Not Your Same Old Same Old Questions

By Tom Margenau

November 14, 2018 7 min read

As my regular readers know, I sometimes worry that I am getting too repetitious — giving the same answers to the same questions that I've been getting for the 20-plus years that I've been writing this column.

Several readers have told me to stop fretting. They point out that more often than not, new readers are learning a lot. And even long-time readers can't possibly remember all the rules and regulations associated with Social Security. So a little redundancy in the topics I cover is a good thing.

Well, even with that good advice from my faithful readers, today's column is one I don't have to worry about. It's filled with questions I've never covered before because the situations they involve are so unusual.

Q: My ex-husband was a minister. He opted out of Social Security when he was in his 30s. He is now 62, and I heard he is trying to claim spousal benefits on my record. Can he do that?

A: Well, he might be able to do that. But I sometimes hope there is a special place in purgatory for guys like him who pull off this little scheme! Let me explain.

I will start out with some general rules. Ministers and certain other members of religious sects can opt out of paying into Social Security if they sign a statement indicating that they are morally opposed to paying taxes and receiving benefits from a government pension system like Social Security or a government health system like Medicare. And if they opt of Social Security and Medicare, they are usually out for good. I say usually because I'm treading on a bit of unfamiliar territory; these are Internal Revenue Service rules, not Social Security rules. In other words, ministers sign a form with the IRS to get out of paying Social Security and Medicare taxes.

But ministers who opt out of Social Security still could collect benefits on a spouse's Social Security record. And that leads me to this little story.

During one of my stints while with the Social Security Administration, I worked in an office that had a church-sponsored training center for ministers. And part of my job was to do some outreach for the would-be ministers. Many of these guys would routinely tell me that they were opting out of Social Security "on moral grounds." Then they'd sort of wink at me and say, "And someday when I'm old, I'll just get Social Security and Medicare from my wife."

I held my tongue. But this attitude really bothered me! I mean, they were supposedly morally opposed to paying Social Security taxes, but they sure weren't morally opposed to collecting Social Security benefits!

Before I go on, I must admit my views are a bit jaundiced by those experiences earlier in my career. I'm sure there are many ministers and other religious members who truly are morally opposed to paying for or receiving government benefits and live a life true to those convictions.

But lately, I have been hearing from more than a few ministers who are pushing Social Security age and who are regretting the decision they made to opt out of Social Security and Medicare. And now they are looking for ways to get back in. Some of them are searching for jobs where they can pay into Social Security and Medicare for a long enough period of time to qualify for at least some benefits.

And others, like your ex-husband, are looking to cash in on a spouse's (or ex-spouse's) lifetime of Social Security and Medicare tax payments. Despite his alleged moral opposition to Social Security, I think he will be able to do it.

Q: I am 74, and my husband is 85. We each get our own Social Security. Back when my husband retired, around 1998, we both signed some papers at his employer's office in which I relinquished my rights to survivor benefits on his Social Security record in order that he would get higher Social Security benefits on his own record. At the time, this didn't mean much to me. But now that my husband is in frail health, I'm worried that we made a mistake. Can we somehow rescind those papers so that I will be able to get higher widow's benefits when he dies?

A: I am not really sure what kind of papers you signed at your husband's employer's office when he retired. But I can guarantee you that you did not sign papers to relinquish your rights to Social Security survivor benefits. How do I know this? First, unless you are a minister, no one can simply sign away his or her rights to any kind of Social Security benefit. And second, even if you could, you wouldn't be able to do so at an employer's office. It would have to be with the federal government.

I'm guessing the papers you signed had something to do with your husband's company pension. Many times these private pensions come with an option of selecting a lower retirement pension in return for granting some form of monthly compensation to the widow(er) when the retiree dies. Or vice versa, which sounds like your situation. You must have waived your right to survivor benefits from his company so that your husband could get a higher retirement pension.

So when your husband dies, you will get widow's benefits on his Social Security record — assuming his benefit rate is higher than yours. For example, let's say he is getting $2,000 per month from Social Security and your own benefit is $1,300. When he dies, you will keep getting $1,300, and then you will get $700 on his record to take you up to his $2,000 level.

Q: Can I set up a GoFundMe account to build up my Social Security account?

A: You certainly can't do that. The only way to build up your Social Security account is to work at a job where your employer will withhold Social Security taxes from your paycheck or to have your own business and pay self-employment taxes.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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