How to Increase Your Social Security Benefits -- After You Start Getting Them

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Once you claim your Social Security benefits, your options for increasing said benefits are somewhat limited. However, there are a few tricks you can use to bump up your Social Security benefits even at that point. Here are three.

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Withdraw your claim

Under certain conditions, Social Security will allow you to "take back" your claim. If you wait a few years after doing so before reclaiming your benefits, you could end up with a much bigger check.

Claiming your Social Security benefits before you reach full retirement age results in a penalty that permanently decreases the amount of your benefits. On the other hand, waiting until after full retirement age grants you delayed retirement credits that will permanently increase your benefits. These delayed retirement credits max out at age 70, so it doesn't make sense to wait longer than that.

For example, let's say your full retirement age is 67 and you claimed your Social Security benefits at age 62. Claiming your benefits five years early will reduce your checks by 30%, so if you qualified to receive $1,500 per month in Social Security benefits, claiming them at 62 would reduce your benefit checks to $1,050 per month instead.

If you withdrew your claim and waited until age 67 to reclaim, you'd reset your benefits to the full $1,500 per month. And if you waited until age 70 to reclaim so that you could grab those delayed retirement credits, you'd increase your monthly benefits to $1,860 instead.

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Not everyone can withdraw a Social Security claim. To qualify, you need to withdraw your claim less than 12 months after you made it, you must be under full retirement age, and you need to pay back all the benefits you received in the meantime. You're also limited to one withdrawal in your lifetime, so forget about getting a second do-over. To withdraw your claim, fill out Form SSA-521 and bring it in or mail it to your nearest Social Security office.

Go back to work

If you claimed your Social Security benefits before full retirement age, your earnings will affect how much you get in benefits. Exceed the earnings limit for the year ($16,920 in 2017), and the Social Security Administration will deduct one dollar from your benefits for each two dollars you earn over the limit. The year you reach full retirement age, this changes to a deduction of one dollar for each three dollars of earnings you make over the limit.

That may sound like a pretty lousy deal, but there's actually a major upside. Once you hit your full retirement age, the agency will recalculate your Social Security benefits as though you'd claimed them later than you did. For example, if you claimed your benefits at age 62 and missed 12 months' worth of Social Security checks because of excessive earnings, then when you hit full retirement age your benefits amount will be recalculated as though you claimed your benefits at age 63 instead. This can result in a substantial improvement in your benefits checks in the future.

Suspend your benefits

If you missed the boat on withdrawing your Social Security claim, there's another way to get roughly the same result. During the years between your full retirement age and age 70, you can choose to suspend your Social Security benefits. As with claim withdrawals, you'll need to repay all the benefits you already received -- which, if you've been getting Social Security checks for years, may be a substantial amount. Also, suspending your Social Security benefits means you'll need to pay your Medicare Part B premiums out of your own pocket in the future instead of having them deducted from your benefit checks (at least until you turn your Social Security benefits back on). Finally, suspending Social Security benefits makes you ineligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). If you're already receiving SSI benefits, those benefits will stop coming after you suspend your retirement benefits.

Suspending your Social Security benefits takes effect the following month (note that Social Security pays benefits for a particular month in the following month, so if you suspend your benefits in March, you'll still receive the April check because that check is your March benefits). Your Social Security benefits will restart automatically the month you turn 70; you can also contact the agency and have your benefits turned back on anytime before then. Getting a suspension is refreshingly easy: You simply call 1-800-772-1213 and make the request, or make an appointment at your local office and put in your request in person.

Before pursuing any of these options, it's a good idea to sit down with a Social Security calculator and see how much your benefits will go up as a result. If the increase is substantial, it may well be worth the hassle -- but if all you'll get from your efforts is a few extra dollars per month, you're probably better off settling for your current benefits amount. After all, there are less painful ways to earn a little extra money!

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