Social Security rules are complicated and change often. For the most recent “Ask Larry” columns, check out maximizemysocialsecurity.com/ask-larry.
Larry Kotlikoff’s 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 now feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. Find a complete list of his columns here. We are determined to continue it until the queries stop or we run through the particular problems of all 78 million Baby Boomers, whichever comes first. Let us know your Social Security questions. Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version.
Question: So far, all of your Social Security questions-and-answers pertain to people who have been married. Is there information that people who have never been married need to know? I am currently 69 and waiting until 70 and I’ve worked for about 50 years with no lapses or unusual circumstances even while changing jobs or careers. It all seems pretty straight-forward. Am I wrong in assuming this?
Larry Kotlikoff: For never married people I suggest four things.
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- First, they should file for their retirement benefit at full retirement age and immediately suspend its collection. The suspension of retirement benefits will permit the accumulation of delayed retirement credits while providing the option, as needed in an emergency, to take all suspended benefits in a one-time lump-sum payment.
- Second, they should wait until age 70 to restart their retirement benefit.
- Third, they should determine if working longer will raise their benefits through Social Security’s recomputation of benefits, which replaces the lowest of 35 years of indexed-covered earnings with current earnings if current earnings are higher. If working longer will raise their benefits materially, it may lead them to do so.
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- And fourth, in the event that unmarried boomers find a mate later in life who’s a higher earner and older, they might want to marry. In the event that they do, and the older spouse dies first (and if that happens after nine months of marriage), the previously unmarried younger spouse could collect a widow(er) benefit that may exceed his or her own retirement benefit.
Question: I received disability after having cancer while a working widow. But I didn’t know I had to give up widows benefits while getting employment disability. My lawyer never mentioned it. I don’t know what to do. They want $21,000 back. I sent in a check for a 60-month payment plan, but my local office has closed and I haven’t heard anything. Should I be OK as long as I’ve given them a payment plan?
Larry Kotlikoff: Very sorry to hear about your troubles. I’m not sure I understand exactly what’s happened, but it sounds like you first applied for widows benefits at or after age 60 and then became disabled and applied for disability benefits. I’m very surprised that Social Security would send you both a widows benefit and a disability benefit rather than what they should send you — namely the larger of the two. But given the chaos in this overworked, underfunded and understaffed agency, I guess it’s possible. If Social Security provided you with a payment plan, your sending checks by certified mail should be fine. But if you established your own payment plan, don’t expect them to go for it. Try to call an office in a different town or city and see if you can find out what’s going on.
Nancy — Oceanside, Calif.: I am getting married in September. I was told that I would loose my Social Security if I got married. I am 64 and my fiance is 58. When I reach 66 I will want to retire. Can I collect my own Social Security? What happens when he retires and wants to collect Social Security? Can we each collect our own Social Security without penalty?
Larry Kotlikoff: You can collect your full retirement benefit starting at age 66, or you can collect a 32 percent inflation-adjusted larger retirement benefit starting at age 70.
You won’t lose your own Social Security retirement benefit by getting married. On the contrary, after one year of marriage, you’ll be eligible to collect a spousal benefit once your husband files for his retirement benefit. And if he dies after you’ve been married for nine months, you’ll be eligible to collect widows benefits based on his earnings record.
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The Catch-22 here is that if you do try to collect spousal or widows benefits on your husband-to-be’s work record after having filed for your retirement benefit (even if you suspend it), you won’t get both benefits. Instead, you’ll get what is, roughly speaking, the larger of the two. Social Security describes this as you receiving your retirement benefit plus an excess spousal or excess widows benefit if one or both of them is positive.
So don’t worry about getting married unless you are divorced after having been married for 10 years. In that case, you’d lose your ability to receive a divorced spousal benefit based on your ex’s work record.
On the other hand, since you’d be marrying after age 60, you could still collect divorced widows benefits based on your ex’s work record. Again, Social Security looks at all the benefits to which you are eligible and gives you the largest. In other words, you can’t collect on both your ex-spouse’s and your current spouse’s work records at the same time.
Lila — New York: I already made $17,000 this year and cannot receive my
unemployment benefits at this time. Am I still eligible to collect Social Security at this time? Otherwise I will have no other income.
Larry Kotlikoff: Yes, Lila, provided you are 62 or over, you can collect reduced retirement benefits based on your work record.
Question: I had to take early retirement at age 62 for health reasons — regular Social Security, not disability. I currently receive $1,652 a month from Social Security. I am separated from my wife, who only worked briefly outside the home and so is not entitled to any Social Security benefits. How much can my wife receive by drawing on my Social Security account at age 62?
Larry Kotlikoff: If you were married for 10 or more years, your ex-wife can receive a reduced spousal benefit starting at age 62 based on your work record. It will equal half of your full retirement benefit times a reduction factor of .70 if she was born between 1943 and 1954.
Question — Santa Clara, Calif.: I am 70 years old and I collect approximately $2,300 per month in Social Security benefits. In addition, I am still self-employed with a modest income. My wife is 54 years old and is self-employed. Two years ago we took legal custody of two of our grandchildren who were 7 and 10 at the time. Does this situation qualify the boys for Social Security benefits? My wife is their biological grandmother.
Larry Kotlikoff: In order for minor children to qualify for benefits on a grandparent’s record, they must either be adopted, or both of their natural parents must be deceased or disabled. If this is the case, I believe your two grandchildren qualify to collect child benefits until they are 18 or 19, or if they are still in primary or secondary school, and if your wife qualifies to collect child-in-care spousal benefits until the youngest child reaches age 16. Each of these benefits will be equal to 50 percent of your full retirement benefit (not necessarily equal to your actual benefit).
But now for two Social Security gotchas. Your wife’s child-in-care spousal benefit may be reduced or wiped out by the Social Security earnings test. Next year, for example, she’ll lose 50 cents of every dollar of her spousal benefit for every dollar she earns above $15,720. Social Security has the following statement on its website:
It is important to note that any benefits withheld while you continue to work are not “lost”. Once you reach [Full Retirement Age] FRA, your monthly benefit will be increased permanently to account for the months in which benefits were withheld.
This is true for retirement benefits, non child-in-care spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits lost to the earnings test. This does not apply to child-in-care spousal benefits that your wife loses due to the earnings test. They are not recouped when she reaches full retirement age.
The second nasty gotcha arises from Social Security’s family benefit maximum, which will limit the total benefits that your grandchildren and wife can receive to somewhere between 50 percent and 87 percent of your full retirement benefit. Since each child and your spouse can, before the family benefit maximum and earnings test are applied, receive 50 percent of your full retirement benefit while you are alive (but higher amounts when you die), you will, I believe, use up all your available family benefits by just filing for child benefits on behalf of your grandchildren. Once one of the children is no longer eligible for a child benefit, you’ll want to explore having your wife file for child-in-care benefits.
A very careful software program can sort all this out and tell you exactly when to apply for what.