I really do not like writing columns that are critical of my former colleagues at the Social Security Administration. But doggone it! Almost every single day, I get emails from readers who share stories with me about misinformation they've received from SSA representatives they've talked to either at the national 800 number or at their local Social Security office.
It's bad enough if the misinformation involves an incorrect answer to a relatively minor question. But when it causes someone to miss out on benefits they are due, it is a downright shame.
That is why I always advise my readers to do this: If an SSA rep tells you that you are not due some benefit, but you think you are, insist on filing a claim for that benefit. You have every right to do so. That way, you will get a formal and legal decision about your eligibility, not just some rep's (possibly incorrect) opinion. Here are some examples just from this week's mailbag.
Q: I am 66 years old, and two months ago, I went to my local Social Security office and filed for my own retirement benefits. I didn't work very much during my married life and will be getting a rather small monthly check — about $600. I am divorced. My ex-husband is a doctor and has paid the maximum Social Security tax all his life. He is also 66 and doesn't plan to take Social Security until he is 70. I asked the Social Security agent who took my retirement claim if I was eligible for any of his Social Security now. She told me no. She said I have to wait until he files for benefits before I can get anything on his record.
A: The Social Security rep you talked to about this is just downright wrong. Although a woman who is currently married to her husband must wait until he applies for his own Social Security benefits before she can collect on his record, those rules do not apply to divorced women. The rules for divorced spousal benefits merely say the ex-husband has to be old enough to be eligible for benefits. (That essentially means he has to be at least 62 years old.) He does NOT have to be actually receiving those benefits.
I'm guessing your ex-husband's monthly full retirement age benefit is in the $2,600 range. At age 66, your share of that is $1,300. So, you would be due your own $600 Social Security check and another $700 from your ex-husband's account to take you up to that $1,300 spousal level.
You should march right back into your local office and insist on filing a claim for divorced wife's benefits. And in your case, the good news is that the claim you filed for your own retirement benefits a couple of months ago is what the SSA calls a "protective filing date." That means your spousal benefit claim can be backdated to the time you filed your retirement claim.
Q: I'm 62 and not working. My wife died last year. Our marriage was a little unusual in that my wife was the principal breadwinner. I wanted to file for widowers benefits now and save my own retirement benefits until I'm 70. I called the SSA's helpline, and the representative I talked to told me the loophole that allowed people to do that was closed last year, and my only option was to file for my own Social Security. With her help, I started doing that claim but told the rep I wanted to put things on hold so I can think about it. That's why I'm writing you. Was this Social Security rep correct?
A: She is absolutely wrong. Actually, she is confusing one Social Security rule with another. There was a loophole in the law that allowed retirees to file for reduced benefits on a spouse's Social Security record as early as age 62 and then switch to full benefits on their own record at 66, or even higher benefits at 70. That's the loophole that closed. Or, to be more precise, it is closed for anyone who turned 66 after Jan. 2, 2020.
But the law has always given widows and widowers the option of filing for reduced benefits on one record and switching to higher benefits on another record later on. (This wasn't a "loophole" in the law. The rules have always allowed widows and widowers to do this.)
That means you can do what you originally planned to do. You can file for reduced widowers benefits at 62 and then, at 70, switch to 132% of your own retirement benefit. So, get back in touch with the SSA, and tell them you want to withdraw that retirement claim you filed and instead file a claim for widowers benefits.
But before you do that, you should sit down with a calculator and think about this. Because your wife had the higher wages in your family, I wonder if doing the widowers option the other way around might work out better for you? In other words, you could finish filing your claim for reduced retirement benefits. And then at age 66, you could switch to a 100% widowers rate. (Unlike retirement claims, there are no extra widowers benefits payable beyond age 66, so there would be no advantage to waiting until 70 to make that switch.)
Q: I am 62. My husband is 66 and plans to wait until he is 70 to file for his Social Security. I wanted to file for my retirement benefits now and then switch to higher spousal benefits on my husband's record later. But the local Social Security representative talked me out of doing this. His reasoning was this: He told me that if I took reduced benefits on my record, that reduction will also reduce any future widows benefits I am due. Is this right?
A: No, it's wrong. Your potential widows benefit will be based on one thing only: your age when you become a widow. Assuming you are over age 66 when that happens, your widows rate will be 100% of whatever your husband was getting at the time of death (minus your own benefit amount). And you would get that 100% rate even if you took reduced benefits on your own record.
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.