More Mailbag Questions – Social Security and You

Last week, instead of writing a column centered around just one Social Security topic, I decided to just reach into my electronic mailbag (my email inbox) and answer whatever questions I pulled out of there. But I ran out of column space before I ran out of questions. So today, more random Social Security questions and answers.

Q: I filed for my Social Security retirement benefits over the phone this morning. But to be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed with the clerk who took care of me. Now I’m worried that he will mess up the amount of my Social Security benefit and I won’t be paid correctly. Is there anything I can do?

A: What you can do is stop worrying. Local Social Security representatives aren’t really involved in the computation of your Social Security benefit. All Social Security benefits are figured by the Social Security Administration’s national computer system. And that system has a remarkable record of accuracy. So, I’m sure you will be paid correctly.

Q: We have a slightly different marital dynamic than most couples. My wife is the primary wage earner. She has always made more money than me. Or to put that another way, I’ve always made a decent income, but my wife (a doctor) has made a great income. As we are now approaching retirement age, is there anything special we need to know about Social Security?

A: Not really. Social Security is essentially gender neutral. In other words, the same benefits that are paid to wives are also paid to husbands.
And just as a wife is always paid her own benefit first, so too will you be paid your own Social Security retirement benefit. Only after that will they look to your wife’s record to see if you can get any extra spousal benefits. But because the spousal rate (for a wife or husband) is only somewhere between 30% and 50% (depending on your age when you file), it is doubtful you will get any husband’s benefits on your wife’s record. That is, while she is alive. If she dies before you do, and assuming you meet all the eligibility requirements, you will get widower’s benefits on her record, which can be as high as 100% if you are over your full retirement age.

Q: I am just turning 62. I was going to wait until age 67 to file for my Social Security, but I’m worried that Congress is going to pull the rug out from under me and cut benefits or start means-testing benefits. So, I’m thinking of filing now. What do you think?

A: I think you should never make a Social Security decision based on politics. There is no question that somewhere down the road, Congress is going to deal with Social Security’s pending financial shortfall. But I will bet my next Social Security check that when they do, the reforms they come up with will have a long lead-in time. In other words, those changes won’t affect near-term retirees, but rather people who might be retiring 10 or 20 or even more years from now. For example, when they raised the retirement age from 65 to 67, they did so gradually over a span of about 40 years.

Q: I was married for 22 years to a wealthy man, but we divorced when I was 54 years old. Three years later, I married the man I’m still married to today. We are both 68 and we each get our own Social Security. He gets about $2,400 and I get $1,850. My first husband just died. Is there any way I can get any of his Social Security?

A: Because you remarried before the age of 60, you cannot get benefits from husband No. 1 as long as you are married to husband No. 2. And that last statement comes with a wink.

I don’t want to plant any thoughts in your head, but if you divorced your current husband, you could turn around and pick up widow’s benefits from your rich first husband. Then you could just keep living with your second husband. Or if it’s against your scruples to just live with a guy, you could turn around and remarry him — and because you would be remarrying after age 60, you could continue to receive your widow’s benefits from your first husband.

But before you go through all those shenanigans, you should check with the SSA to find out what your widow’s benefit would be from the rich first husband. Assuming he didn’t employ some kind of payroll tax-dodging schemes, I’m assuming it would be in the $3,000 per month range.

Q: How come you never write about Medicare?

A: Because, frankly, I don’t know all that much about it. Even though Social Security and Medicare are associated with each other, they are two entirely separate government programs. I worked for the Social Security Administration for 32 years. I never worked for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (the federal agency the runs Medicare). They produce an easy-to-understand guidebook called “Medicare and You 2022.” You can get a free copy at www.medicare.gov.

If you’d like some personal help, I can steer you in the right direction. You need to talk to a SHIP. That stands for State Health Insurance Program. SHIP counselors are trained to help people with their Medicare issues. To find the SHIP nearest you, go to www.shiphelp.org.

Q: I’ve often wondered: Why doesn’t the Social Security Administration have an easy-to-remember phone number? Maybe something like 1-800-SECURIT.

A: Interesting question. And I know a little something about that because at the time the SSA was setting up a nationwide 800 number system, I sat in on meetings where SSA executives were trying to decide which number to use. There were literally hundreds of suggestions, including yours. I can’t remember now why they finally chose to go with 800-772-1213. I do know it was originally promoted as 800-SSA-1213. But unlike the FBI or IRS or other government agencies known by their initials, very few people really know that SSA stands for the Social Security Administration. So, they eventually decided to present and promote the number simply as 800-772-1213.

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