Private rail pensions may reduce supplemental annuities
Railroad Retirement beneficiaries are reminded that receipt of a private railroad pension may reduce the amount of a supplemental annuity payable by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB). The following questions and answers provide information on this subject and how 401(k) plans are affected by the Railroad Retirement Act (RRA).
1. What are the eligibility requirements for a supplemental annuity?
Monthly supplemental annuities are payable to employee annuitants with 25 or more years of rail service, a “current connection” with the railroad industry, and at least one month of creditable rail service before October 1981. Individuals with 30 years or more of rail service may begin receiving a supplemental annuity at age 60, whereas individuals with 25-29 years of service may do so at age 65. (Disabled annuitants under full retirement age, which is gradually rising to age 67 for those born in 1960 or later, must relinquish employment rights in order for a supplemental annuity to be paid by the RRB.) Monthly supplemental annuity rates vary based on an annuitant’s years of rail service. The maximum monthly supplemental annuity rate is $43.
2. How does the receipt of a private railroad pension affect payment of a supplemental annuity?
If a retired employee also receives a private pension funded entirely, or in part, by a railroad employer, the supplemental annuity is permanently reduced by the amount of the monthly pension that is based on the railroad employer’s contributions. However, if the employer reduces the pension for the employee’s entitlement to a supplemental annuity, the amount by which the pension is reduced is restored to the supplemental annuity (but does not raise it over the $43 maximum). There is no reduction for a pension paid by a railroad labor organization.
3. What if an employee elects to receive the pension in a lump-sum payment instead of as a monthly benefit?
If a retired employee elects to receive his or her pension in a lump-sum payment instead of as a monthly benefit, the supplemental annuity is reduced in the same way as it would be if the employee was receiving the monthly benefit. (If the lump sum is paid in installments, the installment payments are not considered monthly benefit payments, but part of the single lump-sum payment.)
4. Does the receipt of a 401(k) plan distribution reduce the amount of a supplemental annuity?
No. In Legal Opinion L-2014-2, issued January 13, 2014, the RRB’s general counsel determined that 401(k) plans should not be considered supplemental pension plans as defined by the Railroad Retirement Act and, therefore, employee supplemental annuities should not be reduced due to the receipt of 401(k) distributions.
5. Are employee contributions to a 401(k) plan subject to Railroad Retirement Tier I and Tier II payroll taxes?
Yes. Federal budget legislation enacted in 1989 and effective January 1, 1990, provided that employee contributions to 401(k) plans are subject to Railroad Retirement payroll taxes and brought the treatment of 401(k) plans under Railroad Retirement law into conformity with the treatment of such plans under Social Security law. Consequently, employee contributions to a 401(k) plan are also treated as creditable compensation for Railroad Retirement benefit purposes. (For example, an employee earning $40,000 a year, but who has 10% of his earnings deferred under a 401(k) plan, would have only $36,000 reported to the IRS as earnings subject to federal income tax. However, the entire $40,000 would be subject to Railroad Retirement payroll taxes and therefore creditable as compensation under the Railroad Retirement Act.)
6. How can a person get more information about how private rail pensions and 401(k) plan payments affect supplemental annuities?
More information is available on RRB.gov or by contacting an RRB field office. It is important to know that while nearly all of the RRB’s 53 field offices are physically closed to the public until further notice because of the COVID-19 outbreak, they remain accessible by email and phone. Customers are encouraged to send a secure email to their local office by accessing the Field Office Locator and clicking on the link at the bottom of their local office’s page. Customers who prefer talking to an RRB employee can call the agency’s toll-free number (1-877-772-5772); however, they may experience lengthy wait times due to increased call volume caused by COVID-19 related issues.
Medicare Part B premiums for 2021
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced that the standard monthly Part B premium will be $148.50 in 2021, an increase of $3.90 from $144.60 in 2020. Some Medicare beneficiaries will pay less than this amount because, by law, Part B premiums for current enrollees cannot increase by more than the amount of the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security (Railroad Retirement Tier I) benefits.
Since the cost-of-living adjustment is 1.3% in 2021, some Medicare beneficiaries will see an increase in their Part B premiums but still pay less than $148.50. The standard premium amount will also apply to new enrollees in the program. However, certain beneficiaries will continue to pay higher premiums based on their modified adjusted gross income.
The monthly Part B premiums that include income-related adjustments for 2021 will range from $207.90 to $504.90, depending on the extent to which an individual beneficiary’s modified adjusted gross income exceeds $88,000 (or $176,000 for a married couple). The highest rate applies to beneficiaries whose incomes exceed $500,000 (or $750,000 for a married couple). CMS estimates that about 7% of Medicare beneficiaries pay the larger income-adjusted premiums.
Beneficiaries in Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage plans pay premiums that vary from plan to plan. Part D beneficiaries whose modified adjusted gross income exceeds the same income thresholds that apply to Part B premiums also pay a monthly adjustment amount. In 2021, the adjustment amount ranges from $12.30 to $77.10.
The Railroad Retirement Board withholds Part B premiums, Part B income-related adjustments and Part D income-related adjustments from benefit payments it processes. The agency can also withhold Part C and D premiums from benefit payments if an individual submits a request to his or her Part C or D insurance plan.
The following tables show the income-related Part B premium adjustments for 2021. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is responsible for all income-related monthly adjustment amount determinations. To make the determinations, SSA uses the most recent tax return information available from the Internal Revenue Service. For 2021, that will usually be the beneficiary’s 2019 tax return information. If that information is not available, SSA will use information from the 2018 tax return.
Railroad Retirement and Social Security Medicare beneficiaries affected by the 2021 Part B and D income-related premiums will receive a notice from SSA by the end of the year. The notice will include an explanation of the circumstances when a beneficiary may request a new determination. Persons who have questions or would like to request a new determination should contact SSA after receiving their notice.
Additional information about Medicare coverage, including specific benefits and deductibles, can be found at www.medicare.gov.
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2021 PART B PREMIUMS
Beneficiaries who file an individual tax return with income:
Beneficiaries who file a joint tax return with income:
Income-related monthly adjustment amount
Total monthly Part B premium amount
Less than or equal to $88,000
Less than or equal to $176,000
Greater than $88,000 and less than or equal to $111,000
Greater than $176,000 and less than or equal to $222,000
Greater than $111,000 and less than or equal to $138,000
Greater than $222,000 and less than or equal to $276,000
Greater than $138,000 and less than or equal to $165,000
Greater than $276,000 and less than or equal to $330,000
Greater than $165,000 and less than or equal to $500,000
Greater than $330,000 and less than or equal to $750,000
$500,000 and above
$750,000 and above
The monthly premium rates paid by beneficiaries who are married, but file a separate return from their spouses and who lived with their spouses at some time during the taxable year, are different. Those rates are as follows:
Beneficiaries who are married, but file a separate tax return, with income:
Income-related monthly adjustment amount
Total monthly Part B premium amount
Less than or equal to $88,000
Greater than $88,000 and less than or equal to $412,000
Every three years, the Railroad Retirement Board’s chief actuary conducts a study of the longevity of its annuitants, as part of a valuation of future revenues and benefit payments. The following questions and answers summarize the results of the most recent longevity study.
1. What were the study’s findings on the life expectancy of retired male railroaders?
The most recent data reflected a continued improvement in longevity. Using data through 2016, the study indicated that, on the average, a male railroader retiring at age 60 can be expected to live another 22.5 years, or 270 months. Studies done three, six and nine years ago indicated life expectancies of 22.4, 21.9 and 21.3 years, respectively, for this category of beneficiary. The study also indicated that a male railroader retiring at age 62 can be expected to live another 20.8 years (approximately 250 months), while the previous three studies indicated life expectancies of 20.7, 20.1 and 19.6 years, respectively. A male railroader retiring at age 65 can be expected to live another 18.3 years (approximately 220 months). The previous studies indicated life expectancies of 18.2, 17.7 and 17.1 years, respectively, for this category of beneficiary.
2. How did these life expectancy figures compare to those of disabled annuitants?
As would be expected, disabled annuitants have a shorter average life expectancy than those who retire based on age. At age 60, a disabled railroader has an average life expectancy of 18 years, or 4.5 years less than a nondisabled male annuitant of the same age. Studies done three, six and nine years ago indicated life expectancies of 17.7, 17.2 and 16.4 years, respectively, for this category of beneficiary. Nonetheless, the difference in life expectancy at age 60 between disabled annuitants and annuitants who retire based on age has remained relatively stable, ranging between 4.5 and 4.9 years.
3. Are women still living longer than men?
In general, women still live longer than men. This is shown both in the Railroad Retirement Board’s life expectancy studies of male and female annuitants and by other studies of the general United States population.
For example, at age 60 a retired female railroader is expected on the average to live 25.6 years, 3.1 years longer than a retired male railroader of the same age; and at age 65, a retired female railroader is expected on the average to live 21.1 years, 2.8 years longer than her male counterpart. Spouses and widows age 65 have average life expectancies of 21 years and 19 years, respectively.
4. Can individuals use life expectancy figures to predict how long they will live?
Life expectancy figures are averages for large groups of people. Any particular individual’s lifetime may be much longer or shorter than the life expectancy of his or her age and group.
According to the study, from a group of 1,000 retired male employees at age 65, 933 will live at least 5 years, 822 at least 10 years, 658 at least 15 years and 448 at least 20 years. Of female age annuitants at age 65, 578 will be alive 20 years later.
5. Where can I access the Railroad Retirement Board’s longevity study?
Railroad Retirement Act spouse and widow(er)s’ annuities (including divorced spouse, surviving divorced spouse and remarried widow(er)s’ annuities) are subject to reduction when social security benefits or dual railroad retirement annuities are also payable. Such railroad retirement benefits may also be reduced when a spouse or widow(er) is entitled to a public service pension unless certain exemption requirements are met.
Since the payment of railroad retirement spouse or widow(er)s’ annuities can be affected by entitlement to certain other government benefits, such dual entitlement, if not reported to the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), can result in benefit overpayments which have to be repaid, sometimes with interest and penalties. The following questions and answers describe how payments are adjusted by the RRB for spouse and widow(er) annuitants entitled to public service pensions.
1. For social security or railroad retirement purposes, what is considered a public service pension?
A public service pension is any periodic benefit payment, as well as lump-sum payments made in lieu of periodic payments, based on an individual’s own employment with a Federal, State or local government unit. Some examples are pensions paid to teachers, police officers and civil service personnel on the basis of age or disability. Full salary benefits paid to a retired or resigned judge under the Federal judiciary retirement system are also considered public service pensions.
Most military service pensions and payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs will not cause a reduction. A pension paid by a foreign government or an interstate instrumentality also has no effect on a spouse or widow(er)’s annuity.
2. How is the public service pension reduction applied to railroad retirement spouse or widow(er)s’ annuities?
For spouses and widow(er)s subject to the public service pension reduction, the tier I reduction is, under current law, equal to 2/3 of the amount of the public pension. The amount of the public service pension is the current gross amount, before any deductions for income tax withholding, Medicare premiums, health insurance or other benefits.
3. What is the background of the public service pension reduction in spouse and widow(er)s’ annuities and how does it affect such payments?
The public service pension reduction in social security and railroad retirement spouse and widow(er)s’ benefits was brought about by 1977 social security legislation which also applied to the tier I benefits of railroad retirement spouses and widow(er)s. The tier I portion of a railroad retirement annuity is based on railroad retirement credits and any social security credits an employee has acquired. It is computed under social security formulas and approximates what social security would pay if railroad work were also covered by that system. Tier I benefits are, therefore, reduced in the same manner as social security benefits when certain other benefits are also payable.
4. Are there any provisions that would exempt railroad retirement spouse or widow(er) annuitants from the public service pension offsets?
Generally, in order to be exempt from a public service pension reduction, Federal, State and local government workers must be covered by social security throughout their last 60 months of employment with the pension-paying government entity.
The public pension reduction also does not apply to a spouse or widow(er) who filed for and became entitled to her or his railroad retirement annuity before December 1977, or to a spouse or widow(er) whose public pension is not based on her or his own earnings.
5. Where can more specific information on how these pension offsets affect railroad retirement benefits be obtained?
Persons can contact an RRB field office for information as to how their public service pensions could affect their railroad retirement benefits via the agency’s website, www.rrb.gov, or by calling toll-free at 1-877-772-5772. Most RRB offices are open to the public from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, except on Federal holidays.
Railroad workers should be aware that in addition to retirement annuities based on age and service, the Railroad Retirement Act also provides disability annuities for workers who become totally or occupationally disabled. Medicare coverage before age 65 is also available for totally disabled employees and those suffering from chronic kidney disease, according to the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB).
The following questions and answers describe the disability benefits available from the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), their requirements and how to apply for them.
1. I’ve been working for a railroad for over 30 years. I’m only 52 but my health has been deteriorating and I don’t think I can work until I’m 60 and eligible for a retirement annuity based on age. What benefits could I be eligible for?
You may be eligible for benefits based either on total disability or occupational disability.
A total disability annuity is based on permanent disability for all employment and is payable at any age to employees with at least 10 years of railroad service, and under certain conditions to employees with 5 years of service after 1995.
An occupational disability annuity is based on disability for the employee’s regular railroad occupation and is payable at age 60 if the employee has 10 years of service, or at any age if the employee has at least 20 years of service. A “current connection with the railroad industry” is also required for an occupational disability annuity. The current connection requirement is normally met if the employee worked for a railroad in at least 12 of the last 30 consecutive months immediately preceding the annuity beginning date.
2. How do I apply for disability benefits?
To receive disability benefits you must file an application at one of the RRB’s field offices. You can be in compensated service while filing a disability application as long as the compensated service terminates within 90 days from the date of filing and the compensated service is not active service.
To expedite filing for a disability annuity, you or a family member should call or write an RRB field office to schedule an appointment. For the appointment, bring in any medical evidence in your possession and any medical records you can secure from your treating physicians. If you are receiving workers’ compensation or public disability benefits, notice of such payments must be submitted. In addition, proof of your age and proof of any military service credit claimed and a description of your past work activity will also be required.
If you are unable to personally visit an RRB office or meet an agency representative at a customer outreach program service location, you may request special assistance, such as having an RRB representative come to a hospital or your home.
3. I understand there are companies that will help me with the disability benefit application process, usually for a fee. Should I take advantage of these services?
We can’t advise you whether or not to hire any company or individual to help you file a disability application, however, there is certainly no requirement that you do so and there is usually no need to. There are RRB field offices located throughout the country trained to assist you in filing for a disability application at no cost to you. RRB personnel are the best resource available to assist disabled employees with their applications and advise them on how to obtain any additional medical evidence required or any other necessary documents or records. In fact, any time you need information or assistance, you should contact an RRB field office. In addition to the personal attention you will receive, special booklets and other printed materials are available. If you have a question about your benefits, you can speak to an RRB representative by calling the agency toll-free at (877) 772-5772 from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. If you leave a message, your call will generally be returned within the next two business days.
4. Am I required to tell my employer that I am filing for disability benefits?
No, you are not required to inform your employer that you are filing for disability benefits. This is a private matter between you and the RRB. However, when a railroad employee files for an occupational disability annuity, a letter is sent to the employer seeking information about your jobs with that employer. Also, monthly summaries of benefits awarded are routinely sent to those employers who have requested them.
5. How do the standards for total disability and occupational disability differ?
An employee is considered to be totally disabled if medical evidence shows a permanent physical and/or mental impairment preventing the performance of any regular and gainful work. A condition is considered to be permanent if it has lasted or may be expected to last for at least 12 months or result in death.
An employee is considered to be occupationally disabled if a physical and/or mental impairment prevents the employee from performing the duties of his or her regular railroad occupation, even though the employee may be able to perform other kinds of work. An employee’s regular occupation is generally that particular work he or she has performed for hire in more calendar months than any other work during the last 5 years, or that work which was performed for hire in at least one-half of all the months in which the employee worked for hire during the last 15 years.
6. What medical evidence will I be required to submit if I file for a railroad retirement disability annuity?
If you file for a disability annuity, you will be required to submit medical evidence supporting your claim. You may furnish medical evidence in three ways:
You will be given a report form for your personal physician to complete. In this way the RRB can get information about your condition from the medical source that knows you best.
You will be asked to sign an authorization to release to the RRB any hospital, clinic, or employer medical records about your condition.
The RRB may ask you to be examined at the agency’s expense if more evidence is needed to:
Obtain more detailed or specialized medical findings about your condition, or
Resolve conflicts or differences in the evidence already on file.
7. What are acceptable sources of medical evidence?
The following are acceptable sources of medical evidence:
Licensed or certified psychologists
Persons authorized to send copies or summaries of the medical records of hospitals, clinics, sanitariums, medical institutions, or health care facilities.
Also, information from other sources can sometimes be important to a decision about your ability to work, such as:
Public and private social welfare agencies
Observations by non-medical sources (for instance, a vocational consultant)
Other practitioners (naturopaths, chiropractors, audiologists, etc.)
Sometimes the RRB will not be able to make a decision on your application without obtaining additional information. If so, an RRB representative will contact you by telephone or mail. You may be asked to send in the additional forms, proofs, or statements that are needed. You may also be asked to report for a medical examination.
It is in your best interest to fully cooperate if medical or other evidence is needed so that the decision on your claim is made as quickly as possible and based on the best information available.
If you fail to submit medical evidence that is needed and requested, a decision will be made on the evidence available. Also, if you fail or refuse to report without good cause for an examination scheduled and paid for by the RRB, it may be decided that you are not disabled.
8. Are copies of my disability application and medical evidence provided to my employer?
No. Federal law prohibits the release of this information to your employer without your written authorization. Your application for disability benefits and any medical evidence submitted in support of your claim are handled and maintained with strict attention to confidence and privacy by RRB personnel.
9. What happens after the RRB receives my application and medical evidence?
After the RRB receives your completed application and all the needed evidence, the agency will decide if you are entitled to disability benefits.
If you are not entitled to disability benefits, the RRB will send you a notice explaining:
Why you cannot receive disability benefits, and
What you can do if you disagree with the reason you cannot receive them.
If you are entitled to disability benefits, you will receive a notice that shows the amount of your monthly payments and other information about your benefits.
10. How soon after filing my application can I expect a decision?
Under the RRB’s Customer Service Plan standards, the agency will make a decision on your application within 100 days of the date you filed your application.
It should be noted that processing applications for disability benefits is more complex than other benefits due to the need to develop medical evidence. When you file an application for disability benefits, RRB field office staff will provide you with additional information on processing times for decisions and payments.
11. If the RRB decides that I am eligible for disability benefits, can my employer contest that decision?
No, employers cannot contest the RRB’s decision to award disability benefits to an individual.
12. Could early Medicare coverage be available to me if I’m rated disabled by the RRB?
Medicare coverage before age 65 may begin after a totally disabled employee has been entitled to a disability annuity for at least 24 months. There is no 24-month waiting period for those who have ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Many employees who are disabled for all employment but are otherwise qualified for an occupational disability annuity are initially awarded occupational disability annuities in order to expedite payment. The fact that you are initially awarded an occupational disability annuity does not preclude early Medicare coverage, if your physical and/or mental condition is such that you are totally and permanently disabled.
Over 70 percent of all employees awarded disability annuities will meet the medical criteria for what is called a disability freeze determination. The standards for freeze determinations follow social security law and are comparable to the criteria for granting total and permanent disability. Also, if you are granted a disability freeze you may qualify for early Medicare coverage and lower Federal income taxes on your annuity.
It should also be noted that Medicare coverage on the basis of kidney disease requiring dialysis or a kidney transplant is available not only to employee annuitants, but also to employees who have not retired but meet certain minimum service requirements, as well as spouses and dependent children. For those suffering from chronic kidney disease, coverage may begin with the third month after dialysis treatment begins, or earlier under certain conditions. However, applications by rail employees for early Medicare coverage on the basis of kidney disease must be filed with an office of the Social Security Administration, rather than the Railroad Retirement Board.