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When it comes to Social Security, don’t trust and do verify


I am retiring and dealing with Social Security at age 66 after being married 18 years, divorced six years, and still single.

When I attempted to file and suspend, and then file for a restricted benefit based on my ex’s income (so I can delay until age 70 filing for my own maximum benefits), the local Social Security office told me I cannot file on my ex unless she has already filed for benefits. She is now 65 and does not want to file, but my understanding is it does not matter if she files or not. Am I correct? If so, how do I convince the local office? — Aaron

My estimate is that half of Social Security’s answers to questions are either fully or partially wrong. And if they aren’t wrong, they are misleading.

You are now 66. You met the deadline under the new law passed last November of being 62 before Jan. 2, 2016, so that you CAN file just for your divorced spousal benefit starting at age 66. You were married for 10 or more years before you got divorced, so you CAN collect on your ex. Your ex is over age 62 and, while she is not collecting her own retirement benefit, you have been divorced for two or more years. So, yes, you CAN collect just your divorced spousal benefit starting now and continuing through age 70, and then, at 70, file just for your highest retirement benefit.

But DO NOT file for your own retirement benefit and then suspend it. Doing so will transform your full divorced spousal benefit into an excess spousal benefit, which will likely be very small, if not zero. File just for your divorced spousal benefit. And make sure you state this in the Remarks section at the bottom of the application.

I read your book, “Get What’s Yours,” cover to cover, twice. As a result, I now realize the Social Security Administration gave me wrong widow information several years ago. I was 55 when my husband died. I called the SSA when I was nearing 60; they said my Government Pension Offset (GPO) wiped out the little bit of widow’s Social Security I was otherwise entitled to at age 60.

I recently read that the GPO doesn’t apply to widows, and that I was entitled to between 71.5 percent and 99 percent of my husband’s Social Security benefit. Do you agree with my understanding that the GPO did not apply to me, and I should have gotten widow’s Social Security? Can I collect it retroactively since Social Security gave me the wrong information? — Lori

Your mistreatment by Social Security makes my blood boil. Its staff is well-meaning, but they are very poorly trained and not always reliable. Worse, they make their false pronouncements with great authority.

Social Security should have a mechanism in place to automatically mail people eligible for benefits a letter telling them a few months in advance that they will soon be eligible to collect benefit X. If collecting X now comes with some risk of doing so, that also should be spelled out.

If you have documentation that you asked about widow’s benefits and were told the wrong thing about the GPO applying when it doesn’t, you should go to Social Security and request reimbursement. If you have no documentation, it will be much harder, but perhaps not impossible to make your case. I’d go to your local Social Security office and see what they say.

I am 68, have not taken Social Security benefits and work full time. I am single and never married. I have been told by my bank that I can collect Social Security now and still get my maximum benefit at age 70. In other words, taking Social Security now will pose no penalty to me at all. Is this true? — Andrea

Sorry, Andrea. It’s entirely false. If you take your retirement benefit now, it will be permanently reduced by about 16 percent. Social Security is not the only place to get bad Social Security advice.



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