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Who’s on First With Social Security?

Times Staff Writer

Question: I have been puzzling over a Social Security question for a long time, and I can’t find the answer in any of the material that I have gotten from the local office. This has to do with retirement benefits when both husband and wife have worked long enough to qualify for benefits. Invariably the material I have tells how the working spouse determines his benefits at retirement and then what the wife receives when he dies.

But what’s the situation with two working partners? Does each get his/her own separate benefit? And then, assuming the husband dies first, does the wife continue to get her benefit only, or does she get his (assuming it’s larger than hers) or does she get an average of the two, or what?

Working Partners

I am currently 63 and my wife is 58. I have always paid the maximum, and I would estimate that her average pay-in would probably be about three-fourths of mine. My normal retirement age (if I read my leaflets correctly) is in two years when I become 65 plus six months. But she will be 60 then, and I thought that I recalled that a woman’s normal retirement, in order to receive full benefits, is 62. Is that true? Would she be able to take early retirement at age 60, and, if so, what percentage of her full benefits would this be? You can see my confusion.--P.V.

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Answer: I can not only “see” your confusion, but, if I don’t watch myself, I’ll end up compounding it.

A run-through of my own literature on Social Security confirms your suspicion: Most if not all of it addresses itself to the benefits of the working partner and/or the benefits of the surviving non-working spouse. With something like 50% or more of today’s wives also in the work force, however, your question is increasingly pertinent.

When husband and wife both work, according to Joe Giglio, a spokesman for the local Social Security Administration office, each, at normal retirement, receives his/her own benefits. And, at the death of one, the survivor then has the option of continuing to receive his/her own benefits or choosing the deceased spouse’s check--whichever is higher (but not both).

So far, so good. In your case, however, you are talking about taking your normal retirement at age 65 plus six months, at which time, presumably, your wife will also hang it up.

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“Early retirement” for either sex, however, Giglio adds, is 62, which means that when you turn 65, the normal retirement time, your wife will still be two years shy of qualifying for her early retirement. So you’re going to have about a year and a half or two years during which only one check will be coming in before she can apply.

Early retirement benefits (again, for either sex) translates currently as 80% of what you would receive at 65 (or, in this case, what your wife would receive at 65). Because she will have been out of the work force for two years--and one’s later years normally turn out to be their higher earning years--the base on which her benefits will be computed will probably be lower than they would have been if she had continued to work for two more years while you were lying idly around the house.

But then, as soon as she qualifies for early retirement, you’ll be a two-Social Security-check family--you receiving 100% of your benefits, she receiving 80% of hers.

What happens, subsequently, when you (as is normally the case) cash in your chips before she does? At this point, Giglio adds, your wife has an option: She can either continue receiving her own Social Security check (remember, that’s based on 80% of her own normal benefit) or she can elect to switch over to her survivor benefit. This survivor benefit (if she’s at least 65 when you turn up your toes) is 100% of your benefit. If she’s 62 when you die, she receives 82.9% of your benefit.

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Or, if she’s 60 at the time of your death--which, according to your present time table, means that you would go to your reward almost immediately after retiring--she’s entitled to 71.5% of your benefit. She’ll have to do a little homework with a pocket calculator at that time to determine which is the better deal for her, but the advantage of the rather complex formula outlined is that--while she will, indeed, go from two checks a month to one--there is no way that the surviving spouse will end up with the smaller check.

Let’s take a hypothetical example: Let’s say you retire in two years and are entitled to $750 a month (100% of your normal benefits). There’s a little guesswork involved here, admittedly, since we don’t know what adjustments will be made in benefits during the next two years. Two years later your wife comes on board. You estimated that she might, under normal retirement conditions, be entitled to three-fourths of your benefits, or about $562 a month. But, because it’s early retirement--not full--she would, in actuality, receive 80% of $562, or about $449. So that would give you combined Social Security benefits of $1,199 a month. Suppose then, three years down the road, you die and she has, meanwhile, reached the age of 65.

At this point, she can opt either to continue receiving her own benefits of $449 a month or take 100% of your benefits--$750 a month--as your surviving spouse. We’ll leave that knotty decision to her good judgment.

Q: Canned beer is cheaper than bottled beer, but it seems to me that canned beer has a strange, alien taste. This is true even when I first pour the beer into a chilled glass stein. My question is: Do breweries make a different beer for cans than they do for bottles or is my imagination running overtime?--S.Y.

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A: Like the princess who could detect the presence of a single pea through 12 mattresses, no one can successfully quarrel with an individual’s ability (or what he sees as his ability) to pick up “funny” tastes.

As Leslie Brown, manager of public affairs in Washington for the Can Manufacturers’ Institute puts it: “I can’t tell anyone he’s wrong on something like that. It’s the way he perceives it, and you’re not going to change his mind.”

Beer Is Beer

However, an Anheuser-Busch official in Van Nuys assures us that beer is beer is beer, and the same brew that goes into the bottles also goes into the cans.

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“It’s an old wives’ tale, but actually it has some roots. Back in the ‘50s when we were using steel, there would sometimes be some crude coating on the inside of the cans, and occasionally a case would slip through that had a metallic taste. But that was a long time ago.”

Today, the institute’s Brown adds, a full 99.7% of all the cans used for beer are coated aluminum, “and the beer never touches the aluminum.”

This, incidentally, is the 50th anniversary of the beer can--a packaging device introduced to thundering consumer disinterest in Richmond, Va., in 1935.

“Ten years later, in 1945,” Brown says, “cans still only made up 4.4% of the market. But then, during the war they stopped manufacturing cans for beer domestically and shipped the beer abroad in bulk and it was canned overseas. When they came back, all of the veterans had become used to cans, and the usage shot up dramatically. By 1950 cans were 26% of the beer market and then, by ’70 had doubled to 52%.”

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Bottles, however, still have a strong constituency even though cans now account for 68% of the market.

“For a while,” Brown continues, “the bottle industry waged a sort of battle with us and constantly brought up this business of taste. We ran all sorts of exhaustive taste tests, but there were still people who thought there was something funny about beer in cans.

“At least,” she adds, “it’s not as bad in the beer industry as it is in soft drinks, where you’ve not only got the bottle-can controversy, but plastic as well.”

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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