Changes to Social Security Claiming Strategies

The Budget Act of 2015 makes changes to Social Security claiming strategies involving "restricted applications" or taking spouse benefits only while letting one's own benefits grow.

1) Until now, a married person between 62 and full retirement age (FTA) who claimed spouse benefits was also deemed to have applied for all benefits to which he/she was entitled, while those who had reached FTA could take spouse benefits only (restricted application).

Under the changed rule, even people who apply at their FTA and above will be deemed to have applied for all benefits to which they are entitled. The only way to let benefits grow (until age 70) will be to delay starting them entirely.

The change will apply to all those who turned 62 after December 31, 2015.

2) A second previous provision allowed the “primary earner” of a couple, in which both partners had reached FTA, to apply for benefits and suspend them. This gave the other partner access to spouse benefits while letting the primary earner's benefits continue to grow (up to age 70).

This so-called file-and-suspend option will expire April 29, 2016. Couples already using file-and-suspend will be grandfathered and couples in which both partners are at least FTA will be able to apply for file-and-suspend by the expiration date, April 29.

The above information should not be considered as advice and individuals should consult with Social Security or professional advisers.

AARO Social Security Seminar

On October 14, 2014, AARO hosted a seminar on U.S. Social Security, organized by longstanding AARO Social Security Chair Tom Rose and prepared by a panel from the American Embassy: Hanna Maija Haramo-Defranchi, Operations Supervisor; Pierre Sacrispeyre, Claims Representative; Mary Puse, Service Representative; and Sheela Saint Ange, Claims Representative.  The four are with the Federal Benefits Unit in Paris, part of the Frankfurt region which, with London, Manila, Mexico City, Rome and San Jose, is overseen by the Office of International Operations (Baltimore).  The panel, coordinated by long-term AARO Social Security Chair Tom Rose, covered a number of issues important to overseas citizens:

MySocial Security online provides an easy way to apply for benefits when you reach retirement age.  It:

  • estimates retirement and disability benefits
  • estimates family benefits if you die
  • provides an earnings record
  • gives estimated Social Security and Medicare taxes paid
  • provides a printable version of your Social Security Statement

While it is a new and user-friendly service, it may not be available to all AARO members because users must be 18 and have:

  • a valid E-mail address;
  • a Social Security number; and
  • a valid U.S. mailing address (including DPO/APO)

They also discussed the “right” age to retire in order to plan for optimum benefits in individual situations.  As in most countries, it has become necessary to work longer to receive full benefits (those born in 1960 or later reach full U.S. retirement age at 67).

For example, if the claimant was born between '43 and '54 (eligible for full retirement at 66)  and retires at:

  • age 62 he/she will receive 75% benefits
  • age 66 – 100% benefits
  • age 70 -  132% benefits

i.e. you will receive a higher monthly payment if you work past full retirement age.

Many do not realize they can work and still receive benefits (if they retire under the “full retirement” age, they must work less than 45 h/month; if at or after “full retirement age”, there is no limit)

While the panel frequently stressed the fact that they stand ready to help in person at the embassy, they also reminded us it is easy to apply online:

Medicare generally does not cover health services received outside the United States. Part A becomes available to you, however, if you return to the United States.  No monthly premium is withheld from your benefit payment for this protection.

If you want Part B, however, you must enroll. If you do, Social Security will normally withhold a monthly premium from your payment.

Because Medicare benefits are available only in the United States, it may not be to your advantage to sign up and pay the premium for medical insurance if you will be out of the United States for a long period of time.

The panel cautioned, however that when you do sign up, you will pay a 10 percent higher premium for each 12-month period you could have been enrolled but were not.  (AARO advocates that this “penalty” be eliminated for those who have been enrolled in foreign complementary health plans.)  AARO has an opinion in our Social Security files from Eileen Terry, former Director of Federal Benefits for Western Europe, that enrollment in a complementary health plan (e.g.: a “mutuelle” in France) qualifies as a private insurance program offered by an employer and thus prevents imposition of the 10% penalty.  However, AARO has not yet received confirmation of the application of this exemption to a real case.

Social Security Retirement estimator

This is a convenient, secure, and quick financial planning tool.  It provides immediate and accurate benefit estimates, letting you create “What if” scenarios based on different ages and earnings.

It can be accessed at

WEP or Windfall Elimination Provision

If you work for a federal, state, or local government agency, a nonprofit organization or in another country, you may be eligible for a pension based on earnings not covered by Social Security.  Such a pension can adversely affect the amount of your U.S. Social Security benefit.  The Social Security Administration does not know whether you are eligible for such a pension, and the benefit estimates you have received may not have been adjusted for such a possibility.

There are online WEP calculators to help you estimate your Social Security benefit at

Social Security and taxes

About 1/3 of the people who get Social Security pay income taxes on their benefits.

To learn your situation, visit the Benefit Planner for “Income Taxes and Your Social Security Benefits” at:

Alien Tax withholding applies to beneficiaries outside the U.S. who are NOT U.S. citizens or U.S. permanent residents.

There is a Nonresident Alien Tax Screening Tool at:

Residents of the following Tax Treaty Countries are not subject to Alien Tax Withholding:

—  Ireland

—  Israel

—  Italy

—  Japan

—  Romania

—  Switzerland

—  United Kingdom

Social Security: We need Allies

The repeal of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) as it applies to American citizens working abroad has been on the AARO agenda for the fifteen years I have chaired the Social Security Committee. This period has seen several initiatives which would have attenuated the mechanical offset which reduces the old-age pension of the overseas American by adversely affecting the computation of his monthly benefit.

The most elegant of these was Congressman Frank’s bill, introduced in 2001, which would have exempted modest combined pensions from the WEP altogether, if the aggregate of U.S. and foreign monthly pensions did not exceed $2000 His proposal shielded these pensions altogether, phased in the WEP offset gradually for amounts between $2,000 and $3,000 and applied the full impact of the WEP to combined pensions exceeding $3,000 per month. Despite AARO and its overseas allies’ support, Representative Frank’s bill did not gain traction in Congress, and staff of the Social Security subcommittee assured me that no progress on this bill could be expected unless companion legislation made up for the loss in receipts produced by the bill. This theme of assuring revenue parity has resurfaced regularly throughout the fifteen-year period.

Another approach was introduced by Congressman Clay Shaw (R. FL), chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee in 2004, whose bill would have replaced the WEP by a complicated formula which would calculate US benefits on the worker’s entire work history (including foreign, non-covered work) and would pay a benefit based on the percentage of his work history that was spent under US social security. As we determined, this bill raised complex issues of assuring that foreign work history was properly recorded and reported and was found not to result in substantial savings for a US worker subject to the WEP. It therefore died in committee.

Since then, bills have regularly been introduced in Congress both in the House and the Senate proposing repeal of the WEP, but they too have stalled in committee. In the opinion of our allies in the CARE Coalition (a Washington, D.C. coalition of unions of police, firemen and state civil servants affected by WEP), repeal legislation has been bottled up by Congressional leadership unwilling to have the issue reach the floor of the House, despite evidence from the number of co-sponsors that passage might be assured if the bill were submitted to a vote.

The disappointing history of recent attempts to repeal WEP requires us to make a frank appraisal of our chances to achieve WEP reform, alone or as an overseas coalition. In my opinion, we can only succeed if we solicit alliances and act in concert with allies like the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the Care Coalition and its sponsor, the National Association of Retired Federal Employees (NARFE), which are able to turn out voters in large numbers and get the attention of Congress. Past contacts with AARP have been cordial but unproductive on this issue. Indeed AARP has yet (to the best of my knowledge) to endorse WEP repeal as one of its objectives. Whether it can be engaged on WEP is uncertain, but constructive contacts for this purpose should be undertaken.

As for the Care Coalition the early promise of a relationship has not been sustained for lack of regular contacts and communication. CARE and its sponsor, NARFE, a lobby located in Washington, has a long history of engaging Congress on the WEP. Let us establish a working relationship with NARFE and see how we can further our common goal. If we succeed in doing so, we’ll benefit from a lever effect which will multiply the force of our efforts and give new impetus to our campaign of repeal.

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