Q&A: Social Security benefits confusion

Dear Liz: In a past column, you discussed a potentially advantageous option for people who started Social Security early. You wrote that when they reached full retirement age, they could suspend their benefits and allow them to grow by earning delayed retirement credits. I am turning 66 this month and have been collecting Social Security benefits since age 62.

I went to a local Social Security field office to request the suspension but was told this option is not available. They couldn’t provide definitive documentation to support their statements but said that by starting benefits at 62 the option to suspend and earn delayed credits from 66 to age 70 doesn’t apply. Can you please clarify your comments and, if correct, suggest how I might be able to convince the representatives at the local office that it is still an option? I have been speaking to a supposed “expert” at the office, not the first person screening my request.

Answer: Unfortunately, the advice you get from local Social Security offices isn’t always accurate.

The representatives you talked to may be confusing benefit suspension with the so-called “file and suspend” option, which Congress eliminated a few years ago. With file and suspend, a higher wage earner could file an application for benefits and immediately suspend it. This allowed a married partner to start claiming spousal benefits while the higher earner’s benefit could continue to grow. Under current rules, partners can claim spousal benefits only if the primary earner is actually receiving retirement benefits.

For those not familiar with Social Security claiming strategies: It’s generally advantageous to wait as long as possible to apply for retirement benefits. The amount you can get grows at roughly 7% annually between age 62, which is the earliest you can apply, and your full retirement age, which is currently 66 but which will gradually rise to 67 for people born in 1960 and later. Between your full retirement age and age 70, you can earn so-called “delayed retirement credits” that further boost your check by 8% each year.

If you start early and realize you made a mistake, you can suspend your benefits at your full retirement age. Your checks will stop, but you don’t have to repay past benefits. And the amount you receive — although still reduced by your early start — can earn delayed retirement credits.

This probably isn’t a good option if you have other people drawing benefits based on your record, such as spouses or dependent children, because the suspension would stop their benefits as well.

Suspension also is different from the “do over” option that allows you to repay any benefits you’ve received and completely restart the clock on your benefits, as if you’d never started them. That option is allowed only in the first 12 months after your initial application.

Given that your local reps are confused, you should point them to the Social Security Administration’s web page on the matter.

It couldn’t be clearer. The first sentence reads: “If you have reached full retirement age, but are not yet age 70, you can ask us to suspend retirement benefit payments.” The page goes on to say your benefits will be automatically restarted at age 70, when those benefits max out, but you can restart at any time before that if you want.

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: 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: 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.

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