Ask Larry: Why Was My Wife’s Claim For Social Security Spousal Benefits Denied?

Today’s Social Security column addresses questions about why spousal benefits may not be payable in some cases, potential options when SSA withholds benefits due to an alleged overpayment and when survivor’s benefits can become available. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.


Why Was My Wife’s Claim For Social Security Spousal Benefits Denied?

Hi Larry, My wife filed for her Social Security retirement benefit in 2016 at 64 and I filed for a spouse benefit on her benefit at the same time at 66, my full retirement age. Her current benefit is ~$1,175 and my PIA is ~$1,375. I am now 70 and have filed and received my increased benefit. But my wife’s application for a spouse benefit was denied? What am I missing? Thanks, William

Hi William, If a person is already drawing their own Social Security retirement benefits when they apply for spousal benefits, their unreduced spousal rate is calculated by subtracting their own primary insurance amount (PIA) from 50% of their spouse’s PIA. A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA). If the difference is a negative amount, no spousal benefits are payable.

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Based on your description, your wife’s PIA is apparently well over half as much as your PIA, in which case she wouldn’t be eligible for any spousal benefits, though she could be eligible for a widow’s benefit if you predecease her. Best, Larry


What Can I Do About Social Security Withholding My Benefits To Recover An Overpayment?

Hi Larry, I am 66.5 and started collecting my retirement benefit at 62. SSA keeps saying they overpaid me. I can’t get them to tell me why and when they overpaid me. They keep reducing my benefits. Please help me. I can’t make ends meet. Thanks, Cheri

Hi Cheri, The most common cause of Social Security retirement benefit overpayments is earnings in excess of the Social Security earnings test exempt amount. I have no way of knowing if that’s what happened in your case though.

In any event, you should have received a notice explaining the overpayment. If you didn’t, the only way to get a copy of the notice is from Social Security. If your local Social Security offices are closed, the only way to communicate with them is by phone or by mail.

Your options with regard to overpayments are to a) pay the overpayment back or allow your benefits to be withheld in full until the overpayment is repaid, or b) request a lower withholding rate, or c) file an appeal, or d) file for waiver of the overpayment.

If you can’t get any cooperation from Social Security, the only other thing I can suggest is to contact the offices of either your US congressional representative or one of your US senators. Sometimes inquiries made to Social Security by members of congress on behalf of a constituent can expedite resolution of the person’s problem. Best, Larry


Could I Have Been Getting My Deceased Husband’s Social Security?

Hi Larry, I’m a widower and when my husband of 25 years passed in 2013 all I got from Social Security was a onetime small death befit. Could I have been getting a widow’s benefit? They said I had to be 60 but since I turned 60 in April, I’ve heard nothing from them. I’ve tried to get a hold of them but I get no response. Can you help me? Thanks, Marie

Hi Marie, I’m sorry for your loss. You can claim widow’s benefits as early as 60, or as early as age 50 if you’re disabled, but it isn’t automatic. You would need to file an application for widow’s benefits in order to potentially begin drawing them. The only way to do that if your Social Security offices are closed to the public is to apply by phone.

Whether or not filing for widow’s benefits now would be a good idea for you though, depends on a number of different factors. The most important of those is whether or not you could become eligible for benefits based on your own work record, and how much you are earning if you are currently working.

Social Security widow’s benefits are reduced for age if you start drawing them prior to your full retirement age (FRA), so in many cases it’s smarter not to apply for widow’s benefits when you’re first eligible so that you’re not stuck with a permanently lower monthly benefit rate

You may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to ensure your household receives the highest lifetime benefits. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry


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