COVID-19 Update

March 25, 2020

The Office of Hearings Operations is a little chaotic right now.

  1. Telephone Hearings:  I have had one hearing by telephone conference and it is my understanding some of the judges are willing to have telephone hearings.  Any client (currently) has the right to a hearing in person and can elect to have their hearing continued until an in-person hearing can be scheduled.  At least for now.
  2. Postponements:  Some judges do not want to hold telephone hearings and they are canceling hearings for now, to be rescheduled at a later date.
  3. OHO Closed to the Public.  That means me and you.
  4. Social Distancing:  I am not having an in person office appointments at this time due to recommendations made by multiple government agencies including the CDC and WHO.  Call the office if we can help you in any way.  If you need to drop off paperwork, use the dropbox downstairs from the office.  We cannot answer the door but will talk to you through the intercom if possible.

For now, I am still taking new cases and working on all of my cases within the restrictions set up by SSA.  Call me if you have any questions at 904-981-9812 and stay safe.

From the New York Times reader questions:

Is Social Security financially secure? Should people in their 60s who can afford to wait to claim benefits wait until they can get the highest monthly benefit, or should they consider signing up now because the program may not be there in 20 years?

In the years ahead, Social Security does face a financial shortfallthat requires action by Congress. The combined trust funds for Social Security’s retirement and disability programs are on course to be depleted in 2035; without changes, funding from payroll tax receipts will be sufficient to pay only 80 percent of currently scheduled benefits.

That would mean immediate, across-the-board benefit cuts, but the pain would be felt most acutely by today’s younger workers and low-income retirees.

“If policymakers don’t address Social Security’s finance gap by 2035, all Gen Xers and millennials would experience the cuts throughout retirement,” notes Richard W. Johnson, director of the program on retirement policy at the Urban Institute. “An additional one-third of retirees could end up in poverty.”

The shortfall stems primarily from the retirement of baby boomers combined with the slow growth of the labor force, which reduces the ratio of workers paying into the system and beneficiaries. Rising life expectancy also plays a role; so does rising inequality in worker earnings.

When Congress last adjusted the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax in 1977, the intent of lawmakers was to cover 90 percent of all wages. But wages above the cap have grown more quickly than the average wage, so the cap (set this year at $132,900) now covers only 83 percent of wages, reducing taxes flowing into the system.

The projected shortfall is an understandable source of worry, considering the importance of Social Security to most households. But it has no practical, short-term impact on benefits, says Paul Van de Water, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And he thinks the odds of reaching the 2035 doomsday scenario are slim.

“Given the strong public support for the program, it is inconceivable that Congress won’t step in sometime before 2035 and put things on an even keel,” he says. “It’s a source of concern, but not something to lose sleep over.”

Congress could put Social Security back into financial balance with new tax revenues, benefit cuts or a combination of both. The Democratic-controlled House is advancing a plan that would putSocial Security back into balance over the next 75 years by increasing payroll tax rates by 0.1 percentage point annually through 2043, reaching 14.8 percent for that year and later. The bill also would apply payroll taxes to earnings over $400,000, starting in 2020. The bill would expand benefits modestly.

The legislation, sponsored by Representative John B. Larson, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, has 211 co-sponsors in the House.

From the New York Times Reader questions:

I own my own business. Is it possible for me to “pay into” Social Security?

Assuming you are paying self-employment taxes, you already are contributing. The self-employment tax, paid in lieu of the payroll tax that employers split with employees, is 15.3 percent, with 12.4 percent going to Social Security and 2.9 percent to Medicare.

Self-employed people pay double the rate that they would as employees, but can deduct half the cost from income taxes when they calculate their adjusted gross income.

Business owners who are incorporated pay Social Security taxes as employees. More information is available from the I.R.S.

Again from the New York Times reader questions:

How much of my Social Security income will be taxed?

For lower-income retirees, Social Security usually is tax free, while higher-income seniors pay taxes on a sliding scale. No more than 85 percent of your benefit is taxable.

To determine if your benefit is taxable, add up your gross income, nontaxable interest income and half of your Social Security benefit. If that number exceeds $25,000 (for individuals) or $32,000 (joint filers), some portion of your benefit is taxable. For details, see the instructions for completing lines 5(a) and 5(b) of Form 1040 in the Internal Revenue Service’s guide.

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One more reader question from the New York Times:

I am 68, and my Social Security benefit amount is lower than my husband’s because I stayed out of the work force for five years to raise my children — even though he worked fewer years and earned less over all than I did. Has there been any progress in raising benefit amounts for people in my situation?

The responsibility of caring for children, elderly parents or other relatives remains a key reason that women tend to work fewer years than men. That reduces their income from Social Security, pensions and savings.

Caregiver credits are applied by the retirement programs of many industrialized nations, including Britain, Sweden and Germany. In the United States, lawmakers and policy experts have proposed a variety of remedies. One would allow caregivers to exclude more years from the P.I.A. formula; allowing caregivers to exclude five years would increase their benefits. Other plans would provide wage credits to caregivers.

“It would be an imputed income amount for the years when you were providing caregiving,” says Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, an advocacy group, and a member of the Social Security Advisory Board, an independent bipartisan government agency. “This definitely is an issue that has come to the attention of policymakers, and doing something about it has broad support. The question is when we will see some action on it.”

SSA Bill Updates

February 19, 2020

NOSSCR recently provided members with an update on SSA bills pending in Congress:

This article is an update to the previous Forum articles from 2019 regarding Social Security and related bills introduced in the 116th Congress. Lawmakers have introduced some bills that make changes to the Social Security and Supplemental Security Income programs since the last bill update published in the Forum. It is not likely, however, that any of these bills will become law during the 116th Congress given the divided control of the House and the Senate. In fact, these bills are unlikely to have any action taken on them in the remainder of the 116th Congress, especially because very little legislation is usually considered or passed in a presidential election year.

Following is a summary of some of the other Social Security related bills introduced in the House since the last Forum article:

H.R.5380 – Senior Guardianship Social Security Protection Act of 2019: Sponsor: Rep. Charlie Christ (D-FL-13); Cosponsors: 2*; Would amend title II of the Social Security Act to require the Commissioner of Social Security to enter into agreements withStates to share data related to individuals subject to guardianship.

H.R.5446 – Improving Social Security’s Service to Victims of Identity Theft Act: Sponsor: Rep. John Larson (D-CT-1); Cosponsors: 1*; Would amend title VII of the Social Security Act to provide for a single point of contact at the Social Security Administration for individuals who are victims of identity theft.

H.R.5538 – Mandatory Spending Control and Accountability Act: Sponsor: Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL-1); Cosponsors: 0; Would amend the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 to subject certain direct spending programs, including the Social Security Disability Insurance program, to annual appropriations.

H.R. 5576: Sponsor: Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX- 19); Cosponsors: 4; Would amend title II of the Social Security Act to prevent concurrent receipt of unemployment benefits and Social Security disability insurance by deeming the receipt of unemployment insurance to be substantial gainful activity.

H.R.5577 – No Social Security for Illegal Aliens Act of 2020: Sponsor: Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL-5); Cosponsors: 10; Would amend title II of the Social Security Act to exclude from creditable wages and self-employment income wages earned for services by aliens illegally performed in the United States and self-employment income derived from a trade or business illegally conducted in the United States.

H.R.5630 – Documents for Continued Safety Act of 2020: Sponsor: Rep. Charlie Christ (D-FL-13); Cosponsors: 1*; Would require that the Social Security Administration pay fees associated with obtaining birth certificate or State identification card for purposes of obtaining a replacement social security card for certain victims of domestic violence.

H.R. 5364: Sponsor: Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN- 2); Cosponsors: 0; Would amend title II of the Social Security Act to require that past-due social security benefits be paid prior to the payment of representative fees.

* Indicates cosponsors are bipartisan

What Are Spousal Benefits?

February 12, 2020

The New York Times recently published common questions about Social Security benefits and their response.

Could you provide a full explanation of “spousal benefits” for living spouses, and for widows, widowers and divorced people?

The spousal benefit is available to couples who have been married at least one year. It allows one partner to claim a benefit as high as 50 percent of the benefit at full retirement age of his or her spouse — so long as that spouse has already claimed benefits. That requirement often trips up people hoping to generate some income while the higher-earning spouse puts off claiming benefits to earn delayed retirement credits.

“It’s one of the most misunderstood things that we see,” says Elaine Floyd, director of retirement and life planning for Horsesmouth, a firm that trains financial advisers.

If you claim a spousal benefit at your own full retirement age, the benefit will be equal to 50 percent of your spouse’s benefit. You can claim a spousal benefit as early as age 62, but your benefit will be reduced for early claiming.

If you are entitled to a spousal benefit when you file, in most cases you must file for both your own and your spousal benefit simultaneously. You’ll be paid your own benefit first; a spousal benefit amount will be added if your own benefit is less than half of your spouse’s total. Filing means that you will no longer accrue delayed retirement credits.

People born before Jan. 2, 1954, can still file for a “restricted claim” of only their spousal benefit. They were grandfathered into rules in place before passage of the Budget Act of 2015. This provision allows them to receive a spousal benefit while building delayed retirement credits on their own account, until age 70.

In most cases, widows or widowers can receive a survivor benefit when a spouse dies, providing they were married at least nine months at the time of death. The survivor benefit is equal to 100 percent of the deceased spouse’s benefit.

Many divorced people are surprised to learn that they can file for a spousal benefit on the record of an ex-spouse. To qualify, you must be single and have been previously married to your ex at least 10 years. You also cannot be receiving a benefit greater than your divorced spouse’s benefit. If the ex is 62 or older and the divorce occurred over two years earlier, the ex does not need to have filed for his or her benefit.

Eligibility for an ex’s benefit is lost if you remarry, and you can’t file for benefits on your new spouse’s earnings record until you’ve been married to that person at least one year.

If your ex-spouse is deceased, you may be able to claim a divorced-spouse survivor benefit. The rules are basically the same except that you can be remarried as long as you remarried after age 60.

Spousal benefits were made available to same-sex married couples after the landmark 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act.
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