Q&A: When a Social Security spousal benefit goof is suspected

Dear Liz: A family member recently lost her spouse. His monthly Social Security check was $1,800 and hers is $750. I have two questions.

First, is my understanding correct that she is able to begin collecting his monthly amount instead of her own?

Second, instead of collecting Social Security based on her earnings history, was she eligible instead to have collected 50% of her husband’s monthly benefit? If so, she was entitled to $150 more than she’s been collecting. If this is accurate, is there any recourse for collecting the additional benefit from Social Security?

Answer: To answer your first question, yes, your relative will now receive a survivor’s benefit equal to what her husband was receiving. She will no longer receive her own benefit.

The answer to your second question is a bit more complicated. Your relative may have started benefits before her own full retirement age, which used to be 65 and is now 66. When people start benefits early, they receive a permanently reduced amount whether they’re receiving their own retirement benefit or a benefit based on a spouse’s earnings. It’s possible that her reduced retirement benefit was more than her reduced spousal benefit.

Another possibility is that she started benefits before her husband. To get spousal benefits, the primary earner typically needs to be receiving his or her own benefit. (There used to be a way around this, called “file and suspend,” that allowed the primary earner to file for benefits and then suspend the application. That no longer exists.)

If your relative started benefits before her husband, she may have been able to get a bump in her check once he applied, assuming her spousal benefit was worth more than her own retirement benefit. That bump in benefits is now automatic, but if she turned 62 before 2016, she would have had to apply to get the increase, says Mary Beth Franklin, a Social Security expert who writes for Investment News.

She wouldn’t be eligible to get all the missed benefits back at this point, but she could get up to six months’ worth.

Q&A: Can a teacher get Social Security spousal benefits?

Dear Liz: I’m 54 and will be eligible for a Social Security retirement benefit in eight years but plan to wait at least until age 67 to claim it. My wife is 60 and is a teacher, so she won’t be eligible for a primary benefit. But what about spousal benefits? Would I qualify for one as my wife’s spouse? Would she qualify for a spousal benefit from me?

Answer: You won’t be able to claim a spousal benefit if your wife hasn’t earned her own Social Security benefit. (Many teaching jobs don’t pay into Social Security but instead have their own pension plans.)

Because you’ve paid into Social Security, your wife may qualify for a spousal benefit based on your earnings record, with two important caveats. The first is that you must be receiving your own Social Security benefit before she can apply for a spousal benefit. The other is that if she receives a teacher’s pension, Social Security’s “government pension offset” rules would reduce any spousal or survival benefit she might receive by two-thirds of the amount of her pension. If two-thirds of her pension is greater than the amount of her Social Security benefit, her benefit would be reduced to zero.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I’m remarried and don’t plan to claim a spousal benefit on my husband’s Social Security, as my benefit will be four times what his will be. My previous marriage ended in divorce at 10 years, and my ex died two years ago. How do I find out if I’m eligible to collect on my ex’s Social Security record? I am 63 and want to wait until 70 to apply for my own benefit, but I would like to retire at the end of this year.

Answer: You’ve already cleared one hurdle, which is that your previous marriage lasted 10 years. So whether you qualify for divorced survivor benefits depends on how old you were when you remarried.

Divorced people who remarry after they reach age 60, or age 50 if they’re disabled, can qualify for divorced survivor benefits. Those who remarry before that point are out of luck.

Note, please, that the remarriage rule applies only to survivor benefits. Spousal benefits are a different story. While divorced people can qualify for spousal benefits if their marriages lasted at least 10 years, the ability to get a spousal benefit ends when they remarry.

Survivor benefits are also different from spousal benefits in that you will be free to switch from a survivor benefit to your own benefit at 70. When you apply for spousal benefits, you typically have to apply for your own benefit at the same time and will get the larger of the two. You can’t switch to your own benefit later.

Q&A: Deciding when to claim Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: In a recent article you discussed delaying Social Security benefits and wrote that for married couples, only the higher earner needs to wait until age 70 to get the largest possible check. I don’t understand the logic behind that statement.

I have always been told to wait until 70 to collect; however, my husband is the higher wage earner. Wouldn’t I still benefit from waiting until 70? If he is a few years younger than me, does that make a difference? If I don’t have to wait until 70, I am all for collecting at 66.

Answer: As you know, each year you delay boosts the check you get by roughly 7% to 8%. That’s a guaranteed return you can’t match elsewhere and why many financial planners encourage clients to delay claiming if they can. The “break-even” point — where the benefits you pass up are exceeded by the larger checks — can vary depending on the assumptions you make about investment returns, inflation and taxes. Generally speaking, you’ll be better off delaying until at least 66 if you live into your late 70s. If you delay until age 70, when your benefit maxes out, you’ll pass the break-even point in your early 80s.

None of us has a crystal ball, of course, and planners make the argument that Social Security should be viewed as longevity insurance: The longer you live, the more likely you are to spend your other assets and depend on your Social Security for most or all of your income. Given that reality, it makes sense to maximize that check.

That’s true for all individuals claiming Social Security, but married couples have another complication. When one dies, the other will have to get by on a single check — the larger of the two checks the couple was receiving. That’s the check that should be maximized, so it’s more important that the higher earner delay than that both spouses delay.

If you want a more detailed discussion of the issue, read financial planner Michael Kitces’ blog post “Why it rarely pays for both spouses to delay Social Security benefits” at kitces.com.

Q&A: What’s better, collecting Social Security early or blowing through retirement savings?

Dear Liz: I am married and six months away from my full retirement age, which is 66. I have not filed yet. My wife started collecting Social Security at 62 but does not get very much. We are both in excellent health and have longevity in the genes. We don’t own a home. I have around $960,000 in diversified investments. I take out around $7,000 to $8,000 a month to meet my monthly expenses. Fortunately, the markets have been good, helping my portfolio, but I am not counting on that to continue at the same pace.

Doesn’t it make more sense to be taking less money out each month by starting Social Security now? I know I would receive less money than waiting until 66 or later, but between my check and the spousal benefit my wife could get, I would reduce my annual living expense withdrawals from my account by close to 50%. This would give my portfolio more opportunity to grow, since I will not be taking out so much every month.

I wish I could cut my expenses or could earn more income but cannot at this point. I am shooting for not taking more than 5% a year out of the portfolio going forward.

Answer: You’re right that something needs to change, because your withdrawal rate is way too high.

You’re currently consuming between 8.75% and 10% of your portfolio annually. Financial planners traditionally considered 4% to be a sustainable withdrawal rate. Any higher and you run significant risks of running out of money.

Some financial planning researchers now think the optimum withdrawal rate should be closer to 3%, especially for people like you with longevity in their genes. Chances are good that one or both of you will make it into your 90s, which means your portfolio may need to last three decades or more.

So even if you start Social Security now, you’ll need to reduce your expenses or earn more money to get your withdrawals down to a sustainable level.

Generally, it’s a good idea for the higher earner in a couple to put off filing as long as possible. The surviving spouse will have to get by on one Social Security check, instead of two, and it will be the larger of the two checks the couple received. Maximizing that check is important as longevity insurance, since the longer people live, the more likely they are to run through their other assets. Your check will grow 8% each year you can delay past 66, and that’s a guaranteed return you can’t match anywhere else. In many cases, financial planners will suggest tapping retirement funds if necessary to delay filing.

But every situation is unique. Your smartest move would be to consult a fee-only financial planner who can review your individual situation and give you personalized advice.

Q&A: How Social Security survivor benefits work

Dear Liz: Will my wife, after I’m gone, be able to claim one half of my Social Security benefits because she is the surviving spouse? I am concerned and confused, because her monthly Social Security benefit is much larger than mine. Does that affect this aspect of the available benefit?

Answer: If by “gone” you mean “dead,” then no, that’s not how survivor benefits work.

When one member of a married couple dies, the surviving spouse does not continue to get two benefit checks. The survivor is given the larger of the couple’s two benefits. If she’s already receiving much more than you, then she will continue taking her own benefit and your checks will end.

The “one half” benefit is the spousal benefit, which is paid out while the primary earner is still alive. Typically when married people apply for Social Security, the retirement benefit they earned is compared with their spousal benefit, which is up to one half of what the other spouse has earned. (The amounts are reduced if the person applies for benefits before his or her own full retirement age.) The applicants get the larger of the two checks.

Spousal benefits also are available to divorced spouses, if the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

Q&A: Credit freezes complicate setting up online Social Security accounts

Dear Liz: You’ve recently written about protecting ourselves by establishing online Social Security accounts. Social Security prevents me (or anyone else) from creating an online account because I have credit freezes in place. As I understand the process, Social Security uses the credit bureaus to verify my identity. With a freeze, there’s no identity verification. In other words, in order to set up a fraudulent online account, someone besides me would have to unfreeze my credit report first. Is that correct?

Answer: Pretty much. Another way to establish an online account is to go into a local Social Security office with proper identification. But most hackers are unlikely to take the trouble to do either.

You may still want to create an online account to monitor your Social Security earnings record and promptly correct any mistakes or spot employment fraud (someone using your number to get work).

You could make a trip to a Social Security office or temporarily lift your freeze with the bureau that’s providing identity verification services. Currently, that bureau is Equifax — and yes, that’s the bureau that suffered the massive database breach that started this discussion.

Q&A: Here’s a way to fight Social Security fraud

Dear Liz: To make us less likely to become victims of fraudulent activity, years ago I froze our credit bureau files. I assume the Social Security Administration could be hacked as well. Can those files be frozen?

Answer: No, but you can create an online account to track and monitor your Social Security records — and it’s probably a good idea to do so. Fraudsters are creating such accounts and using them to divert benefits onto prepaid debit cards. If you created yours first, this fraud will be harder to pull off. If someone has already created an account in your name, you can find out and start the process of taking back your identity. The place to set up your account is www.ssa.gov/myaccount.

Q&A: Starting Social Security benefits early will cost you

Dear Liz: I started getting Social Security at age 62. I would have only gotten $327 a month based on my work history, but they gave me $666 based on my husband’s work history. He gets $1,966 but your article said I should get half. Should I be receiving more?

Answer: Probably not.

Your spousal benefit would have been half of your husband’s “primary benefit amount” only if you’d waited until your own full retirement age to apply. Because you started several years early at 62, your check was reduced by 30%.

His primary benefit amount is what he would have received if he started benefits at his own full retirement age. Full retirement age is currently 66 and will rise to 67 for people born in 1960 and later.

Q&A: When waiting to take Social Security doesn’t make sense

Dear Liz: I receive $2,400 per month in Social Security. My wife, who turned 66 in early April, was told by the Social Security Administration that her retirement benefit will be about $800. Can I get spousal benefits for her of $1,200, less what her Social Security amount will be? My problem is that she wants to wait to get her maximum amount of Social Security. Could she start spousal benefits now or does she have to wait until age 70?

Answer: Waiting would be pointless. Even though she would boost her retirement benefit by 8% each year, or a total of 32% by age 70, she still would receive less than if she just signed up for spousal benefits now.

Because she has reached her full retirement age of 66, her spousal benefit would equal 50% of what you’re receiving. (Technically, she will receive her own benefit plus an additional amount that brings her up to 50% of your benefit.)

Delayed retirement credits, which increase retirement benefits between full retirement age and age 70, don’t compound but increase benefits by two-thirds of 1% each month. There are no delayed retirement credits for spousal benefits, but spousal benefits are reduced when people start them before their own full retirement age.