Working and Collecting Social Security Benefits

For most Americans, Social Security plays an important role in maintaining retirement security. The benefit payments represent an income stream that is free of default, investment, inflation and longevity (outliving your money) risks.

For decades, Americans have taken comfort from knowing that no matter what else happened with their retirement savings, they would be able to get Social Security benefits when they stopped working. Even better, the benefit grows with inflation and continues for as long as the person or their spouse lives, explains the article “How working changes your Social Security benefits” from The Sun.

Workers and spouses who qualify for Social Security have the option of starting to receive benefits at any time from age 62 to 70. Benefits received before reaching Full Retirement Age (FRA) will be smaller than those received after a worker reaches their FRA. These amounts are worked out in a series of complex calculations by actuaries to ensure that everyone receives their fair share. If you retire later, after FRA, the monthly benefit will be higher. If you wait until age 70, the monthly benefit will have reached its maximum level.

Less well understood is the effect of continuing to work, while collecting Social Security benefits. You can decide to stay in the workforce and apply for benefits. However, if you claim benefits before your FRA and your income exceeds certain levels, there’s a reduction in the full monthly benefit that you would otherwise receive.

This is known as the Retirement Earnings Test, or RET. It does not apply to earnings from investments and pensions, but it does apply to earned income.

Someone who will be younger than their FRA during the entire calendar year will lose $1 in benefits for every $2 they earn above $18,240 in 2020. There was a $600 increase from the 2019 earnings test.

For every two dollars you earn above $18,240, Social Security will deduct one dollar from your benefits. However, the money that is withheld will be added back into your benefits when you reach FRA.

Let’s say you earn $20,240 in 2020 and you’re 62 years old. You’ll temporarily give up $1,000 in benefits for going $2,000 over the earnings limit test. However, you will get it back.

What if you are reaching FRA in 2020? The earnings test limit is $48,600 in 2021, a jump of $1,680 from the 2019 limit of $46,920. In this situation, once your earnings reach $48,600 in 2020, $1 in benefits will be withheld from every $3 you earn.

The typical response to learning how the RET works, is that it’s a harsh penalty and why work at all?

Some people stop working altogether or work less to avoid the penalty. That is a mistake. By continuing to work, once a person does reach FRA, Social Security increases the monthly benefit amount for the rest of the person’s life. Any benefits lost in earlier years are recouped. Think of it as a rescheduling of payments, from pre-FRA to post-FRA. It’s not a penalty, but another means of saving for the time when you are not working.

Reference: The Sun (June 21, 2020) “How working changes your Social Security benefits”

Suggested Key Terms: Social Security, Benefits, Full Retirement Age, FRA, Retirement Earnings Test, RET

About the author

Bob Brumfield

Attorney Bob Brumfield has been practicing law since 1984 and regularly receives the “Top Lawyers in California” award as well as the “Client Distinction” and “Client Champion” awards from Martindale-Hubbell.

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