While 2010 was the last year retirees could initiate a gradual Social Security payback, early collectors still have the option to return their benefits within one year and reap the rewards of waiting later on. Despite the enormous increases payees can realize by starting late, 62 is still the most popular age to begin collection. A 2013 US News study showed that 45 percent of men and 50 percent of women born in 1943 or 1944 began collection at 62, and few of those early collectors have changed their minds, paid back their benefits and waited until later in retirement to begin collecting once more.
According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), collecting as early as possible entails a 25% lifetime benefits reduction for retirees born between 1943 and 1954, while waiting until the mandatory distribution age of 70 allows for a 32% increase. “The amount people stand to lose also depends on whether it’s a single individual or a married couple,” said Angela Deppe, CPA and Director of Social Security Central. “But people who lose the most are married couples, and I’ve seen them lose upwards of $200,000, and even my single mother missed out on $116,000.”
Life expectancy is among the most important factors for clients wavering on the decision to pay back benefits or continue their early collections. “If you have a family history of longevity, typically you’ll want to wait or pay back,” said Deppe. Since both penalties and rewards last a lifetime with Social Security, clients in good health almost always stand to gain a great deal by waiting as long as they can.
Working status may also play a role in clients’ decisions, particularly if they’re at the heights of their careers when they reach age 62. While some seniors assume they should “double up” on income by continuing to work as they collect Social Security, the SSA only counts prior years’ earnings, and top-earning early collectors will ultimately face greater reductions and lower calculated benefits than if they’d waited. Fortunately, those clients who are still working are often the most able to pay back their benefits without incurring additional debt.
Finally, some clients assume that they’ll face one or several large expenses early in retirement – or even that Social Security itself will go by the wayside – and they’ll collect earlier than necessary as a result. “My mother collected early out of fear of not having Social Security available,” said Deppe. “It’s a complicated subject overall, but the people at the Social Security offices can’t advise you on what’s best for you.” Ultimately, a simple lack of information leads clients to collect early and miss out on the opportunity to pay back their benefits and start fresh a few years later.
Are there any situations in which healthy, well-off early collectors should stick with their decisions? “I don’t see why anyone should,” Deppe said. While some seniors do spend too much in their first year of collection, just about any client who has the means to pay back their benefits in a lump sum stands to gain. The SSA doesn’t charge fees or interest on benefits received, either, so clients who pay back won’t incur additional costs.
Finally, Deppe isn’t too concerned about future reductions in Social Security payouts, at least not as they apply to early collection decisions. “In terms of Social Security going broke, I don’t foresee that as an issue,” she said. “FDR came up with the program back in the 40s, Reagan most recently increased the full retirement age and I have a feeling there’s going to be some governmental change to make Social Security last. Even if you think it’s going to be less if you wait, it still makes sense to wait if you’re going to live a long time.” Ultimately, even if Congress implements the “chained” CPI, a retirement age increase or other cost-cutting measures, it seems a benefits payback is still the best option for early collectors with long life expectancies.