Dear Rusty: Does tax filing status matter when calculating how much you can earn without a reduction in your monthly SS payout? My wife and I have filed a joint income tax return for years. My wife is working and I’m 62 and wondering – if I start drawing SS, does the earnings limit only relate to what I earn, or does it include what my wife earns as well? Is the earnings limit tied to our IRS filing status? I need to know if I should file my taxes as a single to be sure my wife’s earnings are not combined with mine to affect my Social Security payment. Also, I’ve read that it’s recommended to register online with SS if you’re 62. As I understand it, this should be done even if one’s not intending to start benefits yet. Is this true? What are the benefits for doing this? Does it make for a quicker start of payments once the election to start benefits is made? Would it help my wife should I die prior to starting my benefits? Signed: Wondering
Dear Wondering: Income tax filing status doesn’t matter when it comes to determining if your earnings from work exceed Social Security “earnings limit.” If you collect SS before you reach your full retirement age (FRA), your wife’s earnings from working will not be counted toward your personal SS earnings limit. The earnings test looks only at your personal earnings and, if you exceed the limit, SS will take back some of your benefits. But only your personal earnings – as reported on your W-2 or Self-Employment tax return – count. If you’re not working, then your Social Security benefits will not be affected by the earnings test, even if you file a joint return which has an Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) which is more than the annual earnings limit because your wife works.
As for your second question: it is not necessary, nor would it gain you any advantage, to “register” with Social Security before you are ready to claim your benefits. Indeed, Social Security does not even provide you with a way to do that. What they do provide is a way for you to create your own personal “My Social Security” online account, which gives you access to all of the online features provided by the Social Security Administration, including allowing you to apply for your benefits online (the fastest way to claim) whenever you’re ready to do that.
Having an online SS account doesn’t provide you with any benefit advantage, but it allows you to monitor your lifetime earnings record, get a replacement SS card if needed, and get estimates of your current and future Social Security benefits to help you decide when to claim. You can create your personal “My Social Security” account by going to www.ssa.gov/myaccount. They use a “two-factor” security process, which means you’ll not only need to set up a password but also a second way to confirm your identity (usually via a code sent to a text-enabled cell phone or your email account). But, even if you have this online account pre-established, your wife will still need to contact Social Security directly to claim her survivor benefit if you predeceased her. Survivor benefits must be applied for by the surviving spouse directly contacting Social Security.
Russell Gloor is an Association of Mature American Citizens certified social security advisor. To submit a question, visit amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory or email email@example.com.