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Taking a Social Security mulligan

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Advisers should inform their clients about the Social Security “mulligan,” which is the ability to change their mind about receiving benefits. This comes with two big caveats, however: the window of opportunity is only open for the first 12 months after they initially file for benefits, and they must pay back all the money they’ve received up to that point.

Social Security Administration Form 521, or the so-called Request for Withdrawal of Application, allows people to withdraw their Social Security claims and re-apply at a future date. However, those who change their minds 12 months or more after they became entitled to retirement benefits can’t withdraw their application.

Those individuals who have reached full retirement age but aren’t yet 70 can request that their benefit payments be suspended.

Mulligans can be particularly important for couples in which the higher-earning spouse found a job after retiring, says Stephen Williams, a CFP, vice president and the co-national head of financial planning strategy, U.S., at BMO Wealth Management in Chicago.

If they can delay their benefits as long as possible, this locks in a potentially higher spousal benefit as well as a higher survivor benefit. Conversely, sticking with the early claim locks in the lower monthly benefit for the surviving spouse’s life.

This is a good strategy once the income replacement is there, says Terrance Martin, managing partner at Tranquility Financial Planning in McAllen Texas.

“If the retiree has a well-funded Roth they may use that to reimburse the Social Security within the 12 months,” he says.

“However, they should consult a financial planner to assess the impact on their financial future. The last desire is that they would be in a worse position,” Martin says.

Another situation where people can use a mulligan is when they receive an inheritance, but using the mulligan for any reason can be like “gambling,” says Catherine Seeber, a CFP and partner and senior adviser at Wescott Financial Advisory Group in Philadelphia.

“What if you don’t land that job within the 12-month restriction or the inheritance is delayed? In this instance, you no longer have the money to pay the SSA back, and you are stuck with the lower benefit,” Seeber says.

A more practical approach is to refrain from taking the benefit whenever possible, at least until full retirement age, and go back to work, she says.

Earning that same income by way of a part-time job “pays off in the long run for a host of healthy reasons,” Seeber says.

But requesting a mulligan really should be a “last-resort scenario,” says Kevin Meehan, a CFP and a regional president of Wealth Enhancement Group in Itasca, Illinois.

“I wouldn’t recommend banking on using this mulligan opportunity as part of your Social Security-claiming strategy,” he says. “It’s also important to note that the SSA allows you only one application withdrawal during your lifetime.”

This story is part of a 30-30 series on Social Security.

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