Q&A: Social Security’s widespread benefits

Dear Liz: I encourage you to educate your readers about the real intention of Social Security, as well as the real problem facing it. Social Security was designed as a safety net to keep the elderly, disabled and orphaned from abject poverty. It was not intended to provide decades of benefits to individuals who are not at risk of living in poverty. It does no good to further the inaccurate notion that everyone is entitled to “their share” from a social safety net meant for the poor.

Answer: You’ve misunderstood Social Security’s structure and its history.

Social Security was deliberately created as a social insurance program, not as welfare assistance. Workers fund the system themselves through payroll taxes. They have to pay into the system a certain number of years to qualify for benefits. In return, they receive inflation-adjusted income that they can’t outlive and that isn’t vulnerable to market downturns.

Social Security benefits are progressive, which means they’re designed to replace more income for a lower-paid worker than a higher-paid one. But people who pay more into the system get larger benefits than those who pay less, and benefits are not means-tested.

Programs for the poor tend to be easy targets for politicians, but Social Security’s universal nature contributes to its widespread support. More than 1 out of every 6 U.S. residents, or about 62 million people, collected Social Security benefits in June 2018.

Q&A: Get help claiming Social Security

Dear Liz: I read your column about the disabled woman who was asking about survivor benefits. I am 60 and my husband died when he was 65, but he was not receiving Social Security. We both paid into Social Security for our entire working careers and maxed out every year. I have been told that I can receive his benefits when I am 65. I wonder why I cannot collect his benefits now.

Answer: You can, but you may not want to if you’re still working and earning the kind of six-figure income needed to “max out” your Social Security taxes.

People who start Social Security benefits early are subject to an earnings test that withholds $1 in benefits for every $2 they earn above a certain amount, which in 2019 is $17,640. Social Security has a calculator to help you determine the effect on your benefit at https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/RTeffect.html. Your survivor’s benefit also will be reduced if you start it before your own full retirement age, which in your case is either 66 years and 8 months (if you were born in 1958) or 66 years and 10 months (if you were born in 1959).

Once you’ve reached full retirement age, however, the earnings test goes away, as does the reduction for starting benefits early. At that point, you could apply for full survivor benefits and leave your own retirement benefit alone to grow 8% each year until it maxes out at age 70. You can continue to work and receive benefits without facing any reductions.

Social Security can be astoundingly complex, and claiming decisions can be affected by a number of factors. AARP has a free Social Security claiming calculator, but it can’t deal with some situations such as survivor’s benefits, child benefits (for retirement-age people who have minor children) or the offsets associated with pensions that don’t pay into Social Security. For those, you would need to pay about $40 to use a more sophisticated calculator such as the one at MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, or to consult a fee-only financial planner with experience in this area.

Q&A: Separated spouse is entitled to survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I am a 57-year-old disabled woman whose only income is $500 a month in Supplemental Security Income. I was legally separated from my husband when he died at age 59. Can I collect Social Security from his account?

Answer: Most likely, yes.

To generate a survivor’s benefit, your husband would have had to pay into the Social Security system for a certain number of years. Younger people need to have worked fewer years than older ones to provide benefits for survivors, but no one needs to have paid in for more than 10 years.

Because your husband died before reaching retirement age, your survivor benefit would be based on what his retirement check would have been at his full retirement age (which would be 67, if he was born in 1960).

You could get 100% of that benefit if you wait until your own full retirement age to collect. Reduced benefits are typically available when a widow or widower turns 60. Survivors who are disabled can start benefits as early as age 50, if the disability started before the death or within seven years.

If your marriage had ended in divorce, you could still have qualified for survivor’s benefits as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. (If a marriage lasted that long and the ex is still alive, a divorced spouse can qualify for spousal benefits, which are up to half the ex’s benefit.)

With survivor benefits, you have the option of switching to your own retirement benefit later, if it’s larger, or of switching from your own benefit to a survivor’s benefit, should that be the better deal.

Q&A: Timing spousal benefits

Dear Liz: My wife, who is 59, lost her job and has been unable to find a new one. Can she file for Social Security spousal benefits at 62? I plan to continue working.

Answer: For her to receive spousal benefits, you need to be receiving your own benefits. If you’re not yet 62, the youngest age at which you can claim retirement benefits, then her only option would be to file for her own benefit.

That may be the right course in any case. If you’re the bigger earner, it often makes sense for you to put off filing as long as possible to maximize not just your own check but the survivor’s benefit that one of you will have to live on once the other dies.

You can start your research into the best claiming strategy by using free calculators, such as AARP’s Social Security calculator or Open Social Security. If your situation is at all complicated — you have a minor child or a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security — then consider paying about $40 to use a more sophisticated calculator, such as Maximize My Social Security, or consulting with a fee-only financial planner.

Q&A: Delaying Social Security

Dear Liz: In a recent column you mentioned Social Security’s delayed retirement credit, writing that someone’s benefit could grow 32% by delaying benefits for four years between ages 66 and 70. Four years’ worth of accrued 8% increases in Social Security result in a cumulative increase of 36%, not 32%. I would think any financial planner would understand compound growth.

Answer: Social Security’s delayed retirement credits don’t compound.

Now, you may feel a little silly for pointing out an error that wasn’t actually an error, especially because you could have found the correct answer through a quick internet search (“Is Social Security’s delayed retirement credit compounded?”). But who hasn’t made a similar mistake? Sometimes what we don’t know about money isn’t the problem — it’s what we do know for sure that just isn’t true. (A similar quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, although there seems to be no evidence he ever said or wrote it.)

When I’ve made errors in this column, it’s often because I thought I understood something I didn’t or that my knowledge was up to date when it wasn’t. That’s why it’s so important to double-check our information with authoritative sources.

Q&A: The Social Security waiting game

Dear Liz: I am 66 and had always planned to delay starting Social Security until I was 70. I do not need the income at this point of my life. I am no longer working as my husband has health issues and I do not expect to have any earned income.

But the latest statement I received from Social Security told me that the projected higher amount I would receive at age 70 is based on taxable earnings similar to what I was making before I retired. Now I have concerns that my lack of income will lower the amount of my benefit. Is it best for me to just start Social Security now?

Answer: No. You won’t increase your benefit. In fact, you’d be giving up the guaranteed 8% annual boost you would otherwise get.

Knowing how Social Security calculates your benefit can help you understand why this is true. Social Security bases your check on your 35 highest earning years. If you worked this year, then your 2019 wages could conceivably become one of those highest earning years, displacing a year when you earned less. That typically results in a slight increase to your benefit.

If you don’t work, however — or do work and don’t earn more than you did in one of those 35 highest earning years — your benefit remains the same.

Social Security projections assume you work until you claim benefits, so its estimates may slightly overstate the check you’ll actually get. But you will still receive the delayed retirement credit that boosts your check by 8% for each year you delay starting Social Security after your full retirement age of 66. That’s a 32% increase if you wait until age 70, when your benefits max out, to start. And that is definitely worth waiting for.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits complications

Dear Liz: My husband started collecting Social Security benefits at age 62. I was still working at the time. When I reached my full retirement age of 66, I started collecting spousal benefits, or 50% of the benefit he received. After I reached age 70 and retired, I switched over to my own benefit as it was a larger amount.

If my husband should die first, can I switch back to a survivor benefit based on his earnings record or do I have to continue collecting my own? As I understand it, the survivor benefit would be 100% of his benefit, which is more than I currently receive.

Answer: When one of you dies, the survivor will get one check instead of two, and the amount will be the larger of the two benefits you’re receiving now. So if he dies first, you’ll essentially stop getting your check and start collecting a survivor’s benefit equal to his.

You were lucky that you were able to file what’s known as a “restricted application” to get spousal benefits first, so that your own benefit could continue to grow. That option is not available to people born on or after Jan. 2, 1954.

But it’s unfortunate that your husband started benefits early because that permanently reduces the amount the survivor will receive in the future. Typically it’s best for the higher earner in a couple to delay receiving Social Security benefits as long as possible to maximize what’s left for the survivor.

Q&A: Claiming Social Security can get complicated

Dear Liz: I am 63 years old, born in November 1955. My husband and I divorced five years ago after 37 years of marriage. I work full time and plan to continue until age 70 at least. Am I eligible for the option of applying for restricted benefits under my ex-husband’s Social Security when I turn 66 and then switching to my maximum benefit at age 70? He was always a much higher wage earner than I was, and I’m confused about whether I qualify for any of his Social Security benefits.

Answer: You’re not eligible to file a restricted application for spousal benefits, which would allow you to claim a benefit based on a husband’s or ex-husband’s benefit while allowing your own benefit to grow. Congress eliminated the restricted application option for people born on or after Jan. 2, 1954. Instead, when you apply for benefits, you’ll be “deemed” to be applying for both your own retirement benefit and any spousal or divorced spousal benefit to which you might be entitled, and will essentially get the larger of the two. You can’t switch later.

Something you should keep in mind: Although your own benefit can grow 8% each year you delay, between ages 66 and 70, spousal benefits don’t earn such delayed-retirement credits. There’s no incentive, in other words, for you to wait beyond age 66 to claim Social Security if the spousal benefit is going to be the larger of the two benefits you could receive.

Social Security claiming rules can be complicated. If you don’t have a trusted financial advisor who is well versed in claiming strategies, consider spending $40 or so for a service such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, which can analyze your particular situation and suggest the smartest option.

Q&A: Social Security strategies vary by age

Dear Liz: My husband has been on Social Security disability since he was 61. He’s now 69 and receives $1,700 a month. I will be turning 66 next year. I still work and want to file for spousal benefits, which would be half of his benefit, but I’m not sure what the best option is. I know I would get $850 a month until I turn 70, when I would get my maximum retirement benefit. Or do I file for my retirement benefit now, which is more than half of my husband’s?

Answer: Since you were born before Jan. 1, 1954, you still have the option of filing a restricted application at 66 for spousal benefits only and then switching to your own retirement benefit when it maxes out at age 70. Since it’s still available for you, you’ll probably want to take advantage of it since you’ll almost certainly get more in total from Social Security that way.

People born Jan. 1, 1954, and later won’t be able to file restricted applications for spousal benefits. Instead, when they apply for benefits, their own retirement check will be compared to their spousal benefit and they’ll get the larger of the two amounts. They no longer have the option of applying just for spousal benefits and then switching to their own benefit later.

Since you’re the higher earner, it makes even more sense to put off taking your retirement benefit as long as possible. Not only will you probably maximize the amount you get, but you’ll also be maximizing the spousal benefit that one of you will have to live on when the other dies. (Remember that at death, one Social Security benefit disappears and the survivor must get by on the larger of the two.)

It’s time to fix Social Security’s tax burden

People on Social Security need a tax break. The rest of us need to make sure they get it — for everyone’s sake.

When Congress made Social Security benefits taxable in 1983, lawmakers didn’t index the tax thresholds to inflation. They “forgot” inflation again when adding a second layer of taxation in 1993.

That means the proportion of recipients who have to pay federal income taxes on their benefits keeps increasing. Initially, only 1 in 10 Social Security recipients had to pay any federal tax. Now, it’s over half.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why this sneaky way of boosting taxes is unfair to those who have already paid their dues.