Q&A: Social Security after a spouse dies

Dear Liz: My husband recently died. Since he and I received essentially the same amount from Social Security, I will not receive any additional money. Can you explain this? Social Security could not when I both called and went to the local office. I have not seen this addressed in your column. I would think this would be a problem for many spouses.

Answer: The issue of survivor benefits has been addressed frequently in this column, but unfortunately many people still don’t understand that their benefits will drop, sometimes precipitously, when their spouse dies.

When one member of a married couple dies, one of their two Social Security checks goes away and the survivor gets the larger of the two benefits. If your husband’s check had been larger than yours, that amount would become your survivor benefit. If your benefit was the larger of the two, you would continue getting that amount.

Many people don’t consider the impact their claiming decisions will have on their surviving spouse, which is unfortunate since the survivor could live years or even decades on this reduced income. Couples often can maximize their benefits and lessen the severity of this drop in income by making sure the higher earner delays their Social Security application as long as possible, ideally until it maxes out at age 70.

Q&A: Windfall elimination provision explained

Dear Liz: I understand your explanation of the windfall elimination provision that reduces Social Security benefits if someone is receiving a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. I am a teacher with such a pension who also worked more than 10 years in the private sector. I’d accept the explanation and the reduction if the WEP were applied in all 50 states. As you know, it is not. How is this reduction justifiable in any way?

Answer: The idea that WEP doesn’t apply in all states is a myth. WEP applies regardless of where you live. What matters is whether you’re getting a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. Some states provide such pensions while others don’t.

“If a state doesn’t provide its workers with their own pension and instead has them join Social Security, then exempting them from the windfall elimination provision is fully appropriate,” says economist Laurence Kotlikoff, president of Economic Security Planning Inc., which offers Social Security claiming software at MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

As mentioned earlier, WEP is not designed to take away from you a benefit that others get. Rather, the provision is designed to keep those who receive pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security from getting significantly higher benefits than workers who paid into the system their entire working lives.

That can happen because of the progressive nature of Social Security benefits, which are meant to replace a higher percentage of a lower-earner’s income than that of a higher earner.

People who don’t pay into the system for many years can appear to be much lower earners than they actually are. Without adjustments, they would get bigger benefit checks than people in the private sector with the same income who paid much more in Social Security taxes.

Q&A: Exes and Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I receive Social Security. My recently divorced girlfriend receives Social Security from 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: Your girlfriend would lose her divorced spousal benefits if she remarries, but she could then qualify for spousal benefits based on your earnings record. Your benefits would not be affected. A Social Security representative should be able to calculate how much her benefit would change.

Q&A: Two husbands. Which benefit?

Dear Liz: I am 66 and recently widowed after a five-year marriage. I was previously married and divorced after more than 20 years. I paid into Social Security as a professional for 20 years. How do I determine how to file for Social Security benefits? Should I just file for my benefits? Should I wait until I am over 70? Should I file for spousal benefits and, if so, for which husband?

Answer: Let’s take that last question first. You’re only eligible for spousal or divorced spousal benefits if the worker on whose record you’d be claiming is still alive. Spousal benefits can be up to half what the worker would get at the worker’s full retirement age. If the worker has died, by contrast, you could be eligible for survivor benefits, which can be up to 100% of the worker’s benefit.

So you may be eligible for three different types of benefits: your own retirement benefit, a divorced spousal benefit based on your ex’s record (because you were married at least 10 years) and a survivor benefit based on your late husband’s record (because you were married for at least nine months at the time of his death). Normally, you lose the ability to claim divorced spousal benefits when you remarry, unless the second marriage ends in divorce, annulment or death, as yours did.

Which one to claim and when will depend on the details of your situation. You can call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 to get estimates of what you’d get on each record. Consider using a paid service such as Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security to help you figure out the best strategy for claiming benefits.

Q&A: When to start spousal benefits?

Dear Liz: At what age do Social Security benefits stop for dependents? My child is 17 and is currently getting half of my Social Security amount. When her benefits stop, can I sign up my nonworking spouse to receive half of my benefits?

Answer: A minor child can receive up to half of a retirement-aged parent’s Social Security benefit. Child benefits typically end when the child turns 18, or up to 19 if the child is still a full-time high school student. If your child turns 18 during her senior year, for example, the benefits would stop when she graduates. If she turned 19 during her senior year, the benefits would end then.

Spousal benefits can begin as early as age 62, but the amount would be permanently reduced if started before the spouse’s full retirement age (which is 67 for people born in 1960 and later). Technically a spouse does not have to wait until child benefits stop before applying, but there is a limit to the total amount a family can receive based on one person’s work record. The amount varies from 150% to 180% of the worker’s full retirement benefit.

Q&A: Survivor benefits and marital status

Dear Liz: My boyfriend’s ex-wife passed away last year. Can he file for her Social Security benefits at age 48 even if she was remarried at time of her death?

Answer: The ex’s marital status doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not your boyfriend was married to her for at least 10 years.

If the marriage lasted at least that long, then your boyfriend would be eligible for survivor benefits at age 60, assuming he hasn’t remarried by then. If he is disabled, he could apply at age 50. And if he is caring for his ex-wife’s children who are under 16 or disabled, then he can apply at any age.

Recipients of survivor benefits can marry at age 60 or later without losing those benefits. (Note that this marriage clause applies only to survivor benefits. People receiving spousal benefits based on a living ex’s work record cannot remarry without losing those benefits.)

Q&A: About spousal and survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I am 82 and receive $786 from Social Security. My wife is 75 and receives $1,400 from Social Security. I believe you said that a lower beneficiary could get the same amount as the higher beneficiary. When I contacted Social Security, I was informed that my benefit needed to be less than half of my spouse’s in order to qualify. When I asked him where in the regulations I could find that information, he abruptly hung up. Was he right?

Answer: Yes. The only time you would get the same amount as your wife is if she died, and at that point you would get only the survivor benefit (one check for $1,400, instead of the two checks totaling $2,186 you receive now as a couple).

Survivor benefits are different from spousal benefits. Spousal benefits are what you might receive while your wife is alive. Spousal benefits can be as much as 50% of the higher earner’s “primary insurance amount,” or what she was entitled to at her full retirement age. If your retirement benefit is larger than that spousal benefit amount, you would get your own benefit rather than the spousal benefit.

The Social Security site has plenty of information on how benefits work as well as calculators to help you estimate your benefits. You can start by reading its publication titled “Retirement Benefits” at https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10035.pdf.

Q&A: Social Security and the tax torpedo

Dear Liz: People are typically advised to wait as long as possible (full retirement age or later) to take Social Security to maximize the benefit. If a couple has low expenses and substantial pensions, wouldn’t it make sense to take Social Security earlier, to preserve retirement funds to pass on to their heirs? Social Security payments stop upon death, whereas retirement accounts are passed on to heirs.

If your primary concern is preserving an inheritance, maximizing your Social Security payments could help you reduce how much you have to withdraw from retirement funds in the long run.

Starting early also could make you more susceptible to what’s known as the tax torpedo, which is a sharp increase in marginal tax rates due to how Social Security is taxed when someone receives other income. People who only receive Social Security don’t face the torpedo, and higher-income people probably can’t avoid it, but middle-income people may be able to lessen the hit by delaying Social Security and drawing from their retirement funds instead.

One way to preserve assets for heirs is to convert traditional retirement accounts to Roth IRAs. This requires paying taxes on the conversions, but then you wouldn’t face required minimum distributions on the Roth accounts.

Calculating the best course can be difficult. You can pay $20 to $40 to use sophisticated claiming software such as Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security to model various options, or consider consulting with a fee-only advisor.

Q&A: Pensions and Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: My situation is similar to the former teacher who wrote about a pension impacting Social Security benefits. I started Social Security at 62. My wife’s government pension is from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. I’ll receive her pension if she should die before I do. If this occurs, how will my Social Security be impacted?

Answer: It won’t, because your situation is actually the reverse of the former teacher’s.

You paid a portion of each paycheck, currently 6.2%, into the Social Security system. The teacher (and your wife) did not, so their benefits are affected by rules designed to prevent people who didn’t pay into Social Security from getting more than those who did.

Q&A: Medicare and Social Security

Dear Liz: If my wife and I wait until we are 70 to collect Social Security but retired at our full retirement age of 66 and 2 months, would we still be able to get Medicare for those 3 years and 10 months before we reach 70?

Answer: You’re eligible for Medicare at age 65, which is typically when you should sign up. Delaying can incur penalties you’d have to pay for the rest of your life.

People receiving Social Security benefits at 65 are signed up automatically for Part A (hospital coverage) and Part B (which pays for doctor visits), with the Part B premiums deducted from their benefits. If you’re not already receiving Social Security, you’ll need to contact the Social Security office, which manages Medicare enrollment, to sign up and pay the Part B premiums.