By Payroll and Entitlements Editorial Staff
Social Security beneficiaries will see an increase in their monthly checks in 2021—1.3%. This cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, will produce an estimated average monthly benefit of $1,543 for all retired workers in 2021, $20 a month more than in 2020. The COLA increase will be applied to this coming year's benefits, beginning with benefits for December 2020, which are payable in January 2021.
The amount of earnings subject to taxation under FICA and SECA, the "wage base," is also going up in 2021. The 2021 wage base of $142,800 is $5,100 higher than the 2020 amount of $137,700.
The benefit and wage base increases for 2021 were announced October 13 by the Social Security Administration in a press release.
Tax increase appears in FICA tax deducted from individuals’ paychecks. The tax increase will show up in the FICA tax deducted from the paychecks of those individuals earning above the 2021 wage base of $142,800. Although the tax rate for the Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) portion of the tax under the FICA has held steady at 6.2% since 1990, the amount of wages subject to the tax increases each year based on increases in the national average wage.
The $142,800 earnings base for 2021, which applies only to the 6.2% OASDI portion of the Social Security tax, could result in a FICA tax increase of as much as $316.20 for employees (and their employers) whose earnings exceed the 2020 tax and earnings base of $137,700. Self-employed individuals may owe as much as $632.40 in additional self-employment (SECA) tax in 2021 since they also must pay the "employer" portion of the taxes. However, they can recoup some of this amount through a deduction on their federal income tax return. There is no limit on the amount of earnings subject to the 1.45% Medicare (hospital insurance) portion of the tax.
No change in tax rates. The employee/employer Social Security tax rate remains at 7.65% for 2021, including 6.2% for the OASDI portion and 1.45% for the hospital insurance portion. For the self-employed, the rate continues to be 15.3%. Note that self-employed persons calculate their net earnings as gross earnings reduced by 7.65%, and they deduct half of their Social Security taxes from their net earnings for federal income tax purposes.
Change in CPI-W drives amount of increase. The cost-of-living increase of 1.3% will begin with Social Security checks that are received in January 2021. (Increased payments to more than 8 million Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries, however, will begin on December 31, 2020.)
The 1.3% increase is based on the rise in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) from the third quarter of 2019 through the third quarter of 2020. The CPI-W reflects cost increases for wage earners and thus excludes the impact of cost increases on higher income earning self-employed professionals and business owners.
The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 1.4% over the last 12 months to an index level of 260.280. The index for all items less food and energy rose 1.7%. The food index increased 3.9%, while the energy index decreased 7.7%. The CPI-W increased 1.5% over the last 12 months to an index level of 254.004.
Retired worker's average monthly benefit becomes $1,543. For Social Security beneficiaries, the average monthly benefit (prior to deduction for the Part B Medicare premium) for all retired workers will rise to $1,543 in 2021, up from the average benefit of $1,523 paid one year earlier. The maximum Supplemental Security Income (SSI) monthly benefit for an individual will rise to $794, up from $783, and the maximum SSI payment to a couple will rise to $1,191, up from $1,175.
Domestic employee and election worker coverage. For 2021, there is a $100 increase in the amount of wages a domestic worker may earn without being subject to FICA taxes. An employer may pay a domestic worker, such as a maid or a nanny, up to $2,300 in 2021 without having to wrestle with federal withholding on wages. The threshold for election workers increases to $2,000.
Age 65 birthday celebrants in 2021 required to wait until 2022 for full benefits. Workers who attain age 65 in 2021 will have to wait until 2022 to retire if they wish to receive their full retirement benefit. A gradual rise in the full retirement age began in 2000 resulting from the 1983 amendments to the Social Security Act, which increased the full retirement age from age 65 to age 67. The only individuals attaining full retirement age in 2021 will be individuals attaining age 66 and two months, i.e., individuals born January 2, 1955, through January 1, 1956. For such individuals, the maximum possible monthly benefit is $3,148. Full retirement age will remain at age 66 for individuals born January 2, 1943, through January 1, 1955.
Reduced benefits for early retirees. Workers may retire as early as age 62, but they will receive a reduced benefit if they do. The full retirement age for workers reaching age 62 in 2021 (66 and 10 months, for those individuals born in 1959), is also based on the 1983 amendments. The practical effect of this change is to slightly decrease the amount of early retirement benefits payable to individuals who reach age 62 in 2021 by increasing the reduction amount in the benefit formulas by 5/12 of 1.0% of an individual's primary insurance amount (PIA) for each additional month of retirement beyond 36 months. This process is explained more fully in the Unemployment Insurance Reporter with Social Security at ¶12,305 in the "Social Security: Benefits Explained" division. PIAs are explained at ¶12,210 and ¶12,211 in the same division.
Increases for other beneficiaries. For an aged couple, both receiving benefits, the average monthly Social Security benefit becomes $2,596 (up from the average benefit of $2,563 paid when last year's increase took effect in December 2019). For a widowed mother and two children, the average monthly benefit becomes $3,001 (up from $2,962). For an aged widow or widower living alone, the average monthly benefit becomes $1,453 (up from $1,434) and for a disabled worker with a spouse and one or more children, the average monthly benefit becomes $2,224 (up from $2,195). The average monthly benefit for all disabled workers becomes $1,277 (up from $1,261). All of these benefit amounts assume steady earnings since age 22 and no earnings prior to that point.
Benefit computation formula changes. The bend points used in the computations of the PIA for workers who first become eligible to receive a benefit in 2021, or who die in 2021 before becoming eligible, will be $996 and $6,002, respectively. The 2021 eligibility year PIA formula, which is based on the worker's average indexed monthly earnings (AIME) throughout his or her career, thus will be 90% of the first $996 of AIME, plus 32% of AIME over $996 through $6,002, plus 15% of any AIME in excess of $6,002.
Maximum family benefit increases. e maximum family benefit in cases involving workers who first attain age 62, become disabled or die in 2021 will be computed as 150% of the first $1,272 of the worker's PIA, plus 272% of the worker's PIA over $1,272 through $1,837, plus 134% of the worker's PIA over $1,837 through $2,395, plus 175% of the PIA in excess of $2,395.
Disability thresholds. e amount of monthly earnings in 2021 that will give rise to a presumption that a disability beneficiary is no longer disabled, that is, the amount that is deemed sufficient to demonstrate an ability to engage in "substantial gainful activity" is $1,310, an increase of $50 from 2020. A higher threshold of $2,190 will apply to blind beneficiaries in 2021. Disability beneficiaries may work for as many as nine months during any 60-month period without affecting their right to receive benefits. This is known as "trial work." In 2021, a disabled beneficiary who works will not be treated as having engaged in trial work for any month in which his or her earnings are no more than $940, an increase of $30 over the 2020 limit.
Miscellaneous additional changes. The amount of earnings required for a quarter of Social Security coverage in 2021 increases to $1,470, up from $1,410 in 2020.
The national average wage index for 2019 (most recent available) is $54,099.99. The index is 3.75% higher than that of 2018.
The “old-law” contribution and benefit base increases from $102,300 in 2020 to $106,200 in 2021.
The fees for services performed by a representative payee will be $45 and $84 in 2021.
The SSI student exclusion is $7,770 per year in 2021.
Retirement test amounts rise. The amounts that Social Security beneficiaries can earn without having their retirement benefits reduced also will go up next year. Although the Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act of 2000 eliminated the annual earnings test as of January 2000 for workers between full retirement age (age 66 and two months in 2021 for workers who attained age 65 in 2020) and age 69, workers under the full retirement age who are receiving benefits remain subject to the test and can earn up to $18,960 in 2021, or $1,580 per month, without having their benefits reduced. This is an inflation-adjusted increase of $720 over the 2020 annual limit. One dollar in benefits is withheld for every $2 in earnings above the limit.
Medicare deductibles, premiums in 2021. As we go to press, the Department of Health and Human Services has not yet announced the standard Medicare Part B premium for 2021. However, if the premium does increase, about 70% of all Social Security beneficiaries would be held harmless, or not responsible, for the increase in Part B premiums by Act §1839(a) (42 USC §1395r). Individuals who would not be held harmless are lower income beneficiaries whose premiums are paid by Medicare, higher income beneficiaries who pay income-related Part B premiums, and new enrollees.
Official notice to appear in Federal Register. The Social Security Administration's official publication of the formula adjustments, cost-of-living increases, and tax and wage bases that will affect Social Security benefit computations in 2021, as well as its explanations of how the adjustments are calculated, will appear in the Federal Register shortly.
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