Some Notes for People Who Have Recently Retired and Who Will Request Social Security and Pension Benefits

(Social Security, Tax on Social Security, Social Security Offset, Defined Benefit Pensions, 401K and IRA)


Since I am going through this process myself, I will discuss a few fine points that gave come up that would be of concern to many retirees who need financial stability


Social Security.


My own goal was to draw some income at age 62 so that I could develop my own “second career” interests without undue pressure from potential employers who might expect me to give up my own goals in order to advance their ends deferentially—the “sales culture” problem.


Social security involves a number of components. For a single person the most important is the Retirement and Survivor’s Insurance. There is also Disability Insurance. Social Security also administers a Supplemental Security Income program, which is a welfare program funded separately.


There are many complicated rules in the way benefits work. It’s easy to confuse them. On this page the emphasis is in discussing retirement for one person.


Of course, what one wonders about is the possibility that a particular circumstance could be interpreted unfavorably because of some political perception of what is socially just. Social Security doctrine has a concept called “defeating the purpose of the program” in dispute situations. One can always imagine unusual situations and have trouble finding an exact reference, and it is hard to prove a negative – in which case a social security attorney may have to be consulted to find out what has happened with similar cases in the past.


The Social Security Administration’s website is, logically enough,

One of their typical approved graphics is

Visit   There is a search engine there for the site. However, if you search for a particular concept, you might find it in a section that is inapplicable to your particular situation or benefits. For unusual circumstances, you may not be able to determine definitively how your situation would be handled without assistance from an attorney that specializes in social security administrative law.


The single most important reference is the Program Operations Manual System, POMS, and the main reference is:!OpenView 

The POMS manual is what administrators use in determining benefits, and for the most part it consists of detailed manual procedures (“methods”) for doing calculations and making rulings.


 The other major online source of information is a series of “electronic leaflets” at , especially and   These publications summarize the rules in simpler language.


Topic: Retirement Age


Here is the chart for full retirement age: 


You can start drawing benefits generally in the second month after your 62nd birthday (one month in arrears). Your benefits are reduced by an amount shown on the chart. The reduction is defined by an actuarial formula designed to make the expected payout over your life expectancy the same if you never went to work again. The reduction stays in force until full retirement age. However, if you start working again and lose some benefits, the reduction factor will be reduced once you reach full retirement age in proportion to how much benefit you gave up by working. (ref. p. 164,  Tomkiel, mentioned below. The mathematical formulas are given in the book there.)


Why is this done? This harkens back to the original conception if Social Security as an “insurance” program for the aged, a perception that President Bush obviously wants to change by privatization. The earnings limit requires a administrative effort and by today’s political standards sounds paternalistic and wasteful, since by starting retirement early the retiree permanently reduces his benefits according to an actuarial formula based on life expectancy.


Topic:  Can you draw other income and draw social security?


Yes. If you retire before full retirement age (right now this rule means age 65 but it will increase – before 2000 it was 70) you will have deductions made from social security benefits if your income from working is over a certain amount (this is $12000 for 2005 but may increase in future years). The deduction generally is 1/3 of benefits once your income exceeds that amount. Therefore, the marginal income from more work decreases once you have made over a certain amount. During the year that your benefits start, it may be advantageous to have one “non-work” month to avoid an overage “penalty” (see “non-work” below), but this is tricky; sometimes it is advantageous to delay this until next year.


The strict definition of what counts for the Annual Earnings Test is at  The main link in “baby talk” is at 


This rule applies only to work done for wages (including typical “W-2” contract work) for an employer, and is applied during the time that the work is actually done.


A similar rule applies to income from self-employment, but then only when money is collected from customers (not when it is billed or theoretically is due).


Delayed payments from employers in a year after work is done does not affect social security benefits. For example, delayed bonuses (and apparently severance payouts) would not affect social security payments. Delayed payouts in industries for which the practice is common does not generally affect social security benefits. Delayed income from farm crops harvested in a previous year would not affect benefits, nor would renewal commissions from life insurance products previously sold as an agent.


Income from pensions (whether defined benefit pensions or defined contribution plans), or taxable payouts from IRA’s or 401k’s (assuming that the recipient is over 59-1/2, which he or she normally is at 62!!) do not affect social security benefits. (Some sources fail to make this specific point.) Since deferred payment is not penalized, the deferral income implicit in 401K withdrawals from corporate matching contributions similarly would not affect benefits. The Social Security Administration is required by law to inform the beneficiary of any “deferred vested benefits” from employers at the time that the beneficiary requests benefits, but this has nothing to do with the actual benefits themselves. (The form is called “Potential Private Pension Benefit Information” and is a bit of a misnomer.). IMPORTANT Reference:


There is an important POMS reference “Income that is not wages for ET (earnings test) purposes but that may be for wages.   The important point is that the employee has really retired from the job that produced the 401K.


The overriding rule with social security benefits is that it replaces income (from otherwise future work) when the beneficiary stops working. It does not replace delayed income from previously completed employment, so it is to the beneficiary’s advantage to have delayed compensation arrangements from former employers.


Social security benefits will be reduced by the presence of a government pension by 2/3 of the monthly pension (even if the pension was taken as a lump sum, when it must be computed by actuarial formulas). If the beneficiary once worked for the federal government for a brief period and simply reclaimed his “retirement” contributions when leaving, this would not seem to jeopardize his benefits; however the benefits do depend on what the person contributed to social security over his working life, and during a period of government employment he or she may well have not been making FICA contributions, so the total benefit is therefore less than what it would have been.




Basic rules:

(POMS means Program Operations Manual System; NH means number holder; ET means earnings test)!opendocument**&p_li=&p_topview=1


First retirement year rule:


Look at the “John Smith” example at  -- be careful with this!  It appears that no benefits are paid at all in any month in with John Smith grosses over $1000 from working in his first calendar year (until Dec 31) until the annual limit ($12000) kicks in. Self-employment income is added in as net income (minus expenses), not gross sales, but there is a rule about how many hours a month are worked (the range is 15-45) until someone is considered “retired.”  I believe this rule would only apply if the business were profitable and generated income exceeding the limits, but the writing is not completely clear. Apparently until the end of the first calendar year (if one retires before full retirement age) one loses benefits for any month in which one grosses [for 2005] over $1000 (according to hours worked for someone else or collected from self-employment) or works more than 15-45 hours (depending on circumstances) in “self-employment.” A month in which one earns less than the allowed monthly maximum (or performs less than the maximum in self-employment) is called a “non-work” month. A beneficiary can, in some circumstances, use “non-work” months in a later year but in only one “grace year” to collect full benefits for particular months this way. 


Non-work income**&p_li=&p_topview=1


Self-employment definition:


Probably, many people have very small revenue-generating activities (writing, cooking, gardening, troubleshooting, repairs, trip guides, public speaking) that generate less than the $400 profit (or $400 gross if one does not deduct expenses for IRS purposes based on the “3 out of 5” rule below), or even if the do exceed it do not attract the attention of the IRS or SSA. (Theoretically, anyone with a proprietorship, assumed name, DBA name, or exploratory Internet domain might be regarded as a business owner; typically the IRS becomes involved in a practical sense when one takes deductions and needs to report profit in  3 out of 5 years, which many of these do not. These activities, very important in libertarian thinking, probably add more to our society as varied culture, an intangible but controversial concept, than is reflected in their financial transactions, which may be very few.  Public announcements or a history of selling products to the public would establish a precedent for self-employment, so a retiree who is “retooling” should document his activities as non-commercial when possible or appropriate, and should be wary of making deferred collection agreements with third parties to get around this rule. The distinction between “self-employment” and hobby is a subjective one.


(For hobby there is a POMS entry:!opendocument   non-business work:


Rules regarding self-employment in a personally owned or family owned business  (questionnaire)


These rules are designed to prevent a person from making an insurance claim if not really “retired.” To be “retired” the person apparently should not

(1) reduce rate of compensation for a service or product below what it earned before starting receiving benefits (unless market conditions really justify doing so)

(2) remain in a position to reliably control earnings from a business

(3) split wages with family members, or actually do the work “behind the scenes” for another family member or business partner on a regular basis

(4) If a business owner, remain operational day-to-day control of the business

Most examples in the literature on this problem deal with businesses that have regular transactions with the public or a well-established set of customers and need regular operations.


It would appear that if a business is losing money or making very little money so that the owner is not concealing any income, the owner may continue to operate the business and collect SS benefits and attempt to make if profitable. However if it becomes more profitable later he would have to report all legitimate income, which might well take him over the earnings limits.


Tomkiel (below) also indicates that intermittent “hobby” income is not counted as “self-employment” income in determining whether a person is over the limit.


Royalties normally count as self-employment income, applicable in the year that they are actually received (see the age 65 rule)


Revised rules:  or 


It seems that the main point is whether a business regularly produced significant income before retirement. It seems like this is less of an issue if most of your income was working for someone else and the business was essentially like a “hobby” with IRS.



Unearned income (apparently the same as non-work “for services” income);  it appears that income from sale of land or real property is non-work income


Typical FAQ:**&p_li=&p_topview=1


Special payments from employers


Government pension offset


Notification of private pension availability


Beneficiary annual reporting requirements seem to be at

Apparently the due date is April 15 of the next year (for example, to show non-service months during the grace year if this is not clear from the employer’s stubs) and the beneficiary went over the estimated earnings. 


Windfall Elimination Provision, for workers who had some service with a government agency not deducting FICA taxes because of a separate pension, and also had some FICA serviceL


Social security income may be taxed from 0 tp 85%, based on how much other income there is (especially withdrawals from tax deferred ira’s). You do not have to have the tax withheld, but are responsible for interest if you were substantially underwithheld during the year, according to normal IRS rules.

Here is a blogger entry:


Exercise: During the grace year, when is a particular month a non-service month?


Suppose you are a substitute teacher, work intermittently, and are paid two weeks after a pay period end.  Suppose you did $900 worth of work in November, $900 in December, but were paid $600 in November, $1100 in December and $100 in January. Is December a non-service month?


Tomkiel (below) gives a definition of grace year on p. 196.  It is the year that you use your non-service months. If you retired in the middle of the year, and start benefits, you will be able to earn more than the annual maximum without penalty and collect for every non-service month.  It does not have to be the year you retire, but for most people it is (the grace year can be used only once). So, if you want every month for the rest of the year to be a non-service month (p/ 195) so you can collect for that month, you have to be careful not to go over the monthly earnings limit, with for 2005 is $1000, each calendar month separately. If you are self-employed, you have to be careful not to work more than the number of hours that equates to this amount (15 to 45 hours). Nobody says what happens if you both earn a wage and have free-lance income, but presumably you would have to keep track of the hours you work on free-lance. You would not the value of that time plus the money earned to exceed $1000. (If you receive the money for free-lance work in a later month, though, it would count when you receive it when it is genuine “self-employment.” Again, self-employment taxes apparently go into effect when you earn more than $400 a year this way.)


On the file 10069 above (on the SSA website), SSA tells us that income paid as wages is counted during the year it is earned. In the subsequent example it refers to months in which money is earned, so presumably it means that for the monthly earnings test you should tally the money when you worked the hours, as long as you are paid in a conventional way and as long as FICA is deducted from your earnings by the employer’s payroll system in a conventional manner. In the example given above, you would count the $900 separately from November and December when you actually worked the hours. (Tomkiel has a statement to this effect, confirming this interpretation of the reg on file 10069, on p. 200, in the determination of non-service months). What could be tricky is that SSA will receive $1100 in December, along with the FICA deduction, through electronic funds transfer from the payroll company. Payroll systems, however, always include the actual work period that the wages are paid for (admittedly that payroll work period can cross an end-of-month but it still provides credibility to the claim that the work was done during a particular month), so hopefully this information is provided also by the payroll company. The teacher should keep his pay stubs and an accurate record of the days actually worked and amount earned each day should the teacher be challenged later.


You are required by law to file a report to the SSA by April 15 of the following year (p. 208) if you received an overpayment according to the rules. If you know you received one, it is a good idea to contact them immediately and refund it. SSA normally matches its payment information to IRS information. You should be prepared to reconcile date-related discrepancies where you were paid in a month or year later than the time that the money was actually earned (because the IRS usually goes by when a payroll is actually paid). That is one reason why detailed records are important.


Here are a couple of references from the SSA POMS manual:!opendocument!opendocument (substantial service rule for self-employment) 


For teachers, this reference is relevant:


The best information that I can find on how non-service months are reported during the grace year seems to be


Exercise: Other Income that does not count toward the Earning’s test.


Above, we already talked about self-employment and hobbies. In general, it seems safe to say that normal investment income does not count toward the test. For example, you may have retired, and have started taking distributions from a 401K or an IRA (which could even have been restructured from the 401K as a “Pension IRA”). Here is the main SSA reference: (you have to hunt this one down):


Rental income does not count, unless the rent is associated with “employment.” (It would not appear that the market value of “chores” in house sitting or carrying out a lease would matter.)  What about living “rent free” with a relative, say, while giving them eldercare?  It does not appear that this is a problem. The main source would be the usual leaflet . As long as one draws benefits on one’s own account, this does not seem to be an issue. There will be issues (the “family maximum”) when various dependents (spouses, children, etc) draw benefits on one wage earner’s account. (  Also, it appears clear from the publications that one (that is, a social security NH “Number Holder”) can always have one’s own account as long as one’s own work record (over the past years) meets a certain list of requirements (such as at least 40 covered quarters), regardless of the person’s relation to others in a family. The reference would be!opendocument


It is relevant to note here also that the IRS generally recognizes residential use by relatives as personal use: (examples include “brother” “sister-in-law”).  On July 17, 2006 ABC “The View” reported that up to 11000 a year gift to relative is exempt from federal taxes, and that loans to relatives must carry interest, but none of this would seem to affect social security.


Topic: When is social security income taxable?


Social Security payments are partially taxable under federal tax law. If your total income (including non-work income and even including taxable distributions) is below a certain level, benefits are not taxed. Within a certain range, the percentage of social security income that is taxable raises from 50% to 85%. It is never more than 85%.   Some states do not tax social security benefits.


You do not have to have taxes withheld, but it is advisable to make estimated tax payments to the IRS, particularly of you would owe more than $1000 at tax time. (Blogger entry).


References:**&p_li=&p_topview=1  (need Adobe Acrobat reader)**&p_li=&p_topview=1


tax on wages while receiving social security**&p_li=&p_topview=1


It is also noteworthy that social security payments are made in arrears. The first check for an amount appropriate for any age occurs in the middle of the second month after the beneficiary becomes eligible. This means that for the rest of his life, the beneficiary is always one month behind. At least one payment will go to survivors or heirs, even with a person with no dependents. It also means that a person normally becomes eligible to receive a first social security payment (for himself) at the age of 62 years and 2 months, not at the 62nd birthday. That is significant because pension social security offsets (below) often are applied in advance.


More links:


Social Security Benefit Amounts (10/17/2007 from SSA)


Family Maximum (10/17/2007 from SSA) Definition: “The maximum family benefit is the maximum monthly amount that can be paid on a worker's earnings record.”


Defined Benefit Pensions


Topic: Private Defined Benefit Pension Stability


Most defined benefit pensions are single life “annuities” (they terminate at the death of the employee) or single life with survivorship (which pays out beneficiaries but results in a lower pension) or sometimes with survivorship with period certain (often five years).


The most critical topic for many retires is the stability of their former employers. A large amount of protection for pensions still exists with the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, but there are long term concerns about its solvency. If your company goes bankrupt or gets into financial difficulty, it might terminate your plan, in which case the PBGC would cover part of your pension.




Topic: Private Defined Benefit Pension and Social Security Offset


Many companies reduced payments by a portion of the pensioner’s expected social security benefits once the pensioner reaches social security eligibility age. The age at which this happens may be as early as 62, or may not happen until full retirement age. Sometimes after several mergers or acquisitions and employee may find that his pension is the sum of different pieces or purchased companies and the offset rules and ages can vary among these components. Sometimes the term “social security offset” is used. The theory behind the offset is that the employer has made matching contributions towards the recipient’s social security tax.


A person’s basic pension amount is typically about 1.5 to 2% of each income for each year of Credited Service (up to some maximum).  This may be limited by the pension’s becoming frozen (this became common with many companies in the late 1990s as they switched to a strategy of greater matching 401K contributions).  The offset is typically 2% of the person’s expected Primary Social Security Benefit (not including survivor or dependent benefits) per year of credited service (which may be a lower number if the pension was frozen). It is often limited at some percent (like 50% of social security benefit).  The offset is also reduced by a mathematical proportion of the person terminated employment (or, likely, had his or her pension frozen) before reaching the age at which the offset goes into effect, so a shorter period of employment some years before retirement will result in a much lower offset. It would not be uncommon for the offset to be between 10 and 30% of a person’s original pension in many situations. For a person concerned about financial stability, the offset does represent a significant issue and might encourage the person to start social security earlier, as the offset is often applied even if the person does not elect to start receiving social security benefits.


For public employees, the following legislation is interesting:


Other interesting references:


Much of the discussion about social security offset bills and litigation concerns public employees and workman’s compensation.


A social security bridge is a supplement to a pension paid until an early retiree reaches 62 (it can “offset” some or all of a “social security offset”). This blog entry goes into detail.


Defined Contribution Plans, 401Ks and IRAs


Some companies have attracted public notoriety by not allowing employees to sell shares of company stock in their 401Ks, a factor in the tremendous losses suffered by some employees in a few corporate scandals and collapses.


Generally, one can start 401K withdrawals without penalty after age 59-1/2. However, if one wants a periodic “systematic withdrawal option” many times the periods are limited to rather long payouts, either five or ten years. One can often roll over the fund into a pension IRA which is likely to offer a faster withdrawal (such as three years). The amount of withdrawal might matter to retirees who need to demonstrate “income,” for example, in qualifying for an apartment. Property managers vary in their attitudes towards seniors who may have varying saved asset amounts but limited ability to earn more money through conventional work.


Book reference: Stanley A. Tomkiel III, Attorney at Law, The Social Security Benefits Handbook. Sphinx: Chicago, 2004. ISBN 1572483954


©Copyright 2005 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use.

Disclaimer: If you have detailed questions about a complicated individual situation, see an attorney or certified financial planner! For your own situation, please visit the professional services links page to find an attorney.

Of course, this is a difficult subject and I welcome comments. See my contact link (or email )


See my retirement page blog


On May 16, 2006, PBS Frontline broadcast “Can You Afford to Retire?”


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Please contact me if you have comments or questions or information; this is an ongoing document as I find other information out.



(Misc. SSI references for comparison were: Also see SSI references for comparison:  (the /416 references refer to SSI but they given an idea as to how these concepts are defined)