Q&A: Death and document retention

Dear Liz: After a spouse’s death, I am wondering if there is some guidance on how long to keep items such as a driver’s license, Social Security card, Medicare and health plan card, passport, veteran’s information and so on. I haven’t seen this addressed in your column.

Answer: Guidance about what to keep and discard after a death can vary widely, so you may want to ask your estate attorney for help. In general, though, you can begin to dispose of many documents three years after the estate is settled, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.

In some cases, you can shred them sooner. Social Security numbers are often printed on the death certificate, so the card can be shredded once you verify the number on the certificate is accurate, Sawday said. You also may wish to shred the passport as soon as possible to avoid it falling into the hands of an identity thief. Another option is to mark the passport “void” and keep it as a family history item, she says.

The driver’s license is another possible family history item — and boon to an identity thief — but it can be discarded at the three-year point, Sawday said. Veteran’s information can be kept for family history purposes or discarded three years after any death VA benefits are claimed.

Medicare and health plan cards should be kept in case any medical billing issues arise and then discarded when those issues, if any, are resolved, she said.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I’m 70, collecting Social Security since age 62 and still working. My ex-wife passed away a few years ago at 67. We were married for 25 years. I read that I could collect on her Social Security benefits as the survivor, but Social Security said no. What did I not understand about this?

Answer: Many people misunderstand how survivor benefits work. You don’t get the deceased person’s check in addition to your current benefit. If the survivor benefit is larger than what you currently receive, you get that payment instead. When Social Security said no, the agency was confirming that your benefit is larger than what you could receive based on your ex-wife’s earnings history.

Understanding how survivor benefits work is hugely important for currently married couples as well. Many are not prepared for the sharp drop in income that happens when the first spouse dies and the survivor is left with only a single check. Having the higher earner delay Social Security as long as possible can help ensure the survivor has more to live on.

Q&A: Divorced spouse benefits and remarriage

Dear Liz: My recently divorced girlfriend receives Social Security based on her ex-husband, who is still living. If we were to get married, would either of us lose part or all of our Social Security benefits? It seems like a simple, straightforward question, but every Social Security representative I speak with by phone or in person gives me a different answer. My girlfriend did not work long enough to earn her own Social Security benefits. She was married over 30 years and is over 60.

Answer: The answer to this question isn’t complicated, so it’s unclear why you got different answers. If the ex-spouse is still alive, then your girlfriend’s benefit is a divorced spousal benefit that ends if she remarries.

If the ex-spouse were not alive, then your girlfriend would be receiving a type of survivor benefit known as a divorced survivor benefit. People receiving survivor benefits can keep them after marriage if they are 60 or older at the time of the marriage.

Q&A: How delayed Social Security retirement credits work

Dear Liz: I just got off the phone with the Social Security folks and they told me the 8% delayed retirement credit is based on your benefit at full retirement age, rather than an 8% increase every year based on the previous year’s amount. So, if my full retirement age benefit was $3,000, my benefit increases $240 each year, not $240 the first year and $259 the second year and $279.94 the third year. Is that your understanding?

Answer: Yes. Delayed retirement credits don’t compound. If there are three years between your full retirement age and age 70, when your benefits max out, you will get 24% more than if you had applied for Social Security at your full retirement age.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I qualified for Social Security and receive a benefit. My wife did not work long enough to get a benefit, yet she receives a small amount each month. What is this from? What happens to it at her death?

Answer: Her benefit is probably a spousal benefit, which is based on your work record. Spousal benefits can be up to 50% of what you would have received at full retirement age. If she started benefits before her own full retirement age, the amount would be reduced to reflect that early start. Her benefit will go away when one of you dies, and the survivor will receive an amount equal to your benefit.

Q&A: Social Security death benefits

Dear Liz: My wife was 69 at the time of her passing. She was still working and was not collecting Social Security. I am 72, retired and collecting Social Security. When I spoke with Social Security, I was told that I cannot collect on my wife’s work history. All I qualify for is a $255 death benefit. I asked what happened to her money collected all these years. I was told it goes into a general fund. Is there anything I can get from my wife’s Social Security?

Answer: If your current benefit was larger than the one your spouse had earned before her untimely death, then you were given the correct answer: a $255 death benefit.

People sometimes mistakenly believe that surviving spouse benefits are something they can get in addition to their own benefit. But when one member of a couple dies, the survivor gets only the larger of the two checks the couple was previously receiving.

The taxes we pay into Social Security don’t go into retirement accounts with our names on them — the money goes instead to pay benefits to current retirees. There’s no guarantee that what you get out will be proportionate to what you contributed. Most people will get more from the system than they paid in, but some will get less and some, unfortunately, get nothing.

Q&A: Social Security misunderstandings

Dear Liz: As a former Social Security Administration employee, I can tell you there are countless times people misunderstand the information that is provided to them or only hear what they want to hear. There is no incentive for the employees to misinform or mislead people. Maybe you can begin your responses by saying, “If what you are saying is accurate,” instead of just assuming the worst and blaming the Social Security employees for people’s lack of knowledge.

The letter writer in a recent column not only indicated how helpful the employee was but also that they slept on the information and also discussed that with their trusted advisor. Your response assumed that the representative encouraged them to make a decision you indicated might not be the best.

Most employees do not encourage but inform people of their options. I am very disappointed that you once again chose to bash them with limited information and even when the person said how wonderful and knowledgeable the representative was, and even that they consulted with their trusted advisor.

Answer: The original letter writer mentioned that she learned in a chat with a Social Security spokesperson what her “break-even” point would be for waiting until full retirement age to start her benefit. My response pointed out that break-even calculations aren’t the best way to determine when to start Social Security, since they don’t include important factors such as inflation, tax rates and the impact of early claiming on survivor benefits. Many people also have a poor understanding of life expectancy and assume they will die before their break-even age when they probably won’t.

Social Security is an incredibly complex program, so people may indeed misunderstand what they hear from its representatives. But readers and financial planners alike report countless incidents in which representatives clearly gave inaccurate information. For example, people have been told they couldn’t suspend their benefit at full retirement age to earn delayed retirement credits (they can) or that they wouldn’t receive cost-of-living increases if they hadn’t started their benefits (not true — your benefit starts earning annual COLAs at age 62, whether or not you’ve started).

Bad guidance can be costly. A 2018 report by Social Security’s own inspector general found that faulty counsel from its representatives cost 9,224 widows and widowers approximately $131.8 million in benefits.

My responses aren’t intended to bash hardworking Social Security representatives but to alert readers that they should educate themselves about their options and seek guidance from financial experts before claiming.

Q&A: Social Security and break-even math

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about the complexity of retiring with a government pension and Social Security. You left out one very important resource: the Social Security Administration. Going into a Social Security office and sitting with a representative who can explain exactly how much a person will get (almost impossible to determine online using formulas) was the most helpful thing I did. I retired with a government pension at 60 years of age, and at 63 I went to the SS office to chat. I learned that if I waited until full retirement age (67) my break-even point would be 18 years! I slept on the numbers, discussed that with a trusted advisor and filed to take my Social Security benefit. Couldn’t be happier. The employees in the local office were wonderful, knowledgeable about the windfall elimination provision and could give exact numbers.

Answer: It sounds like the representative you consulted encouraged you to make your decision using a simple break-even calculation. That’s unfortunate for a number of reasons.

Break-even calculations typically purport to show the point at which the larger checks you get from delaying your Social Security application outweigh the smaller checks you pass up in the meantime. But the calculators usually don’t include important factors, such as inflation, tax rates and the impact of your filing decision on survivor benefits. These calculators also don’t include pertinent information about life expectancies. According to Social Security actuarial tables, for example, 63-year-old females in the U.S. can expect to live an additional 21.24 years.

That’s average life expectancy, of course. The more educated you are and the more income you make, the more years you can probably add to that tally. And the longer you live, the more likely you are to run through your savings. Many people who are able to make ends meet in their 60s and 70s wind up struggling financially in their 80s because they started Social Security too soon, says actuary Steve Vernon, a former research scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity.

Of course, you’ll be much less dependent on Social Security than most people, thanks to your pension. It’s possible your trusted advisor took that into consideration, along with your longevity profile, tax situation and other possible income sources, when suggesting you apply for a permanently reduced check. Most people can’t afford such reductions.

Q&A: Social Security and government pensions

Dear Liz: When is the “sweet spot” for me to start receiving Social Security benefits? I am retired and collecting two government pensions — mine and my ex-husband’s. I paid into Social Security for 26 years of substantial earnings when I was in the private sector. I do not want to return to work to get to 30 years of substantial earnings in order to avoid the windfall elimination provision reduction. I will reach full retirement age early next year and have a family history of longevity (my parents lived into their 90s). I am paying all of my bills currently but will do more traveling once I am collecting Social Security. Should I wait until 70 to collect? I think I need to live until about 84 to make waiting a good choice. I tried to get this answer from a financial planner at a free seminar and he would not tell me without hiring him for further consultations.

Answer: That’s not surprising. Social Security claiming strategies can be a complex topic, and your situation is more complex than most.

As you know, the windfall elimination provision can reduce Social Security benefits for people receiving pensions from government jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security. The provision doesn’t apply to people who have 30 or more years of “substantial earnings” from jobs that did pay into Social Security. (The amount considered substantial varies by year, but in 2023 it’s $29,700.) Your 26 years of substantial earnings will mitigate, but not eliminate, the provision’s effects.

Social Security has tools that can help you estimate the impact. Start by opening an account with Social Security, if you haven’t already, and getting your earnings record from those 26 years. You’ll then enter each year’s worth of “substantial earnings” into Social Security’s windfall elimination provision calculator to determine what your benefit is likely to be at various ages.

Next, consider using a paid Social Security claiming site, such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions, to get recommendations on when to claim rather than using calculators that purport to show a “break even age” for delaying Social Security.

These calculators typically don’t include important factors such as tax rates, rates of return and, for married couples, future survivor benefits. They also don’t really address “longevity risk” — the substantial danger that the longer you live, the more likely you are to run through your savings and wind up short of money.

On the other hand, you have not one but two government pensions that will provide guaranteed income for the rest of your life. If your Social Security benefit is truly “fun money,” rather than the lifeline it serves as for most people, maximizing your benefit may not be your top priority. But get all the information you can about the cost and benefits of claiming at different ages before making your decision.

Q&A: Social Security is insurance

Dear Liz: My wife was 69 at the time of her passing. She was still working and not collecting Social Security. I am 72, retired and collecting Social Security. When I spoke with Social Security, I was told that I cannot collect on my wife’s Social Security. All I qualify for is a $255 death benefit. I asked what happened to her money that was collected all these years; I was told it goes into a general fund. Is there anything I can get from my wife’s Social Security?

Answer: If your current benefit is larger than the survivor benefit you would get based on her work record, then no.

Your question illustrates two common misconceptions about Social Security.

Social Security is not a 401(k) or other retirement fund that you pay into over time and then draw from in retirement. Social Security is actually insurance. (Social Security’s formal name is Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance, or OASDI.) It’s a pay-as-you-go system where the payroll taxes collected from current workers pay for the benefits received by people who are retired or disabled and their dependents.

The other misconception is that survivors are qualified for additional benefits on top of their own. In fact, survivors get the larger of the two benefits a couple was receiving — not both. This is, unfortunately, often a surprise to widows and widowers who see their incomes plunge after their partners die.