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Dealing With Social Security's Income Lid

October 08, 1987|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Question: I hope you can find an answer to a Social Security question that I've tried to answer without luck. I am 65 and will be going on Social Security next spring. However, since I am an illustrator by profession, it's a given that I'll continue free-lancing--I always have. My problem is in trying to figure out the mechanics of the Social Security ceiling of, I think, $8,600 a year that I can earn without penalty.

I had assumed that, at the end of the year, I would simply sit down with SS and settle up--if I'd earned more than the allowable $8,600, they would simply not pay me anything for a month or two to even it out.

The man at SS I spoke to said no, that when I get close to $8,600 I have to put a stop order on my Social Security checks.

This strikes me as impossibly complicated. Free-lancing is very uncertain as far as income predictions are concerned.

What if I have my payments stopped and then my free-lancing dries up for several months--so I have no income from either source? Do they catch up then? Or what if I underestimate my earnings, don't stop the payments and end up the year having made $2,000 or $3,000 more than the allowable amount--am I penalized? Do I get credit, sometime in the future, for the SS payments I've missed this way?

Also, all of this stop-and-go as my income fluctuates worries me: Once I stop payments, how long is it going to take to get them resumed if I was overly optimistic about my earnings?--J.McD.

Answer: Your understanding of the procedure, according to Joe Giglio, public affairs specialist for Social Security, is pretty well on target, although the earnings ceiling for this year is $8,100, instead of $8,600. (But, because it goes up every year by a few hundred dollars to reflect national averages, your $8,600 guess may be pretty close as far as next year is concerned.)

Giglio concedes that it may seem pretty complicated, but it probably, on balance, isn't nearly as complicated as it would be if no attempt at all were made to keep income and benefits in balance until the end of each year and then everyone ' s account had to be straightened out.

"Actually," he added, "we're simply asking them to make estimates, and they can revise these as much as they want. We don't really expect people to hit it right on the head, but just come as close to it as they can--there's no penalty involved if they're over or under the estimate. At the end of the year, as he suggests, we do indeed sit down and see who owes what."

Also, Giglio said, if you do stop your Social Security benefits because of high earnings and don't collect anything for several months, there is, indeed, a deferred credit due you for those months of non-collection.

Stop-and-go notwithstanding, he continued, the delay in getting your Social Security benefits resumed (or stopped) doesn't entail a horrendous time lag--it takes about a month.

Remember too that as a free-lancer (as opposed to a Social Security recipient taking a conventional part-time job subject to withholding), you can probably earn more, gross, than you think you can. You'll undoubtedly have expenses for supplies, travel and perhaps the upkeep of a studio--all of which can be written off against your gross earnings. And that $8,100 ceiling, of course, applies to your net earnings.

Q: I recently bought my father a wonderful hand-carved cane in Kenya. Unfortunately, the cane is for a tall man, and it should be shortened for my father. How does one go about this?--R.S.

A: OK, the first instinct is to say: Take a hack saw, put the cane in a vise and have at it. As any do-it-yourselfer knows who has ever tried to level a wobbly leg on a table and has ended up with a still-wobbly table only nine inches high, these chores tend to be trickier than they sound.

And, sure enough, according to Jack Schwartz, an orthotist with Lerman and0 Son in Beverly Hills (the orthotics and prosthetics firm also has an office in Inglewood), there's a formula for this sort of thing: Have your father stand in a normal upright position with the cane in his hand and with that arm at a 30-degree slope--that's where the cane should be cut.

Admittedly, Schwartz said, if you're not experienced at this sort of thing, there's going to be a bit of guesswork. So you should cut it down gradually, a half-inch or so at a time, until you get down to the desired length. Don't try to whomp the whole two or three excess inches off in one fell swoop or you'll simply replace your father's cane problem with a back problem.

Q: My son bought me a home spa from the Appliance Corp. of America in Rahway, N.J. The directions were: "Do not use home spa" if the safety device does not work. The safety device does not switch off the unit appropriately, and because this concerns electricity and bath water, I am afraid of it.

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