Back payments, parents’ benefits and how to get your questions answered

So, you’ve busted your hump for decades and now, retirement is finally on the horizon. That means it’s time to start preparing for your post-work life. Part of that planning will inevitably involve decisions about your Social Security benefits, including the best time to start collecting them. The choices you make will directly impact your future, so the more you know going into the process, the better off you’ll be. 

“There’s lots of misinformation out there in the general public as well as the media about Social Security,” says Ben Stump, public affairs specialist for the New York Region of the Social Security Administration, adding that you’re never too young to start preparing for retirement. With that in mind, here are five things you should know about Social Security before even thinking about filing for those benefits.

  1. Create a Personalized Account Now

    Stump — who began working for the Social Security Administration 30 years ago, when the agency still sent annual statements through the mail — recommends all covered workers create a personalized account on the SSA website. “Anyone can create one, no matter their age, and it provides a breakdown of what you’ve earned and what benefits you would receive,” Stump says. “I check mine once a year, so if there’s ever a discrepancy in my earnings, I can see it in real time, and make sure what’s on my W2 matches what was posted for last year’s earnings.”The benefits you receive after retirement will be based on a calculation using your highest 35 years of earnings. “When you retire, you really want to make sure they have the correct earnings amounts to gauge your best 35 years,” Stump says. “Sometimes, it’s hard to fix someone’s earnings record when mistakes are made, especially if they were made during the 1980s or ’90s.”
  2. Wait, But Not Too Long
    Everyone knows you should try to wait until you’re fully vested before filing for Social Security. But Stump says don’t wait too long. “Any covered worker can choose to retire anywhere between age 62 and age 70,” he explains. Those that retire at 62 receive less monthly in Social Security payments than those who wait until 65 or 67—what the SSA deems “full retirement age.” Stump says that after 67, those who remain in the workforce will receive “delayed retirement credits” (translation: increased benefits) for each month they work up until their 70th birthday. “I have seen people come in past age 70 to file for their benefits, and they stopped receiving those extra credits at age 70,” Stump says. “Essentially, they lost benefits just because they didn’t come in when they should have.”
  3. Retroactive Benefits Are Possible
    Stump says workers who do make the decision to delay filing for their benefits upon reaching full retirement age, in order to take advantage of those delayed retirement credits, can change their minds at any time, at which point “they can apply and be paid for up to six months of retroactive benefits” in one lump sum, he says.The SSA does not, however, pay retroactive benefits for any month prior to full retirement age, or beyond six months in the past. “This can take some pressure off people when deciding the best time to file, because they’re not locked into what may seem like a one-time decision,” Stump says. “Those who initially choose to delay receiving retirement benefits at full retirement age have a six-month period to change their mind and receive all the benefits they would have received if they had chosen not to delay.” The lump payment can be thousands of dollars, depending on your earnings over the course of your career, so knowing this option exists can translate to a hefty one-time deposit once you do decide to take benefits.
  4. You Can Collect Benefits from the Ex
    So long as you and your ex-partner were married for more than 10 years, Stump says individuals can collect benefits from the SSA based on their former spouse’s employment record. “A lot of people are really surprised to learn this,” says Stump, who regularly gives seminars on retirement. He notes that two years must have passed between the finalization of the divorce and the application for benefits. The former spouse also must be between 62 and 70, “but not necessarily collecting,” says Stump. “And the amount the divorced spouse is collecting has no effect on the worker’s amount—what that ex should be getting, or what their current spouses receive. It’s totally separate.”
  5. You Can Collect and Continue Working
    These days, with times the way they are, a lot of seniors are still employed — largely, because they have no choice. According to Stump, there is a common misconception that those who collect Social Security need to stop working. “That’s only if you collect early,” Stump explains. “If you collect before 65, we sort of expect you to be retired.” But file after 65, “and there’s no limit to how much you can earn, and still get your Social Security benefits,” Stump says
  6. Parents’ Benefits: They Exist
    Stump says few people ever file for them, but parents’ benefits are real. According to Stump, any parent of a covered worker who is 62 or older and receives half of his or her income from that child “is potentially entitled to benefits.” The benefits can even be split between two parents, he says. However, if a parent decides to remarry, they lose those benefits, he says.
  7. Advice and Help Is Available Through Social Media Platforms
    According to Stump, anyone who has questions about Social Security can get answers through the agency’s social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. “We have resources available for people who are planning for retirement, as well as real people who respond to the comments.”

Stump suggests posting a question in the comments of any SSA social media post and then wait. “It may take a day or two, but a real person will go there and answer your question,” he says. “It is a great resource only a small amount of people are aware of.” Noting the amount of fake look-alike accounts on social media, Stump says the official SSA pages will include the agency’s seal.

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