Q&A: A widow’s Social Security earnings problem

Dear Liz: My dear friend lost her husband a few years ago. The husband did something wrong with working and collecting Social Security, so they are now withholding her $2,000 monthly Social Security check, which is devastating to her. Can she be punished for what he did unbeknownst to her? She is stuck and doesn’t know what to do.

Answer: People who start Social Security before full retirement age face the earnings test, which reduces benefits by $1 for every $2 earned over a certain amount (in 2022, the amount is $19,560).

It sounds as though the husband didn’t properly notify Social Security about his earnings and the overpayment wasn’t discovered until after his death. Whenever Social Security is unable to recover an overpayment from someone, the agency can collect from anyone else receiving benefits on that person’s earnings record, said William Meyer, founder of Social Security Solutions, a benefits claiming site.

The letter notifying her about the overpayment would have included a section about her appeal rights. If the earnings information was incorrect, for example, she would have 60 days to appeal and supply the correct amount of his earnings.

She also can call the agency’s toll-free number, (800) 772-1213, and request that less be taken from each check. As long as the total owed is paid off within 36 months, the agency will comply, Meyer says. If she can’t afford to have the overpayment repaid within 36 months, she can request longer but she’ll have to provide proof of her income, resources and expenses, he said.

If she’s in dire straits and can’t afford to pay any of the money back — in other words, if she can’t meet her “ordinary and necessary living expenses” — she should submit an SSA-632, “Request for Waiver of Overpayment Recovery” form, Meyer said.

Q&A: Figuring taxes on Social Security

Dear Liz: How will our Social Security payments be affected by any passive income such as from rental properties? We have two properties, which add $3,000 monthly to our current income. I plan on retiring at 72, which is six years away. My husband may retire earlier due to health problems. We will have savings as well as my 401(k) when I retire. Although my retirement income “pencils out,” I don’t know exactly what to expect from Social Security. How should I calculate my net income in retirement?

Answer: You could pay income taxes on up to 85% of your Social Security benefits if you have other taxable income. Examples of taxable income include wages, interest, dividends, capital gains, rent, royalties, annuities, pension payments and distributions from retirement accounts other than Roths.

To determine how much of your benefit is taxable, you would first calculate your “combined income,” which consists of your adjusted gross income plus any nontaxable interest you receive plus half of your Social Security benefits. If you file a joint return, you typically would have to pay income tax on up to half of your benefits if your combined income fell between $32,000 and $44,000. If your combined income was more than $44,000, up to 85% of your benefits would be taxable.

Q&A: How Social Security child benefits work

Dear Liz: I am drawing Social Security and my daughter just turned 18. Will she lose her Social Security and can I claim my wife in her place?

Answer:
Child benefits, which is what your daughter receives, are designed to help the dependent minor children of Social Security recipients who are retired, disabled or deceased.

If your daughter is still a full-time high school student, then her child benefit can continue until she graduates or turns 19, whichever comes first. Otherwise the benefit typically ends at 18. (A child 18 and over with a disability can continue to get child benefits, as long as the disability started before age 22.)

Child benefits are only for the unmarried children of Social Security recipients, so obviously your wife doesn’t qualify. She may be eligible for her own Social Security benefit if she’s at least 62, or a spousal benefit based on your work record if that’s larger than her own benefit. AARP has a free Social Security claiming calculator that could help her sort through her options.

Q&A: Social Security is insurance

Dear Liz: My wife died in March 2020. I receive nothing from her Social Security (other than $255) and will receive only a portion of mine due to the windfall elimination provision. Is there anything I can do since I am receiving none of what she paid into Social Security and only a fraction of mine?

Answer:
In a word, no. If you’re receiving a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security, the government pension offset reduces any Social Security survivor or spousal benefit by two-thirds of the amount of your pension. If two-thirds of the amount of your pension is greater than your survivor benefit, you don’t get a survivor benefit.

Is that an outrage? Perhaps, if you think that Social Security should act like a retirement account. In reality, it’s insurance. (The formal name for Social Security is Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance.)

With a retirement account, what you take out usually bears some relationship to what you put in. With insurance, that’s not necessarily the case. You may take out more than you put in, less or nothing at all.

Many people pay Social Security taxes for decades but ultimately get more from a spousal or survivor benefit than from their own work record. Then there are those, like you, who have their retirement benefit reduced, or a survivor benefit eliminated, because they have a generous pension from a government job that didn’t pay into the Social Security system. In these cases, it can feel like the Social Security taxes paid — the “premiums,” if you will — have been wasted even if financially you’ve come out ahead.

Q&A: Social Security and government pensions

Dear Liz: You recently mentioned the windfall elimination provision that affects pensions from jobs that don’t pay into Social Security. I’m wondering what those jobs are. Are they just part of the gig economy, or is there some other category of jobs that don’t pay into Social Security?

Answer:
Gig economy jobs are supposed to pay into Social Security, just like the vast majority of other occupations. People with gig jobs are often considered to be self-employed, so instead of paying just 6.2% of their gross wages into Social Security like most workers, they also pay the employer’s 6.2%, for a total of 12.4% of their earnings.

Some state and local governments have their own pension systems that don’t require workers to pay into Social Security. People who get pensions from those systems and who also qualify for Social Security benefits from other jobs can be affected by the windfall elimination provision, which can reduce their Social Security benefit. They also can be affected by the government pension offset, which can reduce or even eliminate spousal and survivor benefits from Social Security. Here’s an example:

Dear Liz: I am 59, retired, and receive a pension of approximately $150,000 a year. My husband receives a small pension, about $1,000 a month, and Social Security disability due to a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. I am the sole financial support of my 88-year-old destitute mother, who requires care that costs approximately $5,000 a month. I retired earlier than anticipated to care for my ailing mother and husband.

Although I worked many years where I paid into Social Security, I knew I would receive only about half of my Social Security check due to the windfall elimination provision that affects pensions received from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security. What I didn’t know is that when my husband passes, I will receive no survivor benefits from his 41-plus years of paying into the system.

Our entire retirement planning was based on his Social Security combined with my pension. He’s just a few months from passing, and I will not be receiving anything, which will immediately put me in an untenable financial position. How is it that after 30 years of marriage I will receive nothing because I have a pension? This just doesn’t seem right. Do I have any options?

Answer: Your situation shows why it’s so important to get sound advice about Social Security before retiring because many people don’t understand the basics of how benefits work.

Even if you didn’t have a pension, for example, your income would have dropped at your husband’s death. When one spouse dies, one of the couple’s two Social Security benefits goes away and the survivor gets the larger of the two checks the couple received.

Your pension is much, much larger than the maximum you could have received from Social Security in any case. If you can’t get by without your husband’s benefit, consider ways to reduce your expenses. Because your mother is destitute, she may be eligible for Medicaid, the government healthcare program for the poor. Unlike Medicare, Medicaid pays the costs of nursing home and other custodial care expenses. Contact your state Medicaid office for details.

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: 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.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Parents with student debt want a do-over. Also in the news: What you need to know about Medigap Plan G, don’t let Social Security steer you wrong, and why Millennials and Gen Zers should be investing in Roth IRAs.

Parents With Student Debt Want A Do-Over
Nearly 1 in 3 parents regret their decision.

What Is Medigap Plan G? What You Need to Know
Medigap Plan G, part of Medicare Supplement Insurance, helps cover additional costs not met by Original Medicare.

Don’t Let Social Security Steer You Wrong
When to claim benefits is a complex decision. Don’t rely on the help line staff, and consider getting a pro’s help.

Why Millennials and Gen Zers Should Be Investing in Roth IRAs
Minimize your tax exposure while taking advantage of compound interest.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Don’t let Social Security steer you wrong. Also in the news: 3 times to think twice about paying for your kid’s college, a new episode of the Smart Money podcast on investing, and how to spot the signs of a better market for homebuyers.

Don’t Let Social Security Steer You Wrong
When to claim benefits is a complex decision. Don’t rely on the help line staff, and consider getting a pro’s help.

Pay for Your Kid’s College? 3 Times to Think Twice
Don’t take on college debt for your child if your financial health will suffer when your kid doesn’t pay the bill.

Smart Money Podcast: Nerdy Deep Dives: Investing, Part 1
Exploring your personal money background and how it can affect your investing choices.

The Property Line: Watch for Signs of a Better Market for Buyers
Home buyers can track the number of offers, days on market and inventory to see whether the market is becoming more favorable.

Don’t let Social Security steer you wrong

Few retirement decisions are as critical, or as easy to get wrong, as when and how to take your Social Security benefits. The rules can be so convoluted that many people rely on what they’re told by Social Security employees, but that could prove to be an expensive mistake.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how to protect your Social Security and learn the facts.