Should I "opt out" of the Social Security system?
First, some background information:
The Internal Revenue Code (IRC) exempts ministers from mandatory federal and state income tax and Medicare and Social Security (FICA) tax withholding by their employers. However, if they do not elect to have income tax withholding, then most ministers must file and pay federal and state estimated tax vouchers.
In any case, the employers of ministers are not permitted to withhold and match the 7.65 percent FICA tax. Instead, the minister (unless he opts out of the Social Security system) is responsible to pay the entire 15.3 percent self-employment tax (SECA). Many ministers elect to have additional federal income tax withheld so that the excess can be applied to their self-employment tax obligation at the time they file their annual Form 1040.
Now, let's consider what opting out of Social Security might mean:
1. A minister may apply to opt out of the Social Security system only within the first two years of receiving at least $400 of self-employment earnings of which any portion is earned in connection to his services ministry as a licensed or ordained minister. (The IRS Minister's Audit Techniques Guide provides guidance as to the Service's answered to the question "Who Qualifies For Special Treatment As A Minister?" https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-utl/ministers.pdf).
2. Social security tax-exempt status applies only to ministerial income. FICA tax will continue to be withheld by non-ministerial employers, if any. SECA tax will be due on any non-ministry self-employment income.
3. Ministers who have opted out may still qualify for Medicare and Social Security benefits if they meet the minimum requirements (typically 10 years). FICA and SECA tax paid on non-ministerial income helps a minister gain eligibility for Medicare benefits, even if the minister has opted out with regard to his ministerial income. Social Security benefits are based on wage history and, accordingly, may be severely limited when most of the minister's career income has not contributed to his life-time earnings.
4. If choosing to opt out, a minister must provide adequate retirement funds, long-term disability savings or insurance, life insurance or survivor savings, and retirement era health care for himself.
5. While beyond the scope of this blog post, ministers should also understand the return on investment (ROI) of remaining in Social Security, especially in light of a three-tiered calculation used by the Social Security Administration after determining one's "Average Indexed Monthly Earnings" (AIME). Briefly, the first roughly $900 of one's AIME returns 90% of that amount in Social Security benefits. Higher levels of earnings add significantly less to one's benefits. In most cases, minister's earnings hover in the lower range of career AIME.
6. Ministers applying for exemption must certify a statement of conscientious objection. An attempt at our paraphrase of the statement - "I am opposed to the government provision of financial support that is the responsibility of my church or Christian ministry to provide relative to my services as a minister. I believe it is the responsibility of these organizations to provide for me and my dependents 'in the event of death, disability, old age, [and] retirement' (Form 4361)." See Form 4361 for the full statement.
By opting out, ministers can save thousands of dollars each year in self-employment taxes, but they must have a plan to gain minimum eligibility for Medicare and Social Security benefits and to replace its lost benefits. Do not base a decision on rumors that the federal system might fail. In our opinion, if the economic woes of the U.S. become so acute that the politicians are forced to deny benefits to millions of retirees, then personal investment accounts will be severely impacted as well.