In last week’s column, I tried to squeeze in as many answers as possible to some of the most commonly asked questions I get. But even keeping my replies short, I still ran out of room. So today, more of the most frequently asked questions and more quick and dirty ... make that quick and clean ... answers.
Q: For reasons I don’t want to see you publish in the newspaper, we are raising our 3-year-old granddaughter. I am 66, and my husband is 71. We each get our own Social Security. Because we have a court order granting us full custody of this child, can she get Social Security benefits on one or both of our accounts?
A: Probably not. Although there are exceptions, generally the law says that both of this child’s parents must be disabled or deceased before she would be able to claim benefits on grandma’s or grandpa’s Social Security record. Having court-ordered custody doesn’t change the law. However, if you were to adopt the child, then she might be eligible for some of your Social Security benefits.
Q: I turn 66 next month. When I called to make an appointment to file for benefits at my local Social Security office, I was told the first available appointment was in January. That’s ridiculous. What should I do?
A: I am surprised the Social Security representative you talked to didn’t offer you the option of filing your claim over the phone. You can call back and do that. Or, better yet, why not file online at socialsecurity.gov? If you have a relatively straightforward claim, in other words, if you don’t want to employ one of the complicated “maximizing” strategies discussed many times in this column, then the online process is for you.
By the way, I asked one of my former colleagues who still works for the Social Security Administration why there is such a long lead time to set up an in-office appointment. She told me that the baby-boom retirement wave is turning into a tsunami. Something like 10,000 people per day are signing up for Social Security benefits.
Q: I am 85. My wife is 82. I get $1,750 per month from Social Security. My wife gets $1,220. I wonder what my wife will start getting when I die. I talked to two different Social Security reps. One told me she will get the difference between my rate and hers — in other words, an extra $530 per month added to her own benefit. But the other rep told me she would get an extra $690 per month. Who is right?
A: I obviously don’t have all the facts about your case to be fully sure of the answer. But if you started your Social Security when you were 62 years old, then the second (higher) quote you got was probably the right one. If you took benefits at 62, then you are getting about 75 percent of your full benefit rate. But there is a law that guarantees a widow can’t get less than 82 percent of your full rate. If you did take benefits at 62, my little desktop calculator tells me your full rate is about $2,330. And 82 percent of that is around $1,910. So your wife’s retirement benefit of $1,220 plus an additional $690 (the higher quote) would take her total benefits up to $1,910. If you did not start your Social Security at 62, then I can’t explain the discrepancy in the quotes you received, and you will have to talk to someone at your local Social Security office.
Q: I was at lunch with a friend the other day. We are both in our late 60s. When he pulled out his wallet to pay for our meal, I noticed he was carrying his Social Security card in the wallet. I asked him why. He said he was sure everyone was required to carry their Social Security card with them at all times. I told him I haven’t had my card with me in maybe 20 or 30 years. In fact, I’m not even sure I know where my card is. This friend insisted we are supposed to carry our SSN card wherever we go. Is he right?
A: Of course, your friend can carry anything he wants to in his wallet, including his Social Security card. But it certainly isn’t necessary, or even advisable, to do so. I can only think of a few situations where you may need to show someone your Social Security card. For example, if you are trying to get a job, many employers ask to see it. And you may need to show the card if you are trying to get government benefits. For example, my granddaughter recently started college, and she needed to show her card to various school and student loan officials. On a related note, I know that many senior citizens think they need to carry their Medicare card with them at all times. But you really only need that card if you are going to a doctor’s office or seeking medical treatment.
Q: I am about to turn age 65. I am still working and am covered by my employer’s health plan. I was told I will be forced to apply and pay for Medicare at 65.
A: You will not be forced to do anything. You should sign up for Medicare Part A hospital coverage because it is free. You may not need it. But it is free. So why not take it?
The other main part of Medicare is Part B doctor’s coverage. It costs about $130 per month. But as long as you are working and covered by your employer’s insurance, you don’t need Part B. When you retire, you can apply for Part B and you won’t pay any late enrollment penalties.
By the way, I know it is a different story for people who have Health Savings Accounts. I’m not a Medicare expert. HSA people need to talk to a professional Medicare counselor. They are known as SHIPs in most states (State Health Insurance Advisory Program) or HICAP in others (Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program). To find the SHIP or HICAP counselor nearest you, go to medicare.gov and click on the “Find someone to talk to” link.
Tom Margenau worked for the Social Security Administration for 32 years before retiring in 2005, and for many years was national director of its public information office. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org