Social Security Bulletin - Annual Statistical Supplement (2002)
[The following sections of text excerpted from the 2002 Annual Statistical Supplement pp. 9-17 are augmented by tables of program history available in pdf format through links at the relevant section heading.]
Structure | Recent Program Changes | Coverage and Financing | Benefit Formula | Benefit Types | Effect of Earnings and Taxation
Security (Old-Age, Survivors,
and Disability Insurance)
The Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program provides monthly benefits to qualified retired and disabled workers and their dependents, and to survivors of insured workers. Eligibility and benefit amounts are determined by the worker's contributions to Social Security. Benefits are paid as an earned right to workers, their families and their survivors. There is no means test to qualify for benefits.
At the end of December 2001, 45.9 million people were receiving benefits at a rate exceeding $36 billion each month ($432 billion annually). According to the latest Social Security Trustees Report, these cash benefits comprised 4½ percent of the nation's gross domestic product. During the same year, approximately 153 million employees and self-employed workers, along with employers, contributed more than $516 billion to the OASDI trust funds—through which contributions are credited and benefits are paid.
Social Security benefits are essential to the economic well-being of millions of individuals. Social Security pays benefits to more than 90 percent of those 65 or older. It is the major source of income (providing 50 percent or more of total income) for 64 percent of the beneficiaries. It contributes 90 percent or more of income for almost one-third of the beneficiaries, and is the only source of income for 20 percent of them....
Contributions and Trust Funds
A person contributes to Social Security either through payroll taxes or self-employment taxes under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) or the Self-Employed Contributions Act (SECA). Employers match the employee contribution, while self-employed workers pay an amount equal to the combined employer-employee contributions. (Self-employed workers receive a special tax deduction to ease the impact of paying the higher rate.) There is a maximum yearly amount of earnings subject to OASDI taxes, $84,900 in 2002. There is no upper limit on taxable earnings for Medicare Hospital Insurance. Employees whose contributions exceed the maximum taxable amount because they worked for more than one employer can receive refunds of excess FICA payments when they file their tax returns.
Taxes are allocated to the Old-Age (Retirement) and Survivors Insurance (OASI), the Disability Insurance (DI), and the Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Funds. In addition to the taxes on covered earnings, OASI and DI trust fund revenues include interest on trust fund securities, income from taxation of OASI and DI benefits, certain technical transfers, and gifts or bequests. By law, the OASI and DI trust funds may only be disbursed for:
Revenue received from FICA payments is transferred to the U.S. Treasury. FICA revenue in excess of outlays is used to purchase special interest-bearing Treasury bonds. These securities remain assets of the trust funds until needed to cover Social Security costs.
Structure and Organization
The OASDI program is administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA), which became an independent agency in 1995. The Commissioner of Social Security serves a 6-year term following appointment by the President and confirmation by the Senate. A bipartisan Social Security Advisory Board serves to review existing laws and policies and commissions studies and issues recommendations intended to anticipate changing circumstances. The President appoints three of the seven board members and Congress appoints the other four members.
The Social Security Administration is headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland. Major headquarter components include the National Computer Center that contains SSA's mainframe computers that drive our systems, much of the executive staff for policy, programs and systems as well as field support components. SSA's field structure is divided into 10 geographic regions containing over 1,300 field installations in communities throughout the country. Office sizes range from large urban offices with 50 or more employees to remote resident stations staffed by one or two individuals. Each region is headed by a Regional Commissioner, and staffed with specialists to handle regional administrative tasks and to assist field offices with operational issues. In addition, there are teleservice centers servicing all regions. While physically located within the various regions, each teleservice center manages the public's Social Security business from throughout the nation using state of the art communications systems. Seven program service centers provide service and support for the field offices in some aspects of Social Security's workloads.
Program changes occur through legislation or (in areas where authority is delegated to the Commissioner) through regulation.
Elimination of Annual Earnings Test for Persons Reaching Full Retirement Age
Public Law 106-182, The Senior Citizen's Freedom to Work Act of 2000, enacted April 7, 2000 eliminated the earnings test beginning with the month a beneficiary attains full retirement age (FRA). Elimination of this earnings test is effective for taxable years ending after December 31, 1999.
The earnings limit that applies in the year of attainment of FRA is based on the limits previously established for persons at FRA through age 69—$25,000 in 2001, and $30,000 in 2002. Benefits are withheld at the rate of $1 for every $3 of earnings above these exempt amounts. In determining earnings for purposes of the annual earnings test under this legislation, only earnings before the month of attainment of FRA will be considered. The legislation also permits retired workers to earn delayed retirement credits for any months between the attainment of full retirement age and age 70 for which the worker requests that benefits not be paid.
Public Law 106-182 did not change the annual exempt amount for beneficiaries who are under FRA throughout the year, which continued to be pegged to increases in the average wage. This amount increased from $10,680 in 2001 to $11,280 in 2002. Withholding for beneficiaries subject to this earnings test is at $1 for each $2 of earnings over the exempt amounts.
Work Incentives Improvement Act
The Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act, Public Law 106-170, was enacted on December 17, 1999. This legislation provides major enhancements to SSA's programs that assist disabled beneficiaries who attempt to return to work. It provides beneficiaries more choices in vocational rehabilitation services, and offers expanded health care for beneficiaries who are no longer eligible for cash benefits due to work. Effective October 1, 2000, the Act offers extended Medicare coverage to beneficiaries who return to work, and offers buy-in for Medicaid coverage.
The Ticket to Work provisions of this legislation are being phased in over a 3-year period that began January 1, 2001. The Ticket to Work will emphasize and encourage rehabilitation efforts and will reimburse private employment service providers for their services to beneficiaries attempting to return to work. These providers are called Employment Networks. Most disability beneficiaries will receive a Ticket that they may use to obtain vocational rehabilitation, job training, or other support services.
Individuals may take their ticket to any of the Employment Networks that offer services in their communities. By the end of 2002, SSA expects to have distributed tickets to beneficiaries in 33 states and the District of Columbia. In 2003, tickets will be distributed in the remaining 17 states, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Also beginning January 1, 2001, former beneficiaries may have their benefits resumed if their work activity ends within 5 years of the month their benefits stopped and they are still disabled
Regulatory Increases in Substantial Gainful Activity and in Trial Work Period Amounts
Effective July 1, 1999, the Social Security Administration raised from $500 to $700 the amount of monthly earnings for a nonblind disabled individual to be considered engaging in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Effective January 1, 2001, the top SGA level was raised to $740 per month, with the provision that ongoing SGA levels will be automatically adjusted annually based on increases in the national average wage index. Effective January 1, 2002, the level is $780 per month.
The SGA threshold is part of the definition of disability that requires an individual to be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity to be eligible for benefits. Earnings of more than the top SGA level will ordinarily demonstrate that an individual is engaged in SGA. Earnings of less than $780 per month will ordinarily demonstrate that an individual is not engaged in SGA.
A different definition of SGA applies to blind persons receiving Social Security disability benefits. Increases in the SGA amount for blind individuals have long been pegged to increases in the national average wage index and thus were not affected by the 1999 or subsequent rule changes. The level for blind individuals increased from $1,240 in 2001 to $1,300 in 2002.
New rules also affect the trial work period (TWP). The TWP allows disability beneficiaries to test their ability to work for at least 9 months. During the TWP, beneficiaries may earn any amount and still receive full benefits. The monthly level at which earnings count toward the 9-month TWP was raised from $200 to $530 effective January 1, 2001, with future increases pegged to the national average wage index. Effective January 1, 2002, the level is $560. After completion of 9 trial work months, the SGA level is used to determine whether earnings are substantial or not. If earnings fall below the SGA level, full benefits generally continue. If earnings are higher than the SGA level, cash benefits are usually suspended while medical benefits continue.
In 2001, about 153 million persons worked in employment or self-employment covered under the OASDI program. In recent years, coverage has become nearly universal for work performed in the United States, including American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Approximately 96 percent of the American workforce are covered by OASDI. Workers excluded from coverage fall into five major categories:
For most employees, taxes are withheld from wages beginning with the first dollar earned. The exceptions are domestic employees, election workers, and agricultural workers. In 2002, a domestic employee must earn $1,300 from any single employer in a calendar year before FICA is withheld. Most election workers must earn $1,200 in 2002 before FICA is withheld. Most agricultural workers wages are covered if the employer pays more than $2,500 in total wages in a year or if the individual worker earns over $150 in a year from a single employer.
Employees, their employers, and the self-employed each pay taxes on earnings in covered employment and self-employment up to an annual maximum taxable amount for OASDI. There is no upper limit on taxable earnings for Medicare Hospital Insurance (HI). The OASDI maximum taxable amount—$84,900 in 2002—is updated automatically each year in relation to increases in the national average annual wage. The current FICA tax rate applicable to both employees and employers is 6.2 percent for OASDI (5.30 percent for OASI and 0.9 percent for DI), and 1.45 percent for HI.
A self-employed person pays the combined employee-employer rate of 12.4 percent for OASDI and 2.9 for HI under the Self-Employment Contributions Act (SECA). Two deduction provisions reduce the SECA and income tax liability of self-employed persons. The intent of these provisions is to treat the self-employed in much the same manner as employees and employers are treated for purposes of FICA and income taxes. The first provision allows a deduction from net earnings from self-employment equal to the amount of net earnings before the deduction, times one-half the SECA tax rate. The effect of this deduction is intended to be analogous to the treatment of the FICA tax paid by the employer, which is disregarded as remuneration to the employee for FICA and income tax purposes. The second provision allows an income tax deduction, equal to one-half of the amount of the SECA tax paid, which is designed to reflect the income tax deductibility of the employer's share of the FICA tax.
To become eligible for his or her benefit and benefits for family members or survivors, a worker must earn a minimum number of credits based on work in covered employment or self-employment. These credits are described as quarters of coverage. In 2002, a quarter of coverage (QC) is credited for each $870 in annual covered earnings, up to a maximum of four QCs for the year. Earnings of $3,480 or more in 2002 will give the worker four QCs regardless of when the money is actually earned or paid during the year. The amount of earnings required for a QC is adjusted automatically each year in proportion to increases in the average wage level.
Eligibility for most types of benefits requires that the worker be fully insured. To be fully insured a worker must have a number of QCs at least equal to the number of calendar years elapsing between age 21 (or 1950 if later) and the year in which he or she reaches age 62, becomes disabled, or dies—whichever occurs first. Under this requirement, workers who reach age 62 in 1991 or later need the maximum number of 40 QCs to be fully insured. For workers who become disabled or die before age 62, the number of QCs needed for fully insured status depends on their age at the time the worker is disabled or dies. A minimum of 6 QCs is required regardless of age.
Social Security Currently Insured
If a worker dies before achieving fully insured status, benefits can still be paid to qualified survivors if the worker was "currently insured" at the time of death. (In the case of a young worker, survivors benefits are potentially payable to a worker's children and to a widow(er) with children in care.) To be currently insured, the worker must have earned 6 QCs in the 12 quarters before death (that is, 6 of the last 13 quarters, including the quarter in which death occurred).
To qualify for disability benefits, a nonblind worker must have recent work activity as well as being fully insured. Under the test involving recent work experience, a nonblind worker older than age 31 must have earned at least 20 QCs among the 40 calendar quarters ending with the quarter in which the disability began. Workers disabled at ages 24 through 30 must have earned QCs in one-half of the calendar quarters elapsing between age 21 and the calendar quarter in which the disability began. Workers under age 24 need 6 QCs in the 12-quarter period ending with the quarter of disability onset. Workers who qualify for benefits based on blindness need only be fully insured.
The President is authorized to enter into international Social Security agreements (also called "totalization" agreements) to coordinate the U.S. Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program with comparable programs of other countries. The United States currently has Social Security agreements in effect with 20 countries.
Social Security Agreements and Effective Dates
|Austria................1991||Finland................1992||Ireland..................1993||Netherlands ........... 1990||Sweden................. 1987|
|Canada...............1984||Germany..............1979||Korea...................2001||Portugal ................. 1989||United Kingdom......1985|
International Social Security agreements have two main purposes. First, they eliminate dual Social Security coverage, the situation that occurs when a person from one country works in another country and is required to pay Social Security taxes to both countries on the same earnings. Each agreement includes rules that assign a worker's coverage to only one country.
The second goal of the agreement is to help fill gaps in benefit protection for workers who have divided their careers between the United States and another country. Such workers may fail to qualify for Social Security benefits from one or both countries because they have not worked long enough to meet minimum eligibility requirements. Under an agreement, these workers and their family members may qualify for a partial U.S. benefit based on "totalized" (that is, combined) credits from both countries. Similarly, workers may qualify for partial benefits from the foreign country based on totalized credits.
The primary insurance amount (PIA) is the monthly benefit amount payable to the worker upon retirement at full retirement age or upon entitlement to disability benefits. The PIA is also the base figure from which monthly benefit amounts payable to the worker's family members or survivors are determined. The PIA is derived from the worker's annual taxable earnings, averaged over a period that encompasses most of the worker's adult years. Until the late 1970s, the average monthly wage (AMW) was the earnings measure generally used. For workers first eligible for benefits after 1978, average indexed monthly earnings (AIME) have replaced the AMW as the usually applicable earnings measure. The PIA computation based on AIME currently involves the following three steps:
1. Indexing of earnings. The worker's annual taxable earnings after 1950 are updated, or indexed, to reflect the general earnings level in the indexing year—the second calendar year before the year in which the worker is first eligible; that is, first reaches age 62, becomes disabled, or dies. Earnings in years after the indexing year are not indexed but instead are counted at their actual value. A worker's earnings for a given year are indexed by multiplying them by the following ratio (indexing factor): The average wage in the national economy for the indexing year, divided by the corresponding average wage figure for the year to be indexed.
2. Determining AIME. The period used to calculate AIME equals the number of full calendar years elapsing between age 21 (or 1950, if later) and the year of first eligibility, usually excluding the lowest 5 years. Workers disabled before age 47 have from zero to 4 excluded years from the computation. At an absolute minimum, 2 years are used to compute AIME. The actual years used in the computation (the "computation years") are the years of highest indexed earnings after 1950, including any years before age 22 or after age 61 as well as the year of disability or death. AIME is calculated as the sum of indexed earnings in the computation period, divided by the number of months in that period.
3. Computing the PIA. The formula used to compute the PIA from AIME is weighted to provide a higher PIA-to-AIME ratio for workers with comparatively low earnings. The formula applies declining percentage conversion rates to three AIME brackets. For workers who reach age 62, become disabled, or die in 2002, the formula provides a PIA equal to the sum of:
90 percent of the first $592 of AIME, plus32 percent of the next $2,975 of AIME, plus
15 percent of AIME over $3,567.
The dollar amounts defining the AIME brackets are referred to as "bend points." These bend points (as described in Table 2.A11) are updated automatically each year in proportion to increases in the national average wage level. This automatic adjustment ensures that benefit levels for successive generations of eligible workers will keep up with rising earnings levels, thereby assuring consistent rates of earnings replacement from one generation of beneficiaries to the next.
The benefit formula applicable to a worker depends on the year of eligibility (or death) rather than on the year benefits are first received. Thus the PIA of a worker retiring at age 65 in 2002 is calculated using the benefit formula that applies to all workers first eligible in 1999 (the "year of attainment" of age 62). The PIA derived from that formula is then increased by the COLAs effective for December, 1999, 2000, and 2001 to obtain the PIA effective at age 65. Subsequent recomputations of the worker's benefit, including additional earnings not originally considered, delayed retirement credits or additional COLA increases, all refer to the basic computation that originally applied, based on the year of attainment.
Beginning in 1981, benefits have been rounded to the next lower ten cents at each step in the computation. The final benefit payment is rounded to the next lower dollar amount (if not already an even dollar). Prior to 1981, benefits were paid in ten-cent increments after rounding up to the next dime in each computation step.
A cost-of-living increase in benefits generally is established each year if the consumer price index for urban wage earners and clerical workers (CPI-W), prepared by the Department of Labor, indicates a percentage increase (after rounding) of at least 0.1 percent between two specified quarters. The arithmetical mean of the CPI-W for July, August, and September in the year of determination is compared with the arithmetical mean of the CPI-W for the later of (a) July, August, and September in the year in which the last effective cost-of-living increase was established or (b) the 3 months of the calendar quarter in which the effective month of the last general benefit increase occurred. The percentage increase in the CPI-W, rounded to the nearest 0.1 percent, represents the size of the increase in benefits, effective for December of the year in which the determination is made.
Under certain conditions, depending on the size of the combined OASDI trust funds relative to estimated disbursements, the applicability and size of a cost-of-living adjustment may be determined under an alternative method, called the "stabilizer provision." In no case, however, are benefits reduced below the level of benefits in the year of determination. Historically, this provision has never been triggered.
Alternative PIA Computation Provisions
Special minimum PIA. Workers with low earnings but steady attachment to the workforce over most of their adult years may qualify for monthly benefits based on the special minimum PIA computation. This computation does not depend on the worker's average earnings, but on the number of coverage years—years in which the worker had earnings equal to or above a specified amount. The level of the special minimum PIA is the same for workers having the same number of coverage years, regardless of age or year of first eligibility. Increases in the special minimum PIA are linked to cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).
Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). The WEP affects persons who receive a pension based on noncovered work after 1956 and Social Security benefits. First eligibility for the noncovered pension and Social Security benefits must be after December 31, 1985 for WEP to apply. WEP reduces the Social Security PIA upon which SSA benefits are based and affects all benefits paid on that record, except survivors. The WEP reduction ceases when entitlement to the pension payment ends, the wage earner dies, or the wage earner earns a total of 30 years of substantial Social Security earnings. The WEP reduction amount is never more than one-half of the noncovered pension.
A WEP PIA is generally based on 40 percent of the first bend point instead of 90 percent as with the regular PIA:
Example: A retired worker with a noncovered pension of $2,000 a month and less than 20 years of covered employment attains age 62 in 2002.
Normal PIA, based on AIME of $800.$592 x .90 = $532.80$208 x .32 = $66.56PIA = $599.30 WEP PIA, based on AIME of $800. $592 x .40 = $236.80$208 x .32 = $66.56
PIA = $303.30
Examples of pensions subject to WEP are U.S. Civil Service Retirement System annuities, retirement benefits based on foreign earnings, and state and local pensions based on noncovered earnings.
Family maximum provisions. Monthly benefits payable to the worker and family members or to the worker's survivors are subject to a maximum family benefit amount. The family maximum level for retired-worker families or survivor families usually ranges from 150 percent to 188 per-cent of the worker's PIA. The maximum benefit for disabled-worker families is the smaller of 85 percent of AIME (or 100 percent of PIA, if larger) or 150 percent of the PIA.
Like the formula for determining the PIA, the maximum family benefit formula applicable to a worker depends on the year of first eligibility (that is, the year of attainment of age 62, onset of disability, or death). Once the worker's maximum family benefit amount for the year of first eligibility is determined, it is updated in line with the COLAs.
The full retirement age (FRA) is the earliest age at which an unreduced retirement benefit is payable (some-times referred to as the "normal retirement age"). The age for full retirement benefits is scheduled to rise gradually from age 65 to age 67, with the first incremental increase affecting workers who reached age 62 in the year 2000. Workers over age 62 who retire before FRA can receive reduced benefits. The monthly rate of reduction from the full retirement benefit (that is, the PIA) is 5/9 of 1 percent a month for the first 36 months immediately preceding FRA. The reduction rate is 5/12 of 1 percent a month for any additional months. The maximum overall reduction for early retirement will have risen from 20 percent to 30 percent by 2022, when age 67 becomes the full retirement age.
If a disabled worker receives a reduced retirement benefit for months before disability entitlement, the disability benefit is reduced by the number of months for which he or she received the reduced benefit.
For workers who postpone their retirement beyond the full retirement age, benefits are increased for each month of nonpayment beyond that age and age 70. This increase is called a "delayed retirement credit," and is potentially available for any or all months following attainment of the full retirement age (maximum of 60 months for persons who attained age 65 prior to 2003). The annual rate of increase for delayed retirement credits is 7 percent for workers who reach age 62 in 2001 and 2002, and will eventually rise to 8 percent for workers reaching age 62 in 2005 or later.
Spouses receive 50 percent of the worker's PIA (regardless of the worker's actual benefit amount), if the spouse has attained the full retirement age at entitlement to spousal benefits. The spouse of a retired or disabled worker can elect monthly benefits as early as age 62. These benefits are reduced at the rate of 25/36 of 1 percent a month for the first 36 months immediately preceding FRA and 5/12 of 1 percent for each additional month. The maximum overall reduction for early retirement will have risen from 25 percent to 35 percent by 2022, when age 67 becomes the full retirement age (FRA) for spouses attaining age 62 in that year.
Children of retired or disabled workers are also eligible to receive monthly benefits. The term "child" refers to a child under the age of 18, a child aged 18–19 attending elementary or secondary school full time, or to an adult child, aged 18 or older, who was disabled prior to age 22. In addition, young spouses (that is, those under the age of 62) who care for a worker's entitled child may also be eligible. For purposes of defining young spouses' benefits, the term "child" refers to a child under age 16, or to an adult child of the worker who was disabled prior to age 22. Children of retired or disabled workers can receive up to 50 percent of the worker's PIA, as can young spouses. (The benefit of a young spouse is not reduced for age.) Monthly benefits payable to the spouse and children of a retired or disabled worker are limited to a family maximum amount, as discussed earlier.
Benefits are payable to unmarried divorced spouses of retirement age who were married at least 10 years to the worker. A divorced spouse benefit is excluded from family maximum provisions. Divorced spouses age 62 or older and divorced for 2 or more years (after marriage of 10 or more years) may be independently entitled on the record of the ex-spouse if the ex-spouse could be entitled if he or she applied.
Widows and widowers of fully insured workers are eligible for unreduced benefits at full retirement age (FRA), currently age 65. As with retired workers and spouses, widow(er)s' FRA will gradually increase to age 67. Widows and widowers can elect reduced monthly benefits at age 60 or, if disabled, as early as age 50. Surviving divorced spouses can also receive benefits if married to the worker for at least 10 years and not remarried before age 60 (age 50 if disabled).
For survivors whose full benefit retirement age is 65, the monthly rate of reduction for the first 60 months immediately preceding FRA is 19/40 of 1 percent of the worker's PIA, with a maximum reduction of 28.5 percent at age 60. For survivors whose full benefit retirement age is over 65, the amount of reduction for each month prior to FRA is adjusted accordingly to ensure that the maximum reduction at age 60 remains 28.5 percent of the worker's PIA.
Benefits for widows and widowers are increased if the deceased worker delayed retirement beyond the FRA. In these cases, the survivor benefits include any delayed retirement credits the deceased worker had earned. Conversely, if the worker had elected early retirement, widow(er)s' benefits are limited for widow(er)s first entitled to survivors benefits at age 62 or later. For these beneficiaries, the benefit is the higher of 82.5 percent of the worker's PIA or the amount the worker would be receiving if still alive. Disabled widow(er)s ages 50–60 receive the age 60 widow's rate (71.5 percent of PIA) regardless of their age at the time of entitlement.
Children of deceased workers and mothers and fathers under FRA are eligible to receive monthly benefits up to 75 percent of the worker's PIA if the worker died either fully or currently insured. Mothers and fathers must be caring for the worker's entitled child who is either under age 16 or disabled. A dependent parent aged 62 or older is eligible for monthly benefits equal to 82.5 percent of the worker's PIA. Each of two dependent parents can qualify for benefits equal to 75 percent of the deceased worker's PIA. Monthly benefits payable to survivors are reduced to conform to the family maximum benefit payable on the deceased worker's account. Benefits for a surviving divorced spouse, however, are disregarded when computing the maximum family benefit.
The OASDI tables do not include a number of persons receiving Railroad Retirement benefits who would be eligible for Social Security benefits had they applied. The reason they have not applied is that receipt of a Social Security benefit would reduce their Railroad Retirement benefit by a like amount. The number of persons is not available, but is estimated to be less than 100,000.
The Railroad Retirement Act of 1974, effective January 1, 1975, provided that the regular annuity for employees with 10 or more years of railroad service who retired after December 31, 1974, will consist of two components.
Public Law 107-90 (the 2001 amendments to the Railroad Retirement Act of 1974) effective January 1, 2002 revised the railroad service work requirement. The railroad service work requirement is 10 or more years of railroad service or, effective January 1, 2002, have at least 5 years of railroad service after December 31, 1995. The two components are unchanged:
Beneficiaries under the full retirement age (FRA) with earnings in excess of certain exempt amounts may have all or part of their benefits withheld as a result of the annual earnings test (AET) provisions of the Social Security Act. For those at or above FRA, however, there have been recent changes to AET provisions. Amendments in 1996 eased the impact of AET provisions, while changes in 2000 removed the AET altogether for beneficiaries aged 65 or older. Public Law 104-121, enacted March 29, 1996, substantially raised the exempt amounts under the annual earnings test for persons who have reached full retirement age. These amounts are $12,500 in 1996; $13,500 in 1997; $14,500 in 1998; $15,500 in 1999; $17,000 in 2000; $25,000 in 2001; and $30,000 in 2002. Benefits are withheld at the rate of $1 in benefits for every $3 of earnings above the FRA exempt amount.
Public Law 106-182, enacted April 7, 2000, eliminated the earnings test beginning with the month a beneficiary reaches FRA. The annual earnings test that applies in the year one attains FRA is based on the more generous annual limits established under P.L. 104-121 (including the $1 for $3 withholding rate). After 2002, the annual exempt amount will be indexed to the growth in average wages. In determining annual earnings for purposes of the annual earnings test, only earnings before the month of attainment of FRA will be counted.
Public Laws 104-121 and 106-182 did not change the annual exempt amount for beneficiaries who are under FRA throughout the year. This annual amount continues to be pegged to increases in average wages. The amount was $10,680 in 2001, and is $11,280 in 2002. When the annual earnings limit affects working beneficiaries under FRA, benefits are withheld at the rate of $1 for every $2 of earnings above the exempt amount.
Individuals have the option to receive reduced benefits under a monthly earnings test if it is to their advantage to do so. This option is usually exercised in the first year of retirement, because in that year the monthly test permits payment for some months even if the annual earnings limit is greatly exceeded. Under the monthly test, beneficiaries receive a full monthly benefit for months in which they do not earn over an amount equal to 1/12 of the annual earnings limit. The monthly earnings test is applied to the self-employed based on hours they work instead of monthly earnings. Generally, beneficiaries are eligible for the monthly earnings test in only one year.
Beneficiaries entitled on the basis of their own disability—disabled workers, disabled adult children, and disabled widow(er)s—are not subject to the earnings test. Substantial earnings by disabled beneficiaries, however, may indicate that they are able to do work which constitutes substantial gainful activity (SGA) and are therefore no longer disabled. Although other factors are considered, numerical earnings thresholds are used in a determination of SGA.
Taxation of Benefits
Up to 85 percent of Social Security benefits may be subject to federal income tax depending on the beneficiary's income, marital status, and filing status. The definition of income for this provision is as follows: Adjusted gross income (before Social Security or Railroad Retirement benefits are considered), plus tax-exempt interest income, with further modification of adjusted gross income in some cases involving certain tax provisions of limited applicability among the beneficiary population; plus one-half of Social Security and Tier 1 Railroad Retirement benefits.
For married beneficiaries filing jointly with adjusted gross income under $32,000 a year, no Social Security benefits are subject to taxation. If adjusted gross income exceeds $32,000 but is under $44,000, the amount of benefits included in gross income is the lesser of one-half of income over $32,000. If a couple's adjusted gross income exceeds $44,000, the amount of benefits included in gross income is 85 percent of income over $44,000 plus the lesser of $6,000 or one-half of benefits. However, no more than 85 percent of benefits are subject to income tax. The income thresholds for single beneficiaries are $25,000 and $32,000.
If members of a married couple are filing separately, they do not have a minimum threshold if they lived together any time during the tax year. The amount of benefits included in gross income is the lesser of 85 percent of Social Security or Tier 1 Railroad Retirement benefits, or 85 percent of all income as defined above. Like all matters dealing with tax liability, taxation of Social Security benefits fall under the jurisdiction of the Internal Revenue Service.