It seems that Social Security questions beget more Social Security questions.
In response to a query last month on the right timing to take Social Security benefits, a reader named William sent me an e-mail with his own retirement issue.
William wrote that he applied for disability benefits in December 2007, but something was wrong with his application, and it didn't get started. He found that out later through a call to the local Social Security Administration office.
"I asked if I applied for early retirement, would it affect my disability claim in any way, and was told, no, it wouldn't," William wrote. "On that answer, I applied for early retirement. My first early-retirement benefit was deposited in April 2008.
"Well, in June, when my disability claim was approved, I found out that by applying for early retirement, (I) would receive a lower amount. My disability was granted with an effective date of November 2007. With the five-month waiting period, my benefits began in April 2008."
Now, William wrote, he is thinking of applying for a withdrawal from early retirement, so his disability benefit will be raised to the maximum amount.
"I called the local SSA office and spoke with a manager there," William wrote. "She thinks I would have to pay back all the benefits I have received, and then the SSA would make a lump-sum payment back to me of the increased benefits from April to the time the withdrawal is approved.
"Does this sound correct, or would I only have to pay back just the March benefits? Also, if I do nothing and continue, when I reach full retirement age of 66, would my benefits be reduced to the early retirement amount? One source says yes, the manager at SSA says no reduction."
For help with William's questions, I first contacted one of the financial advisers I consult regularly for this column. But she said going straight to Social Security like William did is the best way to get answers to such questions.
So I decided to go straight to the source for some clarification and contacted the SSA's press office. I received an e-mailed response from Mike Baksa, lead public affairs specialist in the Denver regional office.
Mike wrote that the disability benefit is reduced by the number of months of reduced retirement benefit that was paid, at the rate of just under half of 1 percent per month, for each month before April 2008.
"William would not need to pay back all the money that was received, and then have the Social Security Administration reissue it," Mike wrote. "In his case, he would receive a notice explaining how much he owed, considering that he was entitled to more money per month as of April 2008. SSA would only ask for the remainder back before approving the withdrawal of the retirement benefit."
That's one question down, William, and it sounds like Mike's answer is different from the one you received from the local office.
As for the next question, Mike wrote that when William reaches his full retirement age, "the months of disability-benefit entitlement will be excluded from the retirement-benefit reduction factor at full retirement age. His retirement benefit will only be reduced for the months he received just a retirement benefit. If he only received one month of retirement benefit, then the retirement benefit would only be reduced for the one month."
I hope this clears things up for you, William. I have listed Mike's answers to your questions in direct quotes in hopes that it will help you as you deal with this issue.
As for me, dealing with Social Security questions makes my brain hurt. I may be looking forward to retirement, but I'm not looking forward to dealing with this stuff in the future!
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