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Why this widow can’t get her late husband’s Social Security benefit

Social Security checks
Social Security checks are shown as they are processed at the U.S. Treasury’s financial management services facility in Philadelphia.
(Bradley C Bower / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: My husband passed away 10 years ago at age 66. I called then to see if I could collect Social Security, because he was receiving benefits when he died. Our daughter was still a minor, so she was able to collect survivor benefits until she turned 18. I was told I couldn’t collect benefits as I made too much money. (I asked what too much money was and they said around $14,000 annually.)

I am now thinking about retiring at age 66 or 67. I am a mid-career public school teacher, so I’ve been told the “windfall elimination provision” will wipe out my Social Security benefit. I had my own business and worked previously but am told I can’t receive the Social Security benefits that my husband earned, nor will I most likely receive much, if anything, from the Social Security contributions I made. My friends tell me this can’t possibly be right.

Answer: The information you received about Social Security was generally entirely correct.

Let’s start with the windfall elimination provision. If you receive a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security, any Social Security benefit you get may be reduced but not eliminated. You can read more about how the windfall elimination provision works and why it was created at the Social Security Administration website, www.ssa.gov.

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A related provision, the government pension offset, can wipe out any spousal or survivor benefit you might have otherwise received.

Before those provisions were enacted, people who had generous government pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security could get the same or larger benefits than people who had paid into the system throughout their lives. Critics of the provisions, however, say they can leave some low-wage government workers worse off.

Another provision that can reduce or wipe out Social Security benefits is called the earnings test. Before full retirement age, which is currently 66, any Social Security check you receive would be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($17,640 in 2019). The amount was $14,100 from 2009 to 2011 and $14,640 in 2012, so that may have been why you remember the number $14,000.

So technically, you may have been eligible for a survivor’s benefit. Widows and widowers are eligible for survivor’s benefits starting at age 60, or age 50 if they’re disabled, or at any age if they’re caring for the dead person’s child who is under 16 or disabled. But it sounds as if any benefit you received would have been wiped out because of the earnings test.

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Your situation is a perfect example of how complicated Social Security can get and how hard it can be to navigate the system without expert help. But even people with more straightforward situations can benefit from advice about how and when to file for benefits. Two of the better do-it-yourself options include Maximize My Social Security ($40) and Social Security Solutions ($19.95 for a basic version or $49.95 for one that allows you to compare scenarios). Or you can consult with a fee-only financial planner who has access to similar software and who can give you personalized advice.

Inherited Roth IRA distributions

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about whether someone should use a Roth IRA to pay off a mortgage. In your answer, you mentioned the requirement to take minimum distributions from the account. One of the huge advantages of a Roth, besides tax-free distributions, is that there are no required minimum withdrawals. Did I miss something?

Answer: You did. You missed the word “inherited.”

The letter writer was asking whether to use an inherited Roth IRA to pay off the mortgage. (Specifically, an inherited non-spousal Roth IRA.) Although the original Roth IRA owner was not required to take distributions, the heirs must. Money can’t be kept in tax-deferred retirement accounts indefinitely.

Weighing investment choices

Dear Liz: I felt your advice about using an inherited IRA to pay off a mortgage was spot on, but I would add one suggestion. The person could use their required minimum distribution (or a little extra) from the inherited IRA each year to pay down the principal on the mortgage. Then they could see what the remaining loan balance is when they are approaching retirement in 10 years.

Answer: That could be a good alternative if being debt free is more important than maximizing their returns. Using just the distributions to pay down the mortgage would allow the bulk of the money to continue earning tax-free returns as long as possible, while reducing the mortgage balance over time.

The letter writer might do better financially by investing the distributions, but using them to pay down the mortgage could get them closer to their desired goal of being mortgage free.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, 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.


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