Q&A: Friend erroneously declared deceased

Dear Liz: I have an elderly friend who was recently erroneously declared deceased by the Social Security Administration. She received no notice of this declaration and her first awareness that something might be wrong was when her personal checks and automatic payments to utilities and others began to bounce. When she called her bank, she was informed that all of her accounts had been frozen by the Social Security Administration.

My friend is now faced with multiple returned check charges, threatening phone calls and cut-off services. Efforts to straighten things out with Social Security and her bank have been only moderately successful so far. Although they will probably clear things up eventually, this will take time and quite a bit of legwork on her part.

Under what authority does Social Security freeze someone’s assets? And is this common? Aren’t they required to at least notify someone of impending action? After all, when any one of us does in fact die, we still have financial obligations and such actions can only create headaches for survivors.

Answer: The Social Security Administration doesn’t freeze bank accounts, but it does erroneously declare people dead a few thousand times every year. Financial institutions check Social Security’s death notices and may freeze or close accounts as a result. It can take weeks or months to clear up the confusion.

People in this situation should visit their local Social Security office and bring some identification, such as a driver’s license or passport, to establish that they are, in fact, alive. Social Security will issue a letter called an “Erroneous Death Case — Third Party Contact” notice that can be shown to financial institutions, doctors and others who may have been misinformed of their deaths. Your friend should not only ask that services be restored but that bounced-check fees and other costs be waived. There’s no guarantee that they will be, but she should ask.

Your friend also might consider whether it’s time to ask for help in managing her finances. It sounds from your description as if she didn’t notice the problem for quite some time. Utilities don’t shut off service at the first missed payment. Threatening phone calls — presumably from collection agencies — typically don’t start until accounts are months overdue. She should consider adding a trusted person to her checking account or at least sharing online credentials so that another set of eyes is monitoring what’s going on with her money.

Q&A: Social Security survivor’s benefit

Dear Liz: My husband will retire next spring but has wisely decided to not collect Social Security until he is 70. I have been retired for several years and have been collecting my Social Security benefits, which are significantly less than what his will be because he was the higher wage earner. Should he die before age 70, would I still be able to claim, as his surviving spouse, his larger benefit, even though he would not have started collecting it yet? The information I read only talks in terms of the higher wage earner already collecting Social Security benefits before his or her demise.

Answer: Even if your husband dies before starting Social Security, you can collect the larger benefit he’s earned, including any delayed retirement credits from putting off his application.

Those delayed retirement credits increase his benefit, and yours as the surviving spouse, by 8% each year between his full retirement age of 66 and age 70. That can make a huge difference in the quality of life of the surviving spouse, who has to get by on a single check after the other partner dies.

Q&A: Social Security benefits for children

Dear Liz: My husband was 51 when our last child was born, meaning that our son was only 15 when my husband turned 66. Because I was working full time and we had sufficient income, we adhered to the traditional advice of delaying my husband’s Social Security payment. However, when he filed this past year at age 69, we learned that our son is eligible to receive a considerable monthly amount. Fortunately, the Social Security office was able to backdate my husband’s application for six months, but nevertheless we lost out on several thousand dollars by not filing when my husband was 66. Although his monthly payout would have been lower, the accumulated difference would have been considerable with our son’s payment. Therefore, although most retiring people do not have minor children, I believe that all financial advisors should be aware of this option and that those parents should plan carefully to maximize their payout.

Answer: More than 4 million children receive Social Security benefits because their parents are disabled or deceased or have reached retirement age. A child can receive up to half the parent’s disability or retirement check. If the parent dies, a child’s survivor benefit can be up to 75% of the parent’s basic benefit. (There’s a limit to how much a family can receive, though, which ranges from 150% to 180% of the parent’s check.) Benefits typically stop at age 18, although they can continue until two months past the child’s 19th birthday if the child is still in high school. Benefits can continue indefinitely if the child is disabled.

Children’s benefits can be subject to the same earnings test that reduces Social Security retirement checks if the parent claims early and continues working. So it often makes sense to wait to start benefits until the parent is full retirement age, currently 66, when the earnings test no longer applies. You’re right that delaying beyond that age may not make sense when the child is young enough to receive benefits, since they can considerably boost a family’s total benefit.

Having minor children at retirement age definitely complicates the calculation of when to take benefits. Many free Social Security claiming calculators don’t let you include minor children in your calculation, so if you’re in this situation it can be worth paying $40 to get a customized claiming strategy from calculators such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

Q&A: Why surviving spouses aren’t always entitled to Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I am confused. I thought all wives were entitled to Social Security if the husband’s earnings qualified. My husband is deceased and he received a larger Social Security benefit than I because he worked longer in a qualified system. We were married almost 49 years. Most of my earnings are from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. I was told because I had a high retirement income, I could not qualify for a percentage of my husband’s benefit. I didn’t know there was an income basis for Social Security. My income was severely reduced when he died. I appreciate any resource in understanding Social Security you could provide.

Answer: It sounds like your survivor’s benefits were eliminated by something known as the “government pension offset,” or GPO. While this sounds draconian, the GPO is actually meant to ensure that people in your situation don’t wind up getting a bigger benefit than people who paid into the Social Security system.

If you had paid into Social Security, you would get the larger of either your own benefit or your husband’s after his death. You wouldn’t be able to continue receiving both checks. Since you’re receiving a government pension from outside the Social Security system, you would be receiving much more than a typical survivor if you could keep that pension AND get your husband’s check. The GPO reduces your survivor benefit by two-thirds of your government pension to compensate. If your pension is big enough to completely eliminate your survivor’s benefit, that means you’re still better off than you would have been just receiving your husband’s check.

Q&A: Guaranteed income in retirement

Dear Liz: Is there such a thing as guaranteed income in retirement? Private pensions are gone and public pensions aren’t far behind. There are calls for pension reform and I’m not sure if anything is guaranteed anymore. As far as annuities are concerned, insurance companies are on shaky ground and the U.S. government had to bail out AIG. My kids, in their 20s, have told me they aren’t expecting Social Security to be there when they retire. The term “guaranteed income” has lost its meaning.

Answer: I wouldn’t rely on your twenty-something offspring to be oracles of financial wisdom. The reality is that Social Security will collect enough in taxes to pay about three-quarters of promised benefits even if Congress never gets its act together to improve the system’s financial situation. As bad as Americans can be at math, most of us can understand that “75%” is not the same as “0%.” Social Security is an immensely popular government program that millions rely on for most or all of their retirement income, so the odds are pretty good that the system will be there when your kids need it.

Pensions are another common source of retirement income. Private pensions are on the wane but millions of people still have them. If a plan can’t pay promised benefits, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. takes over. The PBGC has a maximum limit for payouts, which may trim the pensions of highly paid employees, but the vast majority of workers get what they were promised.

Public pensions, meanwhile, aren’t impossible to cut, but it’s tough to do, and most government agencies prefer to defer the pain by trimming benefits for younger employees rather than older ones.

Finally, it’s not true that insurers are on shaky ground — the vast majority survived the financial crisis without a bailout. You still should check into an insurer’s financial strength before you buy an annuity, of course, and many financial planners recommend buying only from top-rated companies. If an insurer does fail, many annuities are covered by state guaranty associations up to certain limits (typically $250,000).

Q&A: Getting through to Social Security

Dear Liz: I read your article about checking your Social Security earnings record and benefits. I tried to set up an account with the Social Security Administration to track my retirement benefits (I turn 65 in December). Apparently the Social Security Administration will only text a required security code to a cellphone. I do have a cellphone but live in an area with very sketchy reception. I couldn’t get a signal the day I tried to set up the account. Do you have any suggestions about an alternate source or method for accessing my benefits?

Answer: The Social Security Administration briefly required people to use a one-time code sent to their cellphones in order to set up an online account. You weren’t the only one who was having trouble with this new hurdle, and the administration has since dropped the requirement.

People still have the option of getting and using a code if they’re comfortable doing so. This so-called two factor authentication — which uses both something you know, such as a password, and something you have, such as a code sent to your phone — is a smart idea for any sensitive online account. Banks and brokerages should offer this option to further protect customers’ security, but many of them don’t.

By the way, the Social Security Administration allows only one account per Social Security number, so you’d be smart to continue setting up your account. That will prevent someone else from doing so and making unauthorized claims or changes.

Q&A: Survivor benefits for divorcees

Dear Liz: I am 76 and widowed. I’ve been collecting half of my ex-husband’s Social Security payment for the last nine years. We were married for 20 years. He remarried in 1987 and his wife is still living. He is now terminally ill with cancer. Am I eligible for survivor benefits?

Answer: You will be. If you qualify for divorced spousal benefits while your ex is alive, you will qualify for divorced survivor benefits when he dies. Instead of collecting an amount equal to half his benefit, your check will increase to 100% of the amount he was receiving.

Survivor benefits differ from spousal benefits in another key way. If you remarry, divorced spousal benefits end. Survivor benefits can continue after marriage, as long as you’re 60 or over when you re-tie the knot.

By the way, your benefits don’t take any money away from his current wife. She, too, will be eligible for a survivor benefit equal to what he was getting, unless her own retirement benefit is greater. One primary earner’s work record can support a number of divorced spouses in addition to a current spouse, as long as the previous marriages lasted at least 10 years each.

Q&A: When to take Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I’m about to turn 66 and my wife is 60. I plan to delay Social Security benefits until I’m 70. My benefit will be large enough that whenever she starts benefits, her spousal benefit will be larger than what she earned on her own. Here’s the question: I think that the time for her to start taking benefits will be immediately upon reaching her full retirement age, not waiting until 70, as I am doing. Correct?

Answer: Correct. You will earn delayed retirement credits that will boost your benefit by 8% for each year you put off applying. Spousal benefits don’t get those credits. The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of your primary insurance amount, or the amount you would get if you applied at age 66. She’ll receive that maximum if she applies for spousal benefits at her own full retirement age.

Q&A: Does Social Security pay survivor benefits in same-sex unions?

Dear Liz: I am 65 and was recently laid off after 26 years with the same company. My life partner of 25 years died in 2010. We had been legally married in 2008. I’d like to wait until I’m 70 to collect my Social Security. Is there any way I can collect her Social Security until then? I don’t know what the federal laws are regarding this and whether they have caught up to the intent of the law regarding same-sex unions. I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering about this, so any guidance you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Yes, you should be entitled to a survivor benefit that’s either equal to what your wife was getting at her death, or what she would have received at full retirement age if she died before applying for her benefits.

A reduced survivor’s benefit is available starting at age 60. You can’t backdate your application until then — the most you can get if you apply now is a lump sum equal to six previous months of benefits. You retain the ability to switch from a survivor benefit to your own (or vice versa for that matter). That’s one of the many ways that survivor benefits differ from spousal benefits, since the ability to switch from a spousal benefit to one’s own benefit is being phased out.

Q&A: Don’t miss out on spousal Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: How far back can Social Security go for someone who did not know to apply for spousal benefits? I’m 69, still working and did not know I was eligible for spousal benefits from my retired wife when I turned 66. Social Security is indicating six months of retroactive benefits is the maximum.

Answer: Unfortunately, that’s correct. You’ve missed out on at least two and a half years’ worth of spousal benefits based on your wife’s work record.

You still can file a restricted application for spousal benefits only and get a lump sum payment for the previous six months. You also still have the option to switch to your own benefits when they max out at age 70. These strategies aren’t available to younger people because Congress changed the rules last year.

Social Security rules can be complex, and the penalty for misunderstanding or missing deadlines can be huge. “Get What’s Yours,” a book about Social Security-claiming strategies that recently was updated, should be required reading for anyone approaching retirement age.