The payment of a Railroad Retirement annuity can be affected by entitlement to Social Security benefits, as well as certain other government benefits. Such dual entitlement, if not reported to the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), can result in benefit overpayments that have to be repaid, sometimes with interest and penalties. The following questions and answers describe how the RRB adjusts Railroad Retirement benefits for annuitants who are also eligible for Social Security benefits and/or other benefit payments.
1. How are dual benefits paid to persons entitled to both Railroad Retirement and Social Security benefits?
If a Railroad Retirement annuitant is also awarded a Social Security benefit, the Social Security Administration determines the amount of the Social Security benefit due, but a combined monthly dual benefit payment should, in most cases, be issued by the RRB after the Railroad Retirement annuity has been reduced by the amount of the Social Security benefit.
2. Why is a Railroad Retirement annuity reduced when a Social Security benefit is also payable?
The Tier I portion of a Railroad Retirement annuity is based on both the Railroad Retirement and Social Security earnings credits acquired by an employee and computed under Social Security formulas. It approximates what Social Security would pay if railroad work were covered by Social Security. Tier I benefits are, therefore, reduced by the amount of any actual Social Security benefit paid on the basis of nonrailroad employment, in order to prevent a duplication of benefits based on Social Security-covered earnings.
In addition, following principles of Social Security law which limit payment to the higher of any two or more benefits payable to an individual at one time, the Tier I dual benefit reduction applies to an annuity even if the Social Security benefit is based on the earnings record of someone other than the railroad employee, such as a spouse or former spouse. An annuitant is required to advise the RRB if any benefits are received directly from the Social Security Administration or if those benefits increase (other than for a cost-of-living increase) to avoid a Railroad Retirement benefit overpayment.
The Tier II portion of a Railroad Retirement annuity is based on the railroad employee’s railroad service and earnings alone and is computed under a separate formula. It is not reduced for entitlement to a Social Security benefit.
3. Are there any exceptions to the Railroad Retirement annuity reduction for Social Security benefits?
No. There are no exceptions to the Railroad Retirement annuity reduction for Social Security benefits.
4. Can federal, state or local government pensions also result in dual benefit reductions in an employee’s Railroad Retirement annuity?
Yes. Tier I benefits for employees first eligible for a Railroad Retirement annuity and a federal, state or local government pension after 1985 may be reduced for receipt of a public pension based, in part or in whole, on employment not covered by Social Security or Railroad Retirement after 1956. This may also apply to certain other payments not covered by Railroad Retirement or Social Security, such as payments from a non-profit organization or a foreign government or a foreign employer. Usually, an employee’s Tier I benefit will not be reduced by more than 1/2 of his or her pension from noncovered employment. However, if the employee is under age 65 and receiving a disability annuity, the Tier I benefit may be reduced by an added amount if the pension from noncovered employment is a public disability benefit.
Military service pensions, payments by the Department of Veterans Affairs, or certain benefits payable by a foreign government as a result of a totalization agreement between that government and the United States will not cause a reduction.
5. Can the public service pension reduction apply to spouse or widow(er)s’ benefits?
Yes. The Tier I portion of a spouse’s or widow(er)’s annuity may be reduced for receipt of any federal, state or local government pension separately payable to the spouse or widow(er) based on her or his own earnings. For spouses and widow(er)s subject to a public service pension reduction, the Tier I reduction is equal to 2/3 of the amount of the public service pension.
The reduction generally does not apply if the employment on which the public service pension is based was covered under the Social Security Act throughout the last 60 months of public employment. Most military service pensions and payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs will not cause a reduction. Pensions paid by a foreign government or interstate instrumentality will also not cause a reduction.
6. What dual benefit restrictions apply when both persons in a marriage are railroad employees entitled to Railroad Retirement annuities?
If both parties started railroad employment after 1974, the amount of any spouse or divorced spouse annuity is reduced by the amount of the employee annuity to which the spouse or divorced spouse is also entitled.
If either party had some railroad service before 1975, the spouse or divorced spouse Tier I amount is reduced by the amount of the railroad employee Tier I to which the spouse or divorced spouse is entitled. The spouse or divorced spouse Tier I amount cannot be reduced below zero. The initial reduction is restored in the spouse Tier II amount. Divorced spouses are not entitled to a Tier II component and are not eligible to have the reduction restored.
In survivor cases, if the widow(er) is entitled to a Railroad Retirement employee annuity and neither the widow(er) nor the deceased employee had any railroad service before 1975, the survivor annuity (Tier I and Tier II) payable to the widow(er) is reduced by the total amount of the widow(er)’s own employee annuity.
If a widow or dependent widower is also a railroad employee annuitant, and either the widow(er) or the deceased employee had 120 months of railroad service before 1975, the Tier I reduction may be partially restored in the survivor Tier II amount.
If either the deceased employee or the widow(er) had some railroad service before 1975 but less than 120 months of service, the widow(er)’s own employee annuity and the Tier II portion of the survivor annuity would be payable to the widow(er). The Tier I portion of the survivor annuity would be payable only to the extent that it exceeds the Tier I portion of the widow(er)’s own employee annuity.
7. Can workers’ compensation or public disability benefits affect Railroad Retirement benefits?
If an employee is receiving a Railroad Retirement disability annuity, Tier I benefits for the employee and spouse may, under certain circumstances, be reduced for receipt of workers’ compensation or public disability benefits.
8. How can an annuitant find out if the receipt of any dual benefits affects his or her Railroad Retirement annuity?
If an annuitant becomes entitled to any of the dual benefit payments discussed above, or if there is any question as to whether a dual benefit payment requires a reduction in an annuity, he or she should contact an RRB field office online or by phone. As all of the RRB’s 53 field offices are physically closed to the public until further notice because of the COVID-19 pandemic, customers are encouraged to contact their local office by accessing Field Office Locator at RRB.gov and clicking on Send a Secure Message 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.
The Social Security Administration announced in a press release that effective Tuesday, March 17, 2020, all local offices will be closed to the public. Below is the release.
All local Social Security offices will be closed to the public for in-person service starting Tuesday, March 17, 2020. This decision protects the population we serve — older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions — and our employees during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However, we are still able to provide critical services.
Our secure and convenient online services remain available at www.socialsecurity.gov. Local offices will also continue to provide critical services over the phone. We are working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state and local governments, and other experts to monitor COVID-19 and will let you know as soon as we can resume in-person service.
If you need help from Social Security:
First, please use our secure and convenient online services available at www.socialsecurity.gov/onlineservices. You can apply for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits online, check the status of an application or appeal, request a replacement Social Security card (in most areas), print a benefit verification letter, and much more – from anywhere and from any of your devices. We also have a wealth of information to answer most of your Social Security questions online, without having to speak with a Social Security representative in person or by phone. Please visit our online Frequently Asked Questions at www.socialsecurity.gov/ask.
If you cannot conduct your Social Security business online, please check our online field office locator for specific information about how to directly contact your local office. Your local office still will be able to provide critical services to help you apply for benefits, answer your questions and provide other services over the phone.
If you already have an in-office appointment scheduled, we will call you to handle your appointment over the phone instead. If you have a hearing scheduled, we will call you to discuss alternatives for continuing with your hearing, including offering a telephonic hearing. Our call may come from a PRIVATE number and not from a U.S. Government phone. Please remember that our employees will not threaten you or ask for any form of payment.
If you cannot complete your Social Security business online, please call our National 800 Number at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). Our National 800 Number has many automated service options you can use without waiting to speak with a telephone representative. A list of automated telephone services is available online at www.socialsecurity.gov/agency/contact/phone.html.
Disability Fund Shows Strong Improvement—Twenty Years
The Social Security Board of Trustees released its annual report on the long-term financial status of the Social Security trust funds. The combined asset reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance (OASI and DI) trust funds are projected to become depleted in 2035, one year later than projected last year, with 80% of benefits payable at that time.
The OASI trust fund is projected to become depleted in 2034, the same as last year’s estimate, with 77% of benefits payable at that time. The DI trust fund is estimated to become depleted in 2052, extended 20 years from last year’s estimate of 2032, with 91% of benefits still payable.
In the 2019 Annual Report to Congress, the trustees announced:
The asset reserves of the combined OASI and DI trust funds increased by $3 billion in 2018 to a total of $2.895 trillion.
The total annual cost of the program is projected to exceed total annual income, for the first time since 1982, in 2020 and remain higher throughout the 75-year projection period. As a result, asset reserves are expected to decline during 2020. Social Security’s cost has exceeded its non-interest income since 2010.
The year when the combined trust fund reserves are projected to become depleted, if Congress does not act before then, is 2035 – gaining one year from last year’s projection. At that time, there would be sufficient income coming in to pay 80% of scheduled benefits.
“The Trustees recommend that lawmakers address the projected trust fund shortfalls in a timely way in order to phase in necessary changes gradually and give workers and beneficiaries time to adjust to them,” said Nancy A. Berryhill, acting commissioner of Social Security. “The large change in the reserve depletion date for the DI fund is mainly due to continuing favorable trends in the disability program. Disability applications have been declining since 2010, and the number of disabled-worker beneficiaries receiving payments has been falling since 2014.”
Other highlights of the trustees’ report include:
Total income, including interest, to the combined OASI and DI trust funds amounted to just over $1 trillion in 2018. ($885 billion from net payroll tax contributions, $35 billion from taxation of benefits and $83 billion in interest)
Total expenditures from the combined OASI and DI trust funds amounted to $1 trillion in 2018.
Social Security paid benefits of nearly $989 billion in calendar year 2018. There were about 63 million beneficiaries at the end of the calendar year.
The projected actuarial deficit over the 75-year long-range period is 2.78% of taxable payroll – lower than the 2.84% projected in last year’s report.
During 2018, an estimated 176 million people had earnings covered by Social Security and paid payroll taxes.
The cost of $6.7 billion to administer the Social Security program in 2018 was a very low 0.7% of total expenditures.
The combined trust fund asset reserves earned interest at an effective annual rate of 2.9% in 2018.
The board of trustees usually comprises six members. Four serve by virtue of their positions with the federal government: Steven T. Mnuchin, secretary of the treasury and managing trustee; Nancy A. Berryhill, acting commissioner of Social Security; Alex M. Azar II, secretary of health and human services; and R. Alexander Acosta, secretary of labor. The two public trustee positions are currently vacant.
Employers and employees covered by the Railroad Retirement Act pay higher retirement taxes than those covered by the Social Security Act, so that Railroad Retirement benefits remain higher than Social Security benefits, especially for “career” employees who have 30 or more years of service.
The following questions and answers show the differences in Railroad Retirement and Social Security benefits payable at the close of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2018. They also show the differences in age requirements and payroll taxes under the two systems.
1. How do the average monthly Railroad Retirement and Social Security benefits paid to retired employees and spouses compare?
The average age annuity being paid by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) at the end of fiscal year 2018 to career rail employees was $3,525 a month, and for all retired rail employees, the average was $2,815. The average age retirement benefit being paid under Social Security was approximately $1,415 a month. Spouse benefits averaged $1,035 a month under Railroad Retirement compared to $720 under Social Security.
The Railroad Retirement Act also provides supplemental Railroad Retirement annuities of between $23 and $43 a month, which are payable to employees who retire directly from the rail industry with 25 or more years of service.
2. Are the benefits awarded to recent retirees generally greater than the benefits payable to those who retired years ago?
Yes, because recent awards are based on higher average earnings. Age annuities awarded to career railroad employees retiring in fiscal year 2018 averaged about $4,175 a month, while monthly benefits awarded to workers retiring at full retirement age under Social Security averaged nearly $1,915. If spouse benefits are added, the combined benefits for the employee and spouse would total $5,815 under Railroad Retirement coverage, compared to $2,875 under Social Security. Adding a supplemental annuity to the railroad family’s benefit increases average total benefits for current career rail retirees to about $5,850 a month.
3. How much are the disability benefits currently awarded?
Disabled railroad workers retiring directly from the railroad industry in fiscal year 2018 were awarded $3,050 a month on average, while awards for disabled workers under Social Security averaged $1,340.
While both the Railroad Retirement and Social Security Acts provide benefits to workers who are totally disabled for any regular work, the Railroad Retirement Act also provides disability benefits specifically for employees who are disabled for work in their regular railroad occupation. Employees may be eligible for such an occupational disability annuity at age 60 with 10 years of service, or at any age with 20 years of service.
4. Can railroaders receive benefits at earlier ages than workers under Social Security?
Railroad employees with 30 or more years of creditable service are eligible for regular annuities based on age and service the first full month they are age 60, and rail employees with less than 30 years of creditable service are eligible for regular annuities based on age and service the first full month they are age 62.
No early retirement reduction applies if a rail employee retires at age 60 or older with 30 years of service and his or her retirement is after 2001, or if the employee retired before 2002 at age 62 or older with 30 years of service.
Early retirement reductions are otherwise applied to annuities awarded before full retirement age, the age at which an employee can receive full benefits with no reduction for early retirement. This ranges from age 65 for those born before 1938 to age 67 for those born in 1960 or later, the same as under Social Security.
Under Social Security, a worker cannot begin receiving retirement benefits based on age until age 62, regardless of how long he or she worked, and Social Security retirement benefits are reduced for retirement prior to full retirement age regardless of years of coverage.
5. Can the spouse of a railroader receive a benefit at an earlier age than the spouse of a worker under Social Security?
If a retired railroad employee with 30 or more years of service is age 60, the employee’s spouse is also eligible for an annuity the first full month the spouse is age 60.
Certain early retirement reductions are applied if the employee first became eligible for a 60/30 annuity July 1, 1984, or later, and retired at ages 60 or 61 before 2002. If the employee was awarded a disability annuity, has attained age 60 and has 30 years of service, the spouse can receive an unreduced annuity the first full month she or he is age 60, regardless of whether the employee annuity began before or after 2002, as long as the spouse’s annuity beginning date is after 2001.
To qualify for a spouse’s benefit under Social Security, an applicant must be at least age 62, or any age if caring for a child who is entitled to receive benefits based on the applicant’s spouse’s record.
6. Does Social Security offer any benefits that are not available under Railroad Retirement?
Social Security does pay certain types of benefits that are not available under Railroad Retirement. For example, Social Security provides children’s benefits when an employee is disabled, retired or deceased. Under current law, the Railroad Retirement Act only provides children’s benefits if the employee is deceased.
However, the Railroad Retirement Act includes a special minimum guaranty provision which ensures that railroad families will not receive less in monthly benefits than they would have if railroad earnings were covered by Social Security rather than Railroad Retirement laws. This guaranty is intended to cover situations in which one or more members of a family would otherwise be eligible for a type of Social Security benefit that is not provided under the Railroad Retirement Act. Therefore, if a retired rail employee has children who would otherwise be eligible for a benefit under Social Security, the employee’s annuity can be increased to reflect what Social Security would pay the family.
7. How much are monthly benefits for survivors under Railroad Retirement and Social Security?
Survivor benefits are generally higher if payable by the RRB rather than Social Security. At the end of fiscal year 2018, the average annuity being paid to all aged and disabled widow(er)s was $1,705 a month, compared to $1,305 under Social Security.
Benefits awarded by the RRB in fiscal year 2018 to aged and disabled widow(er)s of railroaders averaged nearly $2,185 a month, compared to approximately $1,265 under Social Security.
The annuities being paid at the end of fiscal year 2018 to widowed mothers/fathers averaged $1,900 a month and children’s annuities averaged $1,110, compared to $985 and $860 a month for widowed mothers/fathers and children, respectively, under Social Security.
Those awarded in fiscal year 2018 averaged $2,200 a month for widowed mothers/fathers and $1,350 a month for children under Railroad Retirement, compared to $960 and $855 for widowed mothers/fathers and children, respectively, under Social Security.
8. How do Railroad Retirement and Social Security lump-sum death benefit provisions differ?
Both the Railroad Retirement and Social Security systems provide a lump-sum death benefit. The Railroad Retirement lump-sum benefit is generally payable only if survivor annuities are not immediately due upon an employee’s death. The Social Security lump-sum benefit may be payable regardless of whether monthly benefits are also due. Both Railroad Retirement and Social Security provide a lump-sum benefit of $255. However, if a railroad employee completed 10 years of creditable railroad service before 1975, the average Railroad Retirement lump-sum benefit payable is $1,020. Also, if an employee had less than 10 years of service, but had at least 5 years of such service after 1995, he or she would have to have had an insured status under Social Security law (counting both Railroad Retirement and Social Security credits) in order for the $255 lump-sum benefit to be payable.
The Social Security lump sum is generally only payable to the widow(er) living with the employee at the time of death. Under Railroad Retirement, if the employee had 10 years of service before 1975, and was not survived by a living-with widow(er), the lump sum may be paid to the funeral home or the payer of the funeral expenses.
9. How do Railroad Retirement and Social Security payroll taxes compare?
Railroad Retirement payroll taxes, like Railroad Retirement benefits, are calculated on a two-tier basis. Rail employees and employers pay Tier I taxes at the same rate as Social Security taxes, 7.65 percent, consisting of 6.20 percent for retirement on earnings up to $132,900 in 2019, and 1.45 percent for Medicare hospital insurance on all earnings. An additional 0.9 percent in Medicare taxes (2.35 percent in total) will be withheld from employees on earnings above $200,000.
In addition, rail employees and employers both pay Tier II taxes which are used to finance Railroad Retirement benefit payments over and above Social Security levels.
In 2019, the Tier II tax rate on earnings up to $98,700 is 4.9 percent for employees and 13.1 percent for employers.
10. How much are regular Railroad Retirement taxes for an employee earning $132,900 in 2019 compared to Social Security taxes?
The maximum amount of regular Railroad Retirement taxes that an employee earning $132,900 can pay in 2019 is $15,003.15, compared to $10,166.85 under Social Security. For railroad employers, the maximum annual regular retirement taxes on an employee earning $132,900 are $23,096.55, compared to $10,166.85 under Social Security. Employees earning over $132,900, and their employers, will pay more in retirement taxes than the above amounts because the Medicare hospital insurance tax is applied to all earnings.
Nancy A. Berryhill, acting commissioner of Social Security, announced Tues., Sept. 5, that three new Compassionate Allowances conditions: CACH–Vanishing White Matter Disease-Infantile and Childhood Onset Forms, Congenital Myotonic Dystrophy, and Kleefstra Syndrome. Compassionate Allowances are a way to quickly identify serious diseases and other medical conditions that meet Social Security’s standards for disability benefits.
“Social Security is committed – now and in the future – to continue to identify and fast-track diseases that are certain or near-certain to be approved for disability benefits,” said Acting Commissioner Berryhill.
The Compassionate Allowances program identifies claims where the applicant’s disease or condition clearly meets Social Security’s statutory standard for disability. Many of these claims are allowed based on medical confirmation of the diagnosis alone, for example pancreatic cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and acute leukemia. To date, almost 500,000 people with severe disabilities have been approved through this fast-track policy-compliant disability process, which has grown to a total of 228 conditions.
By incorporating cutting-edge technology, the agency can easily identify potential Compassionate Allowances and quickly make decisions. For other disability cases not covered by the Compassionate Allowances program, Social Security’s Health IT program brings the speed and efficiency of electronic medical records to the disability determination process. When a person applies for disability benefits, Social Security must obtain medical records in order to make an accurate determination. It may take weeks for health care organizations to provide records for the applicant’s case. With electronic records transmission, Social Security is able to quickly obtain a claimant’s medical information, review it, and make a determination faster than ever before.
“The Compassionate Allowances and Health IT programs are making a real difference by ensuring that Americans with disabilities quickly receive the benefits they need,” added Ms. Berryhill.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has announced that the standard monthly Part B premium will be $121.80 in 2016. However, most Medicare beneficiaries will not see an increase in their monthly Part B premiums because of a “hold harmless” provision in the law. Under that provision, Part B premiums cannot increase for current enrollees if there is no cost-of-living increase in social security benefits.
As a result, those individuals will continue to pay a monthly premium of $104.90, the same amount as in 2015. About 70 percent of Medicare beneficiaries will not see their Part B premiums increase due to this provision. However, the higher premium amount will apply to new enrollees in the program, and certain beneficiaries will continue to pay higher premiums based on their modified adjusted gross income.
The monthly premiums that include income-related adjustments for 2016 will be $170.50, $243.60, $316.70, or $389.80, depending on the extent to which an individual beneficiary’s modified adjusted gross income exceeds $85,000 (or $170,000 for a married couple). The highest rate applies to beneficiaries whose incomes exceed $214,000 (or $428,000 for a married couple). The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services estimates that less than 5 percent 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. Beginning in 2011, the Affordable Care Act required Part D beneficiaries whose modified adjusted gross income exceeds the same income thresholds that apply to Part B premiums to also pay a monthly adjustment amount. In 2016, the adjustment amount ranges from $12.70 to $72.90.
The Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) withholds Part B premiums 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 (click here) show the income-related Part B premium adjustments for 2016. 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 2016, that will usually be the beneficiary’s 2014 tax return information. If that information is not available, SSA will use information from the 2013 tax return.
Those railroad retirement and social security Medicare beneficiaries affected by the 2016 Part B and D income-related premiums will receive a notice from SSA by December 2015. The notice will include an explanation of the circumstances where 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.