Author: Dan Caplinger | January 11, 2019
A bit beyond the basics
Tens of millions of people rely on Social Security for valuable income in retirement or when they're disabled. With total benefits amounting to nearly $1 trillion a year, Social Security is serious business, and it's important to make the most of what the program pays you.
Yet despite its importance, Social Security has some quirks that can trip you up if you don't know about them. Click through to read 10 things about Social Security that many don't know -- but that can make a big difference to what you get from the program.
1. Staying in school pays for children getting benefits
Children are entitled to receive family benefits under certain circumstances if a parent is getting retirement or disability benefits. The child must be unmarried and generally has to be younger than 18 to get payments. However, those who are still in high school get an extra couple of years to keep getting Social Security. That exception applies only to 18- or 19-year-olds, though, so staying in school forever isn't the right move.
2. Parents can sometimes get survivor benefits
Most people think of survivor benefits going to spouses or children of deceased workers. But for workers taking care of their own parents, survivor benefits are available if the worker was covering at least half of the parent's financial support.
3. Just got married? You might still have to wait
If you get married hoping to score spousal or survivor Social Security benefits, you'll find that the strategy doesn't pay off immediately. Typically, a new spouse must wait a year before claiming spousal benefits. Moreover, if your new spouse passes away before you've been married for nine months, then you won't be able to claim survivor benefits unless you can establish that the death was due to an accident or in the line of duty for members of the Armed Forces.
4. Multiple ex-spouses can get benefits if they qualify
If you were married for 10 years before divorcing, your ex-spouse can claim benefits based on your work history. What many don't realize is that those benefits apply to each ex-spouse you have as long as each marriage met the 10-year rule. So multiple ex-spouses can claim benefits -- all without having any impact on what a current spouse might be entitled to receive.
5. Remarrying sometimes affects your benefits -- but not always
Those who were previously married and collect spousal or survivor benefits based on the former spouse's work history have to be careful about the impact of remarrying. If you're getting spousal benefits based on a living former spouse's work history, then those benefits generally stop when you remarry. However, for those getting survivor benefits based on a deceased former spouse's work history, benefits disappear only if you remarry before turning 60. Once you're 60 or older, you can remarry and still hang onto those survivor benefits.
6. Being in prison suspends Social Security benefits
The SSA suspends Social Security benefits if you're convicted of a criminal offense that sends you to jail for 30 days or more. You're allowed to have your benefits reinstated once you're released, but that generally won't be done automatically. Fortunately, benefits payable to a spouse, children, or other eligible recipients on your work record aren't affected by your incarceration.
7. You can get a do-over on when you claim
Some people claim benefits only later to discover that they would've preferred to wait. If you figure out your mistake within 12 months, you can file a request on Form SSA-521 to withdraw your original Social Security benefits application. If it's granted, then you'll have to pay back all the benefits you've received, but you'll be treated as if you'd never claimed your Social Security in the first place. Beware, though -- you can only make this do-over move once in your lifetime.
8. You can get a new Social Security number
Given how most people get their Social Security numbers at birth and use them throughout their lifetimes, you might think you're stuck with the same number no matter what. However, in cases of identity theft, harassment, or duplicate use, you can request to have a changed number. In addition, if you have cultural or religious objections to your number, then that's a valid reason for a request as well.
9. Social Security numbers don't get reused
Technically, there's no reason why Social Security couldn't reassign Social Security numbers to new people once the former users passed away. Yet the SSA has chosen instead not to reassign numbers of deceased people. With 1 billion possible nine-digit numbers, the SSA believes it should have enough numbers to last the foreseeable future -- although those who've been reassigned a new area code on their phone numbers might be more skeptical.
10. There's a strangely precise time limit to fix mistakes
Your Social Security benefits are determined by your earnings history, and sometimes, the Social Security Administration gets incorrect reports about your wages or salary. If that happens, you have exactly three years, three months, and 15 days after the year when the wages were paid to correct the mistake. Yet even if you miss that deadline, the exceptions to the rule are so broad that many people can make corrections afterward. Nevertheless, it's important to look at your earnings history regularly and fix errors quickly.
Be smart about Social Security
It can be hard to navigate the ins and outs of Social Security, especially with so many strange rules. Yet by keeping in mind all the aspects that go into determining how much in Social Security benefits you're entitled to receive, you'll be in a better position to make the most of the program.
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