I get hundreds of emails a week from my readers. I try to answer each and every one of them. But I probably answer the same 10 questions over and over and over again! And here they are. So, I’d like all you guys to clip out this column and stick it in your Social Security folder. (If you are getting Social Security, or anywhere near retirement age, I’m sure you have a Social Security folder.) By the way, my answers are going to be short and to the point, just so I can squeeze in as many questions as I can in the limited space I have.
Question: I’m 62. My husband is 67 and getting Social Security. Can I file for spousal benefits on his record and save my own until I’m 70?
Answer: No, you can’t do that. You always must file for your own benefits first. Only after you do that can you look to your husband’s record to see if you can get any additional spousal benefits.
Question: I am 60 and not working. My husband recently died. Can I file for widows benefits now and save my own until I am 70?
Answer: Yes, you can do that. A widow does not have the same restrictions that apply to a spouse with a living husband. You can file for widows benefits now and then switch to 100 percent of your own at 66 or 132 percent of your own at 70.
Question: If I die, what will my wife get?
Answer: The answer depends on several factors. But assuming you die well after your full retirement age, and assuming your wife is over her full retirement age when you die, as a general rule, she will get what you were getting at the time of death.
Quick example: You are 85 and getting $1,800 per month. Your wife is 82 and getting $1,200 per month. When you die, she will keep getting her $1,200, and she will get an additional $600 in widows benefits.
Question: I took my benefits at 70, so I get an extra 32 percent added to my retirement rate. When I die, will my wife’s widows benefit be based on my augmented age-70 rate or on my full retirement rate?
Answer: It will be based on your age-70 rate. And just to clarify a little further: A benefit paid to a spouse whose husband is still alive is based on his full retirement age rate. But as I just said, a widows benefit is based on the age-70 rate (assuming the husband waited until 70 to claim his benefits).
Question: I did not pay into Social Security. I get a teacher’s pension from Texas of $3,800 per month. My husband gets Social Security. He gets $2,200 per month. When he dies, why won’t I get widows benefits on his record?
Answer: If you were getting a Social Security retirement benefit of $3,800 per month, you would not get widows benefits because your own benefit would offset anything you would be due as a widow. And the same offset rules apply to non-Social Security pensions like your Texas teacher’s retirement check.
Question: I’m already getting my Social Security, but I’m still working. Will my additional income and the taxes I’m paying increase my Social Security check?
Answer: It depends. Your original benefit was based on your average monthly wage using your highest 35 years of inflation-adjusted earnings. If the earnings you have now are higher than the lowest inflation-adjusted year used in your original computation, the SSA will drop out that lower year, add in the new higher year and adjust your benefit accordingly.
But don’t expect a windfall. Your benefit might go up by $10 to $20 per month for a year of good earnings.
Question: When my father died, why did we have to return his last check?
Answer: Several rules come into play here. First, Social Security benefits have never been prorated. Second, benefits are always paid one month behind. And third, the law says you must live an entire month to be due a Social Security check for that month.
Here is a quick example. John dies April 24. The Social Security check that comes in May (the payment for April) must be returned.
That’s the downside to the lack of proration. But there are two upsides.
One: Let’s say John started his benefits when he was 66 and that he turned 66 on June 22. He would get a check for the whole month of June, even though he was 66 for only eight days of the month.
Two: If John left a widow, she would get widows benefits for the whole month of April, even though she was a widow for only six days of the month.
Tom Margenau is the CEO of Margenau Associates, Inc. He worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. For many years, he was the director of SSA’s public information office at the agency’s headquarters in Baltimore, Md.