By: Elliot Raphaelson
There is no question that Social Security issues are important to the American public. It is not unusual for me to receive more than 100 responses from readers when I write a Social Security-related column.
Regular readers know that I frequently reference Andy Landis as a source. He has just updated his book, "Social Security: The Inside Story" (www.andylandis.biz), which I consider an indispensable resource on the topic. His book is up-to-date, comprehensive, well-organized and easy to understand. He provides numerous helpful examples. In each chapter, he includes Social Security references so readers can read the associated regulations that were discussed.
The book provides a useful overview of Social Security and chapters on retirement benefits, family benefits, survivor benefits, disability benefits and Medicare. There are references to available calculators for estimating your benefits, hints on effective filing, and a very important chapter on maximizing your benefits.
The chapter on maximizing Social Security benefits is particularly useful. Landis discusses the advantages of postponing filing for benefits up to age 70, which increases your benefits by 8 percent for every year you wait past full retirement age (FRA). Another advantage in doing so is that widow/widowers might be entitled to a larger benefit if you choose this option. Filing for widow/widower benefits only does not preclude filing for benefits based on your work record at a later time.
The chapter also discusses restricted application for "spousal only" payments. This option allows you to file for your spousal benefit after you reach your FRA, and then to file for your benefits based on your work record up to age 70. Unfortunately, many Social Security representatives do not understand this option. When I have written about this option, I have been amazed at the number of readers who write complaining about the ignorance of many Social Security Administration representatives.
Note that this option is available only to individuals who were born before January 2, 1954. And to qualify, your spouse would have to have already filed for his/her benefits. You must not have received a reduced retirement benefit or spousal payment before.
It would make sense to use this option only if your payment at age 70 is higher than your spousal payment at FRA. If you meet these qualifications, it can be a valuable tool.
Many of the options and tools discussed in this book will help you make the right decisions. You cannot depend on advice from SSA representatives. Many financial planners are far from experts in Social Security as well. I recommend that it is in your best interests to become an expert in Social Security before it is time to apply for benefits. Making the right decision can provide you with hundreds of thousands of additional benefits.
Many divorced individuals do not understand their Social Security options. If your previous marriage lasted at least 10 years, and you either have not remarried or remarried after age 60, you may have benefits you are not aware of. You can't depend on the SSA to inform you. For example, many individuals believe that because their ex-spouse remarried, it affects their benefits. This is false; it has no impact.
If your ex predeceases you, it is possible that you are entitled to larger benefits than you previously were receiving. For example, assume your ex worked until age 70 and was receiving $2,000 per month in Social Security benefits, and he/she died. If you are single, or remarried after age 60, you are entitled to whichever is greater, your ex-spouse's benefit or the benefit you are now receiving.
Landis' book covers this and other topics in great detail.
If you have any relatives approaching retirement age, one of the best gifts you can provide is a copy of this book. It can make their retirement much more prosperous. Making the right Social Security choices is critical. Making the wrong choices is expensive and difficult to undo.
A retired executive of Chase Manhattan bank, Elliot Raphaelson joined The Savings Game after decades of experience as an advisor, teacher and author in the field of personal finance. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Town & Country, Vogue, Self, Savvy and Working Woman magazines. For ten years he has worked as a certified mediator and trainer in a Florida county court.