I’m always amazed by the number of emails I get from people who have been getting benefits for 10 years, or 20 years, or even more — and now they are coming to me with questions about their benefit amount. Or to be more precise, they are telling me some version of this lament: “I think I’ve been paid incorrectly for all these years!”
I think what’s going on is this. They’ve probably always had nagging doubts about their Social Security benefit. And over the years, they’ve just sort of grudgingly accepted the fact that they are most likely being paid correctly. But then one day, they see this Social Security column in their newspaper and the columnist (that would be me) says he’ll answer people’s questions about Social Security. So, they fire off an email to me, venting their years-long, sometimes decades-long frustrations, hoping against hope that I will be able to fix their perceived problems.
Of course, that’s not going to happen. I’m just an old retired Social Security guy sitting in his basement writing a weekly column. I have no access to Social Security records, so it’s not like I’m going to say, “I’ve checked your files and it turns out you have been underpaid for all these years. I’ll see that corrections are made, and we’ll send you a back-pay check.” And even if I did have access to Social Security files, I would almost assuredly come back to them and say, “I’ve checked your records and you are getting the proper Social Security benefit.” And why do I know that? Because countless studies have been done by oversight agencies and they always show that Social Security benefits are paid with a remarkable level of accuracy.
So anyway, that’s the message I usually deliver to these “grudge-niks.” But it usually doesn’t mollify them. They’ve told themselves for years that they’re being cheated out of benefits, and a simple statement from me telling them they are being paid correctly isn’t going to change their minds.
However, at least sometimes I can explain some Social Security rule to them that they didn’t know about that might help them understand why I know they are being paid correctly. The rest of this column will include some examples of that.
Q: I am 85 years old. My husband is 89. He’s been getting benefits since he was 65 and I’ve been getting benefits since age 62. I’ve been told all these years that a wife gets half of the husband’s Social Security. But I get nowhere near that. So, I think I’ve been cheated out of what’s rightfully mine for 23 years now. Can you help me fix this?
A: There is nothing to fix. A wife is due the 50% spousal rate if she waited until her full retirement age to claim benefits. But you said you took benefits at 62. And if you do that, the spousal rate is more like 30%. And I bet that’s what you’re getting.
Q: I’m 91 years old. I started my Social Security in 1993. Back then, they knocked about 50% off of my Social Security check because they said I’m a so-called “double-dipper.” I get a pension from the police department where I worked for 30 years. I just know this is wrong and unfair. Can you get that 50% back for me?
A: I’m sure you are being paid correctly. Your Social Security benefit is being reduced by something called the “windfall elimination provision.” I’ve discussed WEP dozens of times in past columns over the years, and it takes a whole column to explain the intricacies of the law. So, there is no way I can give you a thorough explanation in the space I have here. In a nutshell, the Social Security benefit formula is skewed to give lower income workers a higher benefit rate. On the SSA’s books, you look like a low-paid worker because you spent all those years with the police force (a job where Social Security taxes were not withheld from your paychecks). The WEP formula simply pays you at the same rate that all other middle-income people in the country get.
If you’d like a much better explanation, spend 10 bucks and get my book, “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” It includes a whole chapter on WEP.
Q: I am 101 years old. That’s right. I’m 101! And for 40 years now, I’ve been cheated out of Social Security benefits because I was born in the “notch years.” I read your recent column in which you told people like me that we are being paid correctly. That’s bull! The government has ripped off all of us “notch babies” and I’ll go to my grave convinced of that!
A: That’s really too bad. But in a way, I can understand. For four decades now, you’ve told yourself that you’ve been cheated. And I’m sure you can go online and find websites that reinforce your beliefs. And now along comes this young whippersnapper (well, make that a 72-year-old whippersnapper) who tells you that the government didn’t cheat you out of anything and that you have been getting the proper Social Security amount all these years.
As with the WEP issue mentioned in the prior Q&A, it would take me a whole column to explain this so-called “notch” business. For those of you interested, I’ve got a new book coming out this year called “Social Security: 100 Myths and 100 Facts.” The “notch” is one of the myths explained in that book.
Finally, I must make this one crucial point. The time to question your benefit amount is when your benefits start. When that happens, you get an official “award letter” from the Social Security Administration. If you think there is a problem, the letter tells you that you have 60 days to file an appeal of their benefit decision. So, file that appeal then. Don’t wait for 20 or 30 years and then write a letter to a columnist asking him to fix the unfixable.
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