I'd like to think that when people email me, I give them good advice. In fact, I'd guess I do that most of the time. And when I don't, it's usually because the person writing to me didn't present me with all the facts. Here are a couple real-life examples.
Bob wrote to tell me that his wife, Carol, who is two years older than he is, has been getting her own Social Security benefits since she was 62. Bob just turned 66 and he was now applying for his own retirement. His benefits are significantly higher than what his wife is getting, so Bob thought Carol would be due more money on his account. But when they talked to their local Social Security agent, they were told that because Carol took early retirement, she can't get any spousal benefits on Bob's record. They wrote to ask me if this was correct.
I responded by telling them that it was not necessarily true. The fact that she took her own benefits at 62 does NOT preclude Carol from getting extra spousal benefits on Bob's account. Here is how they would figure out if Carol is due anything extra from her husband's record. They would take her age 66 benefit rate and subtract that from one-half of Bob's age 66 rate. If there is any difference, it will be added to Carol's reduced retirement benefit.
I told them to do the math. And if it looks like Carol is due anything extra on Bob's account, she should go back to the Social Security people and insist on filing a claim.
About a month later, Bob sent me a follow-up email. He said his math (based on the formula I gave him) indicated Carol was due an extra $400 per month. They went back to their local Social Security office and talked to the same clerk. Even though she still said no benefits were payable, they demanded to file a claim. And sure enough, a couple weeks later Carol got an "award letter" telling her she was due an extra $415 per month in spousal benefits. Bob thanked me profusely and offered to buy me lunch.
During this same time frame, I got an email from Ted. He relayed a very similar story. He had a wife, Alice, who was getting a small Social Security retirement check that she started at age 62. Ted was now applying for his own much higher Social Security benefit. Once again, he said the Social Security rep they talked to told them that Alice wasn't due any extra benefits on Ted's account. I gave them the same advice I had delivered to Bob and Carol. I told them to go back to their Social Security office and insist on filing a claim. Which they did.
And several weeks later, I heard from Ted again. They had filed a claim for Alice, but she had just received a letter of denial saying she wasn't due any extra benefits. The letter explained that because Alice was getting a federal civil service retirement pension in addition to her small Social Security check, that federal pension precluded her from getting any extra spousal benefits.
Ted let it be known that he was a little perturbed at me for getting their hopes up. Let's just say that unlike Bob, he was in no mood to buy me lunch. I pointed out that I gave him bad advice because he gave me incomplete information. He never mentioned that Alice was getting a federal retirement pension. Had he told me that, I would have explained to him that an amount equal to two-thirds of her civil service pension plus her own Social Security retirement benefit must be deducted from any spousal benefits she might have been due on Ted's record.
Even though I did not give Ted the right answer, I did give him good advice: to file a claim for Social Security benefits. And that's the overall theme of this column. If you think you might be eligible for some kind of benefit, and a Social Security clerk, or a Social Security columnist, tells you that you are not eligible, but you have doubts, insist on filing a claim. You have every right in the world to do so. And that way you will get a legal decision about your claim. And here is one more email with a story that illustrates that point.
Dear Tom: I just wanted to say thank you. I am the woman who wrote to you previously that I was told by someone at my local Social Security office that I was not eligible for widow's benefits on my deceased husband's Social Security record because my own benefits were higher. I showed this rep an article that you had written explaining that as a widow, I had the option of taking widow's benefits now (I'm 66 and still working) and saving my own benefits until 70, when I would get a 32 percent delayed retirement bonus. She rather haughtily said, "Who are you going to believe? Me, an actual Social Security employee, or some obscure newspaper columnist?" She refused to take my claim. Based on your advice, I went back to the office and talked to the same woman again. But this time, I insisted on filing a claim. She grudgingly helped me fill out the forms. Long story short: I just got a check for about $5,000 in widow's benefits that included a couple months' worth of retroactive benefits. I also got a letter explaining my eligibility for those widow's benefits. Thank you again so much for insisting that I file a claim for benefits!
I wrote this woman back and told her to take that letter to her local Social Security office to show the representative who was so adamant that she was not due any benefits. I've got to admit that part of me wanted her to do that to put this uppity Social Security clerk in her place. But the other part of me thought it would be a good educational opportunity for an obviously inexperienced government representative.
Tom Margenau's weekly column, "Social Security and You," can be found at creators.com.