On the QT: A Few More Social Security Secrets

BY Paul Solman  August 22, 2012 at 10:06 PM EST

Love is better the second time around: seniors find love and marriage.
Why this picture? Because our Social Security expert, Laurence Kotlikoff, sometimes advises older couples to get married only after age 60 in order to collect maximum benefits. Photo by Annie Griffiths Belt, National Geographic collection via Getty Images.

Boston University economist Larry Kotlikoff’s Social Security Secrets have become one of the hottest online features ever at the NewsHour. He’s been building his list of secrets for the past two months at various web venues — the Huffington Post and Forbes.com — incorporating reader feedback, learning more and passing it on to readers here on Making Sen$e.

We present these latest additions: eight new Secrets, as well as a link to the previous 34. And remember, “Ask Larry” is our now-regular Monday feature in which Larry answers your questions on Social Security, and perhaps other retirement quandaries as well.

For the first 34, click here.

  1. If you take your spousal benefit before full retirement age, you will be forced to take your retirement benefit as well. But both will be smaller than if you waited until full retirement age. If, however, you’re caring for one or more of your spouse’s children under age 16, you can take the spousal benefit but you aren’t forced to take your retirement benefit. Moreover, your spousal benefit will be as large as it would be at full retirement age, i.e., will not be “reduced.” The problem is, once all the kids reach 16, Social Security will stop sending you any spousal benefit at all. Unless, that is, you file a “certificate of election for reduced spousal benefits.” This will permit you to continue to receive spousal benefits. But, if you are still below full retirement age, you will automatically be deemed to be applying for early retirement benefits as well and both benefits will be reduced.
  2. If you’re divorced, but were married for at least 10 years, you can collect spousal benefits based on the earnings record of your ex-spouse. You have to wait until your ex has reached age 62, however. But suppose you are 62 or older and your ex hasn’t reached 62 yet. In that case you can collect your retirement benefit early (although of course at the reduced level) and wait until you reach FULL retirement age to take your UNreduced spousal benefit, even if you ex reaches age 62 before you reach full retirement age.
  3. You need to have been married for 10 years in order to collect both spousal and survivor benefits from your ex-spouse if you get divorced. It’s amazing how many people get divorced just shy of 10 years. Yes, you’re fed up with each other. Yes, your spouse is the worst of the worst. But stick it out for the extra time if possible. There’s potentially a lot of money, which you both can share, if you just show some patience (and the ability to negotiate). By the way: no one at Social Security checks as to whether or not you are living together, let alone engaging in something more intimate.

  4. If you get divorced and then remarry, you will not be able to receive a spousal benefit based on your ex. You also won’t be able to receive survivor benefits based on your ex-spouse if you remarry and your ex-spouse dies –UNLESS, it turns out, you wait to remarry until after you reach the age of 60! As for benefits from your new spouse, you need to stick it out with him or her (stay married) for 10 years to receive any spousal benefits. As for survivor benefits, there’s a much shorter time limit.
  5. “Father” and “mother” benefits are available to surviving spouses who have a child under age 16 (of the deceased worker). The benefits are available regardless of the survivor’s age and are never reduced. Now imagine you are the surviving spouse. Here’s an important warning: If your spouse buys the farm after you reach 60, take the father or mother benefit; do NOT apply for the SURVIVOR benefit which becomes available at that age. That’s because survivor benefits are reduced if you take them before FULL retirement age, but mother/father benefits are not.
  6. In the original list of secrets, I told you not to worry about the “earnings test” if you take retirement benefits before your full retirement age. Yes, Social Security docks your benefits if you take them early and make too much money. But, as I pointed out, they actually give you CREDIT for the money they’ve docked you in the form of permanently higher benefits once you reach full retirement age. HOWEVER, in the case of mother and father benefits, if you earn too much money, the money is docked, and you never get it back. Sorry.
  7. Meanwhile, speaking of taking your retirement benefit early (before full retirement age), there IS one great danger: that you kick the can. In that case, your spouse’s survivor benefit will equal the reduced benefit you were receiving.
  8. Furthermore, if your spouse takes the survivor benefit before he or she reaches full retirement age, the reduced survivor benefit will be reduced yet again. So this is a double whammy.

  9. Finally, some potentially good news. Say you were a “non-covered” employee with a pension outside the Social Security system — a teacher in Massachusetts, for example. And you were married to someone within the SS system. In that case, there’s something you might hate called the Government Pension Offset provision (see Secret #23). It reduces your SS spousal and survivor benefits, based on a formula that depends on the amount you’re getting from your pension. So it would seem that you might lose your SS spousal or survivor benefits entirely. But if your pension is not fully indexed for inflation, as SS is, then the pension offset declines over time. The greater the inflation adjustment, the smaller the pension offset. So if you were getting no spousal or survivor benefit from SS, you might eventually get some. If you were getting some, you might eventually get more.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.