Disability Is 'Real' Social Security

By Tom Margenau

April 29, 2015 6 min read

Q: I am 62 years old and getting a very small reduced retirement benefit. My husband is 63 years old and getting a much higher Social Security disability benefit. His health has taken a turn for the worse, and he may not live much longer. I live in fear that he will die before he reaches age 66 and starts getting real Social Security. I understand I won't qualify for widow's benefits until he is getting regular Social Security. What can I do?

A: I'm sorry to hear about your husband's health problems. But what you can do is stop worrying about Social Security. No matter when your husband dies and what kind of Social Security benefit he is getting at the time, you will get widow's benefits.

I'm always surprised by the number of people who think that disability benefits are not "real Social Security." They are just as "real" as Social Security retirement, or any other kind of Social Security benefit for that matter.

So again, you will get Social Security widow's benefits when your husband dies. The only thing that determines how much you get is your age at the time of this death. If you are 66 or older, your own benefit will be supplemented up to 100 percent of his rate. If he died tomorrow (God forbid) when you are 62, you'd get supplemented up to about 82 percent. If you are somewhere between age 62 and 66 when he dies, you'll get somewhere between 82 percent and 100 percent.

Q: I am 61 years old. I have been getting disability since age 58. I am just wondering: When will I be able to get regular Social Security?

A: Here we go again! You are getting "regular Social Security!" There is nothing irregular about Social Security disability benefits.

But I know what you are really asking. You do not want to know when you will get "regular" Social Security. You want to know when you will get Social Security retirement benefits.

And that happens when you turn 66. At that point, you will be switched from Social Security disability benefits to Social Security retirement benefits. But the changeover will be largely transparent to you because your payment rate will remain the same. Or to put that another way, the disability benefit rate equals a full-retirement rate.

The switch to retirement benefits really is just a bookkeeping move for the Social Security Administration. Once you reach that age, your benefits will be funded from the "Old Age and Survivors Insurance" trust fund, not the "Disability Insurance" trust fund from which your benefits are currently being paid.

Q: I am about to turn age 66. My husband is 61, and he is on Social Security disability. I want to "file and restrict." In other words, I want to file for wife's benefits on his record and delay taking my own until age 70 to get the delayed retirement bonus of 32 percent. But does the fact that he is not getting regular Social Security prevent me from doing that?

A: OK, I think I've made the point often enough in this column that you now understand this: Your husband is indeed getting regular Social Security. And to employ the "maximizing" strategy you are talking about, it makes no difference if he is getting retirement or disability benefits. So you will be able to file for wife's benefits on his Social Security disability account, and later switch to higher benefits on your own record.

Q: I am 63 years old and have been getting Social Security disability benefits for about five years. When I am switched to retirement benefits at age 66, will I be able to start working again?

A: Yes. Once you are 66 years old and getting retirement benefits, you would be able to work and make as much money as you want without jeopardizing your eligibility for those benefits.

But the fact that you even bring this up raises a few questions in my mind. The reason you are getting disability benefits in the first place is because you are supposedly unable to work. (As I've pointed out many times in this column, you get Social Security disability benefits not simply because you have a disabling condition, but rather because you have an impairment that keeps you from working.)

In other words, it is the inability to work, not just the disability itself, that makes you eligible for benefits. The fact that you seem so eager to work, which of course by itself is admirable, causes me to wonder if you are still legally disabled for Social Security purposes.

Having said that, I should point out that there are incentives built into the law that are designed to encourage you to try working even while you are getting disability benefits. Those incentives are far too numerous and complex to detail in this column. But in a nutshell, they say that you can work for up to nine months, and make as much money as you can, and still keep your disability benefits. After those nine months, if you are making more than about $1,000 per month, your disability benefits would stop. And because of your age, you would then be switched to reduced retirement benefits.

But again, if you put off searching for work until you are 66, you won't have to worry about those special disability work rules.

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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