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Does Social Security pay survivor benefits in same-sex unions?

Social Security benefits
A surviving spouse with a government pension may not be entitled to Social Security survivor benefits.
(Andrey Popov / Getty Images)

Dear Liz: I am 65 and was recently laid off after 26 years with the same company. My life partner of 25 years died in 2010. We had been legally married in 2008. I'd like to wait until I'm 70 to collect my Social Security. Is there any way I can collect her Social Security until then? I don't know what the federal laws are regarding this and whether they have caught up to the intent of the law regarding same-sex unions. I'm sure I'm not the only one wondering about this, so any guidance you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Yes, you should be entitled to a survivor benefit that's either equal to what your wife was getting at her death, or what she would have received at full retirement age if she died before applying for her benefits.

A reduced survivor's benefit is available starting at age 60. You can't backdate your application until then — the most you can get if you apply now is a lump sum equal to six previous months of benefits. You retain the ability to switch from a survivor benefit to your own (or vice versa for that matter). That’s one of the many ways that survivor benefits differ from spousal benefits, since the ability to switch from a spousal benefit to one's own benefit is being phased out.

Conflicting credit scores

Dear Liz: Why is there such a difference between my FICO 4 and FICO 8 scores? My FICO 4 score is 646 while my FICO 8 score is 678. I want to buy a home and I know some lenders may still use the FICO 4.

Answer: Most (not just some) mortgage lenders use outdated versions of the FICO credit scoring formula. The agencies that buy most mortgages, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, accelerated acceptance of credit scores in the mid-1990s when they made FICOs part of the underwriting required for the loans they purchased.

But the agencies haven't authorized lenders to use the newest versions or alternative scores, such as VantageScore. So an old collection or other misstep that's ignored by modern versions of the FICO formula could hurt your efforts to get the best rates and terms on a mortgage.

There are several ways you can boost your scores in the coming months. First, get your actual credit reports from all three credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. (You don't need to provide a credit card. If you're asked for one, you're on the wrong site.) Scan the reports for errors, such as accounts that aren't yours or late payments showing when you paid on time. Dispute those and prepare to follow up with any creditors that insist on reporting false information. (Complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can help you get the creditors to cooperate.)

Make sure you're making all credit account payments on time and pay down any credit card balances. Your goal is to use 10% or less of your reported credit limits, and to pay your balances in full each month. (Homeownership is expensive enough without dragging costly credit card debt into the financial picture.) It may take a few months to start seeing improvements, but they should come.

When you're closer to pulling the trigger on a home purchase, consider buying your FICOs for all three credit bureaus from MyFico.com. In addition to the FICO 8, which is the one other creditors use most often, you'll get your FICOs for the mortgage, credit card and auto loan industries, which can give you a clearer picture of where you stand.

Divorced, and in debt

Dear Liz: I recently got divorced and found myself in about $50,000 of credit card debt. While I'm struggling to slowly pay off this debt, I do have some money saved in a tax-sheltered annuity as well as a small Roth IRA. Should I use those, take a personal loan or file for bankruptcy?

Answer: A good rule of thumb is to leave retirement money alone for retirement. Early withdrawals can trigger taxes and penalties that eat up one quarter to one half of what you take out. You can always withdraw your contributions tax free from a Roth, but any earnings can trigger taxes and penalties. The biggest cost, though, is the loss of future tax-deferred compounding that can equal 10 times or more of what you take out.

If your credit is good, low-rate balance transfer offers could help you lower the interest rate on your debt so you can pay it off faster. A personal loan from a credit union, your bank or an online lender could work if it offers a low, fixed rate and a repayment term of five years or less.

If you can't pay this debt off within five years, then you should talk to both a credit counselor (visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org) and a bankruptcy attorney (referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org).

Liz Weston is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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