for you and your family for many, many years. But you didn’t ask about 1.) starting date, 2.) salary, nor 3.) benefits.

Now, change “job” to “Social Security” and you get a sense of the general lack of knowledge many Americans have about this bedrock retirement income stream.

Are you, or will you be, eligible for Social Security benefits? Do you have concerns about the solvency of the Social Security system? Are you confused about when to start taking your social security benefit—about whether to take it early or wait? Are there things you don’t understand about spousal benefits? You aren’t alone.

Towerpoint Wealth is a boutique wealth management firm in downtown Sacramento. In this post, Towerpoint’s CEO, Joseph Eschleman, will help you answer these important questions about your social security benefits.

Social Security is an essential retirement income stream for many Americans, and it is also a confusing, complicated, and evolving system, one that is next to impossible to properly navigate without a complete and thorough understanding of the rules. Importantly, knowing when to take Social Security —claiming your Social Security benefits at the RIGHT TIME—means SIGNIFICANTLY more money in your pocket.

With this post, we seek to accomplish three things: 1.) social security explained 2.) review a number of important yet oftentimes misunderstood filing strategies, and 3.) discuss what lies in store for the future of the $2.9 TRILLION Social Security trust fund.

Social Security Benefits 101

Back in 1935, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, creating a social insurance program designed to give older Americans an additional income stream in retirement. Current American workers pay Social Security taxes to provide benefits to those who are eligible to receive Social Security right now.

Typically, the amount you receive from Social Security will increase or decrease based on when you elect to claim your benefit, relative to what is known as your FRA, or full retirement age. When you were born will determine what your FRA is. If you were born between 1943-1954, your FRA is 66. If you were born after 1954 but before 1960, the FRA gradually climbs from 66 towards 67, based on the year you were born, increasing two months every year. For example, if you were born in 1956, your FRA would be 66 + four months. Lastly, and much more simply, if you were born in 1960 and beyond, your FRA is 67.

To be eligible for Social Security benefits, you must earn a minimum of 40 “credits” throughout your working career. You can earn up to four credits a year, so it takes a minimum of 10 full years of work to qualify for Social Security.

Your specific Social Security benefit is computed based on the 35 calendar years in which you earned the MOST money. You can increase your Social Security benefit at any time by replacing a low, or zero, income year with a year in which you earned a higher income. Importantly, Social Security benefits do have a maximum, depending on the age you retire. For someone at full retirement age (or FRA), the maximum monthly benefit is $3,113 in 2021. If you wait until age 70 to file, the maximum monthly Social Security benefit amount is $3,895.

Social Security protects you against inflation through what are known as cost of living adjustments, or COLAs, which help beneficiaries keep up with ever-increasing living expenses. This inflation protection is extremely valuable, especially in today’s inflationary environment. While the Social Security COLA for 2021 was “only” 1.3%, many estimate that the COLA in 2022 could be higher than 6%!

When to Take Social Security – Social Security Explained

Now that you better understand how Social Security works, let’s discuss optimizing when and how to take it. Many people have multiple sources of income in retirement, which can impact the decision about when to claim Social Security. This is an extremely important decision, and here at Towerpoint Wealth, it is one that we work closely with our clients to get right, as there are a myriad of variables, rules, and assumptions that must be accounted for when developing a customized strategy for yourself.

You are allowed to begin collecting Social Security as early as age 62, but taking your benefit early will result in a major haircut, reducing your benefit by as much as 25 or 30% as compared to waiting until you reach your FRA. Obviously waiting until your full retirement age will result in receiving 100% of your earned benefits, but importantly, you can also choose to delay claiming your Social Security benefit, all the way to age 70 if you would like.

Should I wait to take Social Security?

There is a big economic incentive to waiting, as your monthly Social Security benefit will grow an additional 8% (!) a year until age 70. Add in any cost of living adjustments, which also are included if you wait, and the financial incentive to delay claiming Social Security becomes even greater. With certain Towerpoint Wealth clients, we will set up a supplemental, or “bridge income” plan, and have you temporarily withdraw more money from your nest egg for just a few years to allow your Social Security benefit time to grow larger. Additionally, waiting to claim your Social Security income can benefit your heirs, as a higher earning spouse can ensure their lower-earning spouse will receive a higher survivor benefit in the event the higher-earning spouse dies first. Not always fun to talk or think about, but life throws us lots of twists and turns that need to be considered.

Some individuals implement what is known as a “split strategy” in which the higher wage earner waits to take their benefit, but the lower wage earner claims their Social Security early, getting cash flowing into the household sooner, and yet ensuring that whoever outlives the other will receives the highest possible survivor benefit.

Children, family, and divorcee benefits

Additionally, unmarried children can receive Social Security benefits if they are younger than age 18, or between 18 and 19 and a full time student, or 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22. To get benefits, a child must have a parent who is disabled or retired and entitled to Social Security benefits; or a parent who died after having worked long enough in a job where they paid Social Security taxes. Benefits stop when your child reaches age 18 unless your child is a student or disabled.

Within a family, a child can receive up to half of the parent’s full retirement or disability benefit. If a child receives Survivors benefits, he or she can get up to 75 percent of the deceased parent’s basic Social Security benefit.

Widows and widowers are also eligible for Social Security benefits, as are divorcees. Just like a regular spousal benefit, you can get up to 50% of your ex-spouse’s benefit, or less if you claim early, before full retirement age.

Is your head spinning yet??

You can reverse your Social Security claim

Complicating things further, you can always “take a mulligan” and undo a Social Security claiming decision, and while Social Security benefits were tax free prior to 1984, they aren’t anymore, and you will have to pay federal taxes on your Social Security benefit. For those who are upper middle income or upper income, 85% of a security benefit is taxable, and 15% is tax free. Additionally, 13 states also assess state income taxes on benefits.

Social Security Solutions

Now, it is no secret that the Social Security system is stressed and is facing challenges. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing record-high unemployment, coupled with many people retiring or changing careers, there are fewer people paying into the system now than ever, and estimates that Social Security will run out of funds even faster than projected even two years ago have created large concerns.

However, it is very important to realize that changes to the system have occurred regularly since its birth in 1935, and politicians, while reticent to make difficult decisions until they absolutely have to, have consistently drafted legislation to address these Social Security financial problems and economic shortfalls. And here at Towerpoint Wealth, we feel that our elected leaders have quite a few options at their disposal: 1.) Increasing the Social Security, or FICA, payroll tax. Currently, each worker pays 6.2% and the employer also pays 6.2%, for a 12.4% total payroll tax. Increasing this tax, while not popular, is always an option to shore up the system. 2.) Increasing the FRA, or full retirement age, for younger workers, has historical precedent and could be politically attractive to provide economic support to the Social Security system. 3.) Instead of tying Social Security COLA benefit increases to the consumer price index, or CPA, the government could make a shift to what is known as the “Chained CPI,” which reduces the amount a benefit will go up over time, and 4.) our politicians could always increase the earnings CAP on Social Security taxes.

Currently, the limit on the amount of earnings subject to Social Security taxes is $142,800. If the cap were fully removed, the Social Security system would be fully solvent. President Biden’s tax plan proposes a donut hole for Social Security taxes, where the first $142,800 is taxed, as well as any income over $400,000. Needless to say, it remains to be seen what solutions will be implemented, but fortunately the government has a number of arrows in its quiver to address these shortfalls. Bottom line – if you want to take Social Security early, we strongly encourage you to consider two things: 1. “The system is going bankrupt” is a poor reason for doing so, and 2. The pay raise that you earn by waiting is compelling.

Reach out to Discuss a Sound Social Security Strategy

Ensuring that you have a sound and well thought out Social Security claiming strategy can literally mean hundreds of thousands of additional dollars in benefits in your pocket. Please share this article with your friends who are thinking about Social Security. And please, email us at to begin a conversation about developing an optimized strategy for you, to determine the best year and month for you and/or your spouse to begin claiming your Social Security benefit.

Joseph Eschleman Joseph Eschleman