Social Security benefits include a surprising array of payments beyond your own retirement benefit. As I wrote last week, these so-called auxiliary benefits, which are geared to your earnings record, may provide income to your spouse (or former spouse), your children and even your parents. If you’re disabled, yet another set of Social Security benefits to your present and former family members may kick in.
This is, overall, a good deal. (And it's a reason why delaying your own benefits is a thoughtful way to increase benefits to your loved ones.) But there is a big, big catch—it’s called the Family Maximum Benefit (FMB). This rule limits total Social Security payments to you and any eligible family members to a percentage of your own Social Security benefit. And it’s arguably one of the most tricky aspects of figuring out the best Social Security claiming strategy for you and your family.
Basically the FMB limits total payments to you and eligible family members to a total of 150% to 187% of the payments you alone would receive. It thus sets a ceiling on total family benefits—often, a very low ceiling. Here's how it works:
Let’s say your spouse applies for spousal benefits based on your earnings and the payout is equal to 50% of your retirement benefit. Already we’re up to 150% of your retirement benefit. Now let's say you have other family members who qualify for benefits—perhaps dependent children—who add another 150%, for a total of 200% on top of your payout. In all, these payments would cost Social Security 300% of your benefit.
This is where the the FMB ceiling comes in. If your FMB is 175% of your retirement benefit, then the rule will require the agency to reduce everyone’s benefit (except yours, which cannot be reduced) to a total of 75% of your benefit. Your family members will have to take nearly a two-thirds’ haircut in their benefits.
For those who want to get deeper into Social Security math—the rest of you can skip ahead—the FMB ceiling is based on what’s called your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). This is the monthly retirement benefit you would receive if you started payments at what’s known as the Full Retirement Age (FRA), which is age 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954. (The FRA then will rise by two months a year for those born between 1955 and 1959, finally settling at 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later.) If your PIA is projected to be $2,500 in a few years, and you're using this number for making auxiliary benefit decisions, here's the way this year's FMB formula would work:
- 150% of the first $1,042 of your PIA (or $1,563);
- 272% of the PIA between $1,042 through $1,505 (or $1,259);
- 134% of the PIA over $1,505 through $1,962 (or $612); and,
- 175% of the PIA over $1,962 (or $942).
The sum of these four numbers—$4,376—is the FMB for monthly benefits for all Social Security claims based on your earnings record. It equals 175% of your PIA. There is a separate formula covering FMBs for disabled persons, and it can produce very small benefits for lower-income claimants.
Is there a way around the FMB ceiling? Yes, but only if your family is flexible. Since the FMB limits apply to total benefits being collected on your earnings record in a given year, consider staggering the timing of your family's claims. That way, they may be able to stay under the ceiling.
Here's one example: Say you have a spouse and younger children who qualify for benefits. If your FMB would seriously reduce all these benefits, it might be best for your husband or wife to hold off on claiming the spousal benefit and take the child benefits only. The amount of money your family receives might not drop much, if at all. And the child benefits likely will expire anyway when the kids are older. Your spouse can make a claim at a later date, when the benefit also may have risen in value, depending on your age and the age of your significant other. Clearly, when it comes to strategizing benefits, Social Security is a family affair.
Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is an award-winning business journalist and a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.