Retirees beware: Here are 4 highly common ways you can lose or reduce your Social Security benefits — and how to protect yourself now

·5 min read
Retirees beware: Here are 4 highly common ways you can lose or reduce your Social Security benefits — and how to protect yourself now
Retirees beware: Here are 4 highly common ways you can lose or reduce your Social Security benefits — and how to protect yourself now

Many Americans rightfully worry that their retirements depend too much on Social Security. But what happens when even a fully solvent Social Security program is less of an option or even no option at all?

There’s plenty of debate about the future of Social Security, and depending on who you believe, Social Security will be around indefinitely or run dry around 2035.

Proposed legislation would push the Social Security Administration’s projected depletion to 2052, with some proposals extending it further or even increasing benefits. It’s unclear if any of the proposals could reach law.

But there are also a few unnerving scenarios in which Social Security disappears or is drastically reduced for many Americans — not by political neglect, but because of simple yet avoidable errors by would-be benefit recipients.

Yes, it’s possible to accidentally lose some or all of your Social Security benefits. For a wide swath of Americans who already don’t save enough for a comfortable retirement, the consequences could be devastating.

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Social (in)security

The Social Security Administration expects that in 2035, the program will owe more in scheduled benefits that it collects. Payments could be reduced to 75%, the SSA report said, cutting into a centerpiece of many Americans’ income in their retirement years.

In 2021, an average of 65 million Americans per month received a Social Security benefit, with more than a trillion dollars paid during the year. But a timebomb hides in the numbers.

While financial planners have long warned aging Americans against counting on Social Security as a primary income source, increasing numbers of seniors do exactly that.

The SSA believes roughly half of the U.S. population aged 65 or older live in households that get at least half their income from Social Security; about a quarter of aged households get at least 90 percent of their income from the program, the agency says.

Whether Social Security accounts for the majority share of one’s income, or even a small but still important slice, ignoring Congressional politics and safeguarding it on a personal level is critical.

Losing some or all of one’s benefits to a red-tape error, or a miscalculation, seems unthinkable, right? Think again.

Key ways you can lose benefits

Most of the avoidable Social Security pitfalls are tied to itchy trigger fingers.

Filing for Social Security too early: The full retirement age (FRA) is slowly rising, from 66 and 4 months for people born in 1956 to 66 and six months for those born in 1957 and, ultimately, 67 for people born in 1960 or later. Claiming benefits too early unleashes two big penalties: They reduce your amount, and that lesser amount is locked in.

For someone with an FRA of 67 who decides to file for benefits at age 62, that person would see a reduction of roughly a third of their benefits. The only way to undo the reduction is to withdraw your claim and pay back any early benefits.

Earnings limit adjustment: This adjustment — based on a calculation to claw back money for higher earners who are also tapping Social Security benefits — can result in significant reductions in monthly benefits until FRA.

If you are earning money but taking Social Security before hitting FRA, you’d lose $1 in benefits for every $2 earned over the cap, which is currently $19,560.

A part-time job that pays $25,000 a year puts a Social Security recipient $5,440 above the cap — resulting in a loss of $2,720 in benefits. The clawbacks go away, however, once you hit FRA.

The shield around Social Security isn’t exactly bulletproof: Plenty of creditors — such as doctors and hospitals, or even credit card companies — can’t touch social security benefits as a way of recovering debt.

Those protections fall away, however, when it comes to satisfying government— or court-sanctioned debts, such as IRS tax bills, child support or alimony payments, or victim restitution judgments.

Getting scammed out of your benefits: A chilling 2018 study by Javelin Research found that Social Security numbers were targeted more by hackers than credit card numbers, with hackers posing as real beneficiaries to claim Social Security funds. This is one scenario in which waiting invites risk: If a victim delays filing for benefits, the theft might go undiscovered for years.

One way to guard against theft is by creating and actively monitoring a mySocialSecurity account at SSA.gov.

More broadly, all of these risks can be addressed by consulting a financial planner who understands the Social Security program and can advise you about all kinds of scenarios, and their impacts on your monthly benefits.

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This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.