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When a Social Security spousal benefit goof is suspected

When a Social Security spousal benefit goof is suspected
The Social Security Administration's main campus is seen in Woodlawn, Md. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: A family member recently lost her spouse. His monthly Social Security check was $1,800 and hers is $750. I have two questions.

First, is my understanding correct that she is able to begin collecting his monthly amount instead of her own?

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Second, instead of collecting Social Security based on her earnings history, was she eligible instead to have collected 50% of her husband’s monthly benefit? If so, she was entitled to $150 more than she’s been collecting. If this is accurate, is there any recourse for collecting the additional benefit from Social Security?

Answer: To answer your first question, yes, your relative will now receive a survivor’s benefit equal to what her husband was receiving. She will no longer receive her own benefit.

The answer to your second question is a bit more complicated. Your relative may have started benefits before her own full retirement age, which used to be 65 and is now 66. When people start benefits early, they receive a permanently reduced amount whether they’re receiving their own retirement benefit or a benefit based on a spouse’s earnings. It’s possible that her reduced retirement benefit was more than her reduced spousal benefit.

Another possibility is that she started benefits before her husband. To get spousal benefits, the primary earner typically needs to be receiving his or her own benefit. (There used to be a way around this, called “file and suspend,” that allowed the primary earner to file for benefits and then suspend the application. That no longer exists.)

If your relative started benefits before her husband, she may have been able to get a bump in her check once he applied, assuming her spousal benefit was worth more than her own retirement benefit. That bump in benefits is now automatic, but if she turned 62 before 2016, she would have had to apply to get the increase, says Mary Beth Franklin, a Social Security expert who writes for Investment News.

She wouldn’t be eligible to get all the missed benefits back at this point, but she could get up to six months’ worth.

Health sharing plans don’t work for everyone

Dear Liz: I read your column about healthcare options for couples planning for retirement today. I’ve recently learned about and signed up for health sharing. The benefits are closely comparable to traditional insurance and less expensive. If you haven’t heard about this, I think it’s worth looking into.

Answer: Christian health sharing plans are an alternative to traditional insurance, but they’re not actually health insurance. Members agree to pay each other’s medical bills, up to certain limits. Members typically must be Christians who attend church regularly and don’t use tobacco, among other restrictions. These plans often don’t cover preventive care such as mammograms or colonoscopies and may not cover mental health care, addiction treatment or other so-called “essential services” that are typically required of health insurance.

The plans can help with some healthcare costs, but the amounts that can be paid out are typically capped. That means that an accident or illness could still bankrupt you. In addition, the plans typically don’t cover preexisting conditions or limit the coverage they offer. Since few people reach their 50s and 60s without a preexisting condition or six, these plans aren’t a viable substitute for many people approaching retirement.

Healthcare costs and retirement

Dear Liz: You usually don't give me such a laugh, but today's letter was from someone who’s 41 and her husband is 51. They now have $800,000 saved and want to retire early. You told them they might do better leaving the country since it will be so bad for them with health insurance.

My husband was a teacher in Los Angeles, with no Social Security. We have $60,000 in the bank and together we bring in $3,400 a month. We have Kaiser insurance that totals $2,400 a year for both. We have a house, a car, not so much money, but are happy. He's 82, I'm 79. What planet do you live on? I guess people who have so much money can't imagine people like us.

Answer: You’re living on Planet Medicare, so perhaps you can’t imagine what people are facing who don’t have access to guaranteed medical coverage.

Currently, those without employer-provided insurance can buy coverage on Affordable Care Act exchanges, but that option may soon be going away. Congress ended the ACA’s individual mandate, which requires most people to have insurance, so costs are expected to rise sharply.

In addition, the future of so-called “guaranteed issue” is in doubt. The ACA currently requires health insurers to accept people with preexisting conditions and limits how much people can be charged, something known as “community rating.” The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced it would not defend those provisions against a lawsuit filed by several states.

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When health insurance is unavailable or unaffordable, it doesn’t matter if you have $1 million or more in savings. A hefty retirement fund can disappear in a few months without coverage.

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