Coffee heat rising

Early Social Security: A way around the earnings limit

Social Security allows you to start receiving benefits at one of three ages: at 62, at about 65, or at 70. The longer you delay the more you appear to be earning. This results from an actuarial calculation. A flat amount is designated for each American who reaches old age; the older you are when you start collecting, the more you receive monthly—the reasonable assumption being that the older you are, the fewer years you will have to receive your designated cache of dollars.

About three-fourths of Americans start their benefits “early,” at age 62. Many can do so because they have enough savings to live on, or are close enough that a small Social Security payment will get them out of the salt mine. Others are faced with life circumstances, such as layoffs or sickness, that force them to take the money early. And because the government has been slowly pushing back the age of so-called “full” retirement, for many of us that age comes well past the time we feel we should no longer have to work. In my case, “full” retirement doesn’t come until age 66.

If you take so-called “early” retirement—that is, you choose to start drawing benefits at 62—you get a reduced amount. If you wait until age 70, you get a significantly larger benefit. For example, in my case the difference between starting Social Security now and waiting until age 70 would amount to $1,029 a month. The difference if I waited until age 66 would be about $300 a month…enough to ensure that I wouldn’t have to teach one (count it, one) of six freshman comp courses a year to survive.

To discourage people from drawing their benefits at the earliest possible age, Social Security penalizes you for working. Until you reach “full” retirement age, every two dollars you earn above $14,160 results in a dollar confiscated from your benefits. A w4 estimator can help do the math for you. Since neither my $13,944 Social Security benefit (gross: after-tax would be around $11,400) or a gross of $14,160 is enough to live on, this represents a very big problem. Given the ambient ageism that infests American society plus the practical problems entailed in hiring older workers, the likelihood that I will get a full-time job at 64 is almost nil. So I’m faced with two years of poverty (or having to draw down 7 or 8 percent of savings!) before I can start earning enough to live on, and by then my sources of freelance income will have dried up..

As it develops, however, there’s a work-around for the self-employed. It’s called incorporation. The proceeds of an S-corporation do not register for Social Security purposes. This is not true for a C-corp. Here’s how my tax lawyer explains it:

An S corporation is a pass-through entity whose income is taxed directly to the shareholders. In that respect it is like a partnership. The difference, however, is that S corporation income is not subject to self-employment tax (as it would be in a partnership or Schedule C (sole proprietor)). Therefore, S corporation income is not considered to be “earnings” for Social Security purposes.


However, as a more-than-5% owner of an S corporation, if you are also an officer (which you would be), you are required to take “reasonable compensation” (W-2 wages) for your duties as an officer of the corporation. Right now, it is the only way IRS can assess FICA/Medicare in an S corporation. If you do not take reasonable salary, IRS will attempt to assess FICA/Medicare on your total withdrawals (and perhaps the total income) of the S corporation. They will assess whatever they can get away with. The reasonableness of the salary depends on the total income of the corporation.

In other words, you can have self-employed income flow into an S-corporation and then have the corporation pay you in salary and dividends. Not only do you get around the $14,600 earnings limitation, you don’t have to pay the usual double dose of FICA levied on self-employed workers.

So, the solution is to form an S-corp that will function as an umbrella for the several sources of freelance income that trickle into my bank account: The Copyeditor’s Desk, HW&E (my original freelance entity, separate from the partnership with Tina), and Funny about Money. None of these will earn much, but taken together the proceeds could at least cut down the number of freshman comp courses I’ll have to teach. That will improve the quality of my life by several orders of magnitude.

A person who runs a business that makes a decent income could profit nicely from this strategy.