Q & A

Ask Rusty – Allocating small business income to husband & wife

Dear Rusty:  My wife and I own a small company, so we can allocate our pay as we wish. She had not paid into Social Security in her career so 6 years ago her pay was increased so she paid more into SS, and me less. My yearly Social Security statement showed I went from about $3200 in estimated benefits per month to about $2800. We plan to work about another 5 years, so how should we allocate our pay? And can you recommend a resource for us to get more in depth understanding of how Social Security works?  Signed: Small Business Owner

Dear Business Owner:  The reason your benefit estimate went down is that when estimates are done before you’ve reached your full retirement age (FRA), they assume that you will continue earning at your most recent level until you reach your FRA. So, when you reduced your annual earnings it also reduced your estimated Social Security benefits. By raising your wife’s earnings, she has now been accumulating “quarter credits”; 6 years of work equals 24 quarter credits for your wife, but she needs 40  to claim benefits on her own work record. The question you should ask yourself is this: Will any benefit your wife gets from her own work record be greater than ½ of your benefit at full retirement age? (FRA is 66 + 2 months for you and 66 + 4 months for your wife). Your wife’s benefit after she accumulates the 40 credits will presumably be quite small in comparison to yours. And even if she gets a small benefit on her own record, as your spouse and at her full retirement age she’ll be entitled to ½ of the benefit you were entitled to at your full retirement age (you must be already collecting). So, let’s use an example:

  • If you continue to allocate earnings to your wife for another 4 years she will be eligible for a small “retirement” benefit based upon her own minimum earnings record.
  • When you start collecting your own benefit your wife’s spousal benefit amount will be ½ of yours if she takes it at her FRA (reduced if she takes it sooner).
  • Your wife’s total benefit (her own and her spousal benefit) will at maximum be 1/2 of yours; so even if she has a small benefit on her own, she’ll STILL get only up to her spousal benefit amount which will (presumably) be considerably higher than her own.
  • If you allocate more/most of your business earnings as payroll to yourself, you will be increasing your own benefit, but you will also be increasing your wife’s spousal benefit because she will get ½ of whatever your FRA benefit is, regardless of what her own benefit is (unless of course her own benefit would be more than ½ of yours).

Keep in mind that only your earnings up to Social Security’s “payroll tax cap” are counted. That is $128,400 for this year (could change annually), so you really don’t need to allocate any more than that to yourself to improve your own benefit. If your business earnings are more than that you can allocate any excess to your wife, so she can earn more quarter credits because any excess won’t be otherwise used to improve your SS benefit.  But unless her estimated benefit exceeds half of yours she will still only get ½ of yours. While I can’t make the decision for you, I hope this gives you enough information to make the right choice on how to allocate your company’s earnings as payroll.

You asked for a resource to get a more in-depth understanding of Social Security, and I recommend that you try our AMAC Foundation Social Security website –  www.socialsecurityreport.org – for all of the latest information about the complex topic of Social Security. You might want to peruse the Q&A section which contains numerous articles I have written about Social Security matters, including much more depth on Spousal Benefits

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