• Chris Stein, CFP®

Clarification on Retroactively Claiming Social Security Benefits

A reader from Maine would like to know more about how Social Security benefits can be claimed retroactively.

“I will reach my Full Retirement Age in November 2021. If I wait until February 2022, can I claim Social Security benefits retroactively only to December 2021? I do not want to claim back to November, but I do want to claim in December. My thought is that receiving the December benefit qualifies my January 2022 benefit for the annual COLA adjustment, right? Also, COLA is not prorated, but one receives 100% of it even if only having a December statement. Is that correct? This is a little complicated. Should I go to a Social Security office and obtain a written confirmation?”


First, let’s describe retroactive filing for Social Security benefits. You’re allowed to claim or file retroactively up to six months or back to your Full Retirement Age (FRA), whichever is less. You’re not required to go all the way back, so when you are talking about filing in February instead of December, the question is, “Can I file retroactively?” Yes. Filing in February of 2022, when your FRA will be in November 2021, you could file all the way retroactively back to November 2021. (There’s rarely a reason not to file in December if that’s when you want your benefits, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)


With retroactive filing, it’s not all or nothing. For example, you can define the date and say, “I would like to date my application retroactively for December 2021.” So, yes, you could do that. Absolutely.


You just cannot retroactively claim more than six months at any time. Basically, the rules are that you have to be your FRA or older to claim retroactively, and there’s no retroactive benefit-claiming before your FRA.


You’re talking about claiming just a couple of months after your FRA. Your FRA will be in November, so in February, you will be limited to three months: January, December, and November. November is the earliest you can claim, but you could do a December claiming just as well.


Just remember that if you claim retroactively, the benefit will not be the same dollar amount. So, for example, if you file retroactive to December instead of beginning your benefit in February, it will lock in a slightly smaller benefit, but you’ll get paid for the missed months.


By February, you obviously will have missed being paid for a while. So Social Security will make up for the fact by paying those missed months in a lump sum. But your benefit going forward will be as if you had claimed the month of the retroactive date you chose. So this is not a workaround for collecting money and still getting the benefit of delaying. It doesn’t work that way. Instead, Social Security essentially treats (and calculates) it as if you had filed on the earlier date.


The main reason for retroactive filing is for people who simply forgot to file. Or they didn’t get to a Social Security office in time and suddenly said, “Oh, I meant to claim at my FRA, and I missed it by a few months.” Retroactive filing exists to undo that kind of accident. But some people use it strategically, and you’re allowed to.


But the hard-and-fast rules hold, whatever your reason: six months or back to your FRA, whichever is less.


You mention that this might be complicated. Actually, it’s simpler than you expect. You seem to believe that you have to have claimed to get the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) and that you’ll miss out on it for the year if you haven’t claimed your benefits in December of the prior year.


I suspect your concern comes because, this year, we’re likely to see a much higher COLA for Social Security than we’ve seen in a very long time, maybe decades. (We’ll know in October what the COLA will be for 2022.)


Whether you have claimed or not, you’re going to get the COLA. Social Security applies the adjustment in December because benefits are paid in arrears, and they want the COLA in effect in January’s payment for the December benefit.


The full COLA gets applied to your record whether you’ve claimed or not. So then, when you go to turn on your benefit, you’ll get credit for all the COLAs that have happened between the day you were eligible to claim (but never did) and the day you actually claim your benefits. And that could be as late as age 70. So, no worries.


If the whole reason you’re looking at retroactive filing is to get the COLA for this year, don’t waste your time. If you want your benefit to start in January for a February payment, file in January. Or if you want to start in February, fine. But don’t retroactively claim a month or two to unlock some secret way of capturing COLA that you’re otherwise going to miss out on. You’re not going to miss out on it.

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