Q&A: Survivor benefits and remarriage

Dear Liz: Regarding your recent advice to the person whose husband had just died. I could be completely wrong, but I think that in order to collect her late husband’s benefits when she turns 60, she can’t remarry.

Answer: You’re right that you’re wrong, but your confusion is understandable.

There are different types of Social Security benefits that people can receive based on the earnings of a spouse or ex-spouse. People whose spouses or ex-spouses have died may collect survivor benefits. Those benefits can continue if the survivor remarries at 60 or later.

The other type of benefit is a spousal benefit, which is based on a living person’s earnings record and which may be available to current spouses as well as ex-spouses. Someone who is divorced and receiving spousal benefits based on an ex’s earning record will lose those benefits if they remarry at any age.

Q&A: Social Security earning years matter

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you wrote that Social Security’s estimates of the dollar amount one will receive at various ages — 62, full retirement age of 66 to 67, or 70 — assumes one continues working until one applies. Therefore, one won’t receive the amount posted at full retirement age if one had stopped working at, say, age 62. Aren’t people’s benefits based on their top 35 earning years?

Answer: Yes, which is why I wrote that the benefit may be lower. Social Security assumes you’ll keep earning the same amount you are now. Those assumed future earnings could be high enough to replace one or more of your previous 35 highest-earning years. If that’s the case, your estimated benefit could be somewhat larger than the one you actually receive if you stop work early.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My husband passed away at age 59 last year. He was sick and unable to work the last four years of his life. I will be 56 in October. My understanding is I will not be able to draw his Social Security benefits until I am age 60. Is this correct? I struggle financially and need that money now. Also, could he have drawn his Social Security benefits before he turned 60 since he was unable to work?

Answer: Your husband could not draw retirement benefits before age 62, but he may have been a candidate for Social Security Disability Income or Supplemental Security Income if his condition was severe enough to prevent him from working. SSDI is available to people who have worked long enough to be “insured,” which generally means 10 years in jobs that pay into Social Security. SSI is intended for aged, blind and disabled people with low incomes and few assets.

You won’t be eligible for survivor benefits until you’re 60. If you’re struggling, please visit Benefits.gov to see if you’re eligible for other government programs. You also can call 211 or visit 211.org to see what resources in your community may be available to help you.

Q&A: Social Security isn’t going broke

Dear Liz: You have addressed Social Security in your column recently and detailed the benefits to waiting until age 70 to take payments. I read that Social Security funds are expected to run out around 2035. At that time I’ll be 76 and would only get six years of benefits versus 13 years if I start at age 62. Do you still think it is wise to wait on benefits as Social Security may go away?

Answer: Social Security isn’t going anywhere. What’s being depleted is its trust fund, which is used to supplement the taxes Social Security collects to pay benefits. This trust fund is scheduled to be out of money in 2031, according to a new Congressional Budget Office estimate that takes into account the effects of the pandemic. Even if the fund is depleted, however, the system will still collect enough in taxes to pay 76% of promised benefits.

So benefits won’t stop, and it’s highly unlikely Congress would allow benefits to be cut for retirees and near retirees. Social Security is a hugely popular program, and such cuts would be politically unpopular, to say the least, which is why most experts predict that lawmakers will fix the system before that happens.

If you allow yourself to be panicked into starting benefits early, on the other hand, you’re permanently reducing your benefit by 30%. If you’re married and are the higher earner, you’d also be locking in a lower survivor benefit. A lower Social Security benefit can have a huge effect on your standard of living in retirement, so make sure you understand the facts about the system before making a decision you may live to regret.

Q&A: A felony doesn’t preclude you from Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: If someone has a felony, is it true they cannot claim Social Security retirement benefits? If so, what is the best option: a Roth IRA or a brokerage account? How do they get started without a lot of money?

Answer: A felony does not prevent you from claiming Social Security in the future if you work enough years to qualify for benefits. If you were already receiving retirement benefits when you were convicted, your payments would typically be suspended while you were incarcerated but resumed when you got out.

That said, Social Security usually isn’t enough to live on, so you’ll want to have money in retirement accounts as well. An IRA or a Roth IRA are both good options. The IRA reduces your taxes upfront while Roth IRAs reduce your taxes in the future. Low- and moderate-income taxpayers also can get a tax credit, called the Savers Credit, for retirement contributions.

If you don’t have a lot of money to invest, look for brokerages that have low fees and no account minimums, such as Fidelity, ETrade, TD Ameritrade and Charles Schwab, among others.

Once you open the account, you’ll need to figure out how to invest.

If you’re new to investing, consider using target date funds. These investments are labeled by year, and you pick the year that’s closest to your future retirement. The fund does the rest of the work such as picking the stocks and bonds, rebalancing the mix and getting more conservative as the retirement date approaches.

Robo-advisors such as Betterment or SoFi are another low-cost solution that does most of the work for you.

Q&A: Why it makes sense to play the Social Security waiting game

Dear Liz: I’m concerned that you don’t make it clear that in order for a Social Security benefit to grow, a person needs to keep working and earning the same income that they’ve been making. I’ve retired recently and am lucky enough to have a pension to live on. I talked to someone at the Social Security office recently. She recommended that I go ahead and start drawing my benefits now because there will be minimal growth for the next seven years if I’m not working. She says lots of people think that they should wait, no matter what. However, she says it doesn’t make sense if you’re not working. Even my personal financial advisor was recommending that I wait, but the person at the Social Security office convinced me otherwise. When you go on Social Security’s website to check your benefits, all the estimates are based on continued employment at your current salary. There’s no way to check and see what your estimates are if you are working less or not at all. I think it’s important to give the whole story.

Answer: Yes, it is, and you didn’t get the whole story — or even correct information — from the Social Security employee who convinced you to ignore your financial advisor.

Benefits grow by 5% to 7% each year you delay starting between age 62 and your full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67, depending on the year you were born. After your full retirement age, your benefit grows by 8% each year you delay until age 70, when it maxes out. That guaranteed growth happens regardless of whether you continue working or not.

You are correct that Social Security’s estimates of the dollar amount you’ll receive assume you will continue working until you apply, so it’s possible that your benefit will be somewhat lower when the agency actually calculates your first check. But that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from the delay — you just won’t benefit quite as much as they’re estimating.

If you want to get a better idea of what your benefit will look like without additional earnings, you can use an online tool like Social Security Solutions or MaximizeMySocialSecurity.

Your financial advisor probably has access to similar tools, as well as a wealth of research about the best claiming strategies that make it clear most people are better off delaying. Plus, your advisor knows the details of your personal financial situation.

The woman at the Social Security office did not. Even if she had her facts straight, she should not have been giving you advice about maximizing your benefits.

You may still have time to rectify this mistake. You can withdraw your application within 12 months and pay back the money you received to reset the clock on your benefits. If it’s been longer than 12 months, you can suspend your benefit once you reach your full retirement age and at least get the 8% delayed retirement credits for a few years.

Q&A: Social Security ‘child benefit’ math

Dear Liz: I just turned 62 and I have 3 children, ages 11, 13 and 15. I understand that starting Social Security now means my benefit is permanently reduced. Should I delay or take it now, since my children could get benefits?

Answer: The so-called “child benefit” complicates the math that usually favors delaying the start of Social Security.

Each of your children could get a monthly check equal to half your benefit because they’re under 18 and presumably unmarried. (Unmarried children who are under 19 but still in high school, or 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22, also can qualify.) There’s a family maximum that limits the total that can be paid to any household, which ranges from 150% to 180% of the parent’s full benefit amount.

Your kids can’t receive these benefits unless you’re receiving yours, however. Applying before your own full retirement age, which is 66 years and 8 months, permanently shrinks your check and subjects the family benefits to the earnings test if you’re still working. The earnings test reduces your benefit by $1 for every $2 you make over a certain limit, which this year is $18,240. The earnings test goes away after you reach full retirement age.

If you’re married, your claiming strategy also needs to consider your spouse. A reduced benefit could affect the survivor benefit one of you will have to live on when the other dies.

With so many variables to consider, you’d be smart to consult a Social Security claiming strategy site such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity or Social Security Solutions. These services aren’t free, but an investment of $20 to $50 could result in thousands more over your lifetime.

Q&A: The benefits of delaying Social Security

Dear Liz: I retired and started collecting Social Security at 62. My husband is currently 68 and plans to retire next year. I called Social Security before I retired and they told me that I could collect Social Security at 62 and when my husband retired, I could collect my own Social Security or half of my husband’s, whichever was greater. Is this accurate? I should have done more research before taking my benefit as I’m not sure this is true.

Answer: It’s true. There’s a substantial penalty for starting early, and most people are stuck with a permanently reduced payment, but your situation is one of the potential exceptions.

You weren’t eligible for a spousal benefit at 62 because your husband hadn’t started his benefit. When your husband does start, the spousal benefit will be half of what he would have received had he applied at his full retirement age of 66. If you’re younger than your own full retirement age, the spousal benefit will be reduced to reflect the early start. If all those calculations result in an amount that’s more than what you collect, you’ll get the larger amount.

By waiting to start benefits, your husband gets delayed retirement credits equal to 8% for each year he has waited past his full retirement age. Spousal benefits don’t qualify to share those credits, but survivor benefits do. When one of you dies, the smaller of the two checks you receive as a couple goes away and the survivor receives the larger of the two benefits. The survivor’s check will be larger because your husband waited to apply.

This is why it’s so important for the larger earner in a married couple to delay filing for as long as possible. The higher earner’s benefit determines what the survivor will have to live on, often for years and sometimes for decades, after the first spouse dies.

Q&A: Balancing disability and survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My 70-year-old husband is retiring at the end of the month. I’m 64 and collecting Social Security disability. If he should pass away before me, which is not likely considering my medical conditions, will I still get at least half of his Social Security income instead of my own, if it’s more than what I’m already collecting? I do understand that my disability benefit will stop at 65. I will then be collecting a regular Social Security benefit at my retirement age of 67. We are totally confused and trying to decide whether to forgo getting a retirement annuity benefit for me from his employer pension if he should pass before me.

Answer: Your disability benefit doesn’t stop at 65. It continues until you reach your full retirement age of 67, and then converts to a retirement benefit. The name for the benefit changes but the amount doesn’t.

If the amount you’re receiving is less than what your husband gets, and your husband dies first, you will get a survivor’s benefit equal to what he was getting. Survivors don’t get their own benefit plus their spouse’s; they just get the larger of the two benefits.

With pensions, it would be smart to get expert advice before you sign away your right to a survivor benefit. The default payout option for a married person is typically “joint and survivor,” which means the survivor would continue to receive the checks after the person dies. Opting for a “single life” payout instead increases the monthly check, but the money stops when he dies. While it may seem more likely you’ll die first, there are no guarantees and waiving your right to a survivor benefit could lead to a steep drop in your income.

The pension may offer different joint and survivor options, such as 100%, 75% and 50%. With the 100% option, the payments continue to be the same if he dies first. The 75% and 50% options reduce the payment after his death to 75% or 50% of the previous amount. Choosing 75% or 50% could be a decent compromise that allows you to get more money now but still get payments should he die first.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits count as yours

Dear Liz: My husband is 69 and taking his Social Security benefit. I will be 62 in November and would like to ask if I can take half of his amount when I turn 62 and let mine grow until my full retirement age of 66 and 8 months? Or am I only able to collect mine at 62?

Answer: You can’t take a spousal benefit and let your own retirement benefit grow. When you apply for Social Security, you will be “deemed” to be applying for both benefits and you’ll get the larger of the two. You won’t be able to switch later. Applying at 62 means accepting a permanently reduced benefit. Some people don’t have much choice, but if you can continue working or tap other retirement funds, waiting is usually the better option.