Because Social Security rules can be so confusing to so many people, and because it can take some time to explain those rules, I usually spend an entire column trying to clarify just one topic. But every once in a while, I like to give short and quick answers to as many questions as possible covering a wide array of subjects.
Q: I am turning 66 and am about to file for my Social Security. What documents will I need?
A: Generally, you will need your birth certificate and a copy of your last W-2 form (or tax return if you are self-employed). You need the former to prove you are old enough to qualify for benefits. You need the latter because your benefit is based on your earnings. The Social Security Administration will have a record of all your past earnings, but they may not have the most recent year posted yet.
Q: If I apply for my Social Security at age 62 but still work part time, I understand that I am penalized if I make more than about $16,000 per year. Will those penalties apply to me for the rest of my life?
A: No. Once you reach age 66, those penalties go away. You could make a million dollars per year from age 66 on and you'd still get your Social Security checks.
Q: We have an unusual situation. My wife and I just got married about two years ago. I am 72, and she is 71. And this was a first-time marriage for both of us. But I'm worried that I might die before we hit the 10-year marriage mark and my wife won't get widow's benefits on my record. Are there exceptions to that rule?
A: The 10-year marriage rule only applies to divorced people. So assuming you two lovebirds are still married when you die, and assuming your Social Security benefit rate is higher than hers, your wife will get widow's benefits on your account.
Q: I am getting my own Social Security. My ex-husband is getting a lot more than I am. I wonder if I am due anything on his record. But if I am, I don't want to hurt him. Will his check get cut if I get some of his Social Security?
A: Anything paid to a divorced spouse is just an add-on benefit. In other words, if you are due any extra benefits on his record, it won't take a dime away from what he is getting. Your own benefit can be supplemented up to one third to one half of his, depending on your age.
Q: I have power of attorney for my elderly mother. I called SSA to file a change of address, and they wouldn't talk to me. What gives?
A: SSA is very strict about privacy laws. Those laws say the information from your mother's records can only be given to her. If she is mentally incapable of handling her own affairs, they can be shared with her representative. You can get a power of attorney designation for lots of reasons, not just mental incompetence. If your mother is mentally alert, she has to change her own address. If she is not, then you should request to be what SSA calls her "representative payee." If you do that, it not only means you can handle her Social Security affairs, it also means her Social Security benefits will come in your name for her.
Q: Why does the law require me to carry my Social Security card and my Medicare card with me at all times?
A: There is no such law. I haven't had my Social Security card in my wallet for over 40 years. And my Medicare card is buried in one of my desk drawers. I dig it out when I go to the doctor. But even they rarely ask to see it anymore.
Q: I am getting Social Security. We have a 16-year-old daughter who has been severely disabled since birth. She is also getting benefits on my account. Will her checks stop when she turns 18?
A: No, her Social Security checks will continue, probably for the rest of her life. But shortly before her 18th birthday, you need to contact SSA and fill out some forms to get her converted from regular dependent child's benefits to what they call "disabled adult child" benefits.
Q: I know you've answered this question a thousand and one times before. But now I'm 62 and it applies to me and I'm finally paying attention! Can I take my husband's Social Security now and save my own until I'm 66?
A: Well, for the thousand and second time, no! If you take any Social Security before age 66, you MUST apply for your own benefits first. By the way, I was assuming your husband is still alive. If he's not, then you can do what you proposed because the rule I just cited doesn't apply to widows.
Q: Recently, I got a letter from Social Security telling me they overpaid me about $5,000. They want the money back. What can I do?
A: If you disagree with the reason for the alleged overpayment, you should file an appeal and ask them to review your case. If you accept the fact that you've been paid too much, you've got three choices. Pay it back all at once. Pay it back in installments, letting them take a certain amount each month out of your Social Security check. Or if you can't afford to pay it back, and if you can prove to them that it wasn't your fault that you were overpaid, you can file for a waiver, essentially asking them to write off the debt.
Tom Margenau's weekly column, "Social Security and You," can be found at creators.com.