Social Security and You: Benefit starting date confusion
Social Security and You

Social Security and You: Benefit starting date confusion

Q: I turn 66 in January and want benefits to start then. A few weeks ago, I filled out the claim forms online. One of the questions asked when I want my benefits to start. Knowing that Social Security checks are sent out one month in arrears, I answered by indicating “February,” because the January check comes in February.

Now I just received an award letter telling me my first month of eligibility is February, with the check to come in March. What went wrong? What can I do about it? And can they rephrase the question on the application form?

A. In my opinion, you were overthinking the question. When the retirement application form asks, “Which month do you want benefits to start?” — it is asking just that. It isn’t asking you which month do you want your first check to physically be sent to you. In your question to me, you said you want your benefits to start effective with the month you turn age 66. And that is January, and that’s the way you should have answered the question.

In all of my years dealing with these issues, I’ve never heard anyone else complain about this. So I’m not really sure if the online application form needs to be rewritten. But if some of my old colleagues at the Social Security Administration are reading this and have heard similar complaints from other website users, they might want to think about clarifying the question.

You also asked what you can do about it. You could do nothing. If you leave things the way they are, you will miss out on one Social Security check (the January payment). But in return, you will get a tiny bump in your monthly benefit rate. People who delay starting their benefits after age 66 get a two-thirds of 1 percent credit added to their checks. So, for the rest of your life, instead of getting 100 percent of your full retirement rate, you will be getting about 100.6 percent. Assuming you live long enough, somewhere down the road you will actually come out money ahead because of this unintended error you made on the application form.

But if you really want to correct the record and get that January check, you should talk to someone at your local Social Security office. You may be able to simply file an appeal of the award letter you just received telling them you want your “month of entitlement” to be January, not February. However, they may tell you that there is nothing to appeal because SSA didn’t make a mistake. If that is their position, then your only option would be to withdraw that first claim you made and then turn around and file a new claim indicating “January” as the month you want your benefits to start. Frankly, in my opinion, that sounds like an awful lot of hassle and paperwork for a relatively small payoff.

Q: I’ve been reading your column for a while now. I enjoy all the insights you provide into the Social Security program. But I do have one little bone to pick with you.

It really bugs me that you keep referring to Social Security “checks.” No one gets a “check” anymore. All Social Security payments are directly deposited into bank accounts.!” So can you please stop referring to Social Security payments as “checks?”

A: Thanks, I guess, for the backhanded compliment about my column. I do understand what you are saying. But, honestly, I think you are making too big a deal about this. I would guess that 99 percent of my readers understand that when I do refer to a Social Security “check,” I am not talking about a physical piece of paper. I am talking about someone’s Social Security benefit payment.

Over the years, I’ve heard thousands and thousands of people refer to their Social Security “checks.”

In fact, look at the first question. The reader refers to “checks” several times. I knew what he was talking about. And I’m sure my readers did, too. I understand that we’ve all got our little pet peeves. But I’m afraid this is one that you are just going to have to let go.

Q: I am getting widow’s benefits from Social Security. It looks like I might inherit a substantial sum of money from a very elderly aunt who is near death. Will that have any impact on my survivor benefits?

A: You could inherit a million dollars and it will have no bearing on your eligibility for widow’s benefits. Social Security isn’t welfare. You get benefits because you worked and earned those benefits. Or in your case, because your husband worked and earned those benefits for you.

Some people confuse the Social Security program with Supplemental Security Income benefits. SSI is indeed a welfare program. It pays a small monthly check to poor people who are over age 65 or who are disabled. Even though Supplemental Security Income sounds like a Social Security program, it is not. It has nothing to do with Social Security except for the fact that the Social Security Administration manages the program for the federal government. SSI benefits are paid out of general tax revenues, not Social Security taxes. And because it is welfare, if someone getting an SSI check inherits some money, it will impact their eligibility for benefit payments.

Q: My wife is about to turn 62 and just filed for her Social Security. I am 72 and have been getting my benefits since age 66. If my wife takes reduced retirement benefits, will that impact the amount of widow’s benefits she will get when I die?

A: No. The only thing that will impact the amount of her widow’s payment is her age when you die.

Assuming she is over age 66 when that happens, she will start getting 100 percent of your benefit rate, minus what she is already getting in her own retirement benefits. If she is under 66 when you die, her widow’s rate would be reduced roughly one-half of 1 percent for each month she is under that age.

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