“When you claim Social Security benefits prior to your Social Security defined full retirement age (FRA) and continue to work, your benefits will be subject to the earnings test. In 2018, $1 will be withheld for every $2 earned over the annual threshold of $17,040, if you do not obtain FRA in 2018.”
The Social Security benefit threshold rises significantly (to $45,360 in 2018) in the year you attain your full retirement age (FRA). At that point, one dollar will be withheld for every three dollars you earn over that threshold. The earnings limit is effective the first of the year and is indexed annually.
Investopedia’s recent article, “How the Social Security Earnings Test Works,” says that everyone getting Social Security benefits prior to their full retirement age is subject to the earnings test—even widows and widowers receiving survivor benefits and minor children receiving benefits on a deceased parent’s record, if the child earns more than the annual limit. If a minor child is receiving benefits based on a parent’s work history and the parent is still living and under full retirement age, the earnings test for the child’s benefit will be subject to the amount earned by the parent.
Let’s look at how the earnings limit is applied. In the first year you claim Social Security prior to your full retirement age, you’re subject to a monthly earnings test beginning the month you start receiving benefits ($17,040 ÷ 12, or $1,420 per month in 2018). As a result, you can earn as much as you want prior to the month you start your benefits.
In subsequent years, until the year you reach FRA, you’re subject to an annual earning limit each year after the first year, until the year you reach your full retirement age. At the start of each year, you’ll be asked to estimate how much you plan to earn. If your estimated earnings are less than the annual limit for that year, there won’t be any Social Security benefits withheld.
The earnings limit in the year when you reach your full retirement age is much higher ($45,360 in 2018). This is a monthly earnings limit ($45,360 ÷ 12 or $3,780 per month), if it’s the first year you are claiming benefits, but an annual earnings limit if it’s the second or subsequent year you’re not receiving benefits.
The annual gross earnings, as reported on your W-2, are used. Therefore, contributing to a 401(k) or similar retirement plan to reduce earnings subject to state and federal income taxes won’t impact your earnings for the earnings test. However, payments received “on account of retirement,” like a severance package, aren’t subject to the earnings test.
Remember that the earnings of your spouse may be considered, when applying the earnings test for your benefits. If you’re claiming benefits based on your current spouse’s work record, and your spouse is under FRA and continues to work, his or her earnings are considered when applying the earnings test for your benefits (even if you’ve already attained FRA). However, if you’re claiming benefits on an ex-spouse’s record, only your current earnings and age are used when applying the earnings test.
Self-employed people have to work fewer than 45 hours per month in their business, otherwise benefits claimed prior to FRA will be withheld, no matter how much they earn.
When the Social Security Administration (SSA) determines you have or will exceed the earnings test based on the estimated earnings you give them, they’ll calculate the amount to withhold and begin doing so immediately. They’ll withhold payment of full benefit checks, until they receive the full amount overpaid, then they’ll go back to remitting your monthly benefit.
Reference: Investopedia (September 18, 2018) “How the Social Security Earnings Test Works”