An Information Professional Confronts Social Security and Is Humbled: A Cautionary Tale

By Leigh Hallingby

My ignorance about how Social Security works and about the benefits to which I am entitled literally cost me tens of thousands of dollars. In hopes that others will not have the same or similar experiences, I want to share my story and offer some suggestions for avoiding Social Security pitfalls.

I decided to apply for Social Security in August 2013, when I was turning 68, which will be my age at retirement from my position as head librarian at the Open Society Foundations. I decided to apply in person, because I wanted to be absolutely sure than I should get Social Security based on my own earnings, rather than those of my late former husband, Ken Platt (1944-2005). Because Ken and I were married more than 10 years, I am entitled to collect Social Security based on either his or my earnings. Of course, I want to receive whichever benefit is higher. Since Ken had stopped work at 58 and I have continued employment for 10 years beyond that age, it seemed likely that the dollar amount of Social Security based on my earnings would be more than that based on his. But one thing I have learned in life is: Do not make important decisions based on assumptions.

Applying in person turned out to be a great idea, even though I had to wait a couple of weeks for an appointment. First, the person who took my application was extremely pleasant and helpful and, most important, knowledgeable. Second, she gave me one of the bigger surprises of my life when she told me that as a “surviving divorced spouse,” I am actually entitled to the same benefits as a widow or widower!

That was the good news: that, even while I am still employed, I actually became entitled to the equivalent of full widow’s benefits once I reached my Full Retirement Age (FRA) of 66. It turns out that Ken did well enough in his career for me to collect over $2,000/month. Mercifully, Social Security rules make it possible for a benefit to be retroactive for 6 months. So my widow’s benefit was backed up to the beginning of 2013.  But the bad news is that I lost 17 months of widow’s benefits (and over $37,000) from August 2011, when I turned 66, through December of 2012. Ouch!

One huge advantage of getting Social Security as a widow is that I can receive a solid monthly income from it now, even while I am still employed, and let the monthly Social Security benefit from my own earnings build up to the maximum amount, which will happen when I turn 70. At age 70, I am entitled to switch to a Social Security benefit based on my own earnings. The monthly amount will be significantly higher than my current benefit. It will also be higher than it would be had I started Social Security based on my earnings at age 68, as I had planned to do. So, widow’s benefits—even though I will stop them when I turn 70—are a “gift that keeps on giving.” Thus, every month after I turn 70, I will get a benefit that is several hundred dollars more than if I had started Social Security based on my own earnings.

When I learned about being entitled to the equivalent of widow’s benefits, my immediate reaction was: “Whose fault is it that I did not know?” My money manager? My tax accountant? My friend who received widow’s benefits? Surely someone should have told me this. Well, I have met the enemy and it’s ME! Before I come down too hard on myself, maybe I should give myself a break. As someone who has been divorced for over 20 years, I have zero self-identity as a widow. Nonetheless, I am not letting myself off lightly. After all, I have been a professional librarian for 35 years, and so information and research are my stock in trade. Did I ever make any systematic effort to learn as much as I could about Social Security by going to the website? No! Did I even read the booklet on Social Security that the Human Resources staff member at work gave to me when I told her that I am retiring? No again!

When I did finally read the “2103 Guide to Social Security,” which I had so blithely tossed onto my desk, I found on p. 47 (out of 50 about Social Security) that “Your surviving divorced spouse qualifies for a benefit if married to you for at least 10 years. The benefit is the same as that payable to a widow(er) . . . .” The other key piece of information that affects me is on p. 19: “If you are married and attained FRA [Full Retirement Age], you can claim a spouse’s benefit and then switch to a benefit based on your own work record at a later date.” Finally, I also found the information about benefits for a surviving divorced spouse clearly spelled out the Social Security website: http://www.ssa.gov/survivorplan/onyourown3.htm

Below is the advice that I have for myself, were I to back up and approach the subject of my Social Security benefits systematically and intelligently, rather than relying on bits and pieces of information that I have heard here and there:

  • Be humble. Assume that you do NOT know what there is to know about Social Security. Do NOT assume that what you have heard from your family and friends is all that there is to know or that they even know what they are talking about in the first place.
  • Read as much as you can about Social Security, online and in the print booklets you receive, until you feel that you thoroughly understand the information that applies to your specific situation.  If you are having difficulty understanding, call Social Security and talk with a representative.
  • Save every document and bit of information that is relevant for Social Security. This includes your original birth certificate and an original marriage license with the seal. If you are divorced, save the divorce decree, preferably the original one with the seal. (Fortunately if you do not have these documents, there are straightforward ways to obtain them from the relevant states.)
  • Record and keep the Social Security # of any present or former spouse(s), as well as their dates and places of birth, their parents’ names, and, if relevant, their dates and places of death.
  • Apply for Social Security in person or on the phone, rather than online, unless your situation is totally straightforward (e.g., you have always been married to the same spouse who out earned you by a significant amount.)

 If anyone has any comments or questions about my experiences and lessons learned, or any personal experiences with Social Security you would like to share, I hope that you will please contact me at lhallingby@gmail.com.

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