Q: I will turn 64 this month. I retired in December. My Social Security benefit is projected to be $927 at age 64. If I wait until 66, I would get $1,066. And if I wait until age 70, I would get $1,407. And there is an additional complication. My husband is 82. He has been getting benefits since he was 66 — $2,388. He is in very poor health. The doctors have told him he may live another year or two. We don’t have income besides his Social Security. And other than our home, we have no assets. Given the fact that I may be a widow within the year, what do you think I should do about my Social Security?
A: From a Social Security perspective, your best bet would be to file for your own retirement benefits immediately. And that’s because it sounds like in another year or two, you will be getting widow’s benefits that will be significantly higher than anything you might be due on your own record. And the fact that you take reduced benefits on your own record has no affect on your potential widow’s benefits. So why wait to file? I can explain further with examples. In both examples, I will use a best-case scenario for your husband and assume he lives another two years.
First, let’s say you take benefits now. You’d get $927. When your husband dies, you would keep getting that $927, and you would start getting $1,461 in widow’s benefits to take your total benefits up to his $2,388 level.
Alternatively, let’s say you wait until you are 66 to file for benefits. You would get $1,066. And then let’s say your husband dies a couple months later. When that happens, you would keep getting your own $1,066, and you would get an extra $1,322 in widow’s benefits to again take you up to his $2,388 level.
In other words, either way you end up with $2,388 in widow’s benefits. But in the second scenario, you would have thrown away $22,248 in retirement benefits. ($927 per month for 24 months.) So again, I say, why wait? File for your benefits now.
Q: There is a nice older couple living next door to me. I will call them Bill and Sue (not their real names). They are both about 60. We have been neighbors for years. So imagine my shock when I learned recently that they aren’t married! They have been living together for almost 30 years. What two consenting adults do together is, of course, no concern of mine. But I am worried that Sue will not be eligible for any of Bill’s Social Security when they retire or after he dies. Should I tell Sue that she should make it legal and get married to Bill — if only for Social Security?
A: Well, you might be able to keep your nose out of their personal affairs. And here is why. Social Security follows state laws when it comes to the legality of a marriage. In other words, if the state you live in says your neighbors are in a common-law marriage, then Social Security will consider them legally married.
Assuming these folks are in such a relationship, then Sue will probably qualify for spousal benefits, and eventually widow’s benefits, on Bill’s Social Security account.
If your state doesn’t sanction common-law marriages, then you might want to hint to Sue that a quick and simple wedding ceremony might help her out with Social Security matters down the road.
Q: My husband and I both turn age 66 in June of next year. We have been high-wage earners all our lives and have anticipated getting maximum Social Security benefits — currently projected to be about $2,700 per month. But I was horrified when a neighbor recently told me that there is a maximum that can be paid to a family. What is that maximum?
A: Don’t worry. The so-called “family maximum” does not apply to husbands and wives. As a general rule, it only applies to Social Security accounts where children are involved. This will be explained in more detail in the answer to the next question. But you and your husband have nothing to worry about. You each will get your own full Social Security benefits.
Q: I turn 66 next month. I am considering doing the file and restrict thing where I save my own benefits until age 70 and in the meantime, file for spousal benefits on my husband’s record. He is 68 and has been getting checks for two years. But we have a bit of a twist. We have a disabled 35-year-old daughter who also gets benefits on my husband’s account. Will that affect what I am due in spousal benefits?
A: Yes, it will. And to explain why, I’ve got to give you a little lesson about the family maximum rules hinted at in the previous answer.
The law sets a limit on the amount of money that can be paid to dependents on any one Social Security account. Those rules are very convoluted. (For those of you who love this messy math stuff, go to www.socialsecurity.gov and type “family maximum” into the Search box — and, well, good luck trying to understand it!)
For this column, I will keep it simple and tell you that the maximum rate is generally between 150 percent and 180 percent of the main wage earner’s basic Social Security benefit rate.
Let’s just say that in your husband’s case, the maximum payout rate is 180 percent. Because he took benefits at age 66, he, himself, is getting 100 percent. And the amount payable to a disabled child is set at 50 percent. So your husband and daughter together are already getting 150 percent of that 180 percent maximum. That leaves 30 percent that could be paid to you as a spouse (as opposed to the 50 percent rate a 66-year-old spouse normally gets).
So you could do the “file and restrict thing,” as you called it. But instead of 50 percent, you would only get 30 percent of your husband’s benefit amount until age 70, when you could switch to 132 percent of your own.
Your other option would be to simply file for 100 percent of your own benefit at age 66. You need to run the numbers and figure out if it is worth living on that 30 percent spousal benefit for the next four years in order to get the 32 percent bonus added to your own rate at age 70.