Reach in the Mailbag – Social Security and You

I usually like to write columns centered on one particular Social Security topic. But every once in a while, I just like to reach into my email inbox and answer whatever questions I pull out of that online mailbag.

Q: I am 82. My wife is 80. We both took our benefits at 66. I get $2,444 per month. She gets $1,670. If I die, what will my wife get in widow’s benefits?

A: Sometimes Social Security benefit computations can be messy. But your situation is easy. If you die first, she will keep getting her own $1,670 benefit, and that will be supplemented with $774 in widow’s benefits to take her total benefits up to your $2,444 rate.

Q: My wife and I both took our Social Security at 62. We are currently 63. We each work part time. My wife makes much less than the $19,560 we are allowed to make. But I have taken on a little more work, and I might make over that amount. Am I allowed to use that portion of her $19,560 that she is not using?

A: Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. The law sets a limit on how much a Social Security beneficiary under full retirement age can make. In 2022, that limit is $19,560. And it applies to each individual beneficiary. Husbands and wives can’t combine those limits. So, for each $2 you earn over $19,560, $1 must be withheld from your Social Security benefits.

Q: I am 68. I plan to wait until 70 to file for my Social Security. But I’m not working, and I am worried that my projected age 70 benefit of $3,440 per month will be significantly less because I will have no earnings in the next two years.

A: Don’t worry. Be happy! Because benefits are based on your highest 35 years of inflation-adjusted earnings, the fact that you will have no earnings between now and age 70 will have little if any effect on your eventual Social Security benefit.

Q: I am 79. My husband is 81. We just got a divorce after 31 years of marriage. Am I due anything extra on his record now that we are divorced?

A: No. The benefit rate payable to a divorced spouse is the same rate as that paid to a married spouse. In other words, if you were not due any spousal benefits while you were married to this guy, you are not due any spousal benefits now that you are divorced. But assuming his benefit rate is higher than your own, you will get widow’s benefits on his record if he dies before you do.

Q: I am 84. My 87-year-old husband just died. I get my own Social Security of $1,980 per month. He was getting $1,575. When I called Social Security, they told me all I am due is the $255 death benefit. I don’t trust the Social Security clerk I was talking to. Can that be right?

A: Yes, it’s right. You are either due your own benefit or a widow’s benefit, whichever pays the higher rate. Your own $1,980 benefit is more than your potential $1,575 widow’s rate. So, you will just keep getting your own $1,980 retirement benefit. But you are due that one-time $255 death benefit.

Q: I was married to my first husband for 20 years. I was a stay-at-home mom during that time, so I have no Social Security on my own. I fell in love with a foreigner (a guy from Denmark) and I divorced my husband and married the Dane. Now I’m 65 and the Social Security people tell me that I can’t get any Social Security or Medicare from my first husband. And I can’t get any Social Security from my current husband because he hasn’t worked in this country. I think I should be able to get some of my first husband’s Social Security because I was with him for 20 years and raised his two children.

A: I know that Social Security was the furthest thing from your mind when you fell in love with the Danish guy and left your first husband. But as you’re now learning, that romantic adventure does come with some Social Security consequences.

The reason you can’t get benefits from your ex-husband’s record comes down to the issue of dependency. Benefits to spouses fall under the broad category of dependent’s benefits. You get benefits from a spouse because you are financially dependent on him or her. And obviously, at one time, you were dependent on your first husband. But as soon as you married the guy from Denmark, you became his dependent and your first husband went out of your picture (at least, your Social Security dependency picture).

Q: I’m 67 and plan to wait until 70 to apply for my Social Security. But I heard that current beneficiaries will be getting a big cost-of-living increase next year. So, should I sign up for benefits now so that I don’t miss out?

A: You don’t have to do that. Any cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) that Social Security recipients get are automatically built into the computation formula for future beneficiaries.

Q: I’ve got several Social Security questions. Can you call me at 619-XXX-XXXX so I can go over them with you?

A: Sorry, but because of the high volume of emails I get from my readers across the country, there is simply no way I can call everyone who wants to talk to me. Why not call the Social Security Administration directly at 800-772-1213? They have thousands of telephone reps waiting to help you. Or send me an email with your questions included.

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