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White House Budget May Curb Social Security Maximization Strategies

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President Obama’s proposed budget features a controversial measure that may curb the use of delayed collections, spousal piggybacking and other strategies that retirees often use to maximize their Social Security benefits. The specific language of this proposal reads, “In addition, the budget proposes to eliminate aggressive Social Security-claiming strategies, which allow upper-income beneficiaries to manipulate the timing of collection of Social Security benefits in order to maximize delayed retirement credits,” according to published reports.

This wording leaves much open to interpretation, however, and advisers and their clients are struggling to determine the effects the proposal may have on their collection strategies. “Because the logic around suspend and delay and restricted application is so complicated and confounded with other rules, it’s unlikely that a simple and quick change can even be implemented,” said Bill Meyer, founder and managing principle of Social Security Solutions. “It seems like it’s directed at the affluent, and that it would require means testing. The big question is who exactly stands to lose.”

Some also consider the proposal untimely given the Obama administration’s stated goal of reducing the deficit in the near term. “The irony is that these aggressive claiming strategies usually involve a delay, so actually less money is taken out of this year’s budget,” Meyer said. While reducing the use of file-and-suspend and other maximization strategies might lead to reduced Social Security costs in a decade or more, disallowing them in the near term would simply contribute more to the deficit in the now.

In addition to confusion over how and why this vaguely-worded proposal will be implemented, it remains to be seen when it will be put into place at all. The last two major changes to Social Security occurred in 1977 and 1983, and each took roughly 17 years to implement. Simpler alterations such as the removal of the do-over provision happened far more quickly, but the budget’s language describes a change that may require a yet-to-be-created infrastructure for means testing. “This is exactly like taxation,” Meyer said. “Things become more complex whenever people say they’re going to simplify. There has to be more guidance and a significant amount of analysis, and because the government doesn’t have any of its own tools to help its agents deliver switching strategies, it seems unlikely they’ll come up with a fair way.”

Ultimately, though, these historical precedents show that current and soon-to-be retirees may not have much to worry about with regards to this budget’s proposal. “There are actually over 30 proposals to change Social Security,” Meyer said, “and only about four are actually popular and viable: the chained CPI, means testing, changing the retirement age and increasing payroll taxes. Of those four, changing the retirement age and increasing payroll taxes are the most likely.” Given these strategies’ relative simplicity and popularity, their potential implementation should impact advisers’ and their clients’ decisions more than still undefined income requirements for specific collection strategies.

For advisers who are still worried over the budget’s Social Security proposal, “The impact on planning is that unfortunately you’re bringing in more uncertainty to a situation where advisers need to provide a framework for a strategy. My advice would still be to run through different claiming options and also have a discussion about how these impending changes might impact someone,” Meyer said. “Maybe set up a situation where every year a client reevaluates their strategy in light of the changing landscape. If you don’t run the details, people tend to do nothing.” For clients who’ve seen this proposal and have become even more uneasy over the future of Social Security, preventing them from fearfully collecting early and sabotaging their financial futures is key.