Your Social Security questions answered

My column about getting your parents a bigger Social Security check, “More Social Security for mom,”  triggered a boatload of questions from readers–and confirmed what experts had told me, which is that a lot of people seem to be missing out on benefits for which they qualify.

Here are some of the questions that came in via my Facebook page, email and this blog. I’ve edited the questions for clarity and expanded some of my answers. (If you have questions about how Social Security works in general, and its likely future, check out “5 myths about Social Security.”)

Question: I just read your article. My mom and dad lived off his Social Security of approximately $1,600 per month. After he died at age 70 in 1994, my mom, also aged 70, only collected $600 per month from his Social Security. She had been a stay-at-home mom most of her life. Eighteen years later, she is still only receiving a little over $800 a month. How did this happen if she was entitled to his full benefit? Can you suggest help for her?

Answer: You mom definitely should talk with Social Security to see if she’s getting the correct amount. Her survivor benefits would have been reduced if she started them before full retirement age, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. What might have happened is that they were living on his benefit plus her spousal benefit. When he died, she would have been switched to a survivor benefit that equaled his benefit alone. But it does seem like her benefit would be higher, in that case. She should call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 and ask them to review her records to make sure she’s getting what she deserves.

Q: If I’m 64 now. If I waited until full retirement age (I’m a housewife with no Social Security benefit for myself) to get half of my husband’s retirement, would it change to his full benefit when he passes? Or will I be stuck with just 1/2 forever?

A: You should be able to step up to 100% of his benefit if he dies after you hit full retirement age (which is 66 for you). I’m not sure if the survivor benefit is affected if you should opt to start your spousal benefit earlier than that. But your spousal benefit would be reduced by up to 30%, so it’s generally worth waiting if you can.

Q: Read your article and enjoyed it but you had nothing for us who unfortunately had to stop work because of our health. I’m 62 and will be drawing my long-term disability till I’m 65 then it will stop. I also draw Social Security disability. How will this effect my Social Security when I reach age 65? Will my Social Security benefit go up? And what is this about drawing my social security but not till I’m 66? My husband is 15 years younger than I, so does that mean I will never be able to draw off of him? Where can I find out all I need to know about all this social security stuff that I just don’t understand? Any information would be greatly appreciated.

A: If you’re 62 now, then your full retirement age is 66, not 65. The full retirement age has gradually been increasing, and it will be 67 for those of us born after 1959. (You can check your full retirement age here.) As far as your Social Security disability benefits, when you hit full retirement age they’ll become your retirement benefits. You won’t need to take any action. You can find more details here.  Spousal benefits won’t be of much use to you, since your husband is so much younger. But starting at age 62, he should qualify for an amount equal to half your benefit if that’s more than his retirement benefit at the time.

Q: I am 60 and work full time. My husband passed 4 years ago at age 59. I thought that I can’t apply for his Social Security until I am 62 because I work.

A: You can get Social Security benefits if you continue to work. However, those benefits may be reduced significantly, or even eliminated, if you apply before your full retirement age. This is because of what’s called the “earnings test.” Basically, you lose $1 in Social Security benefits for every $2 you earn over a certain amount, which in 2012 is $14,680. (You get a break in the year you actually turn your full retirement age: the earnings test reduces your benefit by $1 for every $3 you earn over $38,880.) The earnings test disappears after you reach full retirement age.

If you earn enough money, the earnings test could wipe out any survivor’s benefit. That may be why you were told you should wait. You can apply for reduced survivor’s benefits as early as age 60 (50 if you’re disabled, and there’s no age limit if you have dependent children).

At age 62 you can switch to your own retirement benefit if you want, although your checks will be reduced because you’re getting the money before your full retirement age. Your benefit will be reduced further if you continue to work. That’s why it can make sense to wait until your full retirement age. This area is pretty complex, so it would be worthwhile to talk to an SSA rep.

Q: After my ex died, I applied for Social Security at age 62 1/2. The Social Security specialist I talked to used some formula, adding half of my benefits to half of my deceased husband’s, without giving me an explanation or a choice. I had been a low part-time earner. How can I find out if she acted in my best interest?

A: What I think happened is that the SSA specialist compared your (age-reduced) retirement benefits to the (age-reduced) survivor benefits based on your ex’s record and gave you the larger of the two. But the best way to check may be to call Social Security back and ask if you’re getting the maximum benefit for which you qualify. Also, if you’ve been getting survivor benefits, you may be able to switch to your own benefit at full retirement age, if that’s larger. (It may not be, if you were a low earner and your ex was a higher earner, but it’s worth checking.)

Q: I retired at age 59 on disability. Can I receive full retirement benefits now? I’m 70 now.

A: When you hit full retirement age (which for you would have been 66 years, 10 months), your Social Security disability benefits became retirement benefits. You can read more here, and call Social Security to confirm.

Q: If a person draws a benefit based on a divorced spouse’s earnings record, does the spouse have to be 62 years of age? Or does just the mom have to be 62?

A: Both parties have to be old enough to qualify for at least early retirement benefits, meaning age 62. If the dad in this scenario is old enough to apply for benefits but hasn’t applied, the mom can still do so as long as they’ve been divorced at least two years. Here’s a link to the rules. Remember that applying early permanently reduces your benefit, so it’s often better to wait until your full retirement age if you can.

Q: My sister is 63 and lives in North Carolina. She was on Social Security disability and lost all of her work benefits, including any insurance benefits. She received a small insurance claim for a car accident and the federal government is stating that because she received this settlement and still collected the SS benefit, she now owes them $13,000 and cannot collect another dime until that is all paid off. She lives on a very small amount of money each month, she is a diabetic and cannot get her medicine. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks so much

A: I’m not an expert in disability benefits, but I believe windfalls and earnings can reduce what you get. She may want to talk to a lawyer who specializes in Social Security disability to see what her options are. She can start with North Carolina’s Legal Aid.

Q: Someone I know is retiring after working for most of her life as a public service employee where they didn’t take Social Security out of their paychecks. For the last 15 years, though, she has been working in a retail job and has paid in her 40 hours into Social Security. She is 68 years old, is she eligible for Social security benefits?

A: If she’s got her 40 credits (not hours–you earn credits based on earnings and years worked, and you typically need to work 10 years to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits), then she should be eligible for some kind of check from Social Security. The amount will be based on her 35 highest-earning years, though, so she might have a lot of zero-earning years because she wasn’t covered by Social Security in her previous job. Also, since her previous job didn’t pay into Social Security, she’s probably eligible for some kind of benefit from that which also may reduce her Social Security benefits. She needs to call the SSA and find out what she might be entitled to. Click here to learn more about credits.

Q: My dad died before he started to receive Social Security. He was receiving disability due to cancer. My mom is disabled and receiving disability benefits, but has not yet reach full retirement age. Is it still possible for her to receive my dad’s Social Security benefit?

A: If your mom is disabled, she probably was eligible for reduced survivor benefits as early as age 50. (The age limit is 60 otherwise, if there are no dependent children at home.) Your mom should call Social Security and find out.

Q: My husband has been dead two years the 15th of this month. I work a full time job and make about $39,000 a year. Can I claim the $1,160 monthly benefit he used to get? I will be 64 in August.

A: You can’t get 100% of his full benefit if you claim it before your own full retirement age, but you should be able to get a reduced amount. The monthly benefit you could get depend on your age and the type of benefit you qualify for. You can call start your research here.

Q: My mom is retired and recently widowed, is she entitled to any of my father’s social security? They were married 49 years.

A: She may be able to receive up to 100% of his benefit, depending on her age and other factors. She wouldn’t be entitled to both a survivor’s benefit and her own retirement benefit, however. You can read more about the rules here.


  1. Christine Arnold says

    I would like to add a piece of information that I experienced personally. I am 62 and on disability. I made $2500 over the allowable earned income in 2005. I was penalized for the amount of $2500, which I received as a bonus in a lump sum, divided by 9 months. For each of the 9 months I had to pay back the SS payments to me which were $1100. I have no idea why they divided into 9 months. I didn’t have $9900 to give them so they spread it over 3 years.
    Bottom line is. Don’t make $1.00 over allowed earned income. There is no way to fight this.

  2. I’ve Arizona resident, and have been on Social Security Disability for 8 years, and turning 65 in 2013. Do not have enough past income to qualify for regular Social Security. Will benefits expire when I turn 65?

    • My understanding is that your disability check will simply become a Social Security retirement check when you reach full retirement age (which is now 66, by the way). In other words, the name will change, but not the amounts. You can confirm that information by calling the Social Security Administration: 1-800-772-1213