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Social Security and You: Don't Blame the Government -- Blame Yourself

Tom Margenau on

Sometimes people will write to me complaining that the government, specifically the Social Security Administration, has messed up and cheated them out of benefits they might have been due. But many times, the fault (to trivialize a famous line from Shakespeare's play, "Julius Caesar") is not in our government, but in ourselves. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Q: I am 72 years old. I have been getting my own reduced Social Security retirement since age 62. I have chronic arthritis and fibromyalgia and I just learned I could have been getting higher disability benefits all these years. So, I called Social Security about this, and they said it's too late! What? Why didn't someone from Social Security ever tell me about this? They messed up and they owe me 10 years' worth of disability benefits.

A: I'm going to be rather blunt with you. They didn't mess up; you did. It's your job to educate yourself about the benefits you might be due from Social Security. I know if I had the kinds of problems you described, I would have said to myself: "I wonder if I might be eligible for disability benefits." And then I would have checked into that.

And I'm not sure how things work today, but I know that 10 years ago, the Social Security retirement application had a question on it that essentially asked something like this: "Are you unable to work because of a disabling condition?" You must have answered that question "No," because a "Yes" answer would have led you down the path to a claim for Social Security disability benefits.

Q: I am 62 years old. My husband, to whom I've been married for 10 years now, is also 62. He plans to wait until he is 70 to file for Social Security. I was married to another man for about 25 years. We ran a small business together. Our accountant and tax preparer advised us to put all the earnings from the business in my husband's name, so that's what we did. I have almost no earnings on my Social Security record. My ex-husband recently died. I called Social Security to see about getting widow's benefits on his record. They said I can't because I remarried before the age of 60. Why didn't the government ever tell me this? If they can't give me widow's benefits, why can't they give me my share of the earnings from the business? How can the government be so heartless to deny me what's rightfully mine?

A: Just like the woman who asked the first question, you are trying to blame the government for mistakes that you made. Or to be more precise, for mistakes you and your former husband and your accountant made.

 

Let's start out with your complaint that no one from Social Security ever told you that if you remarry before age 60, you lose your potential eligibility for benefits from your first husband's Social Security account. Did you expect that a Social Security representative would be stationed at every marriage license bureau in the country ready to advise remarrying widows about the age 60 rule?

If I were a woman considering a second marriage, and if I were concerned about Social Security benefits from a former husband's record, I would have checked into this. For example, a simple Google search using the keywords "remarriage" and "Social Security" turns up all kinds of information from the Social Security Administration and other sources that would have answered all your questions.

And as far as the little gimmick your accountant pulled by putting all the earnings on your husband's Social Security record, once again, I think you do have to accept some responsibility for what happened.

For example, if I were a woman involved in a business with my husband, and my tax preparer said, "Let's give all the earnings and credit for the business to your husband," I would have said, "Wait a minute. Does that really make sense?"

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