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: 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: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My 90-year-old father recently passed away. My mother, who will be 90 in February, has a phone meeting with Social Security coming up. It is my understanding that she will have the opportunity to take my dad’s full benefit in place of hers since it is much higher. Is that correct? Is there anything else I should know to help her receive the maximum benefits?

Answer: Survivors get only one Social Security check, and it’s the larger of the two they received when their spouses were alive. So yes, she will get the amount your father got. At this point she can’t do much to maximize her Social Security benefit. What she gets depends on when your father started his benefit. The later he started, the more she’ll receive.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I earned more than my wife, who died at age 57 after 18 years of marriage. When I turn 60, can I take survivor Social Security benefits based on her work record and then request my benefit at age 70?

Answer: In a word, yes, and doing so may be smart.

Survivor benefits are different from spousal benefits, which inflict some severe penalties for starting checks early. When you start spousal benefits before your own full retirement age, you’re locked into a permanently smaller check and you can’t later switch to your own benefit, even if it’s larger. The only way to preserve the ability to switch is to file a restricted application for just the spousal benefit at your own full retirement age (which is 66 for people born from 1943 to 1954 and gradually increases to age 67 for people born in 1955 and later). Then you preserve the right to change to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70.
With survivor benefits, starting early means a reduced check — your widower benefit at 60 would be 30% smaller than if you waited until your full retirement age — but you can switch to your own benefit later. And if you don’t work, starting survivor benefits at 60 is the better course, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, coauthor of “Getting What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Social Security.”

“Getting a reduced benefit for 10 years, from 60 to 70, is better than getting an unreduced benefit for fewer years,” Kotlikoff said.
If you work, however, the math becomes less clear. When you start benefits early, your check is reduced $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain limit, which in 2015 is $15,720. That penalty disappears once you hit your full retirement age.

Online calculators can help you determine the best Social Security claiming strategy. AARP and T. Rowe Price are among the sites that provide free calculators, but they don’t factor in survivor benefits. Consider spending about $40 for one of the more sophisticated calculators, such as Kotlikoff’s MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, that can include this important benefit.

Q&A: Social Security disability insurance and survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My first wife died six years ago at age 60. I was 52 and we had been married 27 years. My wife was on Social Security disability for 15 years before her death. My only dealing with Social Security after her death was to cancel her payments. I received no benefits of any kind. I am now remarried. Were there any Social Security benefits that I failed to request? Is there any effect on my future retirement?

Answer: You may have been eligible for a one-time payment of $255, but that’s likely all.

We’ll assume your wife was receiving Social Security Disability Insurance payments, which are disability checks paid to workers who have enough work credits in the Social Security system. SSDI is different from Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, a need-based federal program for low-income individuals who are disabled, blind or over the age of 65. Survivor benefits aren’t available under SSI, but they are under SSDI.

The rules for SSDI survivor benefits are similar to those under regular Social Security. Survivor benefits typically are available starting at age 60. Survivors who are disabled can begin receiving the benefits starting at 50, and survivors at any age can qualify if they’re caring for the deceased person’s child who is under 16. When you remarry before age 60, you can’t claim survivor benefits based on your first wife’s Social Security record unless the subsequent marriage ends in death or divorce.

Q&A: Social Security survival and spousal benefits

Dear Liz: If my spouse takes spousal benefits from Social Security before his full retirement age, does that ultimately affect the survivor benefits he could receive?

Answer: As covered in previous columns, applying for spousal benefits before his full retirement age of 66 or 67 will lock him into a diminished check and preclude him from switching to his own benefit later. It does not, however, affect what he would receive as a survivor. His survivor benefit would be equal to what you were receiving at your death. To protect him (and yourself, should you be the survivor), you probably should delay starting benefits as long as possible to make sure you’re receiving the maximum benefit.

Q&A: Social Security and same-sex marriage

Dear Liz: My partner of 30 years recently died. Am I eligible for Social Security survivor benefits? I don’t want anything I don’t deserve, but if I’m entitled to something, every penny would be appreciated. I am 54 and make minimum wage.

Answer: Your eligibility for Social Security benefits as a spouse depends on three factors: whether your state recognizes same-sex marriages, whether it did so on the date your partner died and whether you were legally married. (You wrote “partner” rather than “spouse,” which suggests you may not have been.)

The Supreme Court paved the way for Social Security to offer same-sex benefits when it ruled parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional last summer. Social Security has taken the position that it must follow state law in recognizing same-sex marriages and that what matters is where the couple live, not where they married. Even in states where same-sex marriage is currently legal, Social Security denies survivor benefits if it wasn’t legal when the spouse died.

If you are eligible, you can start receiving benefits as early as age 60. (Survivor benefits are available at any age if the widow or widower takes care of a child receiving Social Security benefits who is younger than 16 or disabled.)

Starting early reduces your survivor benefit significantly compared with what you would get if you wait until your full retirement age of 67. As a survivor, though, you’re allowed to switch to your own benefit later, if that benefit is larger. (That’s different from spousal benefits, where spouses are precluded from switching to their own benefits if they start getting Social Security checks before their own full retirement age.) If your survivor benefit is likely to be larger than any benefit you’ve earned on your own, though, it typically makes sense to delay starting Social Security as long as possible to maximize what you’ll get.

Q&A: When to start taking Social Security

Dear Liz: You’ve often talked about delaying the start of Social Security benefits to maximize your check. But what about in the case of a widow? My husband died in 2006 at the age of 57. I will be 62 this year and could start receiving benefits based on his earnings. (I did not work during our marriage as I was a home-schooling mom.) I’ve been living off my husband’s modest pension benefits. Would waiting until full retirement age increase the monthly payment I would ultimately get? One of the reasons I ask is that I have an adult son who lives with me and who probably will never be able to have a job. Yet he is not officially disabled and, as far as I know, is not eligible for any kind of benefits. I wondered if it might be a good idea to start taking Social Security as soon as I could and either save or invest the monthly checks to add to what I could leave my son (I have an IRA and other assets I hope not to have to touch). My pension will cease when I die.

Answer: You could have started receiving survivor’s benefits at 60. (Those who are disabled can start survivor’s benefits as early as age 50, or at any age if they’re caring for a minor child or a child who is disabled under Social Security rules.) Since your husband died before he started benefits, your check would be based on what your husband would have received at his full retirement age of 66. If you start benefits before your own full retirement age, however, the survivor’s benefit is permanently reduced.

For many people, starting survivor’s benefits isn’t as bad an idea as starting other benefits early. That’s because survivors can switch to their own work-based benefit any time between age 62 and 70 if that benefit is larger. Starting survivors benefits early can give the survivor’s own work-based benefit a chance to grow.

In your case, however, the survivor’s benefit is all you’re going to get from Social Security. While it may be tempting to take it early and invest it, you’re unlikely to match the return you’d get from simply waiting a few years to start.

Your description of your non-working adult son as “not officially disabled” is a bit baffling. If he has a disability that truly prevents him from working, getting him qualified for government benefits would provide him with income and healthcare that would continue despite whatever happens with you. (You may not want to touch your assets, but that might be necessary if you need long-term care.) If he can work, then getting him launched and self-supporting would be of far greater benefit than hoarding your Social Security checks for him.

Social Security statements make a comeback

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailUntil a few years ago, Social Security sent annual statements to just about everybody who was still working to let them know what they could expect to receive in retirement, survivor and disability benefits (minus a 25% or so haircut if Congress never gets its act together to fix the system). Those statements got axed by budget cuts, but now Congress wants them resumed.

Here’s the scoop from Reuters columnist Mark Miller:

Starting this September, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will resume mailings at five-year intervals to workers who have not signed up to view their statements online, an agency spokesman told Reuters. The statements will be sent to workers at ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60, he said, adding the agency would continue to promote use of the online statements.

We won’t be getting these in the Weston household, since we signed up for online accounts. (If you decide to go that route, note that some people have had trouble setting up their Social Security accounts because they have security freezes on their credit reports at Experian, the bureau that Social Security uses to verify identity. Investment News columnist Mary Beth Franklin says you’ll have to unfreeze your report, or visit a Social Security office in person with a government-issued ID to set up an online account.)

Social Security tends to be a pretty vague concept for most people until they start closing in on retirement age–or they’re unlikely enough to need its survivor or disability benefits. But the system contributes half or more of most people’s retirement income, so it’s worth knowing what you’ve been promised. Perhaps knowing might even inspire you to lean on your lawmakers to get the system’s problems fixed while there’s still time.

 

You may not be as smart as you think you are

Portrait Of Senior Couple In ParkMost people are better off delaying the start of their Social Security benefits as long as possible. That’s the consensus of the AARP, financial planners and researchers who have studied the thousands of different claiming options. In fact, the benefits of putting off Social Security have grown in recent years, thanks to low interest rates, gains in longevity and changes in the law since the 1990s.

Still, every time I pass along the advice that waiting is better, I hear from those who just refuse to believe it. They focus on breakeven points rather than longevity risk; they don’t factor in spousal or survivor benefits; they underestimate how much their benefit can grow with even a few years’ delay.

So when Financial Engines approached me with the results of a recent survey, I just nodded my head in recognition. Their poll found that most people nearing retirement are confident that they can make smart Social Security claiming decisions–but that most do poorly on a test that measures their understanding of basic Social Security claiming concepts. You can read more about it in my column this week for Bankrate, “Are you Social Security smart? Guess again.”

My best advice is that before you claim Social Security, use some of the software tools that are available to help you evaluate your options. The AARP has a good calculator here. If you want to play with the numbers and assumptions a bit more, MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com has software that will really let you get your geek on; a one-year license is $40. You also can talk to a fee-only financial planner who is savvy about claiming strategies.

Here are two things you should know:

1. If you’re married (and that includes you same-sex couples, if you file in a state that legally recognizes your marriage), you have unique opportunities to maximize your lifetime benefits and protect your surviving spouse from poverty. The difference between the best claiming strategies and the worst can be $250,000. No, that’s not a typo.

2. Social Security is not going to disappear. The program is simply too popular and its problems, though real, are not insurmountable. Even if Congress does nothing, the system can still pay out 75% of the benefits promised just from the taxes it will collect. If Congress does do something, the changes almost certainly won’t affect near-retirees but will instead change benefits for younger taxpayers. Signing up for benefits as soon as you’re eligible in order to “lock in” your checks will just lock you in to a much lower payment, for life.

If you’re one of those people who likes to dive into the academic research surrounding claiming strategies, here are a few articles to check out:

“Recent Changes in the Gains from Delaying Social Security.” This article in the Journal of Financial Planning demonstrates how changes in interest rates, longevity and the benefit formula have dramatically improved the benefits from delaying Social Security claims.

How the Social Security Claiming Decision Affects Portfolio Longevity.” Researchers William Meyer and William Reichenstein have done a lot of research on Social Security claiming strategies, and in this Journal of Financial Planning article they use a sophisticated model that factors in taxes to weigh how delaying Social Security can help retirees make their savings last longer.

Should You Buy an Annuity from Social Security?” This brief from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research explains why it often makes sense to tap retirement savings so that you can delay the start of Social Security benefits.

When Should Married Men Claim Social Security?” This article, also from the Center for Retirement Research, should be required reading for any married couple thinking of starting benefits early. It does a great job of summarizing potential spousal and survivor benefits–and of making the point that starting too early can leave your surviving spouse in a world of hurt.