4 Social Security Changes Coming in 2011

Several claiming options will be eliminated this year.

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The Social Security program will be tweaked in several important ways in 2011. Workers will get a temporary tax break on the amount they pay into the entitlement program, and several claiming options for retirees will be eliminated. Here's a look at how the Social Security program will change this year.

Lower Social Security taxes. The amount workers pay into the Social Security trust fund will temporarily drop from 6.2 percent of taxable wages up to $106,800 annually to 4.2 percent in 2011 only. For self-employed workers, the Social Security tax rate will drop from 12.4 percent to 10.4 percent next year, due to provisions of the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010, signed by President Obama on December 17. Employers will continue to pay 6.2 percent of wages into the entitlement program.

[See Will You Get Back Your Social Security Taxes in Retirement?]

The Social Security system's finances are not expected to be harmed because the trust fund will be reimbursed for the full amount of the tax break from the general fund of the Treasury. However, this change also means that the Social Security trust fund will no longer be completely funded directly by citizen contributions. "This pretty much ends the claim that Social Security is self-financing or that it doesn't contribute to the budget deficit," says Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

Free loan option eliminated. Retirees will no longer be able to get an interest-free loan from the Social Security trust fund this year. The Social Security Administration announced in December 2010 that individuals will not be able to begin payments at age 62, pay back all the benefits received at age 70 without interest, and then reclaim at a higher rate due to delayed claiming. Under the new rules, Social Security beneficiaries may withdraw an application for retirement benefits only within 12 months of their first Social Security payment and are limited to one withdrawal per lifetime. "This free loan costs the Social Security trust fund the use of money during the period the beneficiary is receiving benefits with the intent of later withdrawing the application and the interest earned on these funds," says the Social Security Administration in a statement about the rule change. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College calculated that mass utilization of this claiming strategy could cost the system between $5.5 billion and $11 billion, primarily going to high-income households with enough liquid assets to pay back the benefits.

[See 12 Ways to Fix Social Security.]

Retroactive benefit suspensions discontinued. Retirees will still be allowed to temporarily suspend their benefits and restart them later, which can result in bigger Social Security checks to account for the months or years in which payment was not received. However, beneficiaries will not be able to retroactively suspend benefits and pay back money already received in exchange for higher payments going forward. Retirees will be allowed to voluntarily suspend benefits only for months in which they did not receive payments or future benefits beginning the month after the request is made.

[See 10 Things You Didn't Know About Social Security.]

Paper checks retired. Retirees who apply for Social Security benefits on or after May 1, 2011, will no longer have the option of receiving a paper check in the mail. Seniors can have their entitlement payments directly deposited into a bank or credit union account or loaded onto a prepaid Direct Express Debit MasterCard. "This important change will provide significant savings to American taxpayers who will no longer incur the annual $120 million price tag associated with paper checks and will save Social Security $1 billion over the next 10 years," says Richard Gregg, Treasury Fiscal Assistant Secretary. Retirees already receiving paper checks will need to switch to direct deposit or the prepaid debit card by March 1, 2013.