Author Archives: rsettle

Will the SSA Notify you if you Beome Eligible for Widow(er)s Benefits?

This week’s question comes from Lori.

I claimed social security 3 years ago under my ex-husband’s benefits. I was told when I applied at my local social security office that upon his death, I would get an additional benefit. Will social security inform me of his should it occur? If not, how will I know and will I need to apply for this additional benefit?

Lori, you ask an important question since many people (usually women) find themselves in a similar situation. You were married for at least 10 years and you are not currently married to someone else. Moreover, you stand to increase your social security benefits when your ex-spouse dies by claiming a survivor’s benefit on his or her record. As with many people in your situation, you are no longer in contact with your ex-spouse so you are uncertain as to when to apply for benefits.
Will the SSA notify you of the death of your ex-spouse? In your case, the answer is “yes.” But in many other circumstances, the opposite is true.

You are presently receiving benefits on your ex-husband’s record. Assuming he dies before you, the SSA will let you know when he has died because your spousal benefit will stop. At that point, you can apply for survivor’s benefits. Suppose your ex-husband dies in June and you are notified in July that your ex-spousal benefits have ended. If you apply immediately for survivor’s benefits, you can request that your survivor’s benefits begin in August (with the actual payment made a month later). If your application takes several weeks to process, you will receive a retroactive payment for the months that you should have been paid.

It is different story if you are not receiving ex-spousal benefits. In this case, the SSA does not notify you of your ex-spouse’s death, even though you are now eligible for survivor’s benefits. The burden now would be on you to find out about his death. For many, the easiest way to find out about his death is contact the SSA every few months and ask: “Is my ex-husband still alive?”
If you have reached your full retirement age, you can request retroactive payments for up to 6 months. So, you do not stand to lose anything by checking with the SSA every 6 months.

About me
I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years.
In 2009, I co-founded, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

Q & A for October 21, 2019

On occasion we will post an answer to a question about Social Security that we have received. If you have your own question, put it into the comment section of this post and we will answer it as soon as possible.

Today’s question comes from Janel:

My husband and I have been together for over 20 years but married less than 10. Does a “legally separated” status or “married living separately” possibly allow each other to benefit from SSA spousal benefits? My husband was born in 1958; I am two years younger. At full retirement age, his estimated Social Security benefit is about $2400; mine is approximately $950.

Janel, if you have been married for at least one year, you are potentially eligible to receive some amount of spousal benefits. The 10-year rule to which you refer applies to divorced persons. To qualify for spousal benefits as an ex-spouse, you would need to have been married for at least 10 years (and divorced for at least 2 years. If your state recognizes common-law marriages, then “living together” can satisfy SSA’s marriage rules.

The amount of spousal benefits you might receive depends on the relative size of your husband’s FRA benefit and your FRA benefit. If your FRA benefit was zero, then you could receive one-half of your husband’s FRA benefit at your FRA; that is, $1250. However, you have benefits of your own. So, the SSA tops off your benefit of $950 with a spousal supplement of $300, bringing your total benefit up to $1250.

I used my firm’s software to analyze your case a bit further. I assume normal life expectancies of 82 for your husband and 86 for Janel. The analysis shows that you can maximize your lifetime benefits as a couple by doing the following. Janel claims her own benefit at age 62; she will receive $665 in reduced retirement benefits. She cannot claim spousal benefits until her husband claims his own benefit. My analysis indicates that’s he should claim at 69, receiving $2847 as a result of delayed retirement credits. At this point, Janel qualifies for her spousal supplement of $300 increasing her total benefit to $995. Since she will start receiving the spousal supplement after reaching her FRA, there is no early claiming penalty (as there was with her own benefit).

As a final point, the computer evaluation revealed that Janel could claim at any other age up to her FRA and suffer very little in terms of lost social security benefits. So, if she chooses to work past age 62 and the social security earnings penalty  is significant for her, it may make sense to delay claiming her social security benefits.

Expect Confusion When You Claim Your Social Security Benefits

Confusion reigns at many, if not most, local Social Security offices today. While advice from Social Security agents has always been problematic, things seem to have gotten much worse with the passage of the Bi-Partisan Budget Act last November, which changed two key claiming options.

First, the Act eliminates the file-and-suspend option as of April 29, 2016. This option has allowed one spouse to file for benefits at their full retirement age (currently 66) and then suspend those benefits, permitting them to earn delayed retirement credits of 8 percent per year. This allows the other spouse to claim spousal benefits.

The Act also eliminates the restricted application option for anyone born after 1953. This option has allowed a person to claim spousal (or ex-spousal) benefits at their full retirement age without also claiming their own retirement benefits, thereby letting those benefits grow at 8 percent per year.

These two options are often employed by couples. For example, a husband might file and suspend while the wife files a restricted application for spousal benefits. Combining these options allows both to earn delayed retirement credits up to age 70.

We have recommended these strategies to thousands of clients. Since the changes in the law a surprising number of clients have reported back that their efforts to implement our advice is stymied by an uninformed Social Security agent. All too often, an SSA agent erroneously tells an applicant that our recommendations are not possible.

While we have observed problems in the past, the changes in the claiming rules have clearly added to the confusion. And this confusion is compounded by the failure of the SSA to provide clear  guidance to its agents or to the public as to how it will implement the new rules. (Some guidance has been offered here, but it is far from clear and not comprehensive.)

Here is just one example of the misinformation you might encounter at your local SSA office. A client of ours, Mike, is turning 66 in March; his wife, Jen, is turning 66 in September. He told an SSA agent that he wanted to file and suspend now (before the April 29 deadline) so that his wife could file a restricted application for spousal benefits in September. The SSA agent told him that he could file and suspend only if his wife simultaneously filed for spousal benefits. This claim is completely incorrect.

Anyone (even singles) receiving Social Security retirement benefits can suspend them, provided they have reached their full retirement age. There is no rule that requires a file-and-suspend action to be tied to a spouse’s claiming actions. So, the agent’s statement to our client was groundless, and it could have cost our client tens-of-thousands of dollars. Fortunately for him and his wife, he knew the agent was wrong so he pushed back and asked to speak with a supervisor who did understand the rules.

Here is the bottom line. If you plan to do anything other than the simplest filing for your own retirement benefits, you need to be prepared to educate the SSA agent sitting in front of you. How can you prepare yourself for the chaos you may encounter at your local SSA office?

One thing you can do is read about the file-and-suspend and restricted-application options under the new claiming rules. The SSA website  should be place to start, but it presently contains no information about the new claiming rules.  At a minimum, you can check out the useful information on our main website and elsewhere on this blog, especially this post.

Second, if you use a financial planner or CPA, you might turn to them for advice. The problem with this approach is that most financial planners and CPA’s do not know much about Social Security claiming rules.

Third, regardless of how your educate yourself, you need to be prepared to push back if you think you are being misinformed by an SSA agent. If necessary, ask to speak with a supervisor or a “technical expert.” One reliable way to push back is to have copies of the relevant Social Security rules that you can show a poorly trained and confused agent. Helpful information is available here.

Finally, you can avoid the confusion in your local SSA office by filing for retirement or spousal benefits on-line. Use the “Remarks” section of the application form to spell out anything unusual that you wish to do, such as file and suspend. An advantage of this approach is that you have an electronic record of your requests. If the SSA makes a mistake in awarding your benefits, you will have a record that will help you get things straightened out.

The SSA’s Written Guidance Concerning the New Claiming Rules

As of 4/9/16, the SSA has published some guidance as to how its representatives should implement the new claiming rules. But it has more work to do.

The clearest statement by the SSA was posted around 2/25/16 here. The key element in this new statement is discussed below.

The SSA also recently published some FAQs about “deemed filing” (which applies to the restricted-application option)  that are helpful. And it has finally published some FAQS about file and suspend (or voluntary suspension).

Some earlier guidance has been provided here, here and here, but it is hard to understand and is not comprehensive.

As the SSA publishes statements, we will post links to them here.

The new law seems clear, and we have based our software revisions on our reading of that law. However, virtually every law contains ambiguities that administrative regulations must clarify. So, we cannot be 100 percent certain that our reading of the law will be fully consistent with what the SSA ultimately decides about the implementation of the new rules.

The biggest uncertainty, by far has surrounded the interaction between the file and  suspend option and the restricted application option for married couples. To illustrate, suppose a husband is 67 and his wife is 65, turning 66 in July 2016. Just to simplify the discussion, assume that she has no benefits on her own record. He will file and suspend his benefits before April 29, 2016. If she claims spousal  benefits before April 29, we have no doubt that she would receive them even though his benefits had been suspended. But, if she claims spousal benefits, say, when she turns 66 in July, we are not fully confident that she would receive them while his benefits remained in suspension. Our reports that allow for file-and-suspend (free after ordering our basic report) assume that the wife in this example would receive spousal benefits even if she applied after April 29. But, there is some small uncertainty as to whether that assumption is correct. (A recent post by the SSA may have resolved this uncertainty; see below.)

We emailed this above question to a Social Security contact and received the following helpful email response from the Mid-Atlantic regional office:

“It is important to remember that naming a current spouse on the Number Holder’s Title II [retirement benefits] application who is potentially entitled to spouse’s benefits and appears to meet the factors of entitlement for spouse’s benefits establishes a protective filing for spouse’s benefits and any other Title II benefits he or she may qualify for (See GN 00204.010). Since the husband filed and requested suspension before enactment of the Bi-Partisan Budget Act in 2016 and she is filing in her FRA month, the wife will receive unreduced spouse’s benefits (1/2 husband’s PIA). The husband does not have to request reinstatement of his retirement benefit for his wife to receive benefits on his record.”

On 2/24/16 the SSA published the following on its website:

“If you voluntarily suspended benefits prior to April 30, 2016, you may remain in voluntary suspense status, and the new law will not affect you. Also, if you submit your request before April 30th 2016 and your spouse or children become entitled to benefits either before or after that date they will not be affected by the new rules and will continue to receive payment.”

The last sentence in the quote seems to resolve the uncertainty mentioned above. In particular, the husband, who is 67, can file and suspend by April 29 and the wife can file a restricted application when she turns 66 in July 2016.

Go here and here for earlier posts that lay out our understanding of the new law.

For the SSA’s summary of the relevant section of the law, see Section 831 here.

Should You File and Suspend before April 29, 2016?

[NOTE: Our software has been updated to reflect the new claiming rules, so reports are now available. Caveat: if you think you still qualify for the file-and-suspend option, you should first order our new custom report and then contact us for an additional custom report (free) that fully addresses the file and suspend issue.]

[Also note that if you are filing and suspending so that your spouse can use the restricted application (or free spousal) option at a later date, you are the only one affected by this April 29 deadline. The other spouse does not need to file for spousal benefits until they turn 66.]

If you want to use the file and suspend strategy for getting spousal benefits for your spouse while letting your own benefits continue to grow, you must have filed and suspended by April 29, 2016. If you suspend after that date (even though you may have filed earlier), spousal benefits paid on your record will also be suspended. (Keep in mind that if you file and suspend, that eliminates any opportunity for you to use a restricted application strategy to get “free” spousal benefits.)

There are two circumstances in which you (or your spouse) might want to file and suspend. In either circumstance, the person filing and suspending must be age 66 or older by no later April 29, 2016.

If you fall into this circumstance, and you want our help, you should do the following. Order a married persons report from us for $39.99. Then contact us for further free assistance and an additional free report.


This case involves using file and suspend in order to set up a restricted application strategy for the other spouse.

In this circumstance, the spouse (let’s say the wife) who stands to receive spousal benefits must have been born in 1953 or earlier. She can claim spousal benefits at age 66 while letting her own retirement benefits continue to grow, provided the husband has filed prior to her filing for spousal benefits.  That is, she can use the restricted application strategy.

In order for her to get spousal benefits, he needs to have filed for his own benefits. If he wants ,to file and suspend, then he must meet the following two conditions: 1) he is at least 66 years old by April 29, 2016, and 2) he is not four or more years older than his wife. If he is more than four years older, there is no need to suspend. He will be 70 before his wife can file a restricted application.


This case does not involve a restricted application strategy.  Rather, the file and suspend strategy is used to allow the wife to claim spousal benefits and her own retirement benefits (if any) at the same time. To simplify the discussions, assume the wife has no retirement benefits.

The husband wants to wait until 70 to claim benefits. However, if he is 66 or older by April 29, 2016, he can file and suspend and let his own benefits grow until age 70.

In order to claim spousal benefits, the wife must be at least 62. The husband could file and suspend by April 29 provided he is at least 66 but less than 70. This means that the age gap between the husband and the wife in this example could approach 8 years (versus 4 years in Circumstance 1).  For example, if the husband is 66 in March 2016, he could file and then suspend payments until he reaches age 70 in March 2020. Suppose the wife is 8 years younger, so she turns 62 in March 2020. She could claim spousal benefits for one month while his benefits remained suspended. Of course, if the age gap was less than 8 years, she could receive spousal benefits for up to 4 years while his were under suspension. If the age gap is greater than 8 years, nothing is gained by filing and suspending.

If you fall into this circumstance, and you want our help, you should do the following. Order a married persons report from us for $39.99. Then contact us for further free assistance and an additional free custom report that deals with file and suspend.

Changes in Social Security Claiming Rules: Update for Financial Planners

[NOTE: Our software has been updated to reflect the new claiming rules, so reports are now available.]

Legislation  has worked its way through Congress (as part of the bill to raise the Federal debt ceiling) that would eliminate two claiming strategies used by many seniors: 1) file and suspend, and 2) restricted application. See Section 831 of the bill.

The President signed the bill on 11/2/15, so it is now law. It will go into effect on April 29, 2016 (unless the SSA chooses to extend that deadline).

Based on our reading of this new law, some groups of Social Security claimants will not be affected by these changes, while others will lose all access to these claiming strategies.


1) Single people

2) Widowers

3) Divorcees who were born in 1953 or earlier.

4) Couples who are already pursuing a restricted application claiming strategy.

These are couples where the primary beneficiary has already claimed his/her benefit and the spouse has claimed a spousal benefit. The spouse will still be able to switch to their own benefit at a later date.

5) Couples who are already pursing a file and suspend strategy.

These are couples where the primary beneficiary has already filed and suspended, and the spouse has claimed a spousal benefit. The spouse will still be able to claim their own benefit at a later date. The primary beneficiary will also be able to claim his/her own benefit at a later date.

6) Couples who are planning to pursue a restrictive application strategy and the person who plans to claim a spousal benefit was born in 1953 or earlier.

These are couples where the primary beneficiary plans to claim his/her benefit in the future (or has already claimed a benefit), but the spouse has not yet claimed a spousal benefit. As long as the spouse was born in 1953 or earlier, the spouse will be able to claim a spousal benefit after reaching 66 and then claim their own benefit later.

7) Couples who plan to pursue a file and suspend strategy before April 29, 2016, and the person who plans to claim a spousal benefit was born in 1953 or earlier.

The new law provides a window of 180 days after the law becomes effective where couples can still use the file and claim strategy.


1) Divorcees who were born in 1954 or later

These divorcees will be able to claim either a spousal benefit or their own retirement benefit (whichever is larger), but they will not be able to switch from one to the other at a later time.

2) Couples where the person who was previously planning to claim a spousal benefit first than switch to their own benefit later under a restricted application strategy was born after 1953.

People born after 1953 will not be able to claim one benefit and then switch to another benefit later.

3) Couples who are planning to pursue a file and suspend strategy, but wait more than six months to file and suspend.

The new law allows people to file and suspend for another 180 days after the law goes into effect. If someone waits more than six months, they will not be able to use this strategy. They will be able to pursue a restricted application strategy if the person who claims the spousal benefit was born in 1953 or earlier.


Here are a couples of suggestions, based on our reading of the law) for helping you to determine whether recommendations in previous reports are valid.

1. If a scenario recommends “file and suspend” it is probably not a valid recommendation. Only if the person can sensibly file and suspend no later than April 29, 2016 will this strategy work. (The exact cut-off date is 180 days after the law becomes effective, which appears to be 11/2/15.)

2. If the scenario recommends a “restricted application” (and no file and suspend involved), it is almost surely a valid recommendation if the person was born in 1953 or earlier. If they were born in 1954 or later, a recommendation to file a restricted application would not be valid. Whether this statement also applies to ex-spouses is unclear at present.


File-and-Suspend and Restricted Application Strategies Eliminated Soon

[NOTE: Our software has been updated to reflect the new claiming rules, so reports are now available.]

Legislation  that has worked its way through Congress as part of the bill to raise the Federal debt ceiling would eliminate two claiming strategies used by many seniors: 1) file and suspend, and 2) restricted application. See Section 831 of the bill.

The President signed the bill into law on 11/2/15. It will go into effect on April 29, 2016 (unless the SSA chooses to extend this deadline).

In its current form (as of 11/2/15), the law will have the following effects:

File and Suspend

This strategy allows a spouse, who has reached full retirement age, to file for retirement benefits and then suspend them so that they continue to earn delayed retirement credits. The principal purpose for filing and suspending is to allow the other spouse to claim spousal benefits.

Those who are currently using this strategy, and those who employ it by April 29, 2016 are unaffected by the legislation.

Those who file and suspend after about early May 2016 will also have all auxiliary benefits suspended. The principal implication is that suspending one’s retirement benefits will also cause a suspension of spousal or other dependent benefits.

Restricted Application

This strategy is presently employed by people who have reached their full retirement age and their spouse has already claimed a retirement benefit. They can claim a spousal benefit while letting their own retirement benefit continue to grow.

Under the proposed legislation, those born prior to 1954 can continue to use this strategy.

Those born in 1954 or later will not be able to use this strategy. People in this category who claim a spousal benefit, even after they have reached their full retirement age, will be forced to also start their own retirement benefit.

We are monitoring this important development and will use this space to keep you informed.


Medicare Premium Alert

A number of forces have converged to create a situation where some Social Security beneficiaries may experience substantial increases in their Medicare insurance premiums.

This past year, in part because of the lower price of gasoline, the measured change in the cost-of-living index (CPI) that is used to adjust Social Security benefits is negative. This means the following will not change next year:

a) Social Security retirement benefits;

b) The maximum taxable income on which Social Security benefits have to be paid;

c) Medicare insurance Part B premiums for the majority of Social Security beneficiaries who        now pay $105/month and have their premiums deducted from their Social Security checks.

Because there is requirement that Medicare cover 25% of expenses from premiums, Medicare recipients who do not fall under the conditions described in (c) above will have to make up the difference to bring the revenues from premiums up to 25%. This means that these other Medicare recipients could experience substantial increases in their Part B premiums. While the numbers have not yet been released, these increases could be around 50%.

Unless there is a change in the law or the Obama administration finds a way around this problem, the following groups will be affected:

A) People who enroll in Medicare in 2016

B) People who pay premiums directly to Medicare. This will include people who have chosen to delay claiming their retirement benefits, but have signed up for Medicare.

C) People who pay higher-income Medicare premiums. These are individuals who have income (MAGI) over $85,000 or married couples with income over $170,000.

While these increases in premiums may last only one year, a new law passed this past spring will increase Medicare premiums in 2018 for higher-income individuals and families. At present, we can only forecast how much these premiums will increase. Projections from the Kaiser Family Foundation can be found here .

We do not recommend changing Social Security claiming strategies based on these possible premium changes. The purpose of this post is to provide an alert to those people who might be affected.

Do Social Security Benefits Really Increase by 8 Percent a Year?

When talking with clients, I often hear the comment that their Social Security benefits will increase by 8 percent if they delay claiming a year. This statement is true only in one instance: claiming at 67 rather than at 66 increases one’s retirement benefits by exactly 8 percent. (Note: the following applies to those with a full retirement age of 66.)

The actual year-over-year percentage gain for ages 62 to 70 are shown in the following table. Those gains range from 6.5 percent (claiming at 70 rather than 69) to 8.4% percent (claiming at 64 rather than 63).

The confusion arises from the fact that after one reaches age 66, their retirement benefits will increase by 8 percent of their age-66 benefit for each year one delays. But, this is a very different thing from an annual percentage increase.

Claiming Age Gain from Preceding Year
62 na 
63 6.7%
64 8.4%
65 7.6%
66 7.2%
67 8.0%
68 7.4%
69 6.9%
70 6.5%

Social Security Benefits for Same-Sex Married Couples

According to a recent post on the AARP website, “…legally married same-sex couples can get spousal benefits only if they live in one of the 13 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that recognizes those marriages. They may also be eligible if they live in a state that recognizes civil unions or domestic partnerships and grants those partners inheritance rights if one of the partners dies without a will.”

The SSA is working with the Justice Department to finalize rules for those living in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage. If the SSA follows the IRS, benefits will be available to same-sex married couples regardless of state of residence. With the government shutdown, promulgation of these new rules will undoubtedly be delayed.

The AARP website states the following:

“Experts advise retired same-sex couples living in non-recognition states to still file for benefits, to establish the date of their request. In states that don’t recognize same-sex marriages, you’ll be denied. But if the law changes, couples could petition for back benefits based on their claiming date.”

We want to add a word of caution here.  A couple should file for benefits now only if they have decided that their best claiming strategy involves one or both spouses claiming as soon as possible. For many couples, delayed claiming may prove profitable. So, careful thought should be given before filing for benefits now. It may be the wrong thing to do.

It is possible to withdraw a claim once it has been approved. But you must do that within 12 months of the start of benefits. Moreover, it is a one-time option. You may want to save that option for the future.

Need help in figuring out your optimal claiming strategy. We can help with our custom reports. Start here.