April 15, 2024 8:48 PM
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That’s Not What I Meant To Say – Social Security and You

I’ve always taken pride in the fact that I do a pretty good job of explaining Social Security rules in simple and easy-to-understand language. But every once in a while, I’m reminded that something I say or write that I think is pretty clear and simple can be misinterpreted. Here are some examples.

Q: I am 62 and have spent most of my life as a homemaker and mother. So I don’t have my own Social Security. My husband is 68 and just filed for his Social Security last week. In a recent column, you wrote that before a wife can claim benefits on her husband’s record, he has to be getting benefits himself. So do I have to wait until his checks start coming in before I can file on his account?

A: No, you don’t. If I previously wrote that the husband “has to be getting benefits” before his wife can file on his account, then that was a poor choice of words. Or rather, not enough words. What I should have said is that he has to be getting benefits or have filed an application for benefits. So you can and should file a claim for spousal benefits right now.

I make these points because many women are always asking me if they can file for spousal benefits before their husband files for his retirement benefits. And again, the answer is no. He has to have filed his own Social Security claim before any dependents can get benefits on his account.

Q: In a prior column, you wrote that a husband has to have filed a claim for Social Security before his wife can get benefits on his record. My husband died at age 63 before he ever filed for his Social Security. I am just turning 60. So does that mean I won’t be able to get widow’s benefits on his record because he never filed for his own Social Security?

A: No, it doesn’t mean that. In that prior column you are referring to, I was answering a question from a woman whose husband was still alive and who was wondering if she could claim spousal benefits even though her husband hadn’t filed for benefits yet. But it is a whole different story for widows. There is absolutely no rule that says a husband must have filed a Social Security claim before his wife can get widow’s benefits on his record. In fact, there are millions of women, especially younger women, getting widow’s benefits on the records of husbands who died before reaching Social Security age, or who were over the minimum Social Security age (usually 62) but had not yet filed for benefits.

And now let me tell you about the options you have as a widow — if you also are due benefits on your own Social Security account. For example, if you are not working now, you could take reduced widow’s benefits at age 60. And then at your full retirement age, you could switch to 100% of your own retirement benefit. Or you could wait until 70 and get an extra 30% added to your benefit. Or, if your husband’s rate is much higher than yours, you could wait until age 62 and file for reduced retirement benefits on your own account (62 is the earliest you can do that) — and then at your full retirement age, switch to a 100% widow’s rate. Or if your own benefit is so small as to not really be a part of your Social Security picture, then you can simply file for widow’s benefits at whatever age you choose. You would get about 70% at age 60, or up to 100% if you wait until your full retirement age to file.

Q: In a prior column, you said a man has to be getting Social Security before his wife can file on his record. Well, my husband is 60 and has been getting SSDI for about five years. I am turning 62, not working, and I will have a very small Social Security check on my own. But does my husband have to be getting real Social Security before I can file for spousal benefits on his record?

A: Your husband is already getting “real Social Security,” so you can file for spousal benefits at the same time you file for your own Social Security.

You said your husband is getting “SSDI.” That stands for Social Security disability insurance. In other words, he is getting Social Security disability benefits. And so many people think that disability benefits are somehow just not “real Social Security.” But they are. They are just as “real” as retirement benefits. So your husband is getting the same kind of Social Security as a retiree gets. He’s just getting those benefits a little earlier because of his disability.

Q: In a prior column, you said that a person must have worked in five out of the last 10 years to qualify for Social Security. But that can’t be true. My wife worked from age 18 until age 50. Then she stopped working to concentrate on taking care of her aging parents. When she filed for her Social Security at age 62, she was granted benefits even though she hadn’t worked in the past 12 years. What’s going on?

A. What’s going on is that in that prior column, I was explaining the eligibility rules for disability benefits. And those rules include the “five out of the last 10” requirement. But to get Social Security retirement benefits, the rules simply say you must have 40 Social Security credits (sometimes called “quarters of coverage”) to qualify. Because you can only earn four Social Security credits per year, that essentially means if you’ve worked 10 years, anytime in your life, you are “insured” and eligible for Social Security retirement benefits.

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