Q&A: Social Security calculators may overestimate your benefits

Dear Liz: All of the Social Security calculators that I have found assume that you will work until you start drawing Social Security benefits. However, I plan on retiring around 62 but not drawing my benefits until age 66 or later. Whenever I calculate my future benefits, the calculator assumes that I will continue to draw the same salary as I have today until I start benefits. I’m worried the calculators are overestimating my benefit.

Answer: As you probably know, Social Security uses your 35 highest-earning years to calculate your benefit. When you work longer than 35 years, you’re typically replacing your lower-earning years in your teens or 20s with higher earnings from your 50s and 60s.

Free Social Security calculators usually assume that pattern will continue. If you stop working or earn less, the calculators may overstate your benefits. To get a better estimate, you’ll need to shell out $40 to use MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, which allows you to customize your future earnings assumptions.

When Social Security Turns You Into a Zombie

If the Social Security Administration thinks you’re dead, you might wish you were.

People who accidentally wind up on the agency’s Death Master File have seen their bank accounts frozen, credit cards closed, health insurance cut off and benefit payments canceled or even pulled back from checking accounts.

One California man told me his 97-year-old mother nearly had her utilities shut off after her bank froze her account and all her checks bounced, including a birthday gift to a grandchild. A retired professor in Massachusetts wasn’t allowed to get his prescriptions filled and found that all his medical appointments had been canceled, according to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine. A woman in New Hampshire told CNNMoney couldn’t get her driver’s license renewed for months.

In my latest for the Associated Press, what to do when Social Security thinks you’re dead.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

emergency-fund-1940x900_36282Today’s top story: When to ditch your state’s health insurance exchange. Also in the news: Tailgating blunders your insurance will pay for, how to handle unexpected financial disasters, and how much next year’s Social Security cost of living increase will be.

When to Ditch Your State’s Health Insurance Exchange
When to look off of the exchanges.

5 Football Tailgating Blunders Insurance Will Pay For
Accidentally grill your car? You’re covered!

No Savings, No Backup Plan, No Fairy Godmother: How to Handle a Financial Disaster
This is why you need an emergency fund.

Next year’s Social Security raise? Less than $4 a month
Lowering your expectations.

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.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

shutterstock_101159917Today’s top story: When and how much a Fed rate hike will cost you. Also in the news: The art of lowering your bills, how to become Social Security savvy, and why you should check your credit report after getting married.

Fed Rate Hike: When and How Much It Will Cost You
What to expect when the Fed pulls the trigger.

Ace the Art of Lowering Your Bills
Treat it like a science.

Are You Social Security Savvy?
What you know and don’t know.

Check Your Credit Report for Inquires After You Get Married
Checking for changes.

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.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

budgetToday’s top story: Mapping your financial journey. Also in the news: What Wells Fargo’s settlement might mean for you, six unusual ways to get out of debt, and surprising Social Security benefits for divorced spouses.

Mapping Your Financial Journey
Building a roadmap to success.

What Wells Fargo’s $185 Million Settlement May Mean for You
The Wells Fargo wagon has rolled into some big trouble.

6 Unusual Ways to Get Out of Debt
You don’t have to deliver pizzas.

2 surprising Social Security benefits some divorced spouses can get
All is not lost.

Q&A: Social Security survivors benefits

Dear Liz: My husband and I were married after dating for over four years, but he died suddenly on our honeymoon. When I got home, I was told by our local Social Security office that I did not qualify for survivors benefits because we were not married long enough. I am going to be 66 next month and he was already receiving Social Security benefits. People have been advising me to look into getting this marriage benefit, even by contacting my Congressional representative, since I don’t plan to apply for my own benefit until I’m 70 and could really use the survivor benefit now.

Answer: Social Security isn’t likely to help you cope with your devastating loss. The rule that couples have to be married for at least nine months is meant to prevent deathbed marriages designed just to give the survivor benefits.

There are some exceptions to the nine-month rule, such as when the death was accidental or in the line of duty for service members, or if you had a child together. The exceptions are outlined on the Social Security’s site: https://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/cfr20/404/404-0335.htm

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.