Last year, an economist and two journalists wrote a book on a nerdy and incredibly complicated topic: Social Security claiming strategies.
Would anyone want to read it? Simon & Schuster wasn’t sure, and initially printed just 10,000 copies of Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security, by Laurence Kotlikoff, Philip Moeller, and Paul Solman.
It was a big success. Maybe too big.
There are now more than 300,000 copies in print, making it one of the best-selling business books of 2015. Inside a bold green cover, Get What’s Yours explained the many ways retirees could squeeze more out of Social Security. The authors’ basic advice was patience. Social Security rewards Americans who wait as long as possible to claim their benefits. By claiming at age 70 rather than at 62, retirees can boost their inflation-adjusted income by 76 percent.
But the book also explained some obscure strategies that even many Social Security employees weren’t aware of. One, called “file and suspend,” let Americans receive spousal benefits, based on their husband’s or wife’s work history, without tapping their own benefits early. Another let retirees change their minds about when to file. They could delay taking their benefits and then, if they got sick or had an emergency, get their past benefits paid in a lump sum.
For better or worse, Washington policymakers were apparently among the many readers of Get What’s Yours. In a budget deal reached in October, Congress killed the file-and-suspend and lump-sum options, calling them unintended loopholes. Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University, says he’s been told by senior officials at the Social Security Administration that his book was the catalyst.
“That doesn’t make me feel happy or proud,” he said in an interview. While some could argue file-and-suspend allowed a kind of double-dipping, Kotlikoff says the provisions were changed with no hearings, no public debate, and no sign that the legislation’s drafters had considered the full consequences.
Initially, the bill would have cut off benefits from current users of the file-and-suspend strategy. That was changed at the last minute after Kotlikoff and others loudly complained. The law still cuts off retirees in their early to mid-60s who had been planning on those strategies but are now, just barely, too young to qualify.
“You don’t pull the rug out from people,” Kotlikoff said. “It’s just unfair.”
When President Barack Obama signed the legislation, on Nov. 2, it set off a scramble by Kotlikoff and his co-authors. Using the book’s website and Kotlikoff’s online column, they got the word out that certain Americans had one last chance to take advantage of the expiring provisions. The deadline for contacting the Social Security Administration is the end of the month, and Kotlikoff advises doing so online by Friday.
And they realized their book needed to be updated as soon as possible.
“We felt bad after the changes, because the book was not correct,” said co-author Moeller. Simon & Schuster, a unit of CBS Corp., could put out a new edition as early as May, but only if they wrote quickly. “We were burning the candles at both ends for a while,” Moeller said.
“The three of us almost killed each other,” Kotlikoff said.
Much of the new book, which comes out May 3, needed a total rewrite. By changing a few of Social Security’s 2,728 core rules, Congress had changed the calculus for millions of retirees.