Editor’s Note: Journalist Philip Moeller is here to provide the answers you need on aging and retirement. His weekly column, “Ask Phil,” aims to help older Americans and their families by answering their health care and financial questions. Phil is the author of the new book, “Get What’s Yours for Medicare,” and co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Send your questions to Phil.
Belinda – Ind.: Would it be better for my husband and me to divorce? We both get disability payments but now fall about $100 short of qualifying for lots of other programs since he got his disability. Being married seems to have cost us more in the long run.
Phil Moeller: It is so sad that people need to even consider such things because of income-related qualifications for social programs.
While divorce might help you here, it also could hurt you in other areas, such as what you’d pay for insurance, taxes, and the like.
There are free tax consulting services run by accountants. State rules can play a big role in this process, so I’d look for someone near where you live. You also should see if you can find legal advice, which is also often available on a pro bono basis.
Melissa: I am 70. My husband died in 2001, when I was 54. I have five kids. When he died, I asked Social Security about widow’s benefits. They told me the kids were eligible until they graduated from high school, and then that was it. So, in 2014, when they all had graduated, the benefits ceased. I never received widow’s benefits after that, even though I was 66 at the time. I did not apply for them, because I had been told back in 2001 by the Social Security officer that I would receive nothing more after the kids turned 18.
I have tried to apply for widow’s benefits retroactively for the period of June 2014 to June 2016, but they told me nothing is paid retroactively past six months.
I am receiving my own Social Security benefits now, but I don’t know why, if I was entitled to widow’s benefits in 2014, I can’t get them retroactively. Does this sound right to you? They said it was my responsibility at the time to apply for them, but I had been given the wrong information by the Social Security officer.
Phil Moeller: I am so angry on your behalf!
Social Security makes loads of mistakes. However, when they get called out, as you have done, they often place the burden on you to prove that the agency made the error.
So, my first question to you is whether you have any documentation about the wrong information that Social Security told you?
In 2001, of course, you were too young to apply for a widow’s benefit. But you could have applied as young as age 60, and would have received reduced benefits for any filing date until you reached your full retirement age.
Unfortunately, you can get only six months of retroactive benefits unless you can prove that Social Security told you the wrong thing back in 2001.
If you have any documentation of the agency’s error in 2001, please let me know, and I will work with you to get the past benefits you deserve.
Richard – Ore.: My wife and I were both born in 1952. She has been collecting Social Security disability of $1,635 a month since 2007. I plan to start collecting my Social Security retirement benefits at age 70. Do I qualify to collect spousal benefits? I was informed by a Social security agent that I didn’t qualify. However, your Social Security book seems to support my qualification.
Phil Moeller: You are qualified to file a restricted application for just a spousal benefit, but not before you reach your full retirement age of 66. If you filed for this benefit earlier, you’d trigger Social Security’s deeming rules and the agency would consider that you filed for both your spousal benefit and your own retirement benefit at the same time.
The right to file a restricted application was grandfathered into the new Social Security laws enacted in late 2015. I have heard from several readers that Social Security’s own representatives don’t understand or fairly apply these rules. If you encounter any resistance to this filing (which, again, you can’t make until next year), please refer them to FAQ #4 on this Social Security webpage.
Steve – Tex.: I will be turning 65 next month. I am retired and currently covered under my wife’s employer health plan at a large university. I’ve heard conflicting stories on whether I need to sign up for Part B or not if I am planning to continue on her existing plan until she retires in a few years. Some people say I have to at least acknowledge online with Medicare that I have credible health coverage, while others say I have up until eight months from the time she discontinues her plan in which to sign up without penalty. Can you clear up this confusion?
Phil Moeller: The Medicare credibility “test” you mention is limited to drug coverage. Your wife’s health plan is supposed to annually certify that its drug coverage is at least as good as a typical Medicare Part D drug plan. This is the employer’s responsibility, not yours.
Nearly all employer plans are creditable, in which case you do not need to get Medicare and do not need to inform Medicare of this fact. If your plan is not credible, you would need a Part D plan but not the rest of Medicare. You do not need Part B here but can qualify for a Part D plan if you have Part A of Medicare, which is available with no premium expense to anyone 65 or older.
People with large employer group insurance who are eligible for Medicare — age 65 or older or disabled — thus usually can keep this coverage. When they retire or otherwise lose access to coverage, they will have a special Medicare enrollment period that lasts eight months from the date their employer coverage ends.
I urge people not to take all of this period but to act quickly to avoid a break in insurance coverage. You might be able to get a COBRA extension of your employer coverage that will tide you over until your Medicare becomes effective. Just be aware that COBRA does not extend your penalty-free enrollment window.
Tim – Ky.: My father is 82, has early dementia, and needs lots of help — medication, breathing treatments for his COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), meals, and minor house work. He has a nurse he is familiar with, which means a lot to him for trust issues. How will I get this nurse to be his aid?
Phil Moeller: The only way I know for sure is to pay her directly and not try to use his Medicare to cover this care.
Medicare does provide limited home care for people who are homebound whose doctors prescribe care as medically necessary. However, Medicare will only cover such care when it’s provided by a home health agency that’s licensed by Medicare. Unless this nurse works for one of these agencies, I’m not sure how to guarantee her involvement other than to just arrange it directly with her and pay her.
Jo Ann – N.C.: Hello, Phil. In response to an earlier question, you said, “Unfortunately, HSAs [health savings accounts] are only available through an employer health plan. They don’t exist as stand-alone private accounts. Sorry!”
This is not quite true. While one cannot set up an HSA by itself, if you have an individual health insurance policy which is HSA compliant, it is possible to set up an HSA on your own. I have an ACA (Affordable Care Act) policy that is HSA compliant, and I was able to set up an HSA through my credit union.
Phil Moeller: Thanks so much for conveying this information. I always say I am not infallible and you and others have been doing a great job of proving it! I looked into this matter after receiving your note, and you are correct.