Why does it feel like Social Security’s ripping me off?

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Social Security Administration benefit calculators intentionally underestimate your benefits. Photo by by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Social Security Administration benefit calculators intentionally underestimate your benefits. Photo by by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Social Security rules are complicated and change often. For the most recent “Ask Larry” columns, check out maximizemysocialsecurity.com/ask-larry.


Boston University economist Larry Kotlikoff has spent every week, for over two years, answering questions about what is likely your largest financial asset — your Social Security benefits. His Social Security original 34 “secrets”, his additional secrets, his Social Security “mistakes” and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. Find a complete list of his columns here. And keep sending us your Social Security questions.

Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version. His new book, “Get What’s Yours — the Secrets of Maximizing Your Social Security Benefits,” (co-authored with Paul Solman and Making Sen$e Medicare columnist Phil Moeller) will be published in February by Simon & Schuster.


Sue — Okla.: I have recently become a widow and have been talking to Social Security. I am 65 and was looking to retire at 66. I was married for 26 years before my divorce and married 11 years to my deceased spouse. Social Security will only give me the SSI from my deceased spouse (11 years) which is larger, but I read that I should be able to also collect at least half of my first spouse’s also? Social Security did not say that at all. I would like to retire but just do not know what to do or whom to believe.

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My stepmother was able to collect Social Security from her deceased husband as well as her own Social Security. How? Somewhere it feels like I am getting ripped off.

Larry Kotlikoff: I’m extremely sorry to hear of your loss. I know those words aren’t worth much, but they are sincere. Let me see if I can be of real help.

I’ll ignore the earnings test that may eliminate all or most of your benefits before you reach full retirement age (66) regardless of which spouse you collect on. Social Security is, I think, wrong about your ability to choose the ex or deceased spouse on whose work record you want to collect.

“The bottom line is that you can’t collect more than one full benefit at a time.”

But the bottom line is that you can’t collect more than one full benefit at a time. If you are entitled to benefits on more than one account at the same time, you essentially only receive the higher benefit. Read “When Social Security will let you take only one benefit at a time.” So, your stepmother likely received her own benefit, plus the difference between that amount and the higher widows benefit payable on her deceased husband’s record. In some cases, however, you can file for the full lower benefit first, then apply for the higher benefit at a later date.

So, depending on your earnings, your optimal strategy is either A) to collect benefits on your deceased spouse as soon as possible and then collect your own retirement benefit at 70 or B) collect your own retirement benefit right away (plus excess divorcée spousal benefits if your full benefit is less than one-half of your ex-husband’s), then collect widows benefits when you reach full retirement age.

According to the Social Security folks, the widows benefit is larger than the divorcée spousal benefit, and you can’t collect on both spouses at once. What they probably didn’t tell you, but which you should keep in mind, is that if your ex-spouse dies, you may do better collecting off of his earnings record.


S — Portland, Ore: My husband is three years older, and he plans to retire in two years at age 65, and I plan to retire at 62. I have had the higher income for many years. My Social Security benefit at 62 will be approximately the same as my spouse’s benefit at 65. How should we approach Social Security benefits in this situation?

Larry Kotlikoff: You should surely file at some point before full retirement age to let your husband begin taking his full spousal benefit while waiting until 70 to collect his own retirement benefit. Whether or not that optimal date is age 62 — I doubt if it’s that early, and only very careful software can tell you — you’ll ​want to suspend your retirement benefit at full retirement age and start it up again at 70.


Robert — Chicago, Ill.: I don’t see where the extra 8 percent comes from if you wait until 70 to collect Social Security if you quit working and have no income from age 65 until that time. The calculator at the Social Security site does not reflect that situation. It assumes that I will be making the same amount of money all the way up to 70. If I am not earning an income after age 65 should I take Social Security at 66 or will I still get the extra 8 percent by waiting until 70? I haven’t been able to find a concrete answer to this situation yet.

Larry Kotlikoff: Commercial calculators permit entering your future earnings. The 8 percent per year (32 percent over four years) increase to your real (inflation-adjusted) benefits is due to the delayed retirement credit. Your receipt of delayed retirement credits doesn’t depend on your working into the future. But if you do work and raise your calculated Primary Insurance Amount via the Recomputation of Benefits, that will be icing on the cake.


Mary — St. Petersburg, Fla.: I started collecting my Social Security benefit at age 66 ($1,283/month) because I thought I was going to quit working full time. I did not stop working full time so at the end of the eleventh month of collection, I suspended my benefit. I would like to know if there is any way to calculate what my benefit will be at age 70 since I dipped into it for eleven months before suspending it.

Larry Kotlikoff: Yes, Mary. Any good commercial Social Security calculator will help you with this.


Question: My boyfriend is 55 and receiving Social Security Disability. I am working full time. It we get married, will it impact his Social Security disability payments?

Larry Kotlikoff: No, your getting married won’t affect his disability benefit. But after nine months he’ll be eligible to receive a widow(er)s benefit on your record if you die, and after 12 months, he’ll be able, if he plays his cards right, to collect just a full spousal benefit on its own once he reaches full retirement age. He will be able to collect an excess spousal benefit (which may be zero) between 62 and his full retirement age.

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