I've said this before and written columns about this before. Do NOT listen to your friends and neighbors when it comes to Social Security advice. Whatever they are telling you is probably wrong. Here is another batch of questions saved up from this week's mailbag that proves my point.
Q: My sister's husband died on July 24. He was 76 and started getting his benefits at 65. He was getting $1,920. She is 70 and is getting her own $1,250, which she started at age 62. One of our best friends told her that because she took her own benefits at 62, she isn't due any widow's benefits. Is this true?
A: It's absolutely not true. What she is due in Social Security widow's benefits usually depends on one thing only: her age when she became a widow. And at her age, her own benefit will be supplemented up to 100% of what he was getting at the time of death. In other words, she will keep getting her $1,250 per month, and then she will get an extra $670 in widow's benefits to take her up to his $1,920 benefit rate.
Q: My best friend's husband died in June. He was 85. She is 81. Her neighbor told her that she would be automatically switched to widow's benefits because that is what happened when her husband died. But it's been more than two months now and nothing has happened. How long does it take?
A: If it was a simple conversion from wife's benefits to widow's benefits, the changeover would happen very quickly. Probably in less than a week. But I'm guessing that it's not that simple in your friend's case. I will explain.
I will bet that your friend's neighbor was getting straight spousal benefits. In other words, she wasn't getting her own Social Security, just a dependent wife's benefit on her husband's account. In that situation, when the husband dies, the wife is automatically switched to widow's benefits with just a push of a few buttons at the Social Security Administration.
On the other hand, I'm guessing your friend was getting her own Social Security benefits. In cases like that, there is no automatic conversion to survivor benefits. Your friend has to contact SSA and file a claim for widow's benefits. She can do that by calling them at 800-772-1213.
Q: I am 64 years old. Recently, I applied for my Social Security and told them I wanted six months worth of retroactive benefits. The SSA clerk told me no such benefits were due. But a neighbor told me that he got retroactive benefits and that all Social Security claimants have the option of selecting this back pay. So did I get a misinformed Social Security agent?
A: No, you've got a misinformed neighbor. Retroactive benefits can only be paid for claims filed after full retirement age, and then only for a maximum of six months. Or to be more precise, the law says retroactive checks cannot be claimed if they involve the payment of reduced retirement benefits.
Here are three quick examples. Huey files for Social Security at age 68. He can claim up to six months of retroactive benefits if he wants. Duey files for Social Security at age 66 and 3 months. He can claim three months worth of retroactive benefits but nothing before age 66. Luey files for Social Security at age 65. He can't claim any retroactive benefits.
Q: I have been getting my Social Security since I was 66. I'm now 68, and I'm still working. My neighbor tells me that he is in the same boat as me but that he gets a small increase every year in his Social Security check because of his extra earnings. But I haven't seen any increases. What's going on?
A: Your neighbor is probably in a different kind of boat than you are in. Any earnings you have after you start getting Social Security, and the Social Security taxes you pay on those earnings, might increase your monthly Social Security check.
Notice I said "might" — and here's why. Your original Social Security benefit rate was based on your average monthly wage using your highest 35 years of inflation-adjusted earnings. If the money you are making now is high enough to replace the lowest of those 35 years used in your original computation, then that will raise your average monthly wage, which in turn will increase your Social Security check. On the other hand, if your current earnings are not high enough to replace a low year, then there will be no increase in your Social Security benefit. I'm guessing your neighbor is in the first boat, and you are in the second one.
Q: I will be 62 in December. A friend told me that I should file for Social Security before January 2020. He said if I do that, then I could take spousal benefits on my wife's record and save my own until I am 70 to get a 32% bonus for doing so. Is this true?
A: It's not true. Your friend is mixing an apple with an orange. The apple is a rule that says you must always file for your own Social Security benefits first, before you can try claiming anything off of a spouse's Social Security record. The orange is a loophole to that law that says if you turn 66 before January 2020, then you can file for spousal benefits first and save your own until 70 — and get that bonus you mentioned. But you will not be 66 before January 2020. So you can't have the orange. You're stuck with the apple. Your only choice will be to file for your own Social Security benefits at whatever age you decide to do that.
Q: I turn 66 on Feb. 19, 2020, and that's when I want my Social Security to begin. Someone I trust told me to file for it now because it takes the government about six months to line up my benefits correctly.
A: You can trust for friend on other matters if you want, but not when it comes to Social Security. The Social Security Administration processes most retirement claims in less than two weeks. I'd suggest filing in early January 2020.
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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