I frequently get emails from people who have lost out on Social Security benefits they might have been due. And they are looking for somebody to blame. They usually don't like it when I have to turn around and tell them it is their fault.
I'm not a huge sports fan. In fact, it's interesting that, in our family, my son and I are just barely interested in baseball, football, hockey, et al., whereas my wife and my daughter are huge sports fans and have been known to travel the country (previrus) to watch football games, tennis matches, etc.!
Despite my lack of interest in the world of sports, I'm going to use a sports analogy to make the primary point of this column. When it comes to your eligibility for Social Security -- what benefits to file for and when to file for those benefits -- the ball is in your court. Don't drop it! In other words, it's up to you to educate yourself about the Social Security program and to decide when and how to file for whatever benefits you might be due. I've saved up some emails to illustrate this point.
Q: I'm 65, and I just learned my ex-husband has been getting Social Security for a couple of years now. Why didn't the Social Security people ever contact me to tell me about this? I might be due benefits on his record. I've missed out on two years of benefits!
A: You've got to take some personal responsibility here. If you would have simply done an internet search for "Social Security benefits for divorced women," you would have learned that you could have filed for those benefits as early as age 62, whether or not your ex-husband had filed himself.
Besides, the government cannot possibly keep tabs on every man, woman and child in this country and tell each of them when they might be due various kinds of Social Security benefits.
Having said that, there are times when the Social Security Administration might be able to contact people to tell them they should file for some kind of Social Security benefit. That usually occurs if there is enough information in a file that could lead to a potential claim. For example, if a woman were getting Social Security benefits on her husband's record and the SSA gets a notification that the husband has died, they would contact the wife to let her know she should file a widows claim.
Q: My wife died at age 50 many years ago. I never remarried. I just turned 66 and talked to someone at the Social Security Administration about filing for my retirement benefits. I was shocked when the agent mentioned that I was potentially due widowers benefits when I turned 60. Why didn't anyone tell me about this before? Every financial planner I've ever talked to and everything I've ever heard about Social Security carries the message to wait as long as possible -- age 66 or even 70 -- to file for benefits. No one ever said anything about filing as early as age 60. How was I supposed to know that I could have received widowers benefits six years ago?
A: I don't want to seem too callous, but if I were a widow or widower, the possibility of filing for survivors benefits from Social Security would always be in the back of my mind. And a simple internet search with the key words "Social Security survivors benefits" or "Social Security widowers benefits" would have turned up all kinds of information about when and how to file for such benefits.
As far as the advice you got from financial planners and others to wait until 66 or 70 to file for benefits, you are mixing an apple and an orange. That is usually good advice when it comes to Social Security retirement benefits. But I am sure no one ever told you to wait that long to file for widowers benefits.
There is one bit of potentially good news I can share with you. If you wanted, you could file for widowers benefits now. At age 66, you'd get 100% of whatever your wife's full benefit would have been. And then at age 70, you could switch to 132% of your own retirement benefit.
Q: I took my Social Security benefits when I was 62 years old. I just turned 66, and I am shocked to learn that my benefits will not be going up. I had no idea that if I took benefits early, the reduction would be permanent. We all know the government is corrupt. And this is just another example of that. I should have been advised my benefit would always be reduced. What a disgrace. I have been cheated! I have been robbed!
A: You haven't been cheated or robbed. Or let me put it this way: You cheated yourself by not doing your homework. Just a little bit of research (and, frankly, a little bit of common sense) would have told you that if you take your benefits early, they are reduced, and the reduction stays with you forever.
Q: I filed online for my Social Security benefits to start at age 68 in August. I just learned from a friend that I could have received six months' worth of retroactive benefits. I was never made aware of this. I have been cheated out of a lot of money because of someone's incompetence. Do I have any recourse?
A: I've heard from many readers that the online retirement application form does offer the chance to take retroactive benefits. So, you must have missed it. And for other readers, here is some clarification about retroactive benefits. They can only be paid after reaching your full retirement age and then only for a maximum of six months.
But here is what I never understand about people taking the six-month retroactivity option. If you wanted your benefits to begin six months prior to your August start date, then why didn't you just simply file for benefits in February in the first place? Why let the government hang onto your money for half a year and then claim those benefits (without any interest) later on?
Anyway, if you want, you can withdraw your old claim and file a new claim asking for six months' worth of retroactive benefits. But bear in mind that your ongoing monthly benefit rate will be less because you are starting your benefits sooner.
Tom Margenau's column, "Social Security and You," can be found at www.creators.com.