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Farrell: 'Do-over' for Social Security more restrictive

  • Article by: CHRIS FARRELL
  • September 8, 2012 - 3:29 PM

Q Back a few years ago, I cut out an article you wrote for the Star Tribune. It was titled "Social Security benefits can be restarted at higher amounts." The article states that all I have to do is reapply and get the bigger payments that go to those who wait to collect. I realize that I must pay back the benefits that I have already received.

I started taking my Social Security when I was 62 and I am 65 now. I would like to do what that article says I can do so I can receive the full benefit when I'm 66. However, I was told by someone in the Social Security office in St. Cloud that the law has changed and can no longer do this. Please help me.

DAN

A Ah, the Social Security do-over I described several years ago -- repay and reapply -- was too good to last.

In essence, if you retired early and took a reduced monthly benefit, you could change your mind, reapply, and get the bigger payments that go to those who wait to collect benefits. After filling out the paperwork you would write the government a check covering the benefits you've been paid, but without interest or adjusting for inflation. You would then get the higher benefit.

Of course, it was a limited tactic since you had to have the savings to make the strategy work.

Still, the folks at Social Security were concerned that the maneuver would gain in popularity so the do-over option has been dramatically narrowed. Retirees can now withdraw their application for Social Security benefits only once during their lifetime and only within 12 months of when they began receiving benefits. In other words, the do-over option is no longer available once the 12-month deadline has passed.

You might want to consider another option that's available to you once you reach your full retirement age and before age 70. You can suspend taking your Social Security benefit and reapply later.

The advantage of suspending your benefit is that you accumulate delayed retirement credits, which allows you to collect more when you reapply, said Laurence Kotlikoff, economist at Boston University and creator of ESPlanner, the online financial planning company.

Should you do the suspension? You have a year to figure out whether it's a smart financial move for you.

The calculation involves looking into the improvement in benefits, the effect on spousal benefits (if it applies), the draw on your savings while your Social Security check is suspended, and so on.

Two online financial planning websites with good Social Security information for you to check out are Kotlikoff's ESPlanner.com and Henry Hebeler's Analyzenow.com. The underlying philosophies behind these two websites is very different with Kotlikoff emphasizing spending and Hebeler savings. Yet both are comprehensive and useful, offering a number of free and fee-based options.

One thing I have learned from Kotlikoff over the years talking about the personal finances of Social Security is that there is nothing easy about figuring out the smart way to take your benefits.

"I couldn't believe how complicated is Social Security," Kotlikoff said.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." His e-mail is cfarrell@mpr.org.

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