Author: Dan Caplinger | February 12, 2018
A program with some quirky rules
Most Americans are counting on their Social Security benefits being there when they need them. Yet even though the idea of getting a monthly check when you retire sounds pretty simple, the Social Security program is complicated and has a number of sometimes eccentric rules that you nevertheless have to know about. Below are 10 of the quirkiest.
1. No one's had to reuse any Social Security numbers (yet)
It'd be natural to think that after you die, your Social Security number would go back into the pool of available numbers for those who are new to the system. But with 1 billion numbers theoretically possible, the Social Security Administration has said it still has decades' worth of numbers available for future use. Eventually, the SSA will run out, at which point it will have to decide whether to reuse numbers or change the number of digits in the number.
2. You can't get spousal benefits until your spouse files for retirement benefits
Eligible spouses can typically start collecting spousal benefits once they turn 62. But there's a catch: your spouse has to collect retirement benefits before you're allowed to get spousal benefits based on your spouse's work history. That can be especially awkward if a non-working spouse is significantly older than the working spouse, since the older person has to wait for the younger person to turn 62 before even thinking about claiming retirement benefits.
3. You can suspend your retirement benefits
If you want to, you can arrange to have your Social Security benefit turned off once you reach full retirement age. The reason this can be smart: suspending benefits can earn you delayed retirement credits that will boost your monthly payment once you claim it later. Just keep in mind that suspending your retirement benefit also turns off any spousal or other benefits that others are receiving on your work history.
4. Want benefits without ever working? Here's how
To get retirement benefits, you have to accumulate at least 40 work credits, which takes at least 10 years of earning minimal wages. But even if you've never worked, you can get Social Security benefits if you're married to an eligible worker. That includes both spousal benefits while your spouse is still alive as well as survivor benefits after your spouse passes away.
5. You do have to be married a minimum amount of time before you can get benefits
The SSA wanted to discourage people from performing fraudulent death-bed marriage ceremonies designed to squeeze benefits from the Social Security system. Accordingly, you have to be married at least a year before you can claim spousal benefits based on your new spouse's work history. Spouses have to have been married for nine months in order to claim survivor benefits after a spouse's death, with exceptions allowing for less time in the event of things like accidental death or death in the line of active duty.
6. You can claim benefits on your ex-spouse's work history if you were married 10 years or more
There's a much longer requirement for getting benefits as a divorced spouse. You have to have been married for 10 years in order to claim spousal or survivor benefits based on your ex-spouse's work history. If you qualify, the good news is that you don't have to wait for your ex-spouse to file in order to receive spousal benefits -- as long as you've been divorced for at least two years.
7. You can lose divorce benefits if you get remarried, but then get them back if you divorce again
If you're divorced and qualify to receive spousal or survivor benefits based on an ex-spouse's work history, then you lose those benefits if you get remarried. Yet the interesting thing is that if your subsequent marriage ends -- due to death or divorce -- then you can go back and claim those ex-spousal benefits based on the first ex-spouse's work history.
8. Social Security numbers have lost their meaning
Social Security numbers used to have considerable meaning, with the first three numbers working like a postal code to give you a sense of the location where the number was obtained. Subsequent numbers would give you a chronological hint about when the SSA issued the number. Since 2011, however, the SSA has used random number generation to come up with new Social Security numbers, taking away the old rules.
9. There's a death benefit that most people don't know about
Most people think of survivor benefits as the "death benefit" from Social Security. But the program also makes a one-time payment of $255 to a spouse, or to a dependent child 18 or younger. No application is necessary for a spouse to receive the benefit if that spouse is already getting a spousal benefit, but otherwise, you'll need to file an application to get the payout. Eligible children must file within two years of the death of the worker to get the payout.
10. You can change your mind about taking Social Security
If you take benefits but later decide you made a mistake, you can withdraw your application for Social Security and essentially get a do-over if you do so within 12 months. You'll have to file a special Form SSA-521, and you have to repay all the money that the SSA paid to you since you made the initial claim. But don't waste time, because this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity isn't available if it's been longer than a year since you started getting your benefits.
Learn more about Social Security
Social Security is an important part of your financial planning for retirement. By knowing these rules and the other strange provisions that govern Social Security, you'll be in a better position to get the most you can from the program at the end of your career.
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