Don’t Blame the Government — Blame Yourself

Sometimes people will write to me complaining that the government, specifically the Social Security Administration, has messed up and cheated them out of benefits they might have been due. But many times, the fault (to trivialize a famous line from Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar”) is not in our government, but in ourselves. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Q: I am 72 years old. I have been getting my own reduced Social Security retirement since age 62. I have chronic arthritis and fibromyalgia and I just learned I could have been getting higher disability benefits all these years. So, I called Social Security about this, and they said it’s too late! What? Why didn’t someone from Social Security ever tell me about this? They messed up and they owe me 10 years’ worth of disability benefits.

A: I’m going to be rather blunt with you. They didn’t mess up; you did. It’s your job to educate yourself about the benefits you might be due from Social Security. I know if I had the kinds of problems you described, I would have said to myself: “I wonder if I might be eligible for disability benefits.” And then I would have checked into that.

And I’m not sure how things work today, but I know that 10 years ago, the Social Security retirement application had a question on it that essentially asked something like this: “Are you unable to work because of a disabling condition?” You must have answered that question “No,” because a “Yes” answer would have led you down the path to a claim for Social Security disability benefits.

Q: I am 62 years old. My husband, to whom I’ve been married for 10 years now, is also 62. He plans to wait until he is 70 to file for Social Security. I was married to another man for about 25 years. We ran a small business together. Our accountant and tax preparer advised us to put all the earnings from the business in my husband’s name, so that’s what we did. I have almost no earnings on my Social Security record. My ex-husband recently died. I called Social Security to see about getting widow’s benefits on his record. They said I can’t because I remarried before the age of 60. Why didn’t the government ever tell me this? If they can’t give me widow’s benefits, why can’t they give me my share of the earnings from the business? How can the government be so heartless to deny me what’s rightfully mine?

A: Just like the woman who asked the first question, you are trying to blame the government for mistakes that you made. Or to be more precise, for mistakes you and your former husband and your accountant made.

Let’s start out with your complaint that no one from Social Security ever told you that if you remarry before age 60, you lose your potential eligibility for benefits from your first husband’s Social Security account. Did you expect that a Social Security representative would be stationed at every marriage license bureau in the country ready to advise remarrying widows about the age 60 rule?

If I were a woman considering a second marriage, and if I were concerned about Social Security benefits from a former husband’s record, I would have checked into this. For example, a simple Google search using the keywords “remarriage” and “Social Security” turns up all kinds of information from the Social Security Administration and other sources that would have answered all your questions.

And as far as the little gimmick your accountant pulled by putting all the earnings on your husband’s Social Security record, once again, I think you do have to accept some responsibility for what happened.

For example, if I were a woman involved in a business with my husband, and my tax preparer said, “Let’s give all the earnings and credit for the business to your husband,” I would have said, “Wait a minute. Does that really make sense?”

But believe me, I know that’s easier said than done. Over the years, I have heard from hundreds, if not thousands, of moms in a “mom and pop” business who are in the same boat as you. They let themselves get talked into going along with this male-oriented tax-filing scheme.

As I have written in many past columns about this issue (and that I simply don’t have the space to cover in today’s column), this practice can work out for couples who stay married forever and who both live well into their retirement years. It has to do with the combination of retirement benefits payable to the husband and spousal benefits payable to the wife.

But that tax-filing practice generally does not work out for women who get divorced or for widows who remarry before the age of 60.

You also wondered why the Social Security Administration simply can’t give you your share of earnings from the business. That’s not how it works. As I said, you (but probably mostly your accountant and your first husband) made the decision a long time ago to give all the business earnings to your husband. By law, the SSA must go along with how things were reported on your tax returns.

The only bit of solace I can give you is this: If your second marriage ends (by death or divorce), then you would be able to go back and claim widow’s benefits on your first husband’s Social Security record.

Q: I am 62 years old and currently unmarried. I have always worked in low-paying jobs and my Social Security benefit will only be about $1,200 per month. I was married to a very wealthy man, but we divorced many years ago. We got the divorce just two weeks shy of our 10th anniversary. The Social Security rep I talked to said because we were not married for 10 years, I can’t get any of his Social Security. Why was I never told about this before? The government has ripped me off!

A: Do you think a Social Security representative should be stationed at every divorce court in this country ready to tell women to stay married for 10 years in order to be eligible for benefits from the ex?

I understand that at the time you divorced this guy, Social Security was probably the furthest thing from your mind. Still, the ball was in your court to educate yourself about this. With just a little bit of effort, you could have easily learned about the 10-year duration of marriage rule. (And by the way, for other readers who might be wondering, that 10-year rule only applies in cases involving divorced spousal benefits.)

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