Mailbag Miscellany

By Tom Margenau

November 6, 2019 6 min read

I usually like to have a theme to my columns. In other words, I will generally just cover one topic and present one or more questions from readers that are related to that subject. But every once in a while, I just like to open my email inbox and pick random questions to answer. Today's column is one of those.

Q: I am 79 years old. I haven't worked in years, but last year, I did make some money on the side selling some of my antique furniture. And now I got a letter from Social Security telling me my own benefit is going up by $25 but my widows benefit is going down by $25. This makes absolutely no sense to me. What do you think I should do about this?

A: You should just relax. It's really no big deal. Let me explain to you what is happening.

Like many women in this country, you are getting benefits from two Social Security accounts. You are getting your own retirement benefit, and you are getting some additional money off of your deceased husband's Social Security record.

You didn't give me the dollar amounts, but let's just say that you are due $1,200 in your own retirement benefits, and you are also due $2,000 in widows benefits. As a general rule, when you are due two benefits, you don't get them both. You just get the one that pays the higher rate. So in this situation, you normally would just get a widows Social Security check for $2,000.

But there is a rule that says if you are due anything on your own work record, you must be paid that first. So you are actually getting two benefits. You get your own $1,200 check. And you also get $800 from your husband's account to take you up to the $2,000 widows rate you are due.

(Depending on factors too complicated to explain in this short column, some women would get two checks each month, and some would get both benefits combined in one check.)

Because you made some extra money last year, those earnings bumped up the amount of your own Social Security benefit — you said by $25. So, applying that to the numbers I used for my example, that means your own retirement check increased to $1,225. But that increase did nothing to your husband's benefit amount (your widows rate). It remains at $2,000 per month. So now instead of $800 in widows benefits, you are due $775. So your portion of his benefit went down. But you still end up with $2,000 in total benefits.

Q: I read one of your old columns about Social Security disability. I am wondering this: Do those benefits go on forever? For example, if a guy has a heart attack at age 60 and starts getting Social Security disability and then manages to live into his 80s, will he still be getting disability?

A: When someone getting disability reaches full retirement age, those benefits are converted to retirement checks. But the dollar amount remains the same.

Q: I'm confused about a column you recently wrote about retroactive benefits. You said if a guy delays benefits until age 70 and then takes six months worth of retroactive benefits, he would lose 4%. Do you mean he loses 4% for the retroactive period, but his ongoing benefits would be at the full rate?

A: No. His benefits would be permanently reduced by 4%. Let me explain that further. You get a two-thirds of 1% increase for each month you delay starting your Social Security after age 66. That comes out to a 32% increase if you wait until age 70. (There are no increases after 70.) So if you apply for Social Security at age 70, but elect six months of retroactive benefits, it's as if you actually signed up for Social Security at age 69 and 6 months. And at age 69 and a half, you get a 28% increase. So your ongoing benefit rate would be 128% of your full rate, not 132%.

Q: My brother is 67 years old. He has never worked because he has been disabled all his life. My sister has never married, and she has been caring for him all his adult life. She gets a Social Security check, but he doesn't get anything. Is there any way my brother would qualify for Social Security on his sister's record?

A: No, he's not due anything on his sister's Social Security account. Or to put that another way, there is no such thing as a benefit for a dependent sibling.

But he possibly might be eligible for Supplemental Security Income payments. SSI pays a small monthly stipend to poor people who are over age 65 or who are disabled. If he has no income, and assuming he doesn't have more than $2,000 in liquid assets, he could get between $500 and $770 per month from the SSI program. Your sister should call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to check into this.

Q: In past columns, you said you aren't a Medicare expert. Where can we turn for Medicare advice?

A: Medicare counselors are called SHIPs. That stands for State Health Insurance Program. To find the SHIP nearest you, go to the Medicare website and pull down the menu for your state under "Find local help" and then click on SHIP.

Q: I am a 71-year-old divorced man. I am about to get married again. My fiancee is 43. If I were to die, would she get any of my Social Security?

A: I'm sure there are some advantages to marrying a 43-year-old woman when you are a 71-year-old man. But leaving behind widows benefits isn't one of them. She would have to be 60 years old before she would be due any Social Security checks as a widow on your record. So for both your and her sakes, let's hope that wedding night doesn't give you a fatal heart attack!

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

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