Author: Dan Caplinger | March 20, 2019
Social Security's idiosyncrasies can surprise you
More than 60 million Americans receive some type of Social Security benefit, and most of them rely heavily on the income from their monthly checks. But Social Security is complicated, and it has some odd aspects that many people find surprising. Read on to learn about 10 of the biggest quirks about Social Security.
1. You can get Social Security without ever having had a job...
Social Security benefits for retirement are payable to workers who've collected 40 or more work credits, and to earn them, you have to work at least 10 years. But those who are married to an eligible worker can collect spousal Social Security benefits without every having worked themselves, and they can also generally collect survivor benefits after the worker's death.
2. ... but the working spouse has to file for benefits first...
Social Security spousal benefits are available to workers' spouses after they reach age 62. But even if you've reached that milestone, you can't collect spousal benefits until your spouse starts collecting retirement benefits. For couples in which there's a big age disparity, that can make for an awkward period of time during which a spouse might not be able to claim benefits despite having reached the usual age to do so.
3. ... and newlyweds have to wait a while before claiming spousal benefits
The federal government anticipated that some older couples would try to take advantage of Social Security, so they put in rules to deter death-bed weddings motivated solely by financial considerations. Before you can claim spousal benefits based on a new spouse's work history, you have to be married at least a year. Also, you typically have to be married at least nine months to claim survivor benefits after a spouse's death, although exceptions apply in cases of accidental death or death in the line of active duty in the armed forces.
4. You can sometimes claim benefits from an ex-spouse if you're divorced...
Divorced spouses are entitled to many of the same Social Security benefits as current spouses, but in order to be eligible, the marriage has to have lasted at least 10 years. Those who qualify can claim spousal or survivor benefits based on an ex-spouse's work history -- and best of all, those who've been divorced at least two years can collect benefits even if their ex-spouse hasn't yet filed for Social Security.
5. ... but those benefits can go away if you get remarried
Those who receive benefits as a divorced spouse often lose them if they get remarried. The rules always call for spousal benefits to end if you remarry, but for survivor benefits, if you wait until age 60 or later to remarry, you actually get to keep getting those payments.
6. Social Security numbers are all unique...
There's no reason why the federal government couldn't reuse Social Security numbers after people die, but so far, there's been no need. With a total of 1 billion possible numbers and a current population of around 325 million, it'll be a while before they all get used. When they do sometime in the future, government officials might reconsider.
7. ... but they no longer have any hidden code embedded in them
It used to be that you could get a lot of information from a Social Security number. Under old rules, the first three numbers of your Social Security number could tell you what part of the country you were in when you got your number, and the rest would point to when the number was obtained, giving a sense of your age. However, the government now issues Social Security numbers randomly, and with that having been the case since 2011, you can no longer count on a Social Security number having much meaning.
8. You can choose to stop getting retirement benefits briefly...
In some cases, people realize that they don't actually need their Social Security benefits after they start receiving payments. Once you've reached full retirement age, you're allowed to suspend your benefits, and doing so can let you get a larger monthly check later on when you start collecting them again. However, many people are reluctant to suspend benefits because it also generally prevents your spouse or others from claiming family benefits on your work record.
9. ... or you can just change your mind about claiming entirely
If you realize quickly that you don't really need your benefits, then you have a one-time option to change your mind. For the first 12 months after you file for benefits, you can use Form SSA-521 and withdraw your application for Social Security. That resets the clock entirely, but you have to pay back any benefits you've already received.
10. Want $255? Apply for this little-known benefit
Most of Social Security's payouts involve monthly payments, but there's a special Social Security death benefit that involves a small one-time lump sum. If you're a spouse or a dependent child who's 18 years old or younger, than you can qualify for a $255 payment. However, most people have to apply specifically to get the money, and there's a time limit for some recipients after which you can no longer receive the payout..
Be smart about Social Security
You'll need every penny of Social Security you can get, so it's important to know how even the program's quirkiest rules work. That way you'll be more likely to maximize the size of your payments and be more financially secure in retirement.
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